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Alfred the Great (871-99)
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Alfred of Wessex, the only English ruler to hold the title ‘Great’, played a unique role in British history. Outstanding among Anglo-Saxon monarchs, he laid the foundations for the English kingdom as it existed into the Middle Ages.

Alfred was the youngest son of Ethelwulf, King of Wessex from 839 to 856. He was a studious child, who showed promise, and in 855 spent a year on pilgrimage in Rome with his father. On his return, Ethelwulf made over the kingship to Alfred’s brother Ethelbald, who was followed in succession by two more brothers, Ethelbert and Ethelred. At his brothers’ side, young Alfred learned the skills of Wessex diplo¬macy and the harsher arts of the battle¬field, fighting off Danish Vikings.
In 865 the Great Army of Norsemen, led by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan, ravaged East Anglia, killing King Edmund, and invading Northumbria and Mercia. Only Wessex held out. When Ethelred died in 871, it was Alfred’s turn to be king and defender of his people.

‘He was a bountiful giver of alms ... incomparably affable and pleasant to all men, and a skilful investigator of the secrets of nature.’

Asser, Welsh monk, writing of his friend and hero King Alfred

At one point, all seemed lost for Alfred, hiding out in the Somerset marshlands, but he recovered to thrash the Danes at Edington (Wiltshire) in 878. After this battle, the Danish leader Guthrum became a Christian, with Alfred as his godfather. The Treaty of Wedmore recognized Danish control east of a line from London to Chester. Known as the Danelaw, this region long retained a Scandinavian flavour in place names and law.


‘... amid wars and the frequent hindrances of this present life, the incursions of the pagans and his own daily infirmities of body, the king did not cease to carry on the government ... ’ declared Asser.
Alfred read ‘Saxon books’, loved poetry and translated into English works by the Latin scholars Boethius
and Augustine. He was also deeply religious: ‘in the night he was wont to frequent the churches for prayers secretly’.

Alfred recaptured London from the Danes and reorgan¬ized the defence of his kingdom by creating fortified towns, or burhs, organizing the militia into a standing army, and building ships to patrol the coastline. When Vikings struck again in 890, the army and navy of Wessex were ready.
Far more than just a successful war- leader, Alfred devoted his energies to the well-being of his people - giving them education, fair laws and justice - so setting a model for the duties of a ‘good king’. The unity of Angelcynn, ‘the land of the English folk’, was largely the king’s vision. When Alfred died in 899, the kingdom and his mission passed to his son Edward.

Monarch in his capital
A statue of Alfred stands in Winchester, his capital and burial-place.

Alfred the Great (871-99)

Alfred’s Jewel
An elegant example of Saxon jewellery, made of gold and enamel, which may have belonged to King Alfred.

Alfred the Great (871-99)

Nunnaminster relic
The Nunnaminster was a monastery in Winchester, founded by Alfred’s queen Ealhswith in 903 and one of the centres of learning so valued by the king. The monastery was rebuilt in Norman times.

Alfred the Great (871-99)

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