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.

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Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo

but at Chester, which would explain many of the internal contradictions in the surviving copy.5 As it stands, the Vita is a patchwork of written and oral traditions from a range of sources, a transitional text which sits at the intersection of multiple periods and genres. The Life of Harold Godwinson is an unsteady blend of hagiography and pseudo-history that was composed in defence of a defeated (and often maligned) Anglo-Saxon king at a point well into the Anglo-Norman period. It is a rare written testament to, in Laura Ashe’s apt description, ‘the flowering of an

in Writing the Welsh borderlands in Anglo-Saxon England

2 Medievalism, Anglo-Saxonism and the nineteenth century Before it is possible to understand the particular appeal of Alfred to nineteenth-century Britain, it is necessary to have some idea of the broader cultural contexts in which the cult of the Saxon king germinated. As part of the Alfred Millenary commemorations in 1901, the historian Frederic Harrison – as was discussed in Chapter One – gave a speech at the British Museum. During this he asserted, ‘if ours was the age of progress, it was also the age of history’.1 The Victorian mania for Alfred was

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’
Alfred and Victorian progress

, or to an unreliable late medieval chronicle.2 Their interest, however, lies in what they reveal about the anxieties and values of nineteenth-century Britain. On the one hand, in claims about Alfredian origins, made by writers keen to aggrandise the Saxon king, we can identify those institutions of which Victorian Britain was most proud and which served as the bedrock of national identity. On the other hand, in the use of Alfred to legitimate nineteenth-century institutions, by bestowing upon them an ancient and prestigious founder, we gain glimpses into

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

thirteen-foot-high statue of a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king (for a photograph of the event, see Figure 2).1 The obvious question is who was being celebrated in such grand style and why? And on one level this is simple to answer. The monarch was Alfred the Great, king of Wessex from 870 to 899; the occasion was the (wrongly calculated) thousandth anniversary of his death; and Winchester’s role arose from the fact that the city had been the place of his death, his burial place and (allegedly) his capital. We need to ask, though, exactly what those assembled thought they

in ‘England’s darling’
Alfred and Victorian morality

king as ‘a man of science’, ‘an engineer’, a ‘captain of enterprise’, and an ‘industrial foreman’.2 Such descriptions proliferated particularly around the time of the Winchester Millenary, whose supporters had a vested interest in encouraging large numbers of the public to identify closely with the Saxon king. The origins of Alfred’s role as a moral paradigm are, however, complex. The invention of cheaper printing methods during the nineteenth century probably played the most important role. Once Alfredian texts could be published by major publishers for mass

in ‘England’s darling’
Nine hundred years of pre-Victorian reinvention

implies, there could have been no nineteenth-century Alfredianism if, in the first place, the Saxon king had not appeared as an impressive and engaging figure in a large body of annals, chronicles and other documents which could inspire Victorian authors, artists and popular historians. In order to properly understand why and how the Victorian cult of King Alfred developed, it is therefore necessary to survey those materials – to consider the most venerable ancestors of the Victorian Alfred, from the ninth century to 1800. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle The mythologising

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

Saxon king, benefactor of our race, we feel brought home to us the possibilities of kingship’.1 Types of kings, roles of kings, responsibilities of kings – the nineteenth century saw remarkable levels of doubt and debate about the future sovereignty of Britain. There had, of course, been opposition to George I and George II in the eighteenth century. But that was largely expressed as hostility to individual, unpopular monarchs. The shock of the French Revolution in 1789, however, not only intensified the critical scrutiny of Britain’s sovereigns, but cast doubt on the

in ‘England’s darling’
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English identity and the Scottish ‘other’, 1586–1625

He mentioned the popularity of the English and Scottish myths of origin, but focused his attention on the history of the English and their Saxon ancestors. Daniel’s work celebrated the Saxon kings, their form of government and their status as the ancestors to England’s great medieval kings who secured homage from the Scots.55 Though he demonstrated an interest in Britain, he only included mention of Scotland as it pertained to developments in England. For example, Daniel described the actions of King Edgar, the Saxon king who was often cited by antiquaries during

in Local antiquities, local identities