Alfred the Great

Alfred was born in Wantage in 849 A.D. The fifth son of Aethelwulf and Osburh. As had happened with his father and uncles all the male siblings had taken their turn in ruling, this was done in order to keep the line strong and eliminate the need for child rulers.

In 870 A.D the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom – Wessex; commanded by King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred. The following year in the battle of Ashdown Alfred routed the Viking army in a difficult uphill assault, however following other defeats for Wessex Aethelred died.

In 878 A.D the Danish king Guthrum seized Chippenham in Wilthshire and used it as a base from which to harass and devastate Wessex. Many either surrendered or left, people from Hampshire moved to the Isle of Wight. Alfred with only a small retinue of thanes and Aethelnoth the earldorman of Somerset as his ally, withdrew to the Somerset tidal marshes to reassess his strategy.

Alfred adopted the Viking tactics by building a fortified base at Athelney in Somerset and summoning a mobile army of men, he used guerrilla tactics against the Danes. In May 878 he defeated them at the Battle of Edington.

Realising that he couldn’t route them completely from England he concluded a treaty of peace at Wedmore. As part of the treaty King Guthrum converted to Christianity with Alfred as his godfather, and the Danes returned to East Anglia where they settled as farmers.

Alfred also negotiated a partition treaty with the Danes, the frontier of which ran along the Roman road of Watling Street to the east of this line people were under the rule of Danelaw.

The Viking threat had by no means gone away and so to consolidate alliences against the Danes Alfred married his daughter Aethelflaed to the earldorman of Mercia and his daughter Aelthryth to the Count of Flanders, which was a strong navel power at the time. He himself married Eahlswith a Mercian noblewoman.

Further to this he completely reorganised defences. Firstly he organised the thanes and the existing militia known as the fyrd, on a rota basis so that he could raise a ‘rapid reaction force’ if needed; but allowed them to tend their farms at other times. Second he built defended settlements across the south of England, these were fortified market places known as burhs, where we today get our term ‘borough’. Settlers received plots of land and in return they manned the defences in time of war. This system can still be seen in the street plan of Cheapside to the Thames in London.

He also realised that all this would need to be accurately recorded and so the ‘Burghal Hildage’ was created.

Other than his military duties Alfred worried about the deterioration of learning and religion due to the influence of the Pagan Vikings. He had been educated as a child and had even learned Latin when about thirty years old. To improve literacy he arranged and took part in himself the translation (from Latin to Anglo-Saxon) of books he thought “needful for a man to know”. These books covered history, philosophy including Gregory the Greats ‘Pastoral Care’ (a handbook for bishops) He was also the patron for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was added to for the next three hundred years.

He also saw the need for administrative and legislative regulation and so with the help and guidance of his advisors he had assembled the best of all that had gone before, keeping what was considered good and fair and eliminating the rest, these became known as the ‘Laws of Alfred 885 – 899.

By the time of his death in 899 A.D he was appearing on the Charters and coinage as ‘Alfred King of the English’. He was buried in Winchester at a site long lost, but at the time of writing there are moves a foot to find his burial site. It is also worth noting that to date he is the only British monarch of either gender to be know as ‘The Great’.


One thought on “Alfred the Great

  1. Pingback: The Great Heathen Army | Michael F Leggett

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