Winston Churchill described him as ‘the greatest Englishman ever’. He was a warrior, a king, a social reformer, and a champion for the cause of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. He is known simply as Alfred the Great, and his life affords lessons for Christians even today.
In 850 AD, Alfred’s England was in a sorry state. Ever since the 790s, Viking raiders had ravaged England’s eastern seaboard for plunder. The native Saxons were no match for the Viking’s fierce fighting style, and people lived in fear of the next skirmish.
Community life was also breaking down with little law and order. Any semblance of education, even for village leaders and churchmen, had crumbled. The Christian faith had become largely meaningless to the people and mere ritual to the priests.
Yet in these dark times, the Lord raised up an extraordinary man. He was not born to be king, but king he became.
He would defeat the Vikings, introduce the rule of law, pioneer an education system, and transform the religious life of the nation.
Alfred was born in 849, the fifth son of Æthelwulf, King of Wessex (southern England). His parents had died by the time he was eight, and Alfred grew up surrounded by the rough influences of godless courtiers. These courtiers trained the young boy in the skills of hunting and wrestling.
However, from a young age Alfred was different.
He voluntarily learned to read, and developed a life-long passion for education.
Alfred was also deeply concerned about his spiritual condition from his teenage years onwards. He became depressed as he sensed his own sinfulness, and started to search for answers as he read the four gospel accounts.
It became common for him to leave a hunting trip and turn aside into a deserted church to pray. Prostrate on the ground, the young prince would plead to God for forgiveness and relief from the burden in his soul.
Alfred found that, despite his prayers, he persisted in committing the same sins. His visits to disused churches became more and more frequent until his first act every morning was to find a church and pray.
In all this time, Alfred had little help from the royal priests. Many of them could not read and knew next to nothing of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
As Alfred continued to pray earnestly to God, something remarkable happened. He saw Jesus Christ in a new light. He saw that he was not just a moral teacher, but that he suffered on the cross to bear the punishment that others deserved. Alfred came to place his life in the hands of the Lord Jesus, trusting in his death to save him.
Alfred’s faith became personal. He later wrote in prayer, ‘To you I call, who cleanses us from all our sins and justifies us and hears our prayers.’
With great care, Alfred copied into a small book a selection of Psalms and prayers. He carried this book with him everywhere, often referring to it.
868 was a momentous year for Alfred. The 21-year-old married a princess called Ealhswith, and they would go on to have a happy marriage until Alfred’s death 31 years later.
However, the joy of newly-married life was shattered when, also in 868, news came that the Danes had invaded England once again.
King Edmund of East Anglia was soon defeated, and the Viking horde advanced on Wessex in their thousands – burning homes, looting churches, and killing men, women, and children. The invaders reached Wessex and made camp at Reading.
Alfred was second-in-command of the Saxon army at this point, and despite defeat at the Battle of Reading on 4 January 871, Alfred won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown just four days later.
Alfred adopted new tactics. He formed his troops into a dense body as they stormed the hill where the Danes were based. So ferocious was the Saxon onslaught that the Danish defence broke.
From that day on, the previously invincible Danes had the highest regard for Alfred.
Victory, nonetheless, did not last long. Viking reinforcements poured into Wessex, and the Saxons suffered defeat two months later, during which Alfred’s brother, King Æthelred, died. Alfred then became king aged 22.
For the next seven years, battle after battle was fought. Tragically, Alfred’s Christian faith was also buffeted. The pressures of kingship and warfare drew him back to the ways of the world and away from a close walk with Christ.
Finally, in January 878, worn out by all the fighting, Alfred’s last stronghold in Chippenham was overrun. The King fled to a forest in Somerset, and there, with a few soldiers and his wife, he recovered his spiritual faith.
Realising that he had deserted the Lord who loved him, Alfred repented and rededicated his life to God. At this time he is believed to have written the following prayer:
I implore you, Lord, to receive me, a fugitive, since once I was formally yours. I then deserted you to the devil and fulfilled his will, enduring much misery in his service. But if to you it seems (as it does to me) that I have long enough endured the pains I have suffered, please receive me, your own servant. Never again let me go, now that I have sought you.
The Saxon people were in a desperate situation: most had become serfs, and Alfred was presumed dead.
But all was not lost. At Easter 878, a reinvigorated Alfred unfurled his banner in Somerset and locals flocked to his side. His small army made a lightning dash to Chippenham and won a decisive victory. The King of the Danes sued for peace and even agreed to convert to Christianity, being baptised at Alfred’s court.
Alfred turned to improving the state of the country. His first reform was of the law. He used the 10 Commandments as his model and instructed judges that, just as Christ showed mercy, so they also must balance mercy with justice.
The King’s palace also underwent radical transformation. Gone was the drunken Saxon court. Instead, the monarch and his family would read the Bible daily. Alfred also made a practice of providing relief for the poor.
The sovereign then turned to the spiritual state of his realm. The Scriptures and Christian books were translated into English. Alfred decreed that services be conducted in English rather than Latin, and to encourage clergy in their spiritual duties, he saw to it that they were provided with a vernacular translation of a book on pastoral care.
Alfred also revolutionised education. He brought in able teachers from abroad, and all free-born youths, village elders, and judges were taught to read. Alfred founded a school in Winchester and often taught there himself.
Alfred had to endure two further invasions by the Danes before he finally drove them from the shores of England.
At the end of his reign he suffered a painful illness, but his faith in God stood firm. He died in Christ.
Alfred the Great is remembered as a great warrior, but it was in times of peace that he made his lasting legacy.
Alfred was concerned not just for the physical state of his nation, but also the spiritual. He established the rule of law based on the law of God. He encouraged learning and education. Above all, he wanted his people to have the same living faith in Jesus Christ that he once found in a deserted church.
Just before Alfred died, he called for his eldest son and heir, and delivered this famous charge:
My son, I feel my hour is near, my face is pale, and my days are nearly run. We soon must part. I shall go to another world and you shall be left alone with all my wealth.
I ask you, for you are my dear child, strive to be a father and a lord to your people. Be the children’s father and the widow’s friend. Comfort the poor and shelter the weak and with all your might put right what is wrong.
And, my son, govern yourself by the rules, then the Lord will love you and above all other things God will be your reward. Call upon him to advise you in all your need and he shall help you all the more to accomplish all you intend.
A warning to heed
When Alfred became King his nation was on the verge of being overrun by an invading army which showed no mercy. For seven years he fought battle after battle.
Sadly, Alfred allowed these physical trials to affect his spiritual state. His faith became weak and his life worldly.
It still remains easy for Christians to forget God when the pressures of life become great. Worrying about problems at work, in the home, or in the family can take over the believer’s thinking.
However, it is precisely during these times that the Lord is most able to help us. The Lord had to humble Alfred to the point of almost losing his kingdom before he saw the error of his ways.
Sometimes the Lord allows difficulties to mount up in our lives to gently remind us that he is there and that he should be at the centre of our life. The Lord Jesus was gracious to Alfred and is still gracious today: ‘Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden,’ says Jesus, ‘and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28).
An example to follow
Alfred said, ‘I desire to leave to the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works.’
He used the power that God gave him as a king most wisely. He tried to ground the laws of the land in the law of God. He emphasised the importance of mercy and compassion. He stressed through his own example the importance of helping the poor and the fatherless. He sought to improve the spiritual state of his nation.
Perhaps in his death we see his heart most clearly. He left half of his considerable wealth to the churches he had founded, to his household servants, and to the poor.
We may never have the power of King Alfred, but do we desire to show our faith by the life we live? Do we aim to uphold what is right, to care for the poor and fatherless, and to seek improvement of the spiritual state of our nation?
King Alfred lived out his faith. May we who profess Christ live out our faith in like manner.