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Finding a door
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Alfred

Given the name AElfred, which meant elf wisdom, Alfred became the King of Wessex in the 9th century. His response to his world’s darkest challenges can guide our response to the challenges we face today.

ALFRED THE GREAT

Alfred faces Viking invasions

Alfred was born when the shadows of invaders were falling across all the kingdoms of England. Vikings were plundering, burning towns and enslaving those they didn’t kill. Everywhere, wrote a 9th century chronicler, there is nothing but dead bodies – clergy and laymen, nobles and common people, women and children.

The fourth son of the King of Wessex, Alfred was not expected to rule or become a warrior. His love of books - he famously memorized a book when he was child so he could win it - suggested a clerical career. But in AD 865, when Alfred was sixteen, Vikings arrived in hundreds of ships, to conquer England’s northern kingdoms.

Raiding, raping, pillaging, burning and terrorizing, Viking plunderers took the farms and houses that belonged to others for their own. They inflicted the blood eagle on the defeated king of Northumbria. This was a Viking rite in which the victim had his ribs and lungs cut from his living body and spread like eagle’s wings as an offering to the Norse god Odin.

The kingdoms of the north fell. The shadows of destruction fell as far south as France, where Paris had been sacked. Only the kingdom of Wessex remained standing, but Wessex seemed doomed. Doors were closing - on life.

Character matters enormously, more so than most things that can be seen, measured, or documented. ~Thomas Sowell

Viking ship on sea with sunset

Alfred was twenty-two when the Vikings - plundering Danes and Norsemen - attacked.

Alfred was a Christian who believed that Christ had asked him to turn his cheek to an insult, but he did not believe that Christ had asked him to die rather than defend himself. He did not believe he should turn the cheek of an innocent child so she could be hit a second time - or sold as a slave by the Vikings.

In AD 870, Alfred fought the Vikings like a boar, charging against their shield wall in battle after battle. When his remaining elder brother died, the Witan named Alfred king. He was just twenty-three years old. In 871, the Vikings attacked again.

Alfred raised the homeguard, known as the fyrd. Most of them were farmers, not warriors, and they were defeated. Alfred was forced to buy off the Vikings, who swore by their god Odin’s ‘holy ring’ or armlet to uphold the peace - knowing full well that in the old myths Odin had broken his sworn word.

Twelfth Night

Twice the Vikings broke their word, and each time Alfred paid more gold - Danegeld- to restore the peace. In 878, on Twelfth Night, while the people of Wessex were celebrating the last day of Christmas, Vikings brought fire and the sword. Alfred fled from Chippenham into the snowy woods with his wife and two young children.

Bleak winter woods in England

A homeless king without a kingdom, protected only by a small band of warriors, Alfred headed west, to hide on the island of Athelney in the Somerset swamps. With him were
six-year old Aethelfleda and three-year-old Edward.

Alfred and his people faced the end. Pillaging towns and monasteries, killing and taking captives and seizing farms, the Vikings had come in force, and intended to stay. Alfred was urged to flee abroad. He knew he had to act swiftly, but he was painfully ill - he had a chronic condition that may have been Crohn's Disease which afflicted him much of his life. There is also evidence that he felt some guilt.

REVELATIONS

He had been personally warned that a covenant of justice unites a king and his people and that his misdeeds would lead to his downfall. We don't know what wrongs he may have committed as king, but Alfred's subsequent actions suggest that in the Somerset swamps he had several dazzling epiphanies. The first revelation he had was understanding what he owed his people.

According to legend, Alfred disguised himself as a harpist, and embarked on a mission to the Viking chief's stronghold at Chippenham. There he learned the strength of Guthrum's Viking army, and realized what he owed his people.

What he owed them was his life.

Back in the swamp he sent messages across Wessex, asking his farmers and warriors to meet him at Egbert’s Stone on an appointed day in May, and face the Vikings with him one last time. He did not know if they would come.

On the day, three thousand farmers and warriors of the Wessex fyrd rode and walked into the treeless, wind-swept valley. Alfred took the lead and they marched and rode to Ethandun, prepared to defeat the Viking army, or die. The latter seemed possible. They were outnumbered.

They fought for their God-given birthright, 

Their country to have and to hold,
And not for the lust of conquest
And not for the hunger of gold. (Emily Hickey)

Outnumbered, they charged the Vikings’ shield wall. In the fierce, hand-to-hand battle they triumphed. At this point, Alfred surprised everyone. It was his second epiphany.

He did not kill his defeated foes. He invited them to share in a new way of life.

ALFRED'S PLAN FOR TRANSFORMATION

Alfred's plan for transformation - from violence and war to peace; from misery and fear to joy and a good life had practical and spiritual dimensions.

1) Clearing and holding

To hold what he had cleared, he established a network of fortified towns. These he laid out with cross-shaped street patterns that divided land into blocks, like those of modern cities today. He rebuilt the navy to defend Wessex’s coast. He set up rotations for the fyrd so one force was always ready if another Viking attack came.

In 884, Vikings sailed up the Medway and attacked Rochester, but the city’s defenses held out until Alfred arrived. In 892-893 another huge host of Vikings invaded Wessex, but Alfred and his son Edward called up the fyrd and led the men of Wessex to victory. In 894 Vikings moved up the River Lea and attacked London. Alfred moved his army between the Lea and London so the citizens could gather their harvest then constructed two forts to trap the Viking fleet.

Alfred had learned -

A leader must defend his people since nothing else he or she does will matter if he fails to keep them safe.

Winchester Cathedral library

The Winchester Cathedral Library, built after Alfred was dead, but a direct result of his determination to encourage learning and build a safe and peaceful country.

Image: Winchester Cathedral

2) A Common Law

Alfred established one just law for everyone - Common Law. The rule of just law is our first defence against prejudice, exploitation and injustice. It has contributed to the prosperity of the people in Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Alfred established the Common Law by combining Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Danish laws consistent with Christian ethical teachings and rational thought.

He based the Common Law on these principles -

The law should express universal principles of fairness, truth and common sense.

Just law depends on the inherent dignity and freedom of every individual and the principles of fairness, responsibility, reason and truth.

People have to be confident that when a person breaks the law he will be punished. They have to trust that the law is impartial and constant.

Establishing common law was a great beginning, but it was not enough.

3) Trust

Alfred invited Guthrum and the Vikings to share the ground rules of his country by following the teachings of Christ, and living in peace. Alfred had seen that Christ’s teachings worked, and that men and women could not live, and society could not survive, without Christ’s teachings of truth- telling, promise keeping, forgiveness and trust.

Civilisation rests on trust between people. Trust is created by a shared culture of honesty, promise-keeping, compassion and forgiveness.

Alfred helped to create a culture based on the Golden Rule -

Treat others as you wish to be treated.

People guided by the Golden Rule, whose word is their bond and who reach out to help their neighbours, create trust. They live in the world’s successful societies. Without widespread commitment to speaking the truth, acting with integrity and refraining from stealing or taking bribes, a people cannot prosper no matter how many laws are on the books.

4) Education

Alfred opened grammar schools across Wessex for young students and had them trained in hunting, ethics, history and reading and writing English. He had a school opened at court for children - his daughter Aethelflaeda was included.

Since there were not enough books written in English, and so few people knew Latin, Alfred translated books written in Latin into English.

For Alfred, a good education included exercise, learning to read and write and understanding and practicing honesty and the Golden Rule.

The door into the light

Alfred lived what he believed -

Your immortal soul has been given reason, memory and free will for a purpose.

He had found the door into the light.

Alfred died on 26 October 899. He was barely fifty. His daughter Aethelflaeda became the Lady of the Mercians and successfully defended her people from Viking attacks, while son Edward began to unify the English kingdoms into the country of England.

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass