These days it’s easy to become cynical about politicians, government officials, and other national leaders. Governing a country takes hard-nosed, practical realism. Morality and religion are well and good, many of us say, but someone who follows such ideals in the political arena will be eaten alive. Yet, consider the example of a ninth-century king named Alfred the Great.
In his day England (“Angle-land”) consisted of isolated Germanic tribes whose kings were closer to tribal chiefs than heads of state. The various Angles and Saxons had converted to Christianity thanks to seventh-century missionaries, but holdover practices from paganism such as blood feuds — the vigilante self-policing in which families take revenge against each other — kept the society fragmented and weak.
Though Alfred was the youngest son of the king of the West Saxons (Wessex), his three older brothers each died after brief reigns, so in AD 871, he found himself on the throne. He was twenty-two years old. Almost immediately, the Vikings invaded England.
The pagan “Danes” had made raids on the island for centuries, sailing in on their dragon ships, sacking towns, burning monasteries, and brutally murdering villagers. But then they would leave. This time the Vikings were attacking with huge armies. They had brought their families with them and were planning to stay. Already they had seized much of northern England. Now they were moving south.
King Alfred unified the various tribes against the common threat. He led the Angle and Saxon army and did what no earlier ruler had been able to do — he defeated the Vikings.
In the peace treaty, he allowed the Vikings who had settled in the north to remain. But he insisted that the Viking leaders accept Christianity. They were baptized and agreed to welcome in their territories missionaries and churches. Within a few generations, the newly-Christian “Danes” had assimilated into the rest of Angle-land.
Alfred also codified the law. He brought together many of the traditional laws of the Saxons, writing down the oral traditions. But he also Christianized those laws. He began his written code with the Ten Commandments, followed by the Golden Rule of Jesus. He replaced the blood feuds with a system of fines that would be enforced not by individual avengers but by the king and his officers. He instituted a judicial system, including trial by jury. Essentially, King Alfred established the rule of law.
He also brought education to the land. He established schools with the goal of bringing literacy to every free citizen. Because the English people had few books in their own language, he sponsored translations, including portions of the Bible. Because of the shortage of scholars, the king himself translated books, including theological works by St. Augustine, a treatise on pastoral care for local churches by St. Gregory, the history of Christianity in England by the Venerable Bede, and the Psalms of David.
King Alfred followed his vocation as ruler along the lines of Romans 13. The doctrine of vocation has to do with how God works through human beings. Romans 13 clearly states that God exercises His authority through lawful human authorities. They are “ministers of God” (13:6).
According to Romans 13, the purpose of the ruler’s vocation is to protect their innocent subjects against evildoers. King Alfred did this. Some of his successors did not. A few reigns later, King Ethelred the Unready failed to stop a new Viking invasion, largely because of his fecklessness and incompetence. A Dane, King Canute, made himself king of England.
The last of King Alfred’s line was the son of Ethelred, a devout young man named Edward the Confessor who gained the throne after Canute’s death. King Edward was probably England’s most outwardly pious monarch and was eventually named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. However, he bought into the theology that considered monastic asceticism to be more spiritual than earthly vocations, such as parenthood.
Though he was married, he apparently took a vow of celibacy. He and his wife, out of their non-biblical rejection of God’s gift of married sexuality, had no children. That was the height of irresponsibility for a king in a hereditary monarchy, which requires a lawful successor to avoid throwing the land into anarchy. Compounding this irresponsibility was that he made the French duke of Normandy, who sheltered him when he fled Canute, the heir to the throne. This was William the Conqueror, who would invade England and utterly subjugate the Saxons.
King William illustrates another kind of ruler. Instead of serving his people as Alfred did, William wanted his people to serve him. Instead of punishing evildoers and protecting the innocent, tyrants do the reverse, punishing the innocent and protecting evildoers. This is not what God has called rulers to do. Tyrants do not have God’s authority. They are sinning against God’s authority.
King Alfred was arguably one of England’s founding fathers. English civilization, despite occasional setbacks, would build on its heritage, which the United States shares. Of all the English kings, only Alfred bears the title of “great.” What made him great was the way he lived out his faith in his God-given vocation.