King Alfred was born at Wantage in The Vale of the White Horse in 849. He became King at twenty-one after his older brothers had all been killed in the wars against the Norse. ("From the fury of the North Men, O Lord deliver us.") He was twenty-nine at Ethendune. After the battle, England was split into the Danelaw (generally the north and east) and the English kingdoms in the south and west. Before he died he re-took London.

Alfred brought Latin back to the kingdom and ordered translations of Latin works. He turned Boethius into English himself. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was probably begun at his behest. He compared learning to a wood; you go there to cut timber to make a house for the mind to live in.

In the eightth century, before the Norse burned the monasteries and their books, England had been a centre of European culture. The Venerable Bede (now St Bede) tells the story of Northumbria's seventh century conversion to Christianity. King Edwin called a meeting to decide if missionaries should be allowed to preach. One man, Bede records, compared the life of a pagan to the flight of a sparrow flying out of the rain and snow of a winter night into the light of the mead hall and then quickly back out again to be lost forever in the storm. The new religion offered the certainty of salvation and knowledge of what is to come. Coifi, the high priest, broke Woden's shrine. (All that's left of Woden now is Wednesday).

Alfred died in 899, and is buried in Winchester, the capital of the West Saxons (Wessex). All towns ending in chester, cester, caster or other variants, by the way, are Roman in origin. Chesterton would have known that: it's where his own name came from. It's from the Latin castrumoppidum — and oppidan is still used in Eton College with a similar meaning.

In The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton imagines a continuity between Roman and Englishman. One of the men in the Ballad who fights the Danes is a Roman with an estate overlooking the sea. There was no continuity. The Old English poem, The Ruin, tells of their awe at the sight of an abandoned Roman city, probably Bath. The first English settlers were villagers. By the time they reached Bath, the Legions had long gone and the Empire itself had failed. The Victorians could be romantic about such things, and often wrong, not that they had any way of knowing better. For example, Chesterton assumes there was intermarriage between Anglo-Saxon and Celt. A late 20th/early 21st century DNA survey proved intermarriage never took place to any great extent.

There are at least two statues of the King. The one in Wantage, his birthplace, was carved in 1877 by the Queen's cousin, Count Gleichen. The other, in Winchester, is by Hamo Thornycroft. It was commissioned in 1899 to mark the millennium of the king's death and unveiled in 1901. Neither is a likeness, of course, but they do convey the high regard in which he was held by the Victorians. Somebody once called Sir Winston Churchill the greatest Englishman ever. No, Churchill corrected him, the greatest is King Alfred.

The Persistence of the Victorians: Things Remembered and Things Forgot

Last modified 17 September 2006