Alfred the Great

Question One

The North of England was in the past referred to as the Kingdom of Northumbria and it is currently a land as distinct from southern England as it is from Ireland or Scotland (Abbot 26).  People might tend to confuse this particular Kingdom with present day County of Northumberland which happens to be a small portion of Northumberland itself.  This is purely an accident of history.  Perhaps the most important date in the dark era of northern history was 547AD as it is when the ancient British coastal stronghold of Din Guyaroi, also known as Bamburgh on the North East coast was captured by the Angle chief known as Ida the Flamebearer (Pratt 61).  This seizure was considered a crucial event in the Angle’s military as well as political seizure of the North.  It is also the time that the Kingdom of Northumbria gained its title. 

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The kingdom of Northumbria was originally composed of two independent kingdoms known as Deira and Bernicia and was one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England (Roka    114).  Ethelfrith of Bernicia brought together these two kingdoms to form Northumbria and also put in Welsh and Scottish territory.  Northumbria was considered a dominant force in English political life and its political roods stemmed from two principal sources that is the kingdom of Deira in the fertile vale of York and the northern kingdom of Bernicia based on the thin fortress rock of Bamburgh (Congleton 15).  Towards the end of the century the kingdom experienced its first Viking attacks which brought about fresh and disastrous new element. In 793AD the Vikings brutally sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne sending shock waves throughout western Christedom (Ferguson    34). 

Under the reign of Alfred the Great the Danes made an attempt of conquering England leading to the collapse of Northumbrian kingdom.  The southern part of the kingdom of Northumbria was lost to the Danelaw.  On the other hand the northern part which was once Bernicia managed to retain its status as a kingdom but soon curtailed to the title of an earldom when it became subordinate to the Danish kingdom upon reuniting England by the Wessex-led reconquest of the Danelaw (Barrow 85).

Mercia and Northumbria were perceived to be very close rivals since the beginning despite the fact that Northumbria’s golden age was through a time which marked its political decline.  Mercia was not as cultured as majority of other kingdoms but managed to grow to greater power.  Were it not for external events Wessex would not have been able to eclipse Mercia.  East Anglia and Northumbria were conquered and puppet rulers installed (Abbot 27).  Mercia soon followed the same fate and Wessex came close to it.  At this particular point in time, Alfred the Great came to reign where he fought with his older brothers against the Danes, sometimes winning and other times losing. 

He was not yet the King of England at the time but was the first to use the title King of the Anglo-Saxons which was a term he seemed to utilize in recognition of the fact that half of Mercia was under his control (Pratt 62).  Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan had by this time secured the rule over most of what is now England and there would never again be an effective alternative to the house of Wessex (Ferguson 35).  

King Alfred the Great is considered to be one of the best and most effective kings to ever rule mankind.  He not only managed to defend Anglo-Saxon England from the Viking attacks but also fostered a rebirth of religious and scholarly activity in addition to formulating a code of laws (Barrow 86).  His effectiveness as a leader was evident in his military innovation and skills, his ability to inspire men and plan for the future, sound government, piety and a practical commitment to the support of religion, promotion of education, and personal scholarship (Roka 115).  Alfred the Great was not only the fifth but favorite son of Ethelwulf, the Saxon king of Wessex and Kent (Pratt 63). 

Alfred came into power at a time considered troublous and difficult as the Danish Vikings had taken over much of Saxon territory, destroying villages, cities and monasteries in addition o murdering or driving away thousands of Saxon citizens.  Alfred’s great leadership and martial skills were first realized during the reign of Ethelred where he was the leading General in a great series of battles that were fought with an army of Danes in 871AD (Barrow 87).  Considering the fact that Alfred was Wessex Saxons’s greatest threat the new army of Danes carried out a surprise attach on his stronghold in mid-winter where he barely escaped, scattering his army and driving him to exile at Athelney (Congleton 16). 

Unlike majority of English kings who would have given up at this point, Alfred managed to somehow discreetly pull together another army and planned an attack against the Danes.  He then waited for the perfect opportunity which came and he attacked at what was known as the Battle of Edington seizing Guthrum and his officers (Pratt 64).  He however did not kill him as would most of English kings after seizing their enemy but instead made a radical proposal suggesting that if they (Danes) would convert to Christianity and accept Alfred as their overlord in addition to helping defend the coast of England from further attacks, then Alfred would allow them to keep possession of particular lands in England to the north of Wessex (Abbot 28). 

Guthrum agreed to the proposal, signed the Treaty of Wedmore which established a Christian Danish region in England, independent but subject to the King of Wessex (Ferguson 36).  Alfred’s conduct in the course of the last 20 years of his reign was considered laudable as a soldier, an administrator, a Christian, a scholar and as a ruler (Barrow 88).  Such characteristics and qualities are what separated Alfred the Great from other English kings of that time. 

Question Two

The rise of the British Parliament which is considered the law making body of Great Britain has its foundations in the 13th Century when a council known as the Curia Regis or the Great Council advised the king (Abbot 29).  Consisting mostly of church officials and noblemen, present day Parliament evolved in the course of time where it has progressively gained more governing authority and power.   There have been a number of confident assertions that have been made regarding why and how the Parliament originated for instance where the influential 19th Century historian Bishop Stubbs perceived the beginnings of Parliament placed during the reign of Edward I (Roka 116). 

It is however quite difficult to describe the development of early Parliament or place a sense of history going forward as majority of councils at that particular time were disguising reform as a way of protecting their old privileges.

Even though it is not considered the oldest legislative body in history, the British Parliament is perceived as being a positive and negative model for the legislative branches of majority of western nations which includes the Congress of the USA (Pratt 65).  The House of Commons was established in the 13th Century and was represented by social classes such as burgesses and knights whose main responsibility was to report the consent of counties and towns to taxes that were being imposed by the king (Congleton 17).  As there was not constitutional distinction between the House of Lords whose council was the Curia Regis and the House of Commons, the formalization of Parliament being a distinct body of government was carried out in the course of the following century.  The constitutional position of Parliament was in the beginning undifferentiated from that of the great council (Abbot 30).  However it began to gain greater power over grants of revenue to the king in the course of the 14th Century.  Statute legislation arose as petition form was slowly replaced by the drafting of bills sent to the king which were in turn enacted by Commons, Lords and the king together.  The Parliament also wielded wide legislative and administrative powers where it finally became essentially an instrument of the monarch’s will (Roka 117). 

The Community of The Realm refers to the notion that it takes all of a people to make a nation where even a King is only one of the many (Barrow 89).  This was a concept used in Scotland.  The passing on of Alexander III saw Scotland without an adult monarch and Parliament seemed to have become more prominent (Ferguson 37).  Absence of an adult monarch and lack of any clear succession forced the Scots to innovate where through the mechanism of guardianship and adoption of large assemblies also referred to as parliaments charged with the responsibility of overseeing and advisory role, the idea of the Community of the Realm was born.  After electing John Balliol as king in the year 1292 the momentum to involve parliament in government was maintained and Balliol tried utilizing Parliament in the establishment of his authority over the kingdom while it played a role in seeking to bring together the divided community (Abbot 31).  Parliament soon represented a challenge to kings as the political role of the Community of the Realm was temporarily put on hold by Robert I. 

To a certain extent the importance of the Community of the Realm is not doubted for instance the fact that the leading clergy and nobility were able to rally around in that particular period of disaster (Pratt 66).  With the threat of civil war hanging over the Guardians at the time they were still able to come together and work effectively for the good of the kingdom.  Robert Bruce and John Balliol were deliberately left out of the council of Guardians as this would create more tension in the kingdom and was not perceived as a good idea by the Community of the Realm.  The Community was important in maintaining peace in times of tension and distress.  The freemen of the Community did not also include the peasants working in the fields as they needed individuals who had the qualifications of making important and appropriate decisions for the benefit of the kingdom (Congleton 18).  Peasants were only required to give opinions or ideas regarding leadership but not making the final decisions.  As a whole, the Community of the Realm was important in maintaining control of the situation during that period.

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