Saturday, 3 August 2013

King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons

As my home town of Stafford celebrates 1100 years since its founding by Æthelflæd, The Lady of Mercians this summer, it is with perfect timing that historian Michael Wood presents a new three-part series on BBC Four on the story of King Alfred the Great and his struggles against the Danes. Wood argues that Alfred and his descendants were England's most influential and important rulers.

In Michael Wood's television debut back in 1980 he focused on Alfred the Great as part of the series In Search Of The Dark Ages. Wood now returns to Alfred in a major three-part television series on BBC Four commencing next Tuesday 6th August at 9.00 pm. King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons examines the careers of King Alfred the Great, the Lady Æthelflæd, his daughter, and King Athelstan, his grandson and first king of all England.

Alfred the Great, probably the best-known Anglo-Saxon king, reigned 871–899, is famously remembered for burning the cakes. The son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, Alfred succeeded his three older brothers to the throne in 871. At that time, Danish invaders had conquered much of England, and Alfred struggled to prevent Wessex from succumbing to the same fate.

From his retreat to The Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes, Alfred launched the Anglo-Saxon recovery leading to the decisive victory over the Great Heathen Army of Guthrum at the Battle of Edington in May 878. King Alfred went on to establish towns, trade and coinage, reviving learning and literacy, laying the foundations of a single kingdom of 'all the English'.

Episode 1 – Alfred Of Wessex, 6 August 
The first episode of the series shows Alfred fighting a desperate guerrilla war from the marshes of Somerset leading to the battle at Edington.  Filmed on location from Reading to Rome, using original texts read in Old English, and interviews with leading scholars, Michael Wood describes a man who was ‘not just the greatest Briton, but one of the greatest rulers of any time or place’.

Episode 2 – The Lady Of The Mercians,  13 August
The second episode sees Alfred’s children continue the family plan to create a kingdom of all the English. The tale begins with a savage Civil War in a bleak decade of snow and famine, culminating in an epic victory over the Vikings near Wolverhampton in 910. The key figure in this episode is Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, the ruler of Mercia. Michael Wood recovers her story from a copy of a lost chronicle written in Mercia in her lifetime. One of the great forgotten figures in British history, Æthelflæd led armies, built fortresses, campaigned against the Danes and was a brilliant diplomat. Her fame spread across the British Isles, beloved by her warriors and her people she was known simply as 'The Lady of the Mercians’. Wood concludes that without her ‘England might never have happened’.

Episode 3 – Æthelstan: The First King Of England, 20 August.
In the third episode, Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan fulfils the family plan and creates a kingdom of all England. Here Wood tells of Æthelstan’s wars, his learning and his lawmaking and shows how he created a national coinage and traces the origin of the English Parliament to the king’s new assembly politics. But there’s also a dark side, with later legends that the king had his brother drowned at sea. In his last desperate struggle, Æthelstan defeated a huge invasion of Danes and Scots in what became known as the Anglo‐Saxon ‘Great War’. Wood argues, Æthelstan was one of the greatest English monarchs, and with his grandfather Alfred, his father Edward and his aunt Æthelflæd, a member of our most remarkable royal family, and ‘even more than the Tudors, the most gifted and influential rulers in British history’.

The statue of King Alfred the Great at the eastern end of The Broadway, 
Winchester, near to the site of the city's medieval East Gate, 
erected in 1899 to mark one thousand years since Alfred's death.

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