Alfred the Great


Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great is not only the most famous of the Saxon Kings, but is widely acknowledged to be one of the most courageous and magnanimous kings all of English history. He came to the throne at an exceedingly difficult and troublous time. The Danish Vikings had over-run much of Saxon territory, destroyed monasteries, villages and cities, and murdered or driven away thousands of Saxon citizens. The other Saxon kingdoms in England were on the point of collapse, and ever more pagan hordes were ready to over run the kingdom from the seas, even should he succeed in driving away those that had already landed. Yet in spite of these overwhelming difficulties he succeeded in holding the Danes at bay, negotiating peace treaties with them, and even converting many of them to Christianity. He rebuilt schools and churches that had been destroyed and did all he could to restore the best elements of Saxon and Christian civilization to a devastated country. For the hundred years following his reign, the Saxon kingdom grew and prospered and succeeded largely in driving off the Viking menace. Had a lesser king been in the throne at this critical time, it is likely that the Saxons would have been driven out of England altogether, as they themselves drove off the Celtic Britons four hundred years earlier.

Alfred was the fifth and favorite son of Ethelwulf, the Saxon king of Wessex and Kent. In addition to the military training that was expected of a prince, he also learned to read and write and from a young age was very interested in books and learning. This was at an age when fighting skills were considered far more important prerequisites for rule than 'book-learning'. Each of his elder brothers reigned before him, and all of their reigns were plagued with attacks by the Danish Vikings. In many cases small fleets of Danish pirates landed, pillaged, and retreated before the Saxons could raise an army against them, but in 866 a large Army of Danes under the sons of the famous Ragnar Lodbrok arrived in England, proceeded to attack and pillage Northumberland, and seemed to take up permanent residence. It was this "Great Heathen Army" that began attacking Wessex during the reign of Ethelred, one of the older brothers of Alfred.

It was the reign of Ethelred, when Alfred was still a very young man, that his great martial and leadership skills were first recognized. In 871 a great series of battles were fought with an army of Danes who had taken over a Saxon fortress at Reading, and in these fights, Alfred was the leading general. After several skirmishes at Englefield and Reading, the great Battle of Ashdown was fought and the Saxons won a great victory. This famous battle did much to establish Alfred's reputation as the greatest military leader of the Saxons, and made him greatly feared and respected among the Danes.

Ethelred died shortly after Ashdown, and although the late king had several sons, the need for a strong military leader was so obvious, the Saxon nobles unanimously selected Alfred as king in favor of his nephews. The first five years of Alfred's reign were not particularly notable. Early on, he made a somewhat inglorious treaty with the Danes by which they promised to leave his domains unmolested if Alfred would promise not to make alliances with the other Saxon kingdoms against the Danes. This brought several years of relative, peace, but this only served to make the Wessex Saxons unprepared, when another band of Norsemen, this time under Guthrum, attacked the realm. Knowing that Alfred was their greatest threat, the new army of Danes made a surprised attack on his stronghold in mid-winter. Alfred barely escaped, but his army was scattered, and he was driven into exile at Athelney. From this position of extreme disadvantage he managed to secretly pull together another army. After planning his attack, reconnoitering the Danish camp, and carefully waiting for the right opportunity, he made a very successful attack against the Danes at the Battle of Edington. With Guthrum and his officers at his mercy, instead of killing them, he made a radical proposal. If they Danes would convert to Christianity, accept Alfred as their overlord, and help defend the coast of England from further attacks, Alfred would allow them to retain possession of certain lands in England to the north of Wessex. Guthrum agreed to this proposal and signed the Treaty of Wedmore, which created a Christian Danish region in England, independently governed but subject to the King of Wessex.

Alfred's trouble with the Danes was far from over, but the treaty with Guthrum gave a great respite, and the Danes who settled on the coast of England helped prevent further Viking pirate attacks in the area, since it was their own villages in greatest risk of being plundered. Arthur also improved him navy to help combat pirate raids of the Saxon Shore. The Danish threat somewhat relieved Arthur turned his attentions to the devastated communities of Saxon England. He rebuilt churches and schools, and brought teachers and learned men from the continent. He tried to restored the Saxon Christian culture that had been wrecked by two generation of depredations, and he established a code of laws that later became the basis of English Common Law. His conduct during the last twenty years of his reign was in every manner laudable, as a ruler, a soldier, an administrator, a Christian, and a scholar. He is the only English monarch in history to be awarded the appellation "the Great."

Key events during the life of Alfred the Great:

Born the fifth son of Ethelwulf of Wessex.
Alfred accompanies his father on a pilgrimage to Rome.
Alfred's father Ethelwulf divides his kingdom and gives Wessex to his son Ethelbald.
Ethelred, an older brother of Alfred ascends to the throne.
Series of battles are fought with the object of driving the Danes out of their stronghold at Reading (Battles of Englefield, Reading, Ashdown, and Merton.)
Ethelred dies of wounds inflicted in battle. Alfred ascends to the throne.
Alfred negotiates a separate peace with the Danes, and they retire from Wessex to the Northern Saxon Kingdoms.
A new army of Danes under Guthrum returns to Wessex.
The Danes attack Alfred's court at Chippenham and drive him into exile at Athelney.
Arthur raises another army while in hiding, and attacks the Danes at the Battle of Edington.
At the Treaty of Wedmore Guthrum agrees to be baptized and settle down in his own territory.
  Alfred rebuilds schools and churchs, reforms the military, builds a navy.
Landing of another Danish army is repelled by Arthur's navy.
Final Danish assault of Arthur's resulted in the invaders fleeing from the Thames to Danish strongholds in the north.
  Alfred promulgates the 'Code of Alfred' that eventually became the basis for English common law.
Death of Alfred.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
King Alfred and the Cakes  in  Fifty Famous Stories Retold  by  James Baldwin
King Alfred and the Beggar  in  Fifty Famous Stories Retold  by  James Baldwin
How a Prince Learned to Read  in  Fifty Famous People  by  James Baldwin
Alfred the Royal Harper  in  Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary  by  Cambridge Press
In the Days of Athelney  in  A Child's Book of Warriors  by  William Canton
King Alfred  in  Stories from English History  by  Alfred J. Church
Alfred the Great  in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
King Alfred and the Danes  in  The Story of England  by  Samuel B. Harding
England in the Middle Ages  in  The Story of the Middle Ages  by  Samuel B. Harding
Alfred and the Danes  in  Barbarian and Noble  by  Marion Florence Lansing
King Alfred  in  Heroes Every Child Should Know  by  H. W. Mabie
How King Alfred Learned to Read  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
More About Alfred the Great  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
How Alfred the Great Fought with his Pen  in  English Literature for Boys and Girls  by  H. E. Marshall
King Alfred and the Danes  in  Historical Tales: English  by  Charles Morris
Alfred the Great  in  Great Englishmen  by  M. B. Synge
Alfred the Great Rules England  in  European Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Book Links
Alfred the Great  by  Jacob Abbott
In the Days of Alfred the Great  by  E. M. Tappan

Image Links

King Alfred and the Cakes
 in Fifty Famous Stories Retold

Alfred wins the beautiful book
 in Fifty Famous People

Statue of King Alfred in Winchester
 in Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary

King Alfred the Great
 in A Child's Book of Warriors

He looked long and earnestly into the face bent above his own.
 in Our Little Saxon Cousin of Long Ago

King Alfred in the Herdsman's Cottage
 in  The Story of the English

Alfred the Great in the Danish camp
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages
Alfred learning poetry from his mother
Alfred learning poetry from his mother
 in Back Matter
King Alfred Visitng a Monastery School
King Alfred Visitng a Monastery School
 in Back Matter

Alfred the Great in the Danish Camp
 in Barbarian and Noble

Alfred the Great
 in Barbarian and Noble

Alfred found much pleasure in reading.
 in Our Island Story

Statue of Alfred at Winchester
 in History of the Church: Early Middle Ages

Alfred and the Herdsman's Wife
 in Great Englishmen

Alfred the Great
 in European Hero Stories

Alfred the Great Letting the Cakes Burn
 in European Hero Stories

Short Biography
Guthrum Danish king defeated by Alfred the Great. Agreed to become Christian and settle in England.
Ethelred of Wessex Brother of Alfred the Great who reigned immediately before him. Fought with Alfred at Ashdown, but died fighting the Danes.
Ethelwulf of Wessex Father of Alfred the Great. Very religious king who accompanied his son on a pilgrimage to Rome.
Halfdene Danish chief who led the Danes at Ashdown, and afterward.
Rollo the Viking Viking Leader who was granted the Dukedom of Normandy if he became Christian.