Alfred (the Great)

Alfred was born around 849 in the village of Wantage, then in Berkshire, now in Oxfordshire. He was the youngest son of Ethelwulf of Wessex and Osburga.

He was the only English Monarch to be named ‘Great’ and the first king to call himself ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’. He is named as the first King of England.

Alfred was born at a time when England was at threat of Viking raids. Even though Alfred is believed to have been his father’s favourite and his chosen heir, it was decided that it could be dangerous to put a young child on the throne, therefore his brothers would rule in order of age.

Alfred was noted for his intellect and was keen to expand his learning. When he was six years old his mother showed him and his brother’s a book on Saxon poetry. She promised to make a gift of the book to whichever of her sons could memorise it, and this proved to be Alfred.

In his youth, Alfred travelled twice to Rome. In 853 he met Pope Leo IV, and in 855 he travelled to Rome with his father.

Each of Alfred’s brothers ruled in turn. Alfred being the fifth son must have assumed that he would never reach the throne, however following the death of his brother Ethelred, Alfred became king in 872 at the age of twenty-two.

Reign 872 – 899

England was under threat of constant Viking invasions. Even though Alfred and Ethelred had been victorious at the Battle of Ashdown in 871, the Danes continued in their devastation of Wessex. This led to a peace treaty being signed and five years of peace.

Alfred retreated to the Somerset marshes to rebuild his army, and was then victorious at the Battle of Edington in 878.

Alfred realised he could not drive the Danes out of England so he agreed a peace treaty with King Guthrum, which he then consolidated with political marriage around 880, however he still had to contend with small raids and invasions on his lands.

When Guthrum died in 889, trouble was to stir again. Many eager warlords wished to make their names known. There were many landings across the country, and Alfred and his forces had to defend their lands.

Alfred built many well-defended settlements across the country and also established a Royal Navy to defend English waters.

Alfred died in 899 and is buried at Winchester.

He will be remembered as a scholar, who believed in, and encouraged education for the young. He improved the legal system and military structure of England, and was determined to improve the lives of his subjects.

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