Book review: Alfred the Great by David Sturdy

Alfred the Great by David Sturdy
Alfred the Great by David Sturdy

There are quite a few books on Alfred the Great around, and I’ve read most of them, so it’s unusual to find one that adds anything new – David Sturdy’s does. He does so by, first, providing a fresh translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around which he weaves the story of Alfred and Wessex, and then through a forensic examination and interrogation of the charters that survive from the 9th century. This proves particularly fruitful, as the gradual movement of magnates and priests up the rigid hierarchy of signatories tells the reader much of the political and social system of the time. It also allows Sturdy to reconstruct, in more detail that one would expect, the lives of some of these individuals, presenting Bishop Werferth, for instance, as tutor to the young Alfred. The emphasis on the charters also provides a greater understanding of the actual workings of Alfred’s Wessex than other books I have read; the imagination is fired by the image of the magnates of the land lining up to place their hands, as witnesses, upon the charter document lying upon the altar, whether of a great church or a hastily erected field chapel set up on campaign. The book is further enlivened by Sturdy’s waspish comments on the judgements of other historians. All in all, while I wouldn’t recommend this as the first, or even the second, book to read on Alfred, it is excellent for shedding new light on the subject for a reader who already knows a good deal about the king.


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