ALFRED THE GREAT
Summary: King of the West Saxons and the monarch who began uniting the kingdoms of England
Date: Born: AD 849; Died: 26 October AD 899 (Reigned: AD 871 to 899)
Location: England, Europe (Kingdom of Wessex); buried in Winchester
Family: Father: King Æthelwulf; Mother: Osburh; Siblings: Aethelbald, Aethelberht, Aethelred and Æthelswith
- Introduction -
During the dawn of the Medieval Era, Anglo-Saxon Britain was divided into seven major kingdoms - Sussex, Essex, Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. By the 9th Century AD, the weaker kingdoms of the south and east Saxons (Sussex and Essex), and the kingdom of Kent had been overthrown and amalgamated into the four most powerful kingdoms. In the year AD 849, Aethelwulf, king of Wessex, had a son, Alfred.
Alfred was the youngest of five children and was fourth in line to the throne - behind his brothers Aethelbald, Aethelberht and Aethelred. When he was just four, Alfred completed a pilgrimage with his family to the glimmering city of Rome.
Although there was very little chance of him ever becoming king, Alfred’s caring mother still invested much time into the young boy and had a great influence over his education. Interestingly, however, Alfred could not even read until his teenage years when his mother offered a book to whoever could read it first. Alfred studied so diligently that he easily won the competition.
- Liberating England -
For many years, Danish raiders from the North had pillaged the shores of eastern Britain, but, by Alfred’s time, they had grown much bolder. Even the strength of the Northumbrian army, charged with protecting the east coast, could not hold back the invaders and by the 850s the Danes had taken much Northumbrian territory.
Even now, the men from the north desired more land and, in 865, without warning, they struck. Danish forces marched on East Anglia with a force greater than ever before and by 866 they had secured the prominent town of York in southern Northumbria.
By now it was too late for the English kingdoms to unite. In 867, they killed the Northumbrian kings, completing their conquest of the eastern region. By 868, even Mercia was weak and faltering under constant, vicious attacks. News arrived in 869 that the East Angles were defeated.
Responding quickly and in desperation, Alfred, by that time nineteen, and his brother, King Aethelred, mobilized the West Saxon forces. With no help available from the northern kingdoms, the army of Wessex met the Danes at a place called Reading. They were severely overrun.
Many long years later after a devastating betrayal by the Mercians, a handful of victories and many long years on the run, that Alfred, now king of what was left of Wessex, finally defeated the Danes in 878. It was a decisive victory. A few years later, Guthrum, the Danish leader, was baptised and final peace was made. Preceding the treaty, Alfred began diplomatically, strategically and militarily strengthening his kingdom. By the 890s, people were even calling Alfred the “King of England”. He had successfully united the English and ruled wisely until his death in AD 899.
- Name -
Interestingly, at a time when military and physical strength in men were valued above all else, Alfred was brought up with a broader set of skills. He was an able administrator who absolutely loved education and although a late learner, highly valued literary skills.
During his reign, Alfred established a solid justice system based on Biblical ethics and the Ten Commandments - the same values that have been the cornerstone of Western Culture for centuries. Being a lover of education, Alfred also established a system of schools, giving many children the opportunity to increase their learning.
Although highly recognised for his educational and literary achievements, Alfred also built up a powerful military defence force in England. He reformed the British Navy, which would never again be disbanded, and created a sophisticated fortress network throughout the south of England. While he would only later be called “Alfred the Great”, even during his lifetime people began to recognise him as a model monarch and as the king who had finally unified a divided England.
1. Alfred | Biography & Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-king-of-Wessex
2. Alfred 'The Great' (r. 871-899). (2016, March 11). Retrieved from https://www.royal.uk/alfred-great-r-871-899
3. Alfred the Great: The Most Perfect Man in History? | History Today. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/barbara-yorke/alfred-great-most-perfect-man-history
Researched and Written By
A fascinating leader, Alfred was the only English ruler to ever receive the title 'great'. Today, he is considered a model monarch and a man of impressive virtue.