Alfred the Great
The holy and right-believing King Alfred the Great was the King of Wessex from 871 to 899. He successfully stopped the advance of the Danes into Anglo-Saxon England, unifying the country. In addition to being the unifier of Anglo-Saxon England in the face of the Danish invasion, Alfred was a promoter of education, father of English prose, a patron of the Church, and a reviver of monasticism in the country. He is the only English monarch to be accorded the epithet "the Great". Alfred the Great is remembered on October 26.
Alfred was born in 849 in the village Wanating in what is now Wantage, Oxfordshire, the youngest son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his first wife, Osburga. Aethelwulf was a devout Christian, a trait that would reflect in Alfred's life. It was during his youth that Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in English offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it. Legend also has it that the young Alfred spent time in Ireland seeking healing. He was troubled by health problems throughout his life although today he is often portrayed as a great warrior who was noted more for his intellect.
As the youngest of the four sons of King Aethelwulf, the young Alfred lived in their shadows. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that Pope Leo IV "anointed him as king" during a pilgrimage to Rome about the year 853, a possible misinterpretation of an investiture as "consul" during the pilgrimage by King Aethelwulf and Alfred in the years 854-855. During the disputes between the king and Alfred's older brothers and the reigns of Aethelbald and Aethelberht, Alfred is not mentioned. King Aethelwulf died in 858.
It was following the accession of his third brother, Aethelred of Wessex, in 866, that Alfred's public life began. Fighting beside his brother Aethelred, in 868, Alfred fought unsuccessfully attempting to keep the invading Danes, led by Ivar the Boneless, out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia. Then in late 870, with the arrival of the Danes in his homeland, Alfred became involved in nine battles with varying outcomes. Thus, the year 870 was the low-water mark in the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Only Wessex remained to resist as all the other kingdoms having fallen to the Vikings.
In April 871, King Aethelred died, leaving two under-age sons, Aethelheim and Aethelwold. However, on April 23, 871, Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex, and the burden of its defense, in accordance with an agreement that Aethelred and Alfred had made earlier that year at an assembly at Swinbeorg. The Danes continued to press their attacks, forcing Alfred to ‘make peace’ with them, a peace that lasted for five years. In 876 under their new leader, Guthrum, the Danes renewed their aggression. After a narrow escape from an attack on Chippenham in January 878, Alfred, mounted an effective resistance movement from a fort at Athelney on an island in the marshes of North Petherton, rallying the local militias from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. In mid 878, Alfred, backed by the people of Somerset and Wiltshire, emerged from his marshland stronghold to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun in a carefully planned offensive that pushed the Danes into their stronghold of Chippenham where they were starved into submission.
Among the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum converted to Christianity. Three weeks later King Guthrum and 29 of his chief men were baptized at Alfred's court at Aller, near Atheiney, with Alfred receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son with the name Athelstan. In the treaty negotiated in either 879 or 880 Alfred and Guthrum established the borders dividing their lands of which that part controlled by Guthrum became known as Danelaw. While the treaty with Guthrum brought an end to large scale conflicts, Alfred still had to deal with raids and incursions. During this period, Arthur reoccupied the city of London and initiated a program of restoring the city.
With the death of Guthrum in 889, a political vacuum was created in which revived attacks by Danes from the continent reopened war with the Vikings, thus ending these quiet years of Arthur's life. Against the traditionally organized Danish tactics Arthur counter with a restructured military organization that included a standing, mobile field army, a network of garrisons, and a small fleet of ships navigating the rivers and estuaries. Alfred's re-organization of the military defense system included the establishment of network of fortresses at strategic points in the kingdom. These burhs (later called boroughs) enabled his army to confront Viking attacks anywhere in the kingdom within a day, which formed significant obstacles to the Viking invaders.
In addition to his re-organization of the defense of his realm, Arthur initiated a new legal code that was based on the laws of his predecessors but mediated by his own standards. This code bore an introduction in which Alfred placed his laws in the context of Christian law as presented in the Decalogue, chapters from the Book of Exodus, and the 'Apostolic Letter' from the Acts of the Apostles (15:23-29), thus giving his law-giving the sense of being a continuance of the holy past. Alfred also undertook the revival of scholarship in England that had been depressed during the Viking invasions. This was done through the recruitment of clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales, and abroad to enhance education at the court and of the Church episcopacy and, through the establishment of a court school, to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth.
By appointing pious, learned, and trustworthy bishops and abbots, Albert initiated a spiritual revival among the monasteries. He also emphasized translation of books he deemed "most necessary for all men to know." He himself contributed to the spiritual revival through his translations that included translation into English of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care , Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter.
Family, death, and burial
Alfred married Ealhswith in 868. She was the daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Aethelred Mucil the Ealdorman of the Gaini. Their children included Edward the Elder, who succeeded Arthur as king, Aetheflaed, who became Queen of Mercia, and Aelfthryth, who married Count Baldwin II of Flanders. Alfred died on October 26, most probably in 899. The cause of his death is unknown, but may be from Crohn's disease, as he suffered throughout his life with a painful and unpleasant illness. His body was temporarily buried in the Old Minster in Winchester before being moved to the New Minster. In 1110, his relics were translated to Hyde Abbey along with those of his wife and children. After the dissolution of the abbey during the reign of Henry VIII in 1539, the church was demolished, but leaving the graves intact. In 1788, when a prison was being constructed by convicts on the site of the royal graves, and many others, they were probably rediscovered by chance. But, the coffins were stripped of lead, bones were scattered and lost, and subsequently no identifiable remains of Alfred have been found.
- Anglo Saxon Chronicle Trans. by M. J. Swanton (New York, Routledge: 1996)
- Preface to Alfred's translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, in Keynes & Lapidge 1983 p. 126.