Saturday, November 21, 2015
Review of "Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England" by Justin Pollard
King Alfred was the youngest of five sons who all succeeded their father to the throne of Wessex. Their only sister married the king of neighboring Mercia. They were a family of royalty in a day when it wasn't safe to be royal. Really, it wasn't all that safe to be human in 9th century England; the average life span extended only to the thirties. For King Alfred's family, the royal family of Wessex, Viking invaders did not improve longevity. Brother after brother died, each leaving the throne in turn to his younger brother until it was Alfred's turn.
Alfred inherited the throne of Wessex at a very bad time. Indeed, he almost couldn't keep it but was sent into exile when many of his high ranking officials succumbed to the Viking pressure. Alfred could have taken the easy way out and followed his brother-in-law and sister's example by fleeing England. Not Alfred. He was made of different stuff. Despite physical ailments that plagued him all his life, despite being on the run for a while with little idea of whom he could trust, Alfred lived to regain and enlarge his kingdom. No wonder the Psalms were so dear to him.
His method wasn't about strength on the battlefield. It wasn't about being more conniving or double crossing or vicious than his enemy. The Vikings had that covered. Instead, King Alfred was about improving his kingdom as a whole by strengthening his people spiritually, intellectually, and practically. He created a system of defensive towns that created fewer heroes but resulted in a more resilient and flexible army of people who were personally invested in the defense of their homes. In an age dominated by the Vikings, King Alfred used careful planning and a complex system of teamwork to defeat his foes. He improved literacy and the arts and personally translated important books into the common language to be distributed throughout the kingdom. His England, built on the foundation that God is in control and that true strength comes from being spiritually strong, managed to thrive where others had crumbled.
Alfred lived to see his enemy's depleted force sail away, but only by a few years. We are blessed that he did not neglect the work of education, translation, and craftsmanship until a day when the Viking threat was over. Indeed, it was his involvement in all these projects (that many might have considered superfluous to their military goals) that contributed to his glorious, victorious reign.
Justin Pollard's biography of King Alfred brought the man to life as well as any book set in the 9th century could hope to do. It left me wanting to know more and my first action upon reading the last page was to go online and look up the Wessex family tree. There is never an end to learning!