Shortly before the Second World War, an over-the-hill British ex-Cabinet Minister, out of office and washed up, his career plainly moving into its last twilight, began to write a history of the English-speaking peoples.
Statue of Alfred the Great
He wrote of the ninth century, the dark heart of the Dark Ages, when every English kingdom but Wessex alone had been conquered by the Vikings and pulled into their barbaric empire of emptiness.
He wrote of the fact that miraculously — perhaps, literally, miraculously! — the Saxons of Wessex did not succumb: “That they did not was due — as almost every critical turn of historic fortune has been due — to the sudden apparition in an era of confusion and decay of one of the great figures of history.”
Later generations might find in these words a strange resonance. The man Winston Churchill was writing about was, if course, Alfred the Great.
Read what you will. More than 11 centuries of scholarship and revisionism have failed to find evidence that might threaten to topple Alfred from what Churchill called “his pinnacle of deathless glory”.
Noblest of all the English kings, he beat back the Vikings, winning final victory after countless shattering defeats, from a low point, with his elder brothers dead, as a hunted fugitive in the marches of Somerset. He persuaded the leader of the Great Viking Army, Guthrum, to not only accept Christianity, but to follow it in truth (Guthrum took the name Athelstan and was adopted by Alfred as his stepson). Of this final victory in “the thornland of Ethendune” G.K. Chesterton wrote: “You and I were saved from being savages forever.”
Is there not a forecasting here of Churchill’s own words in 1940: “The battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation”?
Throughout England, Alfred restored learning, which he had found dead; restored the decayed monastic life and monasteries shattered by the Vikings; introduced new and better laws; translated important works of literature and moral philosophy into English for the first time; and reformed weights and measures. He was patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record which endured up until the 12th century; he invented that vital factor in scientific civilisation, a clock; and he founded the Royal Navy.
All this was in spite of a debilitating chronic illness, possibly malaria. Unusually for a great man, he left sons and grandsons of a strength, bravery, generosity and wisdom comparable to his own.
Recently, however, some forces of political correctness have begun chipping away at Alfred’s memory, at least in his capital of Winchester. Alfred was considered not up-to-date, and “focus groups” were set up to find a more contemporary image for the town.
Ms Eloise Appleby of the Winchester Tourist Board was quoted as saying: “King Alfred represents the past. His image in not forward-looking enough for today’s cut-throat commercial market-place. Winchester is a town with many creative artists and new buildings, and Alfred doesn’t tell the whole story.”
Cut-throat? It was King Alfred who fought the cut-throats, in a very literal sense, as he fought for years against armies of gentry rejoicing in names like Eric Bloodaxe, Thorfinn Raven-Feeder (not to be confused with his professional colleague Thorfinn Skull-Splitter) and Sigurd Worm-in-the-Eye. There was also, to be fair, one particularly gentle, even girlie-man, Viking known as “the children’s man” for his eccentric habit of allowing children to live.
King Alfred’s College at Winchester had its name changed to University College, Winchester. When I wrote an article in The American Spectator (April 2008) deploring the “colourless, lacklustre” new name, I received an extraordinarily vitriolic and abusive letter from a member of the administration.
Not only do many people come to Winchester precisely and solely because of its associations with Alfred, Arthur and other figures of high and heroic nobility, chivalry and romance, whose memory may still inspire and uplift, but it might well be argued that the nobility, valour, goodness and love of learning and science which Alfred epitomised, are qualities of which we stand in special need today.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer. He was recently joint winner of the Prime Minister’s $80,000 history prize for his book, Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II, which is available from News Weekly Books.