Alfred the Great in the British Monarchy
Alfred the Great was the king of Wessex at the end of the 9th Century.
Alfred was noted for his defence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in southern England from Viking raids. Additionally, he was the only English king to be given the epithet, “the Great.”
Alfred the Great’s Childhood
Alfred was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, in 849. He was the youngest son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex.
When Alfred was five, his father sent him on a pilgrimage to Rome. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Pope Leo IV anointed him a consul. 18th and 19th Century historians interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation. However, this does not seem to be very likely, as Alfred had three living older brothers at the time.
A letter written by the Pope during Alfred’s time in Rome, in which Alfred is referred to as a Consul may have caused this later confusion. The confusion may also be caused by the fact that Alfred spent time in the court of Charles the Bald, the King of France.
Upon returning to England, King Ethelwulf was deposed by Ethelbald, his oldest surviving son. However, civil war was avoided and a compromise was quickly reached. Ethelwulf would retain Wessex, while Ethelbald would rule in the east. Following the death of King Ethelwulf in 858, Ethelbald, Ethelbert and Ethelred all ruled Wessex in turn. However, their reigns were short, lasting less than 15 years combined.
Alfred as Heir to the Throne
During the reigns of Ethelbald and Ethelbert, Alfred is not mentioned. The primary sources seem to indicate that Alfred’s public life began during the reign of King Ethelred. In 866, he was given the title “Secondarius,” which may have been a formal recognition that Alfred would ascend to the throne when Ethelred died.
In 868, Alfred fought along side Ethelred in his attempt to keep the Danes from invading Mercia. For a time, Wessex was spared by the Vikings because Alfred paid them tribute. By 870, gold was not sufficient and the Danes invaded. 871 is sometimes called Alfred’s Year of Battles because he fought nine major engagements in less than 12 months. The dates and locations of some of these battles are not known, but what is known is that Alfred earned a reputation as a natural leader on the battlefield during this time.
Following the death of King Ethelred in April, 871, Alfred became the King of Wessex. Meanwhile, the Danes took advantage of the distraction caused by Ethelred’s death to attack Wessex, defeating Alfred twice, forcing him to sue for peace. The exact terms of the treaty are not known, but it is known that the Vikings left Wessex, eventually withdrawing to London.
They continued to ravage England for the next five years, attacking Exeter, Wareham and Chippenham. Alfred was eventually able to impose a blockade and force the Danes to submit.
This is considered to be the low-water mark in the history of Anglo-Saxon England. While most of the other kingdoms fell to the Vikings, only Wessex continued to fight. In 878, Alfred eventually established a fort at Athelney, from which he mounted a successful insurgency against the Danes.
For the next few years the kingdom was quiet, as the Danes were busy invading France. However, in 885 there was a Viking raid at Plucks Gutter in Kent. Even though the raid was successfully repelled, a Danish uprising occurred there not long afterward. The exact measures Alfred used to suppress the uprising are not known, but it is believed that the suppression of the Plucks Gutter Rebellion led directly to the capture of London in 886.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “all of the English not subject to the Danes submitted to King Alfred.” Bishop Asser added to this, writing that, “Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons, restored the city of London splendidly…and made it habitable once more.”
The Death of Alfred the Great
Alfred died on October 26, sometime around the year 900. The exact manner of his death is not known, but he is believed to have suffered from Crohn’s Disease. His grandson, King Edred was also afflicted with Crohn’s Disease. Alfred was originally buried in the Old Minster at Winchester Cathedral. In 1110, Alfred’s body, along with the bodies of his family were moved to the New Minster. In 1539, the abbey was torn down on the orders of Henry VIII. Following this, the location of Alfred’s grave was lost until near the end of the 18th Century. In 1788, convicts discovered graves while building a prison on the site. Unfortunately, Alfred’s remains are thought to have disappeared at this time after all of the coffins found in the ruins of the abbey were broken open for their lead.
Today, Alfred the Great is worshipped as a saint by both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. He is also regarded as a Christian hero by the Church of England. His feast day is on October 26.
Keynes, Simon, and Lapidge, Michael, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources (Penguin Classics), 1984, Abels, Richard, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, 1998,
Reuter, Timothy (ed.), Alfred the Great (Studies in early medieval Britain), 2003, Pratt, David: The political thought of King Alfred the Great (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, 2007)
Wormald, Patrick, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, 1999,
Frantzen, Allen J., King Alfred the Great (Twayne’s English Authors Series), 9780805769180
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