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Alfred the Great
871 - 899
 


No other ruler in England's long and varied history has been honoured with the title the Great. Alfred once declared it his intention "To live worthily as long as I live and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works." Few of our monarchs have succeeded as spectacularly in their aims as he did.


Early Life

Alfred (Old English-Aelfred) was the fifth and youngest son of Ethelwulf of Wessex and his Jutish first wife, Osburh. He was born at Wantage between 847 and 849, his birthplace was a palace or vill which lay at the foot of the Berkshire Downs, which has now vanished. Ill health is reported to have marred Alfred's childhood.

One of the few stories that survive from Alfred's early life relates that his mother, Osburh, showed her sons a beautifully illuminated volume of Saxon poetry and promised to make a gift of it to the first of them who was able to read it. Alfred quickly learned to read it aloud, and was made a gift of the book when he was only six years old. His youngest son appears to have been Ethelwulf's favourite, his father took Alfred on pilgrimage to Rome, to receive the blessing of his godfather, Pope Leo IV. It was rumoured that King Ethelwulf wished to make Alfred his successor.

On Ethelwulf's return to England he found his eldest son, Ethelbald, had usurped his throne in his absence. Nobly accepting the status quo in the hope that civil war and the consequent loss of life could be avoided, Ethelwulf retired to Kent, where he reigned as sub-king until his death in 858. Alfred was around eleven when his father died. He was studious as a child and grew to be a man of determination, intelligence and resolution, despite suffering from ill health for much of his life.

Alfred's three elder brother's reigned in turn before him. During the reign of the youngest of these, Ethelred I , Alfred emerges from the mists of obscurity to fight loyally by his side in the struggle against the Danish incursions into Wessex. At the Battle of Ashdown, in the Vale of the White Horse, the pious Ethelred remained so long in his tent praying for victory that Alfred became impatient and lead his men in a furious charge at the enemy without waiting for his brother to finish his prayers.


The Conflict with the Danes

The Witangemot, or Saxon council of wise men, met after Ethelred's death from wounds sustained in battle and elected the twenty-one year old Alfred, who had already demonstrated himself a confident leader of men, as King. His brothers between them, had lasted barely a decade. In electing Alfred king the Witan passed over the two young sons of Ethelred. The law of primogeniture was not then established in Saxon England and it was normal practice for the King to be elected in this manner. The practice of crowning a successor as royal prince and military commander is well-known among Germanic tribes.

The depressing series of defeats at the hands of the Vikings continued unabated and Alfred was forced into a strategy of buying them off. As a result they ceased their attacks and for a period of five years, peace reigned in Wessex. This peace was not likely to last for any considerable length of time and was at best a temporary measure. The Viking army, after taking Mercia, divided. One part, under Halfdan, marched north to Yorkshire where they settled permanently. The other, under Guthrum, launched another attack on Wessex in 875. They withdrew again in 877 and began to colonise Mercia.

Wessex was savagely attacked for the third time in 878 and Alfred was driven into hiding at Athelney in the Somerset marshes, he remained there with his ally, Athelnoth, Ealdorman of Somerset and others of his thegns, and biding his time, legend has it that in his preoccupation with the defence of his kingdom, he famously burnt the cakes and was set upon by an angry housewife.

Bishop Asser informs us that Alfred had a great love of jewelled ornaments. His crown, which unfortunately no longer survives, is listed in an inventory of jewels melted down by Oliver Cromwell at the establishment of the Protectorate, it is described as being studded with emeralds.

IN 886, Alfred garnered his resources and managed to retake the city of London, but Viking raids continued. At the battle of Ethendun in 878, Saxon forces soundly defeated the Vikings lead by Guthrum and peace was concluded by the terms of the Treaty of Wedmore. Guthrum converted to Christianity with Alfred standing as godfather to his erstwhile enemy. Alfred accepted the Danish colonisation of much of England. A line was drawn which ran north-westwards from London to Chester, defining an area north of this line which was termed the Danelaw.

Alfred improved his army, making provision for it to be always availiable at short notice to defend Wessex. Part of the army was always kept in reserve in case of emergency. The navy was similarly improved, building ships which were bigger and better than those possessed by the Vikings.

King Alfred built up defences and fortified townships to ensure the safety of his people. He established defended settlements, or burhs (from which derives the modern borough) These settlements were recorded in detail in the Burghal Hidage. A network of burhs was established to ensure that no part of Wessex was further than 20 miles from these strongholds. By 897 he had successfully halted the advance of the Vikings, a remarkable achievement.


Peacetime Achievements

Alfred the GreatThe King turned his attention to the deterioration of learning in England. Due to the continued pillage of monasteries by the Vikings, which essentially formed a network of rudimentary education at the time, educational standards had diminished. Alfred founded a court school to educate the nobles and encouraged the great scholars of his day to take up residence in England. "It is most needful for men to know" he is recorded as stating "and to bring it to pass, if we have peace, that all the youth now in England-may be devoted to learning." The royal court was to become a magnet for scholars.

On the insistence of the King, English became the official written language. Alfred personally translated into English 'The History of the Venerable Bede', 'Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy', 'Dialogues of Gregory the Great', Gregory's 'Pastoral Care'. and Orosius' Soliloquies of St. Augustine'. Prior to this, all books had been written in Latin.

Alfred is also noted for beginning the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 890's and had many copies made. The chronicle was written in Anglo-Saxon, rather than the usual Latin. Alfred decreed that these copies be placed in monasteries and churches and frequently updated. The chronicle was updated until the twelfth century, some of the original copies still survive to the present day. It remains one of the few literary sources we possess for English history from the departure of the Romans to the Norman conquest.

Alfred established a legal code, forming a body of Saxon law, based on the laws of Offa of Mercia, which limited the practice of blood feuding and imposed heavy penalties on those in breech of sworn oath.

"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).

Throughout his life, Alfred had suffered from a mysterious illness, about which little is known with certainty, but which left him incapacitated for long periods. This is one of the most puzzling and often discussed areas of Alfred's life. Bishop Asser informs us that Alfred suffered bouts of depression after each attack. The first attack apparently occured at his wedding. It has been suggested that Alfred may have suffered from epilepsy, although there is no concrete proof as to what the illness he laboured under for a large part of his life actually was.
The Death of Alfred

Alfred died at Wantage in 899 at the age of fifty-three. He remains the only English sovereign ever to be given the epithet the Great, which was bestowed on him in the seventeenth century. King Alfred was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester but a few years later, on the completion of the New Minster, which Alfred had founded, his body was translated there, it was soon to be named Hyde Abbey.

On the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Hyde Abbey, in common with other religious houses was despoiled and in an act of historical vandalism, the tombs of the Saxon kings were destroyed. Some of the bones from the tombs, although mixed up, were collected into caskets and placed above the chancel in Winchester Cathedral. Alfred's remains are believed to be amongst these.

The fame and reputation of King Alfred, one of the ablest of England's Kings, were never to diminish. Florence of Worcester, writing in the thirteenth century, has left us with a fitting statement on Alfred:-

"Alfred the King of the Anglo-Saxons, the son of the most pious King Ethelwulf, the famous, the warlike, the victorious, the careful provider for the widow, the helpless, the orphan and the poor, the most skilled of Saxon poets, most dear to his own nation, courteous to all, most liberal, endowed with prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance; most patient in the infirmity from which he continually suffered; the most discerning investigator in executing justice, most watchful and devout in the service of God."

Many of our Kings could not wish for a finer epitaph.
 


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The Anglo-Saxon Alfred (849-899), sometimes called Alfred the Great, was king of Wessex from 871 to899. He successfully halted the advance of Danish armies seeking to conquer the English, and he stimulated a revival of learning among his war-ravaged people.

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes who had migrated to the island of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries and had wrested control of what is now England from the native Britons. After their conversion to Christianity in the 7th century, they absorbed much Latin culture, which blended with their Germanic traditions to form a distinctive civilization and increasingly stable political and social institutions. The process of reducing the many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to a unified nation under a centralized monarchy was still in its early stages when the Danes, another Germanic nation far more warlike than the Anglo-Saxons had become, began raiding the English coast in the last years of the 8th century. The raids became full-scale invasions. Alfred's courage and military skill, however, prevented the Danes from conquering England, although they were later successful, early in the 11th century.

Alfred was born in 849, the youngest of six children of Ethelwulf, King of Wessex. Alfred's youth was highlighted by two trips to Rome in 853 and 855, where he was honored by the Pope; it was also plagued by sickness and the insecurity of his position as youngest son. Although Alfred could neither read nor write, he loved the traditional poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, which he memorized as it was read to him. Asser, his biographer, says that on one occasion he was stimulated to learn these heroic songs by a desire to outdo his older brother and win the praise of his mother.


Military Leader

All of Alfred's brothers were dead by 871, and he became king at age 22. Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom that had not been conquered by the Danes during the invasion of 866, and by 871 the Danes had established permanent settlements in the North Midlands and in East Anglia. Early in 878, while Alfred's armies were scattered for the winter, an army under Guthrum left Gloucester in Danish-controlled Mercia and made a surprise attack on the West Saxons, capturing much of the kingdom. Alfred, facing disaster, withdrew to the marshlands of Dorset with a small troop. The famous story of his taking refuge in the house of an old lady and, in his distracted state, letting her cakes burn through inattention, is unfortunately a later legend. But Alfred's situation was indeed desperate.

At Easter 878 he fortified the Isle of Athelney in Somerset, and his battles with Danish raiding parties encouraged more and more West Saxons to join him secretly. Seven weeks after Easter, Alfred left Athelney for a rendezvous of the militias of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. Ten days later at Edington, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, Alfred's army decisively defeated the Danes. The invaders swore to leave Wessex, and Guthrum was baptized a Christian. The English were saved, and the King began at once to reorganize the land and sea defenses of the West Saxons in order to prevent further Danish inroads. These strategic innovations and Alfred's ability to use his forces well allowed him to turn back another major Danish attack during his reign. Launched from Scandinavia in 892, this invasion ended in 896 without appreciable success despite aid from the Danes already settled in England.


Cultural Influence

Having gained a respite from military crises, Alfred gathered around himself a dedicated group of English and foreign clerics. In 887, when he was 38, he began to learn to read English and Latin. Between 893 and 899 he and his scholars translated several major Latin works to make them accessible to his subjects and thus restore the preeminence in religion and culture England enjoyed before the Danish invasions. Alfred explained his aims in a moving preface to the translation (893) of St. Gregory's Pastoral Care. The later translations which he probably initiated or undertook himself included Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Orosius's Universal History, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine's Solioquies. In his first attempts at translation, Alfred seems to have had the Latin text read and explained to him and then to have dictated a translation or paraphrase to scribes. In later works the quality of his prose improved, and he interpolated his own views on man's nature, trials, and destiny along with interesting comments on the world as the Anglo-Saxons knew it.

Alfred codified a set of laws for his kingdom and probably aided in the wide dissemination of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a quasi-official record of the experiences of his people. His intellect, imagination, and energy seemed to grow in his last years. On his death in 899, he left a record of achievement which earned him his reputation as the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, as well as a legacy of military preparedness and strategy on which were based the victorious campaigns of his immediate successors against the Danes.

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008