Asser (died c. 909) was a Welsh monk from St David's, Dyfed, who
became Bishop of Sherborne in the 890s. About 885 he was asked by
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great to leave
St David's and join the circle of learned
men whom Alfred was recruiting for his court. After spending a year at
Caerwent because of illness,
Asser wrote a biography of Alfred, called the Life of King
Alfred. The manuscript survived to modern times in only one copy,
which was part of the Cotton library. That copy was destroyed in a
fire in 1731, but transcriptions that had been made earlier, together
with material from Asser's work which was included by other early
writers, have enabled the work to be reconstructed. The biography is
the main source of information about Alfred's life and provides far
more information about Alfred than is known about any other early
Asser assisted Alfred in his translation of Gregory the
Great's Pastoral Care, and possibly with other works.
Asser is sometimes cited as a source for the legend about Alfred's
having founded the University of Oxford, which is now known to be
false. A short passage making this claim was interpolated by William
Camden into his 1603 edition of Asser's Life. Doubts have also been
raised periodically about whether the entire Life is a forgery,
written by a slightly later writer, but it is now almost universally
accepted as genuine.
1 Name and early life
2 Recruitment by Alfred and time at court
3 Bishop of Sherborne
4 The Life of King Alfred
5 Manuscripts of The Life of King Alfred
6 Legend of founding of Oxford
7 Claims of forgery
8 Other works and date of death
11 External links
Name and early life
A map of southern Great Britain showing places
Asser is known to have
visited. The monasteries he was given by Alfred are also shown. The
exact location of Ashdown is uncertain, though it is known to be on
the Berkshire Downs.
Asser (also known as John
Asser or Asserius Menevensis) was a Welsh
monk who lived from at least AD 885 until about 909. Almost nothing is
known of Asser's early life. The name
Asser is likely to have been
taken from Aser, or Asher, the eighth son of
Jacob in Genesis. Old
Testament names were common in Wales at the time, but it has been
suggested that this name may have been adopted at the time Asser
entered the church.
Asser may have been familiar with a work by St
Jerome on the meaning of Hebrew names (Jerome's given meaning for
"Asser" was "blessed"), so it is possible that Asser's birth name was
"Gwyn" (or "Guinn"), which is Welsh for "blessed" (or
According to his Life of King Alfred,
Asser was a monk at St David's
in what was then the kingdom of Dyfed, in south-west Wales. Asser
makes it clear that he was brought up in the area, and was tonsured,
trained and ordained there. He also mentions Nobis, a bishop of St
David's who died in 873 or 874, as being a kinsman of his.
Recruitment by Alfred and time at court
Much of what is known about
Asser comes from his biography of Alfred,
in particular a short section in which
Asser recounts how Alfred
recruited him as a scholar for his court. Alfred held a high opinion
of the value of learning and recruited men from around Britain and
from continental Europe to establish a scholarly centre at his court.
It is not known how Alfred heard of Asser, but one possibility relates
to Alfred's overlordship of south Wales. Several kings, including
Hywel ap Rhys of
Glywysing and Hyfaidd of
Dyfed (where Asser's
monastery was), had submitted to Alfred's overlordship in 885. Asser
gives a fairly detailed account of the events. There is a charter of
Hywel's which has been dated to c. 885; amongst the witnesses is one
"Asser", which may be the same person. Hence it is possible that
Alfred's relationship with the southern Welsh kings led him to hear of
Asser recounts meeting Alfred first at the royal estate at Dean,
Sussex (now East and West Dean, West Sussex).
Asser provides only
one datable event in his history: on St Martin's Day, 11 November 887,
Alfred decided to learn to read Latin. Working backwards from this, it
appears most likely that
Asser was recruited by Alfred in early
Asser's response to Alfred's request was to ask for time to consider
the offer, as he felt it would be unfair to abandon his current
position in favour of worldly recognition. Alfred agreed but also
suggested that he should spend half his time at
St David's and half
Asser again asked for time to consider, but ultimately
agreed to return to Alfred with an answer in six months. On his return
to Wales, however,
Asser fell ill with a fever and was confined to the
Caerwent for twelve months and a week. Alfred wrote to
find out the cause of the delay, and
Asser responded that he would
keep his promise when he recovered. When he did recover, in 886, he
agreed to divide his time between Wales and Alfred's court, as Alfred
had suggested. Others at
St David's supported this, since they hoped
Asser's influence with Alfred would avoid "damaging afflictions and
injuries at the hands of King Hyfaidd (who often assaulted that
monastery and the jurisdiction of St David)".
Asser joined several other noted scholars at Alfred's court, including
Grimbald, and John the Old Saxon; all three probably reached Alfred's
court within a year of each other. His first extended stay with
Alfred was at the royal estate at Leonaford, probably from about April
through December 886. It is not known where Leonaford was; a case has
been made for Landford, in Wiltshire.
Asser records that he read aloud
to the king from the books at hand. On Christmas Eve, 886, after Asser
had for some time failed to obtain permission to return to Wales,
Asser the monasteries of
Congresbury and Banwell, along
with a silk cloak and a quantity of incense "weighing as much as a
stout man." He allowed
Asser to visit his new possessions and thence
to return to St David's.
Asser seems to have divided his time between Wales and
Asser gives no information about his time in Wales,
but mentions various places that he visited in England, including the
battlefield at Ashdown, Cynuit (Countisbury), and Athelney. It is
evident from Asser's account that he spent a good deal of time with
Alfred: he recounts meeting Alfred's mother-in-law,
Eadburh (who is
not the same
Eadburh who died as a beggar in Pavia), on many
occasions; and says that he has often seen Alfred hunting.
Bishop of Sherborne
Sometime between 887 and 892, Alfred gave
Asser the monastery of
Asser subsequently became Bishop of Sherborne, though the
year of succession is unknown. Asser's predecessor as Bishop of
Sherborne, Wulfsige, is known to have attested a charter sometime
between 890 and 896. Asser's first appearance in the position is in
900, when he appears as a witness to a charter; hence the succession
can only be dated to the years 890 to 900. In any event,
already been a bishop prior to his appointment to the see of
Sherborne, since Wulfsige is known to have received a copy of Alfred's
Pastoral Care in which
Asser is described as a bishop.
It is possible that
Asser was a suffragan bishop within the see of
Sherborne, but he may instead have been a bishop of St David's. He is
listed as such in Giraldus Cambrensis's Itinerarium Cambriae, although
this may be unreliable as it was written three centuries later, in
1191. A contemporary clue is found in Asser's own writing: he mentions
that bishops of
St David's were sometimes expelled by King Hyfaidd and
adds that "he even expelled me on occasion." This also implies that
Asser was himself a bishop of St David's.
The Life of King Alfred
Asser wrote a biography of Alfred entitled The Life of King
Alfred; in the original Latin, the title is Vita Ælfredi regis Angul
Saxonum. The date is known from Asser's mention of the king's age in
the text. The work, which is less than twenty thousand words long, is
one of the most important sources of information on Alfred the
Asser drew on a variety of texts to write his Life. The style is
similar to that of two biographies of Louis the Pious: Vita Hludovici
Imperatoris, written c. 840 by an unknown author usually called "the
Astronomer", and Vita Hludowici Imperatoris by Thegan of Trier. It is
Asser may have known these works. He also knew Bede's
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; the Historia Brittonum, a
Welsh source; the Life of Alcuin; and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is
also clear from the text that
Asser was familiar with Virgil's Aeneid,
Caelius Sedulius's Carmen Paschale, Aldhelm's De Virginitate, and
Vita Karoli Magni
Vita Karoli Magni ("Life of Charlemagne"). He quotes from
Gregory the Great's Regula Pastoralis, a work he and Alfred
subsequently collaborated in translating, and from Augustine of
Hippo's Enchiridion. About half of the Life is little more than a
translation of part of the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the years
Asser adds personal opinions and interpolates
information about Alfred's life.
Asser also adds material relating to
the years after 887 and general opinions about Alfred's character and
Asser's prose style has been criticised for weak syntax, stylistic
pretensions, and garbled exposition. His frequent use of archaic and
unusual words gives his prose a baroque flavour that is common in
Insular Latin authors of the period. He uses several words that are
peculiar to Frankish Latin sources. This has led to speculation that
he was educated at least partly in Francia, but it is also possible
that he acquired this vocabulary from Frankish scholars he associated
with at court, such as Grimbald.
The Life ends abruptly with no concluding remarks and it is considered
likely that the manuscript is an incomplete draft.
Asser lived a
further fifteen or sixteen years and Alfred a further six, but no
events after 893 are recorded.
It is possible that the work was written principally for the benefit
of a Welsh audience.
Asser takes pains to explain local geography, so
he was clearly considering an audience not familiar with the areas he
described. More specifically, at several points he gives an English
name and follows it with the Welsh equivalent, even in the case of
Nottingham, which seems unlikely to have had a native Welsh name. As a
result, and given that Alfred's overlordship of south Wales was
recent, it may be that
Asser intended the work to acquaint a Welsh
readership with Alfred's personal qualities and reconcile them to his
rule. However, it is also possible that Asser's inclusion of Welsh
placenames simply reflects an interest in etymology or the existence
of a Welsh audience in his own household rather than in Wales. There
are also sections such as the support for Alfred's programme of
fortification that give the impression of the book's being aimed at an
Asser's Life omits any mention of internal strife or dissent in
Alfred's own reign, though when he mentions that Alfred had to harshly
punish those who were slow to obey Alfred's commands to fortify the
realm, he makes it clear that Alfred did have to enforce obedience.
Asser's life is a one-sided treatment of Alfred, though since Alfred
was alive when it was composed, it is unlikely to contain gross errors
In addition to being the primary source for Alfred's life, Asser's
work is also a source for other historical periods, where he adds
material to his translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For example,
he tells a story about Eadburh, the daughter of Offa.
Beorhtric, king of the West Saxons.
Asser describes her as behaving
"like a tyrant" and ultimately accidentally poisoning
Beorhtric in an
attempt to murder someone else. He finishes by describing her death as
a beggar in Pavia. This
Eadburh is not the same as Alfred's
mother-in-law, also named Eadburh, whom
Asser mentions elsewhere.
Manuscripts of The Life of King Alfred
A facsimile of the first page of the Cotton ms. of Asser's "Life of
King Alfred". This copy was made in 1722 by James Hill, an antiquary
who had been employed by Francis Wise to examine the manuscript.
The early manuscript of the Life does not appear to have been widely
known in medieval times. Only one copy is known to have survived into
modern times. It is known as Cotton MS Otho A xii, and was part of the
Cotton library. It was written about 1000 and was destroyed in a fire
in 1731. The lack of distribution may be because
Asser had not
finished the manuscript and so did not have it copied. However, the
material in the Life is recognizable in other works. There is some
evidence from early writers of access to versions of Asser's work, as
Byrhtferth of Ramsey included large sections of it into Historia
Regum, a historical work he wrote in the late tenth or early 11th
century. He may have used the Cotton manuscript. (The Historia Regum
was until recently attributed to Symeon of Durham.)
The anonymous author of the
Encomium Emmae (written in the early
1040s) was apparently acquainted with the Life, though it is not known
how he knew of it. The author was a monk of St Bertin's in Flanders,
but may have learned of the work in England.
The chronicler known as
Florence of Worcester incorporated parts of
Asser's Life into his chronicle, in the early 12th century; again, he
may have also used the Cotton manuscript.
An anonymous chronicler at Bury St Edmunds, working in the second
quarter of the 12th century, produced a compilation now known as The
Annals of St Neots. He used material from a version of Asser's work
which differs in some places from the Cotton manuscript and in some
places appears to be more accurate, so it is possible that the copy
used was not the Cotton manuscript.
Giraldus Cambrensis wrote a Life of St Æthelberht, probably at
Hereford during the 1190s. He quotes an incident from
occurred during the reign of
Offa of Mercia, who died in 796. This
incident is not in the surviving copies of the manuscript. It is
possible that Giraldus had access to a different copy of Asser's work.
It is also possible that he is quoting a different work by Asser,
which is otherwise unknown, or even that Giraldus is making up the
Asser to support his story. The latter is at least
plausible, since Giraldus is not always regarded as a trustworthy
The history of the Cotton manuscript itself is quite complex. The list
of early writers above mentions that it may have been in the
possession of at least two of them. It was owned by John Leland, the
antiquary, in the 1540s. It probably became available after the
dissolution of the monasteries, in which the property of many
religious houses was confiscated and sold. Leland died in 1552 and it
is known to have been in the possession of
Matthew Parker from some
time after that until his own death in 1575. Although Parker
bequeathed most of his library to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge,
the Cotton manuscript was not included. By 1600, it was in the library
of Lord Lumley and by 1621 the manuscript was in the possession of
Robert Cotton. The
Cotton library was moved in 1712 from Cotton House
Westminster to Essex House in the Strand and then moved again in
Ashburnham House in Westminster. On the morning of Saturday,
23 October 1731, a fire broke out and the Cotton manuscript was
As a result, the text of Asser's Life is known from a multitude of
different sources. Various transcripts had been made of the Cotton
manuscript and a facsimile of the first page of the manuscript had
been made and published, giving more direct evidence for the hand of
the scribe. In addition to these transcripts, the extracts mentioned
above made by other early writers have been used to help assemble and
assess the text. Because of the lack of the manuscript itself and
because Parker's annotations had been copied by some transcribers as
if they were part of the text, scholarly editions have had a difficult
burden. There have been multiple editions of The Life published, both
in Latin and in translation. The 1904 critical edition by W. H.
Stevenson, Asser's Life of King Alfred, together with the Annals of
Saint Neots erroneously ascribed to Asser, still provides the standard
text. An important recent translation, with thorough notes on the
scholarly problems and issues, is Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of
King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources by
Simon Keynes and Michael
Legend of founding of Oxford
In 1603 the antiquarian
William Camden published an edition of Asser's
Life in which there appears a story of a community of scholars at
Oxford, who were visited by Grimbald:
In the year of our Lord 886, the second year of the arrival of St
Grimbald in England, the
University of Oxford
University of Oxford was begun ... John, monk
of the church of St David, giving lectures in logic, music and
arithmetic; and John, the monk, colleague of St Grimbald, a man of
great parts and a universal scholar, teaching geometry and astronomy
before the most glorious and invincible King Alfred.
There is no support for this in any source known. Camden based his
edition on Parker's manuscript, other transcripts of which do not
include any such material. It is now acknowledged that this is an
interpolation of Camden's, though the legend itself first surfaced in
the 14th century. Older books about
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great include
the legend: for example,
Jacob Abbott's 1849
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great says
that "One of the greatest and most important of the measures which
Alfred adopted for the intellectual improvement of his people was the
founding of the great University of Oxford."
Claims of forgery
During the 19th and 20th centuries, several scholars asserted that
Asser's biography of King Alfred was not authentic, but a forgery. A
prominent claim was made in 1964 by the respected historian V.H.
Galbraith in his essay "Who Wrote Asser's Life of Alfred?" Galbraith
argued that there were anachronisms in the text that meant it could
not have been written during Asser's lifetime. For example,
"rex Angul Saxonum" ("king of the Anglo-Saxons") to refer to Alfred.
Galbraith asserted that this usage does not appear until the late 10th
century. Galbraith also identified the use of "parochia" to refer to
Exeter as an anachronism, arguing that it should be translated as
"diocese" and hence that it referred to the bishopric of Exeter, which
was not created until 1050. Galbraith identified the true author as
Leofric, who became Bishop of Devon and Cornwall in 1046. Leofric's
motive, according to Galbraith, was to justify the re-establishment of
his see at Exeter by demonstrating a precedent for the
The title "king of the Anglo-Saxons" does, however, in fact occur in
royal charters that date to before 892 and "parochia" does not
necessarily mean "diocese", but can sometimes refer just to the
jurisdiction of a church or monastery. In addition, there are other
arguments against Leofric's having been the forger. Aside from the
fact that Leofric would have known little about
Asser and so would
have been unlikely to construct a plausible forgery, there is strong
evidence dating the Cotton manuscript to about 1000. The apparent use
of Asser's material in other early works that predate Leofric also
argues against Galbraith's theory. Galbraith's arguments were refuted
to the satisfaction of most historians by
Dorothy Whitelock in Genuine
Asser, in 1967.
More recently, in 2002, Alfred Smyth has argued that the Life is a
forgery by Byrhtferth, basing his case primarily on an analysis of
Byrhtferth's and Asser's Latin vocabulary. Byrhtferth's motive,
according to Smyth, is to lend Alfred's prestige to the Benedictine
monastic reform movement of the late tenth century. However, the
argument has not been found persuasive, and few historians harbour
doubts about the authenticity of the work.
Other works and date of death
In addition to the Life of King Alfred,
Asser is credited by Alfred as
one of several scholars who assisted with Alfred's translation of
Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Care). The historian William of
Malmesbury, writing in the 12th century, believed that
assisted Alfred with his translation of Boethius.
The Annales Cambriae, a set of Welsh annals that were probably kept at
St David's, records Asser's death in the year 908. The Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle records the following entry as part of the entry for 909 or
910 (in different versions of the chronicle): "Here Frithustan
succeeded to the bishopric in Winchester, and after that Asser, who
was bishop at Sherborne, departed." The year given by the
chronicle was uncertain, because different chroniclers started the new
year at different calendar dates, and Asser's date of death is
generally given as 908/909.
^ a b A'Becket, John Joseph (1907). "John Asser". In Herbermann,
Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. 1. New York: Robert Appleton
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r
Simon Keynes and Michael
Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 48–58, 93–96, and 220–221.
^ John McNeil Dodgson. Place-Names in Sussex in Brandons. South
Saxons. Ch. IV. p. 71
Asser tells the story of his recruitment in chapter 79 of his Life
of King Alfred (Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 93–94).
^ Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 26–27.
^ The story of Asser's first visit to Alfred's court is taken from
chapter 81 of his Life (Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p.
^ a b Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology, p. 22
^ Abels, Alfred the Great, pp. 13–14.
^ Campbell, The Anglo-Saxon State, p. 142.
^ Fletcher, Richard (1989). Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon
England. Shepheard-Walwyn. p. 139. ISBN 0-85683-089-5.
^ Asser's biases and how to interpret them are discussed in detail in
Campbell, The Anglo-Saxon State, pp. 145–150.
^ Campbell, John; John, Eric; Wormald, Patrick (1991). The
Anglo-Saxons. Penguin Books. p. 111.
^ Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 71–72.
^ Abels, Alfred the Great, p. 319.
^ a b c Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 223–227.
^ Abels, Alfred the Great, p. 328.
^ Richard Abels (Alfred the Great, p. 328) unequivocally describes
Keynes and Lapidge's book as "The best collection of primary sources
in translation", and "an indispensable guide to the scholarly problems
and issues surrounding these works".
^ "Oxford Figures – About: The Mathematical Institute, University of
Oxford". Archived from the original on 9 June 2011. Retrieved 31
^ See for example The Cambridge History of English and American
Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21): Volume I. From the Beginnings to
the Cycles of Romance. Chapter VI: Alfred and the Old English Prose of
his Reign, § 1: Asser's Life of Alfred is online at "§1. Asser's
"Life of Alfred". VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign.
Vol. 1. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance". Retrieved 18
^ "The Baldwin Project:
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great by
Jacob Abbott". Retrieved
18 April 2007.
^ a b c See "On the Authenticity of Asser's Life of King Alfred" in
Abels, Alfred the Great, pp. 321–324. Pages 319–321 review
Galbraith's argument, and the academic response; 321–324 cover
^ Smyth, Alfred P. (2002). The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great.
Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-69917-3. Smyth's book is
also available online.
^ Abels, Alfred the Great, p. 11.
^ Swanton, Michael (1996). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Routledge.
pp. 94–95. ISBN 0-415-92129-5.
Abels, Richard (2005). Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in
Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Longman. ISBN 0-582-04047-7.
Brandon, Peter, ed. (1978). The South Saxons. Chichester: Phillimore.
Campbell, James (2000). The Anglo-Saxon State. Hambledon and London.
p. 142. ISBN 1-85285-176-7.
Fryde, E. B.; Greenway, D. E.; Porter, S.; Roy, I. (1996). Handbook of
British Chronology (Third revised ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. ISBN 0-521-56350-X.
Keynes, Simon; Lapidge, Michael (2004). Alfred the Great: Asser's Life
of King Alfred and other contemporary sources. New York: Penguin
Classics. ISBN 0-14-044409-2.
Asser 1 at Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England
HTML full text of Asser's Life of King Alfred
Asser's Life of Alfred, commentary from The Cambridge History of
English and American Literature, Volume I, 1907–21.
Asser's Life of Alfred
Works by or about
Asser at Internet Archive
LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
Bishop of Sherborne
c. 895–c. 909
Bishops of Salisbury
see at Sherborne
see erected from Winchester
St Ælfwold II
see united with Ramsbury and removed to Old Sarum
see at Old Sarum
united from Sherborne & Ramsbury
Henry de Sully
Philip de Harcourt
Josceline de Bohon
see removed to New Sarum
Robert de Bingham
William de York
Giles of Bridport
Walter de la Wyle
Lawrence de Awkeburne
William de la Corner
Simon of Ghent
John Thomas (I)
Robert Hay Drummond
John Thomas (II)
St Clair Donaldson
ISNI: 0000 0001 0905 2710
BNF: cb119988852 (data)