The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great

The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great

by Benjamin R. Merkle


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595552525
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 11/02/2009
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 512,166
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Benjamin R. Merkle is a Fellow of Theology and Classical Languages at New Saint Andrews College and a Contributing Editor to Credenda/Agenda. He received an MA in English Literature from the University of Idaho and is currently pursuing his doctorate at Oxford.

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The Life of Alfred the Great
By Ben Merkle

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2009 Ben Merkle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59555-252-5

Chapter One

Holy Island

Behold the church of saint Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of the priests of God, plundered of all its treasures, a place more venerable than anywhere in Britain is given over to pagan nations for pillaging ... -Alcuin to Ethelred, King of Northumbria

In the year anno Domini 937, AÆthelstan, king of the English people, stepped resolutely onto the battlefield of Brunanburh, leading the might of the Anglo-Saxon nation out to face the combined forces of Vikings and Picts in what would be referred to by successive generations as "the great battle." King AÆthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, stood at the head of the Saxon forces as they heedlessly hurled themselves at the spear-ready line of the awaiting Danes and Picts. A thundering tumult the Saxons came, a reckless battering ram of mortal flesh, propelled by the passion and zeal of the king, whose fierce commands mounted up above the din and clamour of the chaotic charge. The linden shields of the Viking marauders split and shattered under the raging crush of the Saxon force. The Northmen faltered and staggered backward, yielding ground and, more importantly, leaving a number of gaps ripped through the center of their defensivewall.

With drawn swords and bloodcurdling yells, the Saxon warriors seized the opportunity and surged through the freshly torn gap in their enemies' wall. They poured through the defensive line, rent by their charge, like flood waters through a breeched dam, overpowering the stunned Vikings with sharp sword edge and cruel blunted hammer blows. The Norsemen and their Pict allies attempted to withdraw quickly in a desperate endeavour to regroup at a distance and make one more try at repelling the Anglo-Saxon assault. The tenacity and discipline of the Saxon troops had been carefully groomed over three successive generations of incessant battle against the pagan invaders. They left no room for retreat, no space for an orderly withdraw. Into the lines of the Vikings and the Picts they continued to surge, fighting fiercely, hewing down the astonished defenders with sword and axe.

The Viking shieldwall had been shattered; the nature of the combat shifted. Now the battlefield was no longer controlled by two large distinct armies. Instead it was bedlam, a chaotic quilt of thousands of small skirmishes with no rhyme or reason but rage and terror. On the warriors fought-man against man here, and two against one there. Soon the morning sun, God's bright candle, was looking down on the once green slopes of Brunanburh, now painted red with the blood of the fallen. Sensing the inevitability of their defeat, the entirety of the Viking army began to flee, running from the battlefield, wide-eyed and terror-stricken, abandoning the corpses of their fallen. But the Saxon press was unrelenting, and they pursued their vanquished foes hard across the countryside and into the surrounding woods.

By sunset, the Danes and the Picts had been entirely routed, and King AÆthelstan, with his exhausted and bloodied troops, stood as the clear victor of the battle. This triumph made him the first Saxon king to be able to claim lordship over the whole of Britain, having driven the Vikings entirely from the island and having won the submission of the Picts and the Welsh. This battle also marked the end of a war against the Danish invaders that had begun many decades before AÆthelstan's birth, a war that had been fiercely fought by AÆthelstan's father, Edward, and his grandfather, Alfred.

And though AÆthelstan was privileged to be the king standing victorious at that final battle, his great victory on the bloody fields of Brunanburh was only a small part of a much greater campaign waged by his predecessors. AÆthelstan would be remembered for winning the "great battle," but his grandfather, Alfred, had set into motion the events that culminated in this victory, feats that ensured Alfred would always be remembered as the great king-Alfred the Great, king of Wessex.

* * *

In the year AD 849, Osburh, the wife of AÆthelwulf, king of Wessex (the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the southwest of the island of Britain), gave birth to the king's fifth son during a stay at the small royal estate in the town of Wantage on the northern edge of the Wessex border. Alfred was the last child born to AÆthelwulf and Osburh, his oldest brother being more than twenty years older than him. With so many brothers between him and his father's crown, it was quite unlikely that Alfred would ever ascend to the throne of Wessex.

Alfred grew up roaming the countryside of Wessex alongside his father, who regularly journeyed throughout the many towns and cities within his kingdom. Sometimes on horse and sometimes on foot, Alfred learned the network of Wessex's old Roman roads, still used by the Anglo-Saxons. As they visited each city, Alfred's father and his advisors busied themselves with ensuring that the governing and taxation of the people had been competently managed. It was often a dull and dreary business. But the monotony of these bureaucratic chores was offset by the entertainments of the Saxon court.

There were the hunts, for which Alfred would have a particular fondness throughout his life. There were falconry, footraces, and horse races. There were wrestling, archery, sword fighting, and spear throwing. There were feasts with guests from afar-travelers, seafarers, experienced warriors, priests, traders, mercenaries, pagans, scholars, bishops, thieves, and princes. But most exciting of all, there were the poets. Alfred always had a particular fondness for the poetry of his native tongue. Late into the evenings, the Anglo-Saxon men would sit in the mead hall around a blazing fire, with their bellies full of roasted meat. The mead was poured out for each man from a gilded bull horn, and the enchanting thrumming of the scop on his lyre began.

The songs Alfred heard in the mead hall as a boy intoxicated him. He was held in thrall by the stories of men charging grim-faced and stoic into battle. He was pierced by the lament of loss when lovers and lords were cut down by cruel blades or swallowed up by icy waves, and he quivered with a chilly awe when mortal men willingly sacrificed their lives for the sake of nobility and honor.

Alfred's mother offered a small book of poetry to the first of her sons who could commit the volume to memory. Though the book may have been small, the gift was a treasure-a small collection of Anglo-Saxon poems, carefully handwritten on pages cut from calfskin. The opening page was dazzling, with bright colors ornamenting the first letter of the first poem. Alfred, unable to read the book for himself, was fascinated by the beauty of the volume and jumped at the opportunity. He immediately took the book and found someone who could read the poems to him so that he could commit them to memory. Soon he returned, recited the entire contents of the volume, and collected his prize.

* * *

Lindisfarne Island lies off the northeast coast of England, just south of the Scottish border. It is a tidal island-when the tide is low, a narrow causeway connects Lindisfarne to the English coast, turning the island into a bulbous peninsula attached to the Northumbrian shore. But when the tide is high, the causeway is swallowed by the North Sea, and Lindisfarne becomes an island-the thousand-acre Holy Island. It is the epitome of seclusion: cold and grey, the air chilled by wind and wave-spray, filled with the cry of gulls and a palpable sensation of northernness. The island had been made famous during the later half of the seventh century by the great bishops Aidan and Cuthbert, whose austere piety had nurtured the faith of the early Anglo-Saxon Christians and had set an example of Christian living that would become the epitome of early English godliness.

During the following century, the stories recounting the godliness of Cuthbert and the miracles wrought by his relics grew into legends, and the legends in turn were embellished into awe-inspiring epics. As the fame of those saints and their Holy Island grew, however, the spiritual discipline of the monastery they had established there sadly began to languish. First, the stricter elements of the monastic regime handed down by Aidan and Cuthbert were neglected. Then, slowly, the austerity of Lindisfarne turned to slackness, and its piety turned to worldliness. This slow decline of the Christian zeal of the monks was so gradual that, like the change in the tide on the Northumbrian coast, the shift was probably imperceptible at first. But this spiritual decline was punctuated with such a calamitous blast that the story of God's dreadful judgment on Lindisfarne was soon more famous than the story of God's blessing on that Holy Island.

An Anglo-Saxon historian gave this description of the year AD 793:

In the year 793 terrible portents came over the land of Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the people, there were massive whirlwinds and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. Immediately after these things there came a terrible famine, and then a little after that, six days before the Ides of January, the harrowing of heathen men miserably devastated the church of God on Lindisfarne, by plunder and slaughter. -Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

For the historian who recounted these events, as he looked back on the year 793, it was easy to interpret the significance and import of these mysterious signs. Whirlwinds and lightning, famines and dragons-all nature had been summoned as a portent for the coming judgment. The description of this particular Viking raid is rather brief and gives none of the details of the notorious sacking of Lindisfarne, but a good deal can be inferred from other Viking raids.

Lindisfarne was probably chosen as a target since churches and monastic communities offered the prospect of great wealth with very little protection. In the following years, monasteries throughout Britain and Ireland would fall prey to the Viking raids. The Vikings came from the sea, arriving in a handful of their longboats with little or no warning of their approach. Their shallow-drafted ships were beached on the shore of Holy Island and then pulled far enough up the shore to be safe from the tide for several hours. The monks, merely puzzled for the moment, watched from within the walls of the monastery. Then, once the ships were secured, the Vikings turned to the monastery.

It is unlikely that they met any resistance as they approached. No barrage of arrows and spears. No shieldwall. Not even an armed guard. After gaining an easy entrance, the raiding party plundered the monastery of whatever portable wealth could be found, hacking to pieces whatever feeble resistance the monks may have made. Gold, silver, and jewels were seized and hauled back to the beached longboats, as well as any captives who might be sold on the slave market. They struck swiftly and ruthlessly, and then they quickly fled before any counterattack from a neighbouring village could be mounted. Throughout their time in Anglo-Saxon England, the secret to the Viking success would be the cunning selection of weak but wealthy targets and the hasty retreats, avoiding confrontation with the consistently slow-to-mobilize military forces.

Early descriptions of Viking attacks seized on the fact that Vikings made religious communities their targets of choice. According to the historians of the time, these marauding Northmen were pagan enemies of God, demonic forces at war with the Christian church. Some contemporary accounts describe the raiding Viking armies merely as "pagans" or "heathens." They coated the walls of the holy places with the blood of the saints and had no regard for the sacred things of the Christian church. Modern scholarship has felt burdened to counter this bias with an attempt toward a more impartial verdict. Now it is often pointed out that the Viking's selection of monasteries and churches for a prey was purely economic pragmatism. Christian churches simply provided the greatest possible gain at the lowest possible cost. The Viking attacks were driven not by a hatred of Christianity but by a cool and calculated evaluation of the Anglo-Saxon economy. So, considered from the perspective of the Northmen, who were not aware that the sacking of Christian holy places might be "taboo," these were perfectly viable targets.

It is unlikely, however, that the monks of Lindisfarne were unaware of this "other perspective." The role of the pagan raiding army had been played once before on the island of Britain when, several centuries before the Viking raiders, the Angles and the Saxons themselves had crossed the English Channel. Unconverted and bloodthirsty, these once-pagan tribes had abandoned their homes in modern northern Germany and Denmark in the fifth and sixth centuries and had crossed over to the isle of Britain preying upon the weaknesses of the natives who had been left vulnerable by retreating Roman troops.

It was the establishment of the Christian church that turned the Anglo-Saxons away from a worldview that had been every bit as ruthless and cruel as the worldview held by the Viking raiders. The missionaries sent by Rome to Christianize the various warring Anglo-Saxon tribes had preached against and even given their lives in the fight against this very worldview.

Even after an Anglo-Saxon church had been firmly established, the English constantly had to fight the temptation to slip back into its own barbaric past, a godless past ruled by the worship of raw power. Threads of this old worldview remained woven throughout the poetry and songs of the Anglo-Saxons. There can be no doubt that when the Anglo-Saxon church named the Viking raiders pagan, they did not mean "people who have a different value system than we do." They meant pagan in its most proper sense: these raiding armies were full of warriors who acted like men without the gospel. It was a worldview known all too well to the men who named it as such, and it was a worldview they had rejected.

* * *

News of the sacking of Lindisfarne spread quickly. Alcuin, a native of Northumbria who was serving abroad in the court of Charlemagne, heard of the tragedy and wrote to AÆthelred, king of Northumbria. In his letter, Alcuin took his inspiration from the prophets of the Old Testament who warned Israel to turn from her sins before God sent an even greater judgment.

For nearly 350 years we and our fathers have dwelt in this most beautiful land, and never before has such a terror appeared in Britain, such as the one that we are suffering from this pagan nation. Nor was it thought that a ship would attempt such a thing. Behold the church of Saint Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of the priests of God, plundered of all its treasures, a place more venerable than anywhere in Britain is given over to pagan nations for pillaging ... the heritage of the Lord has been given over to a people who are not his own. And where the praise of the Lord once was, now is only the games of the pagans. The holy feast has been turned into a lament. Carefully consider, brothers, and diligently note: lest this extraordinary and unheard of evil might be somehow merited by the habit of some unspoken wickedness. I am not saying that the sin of fornication never appeared before among the people. But since the days of King AÆlfwold, fornications, adulteries, and incest have inundated the land, such that these sins have been perpetrated without any shame, even against nuns who have been dedicated to God. What can I say about greed, robbery, and perverted judgments? When it is clearer than daylight, how much these crimes have flourished everywhere and it is witnessed by a plundered people.

Alcuin wrote a second letter to Higbald, the bishop of Lindisfarne. Again his letter sternly admonished the Christians of Lindisfarne that a disaster of this magnitude must be answered first and foremost with repentance, lest further catastrophe follow.


Excerpted from THE WHITE HORSE KING by Ben Merkle Copyright © 2009 by Ben Merkle. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Family Tree....................ix
One: Holy Island....................1
Two: The Blood Eagle....................25
Three: The Battle of Ashdown....................37
Four: Danegeld....................71
Five: Whitsunday and the Battle of Edington....................105
Six: Rebuilding Wessex....................139
Seven: Alfred the Wise....................177
Eight: A Final Test....................209
About the Author....................237

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The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Steelsmitty More than 1 year ago
Thank you Benjamin Merkle for opening up the life of a man whom all should get to know, King Alfred the Great. I hardly knew or remembered anything about these early years of England. All I knew was a few convoluted stories about Vikings, Saxons, and Anglos and various invasions. You really did your homework and gave this generation a great read and a great story. I highly recommend King Alfred the Great to you. He was a strong man, king and most importantly Christian. His innovations in warfare, city defenses, national defense, government, education and leadership were second to none and helped shape not only the future of the great British empire but also the world including America. I never knew that King Alfred was the only English ruler ever to be dubbed 'Great'. Find out why in this book. I could not put it down and finished it in just a few days. Students and adults will enjoy the fabulous stories from the late 800s AD. Parents, this would be a terrific story book to read during family reading after the dishes are pushed aside. Filled with incredible detail with very little speculation on the part of Merkle makes this a book worthy to be read at the college level as supplemental material for any British history, world history or even British literature class. Find out why King Alfred should be considered the father of British lit, the British Navy, modern law, education and bible study. Thank you King Alfred and again, thank you Benjamin Merkle. This goes on my read again and read to others shelf.
MSaff More than 1 year ago
"The White Horse King" is a wonderfully scripted story of the most unlikely kink of England, Alfred The Great. This epic story takes place during the early times. That being prior to Alfreds' assention to the throne in A.D. 871. This story actually begins shortly after his birth and continues throughout his reign as King of England. Ironically, this is also the time in which the Norsemen, or Vikings as they are better known, were making enroads into England in their attempts to pillage and ransack the English coast and following the rivers into interior England. At the time of Alfreds' reign, England was not the unified nation it is today, but it was broken down into several provinces. Alfred was the king of Wessex, which was located in the south. Benjamin Merkle, the author of this fine story has shown that he spared no expense in time while researching the life of Alfred The Great. Thank you so much, Mr. Merkle, for your attention to detail. Alfred The Great was a firm and devout believer of and in God, and you can see and feel this belief, throughout the story. He also knew that God was the only way for his kingdom to survive. The Vikings on the other hand, were a paganistic people, with no use for God. They had rather depended on their own devices and worshipped molden images of wood, gold and silver. The Vikings had no use for anyone or anything except to conquer and control everything and everyone, in their path. When you start to read "The White Horse King", you will not want to put the book down, but let me assure you, that you will want to make notes to conduct further research on your own, to learn more about these times and this man. What I found interesting, is that upon reading this story, I found that you never know where your life of situation is going to take you, and as long as you have God in your life, you should have no fear. God will provide. As you continue on the journey of this book, you will be shown countless battles that Alfred fights and prior to and with each of those battles, he consults God through prayer for guidance. We should all take a lesson from Alfred and his life with God. We all could learn from Alfred and the picture he paints both prior to becoming king and throughout his reign. He truly rallies England in their fight for existance. I highly recommend this book to everyone.
LauraN More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. The format is very easy to read and comfortable to hold. There are side notes where a little more history or clarification of a term is helpful. I found this more interesting than just footnotes at the bottom of a page. The story is well told and clear, in spite of describing a time and culture very different and new to me. The story is a good one. The history of Christianity in England, the invasions of the Vikings, and the efforts of the people to fight the Vikings is one I am vaguely aware of. This book provided very good detail about the events and the people. The efforts of King Alfred the Great to implement defenses for his country, literacy in the vernacular for his people, and a love of learning and the virtues of nobility in the country are worth studying.
Janet-R More than 1 year ago
No offense intended to Benjamin Merkle that it took me a couple of months to get through this book. He's an excellent author. I expected a historical fiction novel, but this book is a NON-fiction narrative. I applaud Mr. Merkle for his captivating authorship. An example from Chapter 3 illustrates the retreat of the Vikings when Alfred's brother arrived at the battle scene. James Scott Bell would consider the last sentence as a gem: "All that was left was a view of the backside of a panic-stricken mob fleeing for its life. It took several moments for Alfred and his men to recover from their amazement and to realize what had happened. Suddenly, it became clear. King Æthelred had finished his prayers." I wish my history texts back in grade school had been written with such colorful word pictures and intense emotion. I feel like I truly know this great king, although I had never heard of Alfred the Great before selecting this book. The White Horse King, Alfred, was a fierce warrior, a faithful Christian who sought wisdom, and a deeply committed leader who loved mercy and gave himself for his people, dying at the age of fifty. I highly recommend "The White Horse King, The Life of Alfred the Great" by Benjamin Merkle. Great writing about a great leader!
busy91NYC More than 1 year ago
Alfred the Great was one of the greatest monarchs in English history. This book goes into some detail about the rise of this remarkable king and how he changed England forever. Merkle cites a lot of material from other sources, it seems to give this book a feel of a compilation. However, it is a pleasant and riveting read. Merkle delves into Alfred's formative years and goes through the years as he becomes king. He explains how he merged the Anglo-Saxons against the Vikings who were very brutal. We could feel Alfred the Great's love for God and his struggle to help others feel the same love. He knew his faith would get him through any hurdle he would encounter. He succeeded in reforming the legal system, helped his fellow countrymen become more literate and restored Christianity during a war torn time in English history. This was a fast paced book that read like a novel, but will want you leaving more. What a different world we might have if there were no Alfred the Great. I think anyone who enjoys biographies, ancient history and books about war will love this one.
r3idcardwell More than 1 year ago
The account of the battle in opening paragraphs of The White Horse King could have been taken straight from the pages of The Lord of the Rings. From there the book becomes more of a historical narrative, albeit a very interesting one. Alfred was the fifth son of Æthelwulf, king of Wessex. We learn about Alfred's formative years as the Vikings begin to attack various nations that made up Britain in the early 900's, specifically the nation of Wessex. It was during these years that Alfred made two pilgrimages to Rome with his family. He received confirmation from Pope Leo IV during his first visit. Alfred became known as a fierce fighter in the battles with the Vikings and after the death of his four elder brothers, he became king of Wessex. The book chronicles many of the battles and an especially low time of his life when he was forced to flee and remain in hiding from the Danish invaders until he could muster enough troops to retake his throne. It was during these years that Alfred would lead bands of men in ambush of various Viking troops and he learned much of their tactics. The Vikings were especially brutal to to the conquered king. They would offer the defeated king in various forms of sacrifice to their god Odin. However when Alfred defeated the Viking Guthram and his army, instead of killing him, he gave Guthram the option to be baptized as a Christian. Guthram accepted this offer and was baptized and never again attacked Alfred or the kingdom of Wessex. When Alfred retook the throne, in his most significant and lasting achievement, he completely reorganized the military structure. Instead of a disorganized band of nobles and landowners called up to fight as needed, he instituted a professional, trained standing army. Alfred also saw the need for the people to become literate, able to read and advance in Christian learning. He brought together the best scholars he could find to help him learn Latin and then assist him in translating many texts into the vernacular of the Anglo Saxons. He established schools for the children to start learning as soon as they were able. Literacy was required for anyone serving in any form of government office. Lastly, Alfred instituted a reworking of the entire legal code. The legal system when Alfred became king was based more on the station of the claimants in a case than anything else. "[T]he composition of the [legal code] really constituted the culmination of Alfred's work to rebuild the defenses of Wessex and to revive learning throughout the nation." In doing so, Alfred established the framework for what would be known as "common law," the foundation for the legal systems of England, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Pakistan. Interestingly enough, the code began with the Ten Commandments and included parts of Exodus 21-23 and the Sermon on the Mount all in the preface.
scentednights2002 More than 1 year ago
I have to admit that ancient history is my thing. Ancient history full of Viking battles and warriors on horses with spears is even better! This is the story of the life of Alfred the Great who was the king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899. The White Horse King is the story of how Alfred the Great defends Wessex against the Viking invasion. The story is full of rampaging Vikings and fierce battles fought by men wielding battle axes and spears. This book was really hard to put down and I devoured it in two sittings. Not only is it a great read, it's loaded with historical information too! Each chapter begins with a poem or quotation because Alfred the Great loved poetry even though he never learned to read until he was a grown man. The book also contains a number of maps and pictures to help illustrate the story and a biography so you can find additional reading about Alfred the Great. All in all, a great adventure that actually teaches you something. If you are a history buff, you're certain to love this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really like English history. I knew about Alfred the Great but not a lot. I liked the writing style and the way the author presented the facts in an interesting way without being boring and, as we would say in the engineering/computer world, "techno-death." I learned a lot and was never bored. Really glad I read this book.
Twomblog More than 1 year ago
The end result of reading, "The White Horse King" is that I have discovered a new hero, King Alfred the Great. A King of the mid to late 800's, Alfred defends, restores, and rebuilds the broken kingdoms of England. Responsible for repairing roadways and legal codes, King Alfred also initiated a remarkable literary revival. Perhaps the Braveheart of England, the King proves to be a valiant warrior protecting his subjects from the fierce Vikings. Equal to his valor is his charity. Extending mercy and grace, this King exemplifies the One he served in his relations with his enemies. Thirsty for God and the Scriptures, even four centuries before John Wycliffe, King Alfred spent a great deal of time studying and translating the Bible from Latin into Anglo-Saxon speak. He was instrumental in spreading the sacred. This book did not read as smoothly or quickly as I had hoped, but I will keep it as a good reference for "The White Horse King."
angela09 More than 1 year ago
The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great by Benjamin R. Merkle is a richly composed work pertaining to this once great King. Thoroughly researching every aspect of the life of Alfred the Great , Merkle combines all of the fascinating knowledge into one book. Not only does Merkle provided us with an in-depth look into Alfred's life but also the culture in which he lived. Providing the readers with an insight of the events that may have led to the Kings decisions he made. Focusing upon a legendary figure who was not suppose to be king, Merkle sheds new light on the life of Alfred. Showing the many acomplishements that Alfred provided to his kingdom Merkle proves that there was more to the Medieval period than once thought. The period in which this Great King lived was a period in which brutality, hetaeristic values ran rampid there emerged a legendary King who was focus on God and doing right. I think that Merkle has provided us with a very humanistic version of Alfred the Great. Although Merkle provides us with an in-depth account of the life of Alfred I felt that he left out important information pertaining to the battles I which Alfred fought. The White Horse King: The life of Alfred the Great by Benjamin Merkle brings Alfred to life. As a lover of history myself, I would highly recommend this book. This book was provided for review by Thomas Nelson Publishing.
Marian_Perera More than 1 year ago
The title of the book made me curious. What did Alfred the Great have to do with a white horse - did he ride one into battle? All I really knew of him was that he burned some cakes, so it seemed like a good idea to read about his life. Thomas Nelson was kind enough to send me a copy as part of the Book Review Bloggers program, and it was an enjoyable if not superb read. "The White Horse King" by Benjamin Merkle begins in 849 AD, when the wife of the king of Wessex gave birth to their fifth son, Alfred. At the time, there was no such thing as a unified England. Instead, there were several kingdoms that didn't always hold together in the face of a common threat - such as the Vikings who sailed their longships in to plunder. I have to admit, this book gave me some wonderful "A Song of Ice and Fire" flashbacks. Merkle goes on to describe how Alfred, despite being fifth in line from the throne, eventually became king of Wessex and took on the heavy responsibility of protecting the land from the foreign pillagers - even when they forced him to flee his seat of power and live as a wanderer in Athelney. The Vikings not only outnumbered him, but were more ruthless and lived for battle. Many of Alfred's men, while loyal to him, had their farms and families to consider and were by no means a professional fighting force. Alfred resorted to a a number of tactics to deal with the Vikings, from raising a standing army to reinforcing the defenses of strategic towns to building up a navy that could deal with the dragon-prowed longships. Finally, he extended generous terms to captive Viking chieftains - even persuading one of them to convert to Christianity. Though I did enjoy the response of another Viking chieftain to what must have seemed like near-constant conversion attempts from Saxons. He received baptism from the bishop of Luna, but later that day, a message was sent to the bishop that the chieftain had died. A huge Viking funeral procession made it way into the cathedral, carrying the corpse on a bier, with clergymen and choristers in attendance. Once inside the cathedral, the dead chieftain came back to life in a hurry and his men proceeded to sack the town. I believe he ended up being baptized at least three or four times, or until people caught on to the ruse. There's also a significant level of research in this book. Merkle does a good job of describing the land, its politics and the battle tactics of that time - especially the shieldwall. If there's a flaw here, it's in the depiction of Alfred himself. Merkle's style is such that I always saw Alfred from a distance, rather than getting up close and personal, being in his mind. Then again, Alfred is clearly as white as the horse of the title, while the Vikings are just as obviously the black helms of the story. Their paganism, greed, dishonesty, etc. is always contrasted with the Christianized nobility of the Saxons, so of course I couldn't help liking them a little. Plus, their "blood eagle" method of execution is unforgettable. So in conclusion, the book was worth reading, though it could have been deeper and more complex. Oh, and the white horse? That's a giant chalk figure on a hill where Alfred won one of his most significant battles. And perhaps the biblical parallel of the white horse in Revelations inspired it to be chosen for the title as well.
bulmers99 More than 1 year ago
The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great provides a historical account of the legendary Anglo-Saxon king, who valiantly and tirelessly fought for and defended his nation, again and again, against the marauding Vikings. In this work Merkle highlights the military conflicts fought between the Christian (Alfred) and pagan (Vikings) forces as one by one the kingdoms of present-day England fall to the Northmen until only Wessex, Alfred's kingdom, remains. Even after he is forced to abandon his throne, Alfred pursues the Vikings using guerrilla warfare and is eventually successful, even convincing the Viking leader to be baptized. Merkle's vivid dramatization of the battles of Ashdown and Edington sends readers racing out onto the field of battle ready to protect and defend, fully armed with his informative asides about the typical weapons, military techniques, and strategies donned by both the Viking and Saxon warriors. Merkle also introduces and demystifies many of the popular legends and myths associated with Alfred and the places where he fought. Merkle attributes Alfred's greatness not only to his success on the battlefield, but also to his radical military reforms, his revival of literacy and Christian piety, and his revision of the Anglo-Saxon legal code. The White Horse King revived my interest in Anglo-Saxon history and literature while providing substantive information in a clear, concise way that does not overwhelm or oversensationalize. Merkle's work is also interspersed with helpful maps, pictures, and notes and concludes with an annotated bibliography of useful sources for the interested reader. I highly recommend this book to any history or biography readers.
SharonLaMothe More than 1 year ago
The White Horse King, The Life of Alfred the Great was a historical non-fiction account of pre-Britain Anglo-Saxon ruling family in the 800's during the time of invading Danish "Norsemen" or Vikings from present day Sweden, Holland and Norway. Author Benjamin Merkle used his research to provide detailed descriptions of ruling class and peasant farmer challenges to survive not only the toil of land into harvest bounty to last the winter but to defend, defeat and eradicate invaders in longboats. This historical account accurately reveals the weaknesses of geography, infrastructure and practices of the period, how the Vikings took advantage of all of them, and how one defeated ruler in exile used his wits and wisdom to outwit, mobilize locals, raise and army and navy, inspire, educate and lead his country from a collection of conquered near-extinct city-states and regions into a single unified Britain within two generations. This incredible story is not only engaging because it is true and Merkle supplies photographs, a handy chronology at the front and a map; but also because anyone with Anglo heritage or a natural instinct to root for the picked-on underdog can identify with the messages of the power of faith and perseverance, the values of courage and leadership and the tenacity of defending your homeland so common in human history. The writing style is replete with many dates, locations and names but woven into the drama with enough detail and a few photographs from his solid research that it becomes clear, with a mental picture of their daily life and times that you cannot get in a school history book. When you can visualize the characters akin to a novel, this pagan verses Christian history becomes interesting, alive and engaging, and very easy to read. Personally, I could quite easily identify with the paternal and protective instincts of the main "characters" in this real life drama of 11 hundred years ago. I found myself shocked that I had no recollection of hearing about Alfred the Great from elementary school history but did remember those nasty conquering Vikings that are more often glorified (sorry Minnesota football fans). I will let the sociologists explain why pirates are idolized. One thing I did enjoy from the book very much was learning about the roots of our street layouts, the need for a national army and navy, the bravery of a king that locked arms with his men in a life-of-death shield wall, even the first required government literacy program. Other uniting principles originating with King Alfred during his 28-year reign were books in the local language, a strong currency and simplified common laws. What I discovered about myself was that my ancestors in Europe had a very hard life, must have lived through this terrible time and passed onto me in my genes a strong spark of survival that I can call upon if I ever need it. If you enjoy those misfits-become champions sports stories you will love this epic. I found nothing to dislike about the book and would like to see it unfold as an epic movie or mini-series, even a Discovery show with many more photographs. I easily recommend this book to others who enjoy history and dramatic biographies, those who have traveled to Great Britain or have ancestry from the region, or anyone who likes a great story. A Thomas Nelson Book Review by Roland LaMothe
Michael_Wilson70 More than 1 year ago
The White Horse King is about King Alfred the Great, an Anglo-Saxon king of the 800's. Since I love history I picked this book up with interest. Before Britian became a unified nation, there were several countries within the British Isle. For many years the Vikings came across the English Channel raping, pillaging and killing the inhibitants of the Isle. They were a constant threat to the Anglos and the Saxons. King Alfred rises up and devises a strategy of defending his land, uniting his people and conquering the Vikings. Not only was he a great leader to his people, but he also was an educator. He set educational standards for his leaders and his people. It helped to bring unity within this nation. His thirst for knowledge and his desire for reformation among his people is a great example to follow. One thing that really impressed me about King Alfred was his love for God, the Bible and his desire to convert the pagan Vikings. In an age of merciless bloodshed, he was a king of mercy and compassion. I found the book to be a good and interesting read. Throughout the book there are notes in the margins that help explain terminology and ancient traditions. I found these to be very helpful. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone with an interest in history.
MikeG More than 1 year ago
I love history; which means I love history books. And that means I love Benjamin Merkle's newest release, The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great. Set amidst Vikings and England and the Church, the story of Alfred the Great takes place during the ninth century, a time in history with which most are not very familiar. The only English king to be branded with the moniker, "the Great," the story of Alfred is at once history and adventure, though more heavily weighted toward the history end of the spectrum. Alfred the Great is credited with setting up Great Britain for later accomplishments in "literature, liturgy, and liberty." While Alfred's faith is referenced several times throughout the book, Merkle never goes so far as to explain his Christianity. In fact, one is left to assume that Alfred's faith is a form of Catholicism which bases salvation on good works, baptism, etc. As such, Alfred's faith seems to be of the more general principle-based type of faith which promotes Christian virtues such as forgiveness, mercy, justice, and wisdom. I recommend The White Horse King for anyone interested in a fascinating period in history and an extraordinary leader. The book is easy to read and contains a number of features that make it especially helpful, including a family tree, chronology, maps, illustrations, annotated bibliography, and index.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The White Horse King was one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time. I love history, but it has to be written in an engaging and interesting manner to hold my interest. This book did that for me. Having read about this time period from the Viking perspective and from the French perspective within the last couple of years, I found it fascinating to read about this time period from the Anglo-Saxon perspective. Interestingly, I had visited White Horse Hill as a child and never understood the significance (although under dispute) and was only told that the horse was made a long time ago. I still remember vividly seeing this horse and walking on this hill with my family. The details the author was able to gather and organize about the life of King Alfred were amazing. So many things about this king impressed me. Not only was he a God-fearing man, but he was able to forgive his most treacherous enemies. His thinking for the time period was so progressive as well. He was not only the youngest son of a king and unlikely to ever take the throne, but when he did take the throne he overcame a ferocious enemy, he led battles, he organized a standing army, and he planned cities and their defenses. The historical background provided in this book was also interesting, from the difference between a village, a town, and a city, to the fact that Viking helmets did not actually have horns. I also found it interesting to learn about the Christian traditions of this period. Those tidbits of information kept me interested I've already ordered another book about King Alfred to learn even more, and plan to give a copy of this book to a friend also interested in this period in history. The book is a short and easy read, although I did find the chapters to be longer than necessary. I like more frequent stops.
Garridon More than 1 year ago
The White Horse King, by Benjamin Merkle, is the story of Alfred the Great, the king who fought against the Vikings and introduced other significant changes that are still present today. One of the things I particularly noticed-as a former solder-was that he restructured the military into an "army of professional soldiers"-not an easy feat! I got this book expecting, as one reviewer put it, a "mythic adventure story." Instead, I felt like I was sitting in on a history class that's so dry I walk out not remembering a thing. We have Vikings and battles-things that should be exciting stories to tell, and the book just failed to engage me with an interesting story. The graphics in the book are surprisingly sparse, and those that are photos don't seem to be of very good quality (though that may have to do with the paper). None of the graphics are captioned. People read captions for information, so I was surprised the publisher left this out entirely. There are some footnotes scattered through the book that explain some additional information-but no footnotes identifying sources of information. The bibliography is only three pages long (in large font), so it seems a little scant for a book on a significant piece of history. A disappointing read.
Ausonius More than 1 year ago
The Eighth and Ninth Centuries A. D. in Europe! In 793 Vikings invaded the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne on England's Northeastern coast. At Rome Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor on Christmas Eve in 800. In 839 Aethelwulf became King of Wessex, in southeastern England. In 849 his fifth son Alfred or Aelfred ("Elf Wisdom") was born in Wantage. At ages four and nine the future King Alfred visited Rome. In 871 after a great victory over the Vikings at Ashdown, Alfred became King of Wessex. Two years later mighty King Guthrum invaded Wessex, was defeated and accepted baptism in lieu of execution. He remained loyal to Alfred after they had divided England into Alfred's now enlarged realm and "the Danelaw" of the Vikings. In 899 Alfred died. By 937 his victorious grandson ruled over a Britain united for the first time since the Roman legions departed over five centuries earlier. *** Alfred was a holy man. He was a fervent Catholic Christian who believed that his church could be purified through education in languages and through reading religious classics, especially the Bible. On two famous occasions, he also showed great mercy to heathen vikings who had been devastating his kingdom of Wessex. He stood godfather to his Viking enemy Guthrum, thereby making him a member of his spiritual family. A gamble? Decidedly, but Guthrum remained true to his word, a rarity among Danes. Later, Alfred was godfather to the two sons of another defeated Viking. Their father broke his oath and waged war against King Alfred. Later Alfred spared the lives of his godsons and their mother and sent them back to his abiding enemy, their father. Of such stuff are saints made. *** Alfred was slow to learn how to defeat the Danes. They were cunning, highly mobile raiders and liars. But he built on the remains of old Roman roads and fortifications, drawing the towns of Wessex into a mighty defensive network of permanently garrisoned towns. Alfred also built his own mobile, standing army. And a small navy, to boot. *** Other great deeds were his requiring all government officers to be literate in their native Anglo-Saxon, his creating of schools for all his subjects and a revival of literature based on imported scholars from other parts of Britain and the Continent, not to mention his own writings. *** THE WHITE HORSE KING is a great story. It is, alas, rather flat and mono-tonal in its telling. Not one character, in my opinion, starting with the hero, emerges as a three-dimensional flesh and blood human being. At times I thought I was reading a wikipedia article. Still, the maps are excellent. The bibliography, though small, is well chosen. If you want to learn more about Ninth Century England, THE WHITE HORSE KING is itself a good starting place, and its bibliography points you towards deeper waters. I rate the book 3.7 stars, rounding upward to 4.0 stars. -OOO-
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received a free copy of this book to review from Thomas Nelson's Publishing Company. The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great is a biography of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred. King Alfred inherited the title "The Great" after bringing the Anglo-Saxons from hiding in despair from the attacking Vikings to a kingdom of riches, and then changing the nations outlook on war, religion, education and law. If it wasn't for Alfred, the England today would be very different. This book, while being an accurate, well-researched book of history, is highly entertaining and a great read. It keeps you in suspense wondering how King Alfred and his people will escape next from each Viking attack. The pictures, poetry and footnotes incorporated throughout really help the reader understand the times and culture of 9th Century England. I rate this 5-Stars.