By Stuart Frost
It is the nature of history that only the names of a comparatively few people are remembered after their deaths. For the medieval period the people we know most about tend to be the most powerful, exceptional or notorious figures.
Medieval chroniclers were fond of adding an adjective after an individual’s name. Some rulers were more fortunate than others in the label posterity gave them. Charles the Great, William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion Heart are all at the acceptable end of the spectrum, but who would want to be known as Louis the Fat, Charles the Bald or John Soft-sword?
The word great is arguably over-used today. Such and such is a great singer, footballer or actor. It is difficult to really assess someone’s merits without the perspective that the passage of time brings. However if there is one English figure who truly deserves the epithet great then it is Alfred of Wessex (849-899), ruler of the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to survive the Viking onslaught in the ninth century.
If you need convincing about Alfred’s credentials then I’d recommend visiting Winchester to see the exhibition: Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom. The exhibition closes on 27 April 2008. The display is small but it includes some beautiful objects which are also of immense historical importance. The V&A has loaned the remarkable Anglo-Saxon reliquary illustrated above to Winchester for the duration of the display. Click on the object to find out more about the object and its link with Alfred’s achievements.
The legacy Alfred left his sucessors allowed them to consolidate the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and eventually bring all of England under the control of one monarch. The origins of modern England can arguably be traced back to Alfred’s reign. Winchester became Alfred’s main city and throughout the middle ages the city was extremely important. There is enough evidence around the modern town to give a sense of just how impressive medieval Winchester was.
Alfred’s achievements ensured that he would never be forgotten. The photograph illustrated below shows 19th century remodelling at Arundel Castle. The relief sculpture is difficult to see but it shows ‘King Alfred instituting Trial by Jury on Salisbury Plain’, evidence of Alfred’s enduring reputation as a model monarch.
Click here to find out more about Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom.