Alfred the Great is the only English king to be given the glorified nickname “the Great”, and indeed he deserved it. In 871, Alfred the Great ruled over the kingdom of Wessex, which was the sole English territory kept from the ever-invading Vikings. He ensured a single Saxon stronghold remained steady and strong, in an increasingly Viking England.
Alfred the Great – the King of the Anglo-Saxons
King Alfred the Great was one of the greatest Kings of England, and certainly the most superior King of all the Anglo-Saxon rulers. Not only did he hold back the waves of Viking expansions, but also created the founding base for a united English kingdom. By strengthening armies, and fortifying towns, he was setting the foundations for an established defence and justice system. Moreover, he created a new navy being mindful of the threat from the seas, whilst in land establishing efficient administration processes.
Alfred the Great of Wessex
Alfred of Wessex was the fourth son of King Ethelwulf, and the grandson of King Egbert of Wessex. Egbert was the force behind the success of the Wessex Kingdom, when the Kingdom of Mercia dominated. Egbert expanded Wessex greatly, incorporating Essex, Sussex, Surrey and Kent in the east and Cornwall in the west. During these times, Viking power was formidable – burning, sacking and killing right across the Kingdoms. Wessex, however remained strong and provided a superb foundation for Alfred the Great to build upon.
Battle of Ashdown
Just before Alfred the Great’s rule began, he stood alongside his then King brother, Ethelred, in the Battle of Ashdown, in 871. Legend says that Alfred used the famous Blowing Stone to summon his Saxon troops for the battle.
King Ethelred and Alfred divided their army either side of the ridgeway. Boyant from their small victory at the Battle of Reading, the Vikings did the same. King Ethelred refused to advance until he had completed his prayers, Alfred on the other hand charged for the enemy. Alfred proved a great war-leader during the battle, and with the help of Ethelred’s half of the furd (after prayers), the Saxon’s gained a valuable victory over the Danes.
However, Alfred the Great had to show his leadership through diplomacy rather than war, when his brother, the king, died. The Danes had returned, pillaging as they went. During a skirmish in Wilton, Alfred had to admit defeat. He opted to pay them off, rather than attempt more bloodshed, which encouraged the Vikings to move north to Mercia, satisfied with their payment.
By 878, the Viking forces were still dominating England, but Alfred the Great still held Wessex strong. A new Viking leader from the East Anglian Danes, called Guthrum, decided to attack Alfred at Chippenham, catching Alfred unaware. Alfred had to flee to the nearby fens, where according to legend, he met a local pig farmer and asked if he could take refuge in their hovel.
There has been a long standing myth about what happened next. Legend says that while Alfred hid in the hovel, the pig farmer’s wife asked him to watch over some oat cakes that were baking on hot stones. Alfred became distracted, planning his next move against Guthrum, when he accidentally let the cakes burn, much to the fury of the farmer’s wife! As fun as this seems, it is highly likely to be a myth.
Battle of Edington
While Alfred was in hiding in the marshland, he was able to drum up support, gather troops and send messages to local fyrds. When there were enough men for his cause, in the spring of 878, Alfred met with his rallied troops at Egbert’s Stone, near Selwood. With 2500 men, Alfred advanced on the Great Heathen Army at the Battle at Edington. The Danes were positioned high on a ridge at Edington. The hard-fought battle lasted all day, until Alfred had Guthrum pinned back into the old fortess in Chippenham.
A short siege followed lasting 2 weeks, before Gurthrum was forced to negotiate terms. Alfred had made a stunning and decisive victory for the Saxons, defeating the Great Heathen Army of Guthrum. All hopes for Wessex were pinned on this victory. However, Alfred the Great knew he had to make peace with Guthrum, as he could not defeat all Vikings across the other kingdoms. Peace was agreed, Danish hostages were provided to secure the agreement, and Alfred sent Guthrum back to East Anglia as a baptised Christian!
Guthrum would not maintain peace forever, Alfred knew that. So after securing London and the southern part of Mercia from Viking control in 886, Alfred agreed to and formalised the Danelaw with Guthrum.
Danelaw was the established Viking territories on the eastern side of a line between London and Chester. Thus splitting England into Saxon and Viking rule. At this point Alfred the Great was recognised as the King of all Anglo-Saxons, King of the English.
Alfred the Great Anglo Saxon King
Now the relative peace followed, Alfred the Great began to organise a navy, with warships that could match the Viking long boats. In order to maintain an army, he decided to offer knighthoods to landowners in return for military services, on a rota system. This produced a fine balance between begin able to run a large army and navy, whilst also being able to run the local economy.
Critically, Alfred the Great ordered fortifications to be built at no more than a day’s march from each other, thus building up a vast defensive network. Each fortified settlement had enough land and people to run itself, which eventually encouraged towns to form. Winchester is the most famous of these, and was the capital of Wessex and then England (after the Norman conquest).
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Alfred the Great was not just concerned with the military side of being a successful King. He was also a very smart individual, likely produced from all his travels to Rome when he was a young boy. He insisted that the generations to follow would once again learn from writings and scholars, which had vanished during the Viking destruction of the lands. He established a school of learning, and oversaw the translation of Latin texts to the Anglo-Saxon language, so that all could who could read, could do so.
Furthermore, Alfred studied laws from other kingdoms, including Mercia, and with some help translated these himself. His desire was to ensure peace and prosperity through learning. Which is where his association with the most famous Dark Ages documents began, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is a set of nine surviving manuscripts which were inscribed by monks over a number of centuries, and arranged year by year. The Winchester Manuscript is the earliest text in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and was commissioned by King Alfred the Great in 890. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle was updated and copied for two to three centuries afterwards, and offers an incredible insight into Anglo Saxon life. It is the first history of any European country in its own language.
Alfred the Great Facts
- Alfred the Great was born in 849 in Wantage, Oxfordshire
- His Father was Ethulwulf, King of Wessex
- His Mother was Osburh
- He was crowned in 871 and ruled until his death in 899
- He married Elswyth of Mercia in a tactical move to form alliances with Mercia
- He had four or five children, including his heir Edward the Eldar
- He and his brother King Ethelred were victorious at the Battle of Englefield, 870
- He was defeated, and forced to retreat at the Battle of Reading, 871
- He was victorious at the Battle of Ashdown, 871
- The West Saxons were defeated at the Battle of Basing, 871
- He and his brother King Ethelred were defeated at the Battle of Marton, 871. King Ethelred died weeks later.
- Alfred was victorious at the Battle of Edington, 878
- He died on 26 October 899, aged 52