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Ælfrēd the Great
Born: c. 849 in Berkshire, Wessex
Died: 26th October 901
Nationality: Kingdom of Wessex
Occupation: Ruler of Wessex
Titles: King of the West Saxons
Father: Æthelwulf of Wessex
Mother: Osburga
Siblings: Æthelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred
Wife: Ealhswith
Children: Edward the Elder, Ethelfleda, Aelfthryth, Ethelgiva, Æthelwærd
Illegitimate children: none or unknown
Religion: Christian
Notable events: Battle of Edington, Battle of Ashdown, Battle of Reading, Battle of Merton
Alfred the Great

Ælfrēd the Great or Alfred, (c.849 – October 26, 899), was king of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899. Alfred is noted for his defense of the kingdom against the Danes, becoming the only English King to be awarded the epithet "the Great". Alfred was the first King of the West Saxons to style himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons". Details of his life are discussed in The Life of King Alfred, a work by the Welsh scholar Asser. Alfred was a learned man, and encouraged education and improved his kingdom's law system as well as its military structure.


Alfred was born sometime between 847 and 849 at Wantage in the present-day ceremonial county of Oxfordshire (in the historic county of Berkshire). He was the fifth and youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, by his first wife, Osburga. In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucill.

At five years old, Alfred is said to have been sent to Rome where he was awarded a consulship by Pope Leo IV. Alfred later accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome and spent time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, around 854855. On their return from Rome in 856, Æthelwulf was deposed by his son Æthelbald. Æthelwulf died in 858, and Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred's brothers in succession.

Asser tells the story about how as a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in English, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorise it. This story may be true, or it may be a legend designed to illustrate the young Alfred's love of learning.

Under Ethelred[]

During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, Æthelbald and Ethelbert, Alfred is not mentioned. However with the accession of the third brother, Ethelred, in 866, the public life of Alfred began. It is during this period that Asser applies to him the unique title of "secundarius", which may indicate a position akin to that of the Celtic tanist, a recognised successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. It is possible that this arrangement was sanctioned by the Witenagemot, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Ethelred fall in battle. The arrangement of crowning a successor as Royal prince and military commander was common among Germanic tribes such as the Swedes and Franks, with whom the Anglo-Saxons had close ties.

In 868, Alfred fought alongside his brother Ethelred, in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the invading Danes out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia. For nearly two years, Wessex was spared attacks because of the Danegeld Alfred paid the Vikings to leave him alone. However, at the end of 870, the Danes arrived in his homeland. The year that followed has been called "Alfred's year of battles". Nine martial engagements were fought with varying fortunes, though the place and date of two of the battles have not been recorded. In Berkshire, a successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield, on December 31 870, was followed by a severe defeat at the Siege and Battle of Reading, on January 5 871, and then, four days later, a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Alfred is particularly credited with the success of this latter conflict. However, later that month, on January 22, the English were again defeated at Basing and, on the following March 22 at the Battle of Merton (perhaps Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset) in which Ethelred was killed. The two unidentified battles may also have occurred in between.

A King at War[]

In April 871, King Ethelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, despite the fact that Ethelred left two young sons. Although contemporary turmoil meant the accession of Alfred — an adult with military experience and patronage resources - over his nephews went unchallenged, he remained obliged to secure their property rights. While he was busy with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the English in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May. Following this, peace was made and, for the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England. However, in 876, under their new leader, Guthrum the Unlucky, the Danes slipped past the English army and attacked Wareham in Dorset. From there, early in 877, and under the pretext of talks, they moved westwards and took Exeter in Devon. There, Alfred blockaded them, and with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to submit. They withdrew to Mercia but, in January 878, made a sudden attack on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas.

A popular legend relates how Alfred disguised himself as a minstrel in order to gain entry to Guthrum's camp and discover his plans. This supposedly led to the Battle of Edington, near Westbury, Wiltshire, which was a decisive victory for Alfred. The Danes submitted and, according to Asser, Guthrum and 29 of his chiefs received baptism when they signed the Treaty of Wedmore. As a result, England became split in two: the southwestern half was kept by the Saxons, and the northeastern half including London, thence known as the Danelaw, was kept by the Vikings. By the following year (879), both Wessex and Mercia, west of Watling Street, were cleared of the invaders.

For the next few years there was peace, with the Danes being kept busy in Europe. A landing in Kent in 884 or 885 close to Plucks Gutter, 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, and an agreement was reached between Alfred and Guthrum, known as the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. Once more, for a time, there was a lull, but in the autumn of 892 or 893, the Danes attacked again. Finding their position in Europe somewhat precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two armies. They entrenched themselves, the larger body at Appledore, Kent, and the lesser, under Haesten, at Milton also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from whence he could observe both forces. While he was in talks with Haesten, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred's eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They were obliged to take refuge on an island in the Hertfordshire Colne, where they were blockaded and were ultimately compelled to submit. The force 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. Some identify this with Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, others with Buttington near Welshpool. An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. 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 neighborhood. 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 (32 km) north of 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 realised that they were out-maneuvered. 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 back to Europe.


After the dispersal of the Danish invaders, Alfred turned his attention to the increase of the navy, partly to repress the ravages of the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes on the coasts of Wessex, and to prevent the landing of fresh invaders. This was not the true beginning of the English navy, since there had been earlier naval operations under Alfred, and one naval engagement was fought in the reign of Æthelwulf in 851 by Alfred's brother, Athelstan, and earlier ones, possibly in 833 and 840. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however, does credit Alfred with the construction of a new type of ship, built according to the king's own designs, "swifter, steadier and also higher/more responsive (hierran) than the others". However, these new ships do not seem to have been a great success, as we hear of them grounding in action and foundering in a storm.

Alfred's main fighting force, the fyrd, was separated into two, "so that there was always half at home and half out" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). The level of organization required to mobilize his large army in two shifts, of which one was feeding the other, was 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 pincerna—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 just 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 defenses had been that, in the absence of a standing army, fortresses were largely left unoccupied, making it very possible for a Viking force to quickly secure a strong strategic position. Alfred substantially upgraded the state of the defences of Wessex, by erecting fortified burhs (or boroughs) throughout the kingdom. Thereafter, the English population and its wealth were drawn into fortified 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 reorganisation, especially in the districts ravaged by the Danes. In the parts of Mercia acquired by Alfred from the Vikings, the system of shires, hundreds and tithings was introduced for the first time. Alfred's care for the administration of justice is well-attested, and he gained the popular title "protector of the poor". Of the actions of the Witenagemot, we do not hear very much under Alfred. He was certainly anxious to respect its rights, but both the circumstances of the time and the character of the king would have tended to push 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. He also paid attention to the country's finances, though details are lacking.


In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of an Ealdorman of the Gaini known as Aethelred Mucill, who was from the Gainsborough region of Lincolnshire. She appears to have been the maternal granddaughter of a King of Mercia. They had five or six children together, including Edward the Elder, who succeeded his father as king, Ethelfleda, who would become Queen of Mercia in her own right, and Aelfthryth who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders.

Death and Legacy[]

Alfred died on October 26, 901. How he died is unknown, although he suffered throughout his life with a painful and unpleasant illness, which seems to have been inherited by his grandson King Edred. He was originally buried temporarily in the Old Minster in Winchester, then moved to the New Minster (perhaps built especially to receive his body). When the New Minster moved to Hyde, a little north of the city, in 1110, the monks transferred to Hyde Abbey along with Alfred's body.

Even though Alfred was descended from the Saxon leader Ceredig, he is regarded as the founder of England. Every English monarch with the exception of the Danish rulers and William the Conqueror is a direct descendant of Alfred.

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