King of the Anglo-Saxons: Alfred the Great

Æthelwulf, King of Wessex

Æthelwulf, King of Wessex

Alfred the Great was the King of Wessex in Britain from 871 to 899 CE, and earned the title “King of the Anglo-Saxons” for his military victories over the Vikings and successful negotiations with them. His biographer, Asser, who died around 909 CE, played a significant role in making him the most famous Anglo-Saxon king in British history. The title “the great” was not given to Alfred during his lifetime, but was later applied as the importance of his reign and Asser’s work became better understood. Despite this, Alfred was seen as a heroic leader during his rule and was highly respected by his subjects for his reforms in the legal and educational systems, as well as his leadership in facing the Viking threat.

Alfred’s military and administrative skills helped to stabilize Britain after a long period of Viking raids and warfare. He was responsible for translating classical works from Latin to English, establishing public schools, modernizing the military, and revising and expanding the legal code. Later historians, especially during the Victorian era, viewed him as the ideal king of the Middle Ages due to his piety, justice, and noble vision for the future of his people.

The Vikings began conducting raids on Britain in 793 CE and by the time of Alfred’s reign, they had colonized the entire country, from Northumbria to Mercia, with increasing attacks on Wessex. After defeating the Viking leader Guthrum at the Battle of Eddington in 878 CE, Alfred was able to negotiate a peace deal that involved the Christianization of Guthrum and his closest advisors, bridging the religious divide between the two groups. While this victory did not completely eliminate Viking raids in Britain or drive them back to Scandinavia, it marked the start of a more peaceful period that allowed Alfred to implement and establish his reforms.

 

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The Anglo-Saxons A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris
The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris

Alfred's Youth and Rise to Leadership

Alfred, the youngest of five children, was born in 849 CE as the son of King Aethelwulf and Osburh. At the young age of four, his father sent him on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he received confirmation in the faith from the Pope. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred was even anointed king during his pilgrimage. However, this anointing ceremony is considered unlikely due to the fact that Alfred was the youngest of five siblings and his older brothers, Aethelbald, Aethelbert, and Aethelred, would have been in line to succeed the throne before him. This raises questions about the veracity of the anointing ceremony mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The impact of Alfred’s trip to Rome on his personality appears to have been less significant than his mother’s. In Asser’s Life of King Alfred, Alfred’s mother, Osburh, is portrayed as religious and intelligent and is credited with influencing Alfred’s lifelong love of learning and shaping his future achievements.

Although he learned poetry through recitation and repetition, he was unable to read until he was a teenager and couldn’t read Latin, the language in which most significant works were written.

Despite low expectations for him as a warrior-king due to his love of books and frequent illness, Alfred demonstrated his leadership skills in the battle between 865-871 CE, both alongside his brother and after his brother’s death.

 

The Battle at Reading and Ashdown

Illustration of the Battle of Ashdown The image appears on the frontispiece of Hughes, T in 1859

Illustration of the Battle of Ashdown The image appears on the frontispiece of Hughes, T in 1859

The Great Army of Vikings, under the leadership of Halfdane and Ivar the Boneless, was a formidable force that caused much destruction in their path. They started their invasion of East Anglia in 865 CE, and their power was such that they easily defeated any resistance that came their way. The next year, in 866 CE, they captured the city of York and consolidated their control over the region by assassinating the Northumbrian kings, Osbert and Aelle, in 867 CE. The Great Army continued to wreak havoc across Mercia in 868 CE, and by 869 CE, they had completely conquered East Anglia.

In 870 CE, the Great Army received reinforcements from Scandinavia, which only made them stronger. Halfdane led his forces to attack Wallingford and Mercia, and then advanced into Wessex the following year. Aethelred and Alfred were the leaders of the opposing forces, and they assembled their troops to engage the Vikings in battle at Reading. However, the battle did not go well for Aethelred and Alfred, and they suffered a defeat. But, they did not give up and four days later, they attacked the Viking army at Ashdown with all their strength and determination.

The Battle of Ashdown in January 871 CE was a defining moment for Alfred. It showcased his military leadership skills, his ability to think clearly and act decisively in a crisis situation. According to the account of Asser, Alfred and Aethelred were to command different parts of the army, but Aethelred never took charge. When Alfred arrived on the battlefield, he found Aethelred still praying, and the Vikings were on high ground with fortified defenses. Despite the odds, Alfred was compelled to assume command of the entire army and lead the assault.

It is worth noting that Asser’s account of the Battle of Ashdown has been disputed by some sources, who credit Aethelred with full participation in the conflict. However, regardless of whose account is considered accurate, it is clear that the Battle of Ashdown was a critical moment in Alfred’s career, and it demonstrated his bravery and leadership skills in the face of adversity.

After Childeric I’s death, his son Clovis I became the king of the Franks. Clovis continued the work of his father, strengthening his power and expanding Frankish territory. He is remembered as one of the most important figures in early medieval European history, as he was the first king of the Franks to unite all of the Frankish tribes under one ruler.

Whether his brother was implicated or not, Alfred emerged as the victor in the battle against the Vikings and forced them to retreat due to his effective leadership of the army. The brothers continued to chase the Vikings and confronted them at Basing, where they experienced defeat. In April, Aethelred passed away, leaving Alfred as the new king. At the Second Battle of Wilton, where he commanded the army against the Vikings, Alfred initially demonstrated his remarkable leadership skills. He successfully broke through the Viking lines and sent them running, but his army was too small to continue the pursuit. The Vikings regrouped and launched a counterattack, eventually overpowering the West Saxons and seizing control of the battlefield. Alfred was left with no other option but to pay a substantial sum to the Viking leaders to get them to leave Wessex.

For the next few years, Alfred was constantly preparing his army to defend his kingdom. The payment to Halfdane only temporarily secured Wessex, as the Vikings were not obliged to leave Britain. They strengthened their power in Northumbria, reached a peace agreement with the Mercians, and could pose a threat to Wessex’s independence at any given moment. In 875 CE, the Vikings established their kingdom with a new Norse warlord, Guthrum, at the helm. In 876 CE, Alfred signed a peace treaty with Guthrum, handing over hostages and the Vikings pledged to leave Wessex alone. However, the Vikings broke the treaty by killing the hostages, attacking, and then retreating to Exeter for the winter. Alfred rallied his forces and blocked the Viking fleet at Devon, forcing them to retreat to Mercia. But by 877 CE, the Vikings returned to the borders and in early 878 CE, they took control of Chippenham. Alfred was caught off guard by the surprise attack on Chippenham, which occurred during the Christmas season while he was celebrating the holiday in the area.

 

The Battle of Eddington

During his brief stint in hiding from the Viking invaders, Alfred is reported to have employed a network of loyal spies and supporters to prepare for a counterattack. According to Asser, by the end of March in 878 CE, Alfred had already begun engaging in successful guerrilla warfare against the Danes. By May, he had collected a substantial army to confront the Vikings in battle. Alfred established a fortress at Athelney as his central base of operations from which he could recruit men and launch raids.

In early May, Alfred managed to draw the Vikings out of their stronghold in Eddington and defeat them by utilizing the shield wall strategy. The Wessex warriors, in tight formations, withstood the Viking assault before launching a counterattack. The Vikings retreated and fortified their stronghold, but Alfred destroyed all crops in the surrounding area, killed any men he found outside, and took their livestock. After two weeks of siege, the Vikings were forced to surrender with whatever provisions they had left and agreed to Alfred’s terms, including the Christian baptism of their leader, Guthrum, and his chieftains, the provision of hostages as a guarantee of their obedience, and their departure from Wessex.

Despite the temporary security in Wessex, there is limited evidence that Alfred believed the defeat of the Vikings at Eddington would solve all of his problems with them.

 

England in the late ninth century
England in the late ninth century

The Implementation of Reforms in Alfred's Kingdom

Portrait of Alfred the Great

Portrait of Alfred the Great

The widespread belief that the Viking raids were a result of divine punishment, which originated after the Lindisfarne invasion in 793 CE, was likely shared by King Alfred.
 
After the Battle of Eddington, he focused on resolving the root causes of the raids, which he believed to be a shortage of education, insufficient clerical training, and a lack of unity in his kingdom. He began implementing reforms in 880 CE, starting with the reconstruction and improvement of cities and towns that had been damaged during the Viking Wars. To prevent them from being destroyed again, he made changes to the military of his kingdom and the organization of its communities.
 
He created the Burghul System, a network of fortified villages connected by upgraded highways throughout his empire, which was based on the defensive techniques and strategies he learned from the Carolingian monarchs of France, who had faced their own Viking issues for generations. These changes were part of Alfred’s overall plan to reorganize the network of towns and cities in his kingdom, which he implemented in the early 880s.

During this time, the defense of each burh, or fortified settlement, required a garrison of soldiers who needed to be paid. In order to fund these troops, Alfred revised the tax laws to be based on the harvest yield of each person’s land. The number of soldiers posted in a burh was determined based on the productivity of the territory. The locations of the burhs were strategically chosen so that any garrison could come to the aid of another within a day’s journey.

Along with securing the defense of his kingdom, King Alfred also sought to revive Latin learning and culture. He brought in scholars and clergy from Wales and France to the court and established public schools where children could learn to read in English and those training for the priesthood could learn Latin. Asser, a scholar from Wales, came to the court of King Alfred to serve as his personal instructor. Alfred himself became an example for his subjects by translating Latin texts into English.

It is important to note that this was not a period of peace and calm for King Alfred. He was actively involved in foreign policy decisions and faced constant challenges from the Vikings who had established themselves in the Danelaw territory of Northumbria and continued to make raids into other territories. Despite these difficulties, King Alfred managed to seize control of Mercia in the early 880s.

 

Capture of London and Unity of England

In 886 CE, Alfred achieved a significant victory when he captured London and all the English who were not under Danish rule acknowledged him as their king. Although there may have been a requirement for the citizens or landowners to make a formal pledge of loyalty to the monarch, it is clear that Alfred brought unity to Britain under his reign. According to Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred’s victory in London marked the beginning of a shared identity and common cause among the English, led by a single leader. As a result, Alfred became the ruler over all of England that was not under Danish control.

Soon after capturing London, Alfred formed an alliance with Mercia by arranging a marriage between his daughter Aethelflaed and the earl of Mercia, Aethelred II. By 887 CE, their names appeared together on land charters, indicating they were married. Aethelflaed, as the sole ruler and Lady of Mercia, continued Alfred’s mission alongside her husband.

Alfred’s rule as the king of England was characterized by several significant initiatives, including the expansion and modernization of the fleet, which played a crucial role in securing England’s coastal defense. He also created a code of law that was grounded in the Bible and the Ten Commandments, highlighting the superiority of lordship and reflecting his belief that the king’s rule was divine and that he should govern with justice for the benefit of his people. Despite being illiterate in his early years, Alfred translated several works of literature and produced a law code that had a positive impact on him. He is remembered for converting Britain from a collection of kingdoms into a nation by the time of his death in 899 CE.

Despite his popularity and successes, Alfred was not widely revered during his lifetime due to the ongoing Viking assaults. It was only in the 17th century when Sir John Shakespeare published “The Life of King Alfred” that his legacy as a great English monarch and the father of the British Navy gained recognition. During the Victorian Era, he was further celebrated and revered as the founder of the British Empire and the creator of the infrastructure that laid the foundation for future changes in England.

Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed of Mercia and later his grandson Aethelstan continued his legacy by furthering educational reforms, continuing the struggle against the Vikings, and creating the Burghal System. Aethelstan eventually became the first king of a unified England, carrying on his grandfather’s heritage and strengthening the country’s position. In conclusion, Alfred’s reign and initiatives had a profound impact on England and its future, and his legacy continues to shape the country even today.

 

Death and Burial

Alfred Jewel found at the Ashmolean, Oxford, UK

Alfred Jewel found at the Ashmolean, Oxford, UK

King Alfred the Great of England died on October 26, 899 at the age of 50 or 51, but the exact cause of his death remains a mystery. Throughout his life, he suffered from a debilitating illness, which was described in detail by his biographer, Asser. Modern doctors have analyzed Asser’s account and believe that Alfred may have had either Crohn’s disease or hemorrhoids. Unfortunately, his grandson King Eadred also suffered from a similar illness.

After Alfred’s death, he was temporarily buried with his wife Ealhswith and son Edward the Elder at the Old Minster in Winchester. Before his passing, Alfred had commissioned the construction of the New Minster, which he hoped would serve as a tomb for him and his family. Four years later, Alfred’s body was exhumed and relocated to the New Minster, where it stayed for 211 years.

In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England and many Anglo-Saxon abbeys were destroyed and replaced with Norman cathedrals. The New Minster Abbey, where Alfred was buried, was one of these abbeys, so the monks relocated his body to Hyde Abbey. However, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, many Roman Catholic churches were destroyed, including Hyde Abbey. Alfred’s tomb was disturbed for the third time when the abbey was dissolved in 1538 and the site was used as a quarry. Despite these disturbances, the graves containing Alfred and his family remained undisturbed until 1788, when the county bought the land to build a town jail.

Before the construction of the jail, the site where it would eventually be built had to be prepared for development. This task was given to prisoners who would later be incarcerated at the jail. During the excavation process, the convicts uncovered the stone coffins of Alfred and his family while digging the foundation trenches. The stone coffins were shattered and the lead lining was sold for two guineas, while the bones were dispersed into the surrounding countryside.

Between 1846 and 1850, the jail was disassembled and no further excavations were conducted until 1866 and 1897. In 1866, amateur archaeologist John Mellor claimed to have discovered a set of bones at the site that he believed belonged to Alfred. The bones were later acquired by the vicar of St. Bartholomew’s Church, who reinterred them in an unmarked grave in the church cemetery.

In 1999, the Winchester Museums Service conducted an archaeological dig at the Hyde Abbey site, uncovering the architectural foundations of the abbey as well as some bones that were initially thought to belong to Alfred. However, the bones were later determined to belong to an elderly woman.

In 2013, the Diocese of Winchester removed the remains from the unmarked grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church to secure them for further investigation and protect them from potential damage or theft by curious individuals. The skeletons were radiocarbon-dated and found to be from the 1300s, not belonging to Alfred.

In 2014, a pelvic piece that had been found during the 1999 excavation and stored in a museum was radiocarbon-dated to the correct period, leading to speculation that it may belong to either Alfred or his son Edward. However, this has yet to be confirmed through further investigation or evidence.

 

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Recommended Books

Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair
Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair
Wessex A Captivating Guide to an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England by Captivating History
Wessex A Captivating Guide to an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England by Captivating History
Anglo-Saxon Chronicles
Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Sources

  • Mark, J. J. (2018, April 24). Alfred the Great. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Alfred_the_Great/

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, January 20). Alfred the Great. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_the_Great‌‌

  • Roller, S. (2018). 10 Things You Might Not Know About King Alfred the Great. History Hit; History Hit. https://www.historyhit.com/things-you-might-not-know-about-king-alfred-the-great/

  • Brooks, N. (2013). Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England. Stroud, UK: The History Press.

  • Lavelle, R. (2010). Alfred the Great: War, Kingship, and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. London, UK: Longman

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