Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Asser

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ASSER (d. 909?), bishop of Sherborne and author of the 'Life of Ælfred the Great,' was a monk of St. David's (Menevia), and related to Bishop Novis of that see. According to Giraldus Cambrensis (Itiner. Camb.), Asser was at one time bishop of St. David's, but the statement rests on no contemporary authority. Like Grimbald and John, 'the Old Saxon,' Asser, who had a high reputation for learning, was invited by Alfred about 885 to enter his household. He appears to have been encouraged to accept the invitation by his fellow-monks, who had recently suffered from the hostility of Hemeid, king of South Wales, and hoped to secure, through Asser, Ælfred's protection. The monk and the king met in the first instance at Dene, near Chichester. Asser refused to leave his home permanently, but promised to reply to Ælfred's offer after six months. On his journey to Wales he fell sick at Winchester, where he remained for a year and a week. .Ælfred sent for him again on his recovery, and an arrangement was made between them, by which Asser was to spend six months of each year in Ælfred's household and six months in his own country. His first visit extended to eight months, and Asser regularly studied with the king throughout that period. Before Asser's departure Ælfred presented his tutor with the minsters or monasteries (monastena) of Amesbury (? Congresbury) and Banwell, a silk pall, and as much incense as a strong man could carry. In later years Asser received a grant of Exeter and all its district in Saxon-land and Cornwall, and before 900 he seems to have become bishop of Sherborne. He signs many charters between 900 and 904 as bishop of Sherborne (Kemble's Cod. Dipl. 335, 337, 1077, 1083, 1087). In Alfred's introduction to his translation of Gregory's 'Pastorale' he refers to 'Asser, my bishop;' and since the book is dedicated to Wulfsige, whom Mr. Thomas Wright identified with a preceding bishop of Sherborne, it has been inferred that Asser was a bishop before his appointment to Sherborne. This, however, is open to question. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser died in 910, but 909 is the date given by Stubbs in his 'Registrum Anglicanum.'

Asser's 'Life of Ælfred ' ('De Rebus gestis Æfredi Magni') consists of (1) a chronicle of English history between 849 and 887, largely drawn from an early version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and (2) a personal and original narrative of Ælfred's career down to 887. Throughout are signs of the author's Celtic birth. The English are invariably called Saxons, and Celtic names of places are often preferred to the English or Latin ones. But with Asser's 'Life,' as it is commonly met with, have been interpolated passages from later and untrustworthy works. The authentic Asser is preserved almost intact in only one edition, that of 1722, which was printed from a tenth-century Cottonian MS. (Otho A. xii.), unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1731. Florence of Worcester borrowed freely from the authentic Asser, although he never mentions Asser's work by name, and copied him in many places word for word. From the late additions, and not from Asser's work in its authentic shape, are drawn the famous stories of the burning of the cakes, the references to St. Neot, and the foundation by Ælfred of the university of Oxford. Florence of Worcester makes no mention of these legends. Thomas Wright, in his 'Biog. Literaria,' questioned the authenticity of any part of the work attributed to Asser; but his arguments have been refuted by Pauli and Lappenberg.

The editio princeps of Asser's 'Annales' was issued by Archbishop Parker in 1572. It presents the 'Life' with a variety of interpolations. In Camden's 'Anglica' (Frankfort, 1603), Parker's errors are not corrected, and a long episode is introduced from a Savilian manuscript, which had been recently tampered with, detailing Grimbald's mythical connection with Oxford. Francis Wise's edition, published at Oxford in 1722, gives Asser's work in the most authentic form attainable, and in Petrie's 'Monumenta Hist. Brit.' (1848) Wise's edition is followed. [Asser's De Rebus Gestis is the main authority. Asser's authorship of the Life is impugned by Mr. Thomas Wright in the 'Archæologia,' xxix., and in the 'Biograph. Brit. Lit.' The whole question is very thoroughly discussed by Pauli in the introduction to his 'Life of Ælfred the Great,' and by T. D. Hardy in the introduction to Petrie's Monumenta.]