Alfred the Great reigned from 871 to 899 CE and was the king of Wessex (Britain.) However, he became known as the Anglo-Saxon king because of his military victories over his Viking adversaries and successful negotiations with them later in life. He’s the only English monarch in English history to be called “great” because of Bishop Asser, his biographer, who died in 909 CE.
The epithet “great” wasn’t given to him during his lifetime. Only centuries later was he referred to as King Alfred the Great because Asser’s work was more widely known. Others learned of Alfred’s reign over the Anglo-Saxons.
Still, Alfred was respected and called a noble king. Overall, Alfred’s reforms in law and education helped him win his people’s trust, but most notably, he’s remembered because of his leadership against the Vikings.
Most people first learn of Alfred through Vikings, a TV series. Ferdia Walsh-Pello portrays his character. While the character is loosely based on the true Alfred, there have been significant changes to make the show work.
The Vikings started their raids in 793 CE and had already established themselves as the best in Northumbria and West Mercia, making more incursions into Wessex. Overall, Alfred defeated the Danish king, Guthrum, during the Battle of Edington, which was in 878 CE. From there, he delivered the terms of his rule, focusing on bringing Christianity to the Vikings.
Alfred spent many years bridging this religious gap. While the victory didn’t end the Viking raids or drive the group back to Scandinavia, it did allow for a peaceful period so that his reforms could take root.
Finally, Alfred married Ealhswith in 868, whose mother was a member of the royal family in Mercia. Eadburh, the mom, and Ealdorman of Gaini had a small part to play in everything.
Generally, Alfred’s impressive administrative and military skills helped stabilize Britain after a century of warfare and raids from the Vikings. He then started translating classical pieces into English from Latin, set up schools, reformed the military, and expanded and revised the law codes.
Most historians, especially in the Victorian Age, considered him the perfect king for his justice, noble visions, and piety. Let’s learn more.
Youth of King Alfred and His Rise to Power
Alfred’s birth was in 849 CE, and he was the son of Osburh and King Aethelwulf of Wessex. At 4 years old, Alfred’s father sent him on a pilgrimage to Rome to be confirmed in the faith. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that he was anointed as a king.
While it’s possible that such a ceremony took place, it’s unlikely because Alfred was the youngest of five. His older brothers, including Aethelred, Aethelberht, and Aethelbald, would be in line to the throne long before him.
The trip to Rome likely played a part in the character of future King Alfred, but his mom had a larger influence. Osburh was described by Asser as an intelligent and religious woman who had a big effect on the child’s interest in learning. That characteristic defined Alfred, shaping his accomplishments later.
In fact, Alfred learned English poetry by hearing it and repeating it, though he couldn’t read on his own until he was a teenager. Then, he still couldn’t read Latin, and most of the important time-period works were written in that language.
His paternity and role of his mother are actually changed in the television series Vikings. In the TV show, Judith is his mother. This Northumbrian Princess is married to Aethelwulf, becoming pregnant because of an affair with Athelstan, a Christian monk/Viking/cleric. While Judith is shown as concerned and caring of the first king called great, nothing indicates her impact on literacy.
Alfred was shown as frail, which is fairly accurate, and the trip to Rome is also true. However, his brother’s accomplishments are all fictionalized and combined in Aethelred’s character.
King Alfred the Great was part of the royal family. Still, his brothers ruled after their father’s death until their own. Finally, Alfred was officially the successor to Aethelred in 896 CE and was soon elevated to a military commander rank. Then, Alfred was succeeded to the throne by his son Edward.
Overall, his family had lowered expectations of him being a successful warrior-king because he often enjoyed reading and was ill during his youth. Many experts believe he might have had Crohn’s Disease. Regardless, he proved that he was a capable leader from 865 to 871 CE in battle.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Focuses on Alfred’s Brothers’ Reigns
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention Alfred much during his brothers’ reigns, which were quite short. Instead, it describes the Danes Great Heathen Army coming to East Anglia to conquer the four kingdoms constituting Anglo-Saxon England during 865.
Still, Alfred’s public life started at age 16 when his third brother became king. During that time, Asser called Alfred “secundarius,” indicating a position like the Celtic tanist. In a sense, he was the recognized successor associated with the reigning person at the time.
If Aethelred failed in battle or was killed, it worked well for everyone involved. This was a known tradition of the Anglo-Saxons and Germanic people in Southern England and helped this royal family continue on through the years.
In 865 CE, Ivar the Boneless and Halfdane led the Viking army into East Anglia, swiftly defeating the forces sent to hurt them. Another Viking invasion occurred in 866 CE, as they took the City of York. Then, they killed Aelle and Osbert, Northumbrian kings, in 867 CE, consolidating control of the region.
The Danish army continued to make raids in Mercia in 868 CE, completely overrunning East Anglia in 869 CE. Finally, the Viking army came from Scandinavia, with Halfdane leading the forces to take Southern England, including Mercia, Wallingford, and Wessex, from 870 to 871 CE.
Alfred and Aethelred mobilized the forces to meet the Viking raiders in battle at Reading, though they were defeated badly. Asser claimed that the Christians were grief-stricken and shamed. Therefore, they were determined enough to advance against this Viking army four days later in Ashdown.
With East Anglia out for the count, the Battle of Ashdown in 871 CE proved that Alfred had skill in military leadership and could act and think quickly in a crisis. From there, the Danish army had nothing on them.
There were some issues during this Anglo-Saxon period. As the East Anglian Danes attacked Aethelred, his strategies were often confusing. The goal was for each brother to command forces that could strike at various points and kill the Viking raiders. However, Aethelred didn’t take command in the battle.
The Danish raiders had the high ground, fortifying the defenses once they arrived. Alfred saw his brother still praying. Therefore, he had to take command of the full army to lead the attack. Other reports indicate that both brothers took charge, trying to protect these Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Regardless of whether both brothers were involved, Alfred was victorious and skillfully led his forces, driving the Vikings from the field. The brothers were encouraged by the victory, pursuing the Vikings, though getting defeated in Basing.
Aethelred died in April 871 CE, leaving Alfred to be king. He led the army against the Vikings during the Battle of Wilton, showing that he was an effective leader, initially at least. The Viking lines were already broken, with many men running, but Alfred didn’t have the forces needed to engage.
Therefore, the Vikings regrouped, creating a countercharge to defeat the West Saxons. At that point, he had to pay Viking commanders just to leave Wessex. Hoards dating back to the Viking occupation during that time have already been excavated at Waterloo Bridge, Gravesend, and Croydon, hinting that it cost money to make peace with these raiders.
Many West Saxon kings tried to defeat the Vikings during that time. Some felt that the West Saxon dynasty was about to end. However, Alfred took the next few years to mobilize the troops he could find to defend the realm. He’d paid money to secure Wessex from Halfdane for the moment, but the Vikings weren’t leaving Britain.
Instead, they consolidated the power to Northumbria, making peace with Mercia so that they could threaten Wessex whenever they wished. By 875 CE, the Vikings were firmly established and had Danish King Guthrum to take command.
Alfred chose to create a treaty with King Guthrum in 876 CE, giving the Viking leader some hostages so that they promised to leave Wessex alone. Some say that the Danes swore on Thor’s ring or a holy ring associated with him. However, the Vikings broke it, killed their hostages, and attacked the city, retreating to Exeter for the winter.
Determined, Alfred rallied the troops, blockading the Viking fleet at Devon so that they had to move back to Mercia. Still, the Vikings came back to the borders in 877 CE, taking Chippenham in early 878 CE. This raid was a surprise attack during the Christmas season, so Alfred was unprepared. Much of the population was massacred, though Alfred and his family escaped, heading into exile with a few other men.
Alfred had a fort in Athelney, which is a marshy island near North Petherton. He mounted a resistance campaign to rally militias from Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Somerset. Overall, this was the lowest point for the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms because Wessex was the only one left resisting.
Early Struggles of the Anglo-Saxon King
During the Danish invasion, King Aethelred died, allowing Alfred to take the Wessex throne. While his older brother had two underage sons, the brothers had entered into an agreement earlier in 871 at Swinbeorg. They agreed that if one died, the other inherited all property King Aethelwulf left jointly to his surviving sons.
Any deceased sons received the riches and property their dad had given to them and the lands their uncle acquired. That meant the Anglo-Saxon kingdom had a proper king. Because of the Danish invasion and how young his nephews were, Alfred moved to the throne and was uncontested.
Because he was burying his brother, the Danes quickly defeated his Saxon army at an unnamed spot. However, they did so again at Wilton. This defeat smashed the hope that King Alfred the Great might drive them from his land. Therefore, he made peace with them.
The Cake Legend
During the time that King Alfred the Great was escaping to the island, other events related to his legend could have taken place. Most people believe that Asser created them, though they’re all late, in the 10th century CE. Still, the most famous is a story of Alfred and burnt cakes.
It’s said that Alfred was traveling alone in Southern England and came upon a swineherd’s cottage, asking for hospitality without showing his identity. The family took him in for a couple of days. When the swineherd was out working, his wife stayed in to bake bread, leaving Alfred to sit and be preoccupied with his issues.
The wife was now cleaning the house and smelled the burning bread, rushing to remove the loaves. She admonished Alfred because he was sitting so close and couldn’t tell they were ruined, though he liked to eat them as they came out of the oven.
Overall, the story saw many modifications over time, with some depicting the wife as ignorant, evil, or exasperated by the houseguest. Regardless, the King’s response or lack thereof shows grace and humility. The man never revealed his stature or argued with the wife, accepting the scolding and getting up to help her remake the bread.
The Battle of Edington
Alfred continued in exile and hid from the Vikings for about three months. During that time, he was preparing an offensive against the Vikings and had networks of chieftains and spies who were loyal to him and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom he represented.
By March, he waged a successful guerrilla war against those Danish invaders. During May 878 CE, Alfred had assembled a force big enough to take the Vikings. His fortress at Athelney was the base of operations, where men were recruited from Eastern England and farther away.
Sometime during May, he drew the Vikings from their stronghold in Edington, defeating them in battle with a shield wall. The forces of Wessex held tight formations and counterattacked. Finally, the Vikings had been driven from their field, so they started fortifying the stronghold.
However, Alfred destroyed the crops around the area, killing the men outside and stealing cattle. Now, the Vikings only had the provisions they’d stored already and surrendered after two weeks.
Guthrum and Alfred negotiated to come up with the Treaty of Wedmore, though it took many more years before the formal treaty was signed. Under the terms, Guthrum had to convert to Christianity and leave Wessex, returning to East Anglia. However, the Danes received part of Eastern England, which they called Danelaw.
To strengthen the alliance with the Danes, Alfred married a daughter to Mercia’s ealdorman. Another daughter had already been given to The Count of Flanders while Vikings were trying to settle in Eastern England.
The conditions were met, so Wessex remained secure at the time. However, Alfred knew he hadn’t put an end to his troubles with the Vikings forever.
880s and 890s
After the treaty was signed, Guthrum was no longer a threat. The Viking attacks ceased, and the army sailed to Ghent in 879. Still, local raids occurred in Wessex throughout the 880s, and Alfred fought a small battle against four ships. Two were destroyed, but the others surrendered.
While there was relative peace, the King still had to deal with Danish incursions and raids, such as the one in South East England in 885 at Kent. While Alfred’s charters tried to plunder, they were invariably caught by the Danish men.
After the lull, in 892 or 893 CE, the East Anglian Danes attacked once more. They crossed to England from Europe in 330 ships. Now, they had their children and wives with them, which indicated an attempt at colonization and conquest. Alfred took a position to watch both forces.
He was talking with Hastein, and the Danes struck the North, being overtaken by Alfred’s son, Edward. This pushed the Danes back to Thorney island, where they again promised to leave. While Alfred tried to relieve his son, the Danes tried to take Exeter, so he went westward.
Overall, the lack of food caused the Danes to go to Essex in 894 or 895. They were now 20 miles north of England, and Alfred tried to obstruct the river. Since they were outmaneuvered, the Danes moved west to winter at Coatbridge. Finally, they ended the struggle in 896 or 897.
Reform, Restoration, and Education
After the Battle of Edington, Alfred tried to resolve the cause of the raids, which were clerical learning, lack of unity in the kingdom, and the poor educational system. Therefore, Alfred reorganized the kingdom, implementing legal, military, and educational reforms to transform Britain.
He started rebuilding the cities that were destroyed, improving upon the structures. However, the royal family was still susceptible to attack, so he reformed his military.
From there, he changed the Anglo-Saxon law and brought in some Burghal System initiatives, improving the roads linking the 33 fortified settlements. King Alfred the Great also learned defensive strategies and tactics from the French Carolingian kings.
During all this time, Asser moved to Alfred’s court and became the personal tutor. Finally, Alfred could translate Latin to English, becoming a role model for the subjects.
Germanic tribes had tried invading Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries, relying heavily on unarmed infantry supplied by the tribal levy. Primarily, all of Anglo-Saxon England depended on that system, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The tribal levy was the local militia in the shire, and freemen were required to serve. Otherwise, they could lose their land or get fined.
Wessex’s history of failure preceded the king’s success in 878 and showed him that the traditional system didn’t work for his men. The Danes and Anglo-Saxons attacked settlements to plunder, but Alfred’s men used different tactics. In the raids, they liked to move head-on and assemble forces using a shield wall to advance against the target and overcome them.
The Danes liked easy targets, mapping more cautious forays to avoid attack and risking the plunder. Once Alfred learned of this, he made it to where the Danes retreated, only to meet resistance.
However, the way the Anglo-Saxons marshaled the forces to defend against attacks made them vulnerable to the Vikings. The tribal levy was responsible for local raids. While the king called up the militia to protect their kingdom, communication problems and more supplies meant that things didn’t progress quickly.
The raids were already started when landowners were called for battle. Therefore, large regions were devastated before help arrived. Also, the landowners were required to supply men, but many abandoned the king, choosing to collaborate with Guthrum.
Overall, Alfred capitalized on the peaceful years after his Edington victory, remembering those lessons. Likewise, he probably studied other countries’ methods to learn how to deal with the Vikings. Finally, he established a system of defense and taxation for Wessex.
Taxation and Administration
Tenants in England were obligated in three ways based on landholdings: bridge repair, fortress work, and the common burdens for military service. However, King Alfred the Great wanted to expand the conscription and tax system to maintain and reorganize the burhs based on how productive the landholding was.
A hide was the basic unit for the system to assess the person’s public obligations. It’s thought to be the amount of land one family needs. Depending on how many hides a landowner held determined the hide size and value.
The Burghal System
The foundation for the military defense system focused on burh networks, which were distributed at specific points throughout his kingdom. He had 33 burhs, each about 19 miles apart, so the military could tackle attacks within a day.
These burhs were former Roman towns, earthen walls surrounded by ditches, and tiny outposts. For example, Wallingford had a 2,400 hidage amount, so landowners had to feed and supply 2,400 men.
Overall, the burhs used a road system maintained for the army to use. They let everyone assemble quickly and confront the invader. When laden with booty, Viking invaders saw many obstacles with the roads. They didn’t have the equipment to seize a burh, and it was harder to communicate with the rest of the team.
Their only advantage was that they might starve the burh to submit, but then the Anglo-Saxon king had more time to send in garrisons and army men from neighboring burhs to crush the Vikings.
Overall, Alfred’s Burghal system posed a formidable challenge against attack that the Anglo-Saxons limited the Viking’s penetration to just the outer frontiers of Mercia and Wessex in 892. This was a revolutionary strategy at the time and expensive to execute. Many of the nobles cringed at the demands put upon them.
Naval design was also something Alfred tried. He ordered a small fleet to be constructed in 896. They were longships with 60 oars and larger than the warships the Vikings used. While it wasn’t the birth of the English Navy, it did help with battles at the time.
Later, the British Navy was designed around Alfred’s early dream.
In the 880s or 890s, Alfred presented a law code consisting of the things he’d written, along with the code issued by Ine of Wessex. These laws contained 120 chapters, and he explained that he gathered them together when they pleased him and removed the ones that he didn’t like.
Overall, one-fifth of the code translates the 10 Commandments. Plus, the introduction traces Alfred’s issuance of his laws to the West Saxons and shows the continuity of God presenting Moses with the law.
This Anglo-Saxon law was divided into 120 chapters because Moses apparently died at 120 years old. Therefore, 120 stood for the law because of the number symbolism used at the time.
Many people wonder how these laws came to be. King Alfred was reported to say that they were practical and were designed to be symbolic. Still, Alfred wanted to review countless judgments to ensure that they were fair. A charter from the Elders and his son Edward shows him as hearing an appeal while washing his hands in the chamber.
Overall, Alfred insisted that the judges be literate to apply themselves to gaining wisdom. If people failed to comply with the royal order, they lost their office. In fact, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned during Alfred’s rule to promote unification, while Asser’s book focused on the king’s personal qualities and achievements.
Alfred, king of Wessex, was highly interested in foreign countries through the insertions he made to his Orosius translation. He corresponded with various people and gathered details about Wulfstan of Hedeby’s journey to Jutland on the Baltic Sea.
Overall, Asser reports that a Southern Welsh prince commended himself to Alfred. Later, the North Welsh followed Wessex’s example to cooperate with England for certain campaigns. Alfred also sent alms to the Continental and Irish monasteries and much more.
Religion and Education
Alfred’s mind was focused primarily on religion and education because he wanted the West Saxons to understand where they came from and learn things. During that time, Viking attacks were seen as a just punishment, and Alfred likely revived the awe of religion to appease God’s wrath.
Such a revival meant recruiting Mercian clerical scholars, but they wanted people from other parts of England, too. Not much is known about the church under King Alfred the Great. Those Danish attacks were damaging to the monasteries. While he founded new ones at Shaftesbury and Athelney, they were the first in Wessex since the start of the 8th century.
Overall, the locals weren’t interested in monastic life, so he had to entice foreign monks to visit England. However, he didn’t systematically reform ecclesiastical institutions and religious practices. The key to the spiritual revival of English kings was to appoint learned, trustworthy, and pious abbots and bishops. He felt responsible for everyone’s spiritual and temporal welfare.
Alfred’s translation of Pastoral Care from Gregory the Great was what he distributed to the bishops. That helped them supervise and train priests. However, his piety didn’t prevent him from taking property for church land.
Still, the Danish raids were devastating to Latin learning in England. It’s likely that Alfred exaggerated the abysmal state of learning to bring about change, and it seemed to work.
Advocating for Education
According to Barbara Yorke, who wrote books about Alfred, the earliest work translated was Dialogues from Gregory the Great, and it was highly popular in the Middle Ages. Many English kings wanted to understand it, which meant putting it in a language they already knew.
Therefore, King Alfred established a court school to educate his children and those of nobility. Then, he created other schools for people of lesser birth. These people studied Latin and English books, were devoted to writing, and studied liberal arts.
To make it work, Alfred had to recruit scholars from Britain and the Continent to revive Christian learning in the kingdom and provide personal instruction to the king.
Efforts to Unite England
Alfred went on to capture London in 886 CE. Most people believe that landowners took an official oath of loyalty to him, but it was clear either way that King Alfred united the people of England and Britain under his rule. In fact, Alfred succeeded in giving England a sense of identity for a common cause and under a common leader.
After taking London, he sealed the alliance with Mercia, arranging a marriage between the earl there and his daughter. Land charters indicate that both names are on the papers. However, Aethelflaed continued Alfred’s work in the area, along with her husband.
While illiterate in youth, Alfred wrote the law codes himself and translated many works. Those books influenced him for the better and could do the same for others.
When Alfred died in October 899 CE, he had transformed England and Britain from disparate places of separation to something like a unified nation. Still, Alfred’s life wasn’t respected during his time on earth, and he wasn’t as famous as he now is. This is likely because those Viking invasions continued until 1066 CE.
No one knows how Alfred died, but he suffered from an unpleasant and painful illness all his life. Asser described his symptoms, and modern doctors believe he had hemorrhoids or Crohn’s Disease. His grandson, Eadred, also had a similar condition.
Temporarily, Alfred was buried in Winchester at Old Minster with his wife and son Edward. He constructed New Minster before his death, hoping for it to become his mausoleum. Four years after he died, their bodies were exhumed and finally moved to a new resting place in New Minster, remaining there for about 200 years.
However, William the Conquerer rose to the throne after 1066, and many of the abbeys were demolished. One of them was New Minster. Monks there exhumed the bodies once more and transferred them to Hyde Abbey.
Many of the Roman Catholic churches got vandalized in 1536 by English people. One of them was Hyde Abbey, so Alfred and his family were disturbed but allowed to stay there.
The Winchester Museum Service at Hyde Abbey conducted excavations in 1999. It uncovered many bones and building foundations. While purported to be Alfred, they belonged to one elderly woman.
In March of 2013, more bones were exhumed in an unmarked grave from St. Bartholomew’s. They had been radiocarbon-dated and were from the 1300s.
However, in January of 2014, a pelvic fragment was unearthed from the 1999 excavation site and was from the right period. It could be from Alfred or his son Edward.
What’s Alfred the Great Most Known For?
Alfred is famous for preventing England from being part of the Danes’ triumphs and promoting literacy and learning.
Is Alfred Considered Part of the Royal Family?
While he was born long before the others, he is part of the royal family. In fact, Queen Elizabeth II descended from him and is his 32nd great-granddaughter.
How Many Other Kings Were Called “The Great?”
No other English kings have been called “the great.” Alfred was because he was a strong and fair ruler who defeated the Vikings and brought about a love for learning and reading.
King Alfred was considered one of the best Anglo-Saxon kings because of everything he did for his kingdom.
Overall, this Anglo-Saxon King removed the Viking threat, brought reading and learning back to the city, and was compassionate and caring. Therefore, he’s the first king (and only one) to be called “great.” Alfred the Great brought together two countries and became the inspiration for many others.