Thu 22 October 2020

The Count of the Saxon Shore continues exploring the ‘game of thrones’ of seven kingdoms and the ‘Norway plus’ model of the time.

What makes truly great leadership?

As we await the selection of who might be guiding us through the greatest political crisis of our age, let’s look at a sublime example from the past to compare with our ridiculous present.

Englishness was born: the Anglecynn. Not so much an ethnic identity, but more a system of shared values, a culture.

In examining the roots of English identity, the Count of the Saxon Shore has been following the ‘game of thrones’ of how power rotated between the seven kingdoms of Kent, Sussex, Essex, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex.

By the Ninth Century AD, we come to this last kingdom. 

In 829 AD, King Ecgbert of Wessex defeated Mercia and was declared ‘bretwalda’ (perhaps meaning ‘Britain-ruler’), thus establishing the supremacy of the south-west.

But, the nascent England now faced its biggest threat: the Vikings.

Those seeking refuge in for some sort of ‘Norway plus’ model for a post-Brexit  economy might consider how it last worked.

Those seeking refuge in for some sort of ‘Norway plus’ model for a post-Brexit  economy might consider how it last worked when we were so closely aligned to a Scandinavian system. Be plundered or pay the Danegeld was the stark choice back then. And, after you paid, you usually got plundered anyway.

By the 870s, Vikings controlled all of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy except Wessex. Now the Last Kingdom itself was under threat.

Alfred was an unlikely English resistance leader.

Known more for his intellect rather than his warlike character, he was a bookish man who suffered chronic illness all his life (possibly Crohn’s disease). He travelled widely in Europe and would often look to the Carolingian government of France and Germany for examples of how to rule. 

His fightback started with a guerilla campaign (the story of him burning the cakes supposedly dates from his time hiding out in the Somerset levels). He then instigated a system of burhs – fortified urban centres that became the market towns we know today. An able strategist, he used knowledge as much as military might to forge a nation.

Alfred was determined to share the education he had received as a privilege by ordering great ecclesiastical and literary works to be translated into Old English.

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This was a spiritual programme with a political purpose. A keen scholar, Alfred himself worked on turning Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy into an accessible vernacular. A concept of Englishness was born: the Anglecynn. Not so much an ethnic identity (the founder of Wessex, Cerdic, wasn’t even an Anglo-Saxon), but more a system of shared values; a culture. 

The Alfred Jewel, a piece of ninth-century Anglo-Saxon jewellery in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Even the unruly Vikings were eventually assimilated into this haphazard nation. Though they continued to threaten the stability of the islands, it is a testament to Alfred’s belief – that knowledge is power – that the true legacy of these fierce migrants is the Old Norse loanwords that we still use today such as anger and sky. 

Alfred is rightly known as ‘the Great’. The burning cakes episode is apocryphal, perhaps a necessary flaw in his biography. Our present leaders suffer from a surfeit of flaws as if this gives them charisma or, god forbid, ‘authenticity’.

Alfred’s epitaph could come from Boethius: “To speak briefly: I desired to live worthily as long as I lived and, after my life, to leave to them that come after my memory in good works.”

Can we imagine ever applying this to the current contenders for leaders of our nation?

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