One of my childhood treasures is a pair of books by C Walter Hodges: The Namesake and The Marsh King. First published in the mid-1960s, these are what would today be called "Young Adult" novels which I read for the first time in late primary or early high school. They tell the story of Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex (south England) from 871 to 899 CE, and his conflict with the invading Vikings.
I loved these books and read them over and over again, especially The Namesake, narrated by an engaging character of Hodges' invention, a one-legged boy also called Alfred who is part of the king's household. They deal with the period from just before Alfred's accession to the throne in 871 to the conclusion of his second campaign against the Vikings led by Guthrum in 878. I'm sure Hodges would have been pleased with the impression they made on me - to this day my ears prick up whenever I hear Alfred mentioned.
I recently decided to approach the subject for the first time in a more adult way, and bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. This volume brings together translations of all the material relating to Alfred that originates in his own time. It includes the Life written by Asser, a Welsh monk who was enticed to Wessex as part of Alfred's project to improve the educational standard of this clergy and nobles, as well as excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, some fragments of correspondence, prefaces to some books Alfred translated from Latin to Old English, and Alfred's will. It also includes a lengthy introduction and notes which provide a scholarly account of Alfred's reign.
I had a kind of vague thought that by reading Asser's Life I would be able to sort out fact from fiction in Hodges' treatment. Of course life is never that simple. Asser was a member of the King's household and so was hardly likely to present an unbiased account, especially given he was writing during Alfred's lifetime. The editors suggest he probably wrote for a Welsh audience, during the negotiation of a treaty between Alfred and some of the Welsh kings in which they acknowledged his overlordship in return for military aid.
Hence we should see the Life as a piece of royal propaganda, showing the king in a favourable light to help secure the deal. Alfred is presented as a brave and resourceful general, a pious and humble ruler and a man of great wisdom and learning. In other words just the sort of person you would be happy to acknowledge as an overlord. The account seems unfinished, petering out in the mid-880s. Although Asser lived for more than a decade after Alfred's death he obviously didn't value the task highly enough to bother completing it.
The low point of Alfred's reign came in early 878. The Danes, led by Guthrum, launched a surprise attack on Alfred at Chippenham, a royal estate in the north of Wessex. Most of those with him were killed. He was forced to flee for his life and take refuge with a small group of followers in the Somerset Marshes while the Danes overran his kingdom. From there he gathered his forces and planned a counter-attack, which he launched successfully in May 878. He regained control and forced the Danish leaders to accept Christian baptism before expelling them from his domains. This much, at least, seems to be history. Beyond that it gets a little murky.
One of the most famous stories about Alfred dates from this period. While he was fleeing the Danes, the story goes, he was forced to take refuge in the home of a poor swineherd. There he was asked to keep watch over the cakes being baked by the woman of the house. His attention wandered and they caught fire, drawing a sharp scolding from his hostess to the effect that he could not be bothered tending them but would have been happy to eat them. The story illustrates both the depths of Alfred's trouble and, more importantly, his humility in being prepared to accept such a sharp rebuke from a commoner.
This story is so engaging and human it would be nice to think it was true. However, it doesn't come up in any of the earliest sources, which simply record Alfred's flight and Somerset stronghold. It appears for the first time in a life of St Neot, a saint Alfred apparently venerated, which dates from around a century later. It is repeated thereafter in various forms in other sources, multiplying as the years passed and gaining enough currency to be included in 19th and 20th century school history books and other such dubious sources of information.
Although the story is almost certainly legendary, it is quite consistent with the picture Asser paints of Alfred - a pious, humble, approachable man, someone who didn't stand on his dignity and had the common touch. Hence while the story itself may not be strictly true, it illustrates something that may well be true, the character of the monarch and his attitude to those around him. I say "may well be" because the source of the original description is a piece of royal propaganda, so it is just as valid to interpret the story as an illustration of how good propaganda works.
Then there is a third way it can be read. It is possible that we should understand this as an illustration of how kings should behave. Whether Alfred was really as humble and pious as Asser makes out, whether he really was the kind of king who would take a scolding from a swineherd's wife, is beside the point. A king should be humble enough to accept rebuke when he has done wrong, whoever that rebuke comes from. Perhaps when the English have revered Alfred down the years this is the message they have been giving to his numerous successors.
True or not, this story is too good for a novelist to pass up. Nonetheless, the sparseness of its original telling will not do - the story requires context, a place in the overall narrative arc. Neither Asser nor the later sources are much help. What is Mr Hodges to do?
Of course as a novelist he is free to make things up. However, as a historical novelist he has to be very careful what he makes up. It has to at least be plausible within the context of the time and place, and of what is known of the main characters. It's interesting to observe how Hodges handles this problem when he tells the story in The Marsh King.
The first thing he creates is a nephew for Alfred. It is a matter of historical fact that Alfred was the youngest of four brothers. No-one expected him to be king at all, never mind by the age of 21, but his brothers fell one by one to battle or misfortune and there he was. It is also a matter of historical fact that his eldest brother Aethelbalt scandalised his realm by marrying his father's young widow, a marriage considered incestuous even though she was not his mother. There is no record of any offspring that I can find but in Hodges' telling there is a son, Edgar, abandoned by his mother and brought up by loyal retainers on his father's English estate, of which he eventually becomes master.
Once we accept Edgar's existence what comes next is equally plausible but also not strictly historical. Alfred is invited to attend young Edgar's wedding and, despite the misgivings of his lords, agrees to attend, wanting to show kindness to his nephew. However, Edgar and his ambitious foster-father have tipped off the Danes to his impending presence. Guthrum's men stage an ambush, intending to kill Alfred and invade his kingdom while it is leaderless. Guthrum promises in return to install Edgar as king, a title to which he has some small claim.
Once again this is plausible in the context of the times. The Danes had already installed an Anglo-Saxon puppet ruler in the kingdom of Mercia, just to the north of Wessex. Although there is no evidence they planned to do the same in Wessex, it is not out of the question, and in any case Hodges doesn't over-play his hand - Edgar is never crowned.
Other parts of the story show the same blend of fact and fiction, or at least of known and unknown. Alongside a disaffected nephew to explain the ambush, he supplies an exchange of kindnesses to explain his escape. While on the estate Alfred befriends the young daughter of the house, and she warns him of the ambush in the nick of time and helps him to escape through a hole in the fence. Pure children's literary fancy, but good fun and once again rooted in Asser's description of Alfred's character.
Another detail shows how Hodges subtly modifies his sources to build a story. According to Asser, Alfred suffered a chronic illness which left him in more or less constant pain. He doesn't provide enough information for any attempt at diagnosis, so Hodges feels free to modify it slightly for his own purposes, from a constant source of pain to an intermittent illness. Hodges' Alfred can be healthy for weeks and even months, and then be afflicted with weakness and fever which disables him for a few days before he returns to full strength.
This provides him with a plot device that he exploits to the full. Alfred is struck down with his illness as he flees with young Hildis and one of his bodyguard. King and child are forced to take refuge with the swineherd (remaining anonymous for fear of further betrayal) while the bodyguard struggles on through the snow to find help. They stay there for a few days while Alfred recovers and his followers find the way back to him - long enough for him to burn a batch of cakes and be scolded for his negligence. Alfred's thankyou gift of several bags of flour and a dozen perfectly cooked cakes is a nice addition, wholly of Hodges' own invention.
In purely factual terms none of this is historical at all - it is a modern fiction built around the bones of an ancient one. Yet it presents a picture which is in some respects strikingly historical. Asser, who tells us none of these things, tells us that Alfred was humble, gentle and approachable and had a sharp sense of humour. Hodges doesn't tell us these things in so many words, but in this story Alfred shows kindness to his nephew even though his advisors urge him not to, almost dies for it but is saved as a sort of reward for another act of simple kindness towards a young girl. He burns the cakes and takes his scolding in good spirit, before responding later with an act of self-deprecating humour.
Asser's portrait is, as I said, a piece of royal propaganda, aimed at convincing the Welsh that an alliance with Alfred would be to their advantage. Hodges, of course, was far removed from the realpolitik of the 9th century and uses the story to illustrate his own concerns. The Danes (who in keeping with Asser and the spirit of the time he designates as 'the heathen') attempt to conquer and rule through betrayal, brutality and venality. Alfred (the Christian king), on the other hand, rules with kindness, justice and mercy, keeping promises despite the risks involved and forgoing revenge even if it seems to others the wiser course. It seems at times that Alfred will be defeated, but in the end he wins and saves his kingdom, in no small part because his own kindness is repaid at the crucial moment.
Was Alfred really such a paragon of virtue? It seems unlikely. The further we get from him in time, the more his legend grows. For those of his day and the years that followed. Asser's boosting aside, he was simply seen as one of a line of competent, successful Anglo-Saxon kings. It was only later, when the Normans had taken over the realm from his descendants, that he acquired the tag of "the Great".
Yet this myth has its own purpose. It provides a model of leadership with reflects how we would all like to be led. For Hodges, who lived through both world wars, the Saxon-Danish conflict no doubt reminded him of more recent events. Perhaps Guthrum, with his brutality, his cunning schemes and his huge imperial ambitions, represented Hitler and Alfred represented Churchill, a man who for all his faults was both a lover of learning and a thoroughgoing democrat. And if Guthrum is a much nicer version of Hitler then Alfred is certainly a cleansed and exalted analogue of Churchill, an ideal model of which all rulers will ultimately fall short but from which, if we are lucky, some may still derive inspiration.