Australians are often characterised as having little time for monarchy but there are folk down under who celebrate King Alfred’s Day. If they can do it, why do we in Alfred’s own land pay so little attention to the greatest ruler in our history?
King Alfred died on 26th October 899. It’s the one important event in his life that can be securely dated. We don’t know exactly when he was born, in 849, married, in 869, became king, in 871, or when he fought his great battle with Guthrum at Ethandune, sometime in May 878. So the date of his death is the one day we can call King Alfred’s Day and bring to mind what he did to create so much of what we now take for granted.
It’s true. So much of what makes today’s England what it is has its roots in Alfred’s Wessex, from the Royal Family to the Royal Navy. It was Alfred who created the first English history to be written in the language of the people and who first codified English law, drawing upon diverse precedents. His checking of the Danish advance was of European significance. He followed this up by leading a remarkable re-birth of the learning so nearly destroyed. In doing so, he drew in scholars from many lands, including Mercia, Wales, Flanders and Saxony. The spirit of freedom under the law was re-established from Alfred’s Wessex at a time when most of England had fallen under foreign tyranny. It was to be Wessex, true to the legacy of Alfred, that stood alone at Hastings when that spirit was crushed by another foreign foe. Time after time, generations have looked to Alfred as their model. For although his central achievement ultimately fell – as the Northmen triumphed – the time he bought and the accommodation he sought succeeded in letting a glorious glimpse of the old civilisation slip through.
England’s debt to Wessex is rarely acknowledged and treatment of Wessex today leaves much to be desired. Wessex is not allowed the respect it needs to survive and prosper in a changing world. The least that each of us can do, however, is to remember, each year, on the 26th of October, the only English king who is unchallengeably ‘the Great’. This is our opportunity to reflect on the astonishing range of reasons why that title is so richly deserved.
Wessex Regionalists have our own very specific reason to remember Alfred’s achievements. The key fact that made them possible was that Wessex was then self-governing. Without a king of its own to rally resistance, Wessex would have succumbed to the invader. Just as, in 1066, England as a whole fell into Norman hands in a single battle, the rest being merely enforcement. It was Wessex in the form of Alfred’s successors that brought a unified England into being, for reasons that made sense to them at that time. It is also for Wessex to keep those arrangements under review, because what matters is what works for us here today. History should be our inspiration, not our prison. Nor is it our blueprint. We are not seeking to go back but forward with renewed confidence. To the cynic’s query ‘when was Wessex?’ our answer is now – and increasingly so as other identities fail us.
Would Alfred have relished today’s challenges? Perhaps, though they are only partly about issues of power and identity that he would find familiar. The greatest challenge today is to make a serious contribution to averting environmental catastrophe. Wessex today is denied the means to do so. Labour plans to build some 672,000 new homes in Wessex over the next 20 years, most at prices beyond the reach of local folk. No consideration has been given to how the new residents will be fed but their homes could gobble up as much as 55,000 acres of precious farmland. As infrastructure groans under the weight of growth, so new road-building returns to the agenda. What other option is there? So asks the congested commuter and the resident of many a village thundered asunder by supermarket lorries.
What other option indeed. The other London-based parties are as complicit as Labour in closing down meaningful debate. And just as useless in standing up to the greedy bullies who now dictate public policy. Wessex needs a party that puts Wessex first, that defends our territory and community, one that neither exploits the rest of the world nor lets it shirk wider responsibilities. As the oil wells run dry over the course of this century, we shall all need to think globally, plan regionally, and act locally. And these are all sentiments to which Alfred of Wessex would surely feel moved to raise a horn of mead, voicing the words which Chesterton gave him in The Ballad of the White Horse:
Asia and all imperial plains
Are too little for a fool;
But for one man whose eyes can see,
The little island of Athelney
Is too large a land to rule.