At the beginning of May, I was priviledged to be asked to speak at the Historical Association Conference in Manchester.  It was an excellent weekend with a wide range of lectures and continuing professional development opportunities. This is the third in a series of blog posts about the various lectures and workshops I attended.

It has to be said that the stand-out lecture of an excellent weekend was given by Professor Michael Wood.  Prof. Wood had us all enthralled by the sheer enthusiasm for his subject.  And that subject was not one of his many documentaries, it was HIS subject – the Anglo-Saxons.  His Saturday morning keynote was entitled

Alfred and the Anglo Saxons – the Making of Britain

Prof. Wood opened his lecture by pointing out that history helps us to understand the present, to spot fake news.  It’s important.

He described how he was gripped by Ladybird Books on the Anglo Saxons as a child and he still harbours an ambition to write Alfred’s biography.  The sources are his inspiration.

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He argued that the 3 generations of Alfred’s family are important.  Their history is fragmentary and have to be put together from bits and pieces in the sources.  The challenge is to establish not just the events but the personalities.  Although historians start counting kings from William I, no one doubts that the basis of the state appeared under Alfred. Nevertheless, much as he was inspired by the Ladybird Books of his youth, he used illustrations from the books to point out some of the misunderstandings that they promulgated while acknowledging that this was done for the best of reasons. Much of our general knowledge of the period is based on the myth of the making of the English state – the Vikings are the catalyst for the creation of this kingdom.  The received view is that the  old world of Bede and the great monasteries was devastated by Viking attacks.  The famous story of Alfred burning the cakes (which were really bread) is a tale about food supplies in guerilla warfare.

War was Alfred’s life.  Treaties were based on rituals of kingship not signing parchment.  Alfred called himself the King of the Anglo-Saxons. His kingdom of the English was one of many different languages, cultures and costumes –  an extraordinary compromise accommodating different and opposed views.  Immediately after becoming king, he began constructing a series of fortresses.  This represented a far-reaching and far seeing response for a society geared to war.

The second major aspect of Alfred’s rule is learning.  He brought in a team of scholars who started to translate into the vernacular Latin texts that were, in Alfred’s words, “most needful to know”.  They discussed how to turn the classical ideas into vernacular text.  His scholars made copies of texts and sent them to the bishops across the country. Alfred claimed to believe that Latin learning had declined was not grounded in fact, but there was also a real emphasis on making the scholarship available in the vernacular. This was based on the Carolingian idea that wisdom was what the king must rule by.  Athelstan, however, wasn’t intended to be his father’s successor. He became the first king of the English, the first to wear a crown.  But his sisters married continental princes and from the word go Athelstan’s was an internationally-looking court.

 

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Frankly, the lecture was an object lesson in how to engage every single person in the room and have them hanging on your every word!  It was funny and thought-provoking by turns.

The view from the hotel’s windows was really quite spectacular, by the way. I’ve walked across Piccadilly Gardens many, many times, but I’d never set foot in the tower before.  I’ve walked the centre of Manchester many, many times, often with my Fiend, but I’ve never had a view quite like this one before!

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