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Leadership in Spiritual Learning: Alfred the Great (849 - 899)

In the winter of 887, King Alfred of Wessex, having fought off pagan, Viking invaders,1 sat in his royal apartments studying Scripture with his tutor, trusted advisor, and “muse,” the Welsh priest Asser.2 As Asser read from the Latin text, Alfred listened intently, determined to master the ancient tongue in which the Scriptures were available to him.

There were, of course, pressing matters of state, but Alfred believed none so important that it warranted neglecting the study of God’s Word. He had, in fact, taken an oath to spend half of his time in the political governance of his kingdom and half in devotion to the spiritual affairs of his Christian faith.3 He was motivated by the conviction that England’s vulnerability to Viking attack was, in large measure, God’s punishment for the decline of education in his country and that “a personal interest in wisdom was a facet of true Christian kingship.”4 Thus his goal was to have “a well-peopled land” including “men of prayer, men of war, and men of work,”5 a goal which he knew would require his commitment to learning as a lifelong spiritual discipline.6

As he neared 40, when most men had their years of greatest learning behind them, Alfred sent word to Wales of his need for a priest, one who could teach him to read and interpret the Latin language of the Church. Upon Asser’s arrival, Alfred spent much of his time cloistered with his new tutor, who soon thanked God that the king was enthusiastic about learning from the Scriptures.7 (The priest compared him to “the busy bee, wandering far and wide . . . in his quest, eagerly and relentlessly assembling many various flowers of Holy Scripture.”8)

As they studied, Alfred compiled a handbook of Scripture and commentary, his “enchiridion.”9 This he carried with him at all times as a source of devotion and comfort.10 The king was an apt student of Latin and was even able to translate many of the Psalms as well as works by Augustine, Boethius, and Gregory the Great, into his own native Anglo-Saxon tongue. This proved of great spiritual benefit to his fellow Englishmen.11 (For instance, he sent a copy of his translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care to each bishop in the land.12)

Alfred’s devotion to the discipline of learning allowed him to lead Wessex to become the “the spiritual heart of . . . Christian England.”13 His ethical reforms, based upon the Ten Commandments, allowed him to begin the establishment of a nation of relative peace and light in a world of darkness.14 It was his commitment to learning that ultimately led to his becoming the only king of England to be given the title “the Great.”15

Alfred was a king during a difficult era, yet he found the time to devote himself to the spiritual discipline of learning from God’s Word. Can modern Christians have any excuses greater than those Alfred could have used to avoid study? Believers must love the Lord not only with heart and soul but also with the mind (Mark 12:29-30). They should agree with Alfred when he says, “he seems to me a very foolish man and very wretched who will not increase his understanding while he is in this world and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.”16


N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Part Two: The Middle Ages (London: Grace Publications Trust, 2000), 142.


Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England (London: John Murray, 2005), 232-251.


Needham, 143-144.


David Horspool, King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 128.


William McElwee, A Short History of England: From the Time of King Alfred to the Present Day (New York: Praeger, 1969), 29.


Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), 226.


Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great: The King and His England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 111.


Pollard, 253.




Duckett, 111.


Needham, 143.


Alf J. Mapp, Jr., The Golden Dragon: Alfred the Great and His Times (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974), 100.


Needham, 144.


Duckett, 91.


Selah Helms and Susan Thompson Kahler, Small Talks on Big Questions: A Manual to Help Parents and Teachers Explain Christian Doctrine (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground, 2007), 165.


McElwee, 30.