Alfred the Great

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I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.

Ælfrēd or Alfred the Great (848 or 849October 26, 899), king of Wessex from 871 to 899, was responsible for turning back the Danish invasion of Wessex and for promoting a revival of education, scholarship, law and administration. His translations of theological and philosophical works into Old English are sometimes said to have laid the foundations of English prose.

Quotes[edit]

All quotations in Modern English are cited from Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (trans.) Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), to which page-numbers also refer.
  • Þæt is nu hraðost to secganne, þæt ic wilnode weorðfullice to libbanne þa hwile þe ic lifede, and æfter minum life þæm monnum to læfanne þe æfter me wæren min gemyndig on godum weorcum.
  • Doom very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!
  • He seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.
    • Last words in Blostman [Blooms] (c. 895 AD) an anthology, based largely on the Soliloquies of Augustine of Hippo

Preface to his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care[edit]

Remember what punishments befell us in this world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men.
  • Me com swiðe oft on gemynd, hwelce wiotan iu wæron giond Angelcynn, ægðer ge godcundra hada ge woruldcundra; ond hu gesæliglica tida ða wæron giond Angelcynn; ond hu ða kyningas ðe ðone onwald hæfdon ðæs folces Gode ond his ærendwrecum hiersumedon; ond hie ægðer ge hiora sibbe ge hiora siodu ge hiora onweald innanbordes gehioldon, ond eac ut hiora eðel rymdon; ond hu him ða speow ægðer ge mid wige ge mid wisdome; ond eac ða godcundan hadas, hu giorne hie wæron ægðer ge ymb lare ge ymb liornunga, ge ymb ealle ða ðiowotdomas ðe hie Gode don scoldon; ond hu man utanbordes wisdom ond lare hieder on lond sohte; ond hu we hie nu sceoldon ute begietan, gif we hie habban sceoldon.
    • Very often it has come to my mind what men of learning there were formerly throughout England, both in religious and secular orders; and how there were happy times then throughout England; and how the kings, who had authority over this people, obeyed God and his messengers; and how they not only maintained their peace, morality and authority at home but also extended their territory outside; and how they succeeded both in warfare and in wisdom; and also how eager were the religious orders both in teaching and in learning as well as in all the holy services which it was their duty to perform for God; and how people from abroad sought wisdom and instruction in this country; and how nowadays, if we wished to acquire these things, we would have to seek them outside.
    • p. 124
  • Geðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon!
    • Remember what punishments befell us in this world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men.
    • p. 125
  • Ða ic ða gemunde hu sio Lar Lædengeðiodes ær ðissum afeallen wæs giond Angelcynn, ond ðeah monige cuðon Englisc gewrit arædan, ða ongan ic on gemang oðrum mislicum ond manigfealdum bisgum ðisses kynerices ða boc on Englisc ðe is genemned on Læden Pastoralis, ond on Englisc "Hierdeboc", hwilum word be worde, hwilum andgit of andgite.
    • When I recalled how knowledge of Latin had previously decayed throughout England, and yet many could still read things written in English, I then began, amidst the various and multifarious afflictions of this kingdom, to translate into English the book which in Latin is called Pastoralis, in English "Shepherd-book", sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense.
    • p. 126


Misattributed[edit]

"The early Middle English poem The Proverbs of Alfred is a collection of precepts for good conduct uttered by the king…and other supposedly Alfredian words of wisdom occur in the poem The Owl and the Nightingale; both poems illustrate the tendency in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to attribute wise sayings to the king, but alas there is no reason to believe that any of the sayings derive from Alfred himself." (Keynes and Lapidge, p. 47).
  • For hit seide þe king Alfred:
    "Selde erendeð wel þe loþe,
    an selde plaideð wel þe wroþe."
    • As Alfred says, that learned king:
      "The hated man can't intercede;
      The angry man's not fit to plead."
    • The Owl and the Nightingale, line 942; as translated by Brian Stone in The Owl and the Nightingale, Cleanness, St. Erkenwald (1971), p. 214
  • For Alfred seide a wis word,
    euch mon hit schulde legge on hord:
    "3ef thu isihst er he beo icume,
    his strencþe is him wel neh binume."
    • On this, hear Alfred's weighty word
      Which man should treasure once it's heard:
      "Foresee your trouble in its course:
      You thereby take away its force."
    • The Owl and the Nightingale, line 1223; as translated by Brian Stone in The Owl and the Nightingale, Cleanness, St. Erkenwald (1971), p. 224
  • Ne ches þe neuere to fere
    littele mon ne long ne red...

    Þe luttele mon he his so rei,
    ne mai non him wonin nei...

    Þe lonke mon is leþe bei,
    selde comid is herte rei...

    Þe rede mon he is a quet,
    for he wole þe þin iwil red
    he is cocker, þef and horeling,
    scolde, of wrechedome he is king...
    • Choose never for thy mate
      a little man, or long, or red...

      The little man is so conceited,
      no one can dwell near him...

      The long man is ill to be with,
      seldom is his heart brave...

      The red man is a rogue,
      for he will advise thee ill;
      he is quarrelsome, a thief and whoreling,
      a scold, of mischief he is king.
    • The Proverbs of Alfred, st. 19, as published in The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus (1848), edited by John Mitchell Kemble, p. 247

Quotes about Alfred[edit]

The Founder of the English
MONARCHY and LIBERTY.
Alfred is no fairy tale;
His days as our days ran… G. K. Chesterton
We discern across the centuries a commanding and versatile intelligence, wielding with equal force the sword of war and of justice; using in defence arms and policy; cherishing religion, learning, and art in the midst of adversity and danger; welding together a nation, and seeking always across the feuds and hatreds of the age a peace which would smile upon the land. ~ Winston Churchill
A saint without superstition, a scholar without ostentation, a warrior all whose wars were fought in the defence of his country, a conqueror whose laurels were never stained by cruelty, a prince never cast down by adversity, never lifted up to insolence in the day of triumph – there is no other name in history to compare with his. ~ Edward A. Freeman
  • Cui ab incunabulis ante omnia et cum omnibus praesentis vitae studiis, sapientiae desiderium cum nobilitate generis, nobilis mentis ingenium supplevit.
    • From the cradle onwards, in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.
      • Asser, in De Rebus Gestis Aelfredi, ch. 22; Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (trans.) Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983) pp. 74-5
  • Englene derling.
    • England's darling.
      • The Proverbs of Alfred, st. 1; John Mitchell Kemble (ed.) The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus (London: The Aelfric Society, 1848) p. 226
  • In the parts of Mercia acquired by Alfred, the shire system seems now to have been introduced for the first time. This is the one grain of truth in the legend that Alfred was the inventor of shires, hundreds and tithings. … The Celtic principality in Cornwall, which seems to have survived at least till 926, must long have been practically dependent on Wessex. … We come now to what is in many ways the most interesting of Alfred’s works, his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the most popular philosophical manual of the middle ages. Here again Alfred deals very freely with his original and though the late Dr G. Schepss showed that many of the additions to the text are to be traced not to Alfred himself, but to the glosses and commentaries which he used, still there is much in the work which is solely Alfred’s and highly characteristic of his genius. It is in the Boethius that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: “My will was to live worthily as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works.” … The last of Alfred’s works is one to which he gave the title Blostman, i.e. “Blooms” or Anthology. The first half is based mainly on the Soliloquies of St Augustine, the remainder is drawn from various sources, and contains much that is Alfred’s own and highly characteristic of him. The last words of it may be quoted; they form a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings. “Therefore he seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.” … How Alfred passed to “the life where all things are made clear” we do not know. The very year is uncertain. The arguments on the whole are in favour of 900. The day was the 26th of October. Alike for what he did and for what he was, there is none to equal Alfred in the whole line of English sovereigns; and no monarch in history ever deserved more truly the epithet of Great.
  • By the yawning tree in the twilight
    The King unbound his sword,
    Severed the harp of all his goods,
    And there in the cool and soundless woods
    Sounded a single chord.

    Then laughed; and watched the finches flash,
    The sullen flies in swarm,
    And went unarmed over the hills,
    With the harp upon his arm...

  • When Alfred's word was ended
    Stood firm that feeble line,
    Each in his place with club or spear,
    And fury deeper than deep fear,
    And smiles as sour as brine.
  • "The high tide!" King Alfred cried.
    "The high tide and the turn!

    As a tide turns on the tall grey seas,
    See how they waver in the trees,
    How stray their spears, how knock their knees,
    How wild their watchfires burn!
  • For dire was Alfred in his hour
    The pale scribe witnesseth,
    More mighty in defeat was he
    Than all men else in victory,

    And behind, his men came murderously,
    Dry-throated, drinking death.
  • No other man on record has ever so thoroughly united all the virtues both of the ruler and of the private man. In no other man on record were so many virtues disfigured by so little alloy. A saint without superstition, a scholar without ostentation, a warrior all whose wars were fought in the defence of his country, a conqueror whose laurels were never stained by cruelty, a prince never cast down by adversity, never lifted up to insolence in the day of triumph – there is no other name in history to compare with his.
    • Edward A. Freeman, in The History of the Norman Conquest of England (1867-76) Vol. 1, pp. 51-2
  • His unique importance in the history of English letters comes from his conviction that a life without knowledge or reflection was unworthy of respect, and his determination to bring the thought of the past within the range of his subjects' understanding. The translations of ancient books by which he tried to reach this end form the beginning of English prose literature.
  • It grounds secular law upon Scripture, especially upon the principle of mercy. Alfred thus located his law code in a biblical lineage. His historical anthology of legal texts explains that the nature of Christian law is a system of justice in which mercy subsists.
    • Michael Treschow, on Alfred's Prologue to his Doom Book in "The Prologue to Alfred’s Law Code: Instruction in the Spirit of Mercy", in Florilegium 13, (1994) p. 82

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