Last month I joined RIN in a new role as the network co-ordinator, following in the footsteps of Mary Shannon. By way of introduction I want to share ‘Alfred in the Isle of Athelney, receiving News of a Victory over the Danes’, a depiction of Alfred the Great that has loomed large in my recent work on the eighteenth-century reception and representation of the early middle ages.
Nicholas Blakey painted ‘Alfred in the Isle of Athelney’ c.1750 and it was engraved by Gérard Scotin II for inclusion in the series English History Delineated, published by John and Paul Knapton in 1751. Although the series failed after only six prints (covering the period from the Britons to the Battle of Hastings), the plates were bought by Richard Sayer, who had them reworked for a 1778 reissue. The image above is Sayer’s re-issue, reworked by the landscape-engraver François Vivares. Although Blakey’s design shows clear neoclassical influences, the image is remarkable for its (proto-)romantic, sympathetic depiction of Anglo-Saxon history and for the fact that it seems to illustrate a scene from James Thomson and David Mallet’s Alfred: A Masque rather than the relevant passage from Paul Rapin de Thoyras’ History of England, a best-selling history published by the Knaptons in numerous editions and subsequently by John Harrison. Rapin presented Alfred as an English hero; Thomson and Mallet presented him to Frederick, Prince of Wales and to audiences at Drury Lane as a model of virtuous English masculinity.
Blakey’s image captures this affective nearness perfectly. Alfred is shown in his prime, a rustic poet whose harp and bow rest against the roots of a massive oak. He is on the verge of military greatness, a figure who, despite his humble dress, commands the respect of the Earl of Devon (holding the Raven banner of the Vikings – or ‘Danes’ – that Alfred will soon defeat at Edington) and of the English soldiers flocking to join him. During the eighteenth century Alfred the Great rose steadily in the popular imagination to become ‘England’s Darling’, the Romantic and increasingly romanticised Anglo-Saxon hero-king of England. Blakey’s image, informed by history and drama, offers us a glimpse of that transformation in action.