King Alfred the Great (849-899 AD) Alfred was king of Wessex from 871-899. An educated and cultured man, he fought Viking invaders to secure greater security and a sense of identity for Anglo-Saxon England. In his early reign, he was defeated by the Vikings and forced to escape into the marshes of Somerset. However, from this abject poverty, he reformed his army and defeated the Vikings. Alfred proceeded to organise his kingdom with strong defences and good administration. He encouraged greater education and began writing official documents in English. Alfred was the first Anglo-Saxon leader to provide effective opposition to the Vikings and from him, we can see the early formation of England.
“I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.”
– King Alfred
Alfred was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire around 848. He was the fourth son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex by his first wife, Osburh. As a young boy, he was sent on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he had an audience with the Pope. He was blessed by the Pope, an important sign for his legitimacy to be a ruler. As a child, Alfred was of frail physical health – he suffered from a painful condition known as piles. However, he was noted for his piety and interest in learning. One story states he won a book of poetry from his mother after he successfully memorised all the poems on the book.
From the age of 16, Alfred was given a prominent position in contributing to the defence of the kingdom of Wessex against Viking invaders. He served under his elder brother Æthelred. At the time, the Anglo-Saxons were very fearful of the Viking invaders who had proved almost unstoppable in their frequent raids into England. They had also established a base in York. From 865 Alfred was involved in battles and skirmishes against Viking invaders. Under Ivar the Boneless, the Vikings crossed the border of Mercia and by 870 the Vikings had moved into Wessex.
In April 871, King Æthelred died and Arthur was crowned the King of Wessex. But, almost immediately, the kingdom came under further attack from a rampaging Viking army (or Great Heathen Army as it was known to the Anglo-Saxons) Given his lack of military strength, Alfred sued for a temporary peace and paid off the Vikings (known as Danegeld) to retreat for the winter. The Viking army, led by Guthrum, spent many winters in London. However, the payments did not make the Vikings go away, and every spring they would come back.
In 876, the fighting intensified as the Vikings attacked in Wareham and later in Chippenham, a stronghold of Alfred. In Chippenham, the Anglo-Saxons were heavily outfought, and Alfred scarcely escaped with his family and a small retinue. For the next two years, Alfred led an increasingly desperate resistance campaign from the Somerset marshes. Where possible he rallied local militias, but mostly he and his family were struggling to survive the harsh reality of life without a strong base. 876 marked the extent of Viking domination in England. Wessex, under Alfred, alone refused to submit but his forces were still weak.
Revival and fight back
In 878, King Alfred emerged from his semi-hiding and raised local noblemen and soldiers who remained loyal to Wessex. It was a testament to his leadership and character that he was able to summon troops and retain loyalty – even though it looked an almost lost cause against the all-conquering Vikings.
Alfred’s armies met the Vikings and won a decisive victory in the Battle of Edington. This was a major turning point in Alfred’s fortunes. Buoyed by his success here, he returned to Chippenham, where he encircled Guthrum and the Vikings – starving them into submission. The Vikings had to surrender and one of the conditions was that Guthrum would have to convert to Christianity.
With Anglo-Saxon honour restored, Alfred was able to bargain from a position of greater strength. He negotiated the Vikings would retreat to East Anglia and there Guthrum’s forces became less of a threat.
Alfred still had to deal with other Viking armies. But, he was energetic in improving the national defences. He ordered the building of many burhs – forts where people could seek shelter from attack. These burhs often became developed into towns and cities, like Oxford, Warwick and Exeter. Alfred also sought to copy the Vikings and build a strong fleet of ships. For this reason, he is thought of as the ‘Father of the Royal Navy.’ Alfred defeated Viking raiding parties through his ships and in 886 was able to retake the city of London on the Thames. With London secure, Alfred gained the widespread support and recognition of most regions in England. It was a pioneering moment where for the first time, the concept of England/Briton became a reality. Alfred himself never saw himself as king of England, but he forged closer links with Mercia and Wales seeking common ground against the Viking invaders. This is why he is often regarded as the founder of the British nation.
Throughout the 890s, the Vikings continued to attack different parts of Alfred’s kingdom but increasingly the Anglo-Saxons had the upper-hand and were able to resist the worst efforts of the Vikings. It was a big change from the early Viking invasions, where the Anglo-Saxons felt helpless against the superior strength and tactics of the invaders.
Personal qualities of Alfred the Great
Unusually for a King of that time, Alfred was interested in education, and he personally translated several Latin works into English. He was also concerned that his own subjects should gain an education – a revolutionary idea for the time.
“Very often it has come to my mind what men of learning there were formerly throughout England, both in religious and secular orders; and how there were happy times then throughout England; and how the kings, who had authority over this people, obeyed God and his messengers; and how they not only maintained their peace, morality and authority at home but also extended their territory outside.” – Alfred Preface – Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.
Alfred also was a committed Christain, who not only paid lip-service to the new religion but sought to live according to the precepts of the gospels. His sense of justice caused him to try and reform local justice away from blood-feuds to something fairer and more universal. Bishop Asser recalls that Alfred took justice very seriously and Alfred would often look into contentious cases. He would
“carefully look into nearly all the judgements which were passed [issued] in his absence anywhere in the realm to see whether they were just or unjust”
Alfred was a skilled administrator and encouraged the proper keeping of records and promotion of men who were skilled. Alfred was also a poet – writing a long poem “The Lays of Boethius.”
Alfred married Ealhswith, in 886. They had five children.
Myth of Alfred and the burnt cakes
An enduring myth relating to Alfred was an incident that occurred during his years of wandering in the marshes. On one occasion he sought refuge in the house of an ordinary woman who was baking cakes. Completely unaware of who Alfred was, she left him in charge of her loaves of bread in the oven. Alfred was so absorbed in the problems of his kingdom, he allowed the bread to burn. The women then proceeded to scold Alfred saying ‘you’re happy to eat my bread, but you don’t notice when they are burning!’ Alfred, with great humility, accepted the woman’s scolding and did not reveal who he really was.
This story was first recorded 100 years after Alfred’s death, so the historical accuracy is dubious. However, it reflects the impression people had of Alfred – a great ruler, but also humble and thoughtful.
The origin of the myth may have come from a similar Viking tale about a great Viking ruler – Ragnar, who was so distracted by the beauty of his future wife – that he burned a tray of loaves she had asked him to bake.
Many regarded him as the greatest Western European ruler since Charlemagne. He is the only British king to gain the epithet ‘Great’ and is widely admired for the unusual combination of military strength – used in the defence of his country, but also a sense of justice, compassion, wisdom and fairness. English historian, Edward Freeman writes of Alfred.
“A saint without superstition, a scholar without ostentation, a warrior all whose wars were fought in the defence of his country, a conqueror whose laurels were never stained by cruelty, a prince never cast down by adversity, never lifted up to insolence in the day of triumph – there is no other name in history to compare with his.”
~ Edward A. Freeman
Achievements of Alfred the Great
- Defeated Viking armies, swinging the tide against Viking domination.
- Rallied his troops and peoples, even after crushing defeat
- Forced the Viking king Guthrum to convert to Christianity and settle more peacefully in East Anglia.
- Re-established the old Roman city of London after 300 years.
- United different kingdoms of England to fight a common enemy.
- Created a strong national defense with a system of burhs and fair system of conscription – which enabled men to both serve in army but also look after their farms.
- Built and expanded a system of roads (herepaths) between the different burhs to allow better communication and defence of towns.
- Established the first national navy with boats which could take on Viking long boats.
- Encouraged an able and efficient system of administration.
- Translated many Latin texts into English so more people could read.
- Started to transform Anglo-Saxon justice away from ‘blood-feuds’ and vengeance. He established his own domboc or law code consisting of his own laws,
The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great
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