The Victorian cult of Alfred the Great

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.

Nine hundred years of pre-Victorian reinvention

3 Turning a king into a hero: nine hundred years of pre-Victorian reinvention ‘What is the secret of his fame, of his hold on the imagination of mankind?’ Lord Rosebery demanded, as he stood at the feet of Winchester’s newly revealed statue of King Alfred, addressing the crowds assembled for the unveiling ceremony. Answering his own question, the retired prime minister continued: ‘In the first place . . . he has stamped his character on the cold annals of humanity’.1 It was in the Victorian age that Alfred became a cult figure, but, as Rosebery’s diagnosis

in ‘England’s darling’

of a perceived national character. While an 1849 article in Sharpe’s London Journal could describe Arthur as ‘the beautiful incarnation of all the best characteristics of our nation’, Charles Dickens’s 1852 Child’s History of England could claim that in Alfred ‘all the best points in the national character were . . . first shown’. Each also became associated with ‘Englishness’: for the playwright J. Comyn Carr, Arthur was ‘England’s chosen lord’, while in an 1896 play by Alfred Austin, King Alfred is ‘the greatest of Englishmen’.21 Austin also united the two

in ‘England’s darling’
Alfred and the Victorian mania for commemoration

were commemorating in the figure of this Saxon king – in effect, were they all there to celebrate the same Alfred? And King Alfred’ s Millenary goes only so far in explaining how a provincial city could muster a distinguished pantheon of internationally significant guests, or why reporters from all the national papers, and from America, France and Germany were in attendance. To begin to understand these issues, it is necessary to step back to the earliest planning of the event. Preparations for the Millenary In October 1897, during a lecture at the Birmingham and

in ‘England’s darling’
Alfred and Victorian progress

5 ‘The root and spring of everything we love in church and state’: Alfred and Victorian progress At the second planning meeting for the Alfred Millenary celebrations, Conan Doyle asserted, ‘What we are commemorating is not merely the anniversary of the death of King Alfred, but the greatness of those institutions which he founded’.1 The institutions to which he was alluding included the navy, the British Empire, Oxford University and a free education system. In the 1901 commemorations, as we have seen, these claims were represented by processions of academics

in ‘England’s darling’
Alfred and Victorian morality

6 ‘The most perfect character in history’: Alfred and Victorian morality As he unveiled the King Alfred statue in Winchester, Lord Roseberry presented the Saxon monarch to the assembled crowds not merely as ‘the highest type of kingship’, but as ‘a man, a complete man’, whose greatness was ‘in the first place, a question of personality’.1 Likewise, in his opening address to a 1901 Alfredian conference in the United States, the President of the Maine Historical Society, James Phinney Baxter, stressed that ‘we today honour Alfred not because he was a king, or a

in ‘England’s darling’
Alfred after Victoria

7 ‘Never to be confused with King Arthur’: Alfred after Victoria By the end of the nineteenth century, King Alfred of Wessex was renowned as one of the bravest of British heroes; as the most perfect of moral leaders; as the wise institutor of trial by jury and democracy; and as the king who burnt the cakes. Writing in 1899, Frederic Harrison could claim that ‘every schoolboy’ knew the salient facts of the Saxon king’s biography.1 In stark contrast, by the end of the twentieth century the decline of popular Alfredianism was such that less than half of Britain

in ‘England’s darling’
Abstract only
Alfred and nineteenth-century politics

4 The hero as king: Alfred and nineteenthcentury politics Addressing the crowds gathered in Winchester for the unveiling of the Alfred statue, Lord Roseberry announced that ‘a thousand years ago there died in this city one who by common consent represents the highest type of kingship’. Alfred was, he said, ‘a king, a true king, the guide, the leader, the father of his people’. And in his record of the Winchester Millenary, published the following year, Alfred Bowker also hailed King Alfred as a paradigm of the monarchy, enthusing ‘When we commemorate the great

in ‘England’s darling’

reformers attempt to redraw the boundaries of early medieval spiritual identity and the physical borders of one of England’s most important secular and spiritual capitals: Winchester. Notes 1 Carnicelli, King Alfred’s Version of St. Augustine’s Soliloquies , ll. 1–12. Although it does not impact my argument, King Alfred’s purported authorship of the Soliloquies and the Boethius has been questioned by Malcolm Godden, ‘Did King Alfred Write Anything?’, MÆ , 76 (2007), 1–23. For responses, see Janet M. Bately, ‘Did King Alfred Actually Translate

in Rebel angels

the earliest Viking attacks, in letters written by Alcuin in the 790s to the king of Northumbria and the monks of Lindisfarne. The eschatological anxiety that connected the Viking raids with a fiery punishment from heaven touched the consciences of kings, and also influenced Alfred’s reflections on tyranny in his Old English adaptation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae at the end of the ninth century. The theological and literary sophistication achieved by Bede in the early eighth century would hardly have been possible in the ninth, and King Alfred himself

in Water and fire