In 871, Alfred the Great ruled over the kingdom of Wessex (871-899), 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.
Born 849, Wantage, Oxfordshire
Parents Aethelwulf of Wessex & Osburh
Married Ealhswith of Mercia, 868, Winchester
Children 4 – 6, inc Edward the Elder & Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia
Died 26 October 899 (50), buried in Winchester
Reign 871 – 899 (28)
Crowned 871, Kingston-upon-Thames
Predecessor Aethelred I (brother)
Successor Edward the Elder (son)
Events of King Alfred the Great’s Life
Alfred is born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, to Aethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh.
Alfred is sent on a pilgrimage to Rome, at 4 years old and stays for 3 years. He returns with his father.
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.
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.
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 returns to York (Jorvik), and rebuilds it.
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.
Rochester is attacked by Vikings, but Alfred’s new burh and local fyrd successfully defend it.
Alfred agrees to the Danelaw with Guthrum, after recapturing London. Alfred is proclaimed “King of all the English”.
Alfred learns to read.
Alfred begins to compile the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
New Viking raiders arrive in the Thames, led by Haesten. King Alfred the Great positions his army in the Wealden Forest.
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.
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.
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.
Interesting Facts About King Alfred the Great
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.
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.
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.
Alfred built 33 burghs (fortified towns) around England to protect them against the Vikings. The inhabitants provided a fyrd (army) in times of conflict.
Alfred organised the first permanent fleet of warships (navy), to engage Viking longboats.
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.)
Another legend has Alfred disguising himself as a minstrel to gain entrance to the Danish camp and overhear their battle plans.
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.
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.
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 Fought by King Alfred the Great
Battle of Reading
In 871, defeat for Wessex, as they attempted to siege the Reading base.
Battle of Ashdown
In 871, victory, but nearly cost Alfred his life, as Aethelred joined late after prayers.
Battle of Basing
In 871, defeat for Wessex by the Danish Army.
Battle of Meretun
In 871, defeat for Wessex, and Aethelred had been seriously wounded.
Battle of Wilton
In 871, defeat for Wessex by the Danes.
Battle of Edington
In 878, victory, a great rally of the fyrd against the Great Heathen Army.
Battle of Cynwit
In 878, victory against the Vikings at the fort Asser calls, Cynwit.
FAQs About King Alfred the Great
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.