Hayes in the House: Churchill thought King Alfred was the greatest Briton - by MP John Hayes

MP John Hayes.
MP John Hayes.
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Early this century, in a BBC poll, Winston Churchill was voted ‘the greatest Briton of all time’.

Yet it seems that Churchill, a distinguished chronicler of our nation’s past, viewed his own heroism –in our darkest hour – through a different prism.

Winston Churchill pictured with General de Gaulle.

Winston Churchill pictured with General de Gaulle.

By Churchill’s own reckoning, it was King Alfred (849-899) who should be judged ‘the greatest’ in England’s long and proud history.

Today, the only thing many people know about Alfred the Great is the apocryphal story of burnt cakes in the home of a kindly peasant who sheltered him from the Vikings.

Alfred’s real legacy is of much greater significance, for he began a process of building the nation we enjoy today.

King Alfred built a cohesive network of fortified towns capable of repelling Viking invasions; he personally translated religious texts into vernacular English, so spreading literacy and learning; and he issued codes that laid the foundations of our legal system.

Knowledge of our unique island story is important in providing an anchor in the modern world’s stormy seas.

More than 1,000 years later, Alfred’s greatness still matters. We continue to benefit from his legacy in many ways; from the City of London’s street pattern to the principles of common law.

Yet, as misguided educationalists corrupted the curriculum, generations of school children learned little about Alfred’s achievements.

Good teachers, bucking the trend, did all they could to encourage a grasp of history’s chronology, but, given the arrogant dominance of the ‘progressives’, they were up against it.

Now, thankfully, true history is being recovered from those who were determined to teach themes, not dates, and to glamorise history’s also-rans. Thanks to former Education Secretary Michael Gove, children are now expected to learn a complete history of Britain, with a clear narrative and an emphasis on real heroes and heroines.

This rejuvenation should not be dismissed as just learning the names of Kings and Queens by memory (no bad thing in itself, by the way).

In fact, it is more about developing an understanding of how belief, identity and conflict have shaped the nation we know now.

Knowledge of our unique island story is important in providing an anchor in the modern world’s stormy seas.

The appreciation of how our institutions were forged, over more than 1,000 years of history, equips us to evaluate what seems to matter now by knowing what always has and always will.