I'm also writing it because I found it recently that Michael Wood has just made a documentary series about this same king, which will be on BBC in the autumn. It feels as if there's something in the air: perhaps the hour of this king is about to come again!
So who was he? Well, here are some clues.
- His name begins with an A.
- He was a brave fighter and a skillful tactician.
- He gathered about him a cultured Christian court, inviting to it scholars from all over Europe.
- Legends have gathered around his name.
- He truly cared for the welfare of his people - all of them, not just the rich ones.
- He had a Big Idea - the idea of England and Englishness.
- He had his time of despair in a watery wilderness.
- There are many places in south-west England which are associated with him - the Avalon marshes; Winchester (where a round table hangs in the Castle...); the area near Wayland's Smithy; and the tower in the picture, which is in the grounds of Stourhead, in Wiltshire.
Have you got it yet? A few more clues...
- He was real. He definitely, incontrovertibly existed.
- He did not have a helpful wizard called Merlin. (Though in my book, he does have a magic lady called Cerys.)
- His wife was called Eahlswith, not Guinevere.
- If he hadn't, against all odds, emerged from the marshes and conquered the Danes, there's a distinct possibility that we'd now be speaking some form of Danish. (Which would have its advantages - we'd be able to watch Borgen without subtitles!)
So - not Arthur, but Alfred. People often confuse the two - I can't tell you how many times I've been asked about that book I wrote about King Arthur. Don't get me wrong - I'm a great fan of the Arthurian legend. But Alfred was, famously, a great king. He achieved things. He made a difference. Yet now, if you go into most classrooms - or probably most pubs - you're lucky if you find anyone who's heard any more than a garbled story about some badly burnt cakes. I hope that's going to change!
Finally, here are the words which are carved on the stone tablet set into the front of Alfred's Tower.
Alfred the Great
AD 879 on this summit
Erected his standard against Danish invaders
To Him we owe
The origin of Juries
The Establishment of a Militia
the Creation of a Naval force
Alfred the light of a benighted age
was a Philosopher and a Christian
The Father of his People
The Founder of the English
Monarchy and Liberty.
What a guy!