Today is the Feast Day (in the Anglican Communion) of Alfred the Great, the greatest of the pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon kings, and in fact the only British monarch in history to be honored with the appellation “Great”. He died on this day in 899 A.D. During his remarkable life, Alfred exemplified the virtues of a Christian leader: boldly and successfully defending his people from the invading hordes of pagan Vikings, yet showing noted kindness and generosity to the enemy once their threat was neutralized. (Guthrum, the Viking king, became a Christian and Alfred assumed the role of adoptive father toward his one-time foe.) Alfred the Great also did much to establish justice, to encourage and reform the church, and to promote learning in his realm. (Leading by example, Alfred himself took up the task of learning Latin at the age of 38.)
The ancient images of white horses carved in various hillsides of south-central England are often associated with Alfred. G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse celebrates his reign, and was probably a significant inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien.