Alfred the Clean Shaven


Well I don’t know who it is, but its not Alfred.

Everybody thinks it is, don’t get me wrong. They have trusted this statue in Winchester, England to be King Alfred The Great for 114 years.

But for all I know, sculptor Hamo Thornycroft dashed out into the Kensington streets, grabbed a tramp settling down with a bottle of whisky, and Β ushered him back to his studio, a suit of chain mail and a very big sword.

But of course, that’s ludicrous. For who would give a large pointy sword to a tipsy tramp one has only just met?

No. He must have known the tramp quite well.

They erected the statue at the far end of Winchester High Street, close to the East Gate, to commemorate one thousand years of King Alfred The Great. Alfred was quite important to Winchester. He laid out its street system, the same system which we have to negotiate gingerly as a one-way system today. Winchester was his capital, one of his ‘burghs’ or fortified towns. He designated the south-east quarter as ecclesiastical, the judicial quarter in the south-west, and the tradesmen’s quarter in the north-east. And largely, everyone has kept to their stations ever since.

So of course, when he was a thousand years old, everyone felt a party was in order.

Hamo – or Sir William – Thornycroft, the darling of the ‘New’ sculptors, was chosen to bring Alfred to life in a statue to commemorate the event. Hamo is a key player: he did Cromwell outside Parliament, and General Gordon on the Embankment, not to mention Sir Daniel Dixon outside Belfast City Hall.

But Hamo was no historian.

He clearly felt Alfred should have a beard.

Now I know all men have beards at one point or another. I know tiny ones grow during high days and holidays. Β And I know there will have been times when Alfred sported a bit of fashion grizzle.

But for official portraits, the man wished himself portrayed clean-shaven.

I know because of the Alfred Jewel.

Photo via Wikipedia

Photo via Wikipedia

Made of enamel and quartz encased in gold, it bears the inscription: ‘Alfred ordered me made.’

It is thought to be the holding end of some kind of staff, possibly sent out to each bishop in his kingdom with a book by the pope of the day. It’s at the Ashmolean in Oxford, should you ever be in the vicinity; and turn it another way and you get a perfect stately picture of the great king himself:

Picture via

Picture via

See a beard?

Me neither.

But in 1899, when the new bearded Alfred was ceremonially unveiled in Winchester, there was a great town procession, and a huge knees-up, and articles graced newspapers as far away as the illustrious New York Times.

So: shall we draw straws for who tells the good Mayor and Corporation of Winchester that they have a well-dressed stranger wielding a very sharp sword in their midst?


38 thoughts on “Alfred the Clean Shaven

  1. But he just wouldn’t look kingly enough without that perfectly shaped beard now, would he? Interesting post, made me laugh!

  2. I love the way that the enamel Alfred appears to be looking, nervously, at someone to his right. It may well have been his wife mentioning “If you hadn’t spent all morning shaving, to look like a ponce for your portrait, rather than watching the oven, as I asked, we might have had some decent cakes for tea…prat”.

  3. A pedant replies: There’s no guarantee that this is a contemporary portrait of Alfred, despite the ALFRED HAD ME MADE inscription — it could have been of an allegorical figure, or a portrait of the dedicatee if it was a gift from the king to, say, an ecclesiastic or noble.

    Pooh to pedants! It would be nice to think this was of Alfred. If we look at the Bayeux Tapestry, for example — granted, it was from nearly two centuries later — the custom seems to be for clean-shaven men, but I can’t think of any illustrated MSS of around the 9th century showing images with beards apart from biblical figures. Perhaps the Victorian idea of Dark Age figures was derived from their opponents the Vikings, such as the bearded head from the 9th-century Oseberg cart (though that was only discovered at the beginning of the 20th century).

      1. Weird, one looks like Keith Richards with a sweat band and the other has John Lennon specs … sure you’ve got the right coins?!

        Seriously (!) I suspect these are modelled on Roman coins via Continental intermediaries — for example here’s one of a 7th century Lombard ruler — or less likely contemporary Byzantine coins (these were often full face). Alfred is shown as an idealised imperial ruler along the lines of the ancient Caesars.

        It’s still very likely — maybe even probable — that he was clean-shaven.

    1. There’s a thought. What if the mineral used to paint beards on is not so long lived as the others? Maybe it faded: and he had a huge long beard which would have provoked the envy of Rasputin πŸ˜€

  4. Just found this discussion, Kate, which — amazingly — largely confirms my suspicions (I say ‘amazingly’ because I’m usually wrong):

    And here is an 18th-century image in the NPG — clearly of a generic medieval king — which may have influenced the Winchester statue design:

    Sorry, I’m like a polecat with a rabbit with this one. Apologies, it’s late I know.

    1. Some epic research, Chris. The coins may be based on a Roman model, but are they really going to put some complete stranger on it? The tradition of having the ruler on the coin has been a thread throughout history. Alfred dying in 899, a statue which appears 400 or so years later is in no way a contemporary source as the jewel is. The message the clean shaven images give is that important people are unhairy in ninth century Wessex. If you asked Alfred how he would like to be portrayed I’d say he’d opt for the clean shaven look.

  5. I am smiling at the inscription, “Alfred ordered me made.” I have never seen an inscription worded in that way and I find that quite unique. Perhaps it isn’t, but new to me. Historical perception and the proliferation of lore is always intriguing. I think maybe we really do gravitate to fable and story more than truth much of the time, we just don’t always know that’s what we’ve done. I’d say don’t tell the good Mayor. He might become so deflated!

      1. In truth, the good people of Winchester will be very familiar with the arguments I have put forward today. And in England, when one challenges the establishment, people usually just respond by retrenching and getting cross. So, I think your course of action does sound wise indeed, Debra and Huntmode.

  6. Well, Kate, it looks like a hand mirror to me – the one with Alfred looking off to his right. I’m for the clean shaven Alfried, myself. Maybe the artist thought he had a weak jaw and needed the strength and virility of beard?

    1. I think the Victorians liked the bearded look. Look at Dickens, And Darwin. And Charles Pooter.
      Along with not having the vote, women had not yet gained the clout to tell their men to shave them off. Immediately.

  7. Before reading this post, I thought this might be an episode about Big Al hijinks with shaving cream … My vote goes to you to break this news to the good Mayor and Corporation of Winchester that their statue needs a shave.

  8. Not necessarily a stranger. As every English schoolboy knows Alfred was exhausted after fighting the Danes and stumbled into the hut of a woodcutter where the woman of the house took pity on the bedraggled fellow and said she would feed him if he watched her cakes. Returning later she found that the king had fallen asleep and let the cakes burn so she turned him out of the hut without any dinner. The king thought that if his beard had been any longer he might have also set fire to himself and thus jeopardized the fate of the country. Consequently he decided to shave his beard off to prevent this from ever happening. So, you see, they were probably one and the same person.

    1. Ah, yes, Malcolm, but we all have beardy wierdy days. Of course a King of Wessex might not bring his barber along on campaign. But for state portraits: for a kingly statue in the city he designed: no beard, surely?

  9. My sister was at Winchester and in rag week they painted silver footprints from the statue of Alfred to the gents’ loo across the road and back again. As mid-teenager i found that hilarious.

  10. He’s beardy Alfred to enhance the idea of his masculinty; Victorians were obsessed with whiskers and male facial hair!

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