“Go Gaily in the Dark”

Alfred the Great and Preservation of Christian Civilization

King Alfred the Great, by A. S. Forrest (1905); inset, G. K. Chesterton (1909).


From G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse (words spoken by Mary, the Mother of God, to a sadly dispirited Alfred the Great):

The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark.
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark. …

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause
Yea, faith without a hope?” 1

“That same year (896), the Viking armies from East Anglia and Northumbria greatly harassed Wessex along the south coast with marauding bands, most of all, with the warships which they had built many years before. Then King Alfred ordered “long-ships” to be built, with which to oppose the Viking warships. They were almost twice as long as the others. They were both swifter and more stable, and also higher, than the others.” 2 His passage, written by a chronicler of Alfred’s time, gives an entry into the way in which that highly endowed monarch conceived of his duties as a ruler. For only a heartfelt concern for the survival of his menaced country, and for the welfare of its people, could have moved Alfred, the warrior-king, to enlist his subjects in the urgent work of protecting their harried shores.

Near the end of her distinguished career as a historian, Barbara Tuchman is said to have remarked that, of all the human failings that she was moved to record in her examination of past civilizations, there was one that most moved her to perplexity and sorrow. And that was the universal inability of even the most proud and cultured societies to achieve a just and well-ordered system of governance. Now, of course, when one comes to view the reign of a man such as Alfred, who inherited a land under siege, in an age rife with barbarism, it is obvious that waging a war in defense of a threatened realm leaves little scope for the works of peace. And yet, in the face of such onerous burdens, he nonetheless worked commendably, in and out of season, to bring to his countrymen “a sense of law and beauty/and a face turned from the clod.”

Can that be the reason for G.K. Chesterton’s asserting that “I have found the legend of a King of Wessex still alive in the land”? 3 And was it Alfred’s singular magnanimity, bestowed on all who dwelt under the aegis of his vigilant care, that caused Blessed Aelred of Rievaulx to signify him as “that ornament of the English, that jewel among kings, that model of virtues. … friendly toward the good, frightening to the wicked, and gentle and generous to the poor”? 4 There may, of course, arise, among some astute observers of the life of Alfred the Great, questions about the lasting importance of his historical legacy. Certainly, the crises that beset England during his reign recurred with great force in the turbulent centuries that followed.

In reply to those plausible doubts, I would answer that the very record of Alfred’s often confused strivings, his wrenching defeats, and his triumphs, together with his invaluable writings and instructions, all of which have passed down to later ages, continue to inspire countless men and women who have been constrained to guide their own storm-tossed ships of state. “When Alfred died,” wrote Eric Linklater, “the menace of the Danes had not been dispelled, but the body of England had been saved, and the spirit of England revived, by a warrior-king who, in his youth, had fought manfully for his people, and, by most rigorous application in his later years, had restored the primacy of intellect.” 5

Defender of the Realm

If you ask me why we need to fight, briefly listen to me: so
that the pagans may no longer irreverently insult the Christian
name, that they may not prefer idols to the true God, that they
may not ascribe to the strength of the demons they worship
what results from our sins. Finally, we fight lest our wives be
stolen, lest our sons be captured, lest our virgins be violated,
lest the wicked and perverse bring down the whole of the
English nobility to base servitude. 6

Thus spoke Alfred the Great, whom Aelred of Rievaulx praised as “a soldier of Christ,” to the men of his weary and dispirited army, in the hope of reviving their courage. What is noteworthy in that address is Alfred’s fixed assurance that the protracted conflict before him and his countrymen is, in every way, a war waged in defense of their homeland. It must follow that no campaign of depredation nor vengeful assault on innocent victims could be envisioned as a part of that conflict.

Kenneth O. Morgan’s insightful observation is pertinent here: “If Alfred was more truly ‘king of the English’ than anyone before him, it was not just through military strength. People genuinely wanted him because they knew that he and his family were just and considerate rulers.” 7 And yet, in this, our bent and damaged world, there seems to be a need at times, to practice the stern dimension of justice that takes the form of war. Especially is that so, if a menaced people can, in no other way, avoid fearful conquest and vile oppression. Now, of a certainty, history bears out the sad fact that innumerable bitter and hateful descents into violence have had no such excuse.

And yet, in view of the utter havoc that the Vikings were raising throughout England, the anger of Alfred at his ravaging foes does not seem unreasonable. (To be sure, any comparisons one might choose to make, between that ancient invasion and the unpardonable brutalities lately visited on Ukraine are, I believe, quite in order.) Michael Wood wrote that “We can follow the trail of destruction. In Hampshire, people fled ‘across the water,’ perhaps to the Isle of Wight. … In Wiltshire, one ealdorman, the king’s top local official, ‘deserted his king and country.’ … In 878, with the king on the brink of destruction, power politics may have cut through the bonds of kingship and race.” 8 At that very point, certainly the nadir of Alfred’s singular career, there entered into the fray that awesome operation of Divine Grace in the events of human history that will forever be a scandal to this world’s skeptics. Perhaps they should listen to Alfred, himself (in the deathless words that Chesterton assigned to him,) as he describes the momentous vision that appeared before him:

But out of the mouth of the Mother of God
I have seen the truth like fire,
This—that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher. 9

And only then, after having taken to heart Our Lady’s piercing, rigorous instructions, does King Alfred don his armor, gather his scattered forces, and set off to roundly defeat the Danes in the Valley of the White Horse.

Devoted Educator

O how sweet life was when we used to sit at leisure
amid the book boxes of a learned man, piles of books,
and the venerable thoughts of the Fathers; nothing was
missing that was needed for religious life and the pursuit
of knowledge. 10

So wrote the gifted and enterprising British monk and scholar, Alcuin, to a former pupil, late in the eighth century, as he recalled less harried times. Over a century later, Alfred the Great, in his “Letter to Bishop Werfrith,” set out the translation of writings into English as the most effective way to raise up places of learning in England. He contrasts that hopeful program with the blighted landscape and doleful ignorance that he first observed in the lands over which he had begun to rule. “So general became the decay of learning in England,” wrote Alfred, “that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand the rituals in English, or translate a letter from Latin into English. … Thanks be to almighty God that we now have some teachers among us. … Therefore it seems better to me, if you agree, for us to translate some of the books which are most needful for all men to know into the language which we can all understand.” 11

That last phrase, which I have highlighted, leads directly into the heart of what Paul Tillich might have termed Alfred’s “ultimate concern.” For the expressed desire to find the very best way to form the minds of one’s charges, toward the end of enhancing their sense of wonder, has, at all times, characterized humane educators, from St. Augustine and John of Salisbury, to Erasmus and Maria Montessori. 12

Of course, there can be no more disheartening prospect for those rare persons of vision, such as King Alfred, than to imagine a time when darkness might once again descend on a long-suffering land. Such concerns undoubtedly led him to view the spiritual welfare of his subjects as his most important task. For, as a ruler and guide, he knew that strength of character was the stoutest defense against the forces of destruction. Remarking with considerable astuteness on the deepening sagacity of Alfred in his later years, Eric Linklater commented that: “The ‘wild boar’ who had led the uphill charge at Ashdown had become a profoundly thoughtful man, full of resource in regions of the mind remote from war, who had seen that England’s losses lay deeper than material devastation.” 13

How noteworthy that Alfred was able to envision, in a time of savage warfare, the formation of institutions where inspired teaching would so flourish as to render them veritable cloisters of repose. Chateaubriand’s nostalgic encomium of early monastic orders comes to mind: “The monasteries,” he wrote, “became kinds of fortresses, where civilization sheltered beneath the banner of a saint; in them, all that was noblest in learning and in culture was preserved.” 14 When it is remembered that so perceptive a scholar as Erich Auerbach was once moved to signify “the court of Alfred the Great in Wessex” as a “center of courtly culture,” it does not seem fanciful to name that truly enlightened monarch as a worthy successor of those monks. 15

Author and Translator

I say, as do all Christian men, that it is a divine purpose that
rules, and not fate. (From King Alfred’s addition to Boethius’s
“Consolation of Philosophy,” cited as the epigraph to the present
edition of The Ballad of the White Horse.)

It is to Christopher Dawson, the inimitable historian of religion, and its role in the formation of well-ordered societies, to whom I now wish to turn, for a just estimate of King Alfred’s exemplary promotion of his people’s literacy. It was he, wrote Dawson, who “put forward the new ideal of vernacular Christian education for all free men, laymen as well as clerics.” To that end, the king made “a little library of Christian classics in English.” The volumes that Alfred selected, which included St. Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Bedes’ Ecclesiastical History, and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, represented, as Dawson pointed out, “an original conception of a liberal education.” 16 Nothing is more indicative of the philosophical cast of Alfred’s mind than his encounter with Boethius’s enduring contribution to Western literature.

For the English warrior-king set out to translate, into his native language, a work that the eminent historian, Edward Gibbon, once praised as “a golden volume, not unworthy of the leisure of a Tully or a Plato.” Perhaps Alfred, that aged, legendary, champion, was able to find solace, near the end of a long quest for the peace of his realm, from his meditating on the following divinely-ordained counsels bestowed by Lady Philosophy on Boethius’s sorely-tried spirit: “Love binds together people joined by a sacred bond; love binds sacred marriages by chaste affections; love makes the laws which join true friends; O how happy the human race would be, if that love which rules the heavens ruled also your souls!” 17 It may well be the case that Alfred’s studied affection for that matchless contemplative treatise, so widely read in The Middle Ages, was a reflection of his lifelong search for an instructor of wisdom, as recorded by Asser, his biographer:

He used to affirm with repeated complaints and sighing from the
depths of his heart, that among all the difficulties and burdens of
his present life, this had become the greatest: namely, that at the
time when he was of the right age and had the leisure and the
capacity for learning, he did not have the teachers. 18

Perhaps, Lady Philosophy became, in time, that most worthy king’s teacher!

Michael Wood has drawn for us an indelible picture of surviving fragments of Alfred’s monumental labors: the two copies of his rendition of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, which now repose in the Bodleian, Oxford, and at the British Library. Wood asks: “Why did he do it?” And he offers this answer: “If your concept of kingship is wider than tribal relations, if you wish to make law, impose taxes, create obligations in social life, then you must correct the language. Otherwise your meaning is unclear, and justice goes astray.” 19 There is occasion for further reflection, as we observe Alfred bringing the lessons of past masters to bear on the stormy events of his own day:

Look, Wisdom, you know that desire for, and possession of, earthly power never pleased me overmuch, and that I did not unduly desire this earthly rule. But that, nevertheless, I wished for tools and resources for the task that I was commanded to accomplish, which was that I should virtuously and worthily guide and direct the authority which was entrusted to me. 20

Son of the Church

For our God hath blessed creation
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band,
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand.
And the small apples grow.” 21

These words make up the final verse of the stirring song which a disguised Alfred sings, posing as a minstrel in the camp of the dreaded Vikings. Could such a legendary encounter have actually taken place? It may be that an answer can be found in the dark wisdom that marks this particularly affecting portion of Chesterton’s poem, in which he shows the deadly conflict to be still very much in the balance.

The author of The Ballad of the White Horse gives both a singular tone and a surprising reaction to Alfred’s direct address to those fearsome warriors. For the king presents them with stern counsels, decrying their joyless, bellicose, iron deities, and raising up in their stead an image of Christian hope and joy. And from this, they do not dissent! What seems to ring true in that singular episode, where we see Alfred striding among his mortal foes, is his astuteness. Note that he had not only found a way to uncover their strategies; he had also acquired a vantage point from which to observe their ennui and sodden spirits. But what emerges with greatest clarity in Alfred’s laconic song recital is the constancy of his deeply-rooted Catholic faith. How many of the valiant warring chiefs of Anglo-Saxon England were moved, as was he, to promote their lifesaving creed in the very midst of the enemy’s tents?

He was, after all, as Asser wrote, a ruler of men who had acquired: “the invariable habit of listening daily to divine services and Mass”… who “applied himself attentively to charity, and distribution of alms”… and who, “with wonderful affection, cherished his bishops and the entire clergy, his ealdormen and nobles, his officials, as well as his associates.” 22 I think that this study of Alfred’s life and accomplishments may best be concluded by calling to mind the lasting effects of his exemplary reign. As an extremely gifted English King of sterling character, with a fervent attachment to the Church, he had, by all accounts, an incalculable influence on the preservation of Christian civilization for centuries to come. And yet, there are not lacking persons who might presume to question why men and women of our much later day and age, an epoch in every way different from that of Alfred the Great, should immerse themselves in the “chronicles of wasted time wasted”?

In reply, I shall give the very last words in this essay to Pope Francis: “If as educators, we want truly to sow the seeds of a more just, free, and fraternal society, we need to learn to recognize the historical successes of our founders, of our artists, thinkers, politicians, educators, pastors.” 23

An earlier version of this paper was presented at The 2014 Annual Conference of The Society of Catholic Social Scientists at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

  1. All citations from that poem, first published in 1911, are from the edition by Bernadette Sheridan, IHM, published in Monroe, MI, by the Sister Servants of the IHM, 1993, illustrated by Robert Austin, repr. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), and followed by Book Title, poem lines, and page numbers. (The words are those spoken by Mary, the Mother of God, to a sadly dispirited Alfred the Great, in G.K. Chesterton’s great verse epic, The Ballad of the White Horse, Book I, “The Vision of the King,” lines 231-4, 258-61, p. 15-17).
  2. “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Annals 893-96,” Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, trans., with Introduction and Notes, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, 1sted., 1983, repr. (New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2004), p. 118-19. (Hereafter cited as Asser’s Life, preceded by title of selection and followed by page numbers.)
  3. The Ballad of the White Horse, “Prefatory Note,” p. 33.
  4. Aelred of Rievaulx, The Genealogy of the Kings of the English: “The Very Devout King Alfred,” The Historical Works, trans. Jane Patricia Freeland, and ed., with Introductions and Annotations, Marsha L. Dutton. The Institute of Cistercian Studies (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2005), p. 76, 78. (Hereafter cited as Aelred of Rievaulx.)
  5. Eric Linklater, “The Splendor of Wessex,” The Conquest of England, A Delta Book (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1966), p. 63. (Hereafter cited as Linklater.)
  6. Aelred of Rievaulx, p. 82-83.
  7. Kenneth O. Morgan, ed., “The Anglo-Saxon Period: Viking Invasions and the Rise of the House of Wessex,” The Oxford Popular History of Britain, new ed. (New York: Parragon Publishers, Ltd.: Barnes and Noble, 2001), p. 96.
  8. Michael Wood, “Alfred the Great,” In Search of the Dark Ages (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1987), p. 112. (Hereafter cited as Michael Wood, “Alfred the Great.”)
  9. The Ballad of the White Horse, Book Two, “The Gathering of the Chiefs,” lines 153-56, p. 30.
  10. Cited by John J. Contreni, “The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe,” “The Gentle Voices of Teachers”: Aspects of Learning in the Carolingian Age, ed. Richard E. Sullivan (Columbus: Ohio State University Press), p. 106.
  11. Cited by Alfred J. Andrea, ed., “King Alfred’s Educational Program,” The Medieval Record: Sources of Medieval History (New York: The Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), p. 179.
  12. Another name might very well be added to that (admittedly brief) list of those persons who made lasting and inestimable contributions to education, in all of its multiform phases: that of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis issued the following judgment on that perennially valuable of human enterprises, the advancement of knowledge: “Our objective,” he proclaimed, “is, not only to form individuals who are useful to society, but to educate persons who can transform it.” Was this not also the constant aim of King Alfred, as he strove to enhance the cause of learning in England? The excerpt is taken from an Easter, 2004, address in Buenos Aires, entitled “With Courage among Us All: A Country That Educates,” Education for Choosing Life: Proposals for Difficult Times, translated by Deborah Cole, 1st Spanish ed., 2005, repr. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), p. 66. (The volume contains messages which were delivered to educators in Argentina.) (Hereafter cited as Pope Francis.)
  13. Linklater, “The Splendor of Wessex,” p. 61.
  14. Cited by Henri Daniel-Rops, in his volume, The Church in the Dark Ages, 1959, Vol. 2 of his History of the Church of Christ, 1948-1965, trans. from French by Audrey Butler (London: Phoenix Press), p. 278.
  15. Erich Auerbach, “The Western Public and Its Language,” Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in The Middle Ages, trans. from German by Ralph Manheim, 1st ed., 1958, Bollingen Series, 84, repr. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), p. 267.
  16. Christopher Dawson, “The Age of the Universities and the Rise of Vernacular Culture,” The Crisis of Western Education, 1st ed. 1961, repr. (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1989), p. 13-14.
  17. The Consolation of Philosophy, Book II, Poem 8, trans., with Introduction and Notes, by Richard H. Green, 1st ed., 1962, repr. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002), p. 35.
  18. “Asser’s Life of King Alfred,” Chapter 25, Asser’s Life, p. 75-6.
  19. Michael Wood, “Alfred the Great,” p. 123.
  20. “Alfred’s Translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy,” XVII, Asser’s Life, p. 132.
  21. The Ballad of the White Horse, Book Three, “The Harp of Alfred,” lines 373-8., p. 62.
  22. “Asser’s Life of King Alfred,” Chapter 76, Asser’s Life, p. 91.
  23. Pope Francis “Being Creative, for an Active Hope,” p. 34.
Dr. William C. Zehringer, PhD About Dr. William C. Zehringer, PhD

Dr. William C. Zehringer is a former college writing instructor, with a doctorate in Medieval English Literature. His publications include Paths to Writing, a textbook; I Want a Hero, a young adult adventure novel; essays, short fiction; poetry; and book reviews. Dr. Zehringer is married, and resides in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.


  1. Thank you for this paper, Dr. Zehringer. Beyond historical interest for its own sake, it lays some solid thoughts in place that are relevant to the crises in our own time, as you suggest in your Ukraine reference. Education in Western societies today is a field crying out for renewal and reform, so shallow and near-sighted has it become. I appreciate the quote that you included from Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who wrote concerning the communication of knowledge, “Our objective is, not only to form individuals who are useful to society, but to educate persons who can transform it.”

    Current “education” in our culture seems to promote not truly human values, but the latest “politically correct” ones. It directs persons not to the expression of their gifts and abilities toward the service of God and the common good, but to getting a job so as to buy much stuff. There is at least one recent leader focused intently, explicitly, on “transforming” the culture – America in particular – but in ways deeply troubling to me and to many others. We need renewal and reform in education, led by persons of authentic wisdom and vision. Even many of our “Catholic” universities have fallen far from their noble and praiseworthy beginnings, to seek instead glory and praise from their secular academic peers. We need leaders in education who want right formation – not deformation – and who know the difference.

    • Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

      Dear Dr. Richard: Thanks for your considerate and thoughtful remarks. In a lighter vein, I think
      you might enjoy hearing about an anecdote involving the inimitable Flannery O’Connor. That
      formidable woman was once asked to give her opinion on the manifold depredations of modern
      educational theorists. She replied by quoting Sacred Scripture: “Some devils can only be cast
      out by prayer and fasting.” May her tribe increase!