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King Alfred the Great?

Lucy Worsley on the legend of King Alfred burning the cakes

King Alfred's statue dominates Winchester's high street, but the life and legacy of England's first king is surrounded in legend and mystery.

In AD870 Anglo Saxon England was a fragmented cluster of warring kingdoms besieged by Vikings.

Only Alfred's kingdom of Wessex had not fallen to the enemy.

Alfred successfully fended off invasion and prevented England becoming little more than a outpost of the Viking empire.

In the process, Alfred founded the English monarchy and unified the country against a common enemy - and revolutionised the country's legal system and military structure.

A golden age of social stability and artistic accomplishment followed in Alfred's capital of Winchester and the history of the world was set on a new course.

Generations of school children have learned the tale of how King Alfred burnt the cakes while staying in the house of a swineherd when he on the run from a Viking attack.

Anglo-Saxon life

Winchester's City Museum contains Anglo Saxon artefacts which give a glimpse at what everyday life was like around the time of King Alfred.

The museum's Anglo Saxon treasures include coins, a reliquary and some fossilised excrement which reveals some details about the diet of Winchester's Anglo-Saxon population.

The Winchester Reliquary

The Winchester Reliquary is rumoured to contain the toes or finger bones of a saint and served as a portable altar. An important church relic, it was found in a cess pit during excavations near to the city's West Gate.

The reliquary dates back to the ninth century and is the only Anglo-Saxon reliquary of this type found in this country.

However, to the expert eye, the indifferent nature of the artwork on the panel shows it to date from before the time of Alfred's reforms.

Alfred's reign ushered in an new era after the Vikings had plundered and destroyed centres of arts and learning.

Graham Scobie, historic information officer, explained: "Alfred established a school in Winchester and attracted men of learning from throughout England and the continent.

"He invited people of skills and crafts to Winchester and a whole new arts style of elegance developed. It takes a generation or two to see what Alfred puts in place to come into fruition."

Alongside the encouragement of the arts, Alfred founded a network of defences so that no Saxon would be more than 20 miles from safety from invaders. The grid system of the streets of Winchester is another sign of the modernisation and development of Alfred's reign.

Alfred the Great?

In Alfred the Great? on BBC One, historian Lucy Worsley explores the life of the only English king to be called 'Great'.

Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley visits Alfreds capital of Winchester

Lucy goes on the hunt for evidence about the man behind the myth, she explores how Alfred lived, fought and died.

Has Alfred had great PR over the centuries or does he indeed deserve the title of 'Great' for uniting the "English" and fundamentally shaping our modern world?

As a youth, Alfred was plagued by piles and obsessed with sex. As an adult he was a hypochondriac and wracked with guilt. All in all, he was a rather unlikely hero.

Lucy talks to leading medical historian Dr Mike Edwards who diagnoses Alfred's mysterious illnesses. How did his illness effect his leadership skills?

Academic and Alfred fan Barbara Yorke puts a strong case forward about the Greatness of King Alfred and helps unravels some truths behind the legend.

Lucy discovers how our modern world was fundamentally shaped by the reign of Alfred the Great.

She gets dressed up for an Anglo Saxon battle and discovers the horrors of war. She learns first hand how Alfred managed to defeat the Vikings.

At end of the programme Lucy hosts an Anglo Saxon banquet where she delivers her verdict - Alfred the Great or Alfred the Ordinary!

Alfred the Great? is on BBC One (South) on Monday , 17 May 2010 at 1930 BST and on BBC iPlayer.

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