King Alfred the Great Alfred the Great (849 – 26 October 899) was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. Alfred successfully defended his kingdom against the Viking attempt at conquest, and by his death had become the dominant ruler in England. He is the only English monarch to be accorded the epithet “the Great”. Alfred was the first King of the West Saxons to style himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”. Details of his life are described in a work by the 10th century Welsh scholar and bishop Asser.
Alfred was a learned and merciful man who encouraged education and improved his kingdom’s legal system and military structure. Alfred was the fifth son of Ethelwulf, king of Wessex, a kingdom in the south of England. He did not learn to read until he was 12, but he was responsible for starting the English tradition of education. Though he is said to have suffered from many illnesses during his life, Alfred also played a key part in keeping Danish Vikings from overrunning all of England.
Each of Alfred’s older brothers ruled Wessex during their lifetimes.
After the death of his brother Ethelred in 871, Alfred became king. During most of Alfred’s reign, his kingdom was at war with the Danes, who had captured a large part of the north of England. In fact, the year that he came to power there were nine major battles as well as numerous minor raids. The Vikings won most of these battles and captured London from the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. This allowed them to sail up the Thames River and harass Wessex. In 878, Alfred organized a large army and defeated the Danish king Guthrum.
Eight years later, Alfred’s forces helped to recapture London, and the fighting stopped for a time. Alfred made an important treaty with Guthrum, which established rights for Anglo-Saxons in Danish territory and granted rights to Danes in Anglo-Saxon territory. The Vikings resumed their raids in the 890s under different leaders, but Alfred began constructing forts in the countryside and ordered larger, faster ships built. With these new defenses, he trapped the Danish fleet up the Thames and again drove the invaders from his kingdom.
Alfred became an accomplished scholar. Although he did not study Latin until his late 30s, a few years later he began translating important Latin works into English. His translations included writings of St. Augustine, Pope Gregory I the Great, and the historian Bede. Alfred saw that making more books available in English would encourage wider literacy. Alfred is known as “Alfred the Great” because his military victories protected England from falling under foreign rule, and his learning improved the education of his people, introducing them to Latin culture.
Alfred the Great Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 Print Friendly 9 comments FONT + FONT – Of the many distinguished figures in mankind’s recorded history to have the title ‘Great’ accorded them, posterity has allowed a mere handful to retain it. Alfred, England’s darling for more than a thousand years, had ‘The Great’ bestowed upon him in medieval times by an English nation proud of their ancestor. Alfred had a diminutive and isolated stage on which to performed, compared to the likes of Alexander or Peter.
Alfred, when he became King of the West Saxons, was monarch of Wessex, a wedge of southern England between the Thames Valley and the English Channel. Wessex, a prosperous land of scattered farmsteads and hamlets, seemed doomed to annihilation at the hand of marauding armies of piratical Vikings, heathen warriors that had already devastated Europe and laid waste to England’s midland and northern kingdom. But Alfred was to prove of different mettle than his unfortunate neighbours.
Not only was he a canny and tireless campaigner — it is by his battlefield honours that many historians know him best — he was also a man of vision, learning, and a great statesman. These qualities saved a nation and earned for Alfred the lasting title ‘The Great’ despite having only a relatively minor role in the long play of history. Legend has it that Alfred was directly descended from Wodin, the Nordic God of victory. History tells a more prosaic tale. Despite his larger-than-life attributes he was a mere mortal born in 849, or thereabouts, into the House of Cerdic.
This was a royal house, to be sure, but subservient to the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia until the closing year’s of his father Ethelwulf’s reign. His birthplace was a palace or vill that lay at the foot of the Berkshire Downs close by what is now Wantage. The vill here — Wessex kings had several vills at various locations — has vanished without a trace, but we can suppose that it was little more than a grandiose wooden hall with a scattered community of farm buildings.
Ill health marred Alfred’s childhood. The youngest of four sons, he had little prospect of taking on the burden of ruling Wessex, so he was allowed to pursue his love of learning, a peculiar pastime for a Saxon atheling that must have earned him some derision from his elder brothers. One of the many stories that illustrate Alfred’s aptitude tells of how his mother, Osburh, showed her sons a beautifully illuminated book of Saxon poetry and promised to make a gift of it to the first of them to read it.
Alfred found a tutor, learned to read it aloud, and won the rare book when he was only six years old. King Ethelwulf was a devout Christian and is believed to have been a monk, pursuing a life of study at Winchester’s monastery while Alfred’s grandfather reigned. Their shared love of knowledge must have created a close bond between father and his youngest son, and Alfred accompanied Ethelwulf on a pilgrimage to Rome, an arduous journey taking two years. Rome was still an awe-inspiring city despite the ravages of repeated sackings by barbarian hordes.
The huge diplomatic centre of Western Europe would have made a huge impression on the boy Alfred. Known as a modest man, he must have been acutely aware of his own lack of learning and seen how important literate lieutenants were to an effective government. The Church of Rome wielded immense power and its influence extended to almost every aspect of Saxon life. It also had a near monopoly on the acquisition of knowledge as its official language, Latin, could be read and spoken only by church officials and understood by a mere handful of Wessex clergy.
This awareness of the acute lack of Saxon books probably led his to have written a series of histories — each compiled in a different monastery, each added to year-on-year-that have come to be known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Much of it is beautifully illustrated and it is often regarded as Alfred’s greatest achievement. But one of Alfred’s greatest gifts to posterity was the translation of a collection of great Latin works into his native Saxon tongue. But we must not get the impression that the young Alfred was a weak and sickly lad, forced by ill-health to bury his head in books and set apart from his peers.
We do know that, whatever his affliction was, he led a vigorous life as befitted a Wessex atheling. Alfred’s love of hunting was renowned and his skill as a warrior is testified in his successes against the Danes. And, in an age when the nobility treated their subjects as family possessions, Alfred emerges as a generous and affable monarch whose Christian ideals led him to believe that true Christian kingship was to have a genuine responsibility towards his country — a task entrusted to him by God. In this he laid the foundations of a code that was embodied in the English monarchy for a thousand years.
Such a visionary approach to monarchy was in stark contrast to continental rulers who were often barbaric in their treatment of subject and foe alike. When Alfred ascended the throne in 871 he succeeded the last of three elder brothers who, between them, had barely ruled for a decade, characterized by defeat at the hands of increasingly powerful Danish armies. Amid these defeats, Alfred won a glorious victory at Uffington, not far from his birthplace, just months before he became king. He moved decisively to meet a huge Danish army advancing east, and he routed them.
But the peace he won was fragile and one of his first acts as king was to ensured it by paying the Danes to leave. Like an ill-wind they always returned and Wessex enjoyed only a brief lull before the inevitable storm broke upon them again. Two key factors gave the Danes an immense advantage. One was their command of the sea. The other was the undependable nature of the Saxon armies. Comprised mostly of farmers, they had a habit of dispersing when crops needed tending and immediate threats were parried. Alfred used the time he had bought well.
While the Danes busied themselves with easier prey in the north, Alfred reorganized his tattered field army and made good the Saxon’s other great weakness, their lack of ships to meet the sea-heathens before they landed, by building the first English navy. But Alfred’s energetic and revolutionary re-organization proved ineffective against the greed and determination of the Danes’ massive force under King Guthrum — The Great Army. After a series of inconclusive forays the Danes, smarting from stubborn Saxon resistance, made peace and retreated, only to strike back almost immediately.
Together with a Danish fleet ravaging the south coast they penetrated deep into Wessex, seizing the royal vill near Chippenham and laying waste to the countryside. In the face of such overwhelming odds the Saxon resistance crumbled away and Alfred barely escaped with his life. His people must have despaired and yet, when Alfred’s cause seemed utterly lost, they still remained loyal to their tenacious monarch. From his island fastness of Burrow Mump, deep in the Sedgemoor marshes near Athelney, Alfred called on his people to rally around the golden dragon standard of Wessex.
Alfred met his army near Kingston Deverill by the Wylie River. From there they hurried north to meet Guthrum’s heathen army by the northern edge of Salisbury Plain between the iron-age fort of Bratton and Edington village. Sweeping down steep-sided gullies in a packed column, the Saxons split the Danish horde asunder and drove them pell-mell back to their stockade at Chippenham. A brief siege ended in probably the most important victory ever won on British soil, known as the Battle of Ethandun. In victory, Alfred showed true statesmanship.
When avenging the devastation of repeated Danish attacks must have seemed fully justified he took the defeated Danish king to a vill at the mouth of Cheddar Gorge and entertained him royally. Here was signed the Treaty of Wedmore. Alfred, realizing that lasting peace was only possible by accepting the Danish presence, suggested they occupy East Anglia. Guthrum acceded and even accepted the Christian faith by being baptized at the marsh-bound church of Aller, close by Alfred’s former fastness. The Danes’ defeat secured Wessex for Alfred but, with his country in squalor nd ruin, Alfred’s genius as a ruler really emerged in the uneasy peace that followed. From his capital at Winchester he introduced a wealth of imaginative reforms that have left us a rich heritage. His military innovations included splitting his field army — or fyrd — into a bi-partied system. One half of the levies serving until their comrades had left their crops to relieve them. Alfred also enlarged the English fleet, manned it with Frisian sailor who could match the Viking pirates and thereby gained the honor of being the founder of the Royal Navy.
But more importantly he fortified existing villages and created new ones at strategic sites. Many of these burhs are still with us — Shaftesbury, Chichester, Exeter, Oxford, London — and by making the surrounding populous responsible for a burh’s garrison he endured their continued existence. This article was written by Tim Woodcock for British Heritage magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to British Heritage magazine today! Alfred the Great King of the West-Saxons, born Wantage, Berkshire, England 849; died 899. Alfred was the fifth son of Ethelwulf, or ? helwulf, King of Wessex, and Osburh, his queen, of the royal house of the Jutes of Wight. When he was four years old, according to a story which has been repeated so frequently that it is generally accepted as true, he was sent by his father to Rome, where he was anointed king by Pope Leo IV. This, however like many other legends which have crystallized about the name of Alfred, is without foundation. Two years later, in 855, Ethelwulf went on a pilgrimage to Rome, taking Alfred with him. This visit, recorded by Asser, is accepted as authentic by modern historians.
In 858 Ethelwulf died and Wessex was governed by his sons, Ethelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred, successively, until 871, when Alfred came to the throne. Nothing is known of his movements during the reigns of Ethelbald and Ethelbert, but Asser, speaking of him during the reign of Ethelred, gives him the title of Secundarius. In 868 he married Ealhswith, daughter of Ethelred, surnamed the Mickle, Ealdorman of the Gainas. The West-Saxons and the Mercians were then engaged in a war against the invading Danes and Alfred took an active part in the struggle.
He ascended the throne during the thickest of this conflict, but before the end of the year he succeeded in effecting a peace, probably by paying a sum of money to the invaders. Wessex enjoyed a measure of peace for a few years, but about 875 the Danes renewed their attacks. They were repulsed then, and again in 876 and 877, on each occasion making solemn pledges of peace. In 878 came the great invasion under Guthrum. For a few months the Danes met with success, but about Easter Alfred established himself at Athelney and later marched to Brixton, gathering new forces on the way.
In the battle of Ethandun (probably the present Edington, in Wiltshire) he defeated the Danes. Guthrum agreed to a peace and consented to be baptized. It is in connection with this struggle that many of the legends of Alfred have sprung up and been perpetuated — the story of the burnt cakes, the account of his visit to the Danish camp in the guise of a harper, and many others. For fifteen years Alfred’s kingdom was at peace, but in 903 the Danes who had been driven out made another onslaught. This war lasted for four years and resulted in the final establishment of Saxon supremacy.
These struggles had another result, hardly less important than the freedom from Danish oppression. The successive invasions had crushed out of existence most of the individual kingdoms. Alfred made Wessex a rallying point for all the Saxons and by freeing the country of the invaders unwittingly unified England and prepared the way for the eventual supremacy of his successors. Popular fancy has been busy with other phases of Alfred’s career than that which is concerned with his military achievements.
He is generally credited with establishing trial by jury, the law of “frank-pledge”, and many other institutions which were rather the development of national customs of long standing. He is represented as the founder of Oxford, a claim which recent research has disproved. But even the elimination of the legendary from Alfred’s history does not in any way diminish his greatness, so much is there of actual, recorded achievement to his credit. His own estimate of what he did for the regeneration of England is modest beside the authentic history of his deeds.
He endeavoured, he tells us, to gather all that seemed good in the old English laws and adds: “I durst not venture much of mine own to set down, for I knew not what should be approved by those who came after us. ” Not only did he codify and promulgate laws but he looked, too, to their enforcement, and insisted that justice should be dispensed without fear or favour. He devoted his energies to restoring what had been destroyed by the long wars with the invaders. Monasteries were rebuilt and founded, and learned men brought from other lands.
He brought Archbishop Plegmund and Bishop Wetfrith from Mercia; Grimbold and John the Old-Saxon from other Teutonic lands; Asser, John Scotus Erigena and many others. He not only encouraged men of learning, but he laboured himself and gave proof of his own learning. He translated into Anglo-Saxon: “The Consolation of Philosophy” of Boethius; “The History of the World” of Orosius; the “Ecclesiastical History” of Bede, and the “Pastoral Rule” and the “Dialogues” of St. Gregory the Great. The “Consolation of Philosophy” he not only translated but adapted, adding much of his own.
The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, the record of the English race from the earliest time, was inspired by him. Sources BOWKER, Editor, Alfred the Great (London, 1899); PLUMMER, Life of Alfred the Great (London, 1902); SCHMID, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 2d ed. (1858). Contemporary authorities are the Life of Alfred by ASSER and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. These and the later accounts by ETHELWERD, SIMEON OF DURHAM, etc. can be conveniently studied in CONYBEARE, Alfred in the Chroniclers (1900). For Alfred’s writings see BOSWORTH, The Works of Alfred the Great (Jubilee edition, 1858, 2 vols. ).
Alfred’s laws are printed in LIEBERMANN’S Laws of the Anglo-Saxons (1903). Among modern accounts see PAULI, Life of Alfred the Great. tr. WRIGHT (1852); LAPPENBERG, England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings, tr. from the German by THORPE (1881), II; LINGARD, History of England, I; KNIGHT, Life of King Alfred (1880). For a literary appreciation, see BROOKE, History of English Literature to the Norman Conquest (London and New York, 1878). King Alfred the Great – The First English King Oct 28, 2010 King Alfred was the first king of a united Anglo-Saxons kingdom which gradually became what we now know as England.
Alfred was born in 849 AD in the village of Wanting, now Wantage, Oxfordshire. He was the youngest son of King Aethewulf of Wessex by his first wife, Osburga. Alfred was the youngest of five sons and one daughter of King Aethelwulf. His father and brothers died defending their kingdom mostly from the Vikings. In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucil and he came to power in 871 AD at the age of 22 and reigned for 28 years. Alfred started a building programme of well-defended settlements across southern England.
These were fortified market places (‘borough’ comes from the Old English burh, meaning fortress); by deliberate royal planning, settlers received plots and in return manned the defences in times of war. (Such plots in London under Alfred’s rule in the 880s shaped the streetplan which still exists today between Cheapside and the Thames. ) This obligation required careful recording in what became known as ‘the Burghal Hidage’, which gave details of the building and manning of Wessex and Mercian burhs according to their size, the length of their ramparts and the number of men needed to garrison them.
It centred round Alfred’s royal palace in Winchester, this network of burhs with strongpoints on the main river routes was such that no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles from the refuge of one of these settlements. Together with a navy of new fast ships built on Alfred’s orders, southern England now had a defence in depth against Danish raiders. His great victory at Edington in 878 secured the survival of Wessex, and the Treaty of Wedmore with the Danish king Guthrum in 886 established a boundary between the Danelaw, east of Watling Street, and the Saxons to the west.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that following his capture of London in 886 ‘all the English people submitted to him, except those who were in captivity to the Danes’. In some respects, therefore, Alfred could be considered the first king of England. A new landing in Kent encouraged a revolt of the East Anglian Danes, which was suppressed 884–86, and after the final foreign invasion was defeated 892–96, Alfred strengthened the navy to prevent fresh incursions. During periods of peace Alfred reformed and improved his military organization.
He divided his levies into two parts with one half at home and the other on active service, giving him a relief system he could call on to continue a campaign. He also began to build burhs (fortified strongpoints) throughout the kingdom to form the basis of an organized defensive system. Alfred’s brother is credited as being the founder of the Royal Navy but Alfred upgraded and had built an armada of ships which were twice as large as the Danish Viking ships and were manned by Frisians and on several occasions successfully challenged the Danes at sea.
Alfred’s concept of kingship extended beyond the administration of the tribal kingdom of Wessex into a broader context. A religiously devout and pragmatic man who learnt Latin in his late thirties, he recognised that the general deterioration in learning and religion caused by the Vikings’ destruction of monasteries (the centres of the rudimentary education network) had serious implications for rulership. For example, the poor standards in Latin had led to a decline in the use of the charter as an instrument of royal government to disseminate the king’s instructions and legislation.
In one of his prefaces, Alfred wrote ‘so general was its [Latin] decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their rituals in English or translate a letter from Latin into English … so few that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames when I came to the throne. ‘ To improve literacy, Alfred arranged, and took part in, the translation (by scholars from Mercia) from Latin into Anglo-Saxon of a handful of books he thought it ‘most needful for men to know, and to bring it to pass … f we have the peace, that all the youth now in England … may be devoted to learning’. These books covered history, philosophy and Gregory the Great’s ‘Pastoral Care’ (a handbook for bishops), and copies of these books were sent to all the bishops of the kingdom. Alfred was patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which was copied and supplemented up to 1154), a patriotic history of the English from the Wessex viewpoint designed to inspire its readers and celebrate Alfred and his monarchy.
Like other West Saxon kings, Alfred established a legal code; he assembled the laws of Offa and other predecessors, and of the kingdoms of Mercia and Kent, adding his own administrative regulations to form a definitive body of Anglo-Saxon law. ‘I … collected these together and ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, those which I liked; and many of those which I did not like I rejected with the advice of my councillors … For I dared not presume to set in writing at all many of my own, because it was unknown to me what would please those who should come after us …
Then I … showed those to all my councillors, and they then said that they were all pleased to observe them’ (Laws of Alfred, c. 885-99). By the 890s, Alfred’s charters and coinage (which he had also reformed, extending its minting to the burhs he had founded) referred to him as ‘king of the English’, and Welsh kings sought alliances with him. Alfred died in 899, aged 50, and was buried in the old minster at Winchester, the burial place of the West Saxon royal family.
By stopping the Viking advance and consolidating his territorial gains, Alfred had started the process by which his successors eventually extended their power over the other Anglo-Saxon kings; the ultimate unification of Anglo-Saxon England was to be led by Wessex. It is for his valiant defence of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securing peace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex and beyond, that Alfred – alone of all the English kings and queens – is known as ‘Alfred the Great’.
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