“I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works“
-Author’s note in Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy
Alfred (or “Aelfred) is the only king of England ever to be given the epithet “The Great.” He earned his moniker as a result of a fervent defense of the homeland against the invading Danes (or Vikings and Norsemen, “North Men” from Scandinavia), as well as his support for literacy, education, the arts, and architecture. Alfred is popularly the most celebrated of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and with good reason.
Alfred was the fifth and youngest son of King Aethelwulf of the House of Wessex, and he was clearly the favorite child. Bright, learned, well-traveled, and curious, Alfred lived a charmed life. He was known to have a keen mind from a young age -entirely memorizing books of poetry. In AD 855 he traveled to Rome with his father on a pilgrimage. They visited the court of Charles the Bald, of the Frankish King, and Alfred gained an appreciation for Charles’s grandfather, Charlemagne.
Alfred’s father, Aethelwulf died shortly after their return to Wessex in AD 858 and Alfred’s three older brothers each assumed the throne in succession (a fourth brother died before their father Aethelwulf’s death).
In the mid 9th century the Danes began to raid England. They were lured from their homes in present-day Denmark and Norway by the promise of riches strewn about the English isle in defenseless castles and monasteries. For many kingdoms, there was little time to prepare, however the kingdom of Wessex found a measure of success against the Danes. Alfred quickly learned the art of war alongside his brother Aethelred. The Danes began by raiding the coasts, including an infamous raid on Lindisfarne island, the seat of Christian culture in Northumbria. There they stole riches and torched buildings (“Viking” is a word that comes down to us meaning something akin to “pirate”). The monks of Lindisfarne carried away the bones of St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan, the Celtic patron saint of Northumbria and the founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne. However some of these same Vikings later returned to Northumbria from the cold shores of Denmark and Norway after finding the English soil and climate more hospitable. What began as wanton acts of piracy gradually became a process of invasion and settlement. Their newly acquired lands became known as Danelaw.
In 865-866 a “Great Army” arrived in East Anglia and overwhelmed the region. From there, they ventured north to York and took the city, thus conquering Northumbria. When an attempt to re-gain the city by King Aella had failed, he was captured and, according to legend, Aella was mercilessly tortured and executed in the hideously gruesome procedure known as the “blood eagle.” From the mid-860s onward, the Danes were dominant under the leadership of Ivar “The Boneless.” After conquering all surrounding kingdoms, the Danes eventually turned their gaze southwest to Wessex.
Meanwhile Alfred had married a Mercian noblewoman, Ealhswith in AD 867. Asser, Alfred’s medieval biographer, notes that Alfred suffered from some sort of affliction, perhaps what we might call a psycho-somatic illness. Asser writes that Alfred’s illness was particularly acute on the day of his wedding.
AD 871 became known as the ‘Year of Battles’ as the Danes and Wessex squared off. After the death of his elder brother Aethelred, Alfred assumed the throne in his early twenties. He came to power with a kingdom in chaos and under threat. Following an immediate string of disappointing losses to the Danes, young Alfred was forced to negotiate a peace for five years, but his battle with the Danes would continue for years to come. He paid them off with the “Danegold” and they “swore upon the holy ring” not to invade Wessex again -a foreboding act of treachery. The Danes retreated north divided their forces and the new Viking leader Guthrum led his forces back southward into Wessex territory. In this milieu Alfred became a skilled military leader, defending his burhs (or as we now know them as “burroughs”). He used a variety of tactics to starve out and terrorize the invading Danes, and he also built up the Wessex naval forces, hence Alfred is known as the father of the British navy (one of the earliest American naval vessels was also called the U.S.S. Alfred).
However, Alfred continued to suffer crushing losses as well as a surprise attack that put him on the run on the Twelfth Night Christmas holiday. Thus during the Christmas of AD 878, Alfred went incognito tailing Guthrum through Wessex while the Danes ventured deep into his kingdom. Alfred was forced to travel undercover ‘into the wilderness’ through the marshes as he fell back to Athelney. There is an old popular legend in which Alfred, dressed as a commoner, was taken in by a swineherd and while sitting pensively he was scolded by the lady of the house whose bread-cakes had started to burn.
Alfred was also a man of the people. In order to build up defenses against the Danes, he strengthened relationships with the surrounding shires (or what we today might call counties). Historically, Wessex was divided into five shires: Somerset, Devonshire, Wilshit, Dorset, and Hampshire. Each shire was governed with open-air juries led by ealdermen -a relic of the early Anglo-Saxon era.
From the egalitarian, ealderman-led communities of rural Wessex, Alfred was able to regather his forces and launch a final, all-out campaign against Guthrum and the Danes. The two armies met likely on a hill above Edington in AD 878 (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests they fought over a legendary ‘Stone of Egbert’) where a savage and bloody battle was fought for the soul of Wessex. Guthrum knew all that stood in the way of a Viking conquest of England was Alfred and his army, and the men of Wessex knew this was their last chance to fight for an independent kingdom. Hundreds of years later, mutilated bodies buried in the dirt were uncovered, revealing what must have been a harrowing day. The Battle of Edington, as it has come to be known, was the turning point in Alfred’s reign as king. After a score of latter victories, Alfred successfully muted the advance of the Norsemen, pushing them back to eastern England and redefining the borders.
The battle was an extraordinary success for Wessex. It unified Alfred’s leadership over his nobles, put the Danes on the run, and as part of Guthrum’s surrender, the Danes were forced to convert to Christianity. It was baptism by the sword. Alfred had succeeded where his predecessors had stalled. However despite the new peace agreement, Alfred was prepped for war. he built up his extensive fortifications throughout the burhs of Wessex, which successfully held off the Danes for years to come.
Alfred is known widely for his enlightened disposition -his advocacy for reading, writing, and learning. Despite latter day interpolations, and Asser’s enthusiastic but less-than-truthful picture of the king, Alfred only learned to read in early adulthood. However, he was a profound reformer and an advocate of an english renaissance in literacy education -perhaps drawing inspiration from Charlemagne before him. He built a new court school, in the manner of Charlemagne. He translated several Latin texts into Old English, including Pope Gregory the Great’s On Pastoral Care (a manual for clergy which he eagerly distributed to his bishops), Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s writings, and other Biblical texts, like the Latin Psalters. Alfred was also the patron of the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Alfred was great legal reformer, issuing a legal code (the Doom Book, or “book of laws”). At the outset of his laws, Alfred highlights several ancestral kings he bases his new Christian laws upon -Ine, Offa, and even Aethelbert. While his elder brother, Aethelred, was an inwardly pious leader, the flame of the intellect and the liberal arts took hold of Alfred’s mind. They were distinct in their approach to kingship.
After the defeat of the Danes at Edington, each of the fortified burhs grew into a rapidly urbanized marketplaces and communities under the direction of the king, and thus trade in Wessex flourished. The crown jewel of the burhs was London, formerly Londinium under the Romans, and Lundenwic under the rule of Offa, and Mercia, before it feel into the hands of the Vikings, but Alfred’s reclamation of the port city was a re-founding of sorts for this future capital.
Of Alfred’s general demeanor, Asser writes:
“Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour…[and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.“
— Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge translation of Asser’s Life of Alfred 1983, pp. 74–75
Alfred died on October 26, 899 at the age of either 50 or 51. He had five sons, including Edward “The Elder” who succeeded Alfred as king of Wessex. Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, would later unify the kingdoms under one single banner -he is sometimes considered the first king of England.
Finally, there is a controversy regarding Albert’s final resting place. He was buried at Hyde Abbey, a medieval Benedictine monastery in Winchester, the capital of Wessex (Alfred’s body was moved to the newly re-consecrated abbey during the reign of his son Edward “The Elder”). However, hundreds of years later King Henry VIII made the fateful decision to destroy many Catholic churches, monasteries, and abbeys throughout the land as part of his personal conflict with Catholicism. Hyde Abbey was unfortunately one of those churches that was destroyed. For over 250 years, the final resting place of Alfred and his son Edward was forgotten. Eventually, in the late 18th century, the county acquired the land where Hyde Abbey once stood with the hopes of constructing a prison. The future convicts were put to work digging the foundation of the new prison edifice. As the prisoners dug deeper, they likely destroyed the interred bones of Alfred, the greatest king of Anglo-Saxon England (there were reports among the prisoners of discovering gold and all manner of treasure beneath the surface).
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great. Asser was a monk of St. David’s.