Images of Alfred

Images of Alfred

We don't know what Alfred really looked like. The first contemporary Anglo-Saxon royal portrait we know of is of Athelstan, Alfred's grandson. Visual depictions of Alfred have varied from era to era. The visual image we have today is largely a Victorian one, which in turn is built on depictions from the 17th and 18th centuries, portraying Alfred as a wise, strong and bearded figure. In these early pictures he is often clad in ermine, or some similarly royal fashion, and appears as a rather standard regal figure.

17th century Alfred, from a 19th C print


Alfred coin

Alfred's coins depict quite a different clean shaven figure, as was the fashion of some of his continental contemporaries of the 9th century, but these coin portraits are actually based on the traditions of imperial Roman and contemporary Byzantine coinage. Some of Alfred's coins are direct copies of imperial styles. Coin portraits of Alfred's time cannot be seen to be accurate portrayals of the king who struck them.

The Alfred Jewel, whether or not it is a depiction of Alfred (it has been suggested that it is Alfred himself, an image of Christ, a representation of Wisdom, or a representation of Sight), also portrays a clean shaven figure. It is very tempting to see this figure as a royal one, holding some sceptre or wand of office, but there is no compelling evidence for such an identification. Traditionally associated with Alfred, the jewel may have been an aestel, a pointer used to keep place when reading manuscripts, possibly one of those which were sent along with copies of his Pastoral Care. It can been seen in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Alfred Jewel, click to see larger pictures
click for larger picture


Medieval Alfred

Alfred's portrait appears in several later medieval manuscripts, largely copies of his writings or other contemporary documents. One such is this early 14th century illustration.
The first image of Alfred which I can recall, and the one that I most associate with him even now, was an illustration in my 2nd grade social studies school textbook. One section devoted a page each to a selection of famous historical figures who were considered to have contributed something to the greater good. Florence Nightingale was there, so was Sir Philip Sidney. Alfred's page was illustrated by a drawing which I later found to be of the statue raised in Winchester in 1901 to commemorate the millenium of his death. It projects a marvellous late Victorian vision Alfred, every inch the regal warrior king, yet holding his sword in the manner of a cross, to emphasise his championing of Christian civilisation. By Hamo Thornycroft, the statue was erected in 1901 rather than 1899 due to a Victorian misunderstanding of the Anglo-Saxon dates. It did however coincide nicely with the death of another prominent royal, Queen Victoria. It was dedicated

Winchester statue 23k

Winchester statue 83k

Click for larger images

Wantage statue, click for larger picture

Click the small image for a larger picture of this statue, or here to see an Edwardian postcard of this statue, complete with the inscription

I must admit that the Winchester statue is my favourite image of Alfred, but it is by no means the only statue that can be easily seen today. In 1877 a statue was errected in Wantage, his birthplace, along with an inscription celebrating his deeds and accomplishments. This too shows the Victorian image of an Anglo-Saxon king, dressed much as the Winchester statue, and holding an axe and a scroll. The sculptor was Count Gleichen, cousin to Prince Albert.

Click here to see a photo of the inscription (172k)

While not wishing to push the issue of statues, there is a fine statue by William Underhill in the USA, at the Alfred University, New York State. A late 20th century impression, it depicts a rather more youthful and clean-shaven king, wearing armour and brandishing an open book. An interesting commentary on the differences between ourselves and the Victorians, it presents the scholar king, rather than the stern warrior.

Another statue (by Isidore Conti) can be found at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Ohio, one of several depictions of Alfred on American law buildings.
Link here
Yet another can be seen on the New York State Supreme Court building on the corner of East 25th Street and Madison Avenue

Alfred at the Alfred University, click to visit them and see larger picture

by kind permission of Alfred University
click the image to visit their site


London statue, click for full picture

Click to see full picture

Alright, so I like statues! This one is rather less well known. It now stands in a forgotten square in a very unfashionable (if not to say grotty) part of south London. It is supposed to have been moved there in the 1822, from its original home at Westminster. The statue is allegedly late 14th century, may have come from the old Palace of Westminster, and is traditionally said to be of Alfred. It is undoubtedly the oldest of the full sized statues known, and is said to be the oldest free standing statue in London. While differing greatly from the other three illustrated here, it has a similarity to the 17th and 18th century portraits, and seen in real life it has a certain grandeur that photos fail to capture.
The 20th century has been the age of electronic media, particularly the moving image. Yet there is little to show in the way of Alfredian imagery. This poster is from the 1969 film Alfred the Great staring David Hemmings as the young Alfred, struggling to resist the Danish assault of Guthrum, played by a suave and superior Michael York. It was filmed in Ireland, which accounts for the prevalence of round towers in many scenes. A replica Uffington White Horse chalk figure also makes an appearance. Details of the film can be found at

Click to see larger poster (83k)


Alfred pub sign, click for larger picture

Finally, images of Alfred can still be found in ordinary life. This is a pub sign from Wantage, Alfred's traditional birthplace. There are more curious modern depictions on the Alfred the Cake page.

Not yet readyNot yet readyNot yet readyImages of AlfredAlfred's TownsAlfred the CakeAlfred's WessexAlfred's WinchesterLinksBooks


  [ Celtic Monasticism | Alfred Homepage | The Bookshop ]
Ogdoad's Page ]


All original material © Anthony Bradshaw 1998-99

Page updated Oct 1999