Alfred the Great (848/49 – 26 October 899) was king of the West Saxons from 871 to c. 886 and king of the Anglo-Saxons from c. 886 to 899. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf, who died when Alfred was young. Three of Alfred's brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, reigned in turn before him. After ascending the throne, Alfred ...
Alfred 'The Great' (r. 871-899) Born at Wantage, Berkshire, in 849, Alfred was the fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. At their father's behest and by mutual agreement, Alfred's elder brothers succeeded to the kingship in turn, rather than endanger the kingdom by passing it to under-age children at a time when the country was ...
- Youth & Rise to Power
- The Viking Wars
- Alfred & The Burnt Cakes
- The Battle of Eddington
- Restoration, Reform, & Education
- Efforts to Unite England
Alfred was born in 849 CE, the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his wife Osburh. At the age of four, his father sent him to Rome on pilgrimage, where he was confirmed in the faith by the Pope and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was anointed as king. Although it is possible this ceremony took place, it seems unlikely as Alfred was the youngest of five children and his older brothers – Aethelbald, Aethelberht, and Aethelred – would have all been in line to succeed to the throne before him. Whatever effect the trip to Rome may have had on Alfred's character, it does not seem to be as profound an influence as that of his mother. Osburh is described in Asser's Life of King Alfredas a religious and intelligent woman who had a significant effect on his life-long interest in learning; a characteristic which chiefly defines Alfred and shaped his later accomplishments. He learned poetry by hearing it recited and then repeating it but could not read it himself until sometime in hi...
In 865 CE the Great Army of Vikings led by Halfdane and Ivar the Boneless invaded East Anglia and swiftly defeated any force sent against them. In 866 CE they took the cityof York, and in 867 CE they killed the Northumbrian kings Osbert and Aelle and consolidated their control of the region. In 868 CE they made constant raids throughout Mercia and by 869 CE had completely overrun East Anglia. In 870 CE reinforcements for the Great Army arrived from Scandinavia and Halfdane led his forces to take Wallingford, ravage Mercia, and drive on into Wessex the next year. Aethelred and Alfred mobilized their forces and met the Vikings in battle at Reading but were badly defeated. Asser comments how “the Christians were aroused by the grief and shame of this, and four days later, with all their might and in a determined frame of mind, they advanced against the Viking army at a place called Ashdown” (Asser, 37, Keynes & Lapidge, 78). The Battle of Ashdown in January 871 CE would prove Alfred's...
It is during this period that the events related in the legends surrounding Alfred are said to have taken place. Although it is often assumed that these legends come from Asser's work, they are all later creations, c. 10th century CE. The most famous of these is the story of Alfred and the burnt cakes, which comes from The Life of St. Neot. It relates how Alfred, traveling alone at this time, came upon the cottage of a swineherd and asked for hospitality without revealing who he was. They took him in for a few days, and one day when the swineherd was out, his wife was baking bread in the oven while Alfred sat nearby preoccupied with his troubles. The wife was cleaning house when she smelled the bread burning and hurried to the oven to draw the loaves out. She chastised Alfred, who was sitting close by, saying, “You hesitate to turn the loaves which you see to be burning, yet you're quite happy to eat them when they come warm from the oven!” (Keynes & Lapidge, 198). The story would g...
Alfred remained in exile, hiding from the Vikings, for less than three months, during which time he seems to have been preparing for an offensive against the Vikings through a network of spies and chieftains who remained loyal to him. By March, according to Asser, he was waging a successful guerrilla waragainst the Danes. By May of 878 CE, he had assembled a large enough force to meet the Vikings in battle. He had a fortress built at Athelney which formed a base of operations and seems to have used this to recruit men as well as to launch raids. At some point in early May, he managed to draw the Vikings out of their stronghold at Eddington and defeated them in battle using the tactic of the shield wall. The Wessex forces would have held tight formations against the Viking onslaught and then counterattacked. The Vikings were driven from the field and fortified the defenses of their stronghold. Alfred, however, destroyed all of the crops surrounding the Viking defenses, killed all the...
The theory that Viking raids were the wrath of God had gone unchallenged since the Lindisfarne raid in 793 CE as there was no better available, and Alfred most certainly believed it. Following the Battle of Eddington, he went to work to resolve the underlying causes of the raids which, in his view, were the poor state of education, clerical learning, and lack of unity in his kingdom. Beginning in 880 CE, Alfred reorganized his kingdom and implemented educational, legal, and military reforms which would transform Wessex and eventually the whole of Britain. He began by rebuilding those citiesand towns which had been destroyed in the Viking Wars and improving upon the earlier structures. Recognizing that these could be destroyed just as easily as their predecessors, he then reformed the military and the very structure of settlements in his kingdom. Early in the 880's CE, Alfred implemented innovations which included a restructuring of the network of towns and cities. These initiatives...
In 886 CE Alfred captured London in a stunning victory, and “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him” (Keynes & Lapidge, 38). There may have been an official oath of loyalty to the king that the populace, or at least landowners, had to take, but even if there was not, it is clear that Alfred had united the people of Britain under his rule. Keynes and Lapidge note that Alfred's victory at London marked “the emergence among the English of a sense of common identity, under a common leader, in a common cause” (38). Alfred was now king of all England not occupied by the Danes. Shortly after taking London, Alfred sealed an alliance with Mercia by arranging a marriage between his daughter Aethelflaed(r. 911-918 CE) and the earl of that region, Aethelred II (r. 883-911 CE). It is certain they were married by 887 CE when Aethelflaed's name appears on land charters with Aethelred's. Aethelflaed would continue Alfred's work in conjunction with her hu...
- Joshua J. Mark
Alfred, also spelled Aelfred, byname Alfred the Great, (born 849—died 899), king of Wessex (871–899), a Saxon kingdom in southwestern England. He prevented England from falling to the Danes and promoted learning and literacy. Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle began during his reign, circa 890.
Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, a defender against Viking invasion and a social reformer; just few of the reasons why he is the only English monarch to be known as “the Great”. Alfred was born in 849 and served as King of Wessex, a Saxon kingdom based in the southwest of modern day England, from 871 to his death on 26th October 899 AD.
May 25, 2017 · The only English monarch to earn the epithet “Great” and who was esteemed highly by the later Victorians who considered him something of a philosopher-king, Alfred (b. 849–d. 899; r. 871–899), King of Wessex, was the youngest son of Æthelwulf. Four elder brothers were ahead in the line, but Alfred survived them all.
Jul 12, 2021 · Alfred the Great. Alfred the Great (Old English: Ælfrēd [a], Ælfrǣd [b], "elf counsel" or "wise elf"; 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 the time of his death had become the dominant ruler in England. 
Jan 29, 2017 · King Alfred the Great was born in 849, the 5th son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh at Wantage, Berkshire. Alfred was not expected to become King since he had four elder brothers. In 853 he was taken to Rome to be confirmed by the Pope and it is likely that he was being prepared for a life in the Church.
- Academic career
King Alfred of Wessex (r.871-99) is probably the best known of all Anglo-Saxon rulers, even if the first thing to come into many peoples minds in connection with him is something to do with burnt confectionery. The year 1999 saw the 1100th anniversary of his death on October 26th, 899, at the age of about 50. The occasion is being marked with conferences and exhibitions in Winchester, Southampton and London, but the scale of celebrations will be modest compared with those which commemorated his millenary, and culminated in the unveiling by Lord Rosebery of his statue in Winchester. Alfreds reputation still stands high with historians, though few would now want to follow Edward Freeman in claiming him as the most perfect character in history (The History of the Norman Conquest of England, 5 volumes, 1867-79). Alfred is someone who has had greatness thrust upon him. How and why did he acquire his glowing reputation, and how does it stand up today?
There can be no doubt that Alfreds reign was significant, both for the direction of the countrys development and for the fortunes of his descendants. After the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia had fallen to the Vikings, Wessex under Alfred was the only surviving Anglo-Saxon province. Alfred nearly succumbed to the Vikings as well, but kept his nerve and won a decisive victory at the battle of Edington in 879. Further Viking threats were kept at bay by a reorganisation of military service and particularly through the ringing of Wessex by a regular system of garrisoned fortresses. At the same time Alfred promoted himself as the defender of all Christian Anglo-Saxons against the pagan Viking threat and began the liberation of neighbouring areas from Viking control. He thus paved the way for the future unity of England, which was brought to fruition under his son and grandsons, who conquered the remaining areas held by the Vikings in the east and north, so that by the mid-tenth century the England we are familiar with was ruled as one country for the first time.
His preservation from the Vikings and unexpected succession as king after the death of four older brothers, seem to have given Alfred a sense that he had been specially destined for high office. With the help of advisers from other areas of England, Wales and Francia, Alfred studied, and even translated from Latin into Old English, certain works that were regarded at the time as providing models of ideal Christian kingship and most necessary for all men to know. Alfred, particularly as presented by Asser, may have had something of a saint in him, but he was never canonised and this put him at something of a disadvantage in the later medieval world. The Normans and their successors were certainly interested in presenting themselves as the legitimate heirs of their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, but favoured the recognised royal saints, especially Edmund of the East Angles, killed by the Danish army which Alfred defeated, and Edward the Confessor, the last ruler of the old West Saxon dynasty. St Edmund and St Edward can be seen supporting Richard II on the Wilton diptych, and members of the later medieval royal houses were named after them. Nor were Alfreds heroic defeats of the pagan Vikings enough to make him the favoured military hero of the post-Conquest period. None of the Anglo-Saxon rulers qualified for this role. After Geoffrey of Monmouths successful promotion, the British Arthur was preferred a man whose reputation was not constrained by inconvenient facts, and who proved extremely adaptable to changing literary conventions. However, Alfred was lauded by Anglo-Norman historians, like William of Malmesbury, Gaimar and Matthew Paris, and their presentations, and occasional embellishments, of his achievements would be picked up by later writers. Alfreds well-attested interest in learning made him the obvious choice to be retrospectively chosen as the founder of Oxford University when that institution felt the need to establish its historical credentials in the 14th century. Alfred, though no doubt gratified by his posthumous fame, would have trouble recognising himself in some of his later manifestations, and would find it difficult to comprehend, let alone approve, some of the constitutional developments he was supposed to have championed. One hopes that it will not be possible for such a wide divorce between an idealised Alfred and the reality of Anglo-Saxon rule to occur again, but it is possible that Alfreds symbolic career is not over. Now that Britain is relapsing into its regional components, who better than Alfred, the champion of the English language and Anglo-Saxon hegemony, to be a figurehead of the new England?
The common Saxon heritage of the Hanoverians and the Anglo-Saxons provided more fertile ground for the promotion of a cult of King Alfred. His first aristocratic and royal backers came from the circle which gathered around Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-51), the eldest son of George II, and was united by the opposition of its members to the prime minister Robert Walpole. Walpoles opponents called themselves the Patriots, and Alfred was the first Patriot King, who had saved his country from tyranny, as it was devoutly hoped Frederick himself would do when he succeeded his father. A number of literary works centred upon Alfred were dedicated to the prince. Sir Richard Blackmores Alfred: an Epick Poem in Twelve Books (1723) enlivened the conventional accounts of Alfreds reign with an extensive description of his imaginary travels in Europe and Africa, in which were concealed many heavy-handed compliments to Prince Frederick. Of much more lasting worth was Thomas Arnes masque Alfred, which was first performed in 1740 at the princes country seat of Cliveden. The main text was provided by two authors already active in Fredericks cause, James Thomson and David Mallett, but included an ode by Viscount Bolingbroke, one of the leaders of the opposition to Walpole who had defined their political philosophy in his essay The Idea of a Patriot King (1738). A visual representation of this political manifesto was provided in Lord Cobhams pleasure grounds at Stowe. Alfreds bust was included alongside those of other Whig heroes in The Temple of British Worthies completed in 1734-35 by William Kent. Alfred is described as the mildest, justest, most beneficient of kings who crushd corruption, guarded liberty, and was the founder of the English constitution, in pointed reference to qualities which George II was felt to lack. Alfreds bust was placed next to that of the Black Prince, a Prince of Wales whose noble qualities were perceived as having been inherited by Frederick, particularly if he followed the example of King Alfred rather than that of his father.
The Stowe landscape gardens also contain a Gothic Temple, in which Gothic should be understood as ancient Germanic. The building was dedicated to the Liberty of our Ancestors, and was surrounded by statues of Germanic deities (albeit in Classical pose), while the ceiling of the dome was decorated with the arms of the earls of Mercia from whom Lord Cobham claimed descent. This new interest in the Germanic past began to trickle down to other sectors of society. Those who could not afford to erect their own monuments to Alfreds greatness might nevertheless find remembrances of him in the Wessex landscape. In 1738, the antiquarian Francis Wise, hoping to improve his promotion prospects at the University of Oxford, produced a pamphlet concerning some antiquities in Berkshire in which he argued that the White Horse of Uffington had been cut to commemorate Alfreds victory over the Vikings at the battle of Ashdown, and that all other visible antiquities nearby had some connection with the campaign. His claims were entirely spurious, but helped to publicise the idea that Alfreds influence permeated the very fabric of the country. Those who could not have a Saxon memorial in their grounds or in the nearby countryside could at least own a print of the new genre of History painting. Alfredian topics, especially Alfred in the neatherds cottage (the cake-burning episode), were among those frequently reproduced.
As in other European countries, a new national pride in nineteenth-century England had an important historical dimension, and an accompanying cult of the heroes who had made later success possible. The English, it was believed, could trace language and constitutional continuity back to the fifth century when they had defeated the effete Romans, and it became increasingly felt that other, positive, facets of the national character could be traced back this far as well. These characteristics were felt to have made those of Anglo-Saxon descent uniquely programmed for success, and to rule other less fortunately endowed peoples, and the best of them were represented by King Alfred himself. Alfred was fast being rediscovered as the most perfect character in history, and alongside his defence of constitutional liberties, his country and true religion, was added renewed admiration for his Christian morality and sense of duty. Anglo-Saxonism, and the accompanying Alfredism, could be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Thomas Jefferson had ingeniously argued that, as the Anglo-Saxons who had settled in Britain had ruled themselves independently from their Continental homelands, so the English settlers of America should also be allowed their independence. He believed both countries shared an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and proposed a local government for Virginia based on a division into hundreds, an Anglo-Saxon institution widely believed then to have been instituted by Alfred. A less attractive side of this fascination with Anglo-Saxon roots was that it helped foster a belief in racial superiority, as celebrated in a shortlived periodical called The Anglo-Saxon (1849-50), which aimed to demonstrate how the whole earth may be called the Fatherland of the Anglo-Saxon. He is a native of every clime a messenger of heaven to every corner of this Planet.
But in 1901 Britain was embroiled in the Boer War, and the priority was the reality of the present rather than an imagined past. The National Committee did not raise nearly as much money as it had expected and had to abandon many of its ambitious plans, including one for a Museum of Early English History. Many were worried at the direction Britains imperial policy was taking. Charles Stubbs, Dean of Ely, took advantage of the millenary year to suggest that Alfreds standards were not only in advance of his own age, but in advance of those of many statesman of the present day, especially in their conduct of the Boer War, which had been prompted by insolence of pride ... by passion of vengeance ... by lust of gold. But there was also a more positive side to the celebrations when Alfred was used, as he had been in the past, as a cloak for the introduction of change in society. It was not by chance that the statue was unveiled by the Liberal leader Lord Rosebery, for the former Whig support for British Worthies had never completely died away, and Liberals were prominent in the many commemorations of the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was a row over the statue of Oliver Cromwell, commissioned in 1895 by Rosebery from Thornycroft for the House of Commons, that precipitated the formers resignation as Prime Minister. The most active members of the National Committee were leading Liberals and others, like the positivist Frederic Harrison and litterateur Walter Besant, who were associated with them in the promotion of Working Mens Colleges or the London County Council, formed in 1888 with Lord Rosebery as its first Chairman. Most active of all in the promotion of Alfred was the secretary of the National Committee and mayor of Winchester, Alfred Bowker, who used the millenary as an opportunity to develop the profile and scope of the Corporation of Winchester by, for instance, purchasing the site of Alfreds final resting-place at Hyde Abbey with adjoining land that could be used for public recreation (as it still is today).
Barbara Yorke is Reader in History at King Alfreds College, Winchester. Her latest book is Anglo-Saxons (Sutton Pocket Histories, 1999).
Mar 23, 2019 · Alfred the Great was the first king of the Anglo-Saxons and one of only two English rulers to have been given the epithet ‘the Great’. He may have earned this title in part by defending his kingdom against the Vikings and for his efforts in improving education. Alfred is often remembered as one of England’s greatest Anglo-Saxon rulers.