Sunday, October 16, 2022

Early Christianity in Britain – And the Role of Alfred the Great

 We look at early British history here, including how Christianity arrived in Britain and the battles between King Alfred (Alfred the Great) and the Vikings that consolidated Christianity in the country. Daniel Smith explains.

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An 18th century painting of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde.

An 18th century painting of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde.

In the 1stcentury, the British Isles was turning over to a new cultural-era of change. Christianity was introduced to Britain, and it is rumored that the catalyst to the Christian hold on the island was attributed to Joseph of Arimathea. Churches were built in villages and towns at random, as the church itself was decentralized. The Catholic and Orthodox Christian sects of religion, which were developed in the Roman and Byzantine Empires, are two examples of centralized religious hierarchy. By A.D. 150, the Pastors of the Celtic Churches preached the common language from interlinear bible translations called “glosses.” The most famous and well known of all the pastors was Patrick. He left England and went on to spread the Gospel to all of Ireland.

Patrick was made to be King Loeghaire’s “Annchara,” or personal counselor, after he was converted. It was here that Biblical law was introduced into the civil realm. Patrick was the author of Liber Ex Lege Moisi(Book of the Law of Moses), which he penned in 432 and that was applied by local chieftains throughout Ireland. The emerald isle was not yet a united political entity, only a Biblical/religious unity that brought the people and government together. It emphasized the rule of law and local self-government. These of course being two fundamental principles of basic Christian government.[1]

Two Anglo-Saxon brothers arrived in Britain around 428 A.D. by the names of Hengist and Horsa. The barbarian brothers had been called upon to help the king of Kent fight off his rivals. In fact, the king of Kent also invited them to bring their relatives as well. After Kent was saved from capture, the barbarians would end up staying and living in Britain. After some time, families grew on the island, eventually taking it over and naming it Anglo-land, or Engel-land (today’s England).

At the very start of emigration into Britain, the Anglo-Saxons turned on the native Celts. They killed countless numbers of them. During one event, they killed 1200 Celtic Pastors in the middle of prayer. In a stroke of Divine Providence however, while the Saxons conquered the Celts militarily, the Celts would conquer the Saxons spiritually. Over time, gradually the Saxons were converted to Celtic Christianity. Catholicism did not actually arrive in Britain until 597 A.D. Celtic influences emphasized the Bible (or Scriptural authority) over Papal authority. This was even after the introduction of Catholicism. A loyal follower of Patrick, named Columba, left his Ireland during this time, and would come to evangelize the king of the Picts (today’s Scotland). Columba also translated Liber Ex Lege Moisi in the Scottish language.[2]


Struggle in Wessex

King Alfred was the first leader revered enough to bring together all of England into one nation. Alfred was known from that time on as Alfred the Great, who ruled from A.D. 871 to 899. Interestingly enough though, just before Alfred was crowned king, most of England had been taken over viciously by the Vikings through a long series of ferocious battles. Wessex, in southern England, was the only area that remained open for Alfred to rule. For years to follow, Alfred would be continually thrown into the thick of battle with the Viking Danes.[3]

Historian David Chilton wrote of this struggle:

“In 876 the Danish chieftain Guthrum attacked Wessex in earnest with a powerful host, aiming to break Alfred’s hold on the country once and for all. The Vikings succeeded: in the winter of early 878 Guthrum pushed Alfred into the marshes, where the king and a small group of loyal followers were forced to hide out on the Isle of Athelney. Historians have called this time of testing Alfred’s “Valley Forge,” where he had to bide his time while virtually all England was overrun with pagan enemies of the faith who sacked churches and monasteries, wiping out the tattered remains of a Christian past. The legends say, however, that the bold and daring Alfred entered the Viking camp disguised as a minstrel and actually performed for Guthrum and his chiefs—getting a chance to listen to their plans and plotting his own strategy. 


When spring came, Alfred rallied the English army for a final push against the invader’s vastly superior forces. This time Alfred was victorious. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicleputs it, “he fought against the entire host, and put it to flight.” The Vikings agreed never to attack Wessex again, and they submitted to the terms of peace. Alfred did not banish Guthrum and his men. He didn’t have them executed, either. His solution to the problem of the Vikings seems incredible to us, but it worked. The peace treaty he imposed on them included this provision: that Guthrum and “thirty of the most honorable men in the host” become Christians! 

Guthrum accepted the conditions, and he was baptized into the Christian faith, Alfred standing as his godfather. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Alfred embraced his newborn brother in Christ and threw a twelve-day feast for him and his men. And then, as if this weren’t enough already, Alfred made the strangest political move of all. He said to Guthrum, in effect: “My brother, this land is much too big for me to rule all by myself; and the important thing isn’t who’s in charge. The real issue is a Christian England. So don’t go back to Denmark. Stay here and rule this land with me, under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”[4]


Alfred’s Code

King Alfred moved to institute Christian reforms, and with the newfound peace, many areas in Britain included the creation of government that served the people’s needs. He, himself, was taught how to read the Asser (the Celtic Christian scholar), and also studied Patrick’s Liber. His knowledge allowed him to establish the Ten Commandments as the basis of civil law and adopted many other patterns of government from the Hebrew Republic. As far as English politics were concerned, the nation organized itself into units of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands and elected an assembly called a “Witen.” The representatives of these units had official titles: a tighingman (over 10 families), a vilman (over 50 families), a hundredman (over 100 families), and an earl.

The land that the earl would rule over was called a “shire,” and his direct assistant was called the “shire-reef,” which is where the word Sheriff today comes from. There was also an unelected group made up of nobleman within the Witen; however at this time—the king was an elected position—not a hereditary one. Thus their laws of the land were created by their consent. King Alfred’s civil laws became the root of all English and American common law, trial by jury, and habeas corpus. It was Alfred’s legal code which was derived from Mosaic Law and Jesus’ golden rule.

Thomas Jefferson said about Anglo-Saxon laws:“…the sources of the Common Law…[and] the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century;…”Thomas Jefferson said that Anglo-Saxon laws should be printed on one side of the American National Seal proposed by him in 1776, saying:“the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by the night.”But, on the other side, Jefferson offered images of “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs… whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”[5]Ultimately this is true because of the Germanic Saxons’ contact with the Celtic Christians (or British natives), but the Saxon culture in Germany from which they originated provided no constitutionalism whatsoever to guide their civilization.

In the 9thcentury, the clergy would begin to serve as the judges in England and would build common law based on the Bible, but Anglo-Saxon law was eroding by the time of Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans, then under William the Conqueror, established a royal dynasty—a system which destroyed the rights of the people, yet increased efficiency by centralization of common law under King Henry II. In the end, the English people would experience a period of over 400 years of civil and religious stagnation until 1215, when King John would reluctantly sign the Magna Carta.[6]