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877-899: King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle


How come we know as much as we do about these very distant times?   Because writers, known as chroniclers, wrote about their times, the earliest of them being Gildas in Wales and Bede, the founder of modern history, in England.   There were many others, all writing in Latin, and almost all were priests and monks, because they were educated.   One exception was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, initiated by Alfred the Great in the ninth century, who made sure it was written in English, or rather in Anglo-Saxon.


Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk






Written and presented by

Robert Smith


Voice over

Barney Powell

Rebecca Cooper


Music production &

Original music

Simon Roberts

(Lyric media group)


Original film footage

Ian Phillips


Picture editor

Roberto Ekholm


Asst picture editor

Guilfre Jordan


Associate Producer

Ian Phillips



Antonio Parente


Picture sources:


A 19th century map of Saxon England, showing the Heptarchy (the seven remaining kingdoms of England in about 790) based on topographical evidence in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saxon_England_according_to_the_Saxon_Chronicle.jpg


The medieval imagination: a portrait of the Apostle, St Matthew, preceding his Gospel, from the Codex Aureus of Canterbury, Stockholm National Library, Sweden - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_art


David Cameron - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Cameron


A modern British classroom -



A 19th century representation of King Alfred the Great -



A medieval scriptorium -



Asser’s Life of King Alfred.   Asser was a monk of St David's, Wales, and became a trusted adviser to King Alfred, who made him Bishop of Sherborne, Dorset -



Priests reading from the Bible during a Service.   The decoration of this page, from a French Book of Hours, includes this miniature, initials, and borders -



Calligraphy from the Malmesbury Bible, now at Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire; picture by Alan Pingstone



While the use of written English was encouraged by the Old English monarchy, Latin became the literary lingua franca after the Norman Conquest, begun at Hastings in 1066.   It was not until more than 300 years later that English was used by John Wyclif (in our picture) for biblical readings and prayers.   Wycliff was a leader of the Lollards (known as 'murmurers'), who are now seen as the precursors of the Reformation that occurred in the 16th century, particularly under King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I -



Geoffrey Chaucer (in our picture) was one of the earliest and greatest of the late medieval authors in English, with his Canterbury Tales, writing at about the same time as Wyclif.   Both men enjoyed some protection from John of Gaunt (or Ghent, modern Belgium, where he was born), Duke of Lancaster, uncle to the reigning king, Richard II (r 1377-99) and father to King Henry IV (r 1399-1413).   Gaunt's support was partly nurtured by political ambition, but reflecting also perhaps some growing disenchantment in England, at all levels, with the Roman Catholic Faith whose priests stood steadfastly behind Latin as the language of Church services, Sacraments, and Canons (laws), keeping to themselves, therefore, the interpretation of God's Word, a very great source of power and influence in a world still profoundly religious.   The Canterbury Tales Experience is a special effects exhibition, in Canterbury, telling Chaucer's often raucous stories. Website: www.canterburytales.org.uk



Judges' procession to the Palace of Westminster (House of Lords and Commons) to mark the opening of the legal year.   Increasingly, the flummery of these robes (and others) dating back to Tudor times in the 16th century are seen as anachronistic, setting judges even further apart from the people involved in the criminal and civil cases they are hearing in the Courts, where such robes and wigs are still worn.   The late Sir John Mortimer parodied judges in his stories, entitled Rumpole of the Bailey (Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court) which stories were made into a highly successful television series in the 1970s.



Barristers: a cartoon of a legal spat.   Unlike in many other Western countries, the English legal profession is split between barristers (who have 'audience' in a court of law) and solicitors (who do not).   Consequently, to bring or to defend an action in the Courts, a client has to engage two people and their teams, instead of one person and their team.



Abingdon Abbey- The Long Gallery at the Abbey in Oxfordshire -



Scrolls: often made of parchment (vellum), or of papyrus in the early days could not be folded, so were rolled, a situation that pertained well into the 17th century, as paper became cheaper and more plentiful, and could be folded without damaging the document.   The advent of printing in the 15th century also engendered legal and religious books, among others, ending the scriptoria where letters, charters, and religious texts had been painstakingly executed by hand, and copied by hand.   This must be hard for our youngest generation to take in with their laptops and iphones.   The author, now in his sixties, is wedded to his computer/word processor, but when he first went to infants' school in 1951 he remembers having to use slates, held in a wooden frame, and white chalk to learn to write or to begin the rudiments of arithmetic in lessons.  The past really is another country where we did things very differently. -  



John White Alexander, Manuscript Book mural (1896), Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC. -



A view of Winchester Cathedral from the west.   The west front of a cathedral or church is the main entrance for the congregation; at the east end is the chancel where the altar is located and the priests administer.   If a church is large enough, it might have transepts just before the chancel, the one on the left to the north, the other on the right to the south.   In plan, this forms a Cross which commemorates Christ's Passion. -



A 19th century representation of Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain shows his galleys arriving, probably off Pevensey, in Sussex. -



Imaginary depiction of Cerdic, first King of Wessex and ancestor of Alfred the Great, from John Speed's 1611 'Saxon Heptarchy'. -



Mask of Tutankhamun's mummy, the greatest icon of ancient Egypt at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.   The tomb, complete with its contents, was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, who was loyally sponsored and supported by the Earl of Carnarvon.   When Carter died, no one from the British Museum's ancient history department attended his funeral, or many from any other academic institution.   He was not, one suspects, 'one of us.'   So much for the green-eyed monster.   No one now remembers who these pompous folk were, but Carter will never be forgotten, any more than will King Tut himself. -



Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, proceed through the Royal Gallery during the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster.



Statue of Alexander the Great, at Skopje, modern Macedonia, which adjoins Greece to the north.   Alexander was King of Macedonia. -



The author, Robert Smith, was presented to Queen Elizabeth II by the late Quentin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor, at a reception in the Royal Courts of Justice in 1986.   The occasion was to mark the ninth centenary of Domesday Book when Mr Smith was Chairman of the National Committee for Domesday Book, 1086-1986.



King Edgar's coronation



Queen Elizabeth's Coronation on 2 June 1953, which the author remembers seeing on the next-door-neighbour's television.   It was followed by a street party, with tressel tables and benches down the centre of the street. -



Wax funeral effigy of Pope Gregory VII under glass, Salerno Cathedral, southern Italy. -



A ripe cornfield



King Cnut, r 1016-35



Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne



Coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800, in the Lateran Palace, Rome



Edward the Confessor enthroned, opening scene of the Bayeux Tapestry



Viking longboat replica in Ramsgate, Kent



Rollo, first Duke or Count, of Normandy, r 911-927, descended from Norse or Viking raiders in the previous century, as was England.   It was from Rollo that William the Conqueror was a gt-gt-gt grandson.   We shall meet both much later in this story. -



Anglo-Saxon noblemen, officers, and priests



Rouen was the Norman capital, as it is still the capital of the modern French Département.   The west front of Rouen Cathedral where Norman dukes were invested on succession. -



Queen Emma receiving the Encomium, which is named after her and for which she paid.   An encomium is a diatribe of praise.   Emma was Norman and married as her first husband (he as his second wife) Aethelred II (the Unready) and was mother to King Edward the Confessor.   She married as her second husband King Cnut, and returned to England with her son Edward in 1042.   She died in 1052: British Library MS 33241.



Map of southern England and northern France, divided by the English Channel, showing territorial locations. -



What Normans might have looked like in the 11th century. -



Outside our period, but a good picture of the kind of devastation warfare could bring.   This is a representation of the capture of Constantinople during Fourth Crusade by the Roman Christians who were supposed to have been going to the Holy Land to re-take Jerusalem.   Constantinople was far richer. - 



Mount Vesuvius erupting. -



The Last Judgment: what all medieval people feared, as many still do.   Wall painting (fresco) in the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican, made by Michelangelo



Siege of a motte-and-bailey castle from the Bayeux Tapestry.  Duke William brought what we might call 'flatpacks' of wooden castles with him in October 1066.   His first stone castle was the White Tower, the central keep in the present Tower of London.   Within a century, the whole of England and parts of Wales were studded with stone castles, many of which survive, though most are ruinous.   The Anglo-Saxons may have built just one stone castle in the reign of Edward the Confessor. -




Episode transcript:


We were speaking in the last episode about the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which we are calling the first national narrative.


Some of the information in the Chronicle was taken from sources outside England and it mentions events abroad, particularly in Scotland and Wales. Modern politicians in Britain took to speaking of 'Britishness' about five years ago as some kind of antidote to what they perceived to be a malaise in British society, to multiculturalism, and even to terrorism.    

If politicians are serious about 'Britishness,' they had better restore to the school curriculum, as the first measure, the teaching of history in a chronological way (names, battles, dates) and not leave this only to people like me.  

Names, battles, dates do not have to be boring, if they are in a context, as these first few episodes aim to demonstrate.   History sheds light on the present, but is no longer compulsory in schools.


To initiate our first national narrative - the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - you needed to be a king, not just any king.   You needed a really powerful and determined king.   The king, as we heard in the last Episode, was Alfred the Great.  

He was not taught to read and write as a child, but had himself taught to read and write English as it then was, and Latin in his twenties.   He wanted all his clergy to be literate, together with his noblemen and others of the elite.


King Alfred was the scholar king of our Anglo-Saxon period, who, it is known from his biographer Bishop Asser, authored and translated religious tracts and some laws personally.   He had the Bible translated into English and may even have contributed to the Chronicle.   Even if the vast majority of people were illiterate, someone could read aloud to them in a language they could understand.  

The Chronicle was written in English - not our English, but the English of the times.   Indeed, English laws were written in Anglo-Saxon, whereas elsewhere in Western Europe in this period, records and laws were made in Latin, suggesting that Anglo-Saxon, by King Alfred's time, had already attained a high linguistic status.  


Latin as the exclusive written language of the educated did not triumph in England until after the Norman Conquest, and we have to wait another three hundred years - until the late 14th century - for English to begin to re-emerge as a literary medium in the works of John Wycliff and Geoffrey Chaucer.  

The Bible was only used in churches again in English from the 1530s.   By the 1590s, the time of William Shakespeare, Latin was more or less confined to the law, and as the legal language was only brought to an end by Statute in 1726, although there was a brief period of legal English during the Cromwellian republic of the 1650s.  

No doubt lawyers preferred to retain Latin since it meant that they, being proficient in the language, maintained a tighter hold of law and legal proceedings for which they could charge their clients extra.  

Indeed, even in this twenty-first century, there remains much in English and Scottish law - use of words, terms, phrases - which still needs translating for most of us.   Do you know what a 'quantum' or a 'tailzie' is, or what 'ad quod damnum' means, routinely used words in English and Scottish law?   I didn't think so.  

Just when we all got used to 'defendant' and 'claimant' - about ten years ago, the lawyers thought they would 'modernize' their language by substituting 'pursuant' and 'pursuer' as being apparently easier to understand - just when most of us had come to terms with the older words.   We really do live in a barmy world.


The manuscripts that comprise the Chronicle seem to fall into two distinct parts:

1: Starting in the reign of King Alfred at the end of the ninth century,  there are contemporaneous, pithy news versions of national and international events, with local news of relevance to a monkish editor at Abingdon, Peterborough, or one of the other three centres;

2: There are the preceding years, when what were deemed important events were also included.   These were drawn from earlier works, especially Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.  

Earlier sources were engaged.   Many of these may now be lost - annals and histories, including some from France, or Roman historians; probably English law codes and records of local and national meetings, folk memories, even hearsay.  

Unsurprisingly, monasteries were responsible for the written material, since monks were literate and organized, and attempts seem to have been made from time to time, particularly at Canterbury, to edit and correlate the many texts into a single narrative.


The oldest surviving text is called the Winchester Manuscript, and the earliest recorded date appears in the Peterborough Manuscript - mistakenly as 60BC (in fact, 55-54BC) - which reads:


            Sixty years before Christ was born, Julius Caesar, emperor of the Romans, sought out Britain with eighty ships.   There at first he was harassed by fierce fighting, and led a great part of his raiding army to destruction.   And then he left his raiding army waiting with the Irish, and went into Gaul (modern France) and there gathered six hundred ships, with which he went back into Britain...


The contemporary manuscript begins with King Alfred's descent which incorporates the first West Saxon king, Cerdic, whose ancestry is traced back to divine pagan origins, and then all the way back to Adam.  

The importance of royal ancestry was crucial - even mythical, non-Christian ancestry - because it gave legitimacy to the dynasty, something well understood by the Egyptian pharaohs.  

Ancestry is about roots, about belonging to a greater whole.   What would be the point of procreation and the fostering of children if we did not rear them to remember us?   All any of us ever leaves behind are our stories.  


Even in the twenty-first century, there remains an aura around Queen Elizabeth II, felt even in the Bush White House, according to a television documentary several years ago.   The most powerful man in the world admitted to nervousness as a cast of thousands prepared for her arrival.  

One of our most notable historians, a friend of mine, and certainly our most prominent royal genealogist, Charles Mosley, makes the reasonable assumption, in his book, Blood Royal, that the Queen is a descendant of important people from about the time of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC.  

I was presented to her in 1986 and I can imagine how President Bush might have felt.  I like to believe that I'm normally self-assured and articulate.   Instead, I was nervous, dry-mouthed, and tongue-tied.  


You can imagine, therefore, how much more ancestry must have counted in Anglo-Saxons times - a period of deep religiosity - when kings were crowned as God's representatives on earth, as they were from the reign of King Edgar in the 10th century, all the way back to the First Book of Kings in the Old Testament.  

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953 with the full panoply of King Edgar's coronation rite nearly a thousand years before.


The Chronicle focuses on religion, so the accessions and deaths of popes are recorded, as are the deaths of bishops and other important prelates.

Religious festivals permeate the prose, particularly Easter; and days in an annal are usually given as such and such a saint's day, or Lammas, or Rogation, and other important days in the Christian calendar, which Professor Swanton has helpfully dated for us in his footnotes.  

The lives, acts, and deaths of kings are also important, as are the acts and deaths of ealdomen, whom we would call regional governors - from which we can derive a chronological history of the later Anglo-Saxon period, written as events happened.  

Some reigns are poorly covered: for example, the reign of Cnut, between 1016 and 1035, but the Chronicle is a rich source for the reign of King Aethelred II, the Unraedy, and we can easily deduce that it was Aethelred's dithering that led, at the beginning of the 11th century, to the fall of the English monarchy, so carefully built up by King Alfred and his sons and grandsons.  

As has been so wittily put recently, history is just one thing after another.   It is what you do with it that counts.


Kings of the Franks, later of France, and Western emperors get mentions, particularly Charlemagne, the first Emperor in Western Europe since Roman times, who was crowned by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day 800.   By this time, English kings and their families had long married into the Frankish royal family.  

King Edward the Confessor is abundantly covered, which is good for us because he reigned for the 24 years to 1066, when Duke William of Normandy invaded England and seized the throne as King William the Conqueror.   We find that the Vikings, who made so much trouble for Britain, were related to the Normans, who were themselves Viking invaders of northern France.  

The Chronicle tells us that Vikings, after attacks on England, often sailed for Normandy, where they probably had relatives, or the Rhine, to resupply for an attack the following year.  

By the 10th century, the Chronicle begins to record the deaths and accessions of Norman dukes - who were the descendants of these Scandinavian interlopers in northern France.  

We learn that, as the dukes establish themselves, they are privileged to marry members of the English royal family in the 10th century.   No thought then of a Norman conquest of England which was in the hands of King Alfred's very capable progeny.  

The Chronicle occasionally reports some act of a duke of Normandy within his duchy, long before the Conqueror.   When the Anglo-Saxon monarchy is finally superseded by the Danish under King Cnut in 1016, we find that Aethelred's son - the future King Edward the Confessor - has already been sent to Normandy for safety where he is brought up in the Norman court at Rouen.  

Perhaps from conviction, though very likely also as an act of realpolitik, we are told that Cnut married King Aethelred's widow, Queen Emma, in an effort to underpin his legitimacy on the English throne.


We learn from the Chronicle that, while the Norman Conquest was the most turbulent time for England - as any violent regime-change was and remains - the Normans were hardly unknown to the English.  

Normandy, as England's nearest neighbour, was not unfamiliar to folk as different as noblemen and clergy, and merchants and sailors.   Many Normans knew England well and vice versa.  

When Edward - the future Saint and Confessor - returned as king in 1042, he was thoroughly Normanized or even French, and he brought with him a Norman entourage whom he rewarded liberally, the source of much trouble in the 1050s with the Godwinesons, the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon aristocrats, as we shall see.


Through the Chronicle, we shall meet the destruction that was wrought periodically by men on men, as well as that wrought by natural disasters, all of the latter and some of the former attributed to earthly wickedness that was visited by a corrective Act of God.  

In our secular age, we can hardly begin to understand the sense of mankind's submission to God's will that emerges from the pages of the Chronicle that will come before us in this early medieval world.  

Time past and present was meaningless because, as we know, the vast majority of people were innumerate - they did not even know their own age.  What did such things matter?   The End was Nigh and they would be judged.


In the next episode, we introduce King Arthur, and Hengest and Horsa, traditionally the first Anglo-Saxon leaders in England.   Were they myths or historical figures?


Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



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