Alfred is the only English King ever to be given the name ‘the Great’.
Perhaps alongside Harold Godwinson of 1066 fame, Alfred is the most widely known Anglo-Saxon ruler.
Alfred fought back against Viking invaders and played a role in beginning a sense of ‘English’ identity beyond the existing smaller kingdoms. He supported retrenching Christian culture in the face of pagan invasion.
Alfred’s ‘spin doctors’
We know a good deal about Alfred because he had a biography written about him by his contemporary Bishop Asser: the ‘Life of King Alfred’.
However, Asser was not a neutral bystander. He was an advisor to Alfred and wanted to portray him in the best light.
There are further but briefer historical records in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, also begun at Alfred’s request.
England before the Vikings
Jarring though it may seem to us today, Alfred was born into a world where there was not a unified English nation under one central ruler.
Since the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon culture, several Kingdoms had coalesced out of smaller groups over time and vied with each other as to who would be ‘top-dog’ in a kind of constantly changing league-table.
The main kingdoms in Alfred’s youth were Northumbria in the north of England, Mercia in the Midlands, East Anglia on the east coast and Wessex in the south. Cornwall and Cumbria retained their own non-Anglo Saxon identities.
Alfred was born at a Royal Estate near Wantage, Berkshire, in 849 AD as the youngest of many sons to Aethelwulf, King of ‘Wessex’ (the Kingdom of the West Saxons). Their core territory was roughly southern England south of the Thames minus Cornwall in the far south-west.
Enter the Vikings
The Vikings, initially pagan Scandinavian traders, raiders and settlers threw the ‘league table’ of kingdoms into total confusion.
Their raids, drawn by the wealth of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, had begun to trouble England in the 780s AD.
The incursions of the 860s were on a much bigger scale, culminating in the arrival of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ on the coast of East Anglia in 865. Alfred was still a prince at this time, and Wessex was ruled by his elder brother Aethelred.
The highly mobile Vikings began to take out the individual Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with alarming speed.
In 866, they moved north and exploited a civil war between claimants to the Northumbrian throne, taking York and setting up a puppet local ruler.
In 867, it was the turn of Mercia. Its ruler Burgred allied with Wessex’s army commanded by King Aethelred and Alfred. Temporarily checked but undefeated, in 873 the Vikings returned to Mercia and deposed Burgred.
In 869, the King of East Anglia, Edmund was killed by the Vikings. East Anglia was now fully under Viking domination too.
In 870-71, the Vikings over-wintered in a fortified camp at Reading in Wessex. Saxon forces under Aethelred and Alfred tried to oust them but were defeated.
The brothers continued fighting and won the battle of Ashdown, in which Asser tells us Alfred took the lead role. Warfare continued; Aethelred died and was succeeded by Alfred.
The Vikings under King Guthrum renewed their attack on Wessex in 878. They mounted a surprise attack on the Royal centre of Chippenham (Wiltshire), where Alfred had been celebrating Christmas.
Alfred was driven into hiding in the marshes of Somerset but refused to give up, waging a guerrilla war until he could rebuild his forces.
Wessex strikes back
By Easter, Alfred established a fortified camp at Athelney, Somerset.
In his day, this would have been an island connected to other high ground by a causeway. From here, his remaining followers sent out raids and put out feelers for support. An early 19th-century monument commemorates his time here.
He also constructed a fortified settlement at the western end of the causeway at East Lyng.
After mustering his forces, Alfred felt strong enough to hit back in open battle and marched to ‘Ethandune’, probably Edington on the edge of Salisbury Plain, where he defeated the Viking army.
Alfred forced them to make peace and to return to East Anglia.
As part of the peace deal, Guthrum had to submit to baptism. Between 880 and 890, a formal treaty was drawn between Alfred and Guthrum.
This peace was something of a compromise, which set the respective borders as:
‘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’.
This treaty acknowledged on Alfred’s part that the Vikings weren’t leaving the island, with Guthrum as a recognised Christian King in East Anglia.
Western Mercia was now ruled by a pro-Wessex Mercian nobleman called Aethelred, who married Alfred’s determined and capable daughter Aethelflaed.
Aethelflaed would later rule Mercia on her own as ‘Lady of the Mercians’.
Towards one England
Alfred has sometimes been regarded as the first king of a united England, but that was not quite the real picture in his day.
He certainly called himself King of the Anglo-Saxons (rex Angul-Saxonum) or ‘of the English’ (Angelcynn), not merely of Wessex, pointing to an aspiration for a sense of common English identity.
As head of the ‘Last Kingdom’ standing, he tried to exert influence over those areas outside of traditional Wessex where he could.
People in the Saxon part of Mercia used coins minted at Gloucester but in Alfred’s name, for example. He decided the fate of previously Mercian London when it was re-occupied after the Danes left. The new rulers of western Merica, his son-in-law and daughter, were not allowed the title of ‘King’ or ‘Queen’.
It was completely out of Alfred’s reach to determine matters in Northumbria even if he had wanted to, however. As we’ve seen, East Anglia was handed over to Guthrum’s followers.
He did, however, provide a starting point from which his successors could bring much of England together under the rule of the House of Wessex.
Alfred would have seen the advantages of prepared defences in his wars with the Vikings.
He began to plan against future dangers by organising a network of defended places known as ‘burhs’. We know them from documentary sources such as the ‘Burghal Hidage’ setting out their size, garrisons, and archaeological investigations.
These sites varied in size and complexity but together covered strategic inland or coastal locations and offered places of security for local people and, in some cases, economic centres.
Some were simple earthworks thrown up across a narrow promontory, between rivers, or re-occupied iron age hillforts. Others were old Roman towns or forts whose walls were intact enough so that their circuits could be patched up or new major earthwork and wooden palisade fortifications in which towns developed.
The best-preserved example where you can see above-ground remains of the earthwork defences is at Wareham, Dorset, a trading centre where two rivers meet a little inland from Poole Bay.
Another elaborate planned burh was at Cricklade on the Thames in Wiltshire.
Many resources, including labour, had to be marshalled to build and garrison these places. To do so, Alfred had to co-opt an existing tradition of duties to work on public infrastructure and military service.
His daughter also extended this burh system across Mercia and the network was expanded by Alfred’s successors.
King Alfred, founder of the Royal Navy?
Alfred’s forces also took to the sea to thwart Viking incursions. We are told that he even invented new designs of ships for the purpose.
This has led to him being identified as the ‘Founder of the Royal Navy’.
However, historians have pointed out that there were existing traditions of using a fleet, including sea fights with the Vikings in his father’s time as king.
Alfred reformed his coinage to bring the silver content back up to acceptable standards to help give economic stability.
The Church and learning
Alfred was not just known for military and secular achievements. He was a patron of learning and church reform.
Sources claim that because of the disruption of the Viking invasions, there were scarcely any priests left south of the Humber who had sufficient knowledge of Latin to carry on the ritual and business of the church. Hence, encouraging learning was important to Alfred. There were also texts written in Old English to bridge the knowledge gap.
Symbolic of Alfred’s drive to promote literacy and learning were the reading pointers or ‘aestels’ given to favoured churchmen.
A beautiful example of these, now known as the ‘Alfred Jewel’, was found near Athelney in the 17th century with the inscription ‘Alfred had me made’.
How did King Alfred die?
Amid all his battles and duties, Alfred had to cope with a mysterious and painful stomach illness, which some now believe may have been Crohns disease.
Alfred died in 899 AD and was buried at his main capital of Winchester, originally at the Old Minster (on the site of the present cathedral).
We do not know the exact circumstances around his death, but it is possible that his pre-existing ill-health was a factor.
The mystery of Alfred’s remains
Later, Alfred’s bones were transferred to Hyde Abbey outside Winchester.
After the dissolution of the monasteries, the Royal burial site was all but forgotten, and in 1788, convicts constructing prison buildings on the site disturbed the bones.
Archaeologists excavated the site in the 1990s, and in 2014 specialists re-examining bones from the excavation announced that one pelvic bone may have been the remains of either Alfred or his son Edward.
Alfred’s legacy and becoming Alfred, the Great
Alfred may not have been the first king of all England, but he had helped to preserve Christian Anglo-Saxon culture and created the basis from which his son Edward the Elder and his grandsons Athelstan and Eadred could bring the country together.
He was not called ‘the Great’ until the reformation in the 16th century as newly Protestant England looked for a Christian and secular hero who had ‘stuck up’ for the English church.
The Victorians and Edwardians venerated Alfred as ‘England’s Darling’: a progressive monarch and a symbol of Englishness, celebrating him with several public sculptures such as at Winchester, Wantage and Pewsey.
English history may have taken a different turn without his success and determination.
The role of Historic England
Some of the important sites mentioned are protected by being ‘scheduled’ or ‘listed’. You can find out more about these and other sites online at the National Heritage List for England, and you can add your own photographs and information via our Enriching the List initiative.