Religion and Learning at the Court of Alfred

Today, we realise that the Vikings were motivated by a desire for wealth and land; but for Alfred the reason was different: he and his people believed that the Viking invasions were God’s punishments for the sins of the English people. Alfred was realistic enough to recognise that he first had to protect the nation from further attacks; but he was also concerned that the English should be redeemed in the eyes of God.

In Alfred’s translation of “Pastoral Care”, Alfred wrote:

“Remember what punishments befell us in the world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men. We were Christians in name alone, and very few of us possessed Christian virtues.”

He therefore created a programme of learning and religious reform, bringing scholars into the kingdom from Mercia, Wales and the Continent; translating many important texts from Latin into English; pledging much of his annual revenue as gifts to the church and educating the youth of the kingdom in order to make them more suited to hold responsible positions in the Church and the State.

He also produced a set of historical chronicles (now known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) copies of which were held in several important monasteries. 

Scholars at the court of King Alfred

Michael Lapidge wrote:

“Scholars at King Alfred’s court constitute a seemingly unique group in the history of pre-conquest English government and culture. The majority of Anglo-Saxon kings were illiterate, that is to say, they could neither read nor write Latin, the language in which much official business (conveyancing of land, communication with foreign courts, and so on) was transacted. Kings accordingly depended upon advisers literate in Latin to compose the necessary documents for them. These advisers were normally high-ranking ecclesiastics (bishops or abbots). Only in exceptionally rare cases did kings interest themselves in this aspect of their government, to the point of making an effort to learn Latin for themselves.”

(Michael Lapidge “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”)

One of the most important of these scholars was Asser, who was Bishop of St David’s, Wales, when Alfred invited him to spend six months of every year at the King’s court. Asser, who later became Bishop of Sherborne, wrote a biography of Alfred, which is an important source of information for historians, and he was also instrumental in teaching the king to read and write Latin, which occurred when the king was nearly 40 years old.

Once he had learnt to read and write Latin, Alfred took an active part in translating Latin works into English. Translations that have been attributed to Alfred are: Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis, Augustine’s Soliloquia and Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae. Translations that were apparently inspired by Alfred include: Gregory’s Dialogi (Bishop Wærferth), Orosius’s Historiae adversum paganos (anon), Historia ecclesiastica (Bede’s) and Martyrology (anon).

Of particular importance was the Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Care) of Gregory the Great. In the preface to his translation of this work, Alfred wrote:

Siddan ic hie da geliornode hæfde, swæ swæ ic hie forstod, ond swæ ic hie andgitfullicost areccean meahte, ic hie on Englisc awende; ond to ælcum biscepstole on minum rice wille ane onsendan; ond on ælcre bid an æstel, se bid on fiftegum mancessa. Ond ic beiode on Godes naman dæt nan mon done æstel from dære bec ne do, ne da boc from dæm mynstre

(When I had learned it I translated it into English, just as I had understood it, and as I could most meaningfully render it. And I will send one to each bishopric in my kingdom, and in each will be an æstel worth fifty mancuses. And I command in God’s name that no man may take the æstel from the book nor the book from the church.)

A mancus was a gold coin, sometimes equated to thirty silver pennies, so fifty mancuses was a considerable sum. Alfred doesn’t tell us what an æstel is, but other references inform us that it was a pointer used in reading.

In 1693, a labourer digging for peat in the south Somerset moors about 4 miles from Athelney found a curious object. The object consists of a gold setting, with a cloisonné enamelled plate under a rock crystal cover. Around the sides of the setting are the words: “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN” (Alfred ordered me to be made). The figure on the enamel plate seems to represent the sense of sight, and by extension, the act of reading. The animal head shaped terminal at the bottom of the object once held some sort of rod, possibly of ivory.

Today, the object is known as “The Alfred Jewel” and can be found in the Ashmolean Museum. It is almost certainly one of the æstels referred to by King Alfred.

Next Page: The Alfred Jewel