The Schools of Medieval England

By A. F. Leach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
ALFRED THE GREAT AND THE SCHOOL OF WINCHESTER

N the history of education it will be found that, almost invariably, the development of schools has followed on the development of power. Power breeds wealth, and wealth creates a demand for literature and learning. So in Saxon England schools followed the standard of the Bretwalda. A gloomy interval in the history of English education ensued after the death of Offa and the widespread devastation caused by the Viking invasions. When the curtain rises again, the scene has shifted from the North and the Midlands to the South, and centres in the great figure of Alfred.

It has been said that Alfred's father, Ethelwulf, and Alfred himself had been educated by St. Swithun, who became Bishop of Winchester in 852, and that Ethelwulf had even taken deacon's or subdeacon's orders. There is not the smallest real authority for either statement. The story as to Ethelwulf is derived from William of Malmesbury, and he derived it from a professional hagiographer, Goscelin, of the eleventh century, who probably invented it. For a writer of a century earlier, Lanfert, a priest and monk, whose contemporary account of the translation of St. Swithun and of the miracles afterwards wrought at his tomb is extant, states plainly that the life of St. Swithun was unknown because no materials existed for it. So says also Ælfric in his Lives of the Saints, written in English in 996: "His life is not known to us, but that he was buried at his bishop's stool west of the church". Needless to say, the account of the translation of St. Swithun contains no hint of the rain legend, the affair going off without a hitch, the only thing mentioned as flowing freely being wine, not

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