Alfred the Great

Why is King Alfred famous?

Alfred the Great (849-899) was the most famous of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Despite overwhelming odds he successfully defended his kingdom, Wessex, against the Vikings. He also introduced wide-ranging reforms including defence measures, reform of the law and of coinage.

He was a keen champion of education and translated important texts from Latin into English. Known as a just and fair ruler, Alfred is the only English King to have earned the title ‘the Great’.

Top 10 facts

  1. Alfred was born in 849 at the royal palace in Wantage. He became king in 871 and died in 899.
  2. He had four older brothers who all ruled as king before he did.
  3. As a boy of four he accompanied his father Aethelwulf on a pilgrimage to Rome.
  4. By 870 Northumberland, East Anglia and Mercia has all fallen to the Vikings. Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to hold out against the Vikings.
  5. In 870 Alfred and his brother Aethelred fought nine battles against the Vikings.
  6. In 879 Alfred won a decisive victory against the Vikings at Edington.
  7. After defeating Guthrum the Dane, Alfred made him convert to Christianity and then adopted Guthrum as his foster son.
  8. In 886 he recaptured London and set about renovating the city.
  9. Alfred's fortified towns or burhs formed the basis of the English system of boroughs and shires.
  10. Alfred believed that all free born English boys should receive an education and he set up a school at his court to educate his sons, as well as those of the nobles and others of lesser birth.

Timeline

  • 849
    Alfred born in Wantage, the youngest son of King Aethelwulf and his wife Osburh

  • 853
    Alfred accompanies his father to visit Pope Leo in Rome

  • 855
    Alfred revisits Rome

  • 868
    Alfred marries Ealhswith

  • 870
    Alfred and his brother fight nine battles against the Vikings; Wessex is the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to remain independent

  • 871
    Alfred becomes king at the age of 22; he defeats the Vikings at the battle of Ashdown

  • 877
    Alfred hides out in the Somerset levels

  • 878
    Alfred conducts guerrilla warfare against the Vikings

  • 879
    Alfred wins a decisive battle against the Vikings at Edington

  • 886
    Alfred captures London and starts renovating the city

  • 887
    Alfred begins translating Latin texts into English

  • 890s
    Alfred continues to fight wars despite an outbreak of plague devastating his allies; compilation of Anglo Saxon Chronicles begins.

  • 893
    Asser writes his biography of Alfred

  • 899
    Death of Alfred

Did you know?

  • Alfred was the first English king to write books.
  • He was illiterate (couldn’t read or write) until he was 12.
  • Alfred instructed Bishop Asser to write his biography. The writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles commenced during his reign.
  • There are many legends about King Alfred. The most famous recounts that when he was hiding from the Vikings in the Somerset Levels an old woman asked Alfred to watch her cakes baking but he was distracted and the cakes got burned. The old woman, who did not recognise Alfred as the king, scolded him for his carelessness!
  • Another legend has Alfred disguising himself as a minstrel or travelling player to gain entrance to the Danish camp and overhear their battle plans.
  • In a 2002 BBC poll Alfred was voted 14th Greatest Briton of all time.
  • Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendent of Alfred.
  • Alfred is said to have invented the candle clock.

Browse through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:

  • Alfred burns the cakes!
  • A portrait of Alfred by Raineri
  • Alfred and his statue in Winchester
  • Alfred in the Danish camp
  • Alfred rallies his men
  • A stained-glass image of Alfred
  • Alfred in battle
  • Vikings attack Lindisfarne Island

Gallery

About

A weak and sickly child with four older brothers, Alfred was an unlikely king. However from his youth he proved to be brave and intelligent, a man who valued wisdom and knowledge and saw himself as part of a wider Christian community. He was inspired by his early trips to Rome and developed a view of kingship based on firm moral and religious grounds.

Fierce Viking attacks threatened to destroy the Anglo-Saxon world into which Alfred had been born. By 870 the ancient kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia had fallen to the Vikings, their kings replaced by puppet leaders who were loyal to their Viking overlords. As the last independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex was under constant attack. Alfred and his brother King Aethelred were engaged in almost continuous warfare. Although they won some victories they were at times driven back into the heart of their land and forced to rely on guerrilla tactics.

A fierce and brave warrior, Alfred is described as charging at his enemies like a wild boar. In 871 Aethelred died from his injuries and Alfred became king. Alfred’s personal qualities enabled him to rally his people and inspired them to continue their struggles even when the odds seemed overwhelming. Alfred proved himself to be a clear-sighted tactician, a valiant and insightful leader, courageous, but willing to deal with his enemies in order to buy more time for Wessex. By converting Guthrum and adopting him as a foster son he effectively neutralised one of his most dangerous enemies.

One of Alfred’s greatest innovations lay in the system of burhs or fortified garrisons that he established as part of his defences. Provisioned by the surrounding countryside, these well-defended settlements attracted merchants and craftsmen. Careful town planning laid the basis for later development and growth. Alfred introduced a rota system into the military which meant that farms and fields were not neglected during time of war and could continue to supply the army with provisions. Alfred also recognised the importance of a strong navy in preventing Viking attacks on the land. He built large warships and brought in foreign craftsmen to supply expertise where necessary. He also reissued coins with a higher silver content and a new design in order to restore faith in the economy. Taxation and a written system of laws, together with a keen sense of justice, enabled him to carry out his reforms.

One of Alfred’s deepest regrets was the loss of knowledge which had resulted from the Viking destruction of the monasteries and the fall in literacy rates that had followed. He believed that all English freemen should be literate and that the clergy should be schooled in Latin. Alfred himself learned Latin when middle-aged in order to undertake the translation of important classical texts into English. He imported scholars from overseas and set up a school at court.

Alfred had a keen eye for posterity (what people in the future would think about him). He asked Bishop Asser to write his biography and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were commenced during his reign.

Alfred’s sense of history and his own historic destiny were fundamental to the development of the English monarchy. His reforms helped to transform the society in which he lived and laid the foundations of the English state. His grandson Athelstan, building on Alfred’s successes, was recognised as the King of all Britain.

Famous Friends

Bishop Asser – a Welsh monk who was recruited by Alfred to join the community of scholars at Winchester. In 893 he began writing his Life of King Alfred. He became Bishop of Sherborne in the 890s.

Guthrum – more of an enemy than a friend! He was king of the Danish chieftains and was actively fighting Alfred from 874. In 878 his surprise night-time attack on Alfred forced Alfred to hide out in the Somerset marshes. Guthrum was defeated by Alfred at Edington and as part of the peace treaty converted to Christianity taking the name Aethelstan. Alfred became his godfather. He lived in East Anglia until his death in 890.

Pope Leo IV – a Roman by birth, he was pope from 847-855. During this time Alfred visited him twice on pilgrimage. Pope Leo is said to have recognised the young Alfred’s abilities and appointed him a consul. The Battle of Ostia, a famous victory of the papacy over Saracen pirates, took place in 849. Pope Leo is also said to have halted the burning of the Anglo-Saxon quarter of Rome by making the sign of the cross.

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