Now here's something to think about ... and have a good conversation about: Dr Andrew Kania introduces a two-part series today exploring the nature of leadership. In this commentary the focus is on King Alfred the Great and is more or less background to what he wants to open-up on next week. The last paragraph today is the crucial one: we'd all agree that leadership is important. The question is does good moral leadership necessarily lead to all the nice things Andrew outlines in the last paragraph? So often in history it seems the crooks and bad guys win. Life for many is marked by injustice and unfairness meted out at the hands of tyrants. What are the lessons in all of this? What is the reward for courage and moral integrity? Why do we need public behaviour to be matched with private integrity in our secular or spiritual leaders? Dr Kania provides meat for a good discussion.
Why "the great"?
One evening in the mid-ninth century and on the plains of Somerset in what is today England, the wife of a swine-herd was baking cakes in her oven. A stranger came to her house, asking for shelter and food — the stranger was a man who had barely entered his twenties, and had obviously not slept for a number of days. His clothes were wet, and hung on him as if they had now formed part of his very skin. The wife of the swine-herder granted the stranger his request — on the condition that he tend the cakes in the oven while she went outside. Day-dreaming and gazing into the fire — the swine-herder's wife ran in from outside, smelling the burning cakes. Cursing the stranger for wanting to eat, but not wanting to help — the stranger apologized sincerely for his inattention, and promised to be more attentive for the next baking. In the days before photography, newspapers, and television — what the swine-herder's wife did not realize was that the stranger who sat in her home, warming himself at the hearth — whom she had chastised and cursed for his inattentiveness, was none other than Alfred — her king, who was at the time fleeing for his life, having been betrayed by a member of his extended family to the Danish invaders. He was a fugitive — and on his young shoulders and in his young mind lay the hopes and future of England.
In 1995, Alfred P. Smyth, published a monumental work on the life of the only English monarch to have ever been given the title, 'the Great' — Alfred of Wessex (849-899). Despite their many achievements — Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry V, and King Charles II, had never received the historical sobriquet — 'the Great'. So why should a man who lived over a thousand years ago — when so little of what we now consider to be 'English' actually existed, bear a name of a monarch more elevated than all of the other kings and queens, who came before and after him?
According to Smyth, despite what Alfred's contemporary biographer, Asser, would have us believe, writing as he did with the tremendous wisdom of hindsight — the prospect of Alfred becoming king one day would probably have never been seriously entertained. Born the last of four brothers — his father Æthelwulf, would no doubt have expected that even in the worst possible circumstances, Alfred's siblings would precede his youngest child to the throne — and that Alfred, the most studious of them all, would most likely move into monastic life, avoiding kingly duties. An early vignette quoted by Asser, shows Alfred's mother setting her sons the challenge of winning an elaborate Bible as a prize, by being the first to be able to read to her a page from the Scriptures.
Alfred to the surprise of his family won the contest in short time. Surely Alfred must have been precociously intelligent; but intelligence and scholarship counted for little in a land that was under the constant and brutal threat of the Danish hordes — with the shadow of their Viking raven standard, casting a great pall over the Cross. As the pagan Vikings set their course for England — the churches and monasteries were particular targets, sought after, for their golden chalices, and crosses and the jewelled Bibles. After the churches and monasteries were ransacked, the buildings were summarily burned to the ground — and the clergy, murdered. Christianity, a mere few hundred years old in Britain was being erased to its foundations.
Some say of the people in the West today — that they live in peace and tranquility, and because of this peace — are in some way, emotionally immature — 'peace-damaged' is the term often used — living closeted lives, and thus being without resistance to suffering, loss, death and pain. For the Angles and Saxons of Alfred's age, where life-expectancy was a mere fraction of the longevity of the 21st Century, 'peace-damaged' these people could never be described.
Marauding Vikings not only murdered, raped and pillaged — but what they did to the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon communities, when and if caught, has become infamous in history. The term 'spreadeagle' was first used to describe the punishment that the Vikings would inflict on Anglo-Saxon kings in York; and the Viking leader, Ivar the Boneless, in his tortuous slaying of the Northumbrian king, Ælla, as well as of the Saxon king, St. Edmund — sent terror through the hearts of not only the peasantry — but of Anglo-Saxon rulers, such as King Burgred of Mercia, who fled his kingdom, along with his queen, Æthelswith, (Alfred's sister), for the safety of Rome — never to return, leaving his people to the Vikings.
England did not exist at the time of Alfred — but a myriad of kingdoms existed on what is now England. Alfred's family ruled over one of these kingdoms, Wessex, an area that stretched through what we know today as south-central England. The capital of Alfred's Wessex was Winchester.
Amidst the Viking invasion — the sickly young atheling (prince), Alfred, watched his father and his three brothers die; thus becoming at the age of 22 — King of Wessex; but king of increasingly little. Today historians suggest that Alfred had Crohn's Disease, a debilitating illness, that struck Alfred down at the time of his wedding — and recurrently saw him bed-ridden, unable to leave his tent. But despite this illness, Alfred never buckled; he never used sickness as an excuse for doing nothing. Deals were being struck with the Vikings by many kings in order to hold onto a semblance of their kingdoms. But Alfred was made of sterner stuff. Using the Isle of Athelney as his nerve-centre, Alfred embarked on a series of terror campaigns against the Vikings. With every small victory he obtained, Alfred won the heart of his people, and sent ever increasingly large shudders of doubt into the minds of the Vikings.
In the seventh year of his reign as a 'rebel-king', and as a man-marked by the Vikings, Alfred emerged from out of the marshes of Somerset and was met, by what the chronicles describe as all the Saxon people of Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset. This gathering of the peoples of three shires had been carefully planned. Alfred, the young king, then only 29, had gained the support of all those who had been suffering under the rule of the Danes. Secret messages had been sent out by scouts from across the three shires — that the king was now ready to meet the Viking army on a battlefield; a fight for the future of not only Wessex — but in many ways, a battle for the country England was to become. In 878, in Wiltshire, the Battle of Ethandun was fought. Alfred won a decisive victory — and pursued the Danes, until their leader Guthrum sought peace. Post-battle Alfred offered his Viking captives the choice of Christian baptism or expulsion. Alfred himself was to become Guthrum's godafther. Had Alfred lost this battle — it is well within the mark to assume that the Vikings would have won the land we now know as England for their own. Alfred's victory had not so much to do with his military tactics — but with the large numbers of Angles and Saxons who gathered in Wiltshire to answer his call. The Vikings were hugely outnumbered, and were summarily defeated by a man who only a few years previous could only claim the swamp under his feet to be his kingdom.
After his victory at Ethandun — legend tells us — that Alfred once more journeyed to the swine-herder's hut, along with his retinue — and offered to the woman who had once given him shelter, a dozen finely baked cakes. Shocked to see the bedraggled stranger as none other as their King — both husband and wife entered the hut, and that evening a long while after King Alfred had left, and after some of their surprise had subsided, they discovered when eating the cakes — that each cake contained, a gold coin.
Holy Scripture teaches us clearly that when the wicked and the godless are in authority, the nation begins to crumble; but when the nation is led by people of vision, by people who follow in honesty, holy Revelation, the nation will prosper — not only materially, but more importantly spiritually — by giving the people a hope in the future; a hope that there is more than the material in this world. The true leader leads not only by public face — but by private integrity. (cf. Proverbs 29: 16 & 18).
ARTICLE NAVIGATION: Part II>>
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
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©2011Dr Andrew Thomas Kania