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Alfred's Predecessors Essay

History Notes > Anglo-Saxon History (Britain c. AD400-1100) Notes

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What did Alfred's achievements owe to those of his West Saxon predecessors?
Alfred's reign has been characterised as transformational, and not without justification. He followed his victory at Edington in 878 with what Wormald called a 'sustained programme of military, administrative, diplomatic and cultural change'. By the time of his death in 899 his extended kingdom was not only secure from invasion, but also second only to Carolingian Francia within Western Europe in the sophistication of its administration and quality of its cultural output. Indeed, it is partly a testament to the cultural renewal that took place in the latter years of Alfred's reign that we have so much contemporary or near-contemporary source material relating to his activities: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has long been acknowledged as an Alfredian court source, while the very presence of Asser, the Welsh scholar who was the king's biographer, in Wessex is evidence that Alfred was gathering men of learning about him in a manner that has invited comparison with Charlemagne. Alfred's dramatic achievements on the one hand, and their dramatic portrayal in surviving sources on the other, have made it relatively easy to overlook the reigns of his predecessors. These, however, provide a much-needed context for Alfred's own achievement. An examination of the methods of overlordship and governance used by his forebears as kings of Wessex, and particularly his most immediate predecessors of the house of Egbert, allows us to appropriately qualify the Alfredian achievement. That is to say, if the hegemony with which Alfred ended his reign can be shown to have been in part inherited by the king rather than created by him, then we are less obliged to accept the impression that Asser and the chronicler convey, this being that his innovative spirit and resolve were the determining factors in his success. Conversely, those areas in which it appears he excelled without precedent should perhaps seem to us to more accurately reflect his interests and skill. Further, if factors in the success of Alfred's rule can be shown to have roots in the reigns of earlier kings or in the system of West Saxon administration generally, this ought to alter our perception of the nature of the Mercian overlordship that was apparently imposed on the kingdom for the century preceding 825, and go some way to explaining the apparent autonomy of Wessex during the period of Mercian supremacy. We would do well, firstly, to establish what Alfred's achievement was supposed to be by his contemporaries, and how this has been interpreted latterly. Asser begins his biography with a dedication to 'Alfred, ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain, king of the Angles and Saxons', while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us in its final entry for Alfred's reign that 'he was the king over the whole English people, except for that part which was under Danish rule'. Both are bold statements, implying overlordship across southern and western Britain, the areas free of Scandinavian control. That Alfred was really in control in these provinces, there is little doubt: coin issues from the major mints at London and Canterbury testify to his presence in southern Mercia and in Kent and its environs, and these areas are free from signs of Danish settlement. He appears, also, to have commanded loyalty across his kingdom, as his ability to rally a large army in 878 demonstrates. The dependent territories of the expanded West Saxon state were, significantly, ruled through ealdormen rather than sub-kings. The assumption of royal power outside Wessex by Alfred is an impressive indication of his ability to project his personal authority beyond the borders of his kingdom, something for which he has often been credited with significantly advancing
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