Friday, September 9, 2022

Alfred's Improvements

Alfred the Great (849 - 899) was not an idle king, even when not battling Danish invasions to protect the shores of Great Britain.

Some of his reforms and innovations did involve the military, though. The traditional way to deal with trouble was for each small community to assemble its own men against an attack. The Danes, however, would attack swiftly a small area, conquer it, and fortify it as a new base from which to mount further attacks and to which they could retreat if their further military plan looked like it was failing. They could make steady progress across the country before a large-scale defense could be mounted by a king. After defeating Guthrum at Edington, Alfred used the following respite to plan a standing army, ready to march and strike at the first sign of invaders.

In order to do this, Alfred had to raise taxes. His people had what was called the trinoda necessitas (three-fold tax): obligations for military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. Alfred increased a landholder's taxes based on the productivity of his land. He also created over third fortified places in souther Great Britain from which he could organize resistance to invaders.

He also increased naval power. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Alfred's ships were larger and faster than ships of the Danes or Frisians. Alfred wanted to stop invaders before they reached shore, if possible.

He was also responsible for some legal reforms. He gathered together many of the laws from the past, including the code of King Ine of Wessex (689 - 726), rejecting laws that didn't please him, and produced a law code of 120 chapters with a strong biblical influence.

Even while dealing with these many "royal obligations" he was encouraging changes in education and culture. Perhaps inspired by Charlemagne's re-birth of culture, he established a school at court for his children and others. He also arranged for translations into English of Latin works he felt everyone should know. Concerned that the Viking invasions were a sign of God's wrath, he founded monasteries and "imported" monks because he found little local interest in populating the monasteries. He made sure copies of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care went to his bishops for the better preparation of priests.

Now, calling anyone "the Great" will always raise questions about the accuracy of the epithet, and Alfred is no exception. Tomorrow we'll hear why some modern historians claim he wasn't that Great. See you then.

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