Alfred the Great
|Reign||871–26 October 899|
Wantage, modern Oxfordshire,
|Died||26 October 899
Alfred (Old English: Ælfrēd) (849? – 26 October 899) was king of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899. Alfred is famous for his defence of the kingdom against the Danes (Vikings), becoming as a result the only English monarch to be awarded the epithet "the Great" by his people. Alfred was the first King of Wessex to style himself "King of England". Details of his life are known as a result of a work by the Welsh scholar, Asser. A learned man, Alfred encouraged education and improved the kingdom's law system.
Alfred was born sometime between 847 and AD 849 at Wantage in present-day Oxfordshire, the fourth son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex (Æþelwulf), most likely by his first wife, Osburh. He succeeded his brother, Ethelred I (Æþelræd I), as King of Wessex and Mercia in871.
He seems to have been a child of singular attractiveness and promise, and tales of his boyhood were remembered. At five years old, in 853, he is said to have been sent to Rome, where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, who is also said to have "anointed him as king." Later writers took this as an anticipatory crowning in preparation for his ultimate succession to the throne of Wessex. That, however, could not have been foreseen in 853, as Alfred had three elder brothers living. It is likely to be understood either of investiture with the consular insignia or possibly with some titular royalty such as that of the under-kingdom of Kent.
This tale is likely apocryphal, though in 854 - 855 Alfred almost certainly did go with his father on a pilgrimage to Rome, spending some time at the court
of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks. In 858, Ethelwulf died.
During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, Ethelbald and Ethelbert, nothing is heard of Alfred. But with the accession of the third brother, Ethelred, in866 the public life of Alfred began, and he began his great work of delivering England from the Danes. It is in this reign that Asser applies to Alfred the unique title of secundarius, which seems to show a position akin to that of the Celtic tanist, a recognized successor, closely associated with the reigning prince. It is likely that this arrangement was sanctioned by the Witenagemot, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Aethelred fall in battle. The arrangement of crowning a successor as co-king, however, is well-known among Germanic tribes, such as the Swedes, and the Franks, with whom the Anglo-Saxons had close ties.
In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter ofAethelred Mucill, who is called ealdorman of the Gaini, a folk who dwelt in Lincolnshire about Gainsborough. She was the granddaughter of a former King of Mercia, and they had five or six children, one a daughter, Ethelfleda, who would become queen of Mercia in her own right.
The same year Alfred, fighting beside his brother Ethelred, made an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Mercia from the pressure of the Danes. For nearly two years Wessex had a respite. But at the end of 870 the storm burst; and the year which followed has been rightly called "Alfred's year of battles."
Nine general engagements were fought with varying fortune, though the place and date of two of them have not been recorded. A successful skirmish at Battle of Englefield, Berkshire (31 December 870), was followed by a severe defeat at the Battle of Reading (4 January 871), and this, four days later, by the brilliant victory of Battle of Ashdown, near Compton Beauchamp in Shrivenham Hundred.
On 22 January 871 the English were again defeated at Basing, and on 22 March 871 at Marton, Wiltshire, the two unidentified battles having perhaps occurred in the interval.
In April 871 Ethelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the whole burden of the contest. While he was busied with the burial and associated ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the English in his absence at an unnamed spot, and once more in his presence at Wilton in May. After this peace was made, and for the next five years the Danes were occupied in other parts of England, Alfred merely keeping a force of observation on the border. But in 876, the Danes, under a new leader, Guthrum, slipped past him and attacked Wareham. From there, early in 877 and under the pretext of talks, they made a dash westwards and took Exeter. Here Alfred blockaded them, and a relieving fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes had to submit and withdraw to Mercia. But in January 878 they made a sudden swoop on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been keeping his 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" (Chronicle).
A legend tells how, while a fugitive in the marshes ofAthelney near North Petherton in Somerset, after the first Danish invasion, he was given shelter by a peasant woman who, ignorant of his identity, left him to watch some cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of the kingdom, Alfred let the cakes burn, and was taken to task by the woman on her return. Upon realizing the king's identity, the woman apologized profusely, but Alfred insisted that he was the one who needed to apologize. The thought that Alfred, during his retreat at Athelney, was a helpless fugitive rests upon the legend of the cakes. In truth he was organizing victory. At about the same time, he is supposed to have disguised himself as a harpist to gain entry to Guthrum's camp and discover his plans.
By the middle of May, Alfred's preparations were complete and he moved out of Athelney, being joined on the way by the levies of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. The Danes on their side moved out of Chippenham, and the two armies met at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire. The result was a decisive victory for Alfred. The Danes submitted. Guthrum, the Danish king, and twenty-nine of his chief men took baptism, recorded by Asser as occurring at Wedmore. As a result, England became split into two, the south-western half kept by the Saxons and the north-eastern half becoming known as the Danelaw. By the next year (879) not only Wessex, but also Mercia, west of Watling Street, were cleared of the invaders.
Though for the time being the north-eastern half of England, including London, was in the hands of the Danes, in truth 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, 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, following which an agreement was reached between Alfred and Guthrum, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.
Once more for a time there was a lull; but in the autumn of 892 or 893 the last storm burst. The Danes, finding their position in Europe becoming more and more precarious, crossed to England in two divisions, amounting in the aggregate to 330 sail, and entrenched themselves, the larger body at Appledore, Kent, and the lesser under Haesten at Milton
also in Kent. The fact that the new invaders brought their wives and children with them shows that this was no mere raid, but a meaningful attempt, in concert with the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes, to conquer England. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position whence he could observe both forces. While he was in talks with Haesten the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck north-westwards, but were overtaken by Alfred's eldest son, Edward, and defeated in a general engagement atFarnham, and driven to take refuge on an island in the Hertfordshire Colne, where they were blockaded and ultimately compelled to submit. They then 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 northwest, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington, which some identify 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 with loss; 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. And 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 realized that they were out-maneuvred. They struck off northwestwards 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.
The result testifies to the confidence inspired by Alfred's character and generalship, and to the efficacy of the military reforms initiated by him. These were:
- the division of the fyrd or national militia into two, relieving each other at set intervals, so as to ensure continuity in military operations;
- the building of strongholds (burgs) and garrisons at certain points;
- the enforcement of the obligations of thanehood on all owners of five hides of land, thus giving the king a nucleus of highly equipped troops.
After the dispersal of the Danish invaders Alfred turned his attention to the increase of the royal navy, and ships were built according to the king's own designs, partly to repress the ravages of the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes on the coasts of Wessex, partly to prevent the landing of fresh hordes. 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 Æthelwulf (in 851), and earlier ones, possibly in 833 and 840. The partisan Anglo-Saxon Chronicle credits Alfred with the construction of a new type of boat, 'swifter, steadier and also higher/more responsive (hierran) than the others'; but these new ships were not 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 United States Navy was USS Alfred.
Alfred's main fighting force 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 pincernaâÇ"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 even 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 quickly to secure a strong strategic position. Alfred substantially upgraded the state of many of Wessex's fortresses, as has been demonstrated by systematic excavation of four West Saxon boroughs (at Wareham, Cricklade, Lydford and Wallingford
]) that "in every case the rampart associated by the excavators with the borough of the Alfredian period was the primary defence on the site" (N.P. Brooks The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth and Ninth Century England). We know that such defences were not constructed by the occasional Danish occupiers, thanks to surviving transcripts of the formidable 11th Century administrative manuscript known as the Burghal Hidage, dated within 20 years of Alfred's death—it may well date to Alfred's reign, and it almost certainly reflects Alfredian policy. This documents the established position of these four burhs, among many others, as permanently garrisoned and maintained fortress-towns. By comparing town plans of Wallingford and Wareham with that of Winchester, one can see 'that they were laid out in the same scheme' (P. Wormald in J. Campbell, ed., The Anglo-Saxons). This supports the proposition that these newly established burhs were planned as centres of habitation and trade as well as a place of safety in moments of immediate danger.
The "Burghal Hidage" sets out the obligations for the upkeep and defence of these towns; in this way, the English population and its wealth was drawn into 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, theshire system seems now to have been introduced for the first time. This is at least one grain of truth in the legend that Alfred was the inventor of shires, hundreds and tithings. The finances also needed attention; but the subject is obscure, and we cannot accept Asser's description of Alfred's appropriation of his revenue as more than an ideal sketch. Alfred's care for the administration of justice is testified both by history and legend; and the title "protector of the poor" was his by unquestioned right. Of the action of the Witangemot we do not hear very much under Alfred. That he was anxious to respect its rights is conclusively proved, but both the circumstances of the time and the character of the king would tend 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.
Asser speaks grandiosely of Alfred's relations with foreign powers, but little definite information is available. He certainly corresponded withElias III, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and probably sent a mission to India. Embassies to Rome conveying the English alms to the Pope were fairly frequent; while Alfred's interest in foreign countries is shown by the insertions which he made in his translation of Orosius.
Around 890 Wulfstan of Haithabu undertook a journey from Haithabu on Jutland along the Baltic Sea to the Prussian trading town Truso. Wulfstan reported details of his trip to Alfred the Great.
His relations to the Celtic princes in the southern half of the island are clearer. Comparatively early in his reign the 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 St. Modwenna, though mythical, may show Alfred's interest in that island.
Christianity and His Writings
The history of the church under Alfred is most obscure. The Danish inroads had tolled heavily upon it; the monasteries had been special points of attack, and though Alfred founded two or three monasteries and imported foreign monks, 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 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 latter 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 alliterating verse. The authorship of the latter has been much disputed; but likely they also are 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.
Alfred died on 26 October 899, though the year is uncertain — but not 900 or 901 as were previously accepted. How he died is unknown. He was originally buried in the Old Minster, then moved to the New Minster, and then transferred to Hyde Abbey in the year 1110.
Appearance in Culture
In honour of Alfred, the University of Liverpool now has a King Alfred Chair of English Literature.
Thomas Augustine Arne's Masque of Alfred (known for "Rule Britannia") was a masque about Alfred the Great (first public performance: 1745).
G K Chesterton's poetical epic The Ballad of the White Horse describes Alfred uniting the fragmented Kingdoms of Britain to chase the northern invaders away from the island. Like Shakespeare's Henry V, it deals with the theme of a divinely oriented leader waging holy war.
The historical fiction author Joan Wolf wrote a novel, The Edge of Light, on the life and times of Alfred the Great. It was published in 1990.
The historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell started, in the early 21st century, a retelling saga The Saxon Stories about Alfred's life and his struggle against the Vikings. A biography of Alfred by Justin Pollard was published in 2005.
The historical fantasist author Guy Gavriel Kay features Alfred in his novel Last Light of the Sun, loosely disguising him under the name change King Aeldred. Published 2004.
Alfred was played by David Hemmings in the 1969 film Alfred the Great, which co-starred Michael York as Guthrum.
Alfred University, located in Alfred, NY, is named after him.
The University of Winchester
was named King Alfred's College, Winchester between 1840 and 2004, when it was re-named University College Winchester. It took on its current name in 2005.
Historical author G. A. Henty wrote a novel featuring Alfred entitled The Dragon and the Raven, or The Days of King Alfred.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Sir Francis Palgrave, History of the Anglo-Saxons (1876), pg. 102
|King of Wessex,
from 878 as King of England
Edward the Elder
|Monarchs of England|
|Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§|
|* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe|