The Lord Jesus Christ gave his life for his Church and is the true King of kings. On Earth, the Lord established kings to fulfill a role of leading their governed peoples in the way of truth, defending them, and judging criminal malefactors. Traditionally, kings have failed in at least one of these aspects, and hardly a few can be found that fulfilled each of these roles to the necessary degree required of them. However, King Alfred the Great defended his people during a harsh war with Danish plunderers, established revolutionary military tactics, desired to educate his people in the wisdom of the Lord, and sought out the wisest pastors and judges to advise himself and lead the Churches. King Alfred should be acknowledged as the quintessential model of a Christian leader based on his adherence to Biblical principles, the advancement of the education of his people, and the legacy of his governmental accomplishments.
When King Alfred the Great became King over the Wessex in 871, he was thrust into the broils of a seemingly endless war with the Saxons’ brutal enemies from the North, the Danish Vikings. These same landed in Great Britain for ostensibly one purpose; to plunder the Saxon people. King Alfred knew that in order to have peace in his land, he must take up the sword to stave off the Danish brutes.
It is commonly known that the Lord Jesus Christ told his disciple Peter “For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52, Authorized Version). Christ’s meaning is that those that would live by fleshly violence shall die in the same. Peter chose to utilize the means that Satan uses in order to fulfill his foolish promise of following Jesus to his death. Jesus did not teach his disciples violence, because violence is the language spoken by kings, but the Gospel is the language of God’s children. The duty of kings, even Christian kings, is to bear not the sword in vain, and to minister justice unto those who would do evil works, as the Apostle Paul explained in the thirteenth chapter of his epistle to the Romans. Moreover, as God raised Alfred to the throne, it was Alfred’s duty to minister justice, and further to protect the people that God gave him charge over. Alfred would be negligent in his calling to be a godly king if he had not protected his people with force, and would be an example of a vain and warmongering man if he had taken any pleasure in violence as Peter had in his moment.
The elements of a godly king are explained throughout the Word of God, and must be compared to the works of Alfred to understand the extent to which they apply. Alfred had a handbook, as he called it, and in this handbook included the Psalms of the Old Testament, and other portions of scripture that had caught Alfred’s eye or ear while busy at study (Alfred Committee, 1858). Many strategists may have their plans for war, but Alfred had for his strategies the book of his prayers, and God’s Word. Alfred would pray to God and consult his handbook throughout his life, and before each battle (Alfred Committee, 1858).
During the Battle of Ashdown in 870, where Alfred commanded the front host of the Saxons in array against the Pagans, King Athered (his brother), was in his tent finishing his prayers to God to protect his brother and his men; for Alfred’s men were on the lower ground and outnumbered. As the King was praying in his tent, Alfred too put the fate of his own life and his men in God’s hands, as the witnesses to his heroism related, “He relied in the divine counsels” (Alfred Committee, 1858). Using a dense phalanx formation, Alfred pushed back against the Danes, but he committed the battle to God in his heart, as David had prayed to God, “Take hold of shield…Draw out also the spear” (Psalm 35). Alfred and his men won the day, and established a turning point in the war with the Danish. After this battle his brother, King Athered, died, and King Alfred now had command of the actions of his kingdom’s armies. As a new king, Alfred soon learned an invaluable lesson by the Scriptures that would change the course of his illustrious reign.
In the same year that King Alfred ascended the throne of the West-Saxons, he made peace with the brutish Danish kings. This was the type of advisement that the Word of God describes, for “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:18). Although Alfred had made peace with the Danish Kings, this was merely his strategy to rebuild his forces, and hoped that he would have much time to regroup before the next battle. However, it was to be that Alfred needed to take time rather to make peace with everything that God had called him to do, or else he would never find peace from his enemies.
In the first decade or so of King Alfred’s reign, he did not find much success in war. He was driven to the swamps, the wilderness, to abandoned castles, and to despair by the Danes, as they feigned peace treaties in order to have an advantage of subtle attack upon Alfred. During these trying times, Alfred was much tempered by the needs of the common people, and his heart was hardened to their spiritual plights. The King had at this time St. Neot as his bishop and advisor, and as a man of God in meditation, his advice to Alfred was always from the Scriptures. “In the multitude of people is the king’s honor: but in the want of people is the destruction of the prince” (Proverbs 14:28), would have been one proverb St. Neot would tell Alfred for learning, but Alfred would have none of it, and heeded not the pleas of the people, nor their requests, for his attention was to war, and war alone. St. Neot told Alfred that he would “suffer great adversity” because of this lack (Alfred Committee, 1858). It is clear that kings must tend to the spiritual, as well as the physical needs of the people.
At this junction in the narrative of this famous king, the fact of human unrighteousness must be acknowledged. A man that has come to the saving knowledge of Christ Jesus must recognize his own wickedness, humble himself before Christ, and ask him to save his wicked soul. Christians are to add to faith such things as instructed by God in his Word, namely: virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity (2 Peter 1:5-7). These are required to be in abundance for the Christian to be fruitful in the Lord’s work. In relating this lesson to King Alfred’s life, it is important to note the lack of these qualities, especially building one upon the other as the Apostle Peter instructed, in King Alfred’s early reign, as well as in the lives of many other kings. For instance, Charlemagne is sometimes touted as the greatest Christian monarch, yet he lacked every Christian virtue, was an adulterer and greedy man, and followed Constantine’s error and strategy of utilizing Church business to excel politically (Olson, 1999). It is important to note what each king does with the power granted to them, judge their lives based on their actions, and determine if they learned important lessons from their rule. Alfred learned over the course of his rule to mind the spiritual needs of the people of his land, and to desire good godly men to advise him in all his ways.
In 879, while designing methods of deployment near the water’s edge in Exeter, the Saxon army were taken upon by approximately two hundred ships full of Vikings ready for war. Although Alfred made a good fight with them, and the mercy of God destroyed 120 ships of theirs, the Danes prevailed in this fight, and Alfred was forced to flee while the Danish, unimpeded, stormed Great Britain and took rule over the Thames, Mercia, London, and Essex (Fox, 1684). Alfred fled to Etheling, in turmoil over the events that transpired. He came upon the cottage of a swineherd named Dunwolfus, who had no idea who he was. However, this man and his wife, simple swineherds and Alfred’s subjects, cherished and cared for Alfred as selflessly as a father would his son. It was when Alfred was among the basest of his people that he was “strengthened and comforted more, through the Providence of God; respecting the miserable ruin of the English men” (Fox, 1684). It was by seeing a lowly family at peace that Alfred realized that the fruits of righteousness were able to be grown when peace was attained (Alfred Committee, 1858). Alfred knew that he needed to bring physical peace to his people, but that the most important peace he could bring them was the peace that God gives. With this lesson in his heart and reinforcements in his hand, Alfred left Etheling.
When Alfred was a youth, his mother brought forth a competition for him and his brothers. Whoever could memorize the book of Saxon poetry she had would become its owner. Alfred brought it to his schoolmaster and, though Alfred knew not how to read, had his master read it to him and memorized the entirety (Alfred Committee, 1858). Alfred’s familiarity with the Saxon poetry gave him an advantage in war, and God’s grace helped this advantage to shine. After leaving Etheling, Alfred donned the outfit of a minstrel and with his lyrish instrument entered many of the Danish camps reciting the choicest and most entertaining of the Saxon poems, and by these forays into espionage Alfred was able to gain valuable intelligence into the defenses of his enemies (Fox, 1684). Then Alfred would bring his men into the camps and slaughtered the enemies where they slept.
Moreover, some of these Vikings would then run into their fortifications that were erected nearby, whereby Alfred laid siege. One of these instances was in a place called Ethandun, where after laying siege for 2 weeks, the Danes cried for mercy (Alfred Committee, 1858). Alfred remembered the false peace that had been established less than a decade before, and he had pondered the ability to basely entertain the Danish brutes. Alfred’s heart was softened to the Danish people. Christ had died for them, and here they were dying for nought. If there was a way for these brutes to receive Christ, Alfred would try according to God’s Word, “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat” (Proverbs 25:21). Alfred did the unthinkable, he let these villains go free.
Alfred gave them an ultimatum as they left, receive Christ, or leave Britain and never return. Many left, but the Danish King Guthrum and thirty men returned after seven weeks, and met Alfred in Alre. There, they told him that they wanted to be Christians, and there Alfred baptized Guthrum, and became his godfather in the faith of Christ. After the mercy King Alfred showed the Danes, and after appointing Guthrum as ruler over the conquered East-Anglia, the remainder of the Danish-conquered lands were retrieved, and Alfred gained control over Mercia as well. With relative peace for a time in a large portion of England throughout the 880s, Alfred turned his attention to fortifying the people he had so neglected before.
The first fortifications were of necessity the towns and fortresses ravished by the Danes. The next, of great Spiritual necessity, involved building up his people on the faith of Jesus Christ. Alfred learned in his studies that King Jehoshaphat, King Josiah, and Governor Nehemiah had the Word of God read and taught to all of the Jews they ruled over. These men were commended by God as especially just leaders, and Alfred followed their example. Moreover, Alfred established Nunneries, Schools, and Monestaries, including a monastery at Etheling, and had Dunwolfus tutored in the more perfect way of the Gospel, and appointed him as Bishop of Winchester (Fox, 1684). He translated large portions of the Scripture to be given in volumes to the monasteries and Churches throughout the England he ruled over, and also translated and distributed godly written works such as Pope Gregory’s book of Pastoral Care, and Augustine of Canterbury’s soliloquies (DeGregorio, 2005). These were not cursory decisions, for he genuinely loved these works by men of God, and he lived by the Scripture he read. His friend and Biographer Asser wrote of Alfred, that after hearing the Scripture that says God loves a cheerful giver, that Alfred understood what he must do, and gave half of all his riches to God (DeGregorio, 2005). Asser continued this explanation of Alfred’s sacrifice to not be with his riches only, but of “his own body and mind” (DeGregorio, 2005). After studying Alfred’s work in conjunction with the works of Gregory, Augustine, and the Word of God, one has to admit that, “Alfred’s behavior is, quite simply, governed by texts” (Degregorio, 2005).
Alfred believed in his heart that it is the duty of all men to strive for Christian wisdom, and that he should assist them by making available to his people the books “most necessary for all men to know” (DeGregorio, 2005). Alfred wanted Christians to be Christian in more than name, and believed he could fortify Christlike virtues in his Kingdom by cultivating wisdom for his people. In all of this, Alfred was following the teachings of St. Neot, and the direction of God’s ways; “Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1).
Alfred knew that his own life needed to be governed, as his own explanation of power and authority display. Modeling himself after Apostle Peter’s Epistle, “arm yourselves likewise with the same mind [of Christ]: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1), Alfred asked the Lord to protect him from the temptations of fleshly lusts, even if it was by physical pain, that he might be “more profitable to the public business of the Commonwealth, and more apt to serve God in his calling” (Fox, 1684). Alas, because of his request, the Lord in his mercy granted Alfred the pain of a lifelong illness that apparently kept him from straying too far from God’s Word, and kept his eyes fastened solely to his wedded wife. In this way, his soul was fortified against the old man of his flesh. He also divided his time to fortify his life against vanity, with eight hours toward prayer and study, eight toward secular kingly business, and eight for his rest (Alfred Committee, 1858); following the wisdom of Moses, “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Alfred asked the Lord for help to fulfill his role as King without impediment, for “it is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: for the throne is established in righteousness” (Proverbs 16:12).
Alfred lamented the lack of wisdom in West-Saxony, but he worked diligently to correct this hole by fervently sending for godly teachers. He sent for Johannes Scotus, Plegmund the archbishop of Canterbury, Asser from the West, and many others in order to gain, by the means of those most studied in God’s Word, an understanding of the correct way to develop the jurisprudential system for the courts of his people (Fox, 1684). Alfred knew if the unrighteous were the ones advising, that his throne would fail. As Alfred gleaned from God’s proverbs, “Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness” (Proverbs 25:5).
Alfred’s code of laws was prefaced by the Ten Commandments, which exemplified Alfred’s singular belief in the Psalm, “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). Alfred’s code of law was innovative and sophisticated, and unlike any Anglo-Saxon code before or after, because in it Alfred cited an abundance of Scripture, and attributed the method of its development to the synod of Apostles in Acts 15 (Carella, 2011). Here, Alfred explains that the Apostles were the wisest men of the land, and the laws they set forth were to be followed by the Christians as if they were given by God Almighty. Alfred considered that the Lord Jesus Christ told his disciples, “That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing they shall ask, it shall be done for them” (Matthew 18:19), so Alfred believed that a synod of his own making (of godly Christian men) was sufficient according to the Word of God, to develop a legal code to be followed by all men in his kingdom. The King took his vocation seriously, and walked worthy of it, and taught his son Edward according to it, that he might not depart from it when Alfred passed the throne to him (Alfred Committee, 1858). As the Proverbs were written by Solomon for his son, Alfred made the land safe, made his people wise unto salvation, and developed the godly legal system, all for his sons, and his children the people.
Alfred’s life is a model for Christian leadership because of his achievements, but simply in his walk with the Lord he excelled. This was because he added to his faith in Christ the virtue of strength in God through the turmoils of war, and to this he added the vast knowledge of God’s Word. To this he added the patience through tribulation and the temperance of abstaining from fleshly lusts. His godliness was testified by his righteous desire for godly wisdom, godly advisors, a godly code of law, and for his people to know Christ. To his godliness he added brotherly kindness in the mercy toward his enemies and his desire to see even brutes saved. Finally, to all of this he added charity, the sacrifice of his life in love, that his life would not be lived in wantonness or immodesty, but in learning, in protecting, in prayer and in fasting, and for the glory of the blessed Lord Christ Jesus, and for this Alfred should be seen as the greatest earthly king in history.
Politics is important for Christians to study and discuss. It is an old adage that if a person does not know that their life is defined by politics and religion, then their life will be defined against their will by someone else’s politics and religion. Unfortunately, Christians in the present misunderstand the importance of these, specifically their own beliefs concerning these, and many have decided that Christians should abstain from both, especially politics. However, the Bible deals quite heavily with politics. The largest book in the Bible is written by a King of Judah, the Prophets all stood before Kings and Princes, and Christ gave political commentary on Herod and the Pharisees. It seems that the lie that Christians should not involve themselves with politics has been a successful lie of the Devil, because even Pastors will hesitate to give commentary on the politics of the country.
The lessons Christians can learn from King Alfred the Great start with politics. God deals in absolutes, and divides sides by their works. Alfred lived during a time that modern Christians should see as black and white, where Alfred represented the good, and the Vikings the evil. This division may be blurred today, but to the people of West-Saxony they were stark. They needed a King that would help them conquer the enemy and secure the kingdom. What God gave them was a philosopher who wanted nothing more than to read and pray in solitude. Alfred was almost a reluctant King after the same manner as George Washington and Cincinnatus. Moreover, he was wise concerning the things of God, but he did not come to this wisdom by any “natural” means, he had to submit to God’s will and ask for help through every step.
Christians can apply this knowledge of what made Alfred “great” by looking for political and religious leaders who reflect the humility exuded by the life of Alfred, instead of leaders who seek only to plunder, destroy, and give “freedoms” to fulfill every lust of the heart. They must seek for a leader who will gain victory over the evil of our time: leftist atheistic politics. Christians can apply the journey and life lessons of Alfred to their own walk and strive to be “great” Christians as well. Christians can learn how important it is to make God their Captain in any battle, how to forgive enemies, the importance of having wise advisors, the good practice of sharing wisdom, and the necessity of prayer and fleshly abstaining, all through the study of men like Alfred. It would behoove of Christians to understand the differences between good rulers and bad rulers by noticing their Christians virtues or the lack thereof. Finally, Christians should understand the type of culture that King Alfred had in his court, for it should be the kind of culture that Christians have, which is that of a peace loving people that know God’s Word and love good men. Because men like Alfred fashioned themselves after Christ, “For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
Alfred Committee. (1858). The Whole Works Of King Alfred The Great: With preliminary essays illustrative of the history, arts, and manners, of the ninth century (Vol. 1-3). Bosworth & Harrison.
Carella, Bryan. (2011). Evidence for Hiberno-Latin Thought in the Prologue to the Laws of Alfred. Studies in Philology, 108(1), 1–26. 10.1353/sip.2011.0002
DeGregorio, Scott. (2005). Texts, Topoi and the Self: a Reading of Alfredian Spirituality. Early Medieval Europe, 13(1), 79-96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0254.2005.00149.x
Fox, J. (1684). Acts And Monuments Of Matters Most Special And Memorable Happening In The Church: With an universal history of the same (9). Company of Stationers.
Olson, R. E. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology. InterVarsity Press.
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