Alfred the Great Facts
Title: “King of the Anglo-Saxons”
Reign: 23 April 871 – 26 October 899
Died: 26 October 899 (est. 50)
Alfred the Great Summary
Alfred was born in the village of Wannating (now modern day Wantage, Oxford). He was sent to Rome in 853 where he was anointed as king by Pope Leo IV. He was only four at the time. Not much of his younger life was mentioned during the short reigns of his brothers, Æthelbald of Wessex and Æthelberht of Wessex.
Alfred was known for effectively safeguarding his kingdom against the Vikings, who have attempted on taking over his kingdom, and he became England’s ruler by the time of his death. He is the first English king to be given the designation of “the Great”. Among the West Saxons, Alfred was also the first English King to proclaim himself as the “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.
Subtle elements of Alfred’s life are depicted in a work by the tenth century Welsh researcher and religious administrator Asser. A faithful Christian, Alfred had a notoriety for being a scholarly and lenient man of a generous and reasonable nature who energized training and enhanced his kingdom’s lawful framework, military structure and his kin’s personal satisfaction.
In 866 Bishop Asser gave Alfred the extraordinary title of “secundarius”, which may demonstrate a position similar to that of the Celtic tanist, a successor closely linked with the monarch currently ruling at the time. It is conceivable that this course of action was authorized by Alfred’s father, or by the Witan, to prepare for the risk of a conflict between the successors in the event Æthelred is killed in battle. The plan of delegating a successor as as the next monarch and military leader is extraordinary even among the other Germanic tribes like the Swedes and the Franks.
After his father’s death In April 871, Alfred eventually succeeded to the throne of Wessex and the responsibility of protecting it, regardless of the fact that Æthelred left behind two children, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold. This was as per the assention that Æthelred and Alfred had made a year earlier during a gathering at Swinbeorg. The siblings had concurred that whichever of them outlasted the other, as according to their father’s will, he would acquire the individual property that King Æthelwulf had left behind for his children.
The children of the recently departed would get just whatever property and wealth their parent had settled upon them and whatever territory their uncle had obtained. The main reason was that the surviving sibling would become the next heir to the throne. Given that the Danish are determined in their attacks and the young inexperience of his nephews, Alfred’s progression to the throne likely went uncontested.
Articles Featuring Alfred The Great From British Heritage Magazine
Alfred The Great
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 and 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.
The England that Alfred Made
Alfred the great’s profound affect on english life is all around us, but if you want to see it, you have to know what to look for.
Try to set up a history tour around Alfred the Great and you might find yourself coming up short. After all, Alfred ruled in the late 800s and then only in Wessex, a southern English kingdom centred on Winchester. That was just too long ago to leave anything behind that a modern-day traveller can visit. Or was it? Alfred was more than a great monarch; he invented England as we know it. As we travel through Hampshire and the other counties of Alfred’s domain, his successes surround us.
When you start looking for signs of King Alfred in modern England, the one you notice least is the most obvious: everyone speaks English. Well, of course, but without Alfred, the locals might be speaking Danish instead. By the time young Prince Alfred of Wessex reached fighting age, Vikings had been raiding the many tiny kingdoms of the British Isles for 70 years. Typically, a hungry young Viking without prospect of inheritance would organize a company of freebooters, set to sea, and steal his way to prosperity. They liked to attack coastal settlements fast and hard, then loot quickly and flee before the locals could get organized. This got a lot of peasants killed and disrupted ordinary life enormously, but the Anglo-Saxon kings (ten of them at the start of the raids) didn’t seem to care much. They continued to fight each other while Viking attacks became more serious and deadly.
In 865 the Viking attacks changed. The raids had been getting larger and better organized—but this was no raid. Instead, the Danish Vikings organized a large-scale invasion, aimed at systematic conquest and colonization of the Saxon kingdoms. By now the ten kingdoms (plus Celtic Cornwall) were down to four strong winners in the internecine struggles: Northumbria to the north, Mercia and East Anglia in the middle, and Alfred’s Wessex in the south. Any one of them should have been a match for an invasion fleet. Instead, warring Northumbrians continued to kill each other even as the Vikings marched on them; their kingdom became the Danish base of operations, and their loot funded an expanded Viking army. Mercia and East Anglia negotiated a peace, which lasted just long enough for the Danes to consolidate their power and put them both to the sword. By 870, only the southern kingdom of Wessex remained independent.
Alone of the Saxon royal houses, Alfred’s family understood the nature of the Viking threat. Wessex had wanted to fight the Vikings when the Danish invasion was new and weak; they had even marched their army hundreds of miles north, only to be turned back by allies not wishing to provoke the Vikings. The Wessex family always knew this was no raid; it wasn’t even a normal war of conquest. This was Armageddon, the final battle between Christianity and the forces of evil. The Vikings were not just robbers and raiders, they were a pagan army whose sworn purpose was to wipe Christian civilization from the face of Britain—loot every church, kill every clergyman, burn every book, and enslave every Christian left alive. A Danish victory would be nothing so trivial as the end of a bunch of minor Saxon royal houses. It would be the end of everything and everyone.
IN 871 THE DANES ATTACKED Wessex with overwhelming strength and quickly captured the region around London. But that’s as far as they got; Wessex’s King Ethelred I—Alfred’s older brother—counterattacked with a fierceness that sent the Danes reeling. Battles raged up the Thames Valley from modern-day Reading to a climax near Wantage. There Ethelred and young Prince Alfred led an uphill attack that routed the Viking army, at a spot marked (then and now) with a giant white horse carved in the chalk, the Uffington White Horse. Battles continued and King Ethelred died, but the Wessexmen fought the Vikings to a standstill. The Danes made peace with the new King Alfred and retreated to their kingdoms in the north.
Some of the grasslands upon which Alfred walked and fought survive (in bits and snatches) to this day, the one thing you can visit that Alfred would find familiar. In Alfred’s time they crowned the steep north faces of the chalk downs snaking through his realm; the underlying chalk wicked the water deep underground and away from any would-be farmers, leaving the grasslands empty. And so they remained until the 20th century, only to fall to modern irrigation and farm subsidies. However, Uffington still preserves the landscape that Alfred knew, close cropped by sheep and crowned by a hill fort that was ancient in Alfred’s day. Surprisingly, so does busy Winchester. On the town’s eastern edge sits St. Catherine’s Hill, crowned with another ancient Celtic fort, while nearby Whitshute Hill preserves lush grass and fine views as suburbs lap up against it.
The Danes were not through with Alfred. They waited for seven years—then launched a surprise Christmas attack on Alfred’s royal manor and nearly finished off the house of Wessex in one blow. Alfred fled deep into the marshes of Somerset, then gathered an army of local farmers and hit back hard. Alfred’s victory was so decisive that he was able to force the Danish leader to convert to Christianity as a condition of the peace agreement. Armageddon had been postponed—but Alfred now knew that peace was temporary and that his world had changed forever. He set about reorganizing his kingdom to survive, and even prosper, in a newly hostile England that was three-quarters Viking.
uffington still preserves the landscape that alfred knew, close cropped by sheep and crowned by a hill fort that was ancient in alfred’s day. if you want to see alfred’s success close up, visit winchester. If you want to see how Alfred did it, just go to a market town in southern England; more than likely, it’s a direct descendent of one of Alfred’s burghs, the centrepiece of his reforms. Alfred ruled a wholly rural society, with an economy based on subsistence and barter. Alfred didn’t even have a capital city; he (and other kings) lived on big farms, “royal manors,” and had to move from manor to manor to prevent the local food supply from running out. His subjects lived under continual threat; robbers infested the woods, and Viking raiders raced through the country on Roman roads. Alfred’s new burghs changed all this, by providing security, improving communications, and fostering a wonderful new innovation—markets.
AN ALFREDIDIAN BURGH WAS A SPECIAL SORT OF VILLAGE, made to a new standard plan: rectangular, walled with palisaded earthworks, with a street grid inside and space for a market outside. He designed each burgh just big enough to provide a round-the-clock militia to man the walls; too small and it would have too few people, too big and it would have too much wall. He assigned rural land to each burgh in exact proportion to the length of wall—and everyone had a burgh to run to when the Vikings came. The burgh’s market attracted enough settlers to make the community viable. And Alfred gave each market special status to ensure its success. Alfred placed 29 of these burghs in a great ring around Wessex, each close enough to the next to provide easy communications.
The burghs worked. In fact, they worked so well that, centuries later, their burghers rebuilt their dirt walls in stone, leaving no trace of the original earthworks. And the burghs continued to work so well that, centuries after that, a more modern generation of burghers tore the old stone walls down to let the markets expand and prosper. However, there is an exception, an original Wessex burgh that still has the walls that Alfred built for it: Wareham, on Dorset’s Purbeck coast, 50 miles south-west of Winchester. Alfred expected Wareham to be a booming trade centre on the River Frome, and so it was for several centuries, but then the Frome silted up, and trade shifted northward to Poole. Today you can walk around this busy little village on Alfred’s earthwork walls, enjoying the views and the wildflowers.
Walking along Wareham’s handsome old walls, you start to wonder, “How effective would farmers atop dirt walls have been against a determined army?” Quite a bit, as it turned out. Actually, the Danish leaders were certainly determined, but their rank and file were not, and Alfred knew it. The ordinary Viking lived on plunder and fought for booty; foil him, and he’d leave. The Viking generals would be forced to move on to a more vulnerable location, else their foot soldiers would trickle away. Force the Viking army to move often enough and it would disappear.
And that’s exactly what happened when the Danes attacked again, in 892. They were weaker by then, and Alfred’s kingdom was much stronger, with its network of burghs nearly completed. The Viking army moved freely between the burghs, but the people and the booty had moved behind the walls, out of reach. The Danes quickly discovered that Alfred’s reorganized army hunted them down faster and more efficiently than ever before, and his newly created navy made the seas dangerous. By 895, the Vikings had given up.
Alfred counter-attacked with characteristic cleverness and restraint. Instead of invading the Viking kingdom and precipitating a massive defence, he nibbled away at the border earldoms, using war and diplomacy to separate each border shire from its Danish jarl. (A shire was an area run by an ealdorman, in Danish a jarl; both words translate as earl.) Once Alfred, or one of his heirs, annexed a shire, he would immediately establish a new burgh there, thus expanding the burgh network. Modern historians track this progress by mapping the burghs created in this northern creep. New, larger shires indicate that Wessex conquered the area and reorganized it; a small shire shows that the local Danish jarl had switched sides and kept his lands. Most of these Alfredian shires survived for more than 1,000 years, finally succumbing to Government efficiency experts in 1974.
ENGLISH LAW AND ENGLISH LEARNING also date from Alfred. He actively sponsored education for everyone in the landowning classes, including women, instead of just the clergy. His scholars recorded Beowulf, compiled the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the leading historical source for the Dark Ages), and translated major religious and philosophical works into English. In fact, he translated a couple himself, rendering such classics as Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy into vigorous Anglo-Saxon poetry. As for English law, Alfred didn’t create it; he just codified it, drawing from the most respected laws of the earlier kingdoms. From Alfred comes the English Common Law that forms the legal foundation of the United Kingdom and the United States. Most important is the concept that everyone—even a slave—has rights, and everyone—even the king—lives under the law and must obey it.
If you want to see Alfred’s success close up, visit Winchester. While it was never Alfred’s official capital since he didn’t have one, it received so much of his attention and munificence that later Saxon king’s made it their seat of power. In fact, it’s easy to speculate that Winchester, which Alfred knew as the semi-abandoned Roman city of Venta, inspired his vision of the defensible burgh, with its perfectly proportioned walls enclosing a regular street grid. Alfred rebuilt those walls (alas, long gone except for two medieval stone gates) and laid out the streets we see today. He remade Winchester into a major seat of secular and ecclesiastical power at the heart of his kingdom, giving it a large new cathedral—replaced by the current even grander structure two centuries later. A block away, Alfred’s wife founded a nunnery, Nunnaminster; today, public gardens occupy the site. Across the river (and right outside Alfred’s eastern gate) stands an 18th-century mill (now owned by the National Trust) that traces its ancestry to the Saxon period before being lost in the mists of time—just the sort of activity Alfred wanted to attract to his markets. Above that, St. Giles Hill has a public park with wide views on the site of the largest market in medieval (and—perhaps—Alfredian) England. At the centre of all these survivals stands an early 20th-century statue of King Alfred the Great, a monument to the man who created modern Winchester, and modern England.
JIM HARGAN is a professional photographer and freelance writer who frequently travels to Britain for British Heritage.
Copyright 2014 British Heritage.