Many famous leaders, both of nations and within the church, have received epithets next to their names over the centuries. Pope Gregory the Great, Czar Ivan the Terrible, St. John Chrysostom (the golden-mouthed), Vlad the Impaler, Charlemagne (Carolus magnus, or Charles the Great)… world history is peppered with them.
England, despite its strong history and the fact that at the height of its empire it ruled about 25% of the planet’s surface, has only ever had one “the Great” among its monarchs. And it wasn’t even one of the major empire-builders; rather, it was an Anglo-Saxon king who lived so long ago that much of his life is only known through obscure manuscripts and stories: King Aelfred the Great.
And, like, many early medieval kings and queens and bishops, he is also remembered and revered as a Saint in and by the Church. What made him so great, especially in the sense that he came to be numbered among the Saints with a capitol S?
As a general rule, canonized Saints are so because they were truly excellent models of what it means to be a Christian in their particular context. A Saint who was a bishop was a godly pastor over his diocese; a Saint who was a monk or nun was beautifully devoted to Jesus at the expense of worldly pleasures; a Saint who was a reigning monarch was a political ruler who feared and imitated the One who is Lord of all. Certainly, reputation and even “legend” (in the general sense) play into the canonization process, and the reasoning of those who make such decisions do not always survive in writing. However, what we know of Saint Aelfred the Great suggests that he was indeed a godly king.
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of this king was his education and religious reforms. Yes, he fought critically successful wars against Danes and Vikings, and he established a system of burgs (fortifications) to improve communication and defense, and he (legendarily) “founded the English navy”, and authorized some impressive tax reforms – these things made him a good King in his day. But more than that, he promoted education, learning, and literacy, not just in Latin but also in English (Old English we call it now). A veritable renaissance of Old English literature survives from his day, and the subsequent century. Our oldest excerpts of the Bible in English date back to his efforts
Aelfred was often depicted as carrying around a small book, the contemporary version of a notebook, which contained psalms and prayers that he collected. His court biographer, Asser, wrote: these “he collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it.” Practicing what he promoted, living piously, and seeking and valuing wisdom over all else earned him a posthumous reputation of being akin to the Old Testament’s King Solomon, minus the idolatry later in life.
Although the Pope never canonized Aelfred, he has been commemorated locally in England for centuries, and is listed in many Anglican calendars, including our own. He is commemorated on the recorded day of his death, October 26th.