Born in the year 849 in the royal Saxon palace at Wantage, in what is now Berkshire, the youngest of five sons of King Æthelwulf, Alfred spent his life in a time of “battle, murder, and sudden death” during the Danish invasions and settlement in Britain. On a pilgrimage to Rome at the age of four, Alfred was blessed by Pope Leo the Fourth, an event that deeply impressed the young Saxon boy. Two years later he witnessed his father’s marriage to a young princess of the Frankish court. Following the death of his father and the brief reigns of his brothers, Alfred became king of the West Saxons (the kingdom of Wessex) in 871. At the time, the pagan Danes had gained control of large part of eastern and southern England and were harrying the eastern coasts, burning churches and monasteries, and killing the people inhabiting those regions. Despite many setbacks against the Danes, Alfred never despaired, and in time he was able to drive the Danes from Wessex, saving his kingdom and subjects from death and despoliation. He was generous to the defeated Danish leader Guthrum, persuading him to accept baptism and to recognize the boundaries between the Danish holdings and Wessex.
In his later years, Alfred sought to repair the damage done by the Danish invasions to the culture and learning of his kingdom, especially among the parish clergy. On the earlier model of Charlemagne’s school at Aachen, he founded a palace school that was unrivaled in northern Europe at the time. With the help of scholars from Wales and the Continent, he supervised translations into English of important works of theology and history, including works by Gregory the Great, Augustine of Hippo, and the Venerable Bede. He administered justice with insight and fairness, protected the poor, and encouraged art and the crafts. He tried in all that he did to rule as a model Christian king. For all this, he alone among the rulers of England is called “the Great”. In one of the works prepared at his direction, he wrote, “He seemed to me a very foolish man, and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever with and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.
Alfred’s commemoration was included in the twentieth century in the calendars of several Anglican Churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, The Episcopal Church (USA), and the Church of England.
prepared from The New Book of Festivals and Commemorations
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
O Sovereign Lord, you brought your servant Alfred to a troubled throne that he might establish peace in a ravaged land and revive learning and the arts among the people: Awake in us also a keen desire to increase our understanding while we are in this world, and an eager longing to reach that endless life where all will be made clear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons, are published on the Lectionary Page website.