In 871, Alfred the Great ruled over the kingdom of Wessex, which was the sole English territory kept from the invading Vikings. He ensured a single Saxon stronghold remained steady and strong, in an increasingly Viking England. Alfred the Great is the only English king to be given the glorified nickname “the Great”, and indeed he deserved it.
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.
- 1 Facts about Alfred the Great
- 2 10 things you may not know about Alfred the Great
- 3 Battles and Skirmishes
- 4 A Timeline of Alfred the Great’s Life
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
- 6 Related video
Facts about Alfred the Great
- Born. 849, Wantage, Oxfordshire.
- Parents. Aethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh.
- Married. Ealhswith of Mercia, 868, Winchester.
- Children. 4 – 6, inc Edward the Elder & Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia.
- Acceded. 23 April 871.
- Crowned. Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey.
- Reign. 28 years.
- Died. 26 October 899, aged c.50. Buried in Winchester.
- Successor. Edward the Elder.
10 things you may not know about Alfred the Great
- Literacy. Alfred focused on education, literacy and record keeping. The first king to do so. Monks recorded events of the time in manuscripts, which formed the first edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
- Bretwalda. Alfred was a Bretwalda, ‘Britain Ruler’. This means as king he had over-lordship of some or all other kingdoms, and therefore ruler of Britain. There were 10 Anglo-Saxon Bretwaldas.
- Danelaw. Alfred secured London from the Danes in 886, and formalised the Danelaw (Dane’s law) with their leader, Guthrum. This established a long boundary line between the river Thames and the river Tees. Vikings controlled the north and east, Saxons the south and west, dividing England into territories.
- Burghs. Alfred built 33 burghs (fortified towns) around England to protect them against the Vikings. The inhabitants provided a fyrd (army) in times of conflict.
- Navy. Alfred organised the first permanent fleet of warships (navy), to engage Viking longboats.
- Oat Cakes. After escaping a surprise attack from Guthrum at Chippenham, legend has Alfred fleeing to the marshes of Athelney in Somerset. There he hid in a peasant’s hovel, and the he was asked to watch over some oat cakes baking by the fire. Alfred agreed, but became distracted planning his next move, and burnt the cakes! The furious lady scolded Alfred, having no idea that he was king. (Sadly, this is highly likely to be a myth.)
- Minstrel. Another legend has Alfred disguising himself as a minstrel to gain entrance to the Danish camp and overhear their battle plans.
- Illness. Alfred complained for terrible stomach pain throughout his life. Sometimes, the pain was so bad he was bed ridden for days. Today, this illness is known as Crohn’s disease.
- Piety. Alfred was very religious, and visited the pope in Rome twice as a child. This piety was reflected in his work to build churches and convert pagans to Christianity.
- Crown. Alfred became king after the death of his brother, Aethelred. However, the crown should have passed down to Aethelred’s son, Aethelwold. But Alfred had the approval of the Wessex and the Pope, and was crowned instead.
Battles and Skirmishes
- Battle of Reading. 871. Defeated by the Danes.
- Battle of Ashdown. 871. Victory, but would later cost King Aethelred his life.
- Battle of Basing. 871. Defeated by the Danes.
- Battle of Meretun. 871. Defeated by the Danes.
- Battle of Wilton. 871. Defeated by the Danes.
- Battle of Edington. 878. Victory, a great rally of the fyrd against the Great Heathen Army.
- Battle of Cynwit. 878. Victory.
A Timeline of Alfred the Great’s Life
– 849 –
Alfred is born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, to Aethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh.
– 853 –
Alfred is sent on a pilgrimage to Rome, at 4 years old and stays for 3 years. He returns with his father.
– 868 –
Alfred marries Ealhswith of Mercia, a match to unite Wessex and Mercia. However, Alfred becomes ill with an unknown stomach complaint, which would continue to affect him for years to come.
– 871 –
Alfred commands 5 battles against the Danes. At the Battle of Ashdown, he is saved by his late-arriving brother, King Aethelred, as he clashes with the main Viking force. Aethelred dies weeks later from his wounds. Alfred becomes king.
– 876 –
The Great Summer Army, led by Guthrum captures Wareham, and joins a second force at Poole Harbour. Alfred traps them both. Half flee to Exeter to besiege the town, while the other half flee on ships to Swanage, but are lost in a storm. Viking leader Halfdan Ragnarsson establishes the Viking Kingdom of York (Jorvik).
– 878 –
Alfred flees from a surprise attack at Chippenham by Guthrum, into the marshes of Athelney, Somerset. There he rallies a new Saxon army from the fyrds at Egbert’s Stone. Alfred defeats the Guthrum and the Great Heathen army at the Battle of Edington.
– 885 –
Rochester is attacked by Vikings, but Alfred’s new burh and local fyrd successfully defend it.
– 886 –
Alfred agrees to the Danelaw with Guthrum, after recapturing London. Alfred is proclaimed “King of all the English”.
– 887 –
Alfred learns to read.
– 891 –
Alfred begins to compile the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
– 892 –
New Viking raiders arrive in the Thames, led by Haesten. King Alfred the Great positions his army in the Wealden Forest.
– 893 –
Haesten withdraws to Benfleet after local raiding, but the fort is recaptured by Alfred. Haesten moves west, and is met by Aethelred of Mercia, West Saxons and Welsh warriors at Buttington. Haesten is forced to flee again and camps in Chester’s fortified ruin. Soon he is besieged and flees into Wales and then Northumbria.
Asser, Bishop of Sherborne, begins Alfred’s biography “The Life of King Alfred”.
Haesten and his army march north, and besiege Chester.
– 896 –
Alfred’s new navy wins a skirmish against 6 Viking ships, who were attacking the coastline. His navy captured 2 Viking ships, and Alfred had the occupants hanged in Winchester.
– 899 –
Alfred dies and is buried at Winchester. His nephew, Aethelwold rebels in a failed attempt to sieze the throne. Edward the Elder, Alfred’s son accedes him.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is Alfred the Great? Alfred the Great was the king of Wessex and Saxon England between 871-899.
Why is Alfred the Great important? Alfred the Great united Saxon England and created relative peace with the Danes. He also encouraged literacy, record keeping and Christianity.
When was King Alfred the Great born? Alfred was born in 849, in Wantage, Oxfordshire.
When did Alfred the Great die? Alfred died on 26 October 899, aged c.50, and was buried in Winchester.
Alfred 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, Aethelred, 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 Aethelred and Alfred divided their army either side of the ridgeway. The Danes, buoyant by their small victory at the Battle of Reading, did the same. King Aethelred refused to advance until he had completed his prayers, leaving Alfred to charge the enemy’s larger force, on his own. Proving to have a great war-leader during the battle, and with the help of Aethelred’s half of the fyrd (after prayers), the Saxons 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 the king at Chippenham, catching him 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, the king 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 fortress 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, he 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, he 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 being 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 his travels to Rome when he was a young boy. Alfred 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.