King Alfred of England

Alfred was the youngest of the five sons of King Ęthelwulf. He was born at Wantage (in Oxfordshire) in 849 AD and as a child accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome. The journey across Europe was to have a profound effect on the young Saxon prince. The great city, with its ancient ruins and its repute as a centre of order and learning, so inspired Alfred that he even tried to teach himself to read from the beautifully illustrated Latin books.

In 870 Alfred aided his brother King Ęthelred in fighting against the Danish advance into East Anglia and other parts of central and southern England. In a succession of battles against the invaders, he soon became recognized as a fine tactician particularly at the Battle of Ashdown in 871 when he led the Saxon army in a crushing victory against the Danes.

When his brother died of wounds at the Battle of Merton in April 871, Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex. Whilst most of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms soon succumbed during the next five years, Alfred, through a combination of hard fighting and diplomacy, managed to keep Wessex free of Danish control.1 In these early years he was not always successful in keeping the Danes at bay and on several occasions had to resort to buying them off for a brief respite.

In 876 the Danes attacked Wessex again, and by 878 Alfred had been forced to retire to the stronghold of Athelney.2 Having rebuilt his strength, Alfred launched a counter offensive which resulted in a resounding victory against the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire.3 At the Peace of Wedmore (sometimes called the Treaty of Chippenham) in 878, Guthrum (d.890), the Danish leader, agreed to withdraw from Wessex and Mercia to the north and east of Watling Street.4 At Alfred's invitation the Danish King accepted baptism (he was the first of his race to do so) at Aller, and Alfred, according to his friend and scribe Bishop Asser, 'stood godfather, to him and raided him from the holy font'.

During the period of peace that followed, Alfred reformed and improved his military organization. To overcome the tendency of his peasant militia to disperse to their farms after a few weeks of campaigning, he divided his levies (Fyrds) into two halves, each taking it in turn to serve in wartime until relieved by the other. To strengthen the Fyrd he fostered the growth of a fighting aristocracy by offering larger freeholders the rights to thaneship and its privileges in return for regular military service. By this means Alfred was able to create a Corps d'elite of professional armoured horsemen, each member of which had to serve one month in arms for every two that were at home. In addition, he began to construct 'burghs' throughout the kingdom as a system of fortified defensive strong points. London, formerly within the Mercian border, was captured by Alfred in 886 (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that 'all the English people submitted to him, except those who were in captivity to the Danes') and thus Alfred could be, in some respects, considered the first king of England.

Yet Alfred's true greatness lay not in war, but in peace. After two generations of warfare England lay ruined, her farms wasted, her monasteries and schools burnt, and the people driven into ignorance. There was hardly a clerk in Wessex at the start of his reign that could read the Latin of the services he attended. Alfred set himself the task of rebuilding and teaching the people. He brought across foreign scholars and craftsmen from every country in Christendom, rebuilding the ruined monasteries and convents and establishing new ones at Athelney and Shaftesbury. He decreed that 'all the sons of freemen' be instructed by the bishops 'who have the means to undertake it should be set to learning English letters, and such as are fit for a more advanced education and are intended for high office should be taught Latin also'. Bishop Asser recorded that 'to see the Earlormen, who were almost all illiterate from infancy, and the Reeves and other officials learning how to read, preferred this unaccustomed and laborious activity to the prospect of losing the exercise of their power'.

The modest and conscientious Alfred taught himself before teaching others. He worked with his craftsmen, helping to design houses and even inventing a candle clock and a reading lantern. He taught himself to read Latin and even on campaign would have the learned works read loud to him at every spare moment. He encouraged the translation of many scholarly works from the Latin (some of which he translated himself), including Bedes' Ecclesiastical History, St Augustine's Soliloquies, Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy, Gregory's Pastoral Care, and Orosius' History of the World. Alfred inserted into the last of these chapters of his own to bring it up to date with the latest geographical discoveries of his age, for although Alfred had fought the Danes constantly for much of his reign, he had a grudging admiration for their seamanship (one such example being the account of the old Norse sea captain, Othere's voyage around the North Cape into the White sea).

Alfred's talents were utilized in other ways too. He introduced a new legal code and was the patron for the writing of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c.891).5 He is also popularly credited as being the founder of the Royal Navy (893); a fleet of improved ships manned by Frisians, which on several occasions successfully challenged the Danes at sea. Although his ships could not be expected to defeat the full might of the Vikings, during their first year his sailors would destroy more than twenty pirate ships and on one occasion the Saxon fleet caught sixteen Danish galleys at the mouth of the Suffolk Stour and captured them all.

An invasion of Kent by a new force of Danes in 884 led to a revolt by the East Anglian Danes, but the system of burghs proved to be too strong for the Danes, and the revolt was successfully suppressed by 886. The final foreign invasion (892-96) also met with a similar lack of success and from then on Alfred's strengthened navy was able to prevent fresh incursions.

Alfred died in 26 October 899 (nine years after Guthrum, his old adversary and godson) and was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder. Because of Alfred's work the kingdom endured. Alfred left no bitterness to be avenged after his death. He did not, like Charlemagne, massacre his prisoners, nor like the Greek emperor, rule by terror. Alfred's legacy would ultimately be a united English people, and his nomenclature of 'The Great' was richly deserved.

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Endnotes

  • 1 In 874 The Danes capture Repton, the Capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Disheartened by his failure to resist the Danes, King Burgred of Mercia fled into exile to Rome. The Danish army would spend the winter at Repton and in the spring of 875 the Norse leader Halfdan returned to York, where a Danish kingdom was established in 876, whilst Guthrum and the other leaders commenced a march on Cambridge in East Anglia.

  • 2 The Isle of Athelney was an area of firm ground in marshland near Taunton in Somerset. It was the headquarters of Alfred the Great in 878, whilst he was in hiding from the Danes. The legend of his burning the cakes is set here and is based on a favorite tale that Alfred would narrate to his friend in later life.

  • 3 Fought on the 5th May 878, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, defeated the Danish forces of Guthrum at the Battle of Edington (The story tells that Alfred launched his men in a dense column in a surprise attack on the Danes whilst his brother, King Ęthelred was at prayer). The site of Edington is 4 miles (6 km) east of Westbury in Wiltshire. A chalk white horse on the downs nearby is said to commemorate Alfred's victory. The battle was such a decisive one that Alfred was able to conclude favorable terms at the peace of Wedmore.

  • 4 Watling Street is the Roman road that runs from London to Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, in central England. Its name derives from Waetlingacaester, the Anglo-Saxon name for the town of St Albans, through which it passed. Wedmore is a village in Somerset 5 miles (8 km) northwest of Glastonbury.

  • 5 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are a history of England from the Roman invasion to the 11th century, consisting of a series of chronicles written in Old English by monks. The Chronicle was begun during the 9th century (during the reign of King Alfred), and was continued by others until 1154. This unique record of early English history is comprised of seven different manuscripts. It also demonstrates the development of Old English prose. In 1154 Middle English superseded Old English.

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Works Cited

  • Bryant, Arthur. Maker of the Realm. Fontana/Collins, 1953. Chapter 4 ‘Alfred’.