A new book about Alfred The Great highlights how important Shaftesbury was to the most famous Anglo-Saxon king. On a visit to our town, author Dr Paul Kelly offered his theories about the founding of our abbey and revealed a little-known local Alfred connection.
Paul Kelly’s book ‘King Alfred: A Man on the Move’ has just been published. “It’s turned out to be 70% a history book and 30% a travelogue. It’s got maps in it and you can go to the various places and engage with it. You don’t even need to leave your house,” said Paul, who has frequently travelled from his Weymouth home while researching the book.
The former dentist’s interest in Alfred began when he was trying to kill time. “My partner was working as university lecturer in Winchester. I decided to go along with her. I found Hyde Abbey, where they thought King Alfred had been interred. I was struck by the fact that I was the only person there,” he said.
Paul’s Alfred appetite was whetted, and he headed to Athelney on the Somerset levels, a place synonymous with the Anglo-Saxon King. “This was where Alfred started his reconquest of Wessex after he had lost it to the Vikings in 878. I stood at the top of the hill, by the King Alfred monument. Again, it was just me. And the sheep.”
Paul was convinced that people were interested in the Anglo-Saxons. “It’s because of ‘The Last Kingdom’ on TV and the Bernard Cornwell books. Also ‘Game of Thrones’ has got a sort of Anglo-Saxon feel,” said Paul. So he decided to write a book.
The Victorians are partly responsible for the continued awareness of a king who died 1120 years ago. “In 1901, they commemorated 1,000 years since his death. There were big celebrations in Winchester and Wantage, where he was born. Statues and stained-glass windows appeared.”
Paul says Alfred’s accomplishments should be celebrated. “We have some of his writing. He developed a reputation in education. He reformed the army system. He also set up a network of defended towns – burghs – and that made it more difficult for the Vikings to take over Wessex.”
Stories of Alfred’s bravery are positive messages, too. “In 878, when the Vikings took over Chippenham, he ended up on the Somerset Levels in Athelney. When the Vikings confronted the King of Mercia, he fled. Alfred didn’t flee. He got his forces together at a place called Egbert’s stone and defeated the Vikings at the battle of Ethandun, which we think is at Edington in Wiltshire. There’s something about King Alfred that relates to battling on against the odds and winning. That story persists quite justifiably,” said Paul.
Alfred also employed an early spin doctor. “Asser, a Welsh monk, was Alfred’s biographer. He was not going to write negative things about King Alfred. The other important source that we have for King Alfred is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. They were written about the same time that Asser was writing, in 893, towards the end of Alfred’s life.”
The burnt cake legend, again, presents Alfred in a good light. In the story, Alfred wandered off the marshes at Athelney, found a cottage and settled by the fire. The housewife had to tend to her pigs and asked the King to make sure the cakes did not burn on the fire. Alfred was lost in contemplation and the cakes were ruined. The wife scolded him, but he absorbed this criticism.
“He didn’t behave like, ‘do you know who I am?’ It was probably rewritten 100 times since in different books,” said Paul. The story first appeared long after Alfred’s death. “At least a few hundred years afterwards. There’s nothing close enough to say that the cake burning is anything other than fiction.”
It is fair to describe Alfred as a man of the people, though. “He tried to stop England being a lawless society,” said Paul, who explained that Alfred upgraded existing laws. He was also a king of learning, translating Latin books into everyday English. “I think that was a remarkable thing to do,” said Paul.
I chatted to Paul inside the Shaftesbury Abbey Gardens as the statue of Alfred looked on. Although Alfred’s Wessex included many settlements across western and southern England, Dr Kelly believes that the king considered Shaftesbury to be special. “I think, it was one of the most important places for Alfred,” said Paul. That’s because, after defeating the Vikings, Alfred chose two locations to found abbeys – Athelney and Shaftesbury.
“In 882, Pope Marinus is recorded as sending King Alfred a ‘piece of the true cross’.” This was said to be part of Jesus’ crucifix. “This would have been a significant thing, coming from the Pope,” said Paul, who adds that Alfred was a highly religious man. It’s unclear whether the gift was sent to Athelney or Shaftesbury. “It would have been very close to his heart, and his daughter was here as Abbess,” said Paul.
It’s widely thought that Shaftesbury Abbey was founded in 888 AD, although Paul doubts that date. “I think it might be a little bit earlier,” he said. He has studied a 12th century book, ‘The Polychronicon’. “It says that King Alfred developed the abbey after he reformed London. We have evidence that King Alfred was in London in 886, so that places the nunnery here in 887 or 888. I was looking at the information about Pope Marinus sending the piece of the true cross in 882. If sent in 882, it could have only been sent in December, because Marinus became Pope then. It looks like the Abbey could have been here for Christmas or Twelfth Night.”
Despite a fondness for Shaftesbury, it’s unclear how often Alfred visited. “It’s recorded that he restored the burgh, the town, but pinning him down as a frequent visitor is not possible to do,” said Paul.
His book also features King Alfred’s Tower at Stourhead. It’s an 18th century folly but some people believe the site has important Alfredian links. “People might remember from ‘The Last Kingdom’, that all the troops from the different counties came together at Egbert’s Stone. King Alfred’s Tower is one of the options put forward for this location. It’s adjacent to an ancient trackway called the Hard Way, a plausible route for Alfred leaving the Somerset Levels. Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us Egbert’s Stone was in the eastern part of Selwood, a big wood. The King Alfred’s Tower site doesn’t look like it would have been in the eastern part of Selwood,” said Paul.
After detailed research, he is backing other researchers who believe that Egbert’s Stone is at Upper Deverills in Wiltshire. “There are two important Roman roads crossing there and the track passing King Alfred’s Tower goes to the south of there.”
Paul has uncovered one local spot with a little-known Alfred connection. “There is a rare glimpse of Alfred in a legal document, where he is described as being at Wardour, washing his hands in his chamber, before talking to somebody. I went there and I could find no reference anywhere to Alfred. It would not have been the building you see now, even though it’s in ruins,” said Paul.
Many Shaftesbury residents are aware of our town’s Alfred connections. We have King Alfred’s Kitchen, Kings Alfred’s Way and we had King Alfred Middle School until it closed in 2004. Paul believes we should do more to promote our King Alfred heritage to potential visitors. “I think more can be done. I’m not sure that everybody has the connection with King Alfred at the front of their mind, like they do in Winchester,” he said.
Paul Kelly’s ‘King Alfred: A Man on the Move’ is available on Amazon. You can follow his blog at king-alfred.com.