Alfred, the emblematic king

Historic building conservator Philip Scorer inspects the fabric of King Alfred's Tower. ©National Trust

Historic building conservator Philip Scorer inspects the fabric of King Alfred’s Tower. ©National Trust

The National Trust’s South West Blog keeps coming up with great images at the moment. A suitable caption for this one might be ‘Just another day working for the National Trust.’ I love Philip Scorer’s studious pose, pen and paper at the ready, while dangling off the side of an eighteenth-century folly.

King Alfred's Tower, Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Stephen Robson

King Alfred’s Tower, Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Stephen Robson

In fact it shows Philip inspecting King Alfred’s Tower, on the Stourhead estate, which is in need of repair. Significant funds have already been raised, including grants from the Viridor Environmental Credits Company and from the Mackintosh Foundation, but we are now trying to find the final £24,000.

King Alfred the Great, attributed to Samuel Woodforde (1763-1817), at Stourhead, inv. no. 732296. ©National Trust, image  supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

King Alfred the Great, attributed to Samuel Woodforde (1763-1817), at Stourhead, inv. no. 732296. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

The tower demonstrates how the figure of King Alfred (849-99) was used as a cultural emblem in the eighteenth century. This Anglo-Saxon king was known for repelling vikings, rebuilding towns and cities, reforming the legal system and encouraging scholarship and religion.

Bust of King Alfred in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe. ©National Trust Images/Jerry Harpur

Bust of King Alfred in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe. ©National Trust Images/Jerry Harpur

From the sixteenth century onwards Alfred ‘the Great’ came to be revered as the epitome of a virtuous monarch. He was seen as a symbol of British virtues such as patriotism, love of liberty and respect for the rule of law.

Portrait of Anne Hoare, later Lady Mathew (d.1872), with King Alfred's Tower in the distance, by William Owen, RA (1769-1825), at Stourhead, inv. no. 732267. Image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Anne Hoare, later Lady Mathew (d.1872), with King Alfred’s Tower in the distance, by William Owen, RA (1769-1825), at Stourhead, inv. no. 732267. Image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

King Alfred’s Tower at Stourhead was designed by Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769) for Henry Hoare II (1705-85). It commemorates the peace with France in 1762 and the recent accession of King George III (1738-1820), like Alfred seen as ‘a truly British King’.

Painted plaster relief of King Alfred, probably 1760s, in the Caesar's hall, Kedleston Hall, inv. no. 109000.2. ©National Trust/Andrew Patterson

Painted plaster relief of King Alfred, probably 1760s, in the Caesar’s hall, Kedleston Hall, inv. no. 109000.2. ©National Trust/Andrew Patterson

American readers of this blog might well question George III’s credentials as a champion of liberty, but I suppose that is one of the ironies of history.

5 Responses to “Alfred, the emblematic king”

  1. Susan Barsy Says:

    I like this idea of ‘domesticating’ the memory of a good king. Perhaps it highlights the liminal position of aristocratic houses, which its owners could style as having civic, as well as social or purely personal aesthetic, meaning. In any event, I can’t think of similar instances where American houses enshrine the memory of a native-born leader (versus one that is classical or European).

    The closest parallel I can think of is something like the “Lee Chapel”–and Lee is hardly a model a true patriot wishes to see preserved.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes as you say it would seem to be an expression of that aristocratic, ancien régime mindset which conflated private and public: the lord, his house and estate embodying the order of the realm, literally and symbolically.

    Ironically, the Hoare family of Stourhead were originally bankers (the bank, C. Hoare & Co., [http://www.hoaresbank.co.uk/] still exists), and would therefore have been considered ‘new money’. But they (specifically Henry Hoare II [1705-85] who initiated the garden) obviously subscribed to aristocratic values, and mingled with and married into the aristocracy.

    Some of these old conflations between private and public seem to survive linguistically, in some British royal and military institutions: e.g. the Royal Household (http://bit.ly/1mpIFfM) and the Household Division (http://bit.ly/1mZwzWA). And the Royal Collection, although managed in a very public-spirited manner, originates in the collections of various individual British monarchs and is not publicly owned (http://bit.ly/1jfCbBm).

  3. Andrew Says:

    Not just new money – wouldn’t banking be considered “in trade”?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Absolutely. And I don’t know Henry Hoare II’s biography very well, but it would seem that something of that social ambivalence is reflected in the garden at Stourhead, with its grand and bold layout combined with subtle planting and sophisticated historical and cultural references.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    And I have just spotted this straw King Alfred, in the folk art exhibition at Tate Britain: http://bit.ly/1raEvJE

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