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The cult of King Alfred the Great

  • Simon Keynes

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King Alfred the Great has long been regarded as the archetypal symbol of the nation's perception of itself. Beset throughout his reign with the reality or threat of Viking invasions, Alfred battled fiercely and suffered heroically in leading his people to their eventual victory; at the same time he promoted the causes of religion and learning, and by the example of his government upheld truth, justice and the Anglo-Saxon way. Moreover, although himself fundamentally English (with West Saxon parents and a Mercian wife), he stood for a combination of political interests which made it easier to pass him off as prototypically British. Certainly he has done well, over the years, from the processes which turn history into legend. It may have taken a while for the cult to get going; but once up and running, the bandwagon could not be stopped. My purpose in reviewing the development of the cult of King Alfred is to explore the variety of factors which in their different ways contributed to the process from the ninth century to the present day, and to show how Alfredophilia, and latterly Alfredomania, found expression not only in religious, legal, political and historical writing, but also in much else besides. The overdy ‘literary’ manifestations of the cult of King Alfred, in poetry, drama, music, and prose, are not unfamiliar; yet they must be taken in connection with manifestations of the cult of King Alfred in sculpture, painting, engraving, and book-illustration, and all placed in whatever contexts may be appropriate, if we are to understand how the image of the king was formed and then transmitted to the next generation.

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The cult of King Alfred the Great

  • Simon Keynes

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