Asser, bishop of Sherborne (in Dorset), who died in 909, is best known as the author of the Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred) – a Latin biography of, the West Saxon king, Alfred (the only English monarch to be remembered as ‘the Great’), written during the king’s lifetime. According to his own words, Asser was a monk at St Davids, in the Welsh kingdom of Dyfed, and he was one of a number of scholars that Alfred invited to his court: “to aid him in his strivings after wisdom” (§76).
In about 885:
I [Asser] arrived in the country of the right-hand [i.e. southern] Saxons, which in Saxon [i.e. English] is called Sussex, under the guidance of some of that nation; and there I first saw him [Alfred] in the royal vill which is called Dene [probably East or West Dean, near Chichester]. He received me with kindness, and, among other conversation, besought me eagerly to devote myself to his service and become his friend, and to leave for his sake everything which I possessed on the left-hand [i.e. northern] and western side of the Severn, promising he would give me more than an equivalent for it, as in fact he did. I replied that I could not incautiously and rashly promise such things; for it seemed to me unjust that I should leave those sacred places in which I had been bred and educated, where I had received the tonsure, and had at length been ordained, for the sake of any earthly honour and power, unless by force and compulsion. Upon this he said: “If you cannot accede to this, at least grant me half your service: spend six months with me here, and six in Wales [Britannia].” To this I replied: “I could not easily or rashly promise even that without the approval of my friends.” At length, however, when I perceived that he was really anxious for my services, though I knew not why, I promised him that, if my life were spared, I would return to him after six months, with such a reply as should be agreeable to him as well as advantageous to me and mine. With this answer he was satisfied; and when I had given him a pledge to return at the appointed time, on the fourth day we rode away from him, and returned to my own country. After our departure, a violent fever seized me in the city of Caerwent, where I lay for twelve months and one week, night and day, without hope of recovery. When at the appointed time, therefore, I had not fulfilled my promise of visiting him, he sent letters to hasten my journey on horseback to him, and to inquire the cause of my delay. As I was unable to ride to him, I sent a reply to make known to him the cause of my delay, and assure him that, if I recovered from my illness, I would fulfil what I had promised. My disease finally left me, and accordingly, by the advice and consent of all my friends, for the benefit of that holy place and of all who dwelt therein, I devoted myself to the king’s service as I had promised, the condition being that I should remain with him six months every year, either continuously, if I could spend six months with him at once, or alternately, three months in Wales and three in Saxon-land [Saxonia]; thus the latter would derive benefit in every respect from the learning of St David, to the best of my abilities at least. For my friends hoped by this means to sustain less tribulation and harm from King Hyfaidd [of Dyfed] – who often plundered that monastery and the parish of St David, and sometimes expelled the bishops who ruled over it, just as, on one of those occasions, he expelled Archbishop Nobis, my relative, as well as myself – if in any way I could secure the notice and friendship of the king.
… When therefore I had come to him at the royal vill called Leonaford [unidentified], I was honourably received by him, and remained that time with him at his court eight months; during which I read aloud to him whatever books he liked, of such as he had at hand; for this is his peculiar and most confirmed habit, both night and day, amid all his other occupations of mind and body, either himself to read books aloud, or to listen to the reading of others. And when I frequently had sought his permission to return, and had in no way been able to obtain it, at length, when I had made up my mind by all means to demand it, he called me to him at twilight on Christmas Eve, and gave me two letters in which was a manifold list of all the things which were in the two monasteries which are called in Saxon Congresbury and Banwell [both in Somerset]; and on that same day he delivered to me those two monasteries with everything in them, together with a silken mantle of great value, and of incense a load for a strong man, adding these words, that he did not give me these trifling presents because he was unwilling hereafter to give me greater. For in the course of time he unexpectedly gave me Exeter, with the whole parish which belonged to it in Saxon-land [Saxonia] and in Cornwall [Cornubia], besides gifts every day without number of every kind of worldly wealth; these it would be too long to enumerate here, lest it should weary my readers. But let no one suppose that I have mentioned these presents in this place for the sake of glory or flattery, or to obtain greater honour; I call God to witness that I have not done so, but that I might certify to those who are ignorant how profuse he was in giving. He then at once gave me permission to ride to those two monasteries, so full of all good things, and afterwards to return home.Vita Alfredi §79 & §81 (adapted from the translation of Albert S. Cook)
The ‘Life’ of Alfred begins, not surprisingly, with his birth, which Asser places in 849. Much of what follows is obviously taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The last quoted date is 887, but a passing mention: “the present year, which is his [Alfred’s] forty-fifth” (§91), indicates that Asser was writing in 893. Alfred died in 899, and though Asser (who at some time between 892 and 900 became bishop of Sherborne[*]) outlived Alfred by a decade, he apparently didn’t update the ‘Life’ – indeed, there is a theory that the surviving text, which is rather clumsily written and comes to an abrupt end, is but a rough draft of a work that was never finished.
Extracts from Asser’s text appear in the Historia Regum (traditionally attributed to Symeon of Durham), in a section that modern scholarship has ascribed to Byrhtferth of Ramsey (d.c.1020), and are also found in two early-12th century sources: the Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester and the anonymous, so-called, Annals of St Neots. On Saturday 23rd October 1731, however, the sole surviving manuscript of the ‘Life’ itself was destroyed in the infamous fire which ravaged the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631). A decade before its destruction, the manuscript had been dated to around the year 1000 (a dating that is accepted by modern scholars).
An edition of the lost manuscript’s text, with various modifications (including the addition of the famous story of ‘Alfred and the cakes’), had been published by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1574. A reprint of Parker’s edition, made by antiquary and historian William Camden in 1602, added a nonsensical tale intended to prove the very ancient origins of Oxford University. A transcript of the text made for Archbishop Parker, apparently before he introduced his revisions, does, though, survive (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 100). In 1904, W.H. Stevenson, taking all the available material into account, published his reconstruction of the original ‘Life’ (which has superseded earlier versions by Francis Wise in 1722, and Henry Petrie in 1848).
Over the years, a small number of scholars have argued that the Vita Alfredi is a fake – that it was not written by Asser, nor, indeed, by anyone who knew King Alfred personally, and that it was written some time after Alfred’s death. Their arguments, however, have been found by the majority to be very unconvincing, and the work is generally accepted at face value.