Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Alfred the Great and the Importance of the Oath

by Rosanne E. Lortz

On the list of English kings, only one has the honor to be called “the Great.” What was it that made Alfred of Wessex such an unforgettable monarch? How did he achieve the title that no subsequent English king has ever received?

Alfred’s military exploits are one possible reason for the title. During his reign of twenty-eight years, he brought back the realm of Wessex from near extinction, fighting off several Danish invasions and establishing himself as the high king of the Anglo-Saxons. His most memorable victory was at the Battle of Edington in 878, where he defeated a Danish host led by Guthrum, forcing the Danes to sign a treaty where they would withdraw from Alfred’s domains and convert to the Christian religion.

Alfred’s educational reform and literary achievements are another possible reason for the title. The previous century had seen a great decline in the literacy of the British Isles, with Latin being completely forgotten and only a few still remembering how to read in the Anglo-Saxon language. Alfred imported scholars from the continent and set up schools to teach his people their letters. Always one to lead by example, he mastered the difficult Latin language himself and then set about translating important works himself into the popular tongue.

But out of all the reasons why Alfred might be considered “the Great,” the one that I want to focus on today is the law code that he created for the Anglo-Saxons, a seminal work that would influence the laws of England and the nations she colonized for centuries to come.

William of Malmesbury, writing several centuries later, tells us that Alfred, “amid the din of war, enacted statutes....” In the midst of battle, rape, and pillage, Alfred strove to establish a society where those things would not occur, and he did this by means of law.

The importance of Alfred’s law code does not lie in its originality. The introduction contains a translation of the Ten Commandments, a recital of many of the case laws in the book of Exodus, an excerpt of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and a history of the Apostles with quotes from the book of Acts. Some historians have seen in this Alfred’s attempts to show how the Old Testament laws should be contextualized in an Anglo-Saxon society.

The historian F.N. Lee notes that:
Alfred had already: first re-enjoined the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17); then illustrated their concrete application by way of case law (Exodus 21:1 to 23:9); and next assured his readers that Christ had not come to break the Ten Commandments, but to approve them well (Matthew 5:5-19). Indeed, Alfred had then gone on, together with all of Christ's Twelve Apostles, to enjoin…God's Law for man. This is seen quite clearly in the apostolic prohibitions enjoining abstinence from idolatry, bloodshed and fornication (Acts 15:23-29). 
Clearly, then, Alfred believed that the Apostles here (at the Synod of Jerusalem or the first General Assembly of the Christian Church) enjoined God's Commandments upon all of the Gentile [non-Jewish] Christians who had heard it—and who indeed should keep it.
Alfred, by quoting extensively from certain Scripture passages, was making an argument that Biblical law should be kept by the Anglo-Saxons. Following his introduction, Alfred continues his non-originality by quoting laws given by earlier kings.
Now I, King Alfred, have collected these laws, and have given orders for copies to be made of many of those which our predecessors observed, and which I myself approved.... I have not dared to presume to set down in writing much of my own; for I cannot tell what [innovations of mine] will meet with the approval of our successors. But those which were the most just of the laws I found—whether they dated from the time of Ina my kinsman, or of Offa King of the Mercians, or of Aethelberht who was the first [Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Jutish king] to be baptized in England—these I have collected....
One can only assume that Alfred used the criteria of Biblical law (as outlined at length in his introduction) to determine which of his predecessors' laws were "most just" and should be included. The laws of these previous monarchs include all sorts of subjects—murder, maiming, perjury, theft—but when Alfred does finally launch into promulgating new laws of his own, the first law he gives is most instructive.
Of oaths and of weds [pledges]. 
1. At the first we teach, that it is most needful that every man warily keep his oath and his wed [pledge]. If anyone be constrained to either of these wrongfully, either to treason against his lord, or to any unlawful aid; then it is juster to belie than to fulfill. But if he pledge himself to that which it is lawful to fulfill, and in that belie himself, let him submissively deliver up his weapon and his goods to the keeping of his friends, and be in prison forty days…. Let him there suffer whatever the bishop may prescribe to him; and let his kinsmen feed him, if he himself have no food…. But if he escape, let him be held a fugitive, and be excommunicate of all Christ's churches….
In Alfred’s mind, the “most needful” thing in the kingdom was for men to keep their word. It was good faith and trust between men that built the fabric of a stable society. Peace, commerce, and learning were only possible in a world where a man’s word was his bond.

The Anglo-Saxon society was one plagued by failure to keep oaths. The epic poem Beowulf records a story of a truce made and broken between the Danes and the Frisians.
So, a truce was offered…
Both sides then sealed their agreement.
With oaths to Hengest, Finn swore
Openly, solemnly, that the battle survivors
Would be guaranteed honor and status.
No infringement by word or deed,
No provocation would be permitted. 
It is only a few lines later that the “unpermitted provocations” occur, and the truce is broken in violent bloodshed.
…longing woke
In the cooped up exile for a voyage home—
But more for vengeance, some way of bringing
Things to a head: his sword arm hankered
To greet the Jutes…
Thus blood was spilled….
This sort of oath-breaking was commonplace in the Anglo-Saxon world—and not just betrayal between two people groups, but also betrayal of a lord by his men. At the end of the epic, when Beowulf’s sword fails to cut through the dragon’s scales, his servant Wiglaf exhorts the other men to go help their lord!
“I remember that time when mead was flowing,
How we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall,
Promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,
Make good the gift of the war-gear,
Those swords and helmets, as and when
His need required… 
…now the day has come
When this lord we serve needs sound men
To give him their support. Let us go to him,
Help our leader through the hot flame
And dread of the fire….”
Unfortunately, rather than keep their oaths to Beowulf, the men ignore Wiglaf’s entreaties and leave their ring-giver to his fate.

Beowulf manuscript

Alfred’s world was beset with the same rampant oath-breaking that we see in Beowulf. Benjamin Merkle, in his biography The White Horse King, writes:
To understand the significance of oath-keeping to the king of Wessex, one need only think back on the many times when the integrity and strength of Alfred’s shieldwall during the crushing combat depended on the faithfulness of the oaths that his thegns had pledged during those less-dangerous moments of feasting and boasting in the mead hall. Similarly, one can remember the habitual treachery of the pagan Vikings, whose unctuous pledges of peace were disregarded by the Danes within hours of making the pledge. 
These “unctuous pledges of peace” were the bane of Alfred’s existence when dealing with the Danes. Two years prior to the Battle of Edington, Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred records that this same warband led by Guthrum had made a treaty with Alfred at Wareham,
to the effect that they should depart out of the kingdom, and for this they made no hesitation to give as many hostages as he named; also they swore an oath over the Christian relics…that they would depart speedily from the kingdom. But they again practiced their usual treachery, and caring nothing for the hostages or their oaths, they broke the treaty, and sallying forth by night, slew all the horsemen that the king had round him….
Alfred, King of the Saxons - silver penny
This earlier betrayal would undoubtedly have been in the back of Alfred’s mind when he parleyed with Guthrum after the Battle of Edington, but nevertheless, Alfred—determined to show the importance of an oath—still swore the treaty. And Guthrum, surprisingly, kept it. Over the course of the next few years, some of Guthrum’s nobles again resumed their depredations, but Guthrum refrained from attacking Alfred’s borders or breaking his baptismal vows.

Alfred, through legislation and through personal example, was resolved to make his country a place where false witness would not be borne. Merkle sums it up well when he says:
By giving so much weight to truthfulness in oath-making…Alfred helped to ensure that no man could break his oath without dire consequences.  If a man was found to have sworn falsely, he would be ostracized from society, losing his right to weapons, to property, and even to testify to his own innocence in court.  Thus, the men of Alfred’s day took great care to ensure that they did not make careless oaths or pledges.
There is, perhaps, little of originality in Alfred’s law code, but the preeminence he gives to a man’s oath had a powerful impact on his culture, and it is this law—the foundation for law in England and the countries she colonized—that can be considered the main reason why Alfred of Wessex is called “the Great.”

Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.



Asser. The Life of King Alfred. Trans. J.A. Giles. http://omacl.org/KingAlfred/ (accessed May 6, 2013).

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.'

Lee, F.N. "King Alfred the Great and Our Common Law." http://www.dr-fnlee.org/docs6/alfred/alfred.pdf (accessed May 6, 2013).

Merkle, Benjamin. The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

William of Malmesbury. The Kings before the Norman Conquest. Trans. Joseph Stephenson. Wales: Llancerch, 1989.

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