Alfred the Great – the only monarch in English or British history to behold the epithet of ‘the great’ – ascended the throne of Wessex (later England during the reign of his grandson, King Æthelstan) 1,143 years ago. Normally as a society, we lose track of certain things. We remember the names but so seldom do we remember the epic tales that surround the names. Rarely do we remember the face.
This leads to the next question – how do we know what he looked like? The answer lies within primary sources. Historians require primary sources, or documents from the time that one is studying, in order to form arguments about that time. How would you like it if someone 400 years from now judged you and everything you did without reading what you or those you knew personally had to say for yourself? Obviously, if the people of the future read your words or those of people who understand you, you are likely to be remembered differently.
Primary sources sometimes offer us something truly wonderful. Sometimes, we are offered a look at the person we are trying to discover. Yes, they may mostly just hold details about the battles they fought and the laws they implemented, but when it comes to King Alfred, sources on how he looked are quite abundant.
We are fortunate to have a primary source provided by Asser, which describes the appearance and character of Alfred.
Asser wrote of Alfred in his Life of King Alfred,
“Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother – indeed, by everybody – with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour… [and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.”
It is also written by Asser than Alfred did not learn to read until he was twelve years old or later, which is described as ‘shameful negligence’ of his parents and tutors. It is true, however, that Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory, and he retained poetry and psalms very well. A story is told by Asser about how his mother held up a book of English poetry to him and his brothers, and said; ‘I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest.’ After excitedly asking, ‘Will you really give this book to the one of us who can understand it the soonest and recite it to you?’ Alfred then took it to his teacher, learned it, and recited it back to his mother.
Alfred is also noted as carrying around a small book, probably an ancient version of a small pocket notebook, which contained psalms and many prayers that he often collected. Asser writes: “[these] he collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it.”
An excellent hunter in every branch of the sport, Alfred is remembered as an enthusiastic huntsman against whom nobody’s skills could compare. However, it is recorded that his skills and success did not strive in vain.
Although he was the youngest of his brothers, he was probably the most open-minded. Despite eventually becoming one of the greatest warriors and forgers of peace in the kingdom, he was an early advocate for education. His desire for learning could have come from his early love of English poetry and inability to read or physically record them until later in life. Asser writes that “[Alfred] could not satisfy his craving for what he desired the most, namely the liberal arts; for, as he used to say, there were no good scholars in the entire kingdom of the West Saxons at that time.”