Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great was the fifth son of King Ethelwulf (839–55) of the West Saxons (Wessex) and Osburga, daughter of the powerful Saxon earl Oslac. When Alfred became king of Wessex in 871, his small realm was the last independent Saxon kingdom in England. A massive Viking force from Denmark, known as the “Great Army,” had landed in East Anglia in 865 and had quickly overrun the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and, eventually, Mercia.

During his older brother Ethelred’s reign (866–871), Alfred had helped fight off an initial invasion of the Great Army into Wessex, but when his older brother died and Alfred inherited the throne, he was forced to gain peace by buying the Vikings off.

In 878 the Great Army returned, led by the Danish chieftain Guthrum. Alfred’s fortunes were considerably augmented at this point by the fact that nearly half of the Vikings in the Great Army had settled down in Northumbria to farm and hence took no part in this new attack.

Even so Alfred and his men were hard pressed to survive. Driven from his royal stronghold at Chippenham in Wiltshire in early 878, he retreated to the marshes around Somerset, where he managed to regroup his forces. In May of that year he inflicted a solid defeat on the Vikings at the Battle of Edington and quickly followed this up with another victory by forcing Guthrum and his men to surrender their stronghold at Chippenham.

By the Treaty of Wedmore (878), which brought hostilities to an end, the Danes withdrew north of the Thames River to East Mercia and East Anglia; together with Northumbria, these lands would constitute the independent Viking territories in England known as the Danelaw.

Significantly, through this settlement Alfred gained control over West Mercia and Kent, Saxon lands that he had not previously controlled. In addition to acknowledging a stable demarcation between Alfred’s kingdom and Viking lands, Guthrum also agreed to convert to Christianity and, shortly thereafter, was baptized. The significance of this cannot be overstated, because it made the eventual assimilation of the Danes into Saxon, Christian society possible.

With this latest Viking invasion having been thwarted, Alfred took steps to ensure the future safety of his people. Across his kingdom he created a series of fortified market places called burhs, which, in addition to aiding the economy of the realm, provided strong points of defense against Viking raids. These were strategically situated so that no burh was more than one day’s march (approximately 20 miles) from another.

Alfred also reorganized his army so that at any one time, only part of the fyrd, or levy, was out in the field or defending the burhs, while the men in the other half would remain home tending their own and their absent kinsmen’s farms and livestock. This enabled Alfred to extend the time of service for which each half of the fyrd could be deployed, because it removed problems of supply and also relieved men from worrying about their families and farms back home.

These measures proved immensely effective, not only allowing Alfred to successfully defend Wessex, but even enabling him to go on the offensive against the Vikings, so that by 879 much of Mercia had been cleared of Vikings, and in 885–886 he captured London.

After the Danes launched a massive seaborne invasion against England in 892, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Alfred also created a new navy, comprised of large, fast ships, in order to prevent any such subsequent overseas invasions from being successful.

Having dealt with the Vikings, in the second half of his reign Alfred took steps to improve the administration of his realm as well as increase the level of learning and culture among his people. In doing so he showed himself to be a competent administrator and possessed of an inquiring and capable mind. He established an Anglo-Saxon law code, by combining the laws and practices of Wessex, Mercia and Kent, and he kept a tight rein on justice throughout his lands.

Like others of his time, the king had a deep respect for the wisdom and learning of the past, and he worked hard to make a variety of works available to his contemporaries for their religious, moral, and cultural edification. He took an active role in improving the spiritual and pastoral qualities of bishops and clerics throughout his realm by personally translating from Latin into the Anglo-Saxon language Pope Gregory the Great’s late sixth-century work titled Pastoral Care.

e showed a similar interest in philosophical and moral issues by rendering Boethius’s early sixth-century treatise The Consolation of Philosophy into his native tongue, while sprinkling throughout his translation numerous personal observations.

Alfred further engaged his passion for ethics, history, and theology by translating from Latin into Anglo-Saxon the work of the fifth-century Spanish prelate Paulus Orosius known as the Universal History. This latter work undertook to explain all history as the unfolding of God’s divine plan.

To help foster a sense of pride and awareness of Anglo-Saxon history, Alfred rendered (rather loosely) the Venerable Bede’s eighth-century work Ecclesiastical History of the English People. To this same end he ordered the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that was continued from his reign until the middle of the 12th century. Around 888 Bishop Asser of Sherborne wrote his Life of King Alfred, celebrating the king as a vigorous and brave warrior, a just ruler, and a man of letters and intellect as well.

The political, military, and cultural accomplishments of King Alfred the Great are significant, especially when viewed within the larger context of late ninth- century European history. As much of the Carolingian dynasty fell into the chaos of feudalism because of the raids of Vikings, Muslims, and Magyars and the infighting among Charlemagne’s heirs, Alfred’s victories over the Vikings, and his subsequent expansion into Mercia and Kent, began a process that would result in his successors uniting all of England under the House of Wessex and in a fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Viking culture. Thus he is credited with establishing the English monarchy and alone among all English rulers bears the title “the Great.”