Friday, January 24, 2014

The White Horse and King Alfred the Great

Our local American Chesterton Society group will meet tonight at Eighth Day Books to conclude our reading of Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse. King Alfred the Great, the only English king called great is in the news lately because they've found his bones. Since the Reformation the exact location of the great Wessex king and hero has been uncertain. From The Telegraph:

Last Friday, archaeologists announced that the remains of King Alfred the Great whose whereabouts have been unknown since the Reformation, may well have turned up at last.

A pelvic bone discovered in Winchester was dismissed as animal bone in 1999 but has now been confirmed to belong either to the leader of Wessex and vanquisher of the Vikings, who died more than 1100 years ago in 899 - or to his son Edward.  

The author describes Alfred's achievements:

Here was a king who inherited a realm on the point of collapse. The rulers of other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been slaughtered, like St Edmund (as in Bury St Edmunds) or eased out. The invaders responsible for this ongoing calamity were Scandinavian Vikings who had changed strategy from the raids of a century before to all-out conquest. Initially Alfred, too, was unable to stop their advance. It is to a period he spent early in his reign on the run, desperately trying to gather an army to drive out the Vikings, that the story of his finding shelter with a cowherd and “burning the cakes” relates. That was one of a number of legends that would attach itself to a man who became semi-mythical, after he managed to defeat the invaders, driving them out of Wessex for good.

Alfred wasn’t just a successful general. He was also a scholar, writing translations of religious and philosophical works, and becoming by his death the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Marcus Aurelius, the model of ruler as philosopher. It was as much for his achievements with the pen as with the sword that later generations came to know him as “the Great”, the only English king ever to earn the name. Alfred was never king of England, but his reign certainly laid the foundations for the united England that his successors, beginning with his son Edward the Elder, established.

Alfred's remains went missing during the English Reformation because of--you guessed it!--Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries!

This glorious record should have earned Alfred a safe resting place in the hereafter. Certainly, that was what he had in mind when in his will he left the massive sum of £50 to the Old Minster in Winchester as “the church in which I shall rest”. His son probably thought he was only doing his father even greater honour when he moved Alfred’s tomb to the New Minster, but that wasn’t a permanent home either. Henry I moved the New Minster’s monks - and their monuments - to Hyde Abbey, and after the Reformation, the site of the Abbey eventually became a prison.

More about Hyde Abbey here. Image credit.

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