In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alfred (King)

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Historical Context
  • Biographies

British and Irish Literature Alfred (King)
Nicole Discenza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0020


Alfred (b. 848/849–d. 899), King of Wessex, styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons before his death. He was the youngest of at least six children, five of them sons, born to King Æthelwulf of Wessex; his mother was Osburh. As a very young boy, Alfred went to Rome, where he was made a consul by Pope Leo IV in an event later reinterpreted as royal consecration. Though succession by oldest son had not been established in 9th-century Wessex, each of Alfred’s three brothers who survived their father became king of the West Saxons in turn. In 871, Alfred came to rule a kingdom under attack from Vikings, who had already subdued much of what would become England. He fought Vikings repeatedly from before his succession until a major victory at Edington in 878. He then enjoyed relative respite until another wave of attacks in 892–896. Alfred became known for military victories, systematization of the army, and improvement of West Saxon defenses, but also for his laws, cultivation of learning, and translations. He brought to his court scholars from Mercia (Wærferth, Plegmund, Æthelstan, and Wærwulf), Wales (Asser), and the Continent (Grimbald and John). The latter imported ideas and texts from the Carolingian Renaissance. Alfred himself initiated a program of translation and education announced in his prose preface to the Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. In the preface, he declares that learning has deteriorated and that decline in wisdom has brought loss in war as well; he launches an effort to translate from Latin into English “certain books that are most necessary for all men to know” (Sweet 1996, cited under the Old English Pastoral Care, my translation, originally published 1871, 7.6–7) and teach youth not otherwise employed to read English, prescribing that a few learn Latin later. Though his Authorship is now in dispute, Alfred himself is traditionally credited with the translations of the Pastoral Care, Boethius, Soliloquies, and the Prose Psalms of the Paris Psalter; and with the prologue to and compilation of the Laws of Alfred and Ine. His patronage is probably behind Asser’s Life of Alfred, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bishop Wærferth’s Old English version of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, the anonymous Orosius, and possibly the Old English Bede. Despite a challenge from the son of one of Alfred’s older brothers, Alfred’s son Edward succeeded him; Edward’s son Æthelstan became the first king of a united England.


The overviews listed here approach Alfred from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives and do not always agree on Authorship; see also Historical Context for more specifically historical approaches to Alfred and his times. Frantzen 1986 offers a fine introduction to students in literary studies with chapters on each of Alfred’s five works (the law code and the four translations often ascribed to him: the Pastoral Care, the Boethius, the Soliloquies, and the Prose Psalms of the Paris Psalter) and a concluding chapter suggesting “new directions,” which other scholars have indeed since pursued. Jayatilaka 2012 describes kinds of sources and influences available to Alfred and his circle, providing quick sketches both of the intellectual climate and of the texts themselves. Irvine 2013 sets Alfredian texts in the broader context of the preceding century and works that may extend into the next one. The author gives a sense of the state of Latin learning both early and later in the 9th century before turning to specific genres and texts in Old English, with much attention to those associated with Alfred and his circle. Stanton 2002 offers a different context: that of early medieval translation. Alfred’s own translations partake in the medieval tension between translation as imitation of and translation as replacement for authoritative texts. His translations also made him an authority, but that authority was always connected to his position as king. Pratt 2007 combines literary and historical study to understand Alfredian literary and artistic productions as part of a unique “Alfredian moment” in which the king could wield power in a wide variety of ways. Discenza and Szarmach 2015 offers thirteen chapters on several Alfredian topics, including one on each of the Old English texts associated with Alfred, by different experts in the field. Reuter 2003 similarly features top scholars in the field writing on specific topics.

  • Anglo-Saxonici Project. Fontes Anglo-Saxonici. Oxford: Anglo-Saxonici Project, 2002.

    This database identifies certain, probable, or possible sources and analogues for more than five hundred Old English and six hundred Latin texts. Entries relevant to Alfred include those on the Boethius (Nicole Guenther Discenza), Soliloquies (Malcolm Godden), Pastoral Care (J. Hart), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS E, Susan Irvine), and Orosius (Rohini Jayatilaka). Also available on CD-ROM: version 1.1.

  • Discenza, Nicole Guenther, and Paul E. Szarmach, eds. A Companion to Alfred the Great. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 58. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    “Context” features chapters on history (Simon Keynes), art (Leslie Webster), and Latin Boethius commentaries (Rosalind Love). “Alfred as Author” includes authorship (Janet M. Bately), prefaces and epilogues (Susan Irvine), each translation (Carolin Schreiber, Nicole Guenther Discenza, Paul E. Szarmach, Patrick O’Neill), and laws (Mary Richards). “Alfrediana” encompasses related texts (Janet M. Bately, Susan Irvine, and David Johnson).

  • Frantzen, Allen J. King Alfred. Twayne’s English Authors Series 425. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

    Explicitly for students, with a chapter on each of Alfred’s five texts tracing manuscript history, source, translation techniques, critical history of the translation, and relations with other texts.

  • Irvine, Susan. “English Literature in the Ninth Century.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare Lees, 49–97. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013..

    DOI: 10.1017/CHO9781139035637.011

    Sets Alfredian literature in a wider context. Irvine describes a “long ninth century,” the establishment of a literary tradition that continued into the 10th century. Latin production and copying suffered setbacks in the mid-9th century, encouraging the emergence of a written vernacular in multiple genres but usually in prose.

  • Jayatilaka, Rohini. “King Alfred and His Circle.” In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. 1, c. 400–1100. Edited by Richard Gameson, 670–678. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012..

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521583459.035

    Excellent introduction to the literary productions of the Alfredian court and their sources. Jayatilaka contrasts the number and range of sources evident in Alfredian-era texts with Alfred’s portrait of English ignorance; she concludes that 9th-century English authors were confident and had many texts available.

  • Pratt, David. The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series 67. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511495595

    Argues for a concerted “Alfredian theatre” in which visual arts (books, rings, jewels) and texts perform a fictional persona of the king to support his political, military, economic, and spiritual goals. Puts Alfredian artistic production in the context of resource extraction, close kinship ties among Wessex nobility, and war.

  • Reuter, Timothy, ed. Alfred the Great: Papers from the Eleventh-Centenary Conferences. Papers delivered at a conference at the Wessex Medieval Centre, University of Southampton, in September 1999 and in London in October 1999. Studies in Early Medieval Britain. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

    Twenty-one chapters include introduction; “Sources” of literature and art; “Alfredian Literature,” including questions of canon, prefaces, and self-representation; “Alfredian Government and Society,” treating various aspects of history and numismatics; “Alfred and Contemporary Rulership,” comparing Alfred with religious and secular rulers on the Continent and in the British Isles; and “Alfredism.”

  • Stanton, Robert. The Culture of Translation in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2002.

    Argues that translation was central to Anglo-Saxon literary culture and puts Alfred in context. Chapter 2 focuses on Alfred, including his use of patristic, early medieval, and Anglo-Saxon notions of translation and interpretation, learning, and rhetoric. His translations both imitate and displace sources and create Alfred as “eloquent ruler.”

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