26 October marks the feast day of King Alfred the Great. The only English ruler called 'the great', Alfred repelled Viking attempts at conquest during the 9th century. He led the local army to victory on the chalk hills that I ride, one of many battles during a reign of twenty-eight years. Through his leadership Anglo-Saxon England followed a course characterised by independence, faith and learning.
It occurred to me this morning, as the priest mentioned the feast day, that Alfred had never been canonised. That makes him unusual - hero in contrast to the saints, teachers and martyrs more usually celebrated - and akin to Stephen the Great of Moldavia who for half a century led the struggle to preserve medieval Europe against the Ottoman menace. The two men were alike, thrust into leadership when their nations needed them and rising to the challenge. Alfred promoted learning, enabling wisdom and culture to flourish in a land ravaged by invaders. Through Alfred's efforts civilisation and the rule of law continued in early England, growing and absorbing influences over time, helping create a nation that still exists over a millennium later. Stephen built many churches and monasteries, most functioning to this day, allowing Christian faith to survive centuries of foreign domination. That Moldavia maintained its distinct identity, and became a foundation of modern-day Romania, is Stephen's legacy.
Today's ride was quiet and thoughtful. In a couple of hours we met no-one. The countryside was sleepy on the first day after the clocks had changed, horses on the grassy hillside likewise. It was a little magical too. Bright leaves fluttered down from golden trees as the breeze whispered hints of old tales. Alfred rode here, Vikings passed too, following roads that had been old when the Roman legions from the far border of Europe tramped them. Shepherds and soldiers, traders and missionaries: all passed this way.
The path of my life has led me along some of Alfred's trails, and some of Stephen's too. I live upon the foundations that they, and a few others, built. However ruinous the fragments of their legacies may be, I'm here today because of the choices that they made. History is complex, messy and frequently unpleasant. There were wrong turns, mistakes and downright stupidity. But there was wisdom too, vision and goodness. Had Alfred or Stephen failed, life today would be worse than it is.