Alfred the Great – Saxon King of Wessex
Alfred the Great has gone down in history as one of Britain’s most successful rulers. Born in Berkshire in the mid-ninth century, Alfred succeeded to the throne in 871 following the death of his elder brother Aethelred I. Alfred had six children with his wife, Ethelswida, including Edward the Elder and Aethelfled of Mercia.
As the youngest of four brothers, Alfred had little chance of ascending to the throne. However, when all three of his elder brothers died prematurely, Alfred succeeded to the throne in place of his nephew, who was too young to reign at the time. At the time of his succession, almost every kingdom in England – bar Wessex – had fallen to the Vikings. It was therefore imperative that Wessex be led by an impenetrable ruler, capable to defend Wessex from the fast-approaching Danes.
In January 878, Wessex was at threat of Viking invasion. Alfred and the royal family fled to the marshes of Somerset, where they disguised themselves as peasants (Flude, 2009). Legend has it that Alfred spent his time in the marshes consolidating a fool-proof plan in which to defeat and push back the Viking army. The plan was successful, and in May of the same year Alfred’s army defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune. It was to prove to be one of the most important battles in English history.
But why was Alfred considered to be so great? Aside from his military tact, Alfred was also a capable negotiator, performing the seemingly impossible to keep Wessex safe. Not only did he convince the Vikings to accept a peace treaty, in which allowed them to keep the north and east of England as their own (this was known as Danelaw), but he also managed to convert the leader of the Danes, a harsh and impenetrable man, Guthrum, to convert to Christianity and adopt the name of Aethelstan (Flude, 2009). Although the Danes still controlled half of England, it was all on Alfred’s terms, earning him the title of ‘King of the English’, where he was respected by all – Saxon and Dane.
As well as his already incredible successes, Alfred also set about revolutionising the Saxon kingdoms. He established both an army and a navy of vast numbers, built hundreds of fortified settlements, devised new laws and customs, and consolidated Winchester as a seat of education and arts (Grant, 2004). Indeed, it is Alfred we can credit with the development of the English language, who encouraged the translation of Greek and Latin texts into a form of early English. Alfred himself personally translated a number of texts from Latin into English!
A contemporary account of Alfred’s life was written by the Welsh monk Asser, who personally knew the king on a friendly basis (Koenigsberger, 1987). Alfred died in 899, and is buried at Winchester. He was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder.
Davis, R. H. C., A History of Medieval Europe from Constantine to Saint Louis, 2nd ed., (Longman Group, 1988).
Flude, Kevin, Divorced, Beheaded, Died…The History of Britain’s Kings and Queens in Bite-Sized Chunks (Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2009).
Grant, Neil, Kings and Queens: An Illustrated Guide to British Monarchs (Collins Gem, 2004).
Koenigsberger, H. G., Medieval Europe, 400 – 1500 (Longman Group, 1987).