Alfred the Great

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); Military People; Monarchs of Great Britain

Alfred the Great
King of the Anglo-Saxons (more...)
Statue of Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire
Statue of Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire
Reign 23 April 871 — 26 October 899
Predecessor Ethelred of Wessex
Successor Edward the Elder
Spouse Ealhswith ( 852 — 905)
Edward the Elder
Full name
Ælfrēd of Wessex
Royal house House of Wessex
Father Ethelwulf of Wessex
Mother Osburga
Born c. 849
Wantage, Berkshire
Died 26 October 899
Burial c. 1100

Alfred (also Ælfred from the Old English: Ælfrēd) (c. 849 – 26 October 899) was king of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899. Alfred is noted for his defence of the kingdom against the Danish Vikings, becoming the only English King to be awarded the epithet 'the Great' (although not English, Canute the Great was another King of England given this title by the Danes). Alfred was the first King of the West Saxons to style himself ' King of the Anglo-Saxons'. Details of his life are discussed in a work by the Welsh scholar, Asser. A learned man, Alfred encouraged education and improved the kingdom's law system.

In 2002, he was ranked 14th in the 100 Greatest Britons poll.


Alfred was born sometime between 847 and 849 at Wantage in the present-day ceremonial county of Oxfordshire (though historically speaking in the historic county of Berkshire). He was the fifth and youngest son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex, by his first wife, Osburga.

King Alfred was the son of king Ethelwulf, who was the son of Egbert, who was the son of Elmund, was the son of Eafa, who was the son of Eoppa. The Life of King Alfred

At five years of age, Alfred is said to have been sent to Rome where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV who "anointed him as king." Victorian writers interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his ultimate succession to the throne of Wessex. However, this coronation could not have been foreseen at the time, since Alfred had three living elder brothers. A letter of Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a 'consul' a misinterpretation of this investiture, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion. It may also be based on Alfred later having accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome and spending some time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, around 854– 855. In 858, Ethelwulf died and Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred's brothers in succession.

Asser tells the story about how as a child Alfred's mother offered a volume of Anglo Saxon poetry to the first of her children able to memorize it. This story may be true, or it may be a myth designed to illustrate the young Alfred's love of learning.

Royal prince and military commander

During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, Ethelbald and Ethelbert, Alfred is not mentioned. However, with the accession of the third brother, Ethelred I, in 866, the public life of Alfred began. It is during this period that Asser applies to him the unique title of 'secundarius,' which may indicate a position akin to that of the Celtic tanist, a recognized successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. It is possible that this arrangement was sanctioned by the Witenagemot, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Ethelred fall in battle. The arrangement of crowning a successor as diarch is well-known among Germanic tribes, such as the Swedes and Franks, with whom the Anglo-Saxons had close ties.

In 868, Alfred, fighting beside his brother Ethelred, unsuccessfully attempted to keep the invading Danes out of the adjoining kingdom of Mercia. For nearly two years, Wessex itself was spared attacks. However, at the end of 870, the Danes arrived in his home land. The year that followed has been called "Alfred's year of battles". Nine general engagements were fought with varying fortunes, though the place and date of two of the battles have not been recorded. In Berkshire, a successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield, on 31 December 870, was followed by a severe defeat at the Siege and Battle of Reading, on 5 January 871, and then, four days later, a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Alfred is particularly credited with the success of this latter conflict. However, later that month, on 22 January, the English were again defeated at Basing and, on the following 22 March at 'Merton' (perhaps Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset). Two unidentified battles may also have occurred in between.

King of war

In April 871, King Ethelred died, most probably from wounds received at the Battle of Merton. Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, despite the fact that Ethelred left two young sons. Although contemporary turmoil meant the accession of Alfred — an adult with military experience and patronage resources — over his nephews went unchallenged, he remained obliged to secure their property rights. While he was busy with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the English in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May. Following this, peace was made and, for the next five years, the Danes were occupied in other parts of England. However, in 876, under their new leader, Guthrum, the enemy slipped past the English army and attacked Wareham in Dorset. From there, early in 877, and under the pretext of talks, they moved westwards and took Exeter in Devon. There, Alfred blockaded them and, a relieving fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to submit. They withdrew to Mercia, but, in January 878, made a sudden attack on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas, "and most of the people they reduced, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe" ( Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

Statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester
Statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester

A popular legend tells how, when he first fled to the Somerset Levels, Alfred was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidentally let the cakes burn and was taken to task by the woman upon her return. Upon realizing the king's identity, the woman apologised profusely, but Alfred insisted that he was the one who needed to apologise. From his fort at Athelney, a marshy island near North Petherton, Alfred was able to mount an effective resistance movement while rallying the local militia from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.

Another story relates how Alfred disguised himself as a minstrel in order to gain entry to Guthrum's camp and discover his plans. This supposedly led to the Battle of Edington, near Westbury in Wiltshire. The result was a decisive victory for Alfred. The Danes submitted and, according to Asser, Guthrum, and twenty-nine of his chief men, received baptism when they signed the Treaty of Wedmore. As a result, England became split in two: the south-western half kept by the Saxons and the north-eastern half including London, thence known as the Danelaw, by the Vikings. By the following year ( 879), not only Wessex, but also Mercia, west of Watling Street, was cleared of the invaders.

The tide had turned. For the next few years there was peace, the Danes being kept busy in Europe. A landing in Kent in 884 or 885 close to Plucks Gutter, though successfully repelled, encouraged the East Anglian Danes to rise up. The measures taken by Alfred to repress this uprising culminated in the taking of London in 885 or 886, and an agreement was reached between Alfred and Guthrum, known as the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. Once more, for a time, there was a lull, but in the autumn of 892 or 893, the Danes attacked again. Finding their position in Europe somewhat precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. They entrenched themselves, the larger body at Appledore, Kent, and the lesser, under Haesten, at Milton also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonization. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from where he could observe both forces. While he was in talks with Haesten, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck north-westwards. They were overtaken by Alfred's eldest son, Edward, and defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They were obliged to take refuge on an island in the Hertfordshire Colne, where they were blockaded and ultimately compelled to submit. The force fell back on Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, coalesced with Haesten's force at Shoebury.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed stronghold on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and raised the Siege of Exeter. The fate of the other place is not recorded. Meanwhile the force under Haesten set out to march up the Thames Valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset, and made to head off to the north-west, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington. Some identify this with Buttington Tump at the mouth of the Wye River, others with Buttington near Welshpool. An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. Those who escaped retreated to Shoebury. Then 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 neighbourhood. Early in 894 (or 895), want of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of this year and early in 895 (or 896), the Danes drew their ships up the Thames and Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles above London. A direct attack on the Danish lines failed, but later in the year, Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river so as to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realised that they were out-manoeuvred. They struck off north-westwards and wintered at Bridgenorth. The next year, 896 (or 897), they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia. Those who had no connections in England withdrew to the Continent. The long campaign was over.'..


After the dispersal of the Danish invaders, Alfred turned his attention to the increase of the royal navy, partly to repress the ravages of the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes on the coasts of Wessex, partly to prevent the landing of fresh invaders. This is not, as often asserted, the beginning of the English navy. There had been earlier naval operations under Alfred. One naval engagement was certainly fought under Aethelwulf in 851, and earlier ones, possibly in 833 and 840. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however, does credit Alfred with the construction of a new type of ship, built according to the king's own designs, "swifter, steadier and also higher/more responsive (hierran) than the others". However, these new ships do not seem to have been a great success, as we hear of them grounding in action and foundering in a storm. Nevertheless both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy claim Alfred as the founder of their traditions. The first vessel ever commissioned into the Continental Navy, precursor to the United States Navy, was named the Alfred.

Alfred's main fighting force, the fyrd, was separated into two, "so that there was always half at home and half out" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). The level of organisation required to mobilise his large army in two shifts, of which one was feeding the other, must have been considerable. The complexity which Alfred's administration had attained by 892 is demonstrated by a reasonably reliable charter whose witness list includes a thesaurius, cellararius and pincerna—treasurer, food-keeper and butler. Despite the irritation which Alfred must have felt in 893, when one division, which had "completed their call-up (stemn)", gave up the siege of a Danish army just as Alfred was moving to relieve them, this system seems to have worked remarkably well on the whole.

One of the weaknesses of pre-Alfredian defences had been that, in the absence of a standing army, fortresses were largely left unoccupied, making it very possible for a Viking force to quickly secure a strong strategic position. Alfred substantially upgraded the state of the defences of Wessex, by erecting fortified burhs (or boroughs) throughout the kingdom. During the systematic excavation of at least four of these (at Wareham, Cricklade, Lydford and Wallingford]) it has been demonstrated that "in every case the rampart associated by the excavators with the borough of the Alfredian period was the primary defence on the site" (Brooks). The obligations for the upkeep and defence of these and many other sites, with permanent garrisons, are further documented in surviving transcripts of the administrative manuscript known as the Burghal Hidage. Dating from, at least, within 20 years of Alfred's death, if not actually from his reign, it almost certainly reflects Alfredian policy. Comparison of town plans for Wallingford and Wareham with that of Winchester, shows "that they were laid out in the same scheme" (Wormald). Thus supporting the proposition that these newly established burhs were also planned as centres of habitation and trade as well as a place of safety in moments of immediate danger. Thereafter, the English population and its wealth was drawn into such towns where it was not only safer from Viking soldiers, but also taxable by the King.

Alfred is thus credited with a significant degree of civil reorganization, especially in the districts ravaged by the Danes. Even if one rejects the thesis crediting the 'Burghal Hidage' to Alfred, what is undeniable is that, in the parts of Mercia acquired by Alfred from the Vikings, the shire system seems now to have been introduced for the first time. This is probably what prompted the legend that Alfred was the inventor of shires, hundreds and tithings. Alfred's care for the administration of justice is testified both by history and legend; and he has gained the popular title 'protector of the poor'. Of the actions of the Witangemot, we do not hear very much under Alfred. He was certainly anxious to respect its rights, but both the circumstances of the time and the character of the king would have tended to throw more power into his hands. The legislation of Alfred probably belongs to the later part of the reign, after the pressure of the Danes had relaxed. He also paid attention to the country's finances, though details are lacking.

Foreign relations

Asser speaks grandiosely of Alfred's relations with foreign powers, but little definite information is available. His interest in foreign countries is shown by the insertions which he made in his translation of Orosius. He certainly corresponded with Elias III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and possibly sent a mission to India. Contact was also made with the Caliph in Baghdad. Embassies to Rome conveying the English alms to the Pope were fairly frequent. Around 890, Wulfstan of Haithabu undertook a journey from Haithabu on Jutland along the Baltic Sea to the Prussian trading town of Truso. Alfred ensured he reported to him details of his trip.

Alfred's relations to the Celtic princes in the western half of Britain are clearer. Comparatively early in his reign, according to Asser, the southern Welsh princes, owing to the pressure on them of North Wales and Mercia, commended themselves to Alfred. Later in the reign the North Welsh followed their example, and the latter co-operated with the English in the campaign of 893 (or 894). That Alfred sent alms to Irish as well as to European monasteries may be taken on Asser's authority. The visit of the three pilgrim 'Scots' (i.e., Irish) to Alfred in 891 is undoubtedly authentic. The story that he himself in his childhood was sent to Ireland to be healed by Saint Modwenna, though mythical, may show Alfred's interest in that island.

Law: Code of Alfred, Doom book

Alfred the Great’s most enduring work was his legal Code, reconciling the long established laws of the Christian kingdoms of Kent, Mercia and Wessex. These formed Alfred’s ‘’‘Deemings’‘’ or Book of ‘’‘Dooms’‘’ (Book of Laws). See: Doom book or the Code of Alfred. Sir Winston Churchill observed that Alfred blended these with the Mosaic Code, the Christian principles of Celto-Brythonic Law and old Germanic customs. Lee, F. N. traced the parallels between Alfred’s Code and the Mosaic Code. Churchill stated that Alfred’s Code was amplified by his successors and grew into the body of Customary Law administered by the Shire and The Hundred Courts. This led to the Charter of Liberties, Henry AD 1000. The Norman kings then undertook to respect this body of law under that title the "Laws of Edward the Confessor". Out of this emerged the Common Law which was re-confirmed in the Magna Carta of AD 1215.

Religion and culture

The history of the Church under Alfred is most obscure. The Danish inroads had tolled heavily upon it. The monasteries had been especial points of attack and, though Alfred founded two or three monasteries and brought foreign monks to England, there was no general revival of monasticism under him. To the ruin of learning and education wrought by the Danes, and the practical extinction of the knowledge of Latin even among the clergy, the preface to Alfred's translation into Old English of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care bears eloquent if not impartial witness. It was to remedy these evils that he established a court school, after the example of Charlemagne; for this he imported scholars like Grimbald and John the Saxon from Europe and Asser from South Wales; for this, above all, he put himself to school, and made the series of translations for the instruction of his clergy and people, most of which yet survive. These belong unquestionably to the later part of his reign, likely to the last four years, during which the chronicles are almost silent.

Apart from the lost Handboc or Encheiridion, which seems to have been merely a commonplace book kept by the king, the earliest work to be translated was the Dialogues of Gregory, a book greatly popular in the Middle Ages. In this case the translation was made by Alfred's great friend Werferth, Bishop of Worcester, the king merely furnishing a foreword. The next work to be undertaken was Gregory's Pastoral Care, especially for the good of the parish clergy. In this Alfred keeps very close to his original; but the introduction which he prefixed to it is one of the most interesting documents of the reign, or indeed of English history. The next two works taken in hand were historical, the Universal History of Orosius and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The priority should likely be given to the Orosius, but the point has been much debated. In the Orosius, by omissions and additions, Alfred so remodels his original as to produce an almost new work; in the Bede the author's text is closely stuck to, no additions being made, though most of the documents and some other less interesting matters are omitted. Of late years doubts have been raised as to Alfred's authorship of the Bede translation. But the sceptics cannot be regarded as having proved their point.

We come now to what is in many ways the most interesting of Alfred's works, his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, the most popular philosophical handbook of the Middle Ages. Here again Alfred deals very freely with his original and though the late Dr. G. Schepss showed that many of the additions to the text are to be traced not to Alfred himself, but to the glosses and commentaries which he used, still there is much in the work which is solely Alfred's and highly characteristic of his genius. It is in the Boethius that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: "My will was to live worthily as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works." The book has come down to us in two manuscripts only. In one of these the writing is prose, in the other a combination of prose and alliterating verse. The latter manuscript was severely damaged in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the authorship of the verse has been much disputed; but likely it also is by Alfred. In fact, he writes in the prelude that he first created a prose work and then used it as the basis for his poem, the Lays of Boethius, his crowning literary achievement. He spent a great deal of time working on these books, which he tells us he gradually wrote through the many stressful times of his reign to refresh his mind. Of the authenticity of the work as a whole there has never been any doubt.

The last of Alfred's works is one to which he gave the name Blostman, i.e., "Blooms" or Anthology. The first half is based mainly on the Soliloquies of St Augustine of Hippo, the remainder is drawn from various sources, and contains much that is Alfred's own and highly characteristic of him. The last words of it may be quoted; they form a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings. "Therefore he seems to me a very foolish man, and truly wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear."

Beside these works of Alfred's, the Saxon Chronicle almost certainly, and a Saxon Martyrology, of which fragments only exist, probably owe their inspiration to him. A prose version of the first fifty Psalms has been attributed to him; and the attribution, though not proved, is perfectly possible. Additionally, Alfred appears as a character in The Owl and the Nightingale, where his wisdom and skill with proverbs is attested. Additionally, The Proverbs of Alfred, which exists for us in a 13th century manuscript contains sayings that very likely have their origins partly with the king.

The Alfred jewel, discovered in Somerset in 1693, has long been associated with King Alfred because of its Old English inscription "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" (Alfred Ordered Me To Be Made). This relic, of unknown use, certainly dates from Alfred's reign but it is possibly just one of several that once existed. The inscription does little to clarify the identity of the central figure which has long been believed to depict God or Christ.


In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucill, who is called Ealdorman of the Gaini, the people from the Gainsborough region of Lincolnshire. She appears to have been the maternal granddaughter of a King of Mercia. They had five or six children together, including Edward the Elder, who succeeded his father as King of Wessex; Ethelfleda, who would become Queen of Mercia in her own right, and Aelfthryth (alias Elfrida) who married Baldwin II, Count of Flanders.

Every monarch of England and subsequently every monarch of Great Britain and the United Kingdom, with the exception of Canute, Harold Harefoot, Harthacanute, William the Conqueror (who married Alfred's great-granddaughter Matilda) and his adversary Harold II, down to and including Queen Elizabeth II (and her own descendants) is directly descended from Alfred.

Diagram based on the information found on Wikipedia
Diagram based on the information found on Wikipedia

Death and burial

Alfred died on 26 October 899. The actual year is not certain, but it was not necessarily 901 as stated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. How he died is unknown. He was originally buried temporarily in the Old Minster in Winchester, then moved to the New Minster (perhaps built especially to receive his body). When the New Minster moved to Hyde, a little north of the city, in 1110, the monks transferred to Hyde Abbey along with Alfred's body. His grave was apparently excavated during the building of a new prison in 1788 and the bones scattered. However, bones found on a similar site in the 1860s were also declared to be Alfred's and later buried in Hyde churchyard. Extensive excavations in 1999, revealed his grave-cut but no bodily remains.


He is regarded as a saint, with a feast day of October 26..

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