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’.

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Winchester Cathedral

In 635 A.D Cynegils King of the West Saxons was baptised, his son Cenwalh built the first Christian church ten years later in Winchester, centre of Anglo Saxon Wessex.

This small cross shaped church known as Old Minster, the footprint of which can still be seen today north of the present building.

Old Minster became a cathedral housing a throne (cathedra) of a bishop whose huge diocese stretched from the English Channel to the river Thames. This was the most important royal church in Anglos Saxon England and was the burial place for some of the kings of Wessex including Alfred the Great, also King Canute is here with his wife Queen Emma.

By the 10th century Old Minster was the priory church to a community on Benedictine monks.

The church was made bigger and grander by it’s 10th century bishop Aethelwold, the bones of St Swithan a former bishop were dug up from the forecourt and re-housed in a new shrine within the church. St Swithans fame spread far and wide, all around his tomb were hung the crutches of the people he’d healed.

By the year 1000 A.D. Old Minster was a multi purpose building, a cathedral, a priory church, a place of pilgrimage and the final resting place of Saxon kings.

Things changed with the arrival of the Normans. William once crowned at Westminster replaced the last Saxon bishop with his own chaplain Walkelin.
The French bishop then began a huge building project replacing the Old Minster with a new church in the Norman Romanesque style.

After 450 years Old Minster was demolished and it’s stones were used in the new cathedral which was consecrated in 1093 A.D.

The Norman cathedral flourished and William Rufus the Conquerers son was buried here in 1100 A.D.

Sumptuous new art works were commissioned, a font celebrating St Nicholas and the famous Winchester Bible both of which can still be seen at the cathedral.

Over the next three centuries wealthy and powerful bishops added to or remodelled various bits of the building. They also commissioned their own chapels were priests would say daily masses over their tombs to speed their souls to heaven. Again these lovely chantry chapels can still be seen at the cathedral.

During the dissolution of the monasteries even the great cathedral of Winchester did not escape unscathed, the Benedictine monastery St Swithans Priory came to an end and the shrine to it’s patron saint was ransacked under the cover of darkness of course and it’s cloister was demolished.

It saw a brief revival under Mary Tudor who married her Spanish husband here, but from then on it came under the auspices of the Church of England.

The 20th century saw much needed restoration work including new stone statues for the huge 15th century Great Screen behind the alter. The cathedral bought a huge organ displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and had it cut down to fit. By the early 1900’s there were fears that the east end of the building would collapse after centuries of subsidence. A deep sea diver named William Walker worked under water in a trench cut under the cathedral but also below the water table for six years in total darkness placing bags of concrete to stabilise the building, he is commemorated by a small statue in the cathedral.