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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

5. Before William The Conqueror there was Alfred The Great Another famous Great Grandfather

If you studied English history at school, then you are probably familiar with King Alfred the Great, but if you are like myself, I don't think I would have been able to follow all the stories about all the noble greats who shaped the earth 1000 years ago.

For the Durnford family he is my 33rd Great Grandfather.  He is the ancestor of Baldwin V father of Queen Mathilde who married William the Conqueror.

When I have been doing my research I often wonder if they ever knew how they were all related!

I knew before that Alfred the Great was a great grandfather, and I was quite surprised when I came across his statue in Westminster.  



To learn a little about King Alfred I am sharing a little of what Wikipaedia reveals.

Alfred successfully defended his kingdom against the Viking attempt at conquest, and by the time of his death had become the dominant ruler in England. He is the only English monarch to be accorded the epithet "the Great".

Alfred was the first King of the West Saxons to style himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons".

Details of Alfred's life are described in a work by the 10th century Welsh scholar and bishop Asser. Alfred's reputation has been that of a learned and merciful man who encouraged education and improved his kingdom's legal system, military structure and his people's quality of life.


Childhood

Further information: House of Wessex family tree
Alfred was born in the village of Wanating, now Wantage, Oxfordshire. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, by his first wife, Osburh.

In 853, at the age of four, Alfred is said to have been sent to Rome where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV who "anointed him as king". Victorian writers later interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his ultimate succession to the throne of Wessex.

However, his succession could not have been foreseen at the time, as Alfred had three living elder brothers. A letter of Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a "consul"; a misinterpretation of this investiture, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion. It may also be based on Alfred's later having accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent some time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, around 854–855.

On their return from Rome in 856, Æthelwulf was deposed by his son Æthelbald. With civil war looming, the magnates of the realm met in council to hammer out a compromise. Æthelbald would retain the western shires (i.e., traditional Wessex), and Æthelwulf would rule in the east.

When King Æthelwulf died in 858, Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred's brothers in succession, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred.

Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in English, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorise it. Legend also has it that the young Alfred spent time in Ireland seeking healing. Alfred was troubled by health problems throughout his life. It is thought that he may have suffered from Crohn's disease.Statues of Alfred in Winchester and Wantage portray him as a great warrior. Evidence suggests he was not physically strong, and though not lacking in courage, he was noted more for his intellect than a warlike character.

Reigns of Alfred's brothers


A map of the route taken by the Viking Great Heathen Army that arrived in England from Denmark, Norway and southern Sweden in 865.

During the short reigns of the older two of his three elder brothers, Æthelbald of Wessex and Æthelberht of Wessex, Alfred is not mentioned. An army of Danes which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described as the Great Heathen Army had landed in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England in 865. It was with the backdrop of a rampaging Viking army that Alfred's public life began, with the accession of his third brother, Æthelred of Wessex, in 866.

It is during this period that Bishop Asser applied to Alfred the unique title of "secundarius", which may indicate a position akin to that of the Celtic tanist, a recognised successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. It is possible that this arrangement was sanctioned by Alfred's father, or by the Witan, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Æthelred fall in battle. The arrangement of crowning a successor as royal prince and military commander is well known among other Germanic tribes, such as the Swedes and Franks, to whom the Anglo-Saxons were closely related.

Fighting the Viking invasion

In 868, Alfred is recorded as fighting beside Æthelred in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the Great Heathen Army led by Ivar the Boneless out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia. At the end of 870, the Danes arrived in his homeland. The year which followed has been called "Alfred's year of battles". Nine engagements were fought with varying outcomes, though the place and date of two of these battles have not been recorded.

In Berkshire, a successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield on 31 December 870 was followed by a severe defeat at the siege and Battle of Reading by Ivar's brother Halfdan Ragnarsson on 5 January 871. Four days later, the Anglo-Saxons won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Alfred is particularly credited with the success of this latter battle.

Later that month, on 22 January, the English were defeated at the Battle of Basing. They were defeated again on 22 March at the Battle of Merton (perhaps Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset).

Æthelred died shortly afterwards on 23 April

Burghal system

See also: Burghal Hidage

A map of burhs named in the Burghal Hidage.
At the centre of Alfred's reformed military defence system was the network of burhs, distributed at strategic points throughout the kingdom. There were thirty-three total spaced approximately 30 kilometres (19 miles) distant, enabling the military to confront attacks anywhere in the kingdom within a single day.

Alfred's burhs (later termed boroughs) ranged from former Roman towns, such as Winchester, where the stone walls were repaired and ditches added, to massive earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches probably reinforced with wooden revetments and palisades such as at Burpham, Sussex. The size of the burhs ranged from tiny outposts such as Pilton to large fortifications in established towns, the largest at Winchester.

A contemporary document now known as the Burghal Hidage provides an insight into how the system worked. It lists the hidage for each of the fortified towns contained in the document. For example Wallingford had a hidage of 2400 which meant that the landowners there were responsible for supplying and feeding 2,400 men, the number sufficient for maintaining 9,900 feet (3.0 kilometres) of wall.[52] A total of 27,071 soldiers were needed system wide, or approximately one in four of all the free men in Wessex.

Many of the burhs were twin towns that straddled a river and connected by a fortified bridge, like those built by Charles the Bald a generation before. 

The double-burh blocked passage on the river, forcing Viking ships to navigate under a garrisoned bridge lined with men armed with stones, spears, or arrows. Other burhs were sited near fortified royal villas allowing the king better control over his strongholds.

This network of well-garrisoned burhs posed significant obstacles to Viking invaders, especially those laden with booty. The system threatened Viking routes and communications making it far more dangerous for the Viking raiders. However, the Vikings lacked both the equipment necessary to undertake a siege against the burh and a developed doctrine of siegecraft, having tailored their methods of fighting to rapid strikes and unimpeded retreats to well defended fortifications. The only means left to them was to starve the burh into submission, but this allowed the king time to send assistance with his mobile field army or garrisons from neighbouring burhs.

In such cases, the Vikings were extremely vulnerable to pursuit by the king's joint military forces. Alfred's burh system posed such a formidable challenge against Viking attack that when the Vikings returned in 892 and successfully stormed a half-made, poorly garrisoned fortress up the Lympne estuary in Kent, the Anglo-Saxons were able to limit their penetration to the outer frontiers of Wessex and Mercia.
Alfred's burghal system was revolutionary in its strategic conception and potentially expensive in its execution. His contemporary biographer Asser wrote that many nobles baulked at the new demands placed upon them even though they were for "the common needs of the kingdom".


King Alfred the Great pictured in a stained glass window in the West Window of the South Transept of Bristol Cathedral.


In the 880s, at the same time that he was "cajoling and threatening" his nobles to build and man the burhs, Alfred, perhaps inspired by the example of Charlemagne almost a century before, undertook an equally ambitious effort to revive learning It entailed the recruitment of clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to enhance the tenor of the court and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth; an attempt to require literacy in those who held offices of authority; a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin works the king deemed "most necessary for all men to know";the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house, with a genealogy that stretched back to Adam, thus giving the West Saxon kings a biblical ancestry.

Very little is known of the church under Alfred. The Danish attacks had been particularly damaging to the monasteries, and though Alfred founded monasteries at Athelney and Shaftesbury, the first new monastic houses in Wessex since the beginning of the eighth century. According to Asser, Alfred enticed foreign monks to England for his monastery at Athelney as there was little interest for the locals to take up the monastic life.

Alfred undertook no systematic reform of ecclesiastical institutions or religious practices in Wessex. For him the key to the kingdom's spiritual revival was to appoint pious, learned, and trustworthy bishops and abbots. As king he saw himself as responsible for both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Secular and spiritual authority were not distinct categories for Alfred.
He was equally comfortable distributing his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care to his bishops so that they might better train and supervise priests, and using those same bishops as royal officials and judges. Nor did his piety prevent him from expropriating strategically sited church lands, especially estates along the border with the Danelaw, and transferring them to royal thegns and officials who could better defend them against Viking attacks.

Establishment of a court school

Following the example of Charlemagne, Alfred established a court school for the education of his own children, those of the nobility, and "a good many of lesser birth". There they studied books in both English and Latin and "devoted themselves to writing, to such an extent .... they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts." He recruited scholars from the Continent and from Britain to aid in the revival of Christian learning in Wessex and to provide the king personal instruction. Grimbald and John the Saxon came from Francia; Plegmund (whom Alfred appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 890), Bishop Werferth of Worcester, Æthelstan, and the royal chaplains Werwulf, from Mercia; and Asser, from St. David's in south-western Wales.

A Byzantine icon of King Alfred, as venerated as a Christian saint. Inscription reads in Greek, "THE SAINT ALFRED THE GREAT - KING AND CONFESSOR".

A drawing of the Alfred Jewel.

The Alfred Jewel, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, commissioned by Alfred.
The Alfred jewel, discovered in Somerset in 1693, has long been associated with King Alfred because of its Old English inscription "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" (Alfred ordered me to be made). The jewel is about 2 12 inches (6.4 centimetres) long, made of filigreed gold, enclosing a highly polished piece of quartz crystal beneath which is set a cloisonné enamel plaque, with an enamelled image of a man holding floriate sceptres, perhaps personifying Sight or the Wisdom of God.

It was at one time attached to a thin rod or stick based on the hollow socket at its base. The jewel certainly dates from Alfred's reign. Although its function is unknown, it has been often suggested that the jewel was one of the æstels—pointers for reading—that Alfred ordered sent to every bishopric accompanying a copy of his translation of the Pastoral Care. Each æstel was worth the princely sum of 50 mancuses, which fits in well with the quality workmanship and expensive materials of the Alfred jewel".


Appearance and character

Asser wrote of Alfred in his Life of King Alfred,

"Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else. ... [He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour ... [and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind."

It is also written by Asser than Alfred did not learn to read until he was twelve years old or later, which is described as 'shameful negligence' of his parents and tutors. It is true, however, that Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory, and he retained poetry and psalms very well. A story is told by Asser about how his mother held up a book of English poetry to him and his brothers, and said; 'I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest.' After excitedly asking, 'Will you really give this book to the one of us who can understand it the soonest and recite it to you?' Alfred then took it to his teacher, learned it, and recited it back to his mother.

Alfred is also noted as carrying around a small book, probably an ancient version of a small pocket notebook, which contained psalms and many prayers that he often collected. Asser writes: "[these] he collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it."

An excellent hunter in every branch of the sport, Alfred is remembered as an enthusiastic huntsman against whom nobody’s skills could compare. However, it is recorded that his skills and success did not strive in vain.

Although he was the youngest of his brothers, he was probably the most open-minded. Despite eventually becoming one of the greatest warriors and forgers of peace in the kingdom, he was an early advocate for education. His desire for learning could have come from his early love of English poetry and inability to read or physically record them until later in life. Asser writes that "[Alfred] could not satisfy his craving for what he desired the most, namely the liberal arts; for, as he used to say, there were no good scholars in the entire kingdom of the West Saxons at that time."

Family

In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Æthelred Mucil, Ealdorman of the Gaini. The Gaini were probably one of the tribal groups of the Mercians. Ealhswith's mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal family.

They had five or six children together, including Edward the Elder, who succeeded his father as king, Æthelflæd, who would become Queen of Mercia in her own right, and Ælfthryth who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders. His mother was Osburga daughter of Oslac of the Isle of Wight, Chief Butler of England. Asser, in his Vita Ælfredi asserts that this shows his lineage from the Jutes of the Isle of Wight. This is unlikely as Bede tells us that they were all slaughtered by the Saxons under Cædwalla.

In 2008 the skeleton of Queen Eadgyth, granddaughter of Alfred the Great was found in Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany. It was confirmed in 2010 that these remains belong to her — one of the earliest members of the English royal family.


Osferth was described as a relative in King Alfred's will and he attested charters in a high position until 934. A charter of King Edward's reign described him as the king's brother, "mistakenly" according to Keynes and Lapidge, but in the view of Janet Nelson, he probably was an illegitimate son of King Alfred.

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