As the recent furor over the recovery of Richard III’s remains from beneath a Leicester, England, Car Park shows us (to say nothing of the wild success of Downton Abbey), British history retains a hold upon the imaginations of the Anglosphere around the globe. It was not only the Ricardians – those stalwarts of the Richard III Society who hold that Richard got a bum rap from Shakespeare and myriad other Tudor apologists, and who keep the faith not only in Britain but in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere – who were keenly interested. For a brief moment, Richard got a new rush of interest from a world-wide audience. But his discovery also roused interest in that other great missing person of English history, Alfred the Great.
As with Richard, the mystery resulted because of Alfred’s interment in a monastery – in this case, Hyde Abbey – that was destroyed as a result of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. But the rediscovery of Alfred’s remains, though far more difficult to achieve because of the passage of time and lack of DNA, would be even more significant than finding Richard was. Where the hapless son of York was perhaps an unfairly maligned and decent man, whose victory would certainly have changed English and so American history (no Henry VIII!), Alfred in many ways was the foundation of that history. By defeating the Vikings, the King of Wessex ensured the survival of English nationality; his work in reforming administration, founding the Royal Navy, codifying the country’s laws, and spreading education earned him a place in English-speaking history akin to that of Charlemagne (upon whom he partly modelled himself) among the French, Germans, and Italians.
As with Charlemagne also, a great deal of Alfred’s energy was put into reforming and strengthening the local Church – binding it more closely to Rome (Alfred translated the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory the Great, among a number of other works, from Latin into Anglo-Saxon), and endowing abbeys and other churches. And as with Charlemagne, Alfred was personally pious, delighting in prayer and the Sacraments. The private holiness and public heroism of both Sovereigns led their peoples to consider them Saints: if Alfred’s remains are indeed found at St. Bartholomew’s Church in his capital of Winchester, they may be holy relics rather than mere illustrious bones.
Charlemagne’s canonisation was procured by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa from an antipope of his own creation; so although often colloquially called “St. Charlemagne” (by St. Joan of Arc, among others) he is more properly called “Blessed.” His cultus was formerly widespread in dioceses throughout France and Germany; but even today his feast is celebrated with great pomp in Aachen, Frankfurt, and Osnabruck. Similarly, Henry VI – himself a later candidate for Sainthood, and founder of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge – petitioned Rome unsuccessfully for Alfred’s canonisation in 1441. Nevertheless, local liturgical and popular devotion to him as a saint – or at least a blessed – has fitfully continued among some English Catholics to our own day: the Diocese of Northampton observes his feast on October 26. G.K. Chesterton was quite devoted to him, as may be seen by his Ballad of the White Horse.
All of that is interesting, to be sure. But one might well wonder what relevance it has to Catholics in the second decade of the 21st century? Even if the relics of Alfred are found – a minor miracle in itself – why should we care, especially since the Anglicans (whose Anglo-Catholic wing openly venerates Alfred as a Saint) are sure to muscle in on the entombment, as they are doing with Richard III? One answer might be that in this day when the Faith is so much under attack by most Western Governments, veneration –especially of the public kind - of royal, military, and knightly saints and candidates for sainthood go alongside such things as devotions to Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, and Christ the King in showing our repudiation of all efforts against our religion by our leaders. Contemplation of such figures as Bl. Charles of Austria, Louis XVI, the Count of Chambord, Mary Queen of Scots, St. Edward the Confessor, St. Louis, St. Nuno Alvares Pereira, Bl. Adrian Fortescue, the exiled Catholic Stuarts and their Jacobite Supporters, Andreas Hofer, the Heroes of the Vendee, the Carlists, the Papal Zouaves, the Cristeros and on and on – these will both help form our ideas of what good government really is while strengthening us to resist its opposite.
But Alfred means more to us than simply another name in the long gallery of Catholic heroes. His total defeat at the hands of the pagan Vikings led to his taking refuge at the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes. During his time there, the young King would have had much to think about – the death of his brother and thousands of his subjects at the hands of the Vikings would have been bad enough; but while he sat in relative safety in the marshes, his people were at the mercy of the invader – and mercy was not in their lexicon. For a believing Catholic today, his own home and church might seem a bit like Athelney, as all about us that we love and value in Church and State is universally derided, morality ridiculed, and God insulted.
Alfred surged out with his men, and in time defeated the Vikings, settling down to the regime of renewal and recovery that places him at the beginning of so many of the institutions and practices we still benefit from today. In like manner, albeit with the weapons of prayer, example, and public profession of our Faith, we too are called to venture forth from our respective Athelneys. To us falls the duty of evangelizing the English-speaking World, or at least our corner of it. If God wills that the relics of Alfred the Great are to reappear, let us see in them a standard calling us forth to victory.