Our Prayer Book’s calendar of commemorations lists today “Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons and Reformer of the Church, 899.” This may stand out because most of the saints and commemorations seem to be churchmen – bishops, monastics, and other ministers. There are a few kings and queens, though, and Alfred is the only English one known as “the Great”. Why was he great, and why is he considered a saint?
One of the new features of the 2019 Prayer Book is the way it handles the calendar of commemorations: people are not simply named, but also labeled or described. King Alfred was a “Reformer of the Church” who died in 899AD. It may perhaps be best to understand his “reforming” role in a larger context.
Throughout his life, King Alfred was battling Danish invaders, the perennial threat to the British Isles throughout the early Middle Ages. Alfred won some important victories after some difficult defeats, yet also organized some significant rebuilding projects that saved not only the kingdom of Wessex, but Anglo-Saxon culture as a whole. He built a system of burgs (forts) to form a tangible border of defense, and he built church schools to form a new educated generation of teachers and priests. He maintained armies and built ships to counter the threat of barbarism from without and he maintained a court school to counter the threat of barbarism from within. He supplied bishops with copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care, to help ensure their ministry was carried out well, and he translated (or had others translate) many important Latin works into (what we now call Old) English. We still have copies of the West Saxon Gospels to this day!
Interesting, Alfred became known as “the Great” in the 16th century when the English Reformers started drawing upon his work and legacy in the vernacular and found it a useful counter to Papal claims for the supremacy of Latin and the supposed antiquity of its doctrines. Alfred, among others, show us an early English church that did not preach the excesses and heresies of late medieval Rome.
There is, of course, much about Alfred’s life that we don’t know with much certainty. He did, at least, have a biographer who knew him personally, which is an advantage over many historical figures from that long ago, but that doesn’t prevent the growth of legend and inference over time. Nevertheless, what we do know is that he was a good king who tried to take care of his people both in safety and in culture. He did good things for the preservation and rebuilding of the church amidst and after the devastations of war, and for that we Christians (especially of the English Church) have been very thankful ever since.