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Discovering Alfred the Great

We often get asked for books about the Anglo-Saxons and key figures from the period. Find out more about the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred, who became known as The Great…
Alfred the great story

Alfred the great storyAlfred The Great

 The life of Alfred the Great reads like an adventure story. Born in the south of Britain, in the Kingdom of Wessex around 849AD, he was the youngest of six children, succeeding three of his older brothers as King. He’s the only English monarch to be given the title ‘The Great’ and it can be argued that without him there would be no England today.

As an Anglo-Saxon, he claimed descent from the tribes of Northern European peoples who migrated to Britain after the end of the Roman occupation. They brought with them the West Germanic language, which would eventually evolve into the English language spoken around the world.

During the 9th century, what would become England was divided into a number of competing kingdoms, Wessex in the South and South West, East Anglia, Mercia in the Midlands, and Northumbria in the North.

Wessex Alone

Alfred the great info

This was a time of Viking raids and violence, culminating in the arrival in East Anglia of The Great Heathen Army in 865AD. It was made up of warriors from across Scandinavia world and was intent on conquest. The King of East Anglia gave the invaders horses in exchange for peace. The 16-year-old Alfred went into battle alongside his 18-year-old brother, King Æthelred, helping to support the Mercians against the invaders. Unlike earlier raiders, the Great Heathen Army didn’t disperse. They stayed and received reinforcements as one by one the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell under their control.

By 871AD, Æthelred was dead and Alfred was King of Wessex as it stood alone against the Vikings.  The invaders continued to raid, probe and occupy Wessex as it became increasingly beleaguered.. Following a raid on Chippenham in 878AD, the Wessex elite fled to the Somerset levels. There, legend tells, Alfred lodged with a peasant woman who was unaware of his identity. He was left to watch some wheaten cakes cooking on the fire, but being so preoccupied, he let the cakes burn and was roundly scolded by the woman.

In May 878, Alfred gathered an army from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, meeting the Viking army at Edington in Wiltshire. The West Saxons won a famous victory, forcing the Viking leader Guthrum to agree to baptism, and dividing England in half along Watling Street. To the East, Viking law would prevail, in the South and West, Anglo-Saxon rule would continue.

A Warrior Scholar

As well as being a great military leader, Alfred was also recognised as a great scholar. He set up some of the first schools in England and encouraged literacy and the English language. Widely read and travelled, he aspired to make Wessex one of the great Christian kingdoms of Europe. He himself translated a number of Latin texts into English. As an administrator, he strengthened the rule of law, instituted taxation and built fortified towns known as burghs across his kingdom.

A Family Legacy

Upon his death in 899 AD, he was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder. His daughter, Æthelflæd would marry the King of Mercia and would rule Mercia herself upon the death of her husband. Together, Edward and Æthelflæd would set about reconquering large parts of Anglo-Saxon Britain from the Vikings.

Alfred’s great vision of a united England would finally be achieved by his grandson in 927AD with the conquest of Northumbria.

Alfred was an extraordinary figure in English history and, despite suffering from ill-health for most of his life, he was able to inspire, lead and change the course of history.


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