Who was King Alfred?

Winchester, capital of Wessex

As well as being one of England's most famous kings, King Alfred had a big impact on Hampshire, when it was the central region of the kingdom of Wessex. Wessex stretched from modern-day Dorset and Somerset to Berkshire. Alfred ruled Wessex from Winchester and his reign marked the beginnings of a kingdom of England.

Winchester prospered under Alfred, being the seat of royal power. A thousand years after his death, the citizens of Winchester erected a gigantic monument to him that is visible from the city's outskirts.

Civic pride

In addition to the famous statue on the Broadway, Winchester, there is a life-sized statue of Alfred in Wantage, the place of his birth, erected in 1877 which has the following inscription summarising his life:

'Alfred found learning dead and he restored it, Education neglected and he revived it, the Laws powerless and he gave them force, the Church debased and he raised it, the land ravaged by a fearful enemy from which he delivered it.'

Winchester citizens' pride in King Alfred can also be seen in their celebration of the life of King Alfred during plays and pageants like the one seen in this picture on the right.

Life of Alfred

Alfred was born in 849 at Wantage in what is now Oxfordshire. He was the son of Ethelwulf and Osburgh. He came to the throne of Wessex in 871 when his brother Ethelred died. It was a time of conflict with the English kingdoms being almost continuously overrun by a powerful Viking force. Alfred took part in many hand-to-hand battles and gained a reputation as a successful and courageous leader. In victory he was known to have offered compulsory baptism as an alternative to death.

After 880, Alfred laid the foundations of the future kingdom of England. In the period 882-886 he enlarged his kingdom by nearly half as much again when he annexed south-west Mercia. He reformed the government, its finances, and law. He also began building strong defences for the kingdom. Alfred used craftsmen and builders from abroad to rebuild the towns. As a Christian king, he wanted to reform the church and make the Bible and other religious books available in people's own language (the vernacular), by having them translated from Latin. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ were written during his reign.

He died in 899 and was buried at the Old Minster in Winchester. His body was moved to the New Minster after it was completed, and then moved again in the 12th century when the monks from the New Minster moved out of the town to Hyde Abbey.

Millenary preparations

The year 1901 was the 1000th anniversary of King Alfred’s death. This is known as King Alfred's millenary.

First mentions

In 1888 Frederic Harrison writing in his ‘New Calendar of the Lives of Great Men’ first drew attention to the approaching millenary and the hope that a fitting celebration would be held in King Alfred's honour.

In Harrison's address on the Millenary of King Alfred, at the Birmingham and Midland Institute in 1897, he urged for a permanent memorial to be erected, and the possibility of this being a statue in Winchester.

Of the possible celebration that would accompany the unveling of the monument he said:

'[I] hope that it may be at once national and worthy of the nation. It would be an occasion to call for representation of every side of our national life'

'I can imagine an assemblage of chosen delegates from our regiments and our fleets, from cathedral, abbey, church and chapel (without distinction of creed), from universities and schools, from art and science academies, from libraries and institutes, from parliament and from government, from courts of justice and from county halls and city councils, from the labourers in town and country, all joining around a national monument to our first great hero.'

Decision to build the statue in Winchester

At an address on the Life of King Alfred at the Guildhall in Winchester by Sir Walter Besant in February 1898, the city's Mayor, Alfred Bowker, dwelt upon the advantages gained by the erection of memorials to illustrious men as stimulating and encouraging later generations to emulate the more noble of their countrymen.

He announced that he had appealed to the Lord Mayor of London to call a meeting at the Mansion House to further the proposal to commemorate nationally the Millenary of the Saxon King, and after gaining the approval of the Queen (Victoria) the Mayor of London had agreed to do this. Mayor Bowker wanted the memorial to be in Winchester because:

'There lies the dust of the kings of his ancestors, and of the kings of his successors. Thirty five of his line made Winchester their capital'

'I like to think the face of the Anglo-Saxon at his best and noblest is the face of Alfred'.

London agrees

At a meeting in London in November 1898 it was formally decided that the statue to commemorate Alfred would go in Winchester, and at a second meeting in March 1899 an appeal was made for funds. After discussion the execution of the work was entrusted to Mr Hamo Thornycroft for an agreed cost of £5000.

The site for the statue was granted unanimously by the Corporation of Winchester (the predecessor of the City Council).

Making of the monument

William Hamo Thornycroft

William Hamo Thornycroft, otherwise known as Hamo Thornycroft, was born in London in March 1850. Both his parents and his maternal grandfather were sculptors too. They were part of the well-known Thornycroft family of ship-builders. He was educated at Macclesfield Grammar School and University College School, London. Hamo Thornycroft produced monumental public works for a living. Other statues he completed include the statue of Queen Victoria in the Royal Exchange, the Cromwell statue at Westminster and the statue of Sir Stuart Bayley in Calcutta and several others including small sculptures of ordinary individuals such as ‘The Mower’, now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. In 1875 he was a gold medallist at the Royal Academy of Arts, and won honours in France and Germany too.

The design

Hamo Thornycroft was given much freedom to propose the design and form of King Alfred's statue (subject to the committee’s approval), other than Frederic Harrison’s stipulation that it should be ‘colossal’. The resultant statue shows Alfred as the great Christian soldier of the 9th century, with his sword forming the emblem of the cross and the shield being the emblem of defence.

A 'small' wax model of the memorial, about 15 feet high, was presented to the national committee by Hamo Thornycroft and unanimously approved. The sculptor then made the full sized model in clay which was then cast in plaster and successfully recast in bronze by Messrs Singer and Co. of Frome, Somerset.

Cornish granite

The pedestal consisted of two rough-hewn granite monoliths that came from the Cornish quarry of Messrs. John Freeman Sons and Co. of Penryn. The blocks, of 54 tons and 48 tons, were the largest blocks of granite ever dispatched from those quarries. They were carried by rail to Winchester and through Winchester on a trailer belonging to Messrs Driscoll Bros., the London contractors employed by the sculptor to place the statue and base in position.

King Alfred created

Every stage of the construction and erection of the statue generated much interest among the population of Winchester. The series of images below shows each stage of how the statue was erected. For more detail of each picture, click on the thumbnail for the full record that accompanies it.

People of Winchester celebrate

The commemorations were to take place on the Wednesday 18th, Thursday 19th, and Friday 20th September, 1901. Dignitaries from around the world were invited by the Mayor of Winchester to join the celebrations. They were taken on tours if historic sights such as the Westgate, Wolvesey Castle and the Great Hall, and special lectures on King Alfred were given.

Thursday 19th September

The day began with a tour of Wolvesey Castle. In the evening was a reception at the Guildhall hosted by the Mayor and Mayoress.

The whole suite of rooms were used. In the Banqueting Hall the string band of the 1st V.B. Hampshire Regiment performed while in the large hall was the 3rd Hampshire Regimental Band. There was also a series of tableaux (short plays) illustrating episodes and legends in the life of King Alfred.

Friday 20th September

Winchester was decorated for the Millenary celebrations with plants, flowers, flags and banners. In the morning the procession of dignitaries from Castle Square down the High Street to the Broadway took place. Journalists from around the world also attended the unveiling ceremony.

As it was a public holiday on the day of the unveiling people had the day off work, and children had the day off school. There were amusements in the afternoon on the theme of Old English sports and pastimes, many of which took place on St Giles Hill.

The whole area of the Broadway, Abbey Gardens and the Guildhall was illuminated at night with thousands of small lamps, and the trees in Abbey Gardens were hung with Chinese lanterns. The Russian Gun also in the Broadway was illuminated with electric lights. Bands played and fireworks were let off on St Giles Hill.

The unveiling

The embodiment of our civilisation'

Lord Rosebery unveiled the statue. At the unveiling ceremony he gave an address to the people of Winchester and visitors:

'...to raise before our countrymen the standard of a great example. For a thousand years ago there died in this city one who by common consent represents the highest type of kingship and the highest type of Englishman with his name we associate our metropolis, our fleet, our literature, our laws, our first foreign relations, our first efforts at education. He is, in a word, the embodiment of our civilisation.'

He unveiled the statue at 12.17 accompanied by mass cheering. The national anthem was sung accompanied by bands. The guns from the 90th battery of the Royal Field Artillery stationed on St Giles Hill gave a salute and bells from the Cathedral and churches rang. After the troops gave a general salute, the ceremony was at an end. Lord Rosebury, the Mayor and his guests made their way to the Guildhall for the Mayor's luncheon.

South Africa war veterans saluted

After the statue had been unveiled, Lord Northbrook presented medals to the men of the Imperial Yeomanry and Hampshire Volunteers who had returned from the South Africa War (Boer War), in a ceremony in front of the Guildhall.

Children celebrate

In the afternoon, after the unveiling ceremony, there was a gathering of 2000 schoolchildren. The Mayor, Alfred Bowker, Lord Rosebery and the Mayor and Mayoress of London addressed them, including a reference that:

'[King Alfred] throughout his life sought to live worthily that he might leave to those coming after him his memory in good works.' They were advised to follow his example.

After singing a verse of the national anthem and cheering the Mayor and Mayoress the children were given commemorative medals and cakes to celebrate the occasion.

Following the luncheon there was a service of commemoration at 4pm in the Cathedral.

After the celebrations

Washing the statue

City of Winchester Firemen, led by the Brigade Captain J A Sawyer (in brass helmet and epaulettes), washing down the statue, possibly to remove the sugar used to slide the statue into place. This had melted in the heat and attracted many wasps as it dripped down.

This shows the completed statue in the months after the unveiling, with Bridge Street and the old city bridge in the background. The total height of the statue on its pedestal is about 40 feet.

Extracts from the Council minutes of 1901 show that to ensure the protection the statue it was proposed to move the annual October Pleasure Fair from the Broadway to Bar End.

Also, the cost of employing extra policemen for the celebration was £31 6s 3d and refreshments for these extra police cost £4 17s 6d. This is taken from the Abstracts of Tresurers Accounts of the City of Winchester, year ending 31st March 1902.


Winchester Scrapbooks. Vol 4.

Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Alfred the Great. University of Chicago Press. 1956.

Sturdy, David. Alfred the Great. Constable. 1995.

Bowker, Alfred. The King Alfred Millenary. Macmillan and Co. 1902.

Yorke, B. The King Alfred Millenary in Winchester, 1901. Hampshire Paper no.17

James, T. B. Winchester: a pictorial history. Illus. No. 53. 1993.

AS 2003

Last amendment date: 02/07/2015

Bookmark and Share
Write Your Story