July 11, 2022
Alfred the Great
Our early mornings are now busy with visitors taking selfies outside the tall walnut front doors of the Castle whilst they wait for us to open. As they look out happily smiling, I wonder how many glance down and notice the two black wyverns that sit either side of the front door. Then, when they come into the castle, do they see that there are two more large terracotta wyverns standing on either side of the half glass doors which lead into the Saloon?
Wyverns look a little like dragons but have only two legs, unlike a dragon which has has four, and they are an imaginative mixture of a scaly reptile and dragon type often used in heraldry. Typically a wyvern is depicted resting upon its legs and tail but it can also be shown with its claws in the air and supported only by its tail.
These carved figures recall the Anglo-Saxon times and are symbols often associated with the Kingdom of Wessex which was nearly completely overrun by the Vikings around 870AD but was finally united and protected through the military endeavours and the later cultural leadership, of the renowned King, Alfred (849-899AD).
Under King Guthrum, the Vikings had swept down from their northern kingdoms and, in a lightning strike, seized much of what is now Wiltshire and from there laid waste to Wessex. Alfred withdrew in haste to the Somerset tidal marshes with what few followers remained. From there he reorganised the fyrd (existing army), calling more to his cause but keeping them to a rota basis to enable him to could raise a ‘rapid reaction force’ to deal with the raiders whilst ensuring that farming could continue, thus preserving food supplies. Apart from mythically burning the cakes (his mind might have been elsewhere), Alfred proved himself a creative and innovative leader on the battlefield. Finally, in May 878, his army defeated the Vikings (Danes) at the battle of Edington and they all sued for peace, creating a north south divide across England.
The centre of Alfred’s world was his royal palace in Winchester from which he developed a network of burghs so that no one was more than 20 miles from the refuge of one of these settlements. In addition, he built new fast ships to create a navy which helped support and protect Wessex and southern England. The very word borough’ comes from the Anglo Saxon meaning a fortified market place as Alfred needed both to promote trade – markets – and defend the population. Towns today still bear reference to these origins – New-burgh-(bury) is one example which is the town closest to Highclere.
Having achieved that, Alfred then turned his attention to the general deterioration in learning and religion caused by the Vikings’ destruction of monasteries which, at that time, provided the only, rather rudimentary, education available. This was not altruistic – if no one could read and write, and very few understood Latin, then the legal charters through which royal government was enacted were worth little and there was a risk that his instructions would not be carried through.
He also decreed that a number of books which he thought “most needful for men to know” should be translated from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. These covered history, geography, philosophy and included Gregory the Great’s ‘Pastoral Care’ (a handbook for bishops). In many ways, this exercise really marked the beginnings of English literature in this country. The compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also began during his reign, circa 890.
Finally, he also established a legal code. Drawing on the laws of Offa and other predecessors plus those of the kingdoms of Mercia and Kent, Alfred added his own administrative regulations to form a definitive body of Anglo-Saxon law.
‘I … collected these together and ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, those which I liked; and many of those which I did not like I rejected with the advice of my councillors … For I dared not presume to set in writing at all many of my own, because it was unknown to me what would please those who should come after us … Then I … showed those to all my councillors, and they then said that they were all pleased to observe them’ (Laws of Alfred, c.885-99).
Protection, negotiation, trade, reading, understanding and the structure of law were held dear by this King, some of whose cultural achievements have been passed down over generations to this day. Many of these have been regarded as of little value in recent years but it is perhaps pertinent to remember that he was, and still is, the only king to be called Great in this country: great both for what he achieved in himself and for what he sought to achieve for others.
Good morning to you Lady Carnarvon,
What a lovely piece of history you have given us this morning.
I had no knowledge of this part of your country’s history and your ability to link past and current times is masterful.
I shall be thinking about and looking forward to your next installment of Castle Life.
Thank you for this most valuable lesson. Great, indeed! Wise, brave and modest as well.
This was fascinating to read. Thank you for another great history lesson.
Enjoy your day!
So utterly interesting I had to read it twice. Thank you!
Lady Carnarvon, every Monday morning you never cease to amaze me with what write. Always for me a learning experience and a joy to read. Always well done. Cheryl.
Lady Carnavon, your research and documentation are astonishing and delightful to read! Thank you.
Dense with interesting history! Thank you for the “great” mental ping to start the day.
Thanks very much for such an inspiring read! Wonderful historical facts, what a guy!!
Edward Trotman from our family was chauffeur to the Earl years ago. My cousin recently met with your husband with family documents to be introduced into the archives. Will try to visit Highclere one day…
Being from the US, we only get parts of your vast history. Thank you for broadening our knowledge through your writings! Having ancestral ties to the United Kingdom, I’m always fascinated by what I’ve learned through your writings and insights, of your history as well as your lovely family and castle. Again, thank you!
This is fascination! Thank you for sharing this bit of history.
Greetings Lady Carnarvon,
What a fantastic story of English history and a pleasure to read during my Monday morning. I am awe struck at what information is recorded dating back so far and what research you must have gone through to pull it all together for your Morning Blog today. Also, I do have a photo of me near those detailed Wyvern sculptures outside the Castle historic and lovely front entryway.
Thank you again for an educational & entertaining reading this morning.
Remain well and hope you are enjoying days back to visitors showing up again!
Love it. I always admire Alfred The Great’s statue in Winchester, even though the statue’s plinth is upside down. I am supposedly related to Alfred The Great but that’s another story. We had our wedding reception in the Winchester Guild Hall next to the statue. Thank you for this story and remembrance of our past.
What a wonderful read..I shall take photos of them on our visit on the 4th August.Have a lovely day Lady Carnarvon…:)
We look forward to welcoming you on 4th August!
Good morning from the United States. Thank you for this lesson this morning. I love England and try to read as much as I can. The history of England is very long. I would have probably never stumbled across this King. The story is fascinating. And I am of the mind that even if laws become obsolete due to progress and the advancement of society, it must be respected. Alfred the Great sounds like a good man. I read your blog to my husband over our morning coffee, so two of us enjoyed the information on someone we did not know anything about. Thank you!
There is certainly a lot of history in our country!
Thank you for all of this information. It is of special interest to me, as a few years ago, while clicking back in my family tree on an ancestry site, choosing my father’s family name of Edwards each time, I started seeing titles in front of the names and eventually, came to Alfred the Great. Imagine my surprise at finding such great royalty in my family tree, coming from poverty in the U.S. At that time, I did not even know who Alfred the Great was. As I grow old, I have come to learn that history is important and interesting, realizing that these are not just stories, but real people that lived–just the same as we live now. Learning more history is on my bucket list! Thank you for the information today and for all of your blog entries. You have a lot of friends in cyberspace that love you….. that are real people all over the world!!! …….Just like historical people were real people!
How interesting to learn about your ancestry
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
Thank you for that most interesting bit of English history.
I noticed that there is some writing above the doors at Highclere. I am most curious as to what it says.
I look forward to your Monday blog each week. Your topics are always so enthralling.
The writing above the door is family motto – ‘Only one will I serve’
Lady Carnarvon lovely pictures of Alfred the great and you and lord Carnarvon have a lovely weekend and lovely to visit highcelere castle and l am a fan of Downton abbey and thank you for the email you send
Thank you for sharing this amazing King’s history with us. Have been watching “The Last Kingdom” on TV. Much fiction has been added, but Bernard Cornwall’s THE SAXON STORIES has been condensed to make this series and it brings to mind the reason he is called Alfred The Great. Your information of his establishing the legal code reinforces the title.
Wow! This was an amazing post! I loved learning so much about Alfred the Great! As an American, I had no idea about the history of this man and the role he played in both military and civil improvements! Thank you so much!
He dd so much in his life..
I just made the first photo my new desktop background. Gorgeous! Literally breathtaking each time I open to it. The original image is such high-quality and the details transfer with such excellence that I can almost read the print on the bulletin board postings through the windows. My art historian’s interest in details is piqued. Perhaps a topic for a future blog or newsletter? And what is the white “object” seen through the windows on the right I wonder? A vase, I suspect, but almost “cat-like” it is so alive in its bright whiteness.
I am so pleased you enjoy the images. I believe the white object seen through the window is indeed a vase
Thank you so much. I knew nothing of this history and am so very happy to have read it.
i really enjoy this period of history
Lady Carnarvon lovely pictures of Alfred the great did you and lord Carnarvon have a nice weekend and lovely to visit highcelere castle and thank you for the email you send and l am Downton abbey
If my school history text books would have been written by you I would have enjoyed history classes more. I so much enjoyed your educational history story. Wonderful job!!
Very kind. I do so enjoy writing and am pleased you have enjoyed it
As an American and a visitor to Highclere, I look forward to your Monday postings. I do remember the wyverns outside the front door, but I missed them inside; maybe I need to visit again! I do have a question: what does the inscription over the front door mean? Thank you from across the pond.
Unc jai servirai – only one will I serve
Maybe you should visit again – the writing above the door is a family motto, written on old Norman French – it translates to ‘Only one will I serve’
I visited Highclere yesterday while
sztaying in Grotto Lodge for three nights. So happy to finally get there as it was originally planned in 2019 for 2020 and, due to the pandemic, rescheduled every year until now.
I saw the family motto above
The door and , somewhere on the 1st floor, read it’s meaning.
I enjoy reading your blog weekly.
I do hope you enjoyed your stay at Grotto.
Your narrative follows closely the outstanding BBC DVD series, “The Last Kingdom” which we enjoyed. The hero, Uhtred, represented all the great fighters of England similar to the RAF during the Battle of Britain.
Having just finished watching The Last Kingdom, this was a real treat to read of the true history and how it was depicted in the story!
I visited Highclere yesterday while
staying in Grotto Lodge for three nights. So happy to finally get there as it was originally planned in 2019 for 2020 and, due to the pandemic, rescheduled every year until now.
I saw the family motto above
The door and , somewhere on the 1st floor, read it’s meaning.
I enjoy reading your blog weekly.
Thank you – and thank you for finally making it here!
My husband, Dana, and I were fascinated by your blog on Alfred the Great. Then I noticed that he was sipping coffee from his Highclere Castle mug! We so enjoyed visiting Highclere and meeting you three years ago.
I remember meeting you both
What wonderful information! I have read quite a bit on Alfred the Great! I discovered through Ancestry that King Alfred is my 37th great-grandfather!
I have British heritage on both sides of my family. It is very interesting how my family arrived in America! Thanks for the history lesson!
History is delightfully entertaining. Always nice to refresh the early centuries. Those times were truly fascinating!
History needs to stay in schools…
Amen! Without the past the old statement holds true, “If we do not learn from our past we will continue to make the same mistakes”!
The Secondary School I went to is called Wyvern. I wore a uniform with one on and I never knew the history until now. I am visiting on Sunday with my Mum and Sister and will make sure we have our picture taken next to one. Thank you for the enjoyable read.
Thank you, Lady Carnavon, for your description of the wyverns at the front door of the Castle. I always wondered about them, and watched carefully in the new movie at Downton Abbey to see if they were in the film. I was pleased to see them. There are so many historical items and images at Highclere that one visit is just not enough to take them all in. Thanks again!
About being ” great” : “to live with simplicity and to think with greatness “(William Wordsworth). The story of Alfred is also a 1969 epic film about Alfred the Great’s struggle to defend the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex from Danish Viking . Thank you so much for your perfect historical post! We are learning a lot of things by reading your posts!
I love that quote!
Your story this morning about King Alfred is excellent history for many, and the most interesting is how this same chronology has been repeated throughout history – and thankfully more often than not with goals to support and uplift those without access to better lives.
Thank you for an excellent read, as usual.
Dearest Lady Carnarvon, thank you so much for your postings! I am American and plan on visiting England in September with my husband and we want to come visit your estate. We shall see if that’s possible! Anyway, we just finished the Last Kingdom (Alfred’s story) on Netflix and just absolutely fell in love with the story! Then, we found out it was true (well, almost)! We are so delighted to have learned about Alfred the Great before our arrival. We now plan on visiting some of the areas. We adored the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg even if some of the story glamoured us with a little fiction. We’ve also watched Downton Abbey several times and we’ve just fallen love with the idea of visiting your country. I’ve visited years ago when I lived in France and loved it. Thank you for keeping us so enchanted!
Thank you – the more I read the more I love walking here
Hope to see them up close next year. So excited to visit several years ago never noticed them. Thank you for the lesson.
Thank you for sharing your brilliant write up on my bit of family history!!. Alfred is my 38 x Great Grandfather on my maternal side. That discovery enable me to go further back to the beginnings of Anglo Saxons.
I have recently discovered that I am also a descendant of the Berkeley family of the Berkeley Castle.
Back when we actually studied History in public schools, I learned a little of Alfred… thanks for this amplification on his life.
What a wonderful and informative post.
This summer I am in the middle of a deep dive into English history. Thank you so much for this story. How lucky you are to live in such an ancient and beautiful country as we are lucky to have your descriptions of it.
I enjoy reading bout the Anglo-Saxons..
There was a movie “Alfred the Great” that came out in 1969. It starred David Hemmings as Alfred and Michael York as Guthrum. The movie showed the tactics Alfred used and I still remember to this day how much I enjoyed the storytelling. I assume much was fiction but oh so fascinating.
The movie is very old and not up to todays technical standards but I would watch it again if it came back on TV
I will look out for it!
Thank you. This is really interesting. Each week you bring a fresh topic to give food for thought.
I have a relative in Burgess Hill, East Sussex, who told me that the town was once famous for making terracotta tiles and Wyverns going back over 200 years. Several examples remain in the area I believe. The later development of the railway through Burgess Hill helped transport items around the country.
Definitely part of Wessex
Another lovely piece of history
We will see these in person on Sunday, July 17th
We are excited beyond words
Thank you so much for your wonderful commentaries!
See you then !
Thank you so much for a very interesting post. I very enjoyed receiving your wonderful post every Monday morning and have learned a lot over the years I’ve subscribed. Looking forward to the next one.
Very interesting. A great history lesson, thank you for another great blog.
Love, love, love this! Thank you!
In 1997 I had the privilege of visiting Winchester with a British Studies Program offered during my undergrad days. I will never forget that day among others. We saw the statue of King Alfred and also where the hanging of the the Knights of the Round Table that Henry VIII had commissioned is hung (it was not hanging at the time due to restoration work or something of the kind).
This is lengthy, I apologize. Just excited to read this, didn’t know anything about what you’ve shared here.
And at the end of the day I have a brother named Alfred (Al). He is my closest brother.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
Thank you for your interesting commentary on King Alfred today. I realised that this shows how far ahead at that time the embryotic UK was regarding the rights of all people in our country. The same comments could be said at the time of Magna Carta or even the last few years. Thank you for your illuminating blog. Best regards, John, Pangbourne, Berks.
Common Law, writing, books… I have started a book club and thought whilst sometimes I will have guests – this week Robert Hardman about his book “The Queen” I could also pull out books fomr our Library such as Bede’s history and use that as a starting point. Anyway I am at the begining of this journey!
Dear Lady Canarvon,
I was yesterday 10. of July the first time on Highclere Castle and it was so wonderful in your Castle, the secret garden is so beautiful.
It was my birthday present from my children, one week to London and my Highligt on Sunday Highclere Castle.
Thank much for all your informations and opening your doors.
Best wishes Alexandra Dobler
How very kind. – sorry to miss you – I had a really boring headache … hope to feel better today
Oh I hope you are better today.
We are traveled with- get your Guide, it was perfect. We had a good day with our irish leader Toni. He gave us much information and a lot of jokes. I‘ ll be back, until then, all the best
Your Alexandra Dobler
MY DEAR LADY CARNARVON,
GOOD EVENING FROM BRAZIL,
MILADY, I LOVE ENGLISH HISTORY.
RIO CLARO – SP
Thanks so much. I live in Maryland, USA and am of British descent. I have been to Britain twice. My ancestor was Christopher Tillman of the village of Selling in Kent. He was a direct descendant of Alfred the Great, according to a genealogy book my Mother gave me.
Thank you for this very interesting information. Have a very good, summer day.
Fascinating stuff! I’m interested in Glass. Is that stained glass in Highclere? If so where? And do you know when it was made and by whom?
The photograph is from a church window as a coloured idea of what Alfred the Great might have looked like.
Fantastic information, I must say that history stories do fascinate me lots, as I do run a history website in Wrexham, but your story on historic past is so wonderful to read, many thanks.
What a fascinating entry. I have read it aloud to my husband, Gregg. We are on holiday in London from Pasadena, California. We are counting the days until we get to Highclere on July 17th. It will be my third trip and his first.
Look forward to seeing you!
Really enjoyed this article and I learned a lot. Hope to visit this area in the near future.
Good morning Lady Carnarvon and greetings from Southern California!
It certainly sounds like Alfred was truly ‘great’ with a focus on enabling and engaging his constituency in order to maintain a lawful and informed society. Even today, we could learn a lot from this leadership style. So enjoy your blog, and I’m checking back every day for the later December dates (i.e. “Coming Soon”) so that we can during our Christmas holiday in the UK…very excited!
Keep checking-the dates will be released soon!
Very interesting information about English history
Dear Lady Carnarvon:
Thank you for this Monday’s blog.
I enjoyed learning about the wyverns [great pictures], (King) Alfred the Great, and more of your Country’s history.
I so enjoyed your history lesson, and think we are in desperate need today of another Alfred the Great! Thank you for your post. Jill