Alfred the Great: An Appreciation

King Alfred the Great is one of Christendom’s great heroes. He remains one of England’s most loved monarchs, both in his own time and throughout history. His leadership of Wessex and the English kingdoms saved his people from the Vikings and left a lasting legacy of Christian virtue on the nation to come.

King Alfred and the Vikings

Saxon England in the 8th century,

Alfred was king of Wessex in the days when England was divided into separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Before his reign, during the reign of his brother, Ethelred, the Danes had invaded and settled in kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, and gradually moved into Wessex. Though England was not one united kingdom at the time, during these times of Danish occupation, the eyes of the English kingdoms looked to Wessex for leadership. The presence of a royal dynasty, the organization of local defensive shires, and the geography of Wessex made it the most strategic kingdom to lead in the defense of the English kingdoms.

Ethelred and Alfred lead the defensive against the invading Danes, seeking to guard Christindom on the island against the invading pagan forces. They met success at the battle of Ashdown in 871, the first defeat of the Vikings by the English. Bishop Asser, from whom much of the information we know about Alfred the Great comes, wrote of the battle,

The heathens had seized the higher ground, and the Christians had to advance uphill. There was in that place a single stunted thorn tree which we have seen with our own eyes. Round about this tree, then, the opposing ranks met in conflict, with a great shouting from all men- one side bent on evil, the other side fighting for life and their loved ones and their native lands.

The Danes were driven away and defeated soundly, losing one of the Viking kings. Ashdown was an important victory against the Danes. Churchill, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, says, “If the West Saxons had been beaten all England would have sunk into heathen anarchy. Since they were victorious the hope still burned for a civilised Christian existence on this Island.” This first victory was instrumental in giving the Saxons momentum against their adversaries.

Ethelred was later killed in battle, and Alfred succeeded his brother as king.* After a series of defeats by the Vikings, an arrangement was made for the Danes to leave Wessex, at least for a time, and stay in their occupied lands in Mercia. After a period of peace, the Danes broke their agreement with the West Saxons and attacked again, eventually sending Alfred and a band of his men into hiding in the marshes of Somerset. After several years, the king was able to summon his thegns and ealdormen to raise up the militias, mounting a counterattack on the Vikings and reclaiming Wessex and control of parts of the northern kingdoms. Many of the former pagan enemies were later baptized and nurtured in the Church, and Guthrum, king of the Danes, was adopted as Alfred’s son.

Statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester,

King Alfred’s Contribution

  • Through Alfred, the Saxon peoples and the Danes who settled in the land blended to form what would become a Christian English nation.
  • Alfred strengthened the defense of his kingdom. He developed the English navy. He also strengthened the strategic system of burhs, military fortresses and places of refuge for the villagers. Both of these allowed the Isle to resist future Viking attacks from the Continent.
  • Alfred revived learning in the English kingdoms. He himself was a scholar, largely self-taught, who personally translated Latin works to English and oversaw the translation of others. He established schools for children of noble and common status alike, emphasizing the study of English and Latin, writing, and the liberal arts.
  • Alfred pursued justice, writing law codes based on the best of the old laws as well as including provisions to prevent oppression.
  • He saw to the spiritual well-being of his people, both those in his court and the kingdom in general. He emphasized Christian piety and devotion, translated theological works, sought to appoint wise and faithful bishops, and strengthened monasticism after many monasteries suffered under Viking attacks.

King Alfred is the only monarch in English history to be given the title “The Great,” and with good reason. His life of courage, leadership, endurance, and Christian virtue shaped the future of England.


*Alfred was the youngest of four or five brothers. Their father had arranged that the younger brothers would succeed the older upon death of the king, to keep from having a boy on the throne when military strength and leadership was needed against the Danes.

– Churchill, Winston. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Birth of Britain.

– Roberts, Roberts, and Bisson. History of England.


Messiah Part III: Defeat of Death

Part III, the shortest of the three parts, begins with Job’s declaration that “My Redeemer liveth, and… in my flesh I shall see God.” This shows an intensely personal side, a relationship with the now reigning Messiah. Bringing a New Covenant perspective, included in the song of the chorus is 1 Corinthians 15.20,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

This functions now as confirmation that our Redeemer reigns, that we shall see his face. His resurrection is the garuntee of ours. For “since by man came death,” so Christ, the second Adam, brings life to all who are in him. Those who are in Christ by faith are federally his new humanity, a new race. As the human race is naturally under the curse of death because of our own sin and the leading of our federal head, Adam, so Christ gives new life, resurrection, the reversal of the curse, to those who are federally his.

We believe in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” as the Apostles’ Creed says. What power does death have now? “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.”

But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Looking to the risen Christ gives great confidence to the believer. Who can be against us? It is God who has justified us, and it is the risen Messiah who now intercedes for us before the Father! The only proper and logical response to this truth is to fall before the throne and cry out “Worthy is the Lamb!”

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.

Messiah Part II: Suffering Servant and Victorious King

Part II of Handel’s Messiah takes on the themes of the passion of the Messiah and his resurrection and victory. Overall, Handel and Jennens seem to give more attention to Christ’s death, resurrection and glorification, victory, and reign than to his birth.

Following the chorus singing John the Baptist’s announcement of “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” we move to the servant songs of Isaiah. This Lamb of God, Isaiah prophecies, is a suffering servant, despised and rejected in the world to which he is sent. This very likely dashes the expectations of his coming as a warrior-king or political ruler. Beaten, scorned, spat upon, and mocked, this Anointed One is the bearer of our griefs and our sorrows. His stripes bring healing to us wayward sheep. Our real crime for which he is being punished is our straying from the way of our Shepherd and seeking our own way. Turning to Psalm 69, we hear of his abandonment. “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart,” and he is left alone, forsaken, cut off from the land of the living.

Important to note here is the emphasis in Isaiah 53 that Christ’s role in his suffering and death was a substitutionary one. He suffered in the place of his people. The passage also brings the idea of atonement. He made an offering for sin, acceptable in God’s sight. Messiah justifies his people; he shall “make many to be accounted righteous.”

The tone takes a dramatic turn from the Messiah’s suffering and death to his glorious resurrection as the tenor sings “But thou didst not leave his soul in Hell [Sheol].” The Father did not leave his Son in abandonment; the grave could not hold the eternal King, the Mighty God. In his resurrection, Jesus conquers death, the enemy from old. He has the victory at his resurrection, and will finally vanquish death for his people at our promised resurrection. Handel moves to celebration of the resurrection from Psalm 24. The proper response to Christ’s resurrection is joyful and robust worship of the Lord of Hosts, the King of Glory.

Finally, the piece turns to Christ’s position as King reigning over the nations. Psalm 2 is one of the great anthems of God’s people, declaring the worthiness and might. As the rulers of the earth rebel and set themselves against the LORD and his Messiah, the call to them is to repent – “kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way,”- or be broken under the rod of his wrath. Here is wisdom: fear the LORD- glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah!

Sir Orfeo was a King of Old

I read Tolkien’s translation of Sir Orfeo again tonight. It’s really delightful. Sir Orfeo was written by a medieval poet, the same author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, back in the days of mead halls, chivalry, and holy quests. In fact, the volume from which I’m reading contains Tolkien’s translations of all three.

The poem tells the story of a good king in Winchester, whose abode was “Tracience, a city of stout defense.” He was descended from gods, his father in the lineage of Pluto and his mother of Juno. Orfeo was famed for his skill with as a harpist, for a better harper there was none.

Sir Orfeo, too, all things beyond

of harping’s sweet delight was fond,

and sure were all good harpers there

of him to earn them honour fair;

himself he loved to touch the harp

and pluck the strings with fingers sharp.

His wife, the queen Lady Heurodis, was, of course, the fairest lady who ever flesh and blood did wear. Well, it happens that she, sleeping under “a bower quiet,” is snatched away by the king of a magical realm, Orfeo and his men unable to save her. Rent in grief, Orfeo leaves his kingdom to his steward and departs into the wilderness as a beggar, with naught but cloak and harp. After wandering for years in the wilderness, Orfeo wins back his queen by his harper’s skill.

Sir Orfeo is a good story not only because of its poetic beauty and imagery, but especially because it reflects certain aspects of the great story, God’s narrative. King Orfeo represents the ideal good king. He is wise, courageous, benevolent, and humble. His subjects serve him out of loving and grateful devotion. Further, Orfeo  is the majestic king who humbles himself in the form of a wandering beggar.

A me! the weeping woe that day,

when he that had been king with crown

went thus beggarly out of town!

Through wood and over moorland bleak

he now the wilderness doth seek

What other King whom we know humbled himself thus, “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men?” Of what other King can we say, though foxes have holes and birds their nests, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head?” And how much greater was our Lord’s humiliation, that God would become man, and the servant of men!

In the realm of the wicked king, we see a picture of the deceit of Satan and the state of man in his fallen nature. The city in the mountain is beautiful and majestic, filled with light, and it seemed to Orfeo that he gazed on Paradise. But its inhabitants, all the captives of the king of the land, were dead men walking,

for some there stood who had no head,

and some no arms, nor feet; some bled

and through their bodies wounds were set…

…Thus in the world was each one caught

and thither by fairy magic brought.

Orfeo frees his bride from this captivity of death, as our Lord frees us from captivity, breaking the power of death and hell.

The steward, too, reflects the biblical themes of feasting and hospitality, as he invites this travelling minstrel, his king in disguise, in to share in his own lot. The poem ends beautifully, as Orfeo returns to Winchester to find that his steward has remained faithful and loyal the the king. May we declare, upon Christ’s second advent, as Orfeo’s steward did, “Ye are our lord, sir, and our king!”

So have a seat, pick up Tolkien’s excellent translation, and learn of feasting, benevolence, loyalty, love, music, meekness, and courage from Sir Orfeo.

Sir Orfeo was a king of old,

in England lordship high did hold;

valour he had and hardihood,

a courteous king whose gifts were good.

The Pasty: Staple of the UP

After a few years of being in the Northern Wisconsin/ Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan area, I’ve grown to appreciate pastys. Anyone who has spent any time in or driven through the UP (or, da UP, to be contextual) is aware of the sweeping availability and popularity of pastys and pasty restaurants. During my childhood, my family often drove over the Mighty Mac to vacation in the UP on camping or fishing trips, and I’ve long associated Yoopers with pastys, along with duct tape and blaze orange. Little did I know, until my recent visit to The Pasty Oven, the pasty has more ancient origins than the UP.

The pasty (pronounced past-EEE) arrived in the UP with Cornish immigrants coming to work in the mines. In their homeland, the sturdy food was a staple for miners. Miner’s wives would pack meat, potatos, onions, and rudabaga into a thick crust and send them with their men to the mines. The pasty served several practical purposes: the dense crust protected the miners from the arsenic that may be on their hands from the tin mines. They would hold the pasty by the end of the crust as they ate and cast off the portion held by their hands when they had finished. Also, a hot pasty in the pocket served as a convenient hand-warmer on cold days.

The pasty is, in fact, the national dish of Cornwall, England. History tells that Cornish families used variations in pasty recipes as a means of telling their family story. References to the pasty include a letter from a baker to Jane

Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, as well as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well that Ends Well. The town of Great Yarmouth was bound by a charter approved by King Henry III to send 100 herrings baked in 24 pastys yearly to the sherriff of Norwich. Also, monks often lived exclusively on pastys.

The Cornish pasty found its way into verse in the 19th century through Robert Morton Nance’s The Merry Ballad of the Cornish Pasty:

When I view my Country o’er:
Of goodly things the plenteous store:
The Sea and Fish that swim therein
And underground the Copper and Tin:
Let all the World say what it can
Still I hold by the Cornishman,
And that one most especially
That first found out the Cornish Pastie.

I really recommend you read the rest of the ballad.

So the pasty is certainly the dish of Cornwall and cannot be pulled from that heritage. But it has become, indeed, the dish of the UP and now cannot be separated from that.  What other food can measure up to the masculinity of the pasty? What other dish is so sturdy, so hearty, and so palatable? I submit that there is none. Whether you are a miner, a fisherman, outdoorsman, or librarian, if you are a man, the pasty is for you. (And certainly, those of the fairer sex are welcome to partake of this hearty meal as well.)

And, of course, one is left to wonder, with Titangel in Cornwall being the most likely location of Camelot, whether pastys may have been a part of King Arthur’s diet.

Learning from Aidan of Lindisfarne; or, The Choice of a Name for my Son

My son is due to be born in February. Charity and I have named him Aidan James, after Aidan of Lindisfarne, 7th century missionary to Nortumbria.

By the early 7th century, England was swarming with the pagan Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. They pushed the Celtic Britons out of their territories into Western England and Wales. The Britons both feared and despised their pagan foes, and certainly did not understand that God would call many of their foes to Himself.

And so it was that the Gospel would come to Northumbria from the Irish. Corman was sent from the monastery of Iona, but returned saying that these people were too stubborn and hard-hearted. Aidan stood up among them and stated that Corman was too hard on the people and ought to have given them first the pure milk of the Word before they could learn “the more perfect lessons.” It was determined that Aidan was the one to go to the people of England. His patience, humility, and wisdom were what was needed for the task.

Aidan established his monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, and from there traveled throughout Northumbria. King Oswyn often traveled with him as his translator, Aidan walking almost everywhere he went, establishing churches, monasteries, and schools and helping the poor. It is said that he used his time while journeying to study the Scriptures and meditate on Christ, and teaching those with him to do the same.

Bede tells the story of Oswyn giving Aidan a fine horse for his journeys, which Aidan passed along to a beggar. Upon the king’s angry questioning, Aidan asked “What sayest thou, king? Is yon son of a mare more precious in thy sight than yon son of God?” An Irishman, indeed.

Bede further says of him,

He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men of the world. He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity. Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.

Aidan embodied true Christian religion: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

While Augustine (not of Hippo) brought the Gospel on papal mission to Canterbury, Aidan of Lindisfarne may be the true “Apostle of England.” England North of the Thames was the fruit God’s work through the efforts of the Celtic mission led by Aidan and his disciples.

It is my prayer that my son, Aidan James Hanby, will be granted by God the same passion for the spread of the Gospel, love for people in need, and selfless and passionate spirit as Aidan of Lindisfarne.

O loving God, you called your servant Aidan from the peace of a cloister to re-establish the Christian mission in northern England, and endowed him with gentleness, simplicity, and strength: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-Collect of the Feast of St. Aidan

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Lightfoot, Joseph. Leaders in the Northern Church.