Alfred the Great, King of Wessex

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex

Male 849 - 899  (50 years)

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  • Name Alfred the Great 
    Suffix King of Wessex 
    Born 23 Apr 849  Wantage, Berkshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [1, 2, 3, 4, 5
    Gender Male 
    Also Known As elf counsel  [2
    Also Known As King of the Anglo-Saxons  [2
    Also Known As wise elf  [2
    Also Known As ¥lfrd  [2
    Also Known As ¥lfred  [2
    Died 26 Oct 899  Winchester, Hampshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [1, 2
    Buried Hyde Abbey, Winchester, Hampshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [2
    Person ID I50596  The Hennessee Family
    Last Modified 19 Mar 2019 

    Father Aethelwulf of Wessex, King of Wessex,   b. (~820), Wessex, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 13 Jan 0858 
    Mother Osburga, Queen Consort of Wessex,   b. ~810, Wessex, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. ~849 
    Married Y  [2, 3
    Family ID F18785  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Ealhswith,   b. ~852, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 5 Dec 0902 
    Married 868  [1, 4, 5, 6
     1. Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians,   b. ~870, (Wessex) England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 12 Jun 918, Tamworth, Gloucester, England Find all individuals with events at this location
     2. Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons,   b. ~874, (Wantage, Berkshire) England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 17 Jul 924, Farndon, Cheshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location
    Last Modified 23 Oct 2022 
    Family ID F18784  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Event Map
    Link to Google MapsBorn - 23 Apr 849 - Wantage, Berkshire, England Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsDied - 26 Oct 899 - Winchester, Hampshire, England Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsBuried - - Hyde Abbey, Winchester, Hampshire, England Link to Google Earth
     = Link to Google Earth 

  • Photos
    Statue of Alfred
    Statue of Alfred
    The Viking Great Army
    The Viking Great Army
    The Great Heathen Army
    The Great Heathen Army
    King Alfred the Great
    King Alfred the Great

  • Notes 
    • Alfred the Great (849-899)

      Alfred the Great of Wessex was born 23 April 849 in Wantage, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom to ¥thelwulf of Wessex (c795-858) and Osburga (-bef856) and died 26 October 899 in Winchester, Hampshire, England, United Kingdom of unspecified causes. He married Ealhswith (c852-905) 868 JL . Ancestors are from France.


      King Alfred (or more properly ¥lfred) is the only English king ever to receive the title "The Great" which epithet he earned for his stalwart resistance to the Danes, his wise government, his law-making, and his revival of English arts and culture and education. He was the first King of Wessex to be called "King of England". Reign: 871-899.

      House of Wessex

      He was of the royal English dynasty called House of Wessex, a family originating in the southwest corner of England and gradually increasing in power and prestige. The House became rulers of all the country with the reign of Alfred the Great in 871 and they lasting until Edmund Ironside in 1016. This period of the English monarchy is known as the Saxon period.

      Rome pilgrimage 853

      Young Alfred probably never expected to be king, being the fifth son of King Athelwulf of Wessex, and he even had three brothers precede him to the kingship.

      Young Alfred made two trips to Rome, first in 853 and again in 855, where his father sought the blessings of the pope (Pope Leo IV (847-855)))and the Christian church in his ongoing battles against the pagan Danes. Legend has it that during one of these visits, the pope anointed him to be a great ruler. During these trips he spent some time with the court of Charles the Bald (823-877) and learned much about the grandeur of Charles's grandfather, Charlemagne (747-814).

      "The Great Heathen Army of 865"

      Detailed map of Danish battles;

      Danish Invasion of England in 865.

      After his father's death in 858, young Alfred started getting much military training in the armies of his brothers ( Athelbald (858-860), Athelbert (860-865) and Athelred (865-861) in their ongoing battles against the Danes (Norsemen, Vikings, etc).

      In the mid 860's a Danish 'Great Army' under Ivar the Boneless invaded eastern England and occupied Northumbria. At first their attention was directed northwards against Mercia and Northumbria and they made many conquests there.

      In 871, the Danes turned their attention towards Wessex and the armies of Alfred and his brother ¥thelred of Wessex (c847-871), and thus began the great "Year of Battles". During the course of these battles Athelred died and Alfred became King. By this time Alfred was a highly experienced military leader.

      After a major battle at Wilton in May 871, a peace was made between Wessex and the Danes, who turned their attention back northward. They returned to do battle in the late 870s under Guthrum, King of East Anglia,

      more information on Guthrum:

      and again in the 890s under Haesten.

      But as he grew older and wiser, Alfred adopted more cautious tactics and stronger defences for holding back the Danes. He would besiege their fortifications, conduct guerrilla warfare on their transports, and build up the local militia in each shire.

      Most famously, Alfred built a fleet of warships and is traditionally regarded as the father of the English Navy. (He is also called the father of the American navy, which named its first revolutionary warship, USS Alfred, for him.)

      From Treaty of 889, setting the border between English and Danelaw:

      "This is the peace which King Alfred and King Guthrum...have agreed on...First concerning our boundaries: up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to the Watling Street."

      Marriage and family


      The Alfred Jewel, discovered near North Petherton, Somerset in 1693. Dates from the late 9th Century with inscription "AELFRED MEC HEFT GEWYRCAN", old English for "Alfred ordered me made." Probably a pointer for following text in a book.

      In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith (c852-905), daughter of a Mercian nobleman, ¥thelred Mucil, Ealdorman of the Gaini. The Gaini were probably one of the tribal groups of the Mercians. Ealhswith's mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal family.

      They had five or six children together, including Edward the Elder (c870-924), who succeeded his father as king, ¥thelflµd (c872-918), who became Lady (ruler) of the Mercians in her own right, and ¥lfthryth of Wessex (c872-929), who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders. In 2008 the skeleton of Queen Eadgyth, granddaughter of Alfred the Great, was found in Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany. It was confirmed in 2010 that these remains belong to her — one of the earliest members of the English royal family.

      Osferth was described as a relative in King Alfred's will and he attested charters in a high position until 934. A charter of King Edward's reign described him as the king's brother, "mistakenly" according to Keynes and Lapidge; however, in the view of Janet Nelson, he probably was an illegitimate son of King Alfred.

      ¥thelflµd (c872-918) - Married c 886, ¥thelred, Lord of the Mercians d. 911; had children
      Edward the Elder (c870-924) - succeeded his father as King of England, ruling from 899 to 924.
      ¥thelgifu, Abbess of Shaftesbury (?-?) - Abbess of Shaftesbury
      ¥lfthryth of Wessex (c872-929) - Married and had children
      ¥thelwµrd (c880-922) - Married Baldwin II d. 918, Count of Flanders; had children

      end of biography [4]
    • Alfred the Great (Old English: ¥lfred,[a] ¥lfr?d[b], "elf counsel" or "wise elf"; 849 – 26 October 899) was King of Wessex from 871 to 899.

      King of the Anglo-Saxons
      Reign 23 April 871 – 26 October 899
      Predecessor ¥thelred
      Successor Edward the Elder
      Born 849
      Wantage, then in Berkshire, now Oxfordshire
      Died 26 October 899 (around 50) Winchester
      Burial c. 1100
      Hyde Abbey, Winchester, Hampshire, now lost

      Spouse Ealhswith


      ¥thelflµd, Lady of the Mercians
      Edward, King of Wessex
      ¥thelgifu, abbess of Shaftesbury
      ¥thelweard of Wessex
      ¥lfthryth, Countess of Flanders
      Full name
      ¥lfred of Wessex
      House Wessex
      Father ¥thelwulf, King of Wessex
      Mother Osburh
      Religion Catholic

      Alfred was the youngest son of King ¥thelwulf of Wessex. Taking the throne after the death of his brother ¥thelred, Alfred spent several years dealing with Viking invasions. After a decisive victory in the Battle of Edington in 878 Alfred made a deal with the Vikings, creating what was known as Danelaw in the North of England. Alfred also oversaw the conversion of the Viking leader, Guthrum.

      Alfred successfully defended his kingdom against the Viking attempt at conquest, and by the time of his death had become the dominant ruler in England.[1] He is one of only two English monarchs to be given the epithet "the Great", the other being the Scandinavian Cnut the Great. He was also the first King of the West Saxons to style himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons". Details of Alfred's life are described in a work by the 9th-century Welsh scholar and bishop Asser.

      Alfred had a reputation as a learned and merciful man of a gracious and level-headed nature who encouraged education, proposing that primary education be taught in English rather than Latin, and improved his kingdom's legal system, military structure and his people's quality of life. In 2002 Alfred was ranked number 14 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.


      Further information: House of Wessex family tree:

      Alfred was born in the village of Wanating, now Wantage, historically in Berkshire but now in Oxfordshire. He was the youngest son of King ¥thelwulf of Wessex by his first wife, Osburh.[c]

      In 853, at the age of four, Alfred is reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been sent to Rome where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, who "anointed him as king".[3] Victorian writers later interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his eventual succession to the throne of Wessex. This is unlikely; his succession could not have been foreseen at the time as Alfred had three living elder brothers. A letter of Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a "consul"; a misinterpretation of this investiture, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion.[4] It may also be based on Alfred's later having accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent some time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, around 854–855.

      On their return from Rome in 856 ¥thelwulf was deposed by his son ¥thelbald. With civil war looming the magnates of the realm met in council to hammer out a compromise. ¥thelbald would retain the western shires (i.e. historical Wessex), and ¥thelwulf would rule in the east. When King ¥thelwulf died in 858 Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred's brothers in succession: ¥thelbald, ¥thelberht and ¥thelred.[5]

      Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won as a prize a book of Saxon poems, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it.[6] Legend also has it that the young Alfred spent time in Ireland seeking healing. Alfred was troubled by health problems throughout his life. It is thought that he may have suffered from Crohn's disease.[7] Statues of Alfred in Winchester and Wantage portray him as a great warrior. Evidence suggests he was not physically strong and, though not lacking in courage, he was noted more for his intellect than as a warlike character.[8]

      Reigns of Alfred's brothers

      A map of the route taken by the Viking Great Heathen Army which arrived in England from Denmark, Norway, and southern Sweden in 865.
      Alfred is not mentioned during the short reigns of his older brothers ¥thelbald of Wessex and ¥thelberht of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the Great Heathen Army, an army of Danes, landing in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England in 865.[9] Alfred's public life began at age 16 with the accession of his third brother, 18 year old King ¥thelred of Wessex in 865.

      During this period, Bishop Asser applied to Alfred the unique title of "secundarius", which may indicate a position similar to the Celtic "tanist", a recognised successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. This arrangement may have been sanctioned by Alfred's father or by the Witan to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should ¥thelred fall in battle. It is well known among other Germanic peoples to crown a successor as royal prince and military commander, such as among the Swedes and Franks, to whom the Anglo-Saxons were closely related.

      Fighting the Viking invasion

      In 868, Alfred is recorded as fighting beside ¥thelred in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the Great Heathen Army led by Ivar the Boneless out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia.[10] The Danes arrived in his homeland at the end of 870, and nine engagements were fought in the following year, with varying outcomes, though the places and dates of two of these battles have not been recorded.

      A successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield in Berkshire on 31 December 870 was followed by a severe defeat at the siege and Battle of Reading by Ivar's brother Halfdan Ragnarsson on 5 January 871. Four days later, the Anglo-Saxons won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Alfred is particularly credited with the success of this last battle.[11]

      The Saxons were defeated at the Battle of Basing on 22 January. They were defeated again on 22 March at the Battle of Merton (perhaps Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset).[11] ¥thelred died shortly afterwards on 23 April.

      King at war

      Early struggles, defeat and flight

      In April 871 King ¥thelred died and Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, even though ¥thelred left two under-age sons, ¥thelhelm and ¥thelwold. This was in accordance with the agreement that ¥thelred and Alfred had made earlier that year in an assembly at "Swinbeorg". The brothers had agreed that whichever of them outlived the other would inherit the personal property that King ¥thelwulf had left jointly to his sons in his will. The deceased's sons would receive only whatever property and riches their father had settled upon them, and whatever additional lands their uncle had acquired. The unstated premise was that the surviving brother would be king. Given the ongoing Danish invasion, and the youth of his nephews, Alfred's accession probably went uncontested.

      While he was busy with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May.[11] The defeat at Wilton smashed any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom. He was forced instead to make peace with them, according to sources that do not tell what the terms of the peace were. Bishop Asser claimed that the pagans agreed to vacate the realm and made good their promise.[12]

      Indeed, the Viking army did withdraw from Reading in the autumn of 871 to take up winter quarters in Mercian London. Although not mentioned by Asser, or by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred probably also paid the Vikings cash to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year.[12] Hoards dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871/2 have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge. These finds hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years the Danes occupied other parts of England.[13]

      In 876 under their new leader, Guthrum, the Danes slipped past the Saxon army and attacked and occupied Wareham in Dorset. Alfred blockaded them but was unable to take Wareham by assault.[11] Accordingly, he negotiated a peace which involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a "holy ring"[14] associated with the worship of Thor.[15] The Danes broke their word and, after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exeter in Devon.[16]

      Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon and, with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to submit. The Danes withdrew to Mercia. In January 878 the Danes made a sudden attack on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas, "and most of the people they killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe."[17] From his fort at Athelney, an island in the marshes near North Petherton, Alfred was able to mount an effective resistance movement, rallying the local militias from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.[11]

      A legend, originating from 12th century chronicles,[2] tells how when he first fled to the Somerset Levels, Alfred was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some wheaten cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom Alfred accidentally let the cakes burn and was roundly scolded by the woman upon her return.

      878 was the low-water mark in the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. With all the other kingdoms having fallen to the Vikings Wessex alone was still resisting.[18]

      Counter-attack and victory

      King Alfred's Tower (1772) on the supposed site of "Egbert's Stone", the mustering place before the Battle of Edington.[d]
      In the seventh week after Easter (4–10 May 878), around Whitsuntide, Alfred rode to Egbert's Stone east of Selwood where he was met by "all the people of Somerset and of Wiltshire and of that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea (that is, west of Southampton Water), and they rejoiced to see him".[17] Alfred's emergence from his marshland stronghold was part of a carefully planned offensive that entailed raising the fyrds of three shires. This meant not only that the king had retained the loyalty of ealdormen, royal reeves and king's thegns, who were charged with levying and leading these forces, but that they had maintained their positions of authority in these localities well enough to answer his summons to war. Alfred's actions also suggest a system of scouts and messengers.[19]

      Alfred won a decisive victory in the ensuing Battle of Edington which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshire.[11] He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity. Three weeks later the Danish king and 29 of his chief men were baptised at Alfred's court at Aller, near Athelney, with Alfred receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son.[11]

      According to Asser:

      The unbinding of the Chrisom [e] took place with great ceremony eight days later at the royal estate at Wedmore[21]

      While at Wedmore Alfred and Guthrum negotiated what some historians have called the Treaty of Wedmore, but it was to be some years after the cessation of hostilities that a formal treaty was signed.[22] Under the terms of the so-called Treaty of Wedmore the converted Guthrum was required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. Consequently, in 879 the Viking army left Chippenham and made its way to Cirencester. [21] The formal Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, preserved in Old English in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Manuscript 383), and in a Latin compilation known as "Quadripartitus", was negotiated later, perhaps in 879 or 880, when King Ceolwulf II of Mercia was deposed.[23]

      That treaty divided up the kingdom of Mercia. By its terms the boundary between Alfred's and Guthrum's kingdoms was to run up the River Thames to the River Lea, follow the Lea to its source (near Luton), from there extend in a straight line to Bedford, and from Bedford follow the River Ouse to Watling Street.[24]

      In other words, Alfred succeeded to Ceolwulf's kingdom consisting of western Mercia, and Guthrum incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an enlarged kingdom of East Anglia (henceforward known as the Danelaw). By terms of the treaty, moreover, Alfred was to have control over the Mercian city of London and its mints—at least for the time being.[25] The disposition of Essex, held by West Saxon kings since the days of Egbert, is unclear from the treaty though, given Alfred's political and military superiority, it would have been surprising if he had conceded any disputed territory to his new godson.

      Quiet years, restoration of London (880s)

      Further information: Londinium and Anglo-Saxon London

      With the signing of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, an event most commonly held to have taken place around 880 when Guthrum's people began settling East Anglia, Guthrum was neutralised as a threat.[26] The Viking army, which had stayed at Fulham during the winter of 878–879, sailed for Ghent and was active on the continent from 879–892.[27][28]

      Alfred was still forced to contend with a number of Danish threats. A year later, in 881, Alfred fought a small sea battle against four Danish ships "on the high seas",[27] Two of the ships were destroyed and the others surrendered to Alfred's forces.[29] Similar small skirmishes with independent Viking raiders would have occurred for much of the period, as they had for decades.

      In 883—though there is some debate over the year—King Alfred, because of his support and his donation of alms to Rome, received a number of gifts from Pope Marinus.[30] Among these gifts was reputed to be a piece of the true cross, a great treasure for the devout Saxon king. According to Asser, because of Pope Marinus' friendship with King Alfred, the pope granted an exemption to any Anglo-Saxons residing within Rome from tax or tribute.[31]

      After the signing of the treaty with Guthrum, Alfred was spared any large-scale conflicts for some time. Despite this relative peace the king was still forced to deal with a number of Danish raids and incursions. Among these was a raid in Kent, an allied kingdom in South East England, during the year 885, which was quite possibly the largest raid since the battles with Guthrum. Asser's account of the raid places the Danish raiders at the Saxon city of Rochester[27] where they built a temporary fortress in order to besiege the city. In response to this incursion Alfred led an Anglo-Saxon force against the Danes who, instead of engaging the army of Wessex, fled to their beached ships and sailed to another part of Britain. The retreating Danish force supposedly left Britain the following summer.[32]

      Not long after the failed Danish raid in Kent, Alfred dispatched his fleet to East Anglia. The purpose of this expedition is debated, though Asser claims that it was for the sake of plunder.[32] After travelling up the River Stour the fleet was met by Danish vessels that numbered 13 or 16 (sources vary on the number) and a battle ensued.[32] The Anglo-Saxon fleet emerged victorious and, as Huntingdon accounts, "laden with spoils".[33] The victorious fleet was then caught unawares when attempting to leave the River Stour and was attacked by a Danish force at the mouth of the river. The Danish fleet defeated Alfred's fleet, which may have been weakened in the previous engagement.[34]

      A plaque in the City of London noting the restoration of the Roman walled city by Alfred.
      A year later, in 886, Alfred reoccupied the city of London and set out to make it habitable again.[35] Alfred entrusted the city to the care of his son-in-law ¥thelred, ealdorman of Mercia. The restoration of London progressed through the latter half of the 880s and is believed to have revolved around: a new street plan; added fortifications in addition to the existing Roman walls; and, some believe, the construction of matching fortifications on the south bank of the River Thames.[36]

      This is also the period in which almost all chroniclers agree that the Saxon people of pre-unification England submitted to Alfred.[37] This was not, however, the point at which Alfred came to be known as King of England; in fact he would never adopt the title for himself.

      Between the restoration of London and the resumption of large-scale Danish attacks in the early 890s, Alfred's reign was rather uneventful. The relative peace of the late 880s was marred by the death of Alfred's sister, ¥thelswith, en route to Rome in 888.[38] In the same year the Archbishop of Canterbury, ¥thelred, also died. One year later Guthrum, or Athelstan by his baptismal name, Alfred's former enemy and king of East Anglia, died and was buried in Hadleigh, Suffolk.[39]

      Map of Britain in 886
      Guthrum's passing changed the political landscape for Alfred. The resulting power vacuum stirred up other power–hungry warlords eager to take his place in the following years. The quiet years of Alfred's life were coming to a close and war was on the horizon.[40]

      Further Viking attacks repelled (890s)

      After another lull, in the autumn of 892 or 893, the Danes attacked again. Finding their position in mainland Europe precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. They entrenched themselves, the larger body, at Appledore, Kent, and the lesser under Hastein, at Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from which he could observe both forces.[41]

      While he was in talks with Hastein, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred's eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They took refuge on an island at Thorney, on the River Colne between Buckinghamshire and Middlesex, where they were blockaded and forced to give hostages and promise to leave Wessex.[42][41] They then went to Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined with Hastein's force at Shoebury.[42]

      Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed stronghold on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and raised the Siege of Exeter. The fate of the other place is not recorded.[43]

      Meanwhile, the force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. They were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset and, forced to head off to the northwest, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington. (Some identify this with Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, others with Buttington near Welshpool.) An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. Those who escaped retreated to Shoebury. After collecting reinforcements, they made a sudden dash across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chester. The English did not attempt a winter blockade but contented themselves with destroying all the supplies in the district.[43]

      Early in 894 or 895 lack of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of the year the Danes drew their ships up the River Thames and the River Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles (32 km) north of London. A direct attack on the Danish lines failed but, later in the year, Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river so as to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realised that they were outmanoeuvred. They struck off north-westwards and wintered at Cwatbridge near Bridgnorth. The next year, 896 (or 897), they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia. Those who had no connections in England withdrew back to the continent.[43]

      Military reorganisation

      Alfred the Great silver offering penny, 871–899. Legend: AELFRED REX SAXONUM "¥lfred King of the Saxons".
      The Germanic tribes who invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries relied upon the unarmoured infantry supplied by their tribal levy, or fyrd, and it was upon this system that the military power of the several kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England depended.[44] The fyrd was a local militia in the Anglo-Saxon shire in which all freemen had to serve; those who refused military service were subject to fines or loss of their land.[45] According to the law code of King Ine of Wessex, issued in about 694:

      If a nobleman who holds land neglects military service, he shall pay 120 shillings and forfeit his land; a nobleman who holds no land shall pay 60 shillings; a commoner shall pay a fine of 30 shillings for neglecting military service.[46]

      Wessex's history of failures preceding his success in 878 emphasised to Alfred that the traditional system of battle he had inherited played to the Danes' advantage. While both the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes attacked settlements to seize wealth and other resources, they employed very different strategies. In their raids the Anglo-Saxons traditionally preferred to attack head-on by assembling their forces in a shield wall, advancing against their target and overcoming the oncoming wall marshaled against them in defence.[47]

      In contrast the Danes preferred to choose easy targets, mapping cautious forays designed to avoid risking all their accumulated plunder with high-stake attacks for more. Alfred determined their strategy was to launch smaller scaled attacks from a secure and reinforced defensible base to which they could retreat should their raiders meet strong resistance.[47]

      These bases were prepared in advance, often by capturing an estate and augmenting its defences with surrounding ditches, ramparts and palisades. Once inside the fortification, Alfred realised, the Danes enjoyed the advantage, better situated to outlast their opponents or crush them with a counter-attack as the provisions and stamina of the besieging forces waned.[47]

      The means by which the Anglo-Saxons marshaled forces to defend against marauders also left them vulnerable to the Vikings. It was the responsibility of the shire fyrd to deal with local raids. The king could call up the national militia to defend the kingdom but, in the case of the Viking hit-and-run raids, problems with communication, and raising supplies meant that the national militia could not be mustered quickly enough. It was only after the raids were underway that a call went out to landowners to gather their men for battle. Large regions could be devastated before the fyrd could assemble and arrive. And although the landowners were obliged to the king to supply these men when called, during the attacks in 878 many of them opportunistically abandoned their king and collaborated with Guthrum.[48][49]

      With these lessons in mind Alfred capitalised on the relatively peaceful years immediately following his victory at Edington by focusing on an ambitious restructuring of his kingdom's military defences. On a trip to Rome Alfred had stayed with Charles the Bald and it is possible that he may have studied how the Carolingian kings had dealt with the Viking problem. Learning from their experiences he was able to put together a system of taxation and defence for his own kingdom. Also there had been a system of fortifications in pre-Viking Mercia that may have been an influence. So when the Viking raids resumed in 892 Alfred was better prepared to confront them with a standing, mobile field army, a network of garrisons, and a small fleet of ships navigating the rivers and estuaries.[50][51][52]

      Administration and taxation

      Tenants in Anglo-Saxon England had a threefold obligation based on their landholding: the so-called "common burdens" of military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. This threefold obligation has traditionally been called "trinoda neccessitas" or "trimoda neccessitas".[53] The Old English name for the fine due for neglecting military service was "fierdwite" or "fyrdwitee".[46]

      To maintain the burhs, and to reorganise the fyrd as a standing army, Alfred expanded the tax and conscription system based on the productivity of a tenant's landholding. The "hide" was the basic unit of the system on which the tenant's public obligations were assessed. A "hide" is thought to represent the amount of land required to support one family. The "hide" would differ in size according to the value and resources of the land, and the landowner would have to provide service based on how many "hides" he owned.[53][54]

      Burghal system

      See also: Burghal Hidage

      A map of burhs named in the Burghal Hidage.
      At the centre of Alfred's reformed military defence system was the network of burhs, distributed at strategic points throughout the kingdom.[55] There were thirty-three in total, spaced approximately 30 kilometres (19 miles) apart, enabling the military to confront attacks anywhere in the kingdom within a single day.[56][57]

      Alfred's burhs (later termed boroughs) ranged from former Roman towns, such as Winchester, where the stone walls were repaired and ditches added, to massive earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches, probably reinforced with wooden revetments and palisades, such as at Burpham, Sussex.[58][59] The size of the burhs ranged from tiny outposts such as Pilton to large fortifications in established towns, the largest being at Winchester.[60]

      A contemporary document now known as the Burghal Hidage provides an insight into how the system worked. It lists the "hidage" for each of the fortified towns contained in the document. For example, Wallingford had a "hidage" of 2400, which meant that the landowners there were responsible for supplying and feeding 2,400 men, the number sufficient for maintaining 9,900 feet (3.0 kilometres) of wall.[61] A total of 27,071 soldiers were needed system-wide, or approximately one in four of all the free men in Wessex.[62]

      Many of the burhs were twin towns that straddled a river and were connected by a fortified bridge, like those built by Charles the Bald a generation before.[51] The double-burh blocked passage on the river, forcing Viking ships to navigate under a garrisoned bridge lined with men armed with stones, spears, or arrows. Other burhs were sited near fortified royal villas, allowing the king better control over his strongholds.[63] The burhs were also interconnected by a road system maintained for army use (known as "herepaths"). These roads would allow an army to be quickly assembled, sometimes from more than one burh, to confront the Viking invader.[64] This network posed significant obstacles to Viking invaders, especially those laden with booty. The system threatened Viking routes and communications making it far more dangerous for the Viking raiders. The Vikings lacked both the equipment necessary to undertake a siege against a burh and a developed doctrine of siegecraft, having tailored their methods of fighting to rapid strikes and unimpeded retreats to well-defended fortifications. The only means left to them was to starve the burh into submission, but this gave the king time to send his mobile field army or garrisons from neighbouring burhs along the well-maintained army roads. In such cases the Vikings were extremely vulnerable to pursuit by the king's joint military forces.[65] Alfred's burh system posed such a formidable challenge against Viking attack that when the Vikings returned in 892, and successfully stormed a half-made, poorly garrisoned fortress up the Lympne estuary in Kent, the Anglo-Saxons were able to limit their penetration to the outer frontiers of Wessex and Mercia.[66]

      Alfred's burghal system was revolutionary in its strategic conception and potentially expensive in its execution. His contemporary biographer Asser wrote that many nobles balked at the new demands placed upon them even though they were for "the common needs of the kingdom".[67][68]

      English navy

      Alfred also tried his hand at naval design. In 896[69] he ordered the construction of a small fleet, perhaps a dozen or so longships that, at 60 oars, were twice the size of Viking warships. This was not, as the Victorians asserted, the birth of the English Navy. Wessex had possessed a royal fleet before this. King Athelstan of Kent and Ealdorman Ealhhere had defeated a Viking fleet in 851 capturing nine ships,[70] and Alfred himself had conducted naval actions in 882.[71]

      Nevertheless, 897 clearly marked an important development in the naval power of Wessex. The author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle related that Alfred's ships were larger, swifter, steadier and rode higher in the water than either Danish or Frisian ships. It is probable that, under the classical tutelage of Asser, Alfred utilised the design of Greek and Roman warships, with high sides, designed for fighting rather than for navigation.[72]

      Alfred had seapower in mind—if he could intercept raiding fleets before they landed, he could spare his kingdom from being ravaged. Alfred's ships may have been superior in conception. In practice they proved to be too large to manoeuvre well in the close waters of estuaries and rivers, the only places in which a naval battle could occur.[73]

      The warships of the time were not designed to be ship killers but rather troop carriers. It has been suggested that, like sea battles in late Viking age Scandinavia, these battles may have entailed a ship coming alongside an enemy vessel, lashing the two ships together and then boarding the enemy craft. The result was effectively a land battle involving hand-to-hand fighting on board the two lashed vessels.[74]

      In the one recorded naval engagement in 896[75][69] Alfred's new fleet of nine ships intercepted six Viking ships at the mouth of an unidentified river in the south of England. The Danes had beached half their ships and gone inland. Alfred's ships immediately moved to block their escape. The three Viking ships afloat attempted to break through the English lines. Only one made it; Alfred's ships intercepted the other two.[69] Lashing the Viking boats to their own, the English crew boarded and proceeded to kill the Vikings. One ship escaped, because Alfred's heavy ships became grounded when the tide went out.[74] A land battle ensued between the crews. The Danes were heavily outnumbered, but as the tide rose they returned to their boats which, with shallower drafts, were freed first. The English watched as the Vikings rowed past them.[74] But they had suffered so many casualties (120 dead against 62 Frisians and English) that they had difficulty putting out to sea. All were too damaged to row around Sussex and two were driven against the Sussex coast (possibly at Selsey Bill).[69][74] The shipwrecked crew were brought before Alfred at Winchester and hanged.[69]

      Legal reform:

      In the late 880s or early 890s Alfred issued a long domboc or law code consisting of his "own" laws, followed by a code issued by his late seventh-century predecessor King Ine of Wessex.[76] Together these laws are arranged into 120 chapters. In his introduction Alfred explains that he gathered together the laws he found in many "synod-books" and "ordered to be written many of the ones that our forefathers observed—those that pleased me; and many of the ones that did not please me, I rejected with the advice of my councillors, and commanded them to be observed in a different way".[77]

      Alfred singled out in particular the laws that he "found in the days of Ine, my kinsman, or Offa, king of the Mercians, or King ¥thelberht of Kent who first among the English people received baptism". He appended, rather than integrated, the laws of Ine into his code and, although he included, as had ¥thelbert, a scale of payments in compensation for injuries to various body parts the two injury tariffs are not aligned. Offa is not known to have issued a law code leading historian Patrick Wormald to speculate that Alfred had in mind the legatine capitulary of 786 that was presented to Offa by two papal legates.[78]

      About a fifth of the law code is taken up by Alfred's introduction which includes translations into English of the Ten Commandments, a few chapters from the Book of Exodus, and the "Apostolic Letter" from the Acts of the Apostles (15:23–29). The Introduction may best be understood as Alfred's meditation upon the meaning of Christian law.[79] It traces the continuity between God's gift of law to Moses to Alfred's own issuance of law to the West Saxon people. By doing so, it linked the holy past to the historical present and represented Alfred's law-giving as a type of divine legislation.[80]

      Similarly Alfred divided his code into 120 chapters because 120 was the age at which Moses died and, in the number-symbolism of early medieval biblical exegetes, 120 stood for law.[81] The link between the Mosaic Law and Alfred's code is the "Apostolic Letter" which explained that Christ "had come not to shatter or annul the commandments but to fulfill them; and he taught mercy and meekness". (Intro, 49.1) The mercy that Christ infused into Mosaic Law underlies the injury tariffs that figure so prominently in barbarian law codes since Christian synods "established, through that mercy which Christ taught, that for almost every misdeed at the first offence secular lords might with their permission receive without sin the monetary compensation which they then fixed".[82]

      The only crime that could not be compensated with a payment of money was treachery to a lord "since Almighty God adjudged none for those who despised Him, nor did Christ, the Son of God, adjudge any for the one who betrayed Him to death; and He commanded everyone to love his lord as Himself".[82] Alfred's transformation of Christ's commandment, from "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matt. 22:39–40) to love your secular lord as you would love the Lord Christ himself, underscores the importance that Alfred placed upon lordship which he understood as a sacred bond instituted by God for the governance of man.[83]

      When one turns from the domboc's introduction to the laws themselves it is difficult to uncover any logical arrangement. The impression one receives is of a hodgepodge of miscellaneous laws. The law code, as it has been preserved, is singularly unsuitable for use in lawsuits. In fact several of Alfred's laws contradicted the laws of Ine that form an integral part of the code. Patrick Wormald's explanation is that Alfred's law code should be understood not as a legal manual but as an ideological manifesto of kingship "designed more for symbolic impact than for practical direction".[84] In practical terms the most important law in the code may well have been the very first: "We enjoin, what is most necessary, that each man keep carefully his oath and his pledge" which expresses a fundamental tenet of Anglo-Saxon law.[85]

      Alfred devoted considerable attention and thought to judicial matters. Asser underscores his concern for judicial fairness. Alfred, according to Asser, insisted upon reviewing contested judgments made by his ealdormen and reeves and "would carefully look into nearly all the judgements which were passed [issued] in his absence anywhere in the realm to see whether they were just or unjust".[86] A charter from the reign of his son Edward the Elder depicts Alfred as hearing one such appeal in his chamber while washing his hands.[87]

      Asser represents Alfred as a Solomonic judge, painstaking in his own judicial investigations and critical of royal officials who rendered unjust or unwise judgments. Although Asser never mentions Alfred's law code he does say that Alfred insisted that his judges be literate so that they could apply themselves "to the pursuit of wisdom". The failure to comply with this royal order was to be punished by loss of office.[88]

      The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, commissioned at the time of Alfred, was probably written to promote unification of England,[89] whereas Asser's The Life of King Alfred promoted Alfred's achievements and personal qualities. It was possible that the document was designed this way so that it could be disseminated in Wales, as Alfred had recently acquired overlordship of that country.[89]

      Foreign relations

      Asser speaks grandiosely of Alfred's relations with foreign powers but little definite information is available.[43] His interest in foreign countries is shown by the insertions which he made in his translation of Orosius. He corresponded with Elias III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem,[43] and embassies to Rome conveying the English alms to the Pope were fairly frequent.[51][f] Around 890 Wulfstan of Hedeby undertook a journey from Hedeby on Jutland along the Baltic Sea to the Prussian trading town of Truso. Alfred personally collected details of this trip.[90]

      Alfred's relations with the Celtic princes in the western half of Britain are clearer. Comparatively early in his reign, according to Asser, the southern Welsh princes, owing to the pressure on them from North Wales and Mercia, commended themselves to Alfred. Later in his reign the North Welsh followed their example and the latter cooperated with the English in the campaign of 893 (or 894). That Alfred sent alms to Irish and Continental monasteries may be taken on Asser's authority. The visit of the three pilgrim "Scots" (i.e. Irish) to Alfred in 891 is undoubtedly authentic. The story that he himself in his childhood was sent to Ireland to be healed by Saint Modwenna, though mythical, may show Alfred's interest in that island.[43]

      Religion and culture

      King Alfred the Great pictured in a stained glass window in the West Window of the South Transept of Bristol Cathedral.
      In the 880s, at the same time that he was "cajoling and threatening" his nobles to build and man the burhs, Alfred, perhaps inspired by the example of Charlemagne almost a century before, undertook an equally ambitious effort to revive learning.[43] During this time period the Viking raids were often seen as a divine punishment and Alfred may have wished to revive religious awe in order to appease God's wrath.[91] This revival entailed the recruitment of clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to enhance the tenor of the court and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth; an attempt to require literacy in those who held offices of authority; a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin works the king deemed "most necessary for all men to know";[92] the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house, with a genealogy that stretched back to Adam, thus giving the West Saxon kings a biblical ancestry.[93]

      Very little is known of the church under Alfred. The Danish attacks had been particularly damaging to the monasteries. Although Alfred founded monasteries at Athelney and Shaftesbury, these were the first new monastic houses in Wessex since the beginning of the eighth century.[94] According to Asser, Alfred enticed foreign monks to England for his monastery at Athelney as there was little interest for the locals to take up the monastic life.[95]

      Alfred undertook no systematic reform of ecclesiastical institutions or religious practices in Wessex. For him the key to the kingdom's spiritual revival was to appoint pious, learned, and trustworthy bishops and abbots. As king he saw himself as responsible for both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Secular and spiritual authority were not distinct categories for Alfred.[96][97]

      He was equally comfortable distributing his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care to his bishops so that they might better train and supervise priests and using those same bishops as royal officials and judges. Nor did his piety prevent him from expropriating strategically sited church lands, especially estates along the border with the Danelaw, and transferring them to royal thegns and officials who could better defend them against Viking attacks.[97][98]

      Impact of Danish raids on education

      The Danish raids had a devastating effect on learning in England. Alfred lamented in the preface to his translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care that "learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English or even translate a single letter from Latin into English: and I suppose that there were not many beyond the Humber either".[99] Alfred undoubtedly exaggerated, for dramatic effect, the abysmal state of learning in England during his youth.[100] That Latin learning had not been obliterated is evidenced by the presence in his court of learned Mercian and West Saxon clerics such as Plegmund, Wµferth, and Wulfsige.[101]

      Manuscript production in England dropped off precipitously around the 860s when the Viking invasions began in earnest, not to be revived until the end of the century.[102] Numerous Anglo-Saxon manuscripts burnt up along with the churches that housed them. And a solemn diploma from Christ Church, Canterbury, dated 873, is so poorly constructed and written that historian Nicholas Brooks posited a scribe who was either so blind he could not read what he wrote or who knew little or no Latin. "It is clear", Brooks concludes, "that the metropolitan church [of Canterbury] must have been quite unable to provide any effective training in the scriptures or in Christian worship".[103]

      Establishment of a court school

      Following the example of Charlemagne, Alfred established a court school for the education of his own children, those of the nobility, and "a good many of lesser birth".[92] There they studied books in both English and Latin and "devoted themselves to writing, to such an extent ... they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts".[104] He recruited scholars from the Continent and from Britain to aid in the revival of Christian learning in Wessex and to provide the king personal instruction. Grimbald and John the Saxon came from Francia; Plegmund (whom Alfred appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 890), Bishop Werferth of Worcester, ¥thelstan, and the royal chaplains Werwulf, from Mercia; and Asser, from St David's in southwestern Wales.[105]

      Advocacy of education in the English language:

      Alfred's educational ambitions seem to have extended beyond the establishment of a court school. Believing that without Christian wisdom there can be neither prosperity nor success in war, Alfred aimed "to set to learning (as long as they are not useful for some other employment) all the free-born young men now in England who have the means to apply themselves to it".[106] Conscious of the decay of Latin literacy in his realm Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English, with those wishing to advance to holy orders to continue their studies in Latin.[107]

      There were few "books of wisdom" written in English. Alfred sought to remedy this through an ambitious court-centred programme of translating into English the books he deemed "most necessary for all men to know".[107] It is unknown when Alfred launched this programme but it may have been during the 880s when Wessex was enjoying a respite from Viking attacks. Alfred was, until recently, often considered to have been the author of many of the translations but this is now considered doubtful in almost all cases. Scholars more often refer to translations as "Alfredian" indicating that they probably had something to do with his patronage but are unlikely to be his own work.[108]

      Apart from the lost Handboc or Encheiridio, which seems to have been a commonplace book kept by the king, the earliest work to be translated was the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a book greatly popular in the Middle Ages. The translation was undertaken at Alfred's command by Werferth, Bishop of Worcester, with the king merely furnishing a preface.[43] Remarkably Alfred, undoubtedly with the advice and aid of his court scholars, translated four works himself: Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy", St. Augustine's Soliloquies and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter.[109]

      One might add to this list the translation, in Alfred's law code, of excerpts from the Vulgate Book of Exodus. The Old English versions of Orosius's Histories against the Pagans and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People are no longer accepted by scholars as Alfred's own translations because of lexical and stylistic differences.[109] Nonetheless the consensus remains that they were part of the Alfredian programme of translation. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge suggest this also for Bald's Leechbook and the anonymous Old English Martyrology.[110]

      The preface of Alfred's translation of Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care explained why he thought it necessary to translate works such as this from Latin into English. Although he described his method as translating "sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense", the translation actually keeps very close to the original although, through his choice of language, he blurred throughout the distinction between spiritual and secular authority. Alfred meant the translation to be used, and circulated it to all his bishops.[111] Interest in Alfred's translation of Pastoral Care was so enduring that copies were still being made in the 11th century.[112]

      Boethius'Consolation of Philosophy was the most popular philosophical handbook of the Middle Ages. Unlike the translation of the Pastoral Care the Alfredian text deals very freely with the original and, though the late Dr. G. Schepss showed that many of the additions to the text are to be traced not to the translator himself[113] but to the glosses and commentaries which he used, still there is much in the work which is distinctive to the translation and has been taken to reflect philosophies of kingship in Alfred's milieu. It is in the Boethius that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: "To speak briefly: I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works."[114] The book has come down to us in two manuscripts only. In one of these[115] the writing is prose, in the other[116] a combination of prose and alliterating verse. The latter manuscript was severely damaged in the 18th and 19th centuries.[117]

      The last of the Alfredian works is one which bears the name Blostman, i.e. "Blooms" or Anthology. The first half is based mainly on the Soliloquies of St Augustine of Hippo, the remainder is drawn from various sources. The material has traditionally been thought to contain much that is Alfred's own and highly characteristic of him. The last words of it may be quoted; they form a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings. "Therefore, he seems to me a very foolish man, and truly wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear."[111] Alfred appears as a character in the twelfth- or thirteenth-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale where his wisdom and skill with proverbs is praised. The Proverbs of Alfred, a thirteenth-century work, contains sayings that are not likely to have originated with Alfred but attest to his posthumous medieval reputation for wisdom.[118]

      2A drawing of the Alfred Jewel.

      The Alfred Jewel, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, commissioned by Alfred:

      Interesting article about, "The Alfred Jewel", contributed January 14th, 2018 by Martha Ann Millsaps;


      The Alfred jewel, discovered in Somerset in 1693, has long been associated with King Alfred because of its Old English inscription AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (Alfred ordered me to be made). The jewel is about 2 1/2 inches (6.4 centimetres) long, made of filigreed gold, enclosing a highly polished piece of quartz crystal beneath which is set in a cloisonnâe enamel plaque with an enamelled image of a man holding floriate sceptres, perhaps personifying Sight or the Wisdom of God.[119]

      It was at one time attached to a thin rod or stick based on the hollow socket at its base. The jewel certainly dates from Alfred's reign. Although its function is unknown it has been often suggested that the jewel was one of the "µstels"—pointers for reading—that Alfred ordered sent to every bishopric accompanying a copy of his translation of the Pastoral Care. Each "µstel" was worth the princely sum of 50 mancuses which fits in well with the quality workmanship and expensive materials of the Alfred jewel".[120]

      Historian Richard Abels sees Alfred's educational and military reforms as complementary. Restoring religion and learning in Wessex, Abels contends, was to Alfred's mind as essential to the defence of his realm as the building of the burhs.[121] As Alfred observed in the preface to his English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, kings who fail to obey their divine duty to promote learning can expect earthly punishments to befall their people.[122] The pursuit of wisdom, he assured his readers of the Boethius, was the surest path to power: "Study Wisdom, then, and, when you have learned it, condemn it not, for I tell you that by its means you may without fail attain to power, yea, even though not desiring it".[123]

      The portrayal of the West-Saxon resistance to the Vikings by Asser and the chronicler as a Christian holy war was more than mere rhetoric or 'propaganda'. It reflected Alfred's own belief in a doctrine of divine rewards and punishments rooted in a vision of a hierarchical Christian world order in which God is the Lord to whom kings owe obedience and through whom they derive their authority over their followers. The need to persuade his nobles to undertake work for the 'common good' led Alfred and his court scholars to strengthen and deepen the conception of Christian kingship that he had inherited by building upon the legacy of earlier kings such as Offa as well as clerical writers such as Bede, Alcuin and the other luminaries of the Carolingian renaissance. This was not a cynical use of religion to manipulate his subjects into obedience but an intrinsic element in Alfred's worldview. He believed, as did other kings in ninth-century England and Francia, that God had entrusted him with the spiritual as well as physical welfare of his people. If the Christian faith fell into ruin in his kingdom, if the clergy were too ignorant to understand the Latin words they butchered in their offices and liturgies, if the ancient monasteries and collegiate churches lay deserted out of indifference, he was answerable before God, as Josiah had been. Alfred's ultimate responsibility was the pastoral care of his people.[121]

      Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else. ... [He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour ... [and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.[124]

      It is also written by Asser that Alfred did not learn to read until he was twelve years old or later, which is described as "shameful negligence" of his parents and tutors. Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory and he retained poetry and psalms very well. A story is told by Asser about how his mother held up a book of Saxon poetry to him and his brothers, and said; "I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest." After excitedly asking, "Will you really give this book to the one of us who can understand it the soonest and recite it to you?" Alfred then took it to his teacher, learned it, and recited it back to his mother.[125]

      Alfred is also noted as carrying around a small book, probably a medieval version of a small pocket notebook, which contained psalms and many prayers that he often collected. Asser writes: these "he collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it."[125]

      An excellent hunter in every branch of the sport, Alfred is remembered as an enthusiastic huntsman against whom nobody’s skills could compare.[125]

      Although he was the youngest of his brothers, he was probably the most open-minded. He was an early advocate for education. His desire for learning could have come from his early love of English poetry and inability to read or physically record it until later in life. Asser writes that Alfred "could not satisfy his craving for what he desired the most, namely the liberal arts; for, as he used to say, there were no good scholars in the entire kingdom of the West Saxons at that time".[125]


      In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, ¥thelred Mucel, Ealdorman of the Gaini. The Gaini were probably one of the tribal groups of the Mercians. Ealhswith's mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal family.[126]

      They had five or six children together including: Edward the Elder who succeeded his father as king; ¥thelflµd who became Lady (ruler) of the Mercians in her own right; and ¥lfthryth who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders. His mother was Osburga, daughter of Oslac of the Isle of Wight, Chief Butler of England. Asser, in his Vita ¥lfredi asserts that this shows his lineage from the Jutes of the Isle of Wight. This is unlikely as Bede tells us that they were all slaughtered by the Saxons under Cµdwalla. In 2008 the skeleton of Queen Eadgyth, granddaughter of Alfred the Great was found in Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany. It was confirmed in 2010 that these remains belong to her—one of the earliest members of the English royal family.[127]

      Osferth was described as a relative in King Alfred's will and he attested charters in a high position until 934. A charter of King Edward's reign described him as the king's brother, "mistakenly" according to Keynes and Lapidge, but in the view of Janet Nelson he probably was an illegitimate son of King Alfred.[128][129]

      Name Birth Death Notes
      ¥thelflµd 12 June 918 Married c 886, ¥thelred, Lord of the Mercians d. 911; had issue
      Edward c. 874 17 July 924 Married (1) Ecgwynn, (2) ¥lfflµd, (3) 919 Eadgifu
      ¥thelgifu Abbess of Shaftesbury
      ¥thelweard 16 October 922(?) Married and had issue
      ¥lfthryth 929 Married Baldwin II d. 918; had issue


      [show]Ancestors of Alfred the Great

      Death, burial and fate of remains[edit]

      Alfred's will:
      Alfred died on 26 October 899. How he died is unknown, although he suffered throughout his life with a painful and unpleasant illness. His biographer Asser gave a detailed description of Alfred's symptoms and this has allowed modern doctors to provide a possible diagnosis. It is thought that he had either Crohn's disease or haemorrhoidal disease.[7][131] His grandson King Eadred seems to have suffered from a similar illness.[132][g]

      Alfred was originally buried temporarily in the Old Minster in Winchester. Four years after his death he was moved to the New Minster (perhaps built especially to receive his body). When the New Minster moved to Hyde, a little north of the city, in 1110, the monks were transferred to Hyde Abbey along with Alfred's body and those of his wife and children, which were presumably interred before the high altar. Soon after the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII, the church was demolished, leaving the graves intact.[134]

      The royal graves and many others were probably rediscovered by chance in 1788 when a prison was being constructed by convicts on the site. Prisoners dug across the width of the altar area in order to dispose of rubble left at the dissolution. Coffins were stripped of lead, and bones were scattered and lost. The prison was demolished between 1846 and 1850.[135] Further excavations in 1866 and 1897 were inconclusive.[134][136] In 1866 amateur antiquarian John Mellor claimed to have recovered a number of bones from the site which he said were those of Alfred. These later came into the possession of the vicar of nearby St Bartholomew's Church who reburied them in an unmarked grave in the church graveyard.[135]

      Excavations conducted by the Winchester Museums Service of the Hyde Abbey site in 1999 located a second pit dug in front of where the high altar would have been located, which was identified as probably dating to Mellor's 1886 excavation.[134] The 1999 archeological excavation uncovered the foundations of the abbey buildings and some bones. Bones suggested at the time to be those of Alfred proved instead to belong to an elderly woman.[137]

      In March 2013 the Diocese of Winchester exhumed the bones from the unmarked grave at St Bartholomew's and placed them in secure storage. The diocese made no claim they were the bones of Alfred, but intended to secure them for later analysis, and from the attentions of people whose interest may have been sparked by the recent identification of the remains of King Richard III.[137][138] The bones were radiocarbon-dated but the results showed that they were from the 1300s and therefore unrelated to Alfred. In January 2014, a fragment of pelvis unearthed in the 1999 excavation of the Hyde site, which had subsequently lain in a Winchester museum store room, was radiocarbon-dated to the correct period. It has been suggested that this bone may belong to either Alfred or his son Edward, but this remains unproven.[139][140]

      end of biography [2]
    • More...

      "The Last Kingdom"

      The Last Kingdom is a British television series, an eight-part adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's historical novels series The Saxon Stories.[1] The series premiered on 10 October 2015 on BBC America,[2] and on BBC Two in the UK on 22 October 2015.

      Set in the late ninth century AD, when what is known as England today was several separate kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxon lands are attacked and, in many instances, ruled by Danes. The Kingdom of Wessex has been left standing alone.

      The protagonist Uhtred, the orphaned son of a Saxon nobleman, is captured by viking Danes and reared as one of them. Forced to choose between a kingdom that shares his ancestry and the people of his upbringing, his loyalties are constantly tested.[4]

      The first series' storyline roughly covers the plot of the original two novels, The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman although condensed for the purposes of television ...

      For a more complete genealogy including ancestors and descendants, see House of Wessex family tree ...

      Alfred Saxon, King of England is the 5 x great uncle of William I Normandie, King of England ...

      Alfred Saxon, King of England is the 4 x great grandfather of the wife of William I Normandie, King of England ...

      More history on King Alfred of Wessex, the first English king ...

      "Alfred the Great" ... his history & issue;

      "...Before Alfred arrived on the scene, England had consisted of a number of small kingdoms, but these were simply overrun and their royal families wiped out by the Vikings by the end of the 860s.
      At this point, the Vikings threatened to overrun the whole of England, and the King of Mercia fled overseas, as did a number of well-to-do West Saxons.

      But on the verge of total disaster, something happened which became part of the English myth in the Anglo-Saxon period, and still is. In early 878, Alfred the Great was surrounded in the marshes of Athelney in Somerset, almost finished. 'England' was on the ropes before it had even come into being..."

      end of comment [7, 8]
    • Guthrum or Guºrum (died c. 890), christened ¥thelstan on his conversion to Christianity in 878, was King of the Danish Vikings in the Danelaw. He is mainly known for his conflict with Alfred the Great.

      Guthrum, founder of the Danelaw

      It is not known how Guthrum consolidated his rule as king over the other Danish chieftains of the Danelaw (Danish-ruled territory of England), but by 874 he was able to wage a war against Wessex and its King, Alfred.

      In 875, the Danish forces, then under Guthrum and Halfdan Ragnarsson, divided, Halfdan's contingent returning north to Northumbria, while Guthrum's forces went to East Anglia, quartering themselves at Cambridge for the year.

      By 876, Guthrum had acquired various parts of the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria and then turned his attention to acquiring Wessex, where his first confrontation with Alfred took place on the south coast. Guthrum sailed his army around Poole Harbour and linked up with another Viking army that was invading the area between the Frome and Piddle rivers which was ruled by Alfred.[1] According to the historian Asser, Guthrum won his initial battle with Alfred, and he captured the castellum as well as the ancient square earthworks known as the Wareham, where there was a convent of nuns.

      Alfred successfully brokered a peace settlement, but by 877 this peace was broken as Guthrum led his army raiding further into Wessex, thus forcing Alfred to confront him in a series of skirmishes that Guthrum continued to win. At Exeter, which Guthrum had also captured, Alfred made a peace treaty, with the result that Guthrum left Wessex to winter in Gloucester.

      Surprise attack

      Silver penny of ¥thelstan:

      On Epiphany, 6 January 878, Guthrum made a surprise night-time attack on Alfred and his court at Chippenham, Wiltshire. It being a Christian feast day the Saxons were presumably taken by surprise—indeed it is possible that Wulfhere, the Ealdorman of Wiltshire, allowed the attack either through negligence or intent, for on Alfred's return to power later in 878 Wulfhere was stripped of his role as Ealdorman.

      Alfred fled the attack with a few retainers and took shelter in the marshes of Somerset, staying in the small village of Athelney. Over the next few months he built up his force and waged a guerrilla war against Guthrum from his fastness in the fens. After a few months Alfred called his loyal men to Egbert's Stone, and from there they travelled to Edington to fight the invaders.

      Defeat by Alfred

      Guthrum's hopes of conquering all of Wessex came to an end with his defeat at the hands of Alfred at the Battle of Edington in 878. At Edington, Guthrum’s entire army was routed by Alfred's and fled to their encampment where they were besieged by Alfred's fyrd for two weeks. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Guthrum’s army was able to negotiate a peace treaty known as the Treaty of Wedmore.[2] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the event:

      “Then the raiding army granted him (Alfred) hostages and great oaths that they would leave his kingdom and also promised him that their king (Guthrum) would receive baptism; and they fulfilled it. And three weeks later the king Guthrum came to him, one of thirty of the most honourable men who were in the raiding army, at Aller - and that is near Athelney - and the king received him at baptism; and his chrism loosing was at Wedmore.” [2]
      Conversion to Christianity and peace
      Under the Treaty of Wedmore the borders dividing the lands of Alfred and Guthrum were established,[3] and perhaps more importantly, Guthrum converted to Christianity and took on the Christian name ¥thelstan with Alfred as his godfather.

      Guthrum upheld his end of the treaty and left the boundary that separated the Danelaw from English England unmolested. Guthrum, although failing to conquer Wessex, turned towards the lands to the east that the treaty had allotted under his control. Guthrum withdrew his army from the western borders facing Alfred's territory and moved eastward before eventually settling in the Kingdom of Guthrum in East Anglia in 879. He lived out the remainder of his life there until his death in 890. According to the Annals of St Neots, a chronicle compiled in Bury St Edmunds, Guthrum was buried at Headleage, which is usually identified as Hadleigh, Suffolk.[4]

      Popular culture

      Guthrum appears in several works of fiction, including:

      G. K. Chesterton's poem The Ballad of the White Horse.
      C. Walter Hodges' juvenile historical novels The Namesake and The Marsh King.
      Bernard Cornwell's first three novels of The Saxon Stories series The Last Kingdom, and The Pale Horseman, and The Lords of the North.
      On screen, he was portrayed by Brian Blessed in episode 4 ("King Alfred") of Churchill's People, by Michael York in the 1969 film Alfred the Great, and Thomas W. Gabrielsson in The Last Kingdom.


      Collingwood, M. A. and Powell, F. Y. Scandinavian Britain (New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1908), p. 94.
      Anglo Saxon Chronicle Trans. by M. J. Swanton (New York, Routledge: 1996).
      Davis, R. H. C. From Alfred the Great to Stephen (London, The Hambledon Press: 1991) p. 48.
      Dumville, David; Lapidge, Michael (1985). The Annals of St Neots with Vita Prima Sancti Neoti, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: a Collaborative Edition. Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-85991-117-7.

      External links

      Guthrum 1 at Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England

      English royalty

      Preceded by
      ¥thelred King of East Anglia 879– 890

      Succeeded by Eohric [9]
    • Alfred the Great had a crippling disability...

      When we look up at the statue of King Alfred of Wessex in Winchester, we are confronted by an image of our national ‘superhero’: the valiant defender of a Christian realm against the heathen Viking marauders. There is no doubt that Alfred fully deserves this accolade as ‘England’s darling’, but there was another side to him that is less well known.

      Alfred never expected to be king – he had three older brothers – but when he was four years old on a visit to Rome the pope seemed to have granted him special favour when his father presented him to the pontiff. As he grew up, Alfred was constantly troubled by illness, including irritating and painful piles – a real problem in an age where a prince was constantly in the saddle. Asser, the Welshman who became his biographer, relates that Alfred suffered from another painful, draining malady that is not specified. Some people believe it was Crohn’s Disease, others that it may have been a sexually transmitted disease, or even severe depression.

      The truth is we don’t know exactly what Alfred’s mystery ailment was. Whatever it was, it is incredible to think that Alfred’s extraordinary achievements were accomplished in the face of a daily struggle with debilitating and chronic illness.

      end of commentary [10]

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    4. [S12307] "Alfred the Great (849-899)", Biography,, revisited or retr.

    5. [S12595] "The House of Wessex",,

    6. [S12119] "Ealhswith", Biography,, retrieved or revisited, recorded & uploaded to the webs.

    7. [S11855] "The Last Kingdom" (a TV Series),, revisited or retrieved, re.

    8. [S11856] "The Last Kingdom" (a BBC TV series),, revisited or retrieved, recorded.

    9. [S12474] "Guthrum", Biography,, abstracted by David A. Hennessee, info@classroomfurniture.c.

    10. [S11922] "Alfred the Great had a crippling disability", as found in, "10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Anglo-Saxons.