The occasion is being marked with conferences and exhibitions in Winchester, Southampton and London, but the scale of celebrations will be modest compared with those which commemorated his millenary, and culminated in the unveiling by Lord Rosebery of his statue in Winchester.
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Alfred is someone who has had greatness thrust upon him. How and why did he acquire his glowing reputation, and how does it stand up today? Alfred nearly succumbed to the Vikings as well, but kept his nerve and won a decisive victory at the battle of Edington in Further Viking threats were kept at bay by a reorganisation of military service and particularly through the ringing of Wessex by a regular system of garrisoned fortresses. At the same time Alfred promoted himself as the defender of all Christian Anglo-Saxons against the pagan Viking threat and began the liberation of neighbouring areas from Viking control.
He thus paved the way for the future unity of England, which was brought to fruition under his son and grandsons, who conquered the remaining areas held by the Vikings in the east and north, so that by the mid-tenth century the England we are familiar with was ruled as one country for the first time. His preservation from the Vikings and unexpected succession as king after the death of four older brothers, seem to have given Alfred a sense that he had been specially destined for high office. Alfred tried to put these principles into practice, for instance, in the production of his law-code.
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Alfred also had the foresight to commission his biography from Bishop Asser of Wales. Asser presented Alfred as the embodiment of the ideal, but practical, Christian ruler. One could say that Asser accentuated the positive, and ignored those elements of ruthless, dictatorial behaviour which any king needed to survive in ninth-century realpolitik. Alfred and Asser did such a good job that when later generations looked back at his reign through their works they saw only a ruler apparently more perfect than any before or after.
Alfred is often thought to have provided his own epitaph in this passage from his translation of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius:. I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.
Alfred the Great
Alfred, particularly as presented by Asser, may have had something of a saint in him, but he was never canonised and this put him at something of a disadvantage in the later medieval world. The Normans and their successors were certainly interested in presenting themselves as the legitimate heirs of their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, but favoured the recognised royal saints, especially Edmund of the East Angles, killed by the Danish army which Alfred defeated, and Edward the Confessor, the last ruler of the old West Saxon dynasty.
St Edmund and St Edward can be seen supporting Richard II on the Wilton diptych, and members of the later medieval royal houses were named after them. None of the Anglo-Saxon rulers qualified for this role.
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However, Alfred was lauded by Anglo-Norman historians, like William of Malmesbury, Gaimar and Matthew Paris, and their presentations, and occasional embellishments, of his achievements would be picked up by later writers. As a pious king with an interest in promoting the use of English, Alfred was an ideal figurehead for the emerging English Protestant church. The works he had commissioned or translated were interpreted as evidence for the pure Anglo-Saxon church, before it had become tainted by the false Romanism introduced by the Normans.
With a bit of selective editing, Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical provision came to bear an uncanny resemblance to Elizabethan Anglicanism. Comparable claims of the contribution of the Anglo-Saxons to English life were used to support radical political change in the seventeenth century, when it was argued, for instance, that the right of all freemen to vote for representatives in Parliament was a lost Anglo-Saxon liberty.
Alfred himself was an unlikely champion for the more radical movements, and was more readily adopted by those who wanted to show Stuart, and eventually Hanoverian, rulers, how they could become successful constitutional monarchs by emulating their most famous Anglo-Saxon ancestor.
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Robert Powell, in his Life of Alfred, published in , attempted to draw parallels between the reigns of Alfred and Charles I, something which often called for considerable ingenuity, and his hope that Charles would share the same respect for English law as that apparently shown by Alfred proved misplaced. Spelman was to die the following year of camp fever, and publication of the biography was delayed until more propitious times. In fact, any attempts to interest Stuart monarchs in their Saxon forebears had only a limited success. The common Saxon heritage of the Hanoverians and the Anglo-Saxons provided more fertile ground for the promotion of a cult of King Alfred.
His first aristocratic and royal backers came from the circle which gathered around Frederick, Prince of Wales , the eldest son of George II, and was united by the opposition of its members to the prime minister Robert Walpole. A number of literary works centred upon Alfred were dedicated to the prince.
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This new interest in the Germanic past began to trickle down to other sectors of society. Those who could not have a Saxon memorial in their grounds or in the nearby countryside could at least own a print of the new genre of History painting. A series of patriotic Alfred plays, opera and ballets were performed, particularly during the French Wars Sloan Foundation Economic Research Paper Series the medieval life of king alfred the great: a translation and commentary on the text attributed to asser.
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