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This book provides a broad account of the nineteenth-century cult of King Alfred. It reveals the rich cultural interest of the corpus of texts as a whole. The book redresses a misleading modern emphasis on Arthur and the Victorians, and addresses a genuine gap in the current literature on nineteenth-century medievalism. The book focuses on what was probably the apex of Victorian Alfredianism. It provides the background to this event both in terms of the wider cultural movements and in the sense of the Alfredian tradition which the nineteenth century inherited. The intersection of the cult of Alfred with nineteenth-century British politics is considered in the book, which focuses upon the role that Alfredianism played in debate about the future of the monarchy. The book speculates how the Saxon king was enlisted to vindicate and ennoble those institutions of which Victorian Britain was most proud - notably its navy, law-code, constitution and empire. It examines the conceptions of ninth-century Wessex as a time of immense cultural change - the mirror-image of the nineteenth century - and reviews Victorian appropriations of Alfred's reign as a prestigious starting point for myths of national progress. The book further focuses upon more domestic narratives - the use of Alfred, by Victorian authors, to exemplify moral values, and the rewriting of his life as a parable of error and redemption. Finally, the crucial question of Alfred's decline in fame is addressed in the book, which surveys the diminished interest in the Saxon king after 1901.
King Arthur may have been so much more attractive than King Alfred to the nineteenth-century authors simply because he offered them greater imaginative freedom. The horrors of two world wars and the demise of a vast empire probably rendered the triumphal structure of Alfredian narrative less suited to the nation's mood than the downfall of Arthur's round table. The legacy of Victorian racialism made the Saxon a problematic figure for many authors in the decades during and after the Second World War. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, the theory of the Norman Yoke was superseded by the view that Norman blood had contributed positive qualities like shrewdness and determination to the composite English character. Ten years after the Alfred Millenary a more developed appeal to the value of legend was made by G.K. Chesterton.
This chapter sketches out the acceleration of public interest in King Alfred from his birth in 1801, to the Wantage celebration organised almost single-handedly by Martin Farquhar Tupper in 1849 and Alfred Millenary committee's week-long extravaganza in 1901. Early on in the planning of the Millenary, it had been agreed that it would be desirable to open a museum of early English history in Winchester, as part of the Alfred commemoration. In the wake of the Winchester Millenary, many writers enlisted Alfred to their cause, capitalising on the sense of a seminal anniversary. Alfred's ninth-century kingdom of Wessex incorporated the Victorian counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Devon. Alfred Bowker's achievement is all the more remarkable when it is considered that Winchester was not particularly prominent on the Alfredian tourist trail.
This chapter outlines the general conditions and contexts which allowed the cult of an Anglo-Saxon king to flourish in nineteenth-century England. Arguably the most pervasive aspect of nineteenth-century medievalism was Anglo-Saxonism, the study and celebration of the Anglo-Saxon period. The medieval became the period of British history most commonly trumpeted as equivalent in prestige to the classical, partly because it was simply the earliest age to be fully documented. Arthur Conan Doyle's story about the Nelson statue introduces a factor which fed into the Victorian fascination with history, the role of fine art. King Arthur makes an interesting point of reference in considering the nineteenth-century cult of King Alfred. In his 1901 tract, God Save King Alfred, the Reverend Edward Gilliat proclaimed that while Alfred had 'united Anglekin in England', Victoria had 'united a wider Anglekin the world over'.
The mythologising that turned King Alfred into a hero began in his own lifetime. The earliest source that Victorian Alfredianists could turn to for information about the king was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals about the British Isles spanning the period from the landing of Julius Caesar to the twelfth century. For nineteenth-century audiences, The Life of King Alfred, beyond any other early source, was what set Alfred the Great apart from other Anglo-Saxon monarchs. According to the Life, Alfred was also an inventor, devising time candles and lanterns to allow him to allot exactly half of his time to God's service. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw Alfred get tangled up in minstrelsy, morality and university rivalry. In the case of Asser's Life, which Matthew Parker transcribed and printed in 1574, an eleventh-century manuscript of the text was conflated with the twelfth-century Annals of St Neots.
This chapter discusses the ways in which Victorian rewriters portrayed the Saxon as an ideal king, whether that meant an absolute monarch, a limited sovereign, a warrior-hero, or a wise and aged ruler. In using the construction of the Athelney fort as a means of demonstrating exemplary patriotism G.A. Henty was in a minority, far more nineteenth-century writers employed it as a way of demonstrating King Alfred's common touch, his empathy with his subjects. Alfred as a physically pre-eminent warrior and Alfred as a duellist both continued as motifs in early nineteenth-century texts. Thomas Carlyle's sustained importance to the Victorian cult of Alfred is perhaps best demonstrated by his direct and pervasive influence upon a writer working many years after him, Thomas Hughes. Hughes's decision to write a biography of Alfred was an explicitly political action.
Hailing King Alfred as the source of much of Britain's law was a means of giving a reassuring aura of stability and permanence to a fast-changing area of modern life. This chapter recognizes both the dominance of Victorian narratives of social progress. The fact that trial-by-jury was cited in Victorian rhetoric as a beneficial export to the colonies, also no doubt increased concern to establish an early, native origin for the practice. Spelman's The Life of Alfred the Great was the best-known biography of Alfred for the first half of the nineteenth century, and Thomas Hughes's was the most popular in the latter decades of the Victorian period. It was Spelman who first associated Alfred's new ships with the highly successful modern British 'navy'. The druid's prophecy about the union of Great Britain links the alliance intrinsically to the growth and success of the British Empire.
King Alfred was enthusiastically drawn upon in the nineteenth century as a model scholar for the people. The development of Alfred's role from regnal to moral exemplar may have owed something to the growth of publishing for children during the nineteenth century. The generosity of the impoverished king to the disguised saint proved a popular subject for Victorian visual artists. In his 1900 history Alfred to Victoria, George Eayrs claimed that Alfred and his line 'must be acknowledged the strongest of the several strains which have combined to produce that distinctive type, the Englishman'. The nineteenth-century fascination with Alfred's youthful vices contrasts starkly with eighteenth-century authors' apparent embarrassment about the subject. In Joseph Cottle's 1801 Alfred: An Epic Poem we seem to see the turning point between the dominant eighteenth-century tendency to depict Alfred as a wooing lover, and the burgeoning nineteenth-century desire to portray him as the ideal husband.