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Alfred the Great

A Concise Biography


Alfred (also spelled Aelfred) was the King of Wessex who resisted Danish incursion and united much of the individual English kingdoms under one rule in the process. For his military skill, his administrative acumen, his promotion of learning and his achievement in uniting virtually all of England, Alfred is the only English king to be tagged "the Great."

As the fifth son of the king of the West Saxons, Alfred probably never expected to take the throne himself. He appears to have shown an interest in learning from a young age, but his early education was more likely focused on the military training young men of rank commonly received in the ninth century.

In 868 Alfred accompanied his brother, King Aethelred I, in assisting King Burgred of Mercia against Danish forces (Vikings) that had conquered East Anglia the year before. Instead of fighting, the Danes made peace, but three years later they invaded Wessex. Alfred once again accompanied his brother, this time in several battles. In April of 871 Aethelred died, possibly of wounds received in battle, and Alfred succeeded him as King of Wessex.

Although Alfred did not defeat the Danes, a peace agreement was struck. The Danes attempted no attacks for about five years, possibly because of the intensity of Alfred's resistance. Alfred wisely began reinforcing old strongholds and building new ones, reorganizing his army, and constructing and using ships for defense as early as 875, a move that would later prove a significant advantage against further aggression. He also established friendly diplomatic relations with other English kingdoms and the Welsh.

The Danes resumed their attacks on Wessex in 876, and after several unsuccessful battles they established themselves at Chippenham in 878. The West Saxons submitted, but Alfred himself did not, harassing the Danes from a fort in Somerset and clandestinely assembling an army. In May of 878 he won a resounding victory at the Battle of Edington. The Danes surrendered, and their king Guthrum was baptised with Alfred as his sponsor. Guthrum and his people then settled in East Anglia.

Relative peace prevailed for several years. In 885 Alfred repelled an invasion of Kent by yet another group of Vikings. A year later Alfred captured London; this bold move encouraged all the English not currently under Danish rule to accept him as their king. Later, Alfred's son would find the control of London advantageous in his reconquest of territory still under Danish control. In 892 another invasion occupied Alfred; his resistance wore down the encroachers until they gave up in 896.

Alfred was not only a great military leader but an able administrator and a ruler with foresight. He promulgated important laws, limiting the practice of blood feuds and taking steps to protect the weak. He also promoted learning and literacy, inviting scholars from neighboring nations and Europe to his court during the lulls in fighting.

King Alfred encouraged his subjects to learn to read English, and saw to it that books were made available in the language. He even learned Latin and translated some important works into English himself, including The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory I. And, though there is no direct proof of his involvement with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was begun in his reign, and it may have had its genesis in the atmosphere of learning he created.

A valuable biography of Alfred was written by Asser, a Welsh scholar, while the king was still alive and flourishing. The exact date and circumstances of the death of Alfred the Great remain unclear.

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