Alfred the Great (c.848 – 899) was king of the West Saxons from 871 to c. 886 and king of the Anglo-Saxons from c. 886 to 899. He is regarded as one of Britain's greatest heroes for his patriotism, his success against barbarism, his promotion of education, and the establishment of the rule of law.
Alfred's father was Æthelwulf, king of Wessex. His eldest brother, Æthelstan, was old enough to be appointed sub-king of Kent in 839, almost 10 years before Alfred was born. He died in the early 850s. Alfred's next three brothers were successively kings of Wessex.
Æthelbald (858-860) and Æthelberht (860-865) were also much older than Alfred, but Æthelred (865-871) was only a year or two older. Alfred's only known sister, Æthelswith, married Burgred, king of the midland kingdom of Mercia in 853.
At the beginning of the ninth century, England was almost wholly under the control of the Anglo-Saxons. Mercia dominated southern England, but its supremacy came to an end in 825 when it was decisively defeated by Alfred's grandfather, King Ecgberht, at the Battle of Ellendun.
The two kingdoms became allies, which was important in the resistance to Viking attacks. In 853, King Burgred of Mercia requested West Saxon help to suppress a Welsh rebellion, and Æthelwulf led a West Saxon contingent in a successful joint campaign. In the same year Burgred married Æthelwulf's daughter, Æthelswith.
In 825, Ecgberht sent Æthelwulf to invade the Mercian sub-kingdom of Kent. By 830, Essex, Surrey and Sussex had submitted to Ecgberht, and he had appointed Æthelwulf to rule the south-eastern territories as king of Kent. When Æthelwulf succeeded, he appointed his eldest son Æthelstan as sub-king of Kent.
Viking raids increased in the early 840s on both sides of the English Channel, and in 843 Æthelwulf was defeated at Carhampton. In 850, Æthelstan defeated a Danish fleet off Sandwich in the first recorded naval battle in English history.
In 851 Æthelwulf and his second son, Æthelbald, defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Aclea. Æthelwulf died in 858 and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son, Æthelbald, as king of Wessex and by his next oldest son, Æthelberht, as king of Kent. Æthelbald only survived his father by two years and Æthelberht then for the first time united Wessex and Kent into a single kingdom.
Alfred was born c.848, the youngest of six children. In 853, Alfred is reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been sent to Rome where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, who "anointed him as king".
Victorian writers later interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his eventual succession to the throne of Wessex. This is unlikely; his succession could not have been foreseen at the time because Alfred had three living elder brothers.
A letter of Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a "consul" and a misinterpretation of this investiture, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion. It may be based upon the fact that Alfred later accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent some time at the court of Charles the Bald, king of the Franks, around 854–855.
On their return from Rome in 856, Æthelwulf was deposed by his son Æthelbald. With civil war looming, the magnates of the realm met in council to form a compromise. Æthelbald retained the western shires (i.e. historical Wessex), and Æthelwulf ruled in the east.
After King Æthelwulf died in 858, Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred's brothers in succession: Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred.
In 868, Alfred was recorded as fighting beside Æthelred in a failed attempt to keep the Great Heathen Army led by Ivar the Boneless out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia. The Danes arrived in his homeland at the end of 870.
A successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield in Berkshire on 31 December 870 was followed by a severe defeat at the siege and the Battle of Reading by Ivar's brother Halfdan Ragnarsson on 5 January 871.
Four days later, the Anglo-Saxons won a victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs. The Saxons were defeated at the Battle of Basing on 22 January. They were defeated again on 22 March at the Battle of Merton.
In April 871 King Æthelred died and Alfred acceded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, however while he was busy with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at Wilton in May. The defeat at Wilton smashed any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom.
Alfred was forced instead to make peace with them, and the Viking army withdrew from Reading in the autumn of 871 to take up winter quarters in Mercian London. Although not mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred probably paid the Vikings cash to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year.
Hoards dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871/872 have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend and Waterloo Bridge. These finds hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England.
In 876, under their three leaders Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend, the Danes slipped past the Saxon army and attacked and occupied Wareham in Dorset. Alfred blockaded them but was unable to take Wareham by assault.
He negotiated a peace that involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a "holy ring" associated with the worship of Thor. The Danes broke their word, and after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exeter in Devon.
Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon, and with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to submit and withdrew to Mercia. In January 878, the Danes made a sudden attack on Chippenham.
Alfred made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort he was able to mount a resistance campaign, rallying the local militias from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. 878 was the nadir of the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. With all the other kingdoms having fallen to the Vikings, Wessex alone was resisting.
A legend tells how when Alfred first fled to the Somerset Levels, he was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some wheaten cakes she had left cooking on the fire.
Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidentally let the cakes burn and was roundly scolded by the woman upon her return. There is no contemporary evidence for the legend, but it is possible that there was an early oral tradition. The first time that it was actually written was about 100 years after Alfred's death.
Alfred emerged from his marshland stronghold in May 878 as part of a carefully planned offensive that entailed raising the fighting forces of three shires. He had retained the loyalty of ealdormen, royal reeves and king's thegns, who were charged with levying and leading these forces.
Alfred won a decisive victory in the ensuing Battle of Edington which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshire. He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission.
One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity. Three weeks later, the Danish king and 29 of his chief men were baptised at Alfred's court at Aller, near Athelney, with Alfred's receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son.
Under the terms of the so-called Treaty of Wedmore, the converted Guthrum was required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. Consequently, in 879 the Viking army left Chippenham and made its way to Cirencester.
The formal Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, preserved in Old English in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Manuscript 383), and in a Latin compilation known as Quadripartitus, was negotiated later, perhaps in 879 or 880, when King Ceolwulf II of Mercia was deposed.
That treaty divided up the kingdom of Mercia. By its terms, the boundary between Alfred's and Guthrum's kingdoms was to run up the River Thames to the River Lea, follow the Lea to its source (near Luton), from there extend in a straight line to Bedford, and from Bedford follow the River Ouse to Watling Street.
In other words, Alfred succeeded to Ceolwulf's kingdom consisting of western Mercia, and Guthrum incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an enlarged kingdom of East Anglia (henceforward known as the Danelaw).
By terms of the treaty, moreover, Alfred was to have control over the Mercian city of London and its mints. In 825, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that the people of Essex, Sussex, Kent and Surrey had surrendered to Egbert, Alfred's grandfather.
From then until the arrival of the Great Heathen Army, Essex had formed part of Wessex. After the foundation of Danelaw, some of Essex was ceded to the Danes. With the signing of the Treaty, Guthrum was neutralised as a threat. The Viking army, which had stayed at Fulham during the winter of 878–879, sailed for Ghent.
There were local raids on the coast of Wessex throughout the 880s. In 882, Alfred fought a small sea battle against four Danish ships. Two of the ships were destroyed, and the others surrendered.
This was one of four sea battles recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, three of which involved Alfred. Similar small skirmishes with independent Viking raiders would have occurred for much of the period as they had for decades.
After the signing of the treaty with Guthrum, Alfred was spared any large-scale conflicts for some time. Despite this relative peace, the king was forced to deal with a number of Danish raids and incursions.
Among these was a raid in Kent, an allied kingdom in South East England, during the year 885, which was possibly the largest raid since the battles with Guthrum. Danish raiders attacked the Saxon city of Rochester, where they built a temporary fortress in order to besiege the city.
In response to this incursion, Alfred led an Anglo-Saxon force against the Danes who, instead of engaging the army of Wessex, fled to their beached ships and sailed to another part of Britain. The retreating Danish force left Britain the following summer.
A year later, in 886, Alfred reoccupied the city of London and set out to make it habitable again. Alfred entrusted the city to the care of his son-in-law Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia.
The restoration of London progressed through the latter half of the 880s and is believed to have revolved around a new street plan; added fortifications in addition to the existing Roman walls; and, some believe, the construction of matching fortifications on the south bank of the River Thames.
This is also the period in which almost all chroniclers agree that the Saxon people of pre-unification England submitted to Alfred. In 888, Æthelred, the archbishop of Canterbury, also died.
One year later Guthrum, or Athelstan by his baptismal name, Alfred's former enemy and king of East Anglia, died and was buried in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Guthrum's death changed the political landscape for Alfred.
The resulting power vacuum stirred other power-hungry warlords eager to take his place in the following years. The quiet years of Alfred's life were coming to a close.
After another lull, in 893, the Danes attacked again. Finding their position in mainland Europe precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. They entrenched themselves, the larger body, at Appledore, Kent and the lesser under Hastein, at Milton, also in Kent. Alfred took up a position from which he could observe both forces.
While he was in talks with Hastein, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck north-westwards. They were overtaken by Alfred's eldest son, Edward and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey.
They took refuge on an island at Thorney, on the River Colne between Buckinghamshire and Middlesex, where they were blockaded and forced to give hostages and promise to leave Wessex. They then went to Essex and after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined with Hastein's force at Shoebury.
The force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley. They were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset and forced to head off to the north-west, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington.
An attempt to break through the English lines failed. Those who escaped retreated to Shoebury. After collecting reinforcements, they made a sudden dash across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chester. The English did not attempt a winter blockade but contented themselves with destroying all the supplies in the district.
Early in 895 lack of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of the year, the Danes drew their ships up the River Thames and the River Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles (32 km) north of London.
A frontal attack on the Danish lines failed but later in the year, Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realised that they were outmanoeuvred, struck off north-westwards to Bridgnorth.
The next year, they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia. Those who had no connections in England returned to the continent.
Alfred also tried his hand at naval design. In 896 he ordered the construction of a small fleet, perhaps a dozen or so longships that, at 60 oars, were twice the size of Viking warships. Although this was later described as the birth of the English Navy, Wessex had in fact possessed a royal fleet before this.
King Athelstan of Kent and Ealdorman Ealhhere had defeated a Viking fleet in 851 capturing nine ships, and Alfred had conducted naval actions in 882. Nevertheless, 897 clearly marked an important development in the naval power of Wessex.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle related that Alfred's ships were larger, swifter, steadier and rode higher in the water than either Danish or Frisian ships. Alfred used the design of Greek and Roman warships, with high sides, designed for fighting rather than for navigation.
Alfred had sea-power in mind—if he could intercept raiding fleets before they landed, he could spare his kingdom from being ravaged. Alfred's ships may have been superior in conception. In practice, they proved to be too large to manoeuvre well in the close waters of estuaries and rivers, the only places in which a naval battle could occur.
The warships of the time were not designed to be ship killers but rather troop carriers. It has been suggested that, like sea battles in late Viking age Scandinavia, these battles may have entailed a ship coming alongside an enemy vessel, lashing the two ships together and then boarding the enemy craft.
In the one recorded naval engagement in 896, Alfred's new fleet of nine ships intercepted six Viking ships at the mouth of an unidentified river in the south of England. The Danes had beached half their ships and gone inland.
Alfred's ships immediately moved to block their escape. The three Viking ships afloat attempted to break through the English lines. Only one made it; Alfred's ships intercepted the other two. Lashing the Viking boats to their own, the English crew boarded and proceeded to kill the Vikings.
In the 880s, Alfred, perhaps inspired by the example of Charlemagne almost a century before, undertook an equally ambitious effort to revive learning. During this period, the Viking raids were often seen as a divine punishment, and Alfred may have wished to revive religious awe in order to appease God's wrath.
This revival entailed the recruitment of clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to enhance the tenor of the court and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth; and an attempt to require literacy in those who held offices of authority.
There was also a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin works the king deemed "most necessary for all men to know"; the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house, with a genealogy that stretched back to Adam, thus giving the West Saxon kings a biblical ancestry.
Very little is known of the church under Alfred. The Danish attacks had been particularly damaging to the monasteries. Although Alfred founded monasteries at Athelney and Shaftesbury, these were the first new monastic houses in Wessex since the beginning of the eighth century.
Alfred undertook no systematic reform of ecclesiastical institutions or religious practices in Wessex. For him, the key to the kingdom's spiritual revival was to appoint pious, learned, and trustworthy bishops and abbots. As king, he saw himself as responsible for both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his subjects.
He was equally comfortable distributing his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care to his bishops so that they might better train and supervise priests and using those same bishops as royal officials and judges.
Nor did his piety prevent him from expropriating strategically sited church lands, especially estates along the border with the Danelaw, and transferring them to royal thegns and officials who could better defend them against Viking attacks.
The Danish raids had a devastating effect on learning in England. Alfred lamented that "learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English or even translate a single letter from Latin into English".
Manuscript production in England dropped off precipitously around the 860s when the Viking invasions began in earnest, not to be revived until the end of the century. Numerous Anglo-Saxon manuscripts burnt up along with the churches that housed them.
Following the example of Charlemagne, Alfred established a court school for the education of his own children, those of the nobility, and a good many of lesser birth. There they studied books in both English and Latin.
He recruited scholars from the Continent and from Britain to aid in the revival of Christian learning in Wessex and to provide the king personal instruction. Believing that without Christian wisdom there can be neither prosperity nor success in war, Alfred aimed "to set to learning all free-born young men who have the means to apply themselves to it".
Conscious of the decay of Latin literacy in his realm Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English, with those wishing to advance to holy orders to continue their studies in Latin. There were few "books of wisdom" written in English.
Alfred sought to remedy this through an ambitious court-centred programme of translating into English the books he deemed "most necessary for all men to know".
The earliest work to be translated was the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a book greatly popular in the Middle Ages. The translation was undertaken at Alfred's command by Wærferth, Bishop of Worcester, with the king merely furnishing a preface.
Remarkably, Alfred translated four works himself: Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter. One might add to this list the translation, in Alfred's law code, of excerpts from the Vulgate Book of Exodus.
In the late 880s or early 890s, Alfred issued a law code consisting of his own laws, followed by a code issued by his late seventh-century predecessor King Ine of Wessex. Together these laws are arranged into 120 chapters.
About a fifth of the law code is taken up by Alfred's introduction which includes translations into English of the Ten Commandments, a few chapters from the Book of Exodus, and the Apostolic Letter from the Acts of the Apostles (15:23–29). The introduction may best be understood as Alfred's meditation upon the meaning of Christian law.
It traces the continuity between God's gift of law to Moses to Alfred's own issuance of law to the West Saxon people. By doing so, it linked the holy past to the historical present and represented Alfred's law-giving as a type of divine legislation.
In practical terms the most important law in the code may well have been the first: "We enjoin, what is most necessary, that each man keep carefully his oath and his pledge" which expresses a fundamental tenet of Anglo-Saxon law.
Alfred devoted considerable attention and thought to judicial matters. He insisted upon reviewing contested judgments made by his ealdormen and reeves and "would carefully look into nearly all the judgements which were passed [issued] in his absence anywhere in the realm to see whether they were just or unjust".
He was painstaking in his own judicial investigations and critical of royal officials who rendered unjust or unwise judgments. Alfred insisted that his judges be literate so that they could apply themselves "to the pursuit of wisdom". The failure to comply with this royal order was to be punished by loss of office.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, commissioned at the time of Alfred, was probably written to promote unification of England. It was possible that the document was designed this way so that it could be disseminated in Wales because Alfred had acquired overlordship of that country.
Alfred commissioned Bishop Asser to write his biography, which inevitably emphasised Alfred's positive aspects. Later medieval historians such as Geoffrey of Monmouth also reinforced Alfred's favourable image.
By the time of the Reformation, Alfred was seen as a pious Christian ruler who promoted the use of English rather than Latin, and so the translations that he commissioned were viewed as untainted by the later Roman Catholic influences of the Normans.
Consequently, it was writers of the 16th century who gave Alfred his epithet as "the Great", not any of Alfred's contemporaries. The epithet was retained by succeeding generations who admired Alfred's patriotism, his success against barbarism, his promotion of education, and the establishment of the rule of law.