It is a forgery

December 8, 1995

The realisation that The Life of King Alfred is a forgery compiled by a monk in the early 11th century has profound implications not only for our understanding of the historical Alfred - now freed after 1,000 years from the image of neurotic wimp and invalid king. That image did the king even less justice than the folktale of his burning of the cakes - yet another 11th-century invention. The unmasking of the pseudo-Asser has nothing less than revolutionary implications for our understanding of the whole of Anglo-Saxon history.

The historical Alfred was a successful warrior and lawgiver, and a tireless scholarly translator of some key philosophical texts from late antiquity. The king whom we meet in the Life attributed to Asser is a neurotic, illiterate ruler who is nursed towards literacy in a palace school - ideas lifted straight from Einhard's Life of Charlemagne. The biographer on one occasion even confuses the name of Alfred with that of Charles.

If this Life were the work of an intimate of Alfred the Great - writing while the king was still alive in 893 - then why is it so heavily reliant on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's stilted account of Alfred's reign? The author knows nothing of Alfred's childhood other than a folktale concerning his precocity in reading - a legend he later contradicts by insisting on the king's illiteracy. And he is ignorant of the name of King Alfred'queen, Ealhswith. Yet this was an author who supposedly lived at court.

The pseudo-Asser also believed that the Danish invaders came from the Danube in 865; he believed the Saxons inhabited a land other than Germany; and he confused Ealdorman Etheired of Mercia (died 911) with King Eadred (died 955). Finally, the pseudo-Asser describes a total eclipse of the sun which occurred on October 29, 878. His timing is at variance with every contemporary chronicle and incompatible with modern independent astronomical calculations.

Alfred Smyth is professor of medieval history, University of Kent. King Alfred the Great is published by Oxford University Press, Pounds 25.

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