chapter  9
22 Pages

Alfredian government: the West Saxon inheritance

ByNicholas Brooks

The emphasis in the title of this chapter lies on the word ‘inheritance’. The underlying question is: how far were Alfred’s governmental and administrative practices devised by the king himself with the aid of his court advisers, or were they standard procedures that he had inherited from previous West Saxon kings? Was Alfred an innovator in government or merely an able transmitter of an old inheritance? We have recently been reminded of the antiquarian myth-making that turned King Alfred into the founder, not only of the University of Oxford, but also of hundreds and tithings, of the royal navy, of county councils and of much else that was held sacred in the British political, constitutional and educational worlds between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries.1 But more recent historians have also found signs of new beginnings in the rule of King Alfred. Thus the late Henry Loyn saw this reign as marking the watershed between the primitive early Anglo-Saxon polities and what he understood as the ‘territorial state’ of later Anglo-Saxon England;2 while Patrick Wormald has conceived the reign as a starting-point for ‘the making of English law’.3 But it must be confessed that, despite the interpretative models of such luminaries, it is still not easy to assess Alfred’s impact upon royal government. We can see something of the king’s political and military activities in the pages of the AngloSaxon Chronicle and of Asser’s Life of Alfred; we can see the results of his administration in the surviving coins bearing his name and in the boroughs that resisted Danish assault in the later 880s and early 890s. But it is singularly difficult to say anything about the governmental processes involved.