Aelfred Rex, King of England
Image source: Odejea
The foundation of a Christian society is the knowledge of God. This was the belief of the ninth century Anglo-Saxon king, Ælfred the Great. So strong and far-reaching was his determination to build such a society, that it may be said of Ælfred Rex, as it was of Josiah in the Old Testament, “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him.”
From his youth, Ælfred committed much poetry and many psalms to memory. After he was finally taught to read at the age of twelve, he eagerly studied classical and Anglo-Saxon literature. Then at the age of twenty-one, the duties of a monarch were unexpectedly thrust upon him with the successive deaths of three elder brothers. As the new king of Wessex, Ælfred undertook the defense of the Christian Anglo-Saxons against the pagan Viking threat. He liberated neighboring regions from Viking control, thus laying the groundwork for the future unity of England.
When he was not pre-occupied with the defense of his people, Ælfred translated, from Latin into English, works of literature that provided models of ideal Christian kingship and society “most necessary for all men to know.” Ælfred tempered the customs and laws of previous Christian kings of Britain, devising a law code firmly rooted in the law of God. He included the Ten Commandments and their application throughout Scripture, drawing from the case laws of Moses, the golden rule in the Sermon on the Mount, and the decree of the Jerusalem council. Ælfred’s law code became the basis for English common law, which was respected and built upon by William the Conqueror, and planted around the world wherever the English settled.
After he established peace in the land, King Ælfred devoted himself to promoting education in the liberal arts, which he regarded as necessary for every leader in church and state, and highly beneficial for the common people as well. Ælfred repaired libraries and monasteries destroyed by the Vikings, brought in renowned scholars to teach, advanced the training of the clergy, and translated many of the psalms into English. At the age of thirty-three, he wrote, “I, Ælfred, endowed with royal dignity by the grace of Christ, have truly understood and often heard through the reading of holy books that the one God has given to us so much greatness of earthly things. There is the greatest need that we for a time should soften and bend our mind to divine and spiritual services, amid this earthly care…Being confirmed in my mind through this admonition and love, I for a time study these heavenly things amid these earthly troubles.”
Ælfred oversaw the translation of the venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England from Latin into English. He wanted his people to understand in their own tongue how Christ’s church had grown in Britain since very early times, and how England had become a Christian nation.
King Ælfred’s far-sightedness, for his people and their future generations, laid a foundation that endured for over a thousand years in Christian England and English-speaking nations.