Asset’s Life of King Alfred

Date: 1908

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Chapter XXXI Alfred the Great



Alfred’s Zeal for Study


It chanced on a certain day that his mother showed to him and his brothers a book of Saxon poetry, which she had in her hand, and said, "I will give this book to that one among you who shall the most quickly learn it." Then, moved at these words, or rather by the inspiration of God, and being carried away by the beauty of the initial letter in that book, anticipating his brothers who surpassed him in years but not in grace, he answered his mother and said, "Will you of a truth give that book to one of us? To him who shall soonest understand it and repeat it to you?" And at this she smiled and said again, "I will give it to him." Then forthwith he took the book from her hand, went to his master, and read it; and when he had read it he brought it back to his mother and repeated it to her.

After this he learnt the Daily Course, that is, the services for each hour, and then some psalms and many prayers. These were collected in one book, which, as we have ourselves seen, he constantly carried about with him everywhere in the fold of his cloak, for the sake of prayer amid all the passing events of this present life. But, alas! the art of reading which he most earnestly desired he did not acquire in accordance with his wish, because, as he was wont himself to say, in those days there were no men really skilled in reading throughout the whole realm of the West Saxons.

With many complaints and with heartfelt regrets he used to declare that among all the difficulties and trials of his life this was the greatest. For at the time when he was of an age to learn, and had leisure and ability for it, he had no masters; but when he was older, and indeed to a certain extent had anxious masters and writers, he could not read. For he was occupied by day and night without ceasing with illnesses unknown to all the physicians of the time, with the cares of the royal office both at home and abroad, and with the assaults of the heathen by land and sea. None the less, amid these difficulties from his infancy to the present day, he has not faltered in his earnest pursuit of knowledge, nor does he even now cease to long for it, nor, as I think, will he ever do so until the end of his life.

1 , translated by L. C. Jane. London, 1908. Chatto and Windus.

2 Asser, Annales return gestarum Alfredi Magni, chs. 23–25.

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Chicago: L. C. Jane, trans., Asset’s Life of King Alfred in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 334. Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: . Asset’s Life of King Alfred, translted by L. C. Jane, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, page 334. Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: (trans.), Asset’s Life of King Alfred. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.334. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from