Alfred the Great, England’s Strong and Righteous Ruler

19th century depiction of Alfred the Great

The fifth son of Aethelwulf, Alfred was born in 849. He came to the throne in 871. Immediately, he was met with the daunting task of ridding his country of the Vikings. The Viking raids had established many Danish settlements, and in 867, the Vikings seized York and established a kingdom in southern Northumbria. The Vikings had already defeated both East Anglia and Mercia. Finally, in 870, the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom – that of Wessex, whose forces were commanded by King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred.

In 871, Alfred defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown, but soon his older brother Aethelred was killed, and Alfred came to the throne. In 878, the Danish king Guthrum seized Chippenham in Wiltshire, providing the Danes with a stronghold in the area. With a small army made up of his royal bodyguards, thegns (the King’s followers) and Aethelnoth, earldorman of Somerset, Alfred withdrew to make a stand in the Somerset tidal marshes.

Queen Osburga reads for her son Alfred, who would become Alfred the Great.

From his fortified base at Athelney in Somerset, Alfred led quick strike raids against the Danish forces. In May 878, Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington. However, Alfred realized he could not drive the Danes from the rest of England, so he sought a peace treaty. King Guthrum converted to Christianity with Alfred as godfather to his children.

King Alfred's Tower (1772) on the supposed site of Egbert's Stone, the mustering place before the Battle of Ethandun

“In 886, Alfred negotiated a partition treaty with the Danes, in which a frontier was demarcated along the Roman Watling Street and northern and eastern England came under the jurisdiction of the Danes – an area known as ‘Danelaw.’ Alfred, therefore, gained control of areas of West Mercia and Kent, which had been beyond the boundaries of Wessex.” (The Official Website of the British Monarchy)

Alfred changed how the British army responded to a crisis by developing a “rapid reaction force,” which would respond to immediate attacks from the outside or within the kingdom.  He also encouraged the establishment of well-defended settlements along the southern border. “These well fortified market places (‘borough’ comes from the Old English burh, meaning fortress); by deliberate royal planning, settlers received plots and in return manned the defences in times of war. (Such plots in London under Alfred’s rule in the 880s shaped the street plan, which still exists today between Cheapside and the Thames.)

Statue of Alfred the Great by Hamo Thornycroft in Winchester, unveiled during the millenary celebrations of Alfred's death.

This obligation required careful recording in what became known as ‘the Burghal Hidage’, which gave details of the building and manning of Wessex and Mercian burhs according to their size, the length of their ramparts and the number of men needed to garrison them.

Centred round Alfred’s royal palace in Winchester, this network of burhs with strongpoints on the main river routes was such that no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles from the refuge of one of these settlements. Together with a navy of new fast ships built on Alfred’s orders, southern England now had a defence in depth against Danish raiders.”

Plaque in the City of London noting the restoration of the Roman walled city by Alfred

In 891, Alfred’s greatest fame began. He compiled the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written in the language of the people, rather than the Latin used by the church, outlines the political, social, and economic events that marked the history of Britain. Later, he translated Orosius’s Historia Adversus Paganos and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Alfred died in 899 at the age of 50. He was the only English king to be called “Great.”

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2 Responses to Alfred the Great, England’s Strong and Righteous Ruler

  1. It appears that many of these people would have fared better with Paxil. Lol. This is a great blog.

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