Historians at odds over claim that Alfred the Great's `Life' was a fake

Brian Cathcart reports on new research debunking myths around the Hammer of the Danes
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The Independent Online
ACADEMIC warfare has broken out over Alfred the Great, the hammer of the Danes and hero of Victorian schoolboys. A new biography declares that one of the principal sources for our knowledge of the Saxon king, an account supposedly written by a bishop who knew Alfred personally, is a fake.

And the biographer, Professor Alfred Smyth of the University of Kent, does not stop there. He alleges that the truth about this document has been obscured for generations by an Oxbridge historical mafia that stifled dissent and kept a stranglehold on Anglo-Saxon studies.

The response has been dramatic. Professor Smyth has been accused of paranoia and "reckless iconoclasm", and his book condemned as "a nonsense" that is "riddled with errors". One forthcoming review will criticise the Oxford University Press for even publishing his theories.

At the centre of the row is a famous work, the Life of King Alfred, long held to have been written by the king's friend and adviser Asser, Bishop of Sherborne, while Alfred was still alive in the late 9th Century. Describing as it does in personal and colourful detail the man credited with laying the foundation of the English kingdom, it is regarded by most scholars as a minor treasure. As recently as 1983 a new translation appeared in the Penguin Classics series, and it is still in print.

Yet Professor Smyth, a mild-mannered Dubliner, wants to heave it overboard. Far from being Asser's work, he says, the Life was written at Ramsey Abbey near Cambridge more than 100 years after Alfred's death and is thus quite unreliable as a source. He even names the monk who was the culprit: Byrhtferth.

The style is wrong for Alfred's reign, he says; the Latin is suspiciously similar to Byrhtferth's; bits are stolen from other works written after Alfred's death and a good deal of the detail is just unbelievable. It is not the first time such doubts have been raised, but it is the most authoritative and detailed challenge to Asser yet.

Would it change our view of Alfred if Professor Smyth were proved correct? The king described by Asser is the scholar-cum-warrior hero beloved of the Victorians, who as a child memorised a book of poetry to impress his mother, and late in life miraculously learned to read and to translate Latin. A patron of the arts, he also invented the candle-clock. (The cake- burning came from another source and was long ago dismissed as myth.) Less familiar today are Asser's descriptions of Alfred's extreme piety and his frequent illnesses, including piles.

Strip this away, Professor Smyth says, and Alfred becomes more real without being any less a hero. "Asser shows him to be a neurotic invalid, obsessed with religiosity. Take away Asser and you are left with a lot of positive things that have tended to be overlooked. He is no longer a hypochondriac, but he is a ruthless manipulator. I think he comes out as a greater king."

Or, as one reviewer put it, Alfred looks "in a way more normal as a Dark Age king". The more so because Professor Smyth goes on to argue that Alfred's military prowess has been exaggerated, and that he was not above paying the Danes money to leave Wessex alone, rather than always fighting them as the legend has it he did.

But in the row that has now erupted, Alfred's reputation seems a secondary matter, for Professor Smyth has called in question the judgement of those historians who have accepted Asser as genuine. These include two leading figures now dead, Sir Frank Stenton and Dorothy Whitelock, as well as two living scholars, the editors of the Penguin Classic, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, both of Cambridge.

In a review this month, Professor Lapidge took issue with many of Professor Smyth's arguments against the Asser text. "Smyth's case that Byrhtferth forged the Life of King Alfred will not bear examination," he declared, and without it "the book collapses under the weight of its own pomposity".

Simon Keynes, in a review to be published in July, will challenge Professor Smyth's case in great detail, but he reserves his sharpest words for the professor's claim that the historical establishment has been "keeping faith with the dead" and that anyone who dissented from the "dogmatic" Stenton-Whitelock version of Anglo-Saxon history was marginalised or ridiculed.

This is "idiotic posturing", says Mr Keynes. "The fact that the book is published under the authoritative imprint of the Oxford University Press is the more surprising, not because the book is so determinedly iconoclastic, but because it is animated by a premise which is so demonstrably perverse."

Professor Smyth, who admits his critics have found some errors of detail in his book, is undeterred. "The battle with this small group of Cambridge scholars is nothing less than a battle for the heart and soul of Anglo- Saxon history," he said last week. "It is just beginning."

He says he has received messages of encouragement from other historians, but so far he has had more public support for his historical arguments than for his attacks on the establishment. In the Spectator, the Oxford historian Eric Christiansen said that he too had his doubts about Asser: "I am on his [Smyth's] side. If this Life were a fiver, I'd take it to the police station ... I'd say this one has Bank of Bolivia written all over it."

The controversy is set to run for years, and it will be all the more intense because there seems no cast-iron way of settling it: the last surviving medieval manuscript of Asser's Life was lost in a fire in 1731 and the text we now have was put together from other people's copies. It cannot, therefore, be sent off to a laboratory for testing, like the Turin Shroud.

If Professor Smyth ultimately carries the day on Asser, it will not be without practical implications. Penguin will presumably have to withdraw its classic edition, and the town of Wantage in Oxfordshire will have some thinking to do. For Wantage has long boasted that it is the birthplace of Alfred the Great and it has a statue of him as a mark of pride. The trouble is, as Professor Smyth points out, that the only evidence for the connection is in Asser. If Asser is a fake, maybe the statue belongs somewhere else.