Alfred of Wessex – Historical Notes

Yours is a Dangerous Inheritance‘ is very much a novel, rather than a history. An ‘imagining’ of the story of one of the great leaders of history.
I have used the work of historians and archaeologists as the novel’s basis, but there are difficulties in interpreting the history. Historians frequently disagree with each other over Alfred and his times. Then there are the enormous gaps in our knowledge. The following notes show where my story has grown from.
If there are mistakes and misinterpretations on my part, blame me and not the historians and archaeologists.

  1. Alfred’s character

Most of the information about the character of Alfred has traditionally come from Bishop Asser’s ‘Life’ of Alfred.
Some historians (e.g. Alfred P Smyth) have named it a fake. A very old fake, but still a fake. Most historians (such as Richard Abels) disagree, but even so, there are difficulties. Assuming it is not a fake, it was written by a friend of Alfred in his own lifetime, and so who can tell what personal or political influences there were on its content? Was it what we would call propaganda, aimed at influencing Bishop Asser’s fellow Welsh Bishops and leaders?
If the ‘Life’ is propaganda, it is likely to have exaggerated real traits, rather than wholly invented them. (See James Campbell’s chapter on Asser’s Life of Alfred in The Anglo-Saxon State, and RHC Davis’s chapter Alfred the Great: Propaganda and Truth, in From Alfred the Great to Stephen.)
That is how I have viewed Alfred, taking from Asser’s ‘Life’ what seems reasonable and likely. As a result, I hope Alfred’s story becomes more believable – and his achievements more impressive.

  1. Other characters

All of the main players in the book are individuals who existed and are taken from David Sturdy’s book, Alfred the Great, in which he examines lists of those signing charters etc. to try to build their careers.
However, beyond a name there is very little information on the person and only guesses on family relationships and friendships. So for this I have tried to be guided by events, often events after the period covered by this book. Where there is no evidence at all, a novelist’s imaginings come into play.

  1. Language

Throughout I have used modern English to aid readability. I have therefore used modern forms of people’s names, such as Alfred for Aelfred and Elswith for Eahlswith.
I have also often used titles or nicknames rather than full names, given that many of the names of those involved were either identical or so similar that a novel would be very hard to follow. I have felt constrained to change two names considerably, those of Edith (instead of Ethelswith, rather easy to confuse with Elswith/Eahlswith) and Winifred (instead of Wulfthryth). This is again primarily to help with readability.
Place names also use the modern equivalent, such as Chippenham for Cippanhamme and Southampton for the nearby Hamwic.
On all these points I ask for leniency from historians.

  1. The Danes

The book generally refers to ‘Danes’ rather than ‘vikings’, as that is how the Anglo-Saxons saw them at the time. ‘Vikings’ referred to those going ‘a-viking’ – pirating.
The ‘Danes’ were by no means all from modern-day Denmark. Most would have come from across the North Sea, but there would have been a good number from elsewhere.
Danes/vikings have been invited to join the civilised world by some historians. I tend to disagree – at least as regards those in England in the 9th century.
While they certainly settled and traded after this period in England, the archaeological and historical records at this stage are clear. The Danes of the period were vicious and violent (see the archaeological work of Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle at Repton). And why would we doubt what an unstructured army of warriors would be capable of, unfettered by modern law or TV cameras?

  1. Events

The major events in the book are real events, most of the information coming from brief sentences in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was probably started under the instruction of Alfred himself. Without exception, there is no reliable historical detail on any of them (taking it again that the Chronicle and Asser’s ‘Life’ are likely to have exaggerated Alfred’s role). So I have used research into warfare, marriage, etc. to recreate what might have happened.
There are some major events which have gone entirely unrecorded, such as how Alfred’s older brothers died. The smaller events were certainly never recorded at all, including how it was that Alfred’s sister’s ring came to be found on farmland in Yorkshire a thousand years after her death in Italy. It can be seen today at The British Museum.

  1. Intrigues

The men and women of the Anglo-Saxon period were only different to us as a result of the society they lived in. They would have suffered or benefited from the same traits to be found in our times: loyalty and treachery, friendship and enmity, trust and jealousy, good and bad judgement, and so many more.
As one of the great historians of the period has written, “It would be dangerous in the extreme to assume from the silence of our narrative sources that Alfred’s reign was so extraordinary as to contain no rebellion or intrigue of any kind (indeed, a charter provides evidence for the rebellion of one ealdorman).” The Anglo-Saxon State, James Campbell.
As the most likely causes of intrigue, I believe that ambition, dissatisfaction and family ties are most likely to have caused intrigues around Alfred and his family even as their enemies from across the North Sea were threatening. I have therefore woven these themes together as the background to the novel.
But it is still a novel. An imagining. And I hope you enjoy it.

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