12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 14 November 2012
Wow, wasn't life tough in 9th Century England? As if there wasn't enough of a problem feeding yourself you might get dragged away from your fields and be told to fight some Vikings - and there was a good chance you might never make it back to your fields.
Alfred the Great is always fascinating and, in places, utterly riveting. It changed my notion (admittedly based on my ignorance of history) that the time in between the Romans leaving and the Norman invasion was chaotic and lawless. But one of many things that struck me about this time was the mix of culture and barbarity. How did Churches flourish, how did people get time to make splendid jewellery and write books against this persistent background of violence? How could a Pope hundreds of miles away exert so much influence on our history here, especially when Rome wasn't exactly the powerhouse it had been.
As for Alfred - I was impressed by all his achievements and felt saddened that in general we in the UK don't know more about him. But he could equally be called Alfred the Lucky. If Guthrum's fleet hadn't been wrecked in a storm and if Alfred hadn't just managed to escape the Viking fleet off the Anglian coast, our history might now be much different.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 2 May 2013
This is the life of a long dead king, who lived and died in the "dark ages", when everything was terrible, and suffering was the daily bread of most part of the population. As the author makes clear, much of our knowldege about those days is partial, broken and biased. What we have are records written maybe one century after those people lived, and then based on indirect witnesses, or percolated for propaganda.
However, the author makes a vivid portrait of the king, is able to extract brilliantly the information that can be known or glimpsed from those days. And Alfred emerges not so dark, not so alien to us: a generation of people that went to Rome on pilgrimage, that were aware of culture, that desired to read and write, to take wisdom and learning into their everyday life. Of course, west saxon life in the IX century is completely alien to us, but somehow we share the king' suifferin among familial disputes, dinastic struggle, the viking exploits, the difficulty to rule and be accepted by the under lords... Surely Alfred was a clever man, and knew how to choose people loyal to him and clever. Perhaps it is a bit far reaching to name him the founder of the British Nation, but surely he made a great effort to win that name.
Some of Alfred's life is clearly branded into the Lord of The Rings: the king as "Ring giver", the Seven Kings of men under the Sun, Rivendel the last Home House (Athelney, hid among the marshes, where Alfred hid from vikings to come back victorious summoning the saxon loyals), the "wild men from the East"... No wonder that such eventful epoch led to such a great work of fiction.
I'm not giving it four stars because the style is a bit muddled sometimes, and because some more maps would be welcome. Also a name directory would be helpful, all those names Athelsomething are terrible.
As I said, this is much better than many novels I have read.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 1 September 2008
This book was my main vacation read this year, and I found it to be outstandingly good. Well written, historically accurate but never losing the story, which made me want to keep reading. What came over to me was the relative humanity, spirituality and phenomenal intelligence and intuition of the man, breaking the mould of the usual push, rush and massacre military style of the age. What particularly moved me was that the epithet "Great" came about in the sixteenth century on account of his literary works and translations, not that he created the framework of England, which we see diluted even today. "In the midst of prosperity the mind is elated, and in prosperity a man forgets himself; in hardship he is forced to reflect on himself, though he be unwilling." (Alfred the Great) A psychologist or a ninth century Saxon King? Read this book.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 11 May 2007
Justin Pollard's strength is the canny way he brings ancient stories to life by focussing on the human, emotional drivers that set his protagonists into action. The social and political context of Alfred's world is dealt with sensitively and non-judgmentally, leaving the reader to draw his/her own conclusions with the assistance of Pollard's meticulous research.
An excellent work: a readable and informative benchmark for the subject matter. Pollard's thesis, that Alfred was the greatest Englishman, is highly persuasive.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 23 January 2011
Like another reviewer, I have found this to be riveting reading and I haven't finished the book yet (!) The author paces it well, explains the background without going OTT on the details and addresses successfully the intelligent lay reader. He also brings in some meaty and thought-provoking stuff, in particular the coup mounted against Alfred at Chippenham. This brings me to the title of my review, which, translated from the original Old English and therefore contemporaneous with Alfred's period, means "the king shall hold the kingdom". The author makes it clear that the nature of an "elective" king entailed the potential loss of this status if it were perceived by the "major players" in the kingdom that the king had failed precisely to do this. It also underlined the difficulties that Alfred personally faced (not just his debilitating illness) and how he had the strength of character to ultimately overcome them. If he hadn't, it's almost certain that English history would have become a much more Scandinavian history. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 14 November 2009
Justin Pollard reveals a very lively character in the only Engish King called Great.
I was impressed by his assessment of the famous 'burnt cake' incident.
His attention to the study of ancient texts is also well documented. He shows clearly Alfred's passion for the introduction of wise directed learning amongst his fellows. Also Alfred's novel 'defence policy' against the sea-borne Vikings in his 'burgh system' .
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 17 April 2012
A concise and absorbing paperback, I found the information in the book very educational and stimulating.
The photographs could be of a better quality.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in 9th-10th century Britain
on 17 January 2012
The best historians take none of their sources at face value, read between the lines and then back up their point of view with evidence, all in a readable style. They don't try to sound clever. They just pepper you with insights. JP ticks all of those boxes. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the life and times of our greatest monarch. A few gaps had puzzled me and I'd always wondered/worried about some of the myths attached to Alfred. Read this and everything falls into place. I kept on thinking "ah, I understand, now". In particular, the revelations (which I suppose I should call suppositions, to be strictly accurate) around what went on at Chippenham/Athelney are compelling and a real eye-opener. By stripping away the hype (which the Victorians helped to whip up during the millennial celebrations), JP does indeed show that the real Alfred, with his flaws, his early misjudgements and his preparedness to learn from his own mistakes and the successes of others, was even greater than we supposed. My only minor gripe was that JP very, very occasionally lapses into "modern" thinking. (Best example: Pg 155/6 where Alfred is assumed to be possibly reflecting on his good luck when the enemy encountered a freak storm. No way: he'd have assumed it was the hand of the Almighty.) Highly recommended. If anyone wants to understand who "made" England, what it is to be English and who inadvertently invented "Englishness" (and how), they should read this. Brilliant and compelling.
on 26 December 2011
Justin Pollard produces his biography of Alfred the Great in a rambling style and approach more akin to a periodical article than a reference book. As he states: `most academic texts on Alfred are as much footnote as narrative. This book is intended to be different.'(P. 4) Here's an example concerning Ivarr the Boneless, a Viking invader c..1865, who exploited divisions in English society: `He drew disgruntled nobles to his side, and to their kingdom's doom, like a Viking siren'(P.112).Incidentally, Pollard takes pains to explain `the Boneless' without considering the frequent sense of humour in such names, so Ivarr may have been a VERY bony individual. So if you were looking for an approach resembling that of the Yale English Monarchs series this MAY not be the book for you. But don't turn aside too soon.
The author deals with problems facing Alfred `in the round', so he discusses Viking raids from their first intrusion on the Dorset coastline in 787 and follows the activities of Haesten and the sons of Ragnar (c.860), in so far as it's possible. He is constantly dipping into more general descriptions (e.g. Trial by Ordeal & the disintegration of Carolingian system under Viking pressure in the last years of the 9th century). In fact, in many ways, the book is a good introduction to what was once styled the `Dark Ages'. It becomes clear that he only partially works with the dryasdust sources beloved by contemporary historians (e.g. financial records, legal documents or moralistic diatribes) and they make rare appearances (e.g. coinage reform pre-875 (P. 148)). His source material comes chiefly from those documents beloved by Victorian etc - chronicles, legendary material such as sagas - topped with archaeological evidence or a good dose of common senses. He questions the trustworthiness of conventional sources, starting with the value of Asser's life of Alfred in the context of the whole Cotton manuscripts collection. His comment on the martyrdom of St. Edmund of East Anglia in 869 is terse but considered: `The final fate of Edmund is so bound up in legend as to be almost irretrievable' (P117).
The description of the improved defence resources, especially relating to the construction / revamping of towns (as burhs) is excellent. Alfred is displayed as firmly in charge but, as in the Treaty of Wedmore (886), carefully reducing points of friction between Saxon and Dane and thereby making future reunification more possible. He well deserved the title `King of Angles and Saxons' for achievements which turned around the disasters a decade before. In 1892 the dreaded Haesten returned with 330 ships to ravage Alfred's kingdom but quickly found conditions had changed. Defences withstood attack and local forces could group and mobilise to help each other. Above all Alfred beat the enemy by attrition. By 896 what remained of the Viking force slipped back across the channel and Alfred's last years were peaceful. Pollard questions Alfred being styled `Founder of the Royal Navy'. He did develop a naval force, but initially it was merely a mixed success
As well as reconstructing the physical environment Alfred set about reigniting the moral and intellectual conditions which had placed Britain in the forefront of European culture two centuries before. He actively recruited men from within his realm (e.g. Plegmund and Werwulf from Mercia), neighbouring states (e.g. Asser from Dyfed) or further afield (e.g. Grimbald from West Francia and John the Old Saxon from East Francia). These drew to England the fruits of what today is called the Ninth Century Renaissance. As Alfred himself stated: `I can not find anything better in man than that he know, and nothing worse than that he be ignorant' (P.242) By such means the moral strength of the nation must surely improve. Alfred's encouragement of literacy in Old English had a more practical purpose; to establish a means of ensuring the better enforcement of the royal will throughout the land. His support for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and for employing the knowledge of traders such as Ohthere may also have had a practical motive, for knowledge equals power. His efforts to learn and translate from Latin were also for practical reasons. They helped him construct a system of law building on that created by predecessors such as Ine (688-726). They also helped the king to focus his ideas through such works as the `The Consolation of Philosophy' (Boethius) and `The Soliloquies' (St. Augustine of Hippo) and thereby improve his kingship. To interpret History as the workings of God Alfred encouraged the translations of Orosius and Bede and then pushed forward a knowledge of history through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Pollard fails to mention, and probably quite rightly, Alfred inventing a candle-clock - an idea fit only for legend.
One shortcoming, however, is Justin Pollard's eagerness to construct certainties. So he argues that Alfred in 878 when attacked by Guthrum and driven into hiding, was, in fact, betrayed by Wulfhere, ealdorman of Wiltshire and, possibly, other members of his council. Alfred, after several years of failure, was deposed. What is the evidence for this? The disposal of the estates of Wulfhere, who had `deserted' his King (P. 166), and the disappearance from charters of the names of others. As he discusses the issue hypothesis becomes certainty. And yet, within a year, Alfred's summons could collect an army of 5000 men to defeat Guthrum at Edington. Just as likely there was no betrayal but merely collaboration by some with the Vikings (just like Laval in Nazi-defeated France) so those nobles fell into disgrace. He backs up his argument with the omission of chapter 51 in Asser's `Life of Alfred' (his main source), alleging this is a `cover-up' of a shameful period of failure and despair. However, the Penguin Classics version of Asser's `Life' merely shrugs off the omission as what should not be unexpected. Pollard doesn't like the `Alfred and the cakes' story, almost in desperation considering some moralistic basis to the tale. Why not simply accept that heroic figures attract tales to fill in the gaps - Sargon of Akkad (and Moses) with the bull-rushes, Richard the Lionheart and Blondel and Charles II up an oak tree being just three examples. Pollard is determined to produce a consistent account and brushes out obscure corners. Even so, he describes effectively Alfred's victory over Guthrum at Edington in 878 and the triumph in the peaceful decade that followed so that Guthrum `was, in many ways, Alfred's greatest success.' (P.273)
In sum, Justin Pollard deals widely if not very deeply and he does it well. You may find yourself sitting there, reading it as if it were an article in the quality press and finding yourself being absorbed by the life of one of our most famous kings whose remains disappeared centuries ago and whose abilities and personality remain such an enigma.
on 27 September 2013
This biography of King Alfred the Great is endlessly enjoyable, thrilling and excellently researched. The research is thorough and clearly underpins the book, but it is worn so lightly that the reader is never made to feel lectured in a tiresome way. The context is wonderfully presented, making it a joy to read throughout. It starts is a slightly odd way, describing the shocking loss of much Anglo-Saxon resources in the Cotton Library fire - I could hardly bear to keep reading at that point! But clearly the work of scholars and historians has made exhaustive use of what is still accessible. This comes across very clearly in the biography - I felt I could readily understand the way society was structured and how it worked, and the motivations of Viking and Angle-Saxons, their different values, world views. Not only that, but the way the author shows how he has arrived at his interpretation of sources and events, is gently persuasive. This context enabled the picture of Alfred himself to develop both logically and excitingly as the story unfolded. What a man, and what a king! I felt sad when I finished reading it, not only because I was sorry to leave the book, but also because of what we know happened later, and how much of that Anglo-Saxon wisdom was repressed. But never lost -