'King Alfred ... the Great?'
This programme in the BBC's 'History of the World' series, broadcast 17 May 2010, was 'pick of the day' in The Guardian.
King Alfred was born in Berkshire, or ‘Berroc-shire, where the box tree grows so abundantly’, as his biographer puts it. So was I, and I grew up not far from the site of his battle at Englefield.
I first really studied him at college, when the best source for Alfred’s life, the biography by a Welsh monk named Asser, became my medieval Latin set text. And most days I would go to the classics library in The Ashmolean Museum, which involved walking right past King Alfred’s Jewel.
This tear-shaped jewel isn’t everyone’s idea of what Saxon treasure should look like – one of Nancy Mitford’s characters says it resembles a bird’s dropping.
But I have always liked it because it’s a jewel for bookworms – it probably formed the end of a pointer used to track words across the page, and might even have been given by King Alfred to one of his bishops, as part of his programme of cultural enlightenment.
And this is what’s most interesting about King Alfred to me: he was intelligent, thoughtful, even vulnerable, despite his reputation as the immensely strong and powerful protector of what would become England. Asser plays up Alfred’s tenacity, and the way he had to overcome physical pain and weakness of his own body, as well as defeating the Vikings. Asser’s description of Alfred’s symptoms – terrible intermittent pains, difficulty riding a horse – seem to tie in with Crohn’s Disease.
Everyone loves an underdog, and Alfred was extraordinarily successful in driving out the Vikings against enormous odds. But he wasn’t afraid, either, to pay them to leave Wessex alone when brute force had failed. Once Wessex was safe, he set about improving its literacy, town planning and culture. He seems to have been an even better leader in peace than in war.
For our programme in 'The History of the World' series, I spent several happy days in Winchester and Oxford. I enjoyed returning to see my old friend the jewel, by chance on the very day before the official re-opening of the grand new Ashmolean Musuem. At Winchester Hospital we borrowed a human colon to learn about Crohn’s Disease, and at Winchester Museum I picked cherry stones out of the contents of a Saxon cesspit. We climbed Winchester cathedral tower up the tiniest, most claustrophobic staircase, and ate a huge Saxon banquet cooked by Chris from the Black Rat, a chef who likes using the Saxon ingredients of alexanders, sorrel and other foraged foods (no they’re not just weeds).
It was terribly cold all the time we were filming, but Richard Townsend from Cloud One Television and all his colleagues were cheerful, efficient and brilliant. Watching the film back, I’m reminded what fun we had, and how lucky I was to have the chance to spend more time with old Alfred. But it's fair to say that some of the people I met in Winchester thought our modern picture of Alfred is an over-embellished, romanticised, Victorian caricature.
What do you think??
© 2013 Lucy Worsley