According to Asser in his biography of King Alfred, Alfred’s father and mother loved him above his brothers and sister. Now, in all honesty, Asser probably did not mean very much by that. It was probably just his way of saying how amazing his patron was, that even as a young boy he appeared better than everyone else. It would never have occured to him that over a thousand years later anyone would judge Athelwulf and Osburh for their supposed favouritism!
But is there any possibility Asser based that statement on something Alfred had said? Alfred’s father, Athelwulf, died when Alfred was eight or nine. However it did seem that the two were close. It was Alfred who accompanied Athelwulf on his year long pilgrimage to Rome. Three of Alfred’s brothers were considerbly older than him – fully grown or almost when Alfred was born. Inevitably their relationship with their father would seem very different. His sister was married to a Mercian king and so would have seen little of her family. In many ways to Alfred it must have seemed that the only rival for his father’s affections was his brother Ethelred, who was just a year or two older.
Alfred’s mother, Osburh, probably died when Alfred was no more than five or six. At that age, Alfred had already spent some time in Rome. I would question how clearly Alfred even remembered his mother. The story where Osburh rewards Alfred with a precious book of Saxon tales is, to me, all the more poignant as I wonder if this is one of the few clear memories he has of his mother. I doubt very much if he would remember her clearly enough to be able to judge which son she favoured. So Asser’s statement seems unlikely.
But Alfred had another parent – his young stepmother, the Frankish princess, Judith of West Francia. Is it possible that she loved Alfred more than his brothers and sister? There are reasons why this could be the case.
- Alfred was present at the Frank court where Judith and Athelwulf were betrothed and then married three months later. Judith, therefore, got to know Alfred before her other stepchildren.
- During that time Athelwulf may have accompanied the Frank king on a campaign against the Vikings. Presumably seven-year-old Alfred did not go with them and may have been left in the care of his future stepmother.
- The language barrier which must have initially existed between Judith and her stepchildren, may not have been as acute with Alfred. Alfred had travelled extensively through Frankish lands and we know Alfred was good at languages.
- A year is a long time in the life of a seven-year-old. Wessex may have seemed almost as unfamiliar to Alfred as it did to Judith.
- By the time Judith came to Wessex, Athelwulf’s daughter was married, Athelstan, his eldest son was dead and Athelbald and Ethelbert were ruling elsewhere in Wessex and Kent. It is likely that only Alfred and Ethelred were frequently at the same residence as Judith.
- Alfred did not enjoy good health. It is possible that this kept him tied to the court and perhaps the care of his stepmother.
- the age gap between Judith and Alfred was between five and seven years. As a parent of a seven-year-old and a fourteen-year-old, I know that sort of age gap is just big enough for the older to covet a more parental role. If Judith felt like a mother to any of her stepchildren, it would have been to Alfred.
So I think I could make a good case for saying that Judith did indeed love Alfred above his brothers and sister. However later events suggest that even if Judith was fond of Alfred, he may not have been the one she loved most. But that is another story!
And you can read Judith’s story here: Three Times the Lady