A brief introduction to Archaeology

The Life and Times of King Alfred the Great

Explore the story of the Saxon King often credited with being the founder of the English nation.

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.

A mannequin of a Saxon king in a museum display.
A reconstruction mannequin depicting Alfred the Great at Chippenham Museum, Wiltshire. © Geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo.

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’.

Reconstruction drawing of a monk writing on parchment at a lecturn.
A Saxon monastic chronicler. Reconstruction art by Judith Dobie. © Historic England Archive IC008/034.

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.

A map of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex as well as British Strathclyde, 'West Wales' ( ie Cornwall) and the Welsh principalities.
A map showing the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms before the Viking invasions. © Ivy Close Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A map of the core territory of the Kingdom of Wessex.
A map of the core of the Kingdom of Wessex, by Hel-hama, Based on Hill, an Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England.

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.

Medieval manuscript illustration of a viking fleet.
The arrival of ‘the Great Heathen Army’ depicted in an Illuminated manuscript from the Life of Edmund’, (created about 1130). The ‘kite’ shaped shields the warriors are carrying did not come into fashion until the 11th century. © Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A map of England showing the campaigns of the Great heathen Army of Vikings.
A map showing the routes of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ (based on Stenton ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ chapter 8 and Hill ‘An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ pp. 40-41.) Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A medieval depiction of the martyrdom of a saint: the saint is tied to a tree and is being shot with arrows by a group of archers.
A medieval illustration depicting traditional account of the the Martrydom of King Edmund of East Anglia by the Vikings. © Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

An artist's impression of an early medieval battle on a sloping  hillside between warriors carrying circular shields.
Artist’s impression of the Battle of Ashdown. © Archivah / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

View across a marsh landscape.
The marshes of Somerset was difficult terrain for invading armies and a good base from which to wage a ‘guerrilla’ war. © Alex Ramsay / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

An aerial photograph of flooding in an levels landscape with higher ground standing out as islands.
King Alfred established a fortified settlement at the eastern end of the Lyng ridge. The town was linked to the nearby stronghold and monastery at Athelney, founded by Alfred a few years earlier, and all were surrounded by the marshes of the Somerset Levels. This image, taken at the height of the flooding in the winter of 2013/14, shows the logic behind the settlement’s location, now called East Lyng. © Historic England Archive 27897/016.

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.

A village sign for Edington, with the extra information "Ethendun 878 AD", also featuring the standard symbol for a battle- a pair of crossed swords- as well as a representation of King Alfred.
Sign in Edington village, Wiltshire, referring to the battle of Ethandun, which was fought nearby in 878 AD by King Alfred. © Chris Cole / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A Victorian stained glass window depicting the baptism of the Viking Guthrum in a font, with Christian figures including King Alfred behind.
A Victorian depiction of Guthrum, the Viking chief’s baptism, attended by King Alfred, in a stained glass window at Blakeney, Norfolk. © Holmes Garden Photos / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A medieval depiction of Alfred's daughter Aethelfaled , seated on a throne.
Aethelflaed as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey. © Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

Victorian photograph of the statue of Alfred The Great, who holds up his sword hilt  first so it forms a cross, his other hand rests  on his grounded shield.
The dedication on the plinth of the mighty Victorian sculpture of Alfred at Winchester reads: ‘to the founder of the kingdom and nation’. But in his own time, he did not rule over all of England. Source: Historic England Archive CC56_00993.

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’.

A map showing areas of Anglo-Saxon control in England south of the Thames and western England versus areas of Viking domination in East Anglia, the East Midlands and the North.
A map of England showing the situation after King Alfred’s treaty and the areas of Viking control. © Michelle Bridges / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A manuscript illustration showing an Anglo-Saxon king presenting a book to a saint.
Alfred’s successors, such as Athelstan (pictured here on the left presenting a book to St Cuthbert) furthered his work of uniting England. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Strategic defences

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.

A map showing the distribution of fortified places mostly in Wessex, known as burhs, as recorded in a 10th century document.
Map showing the sites mentioned in the ‘Burghal Hidage’ list of defended centres. Based on information in ‘The Defence of Wessex’ by Hill and Rumble. Map by Hel-hama used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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.

A plan of the Saxon town and burh of Lydford with the position of the Norman castle and fort in the western part of the enclosure.
A plan showing the Anglo-Saxon burh at Lydford, Devon, with the later Norman additions. The Norman fort and castle fit into a corner of the larger burh area. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive MP/LYD0080.

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.

Artist's impression showing a stone fort with improvised repairs in wood and wattle and groups of timber buildings in the interior.
Reconstruction image showing how the Saxons re-used the Roman fort at Porchester as a burh. © Historic England Archive IC081/009.

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.

View along the earthwork remains of a Saxon rampart.
Earthwork rampart of the Saxon ‘burh’ on the east side of Wareham in Dorset. © David Gee / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

A signpost which includes a direction to 'Saxon Ramparts' .
Signpost to the remains of the Saxon defences at Cricklade, Wiltshire. © ANDRYPHOT / Alamy Stock Photo.

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’.

An early 20th century depiction of a Saxon King  with a team of shipwrights fitting a large steering oar to a vessel.
A later romanticised view of Alfred directing the building of a fleet, from a history book published in 1915. © Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

Economic reform

Alfred reformed his coinage to bring the silver content back up to acceptable standards to help give economic stability.

A coin with the inscription 'Aelfred Rex' and a roman style head and shoulders portrait of the king.
A silver coin of King Alfred. © GRANGER – Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Church and learning

Alfred was not just known for military and secular achievements. He was a patron of learning and church reform.

A Saxon church built of stone.
Anglo-Saxon church of St Lawrence, Brafrod-on-Avon, Wiltshire. © Gill Cardy. Source: Historic England Archive IOE01/04180/17.

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.

A manuscript written in Latin with Old English translations between the lines of text.
A 8th century manuscript in Latin with Old English (Anglo-Saxon) translations added between the lines in the 9th century. © The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

Symbolic of Alfred’s drive to promote literacy and learning were the reading pointers or ‘aestels’ given to favoured churchmen.

Photograph of the terminal of an Anglo-Saxon reading pointer decorated with gold and inlay work.
The Jewelled terminal of a pointer or aestel, known as the Alfred Jewel. © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

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).

A reconstruction of Winchester Old Minster where Alfred was originally buried. © Historic England Archive IC174/002.

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.

A row of three modern stone grave slabs each carved with a cross, at the site of a former abbey.
Three stone slabs mark the spot of the former Hyde Abbey, Winchester, where a pelvic bone that could potentially belong to either King Alfred the Great or his son Edward, the Elder was found. © REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A statue of a Saxon King, he carries an axe in one hand and a scroll in the other.
The statue of King Alfred at Wantage. It dates from 1877 and was sculpted by Count Gleichen of Hohenlohe-Foedore, Queen Victoria’s nephew. Source: Historic England Archive HT07789.

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.

A crowd of people in late Victorian/ Edwardian clothing around a statue of King Alfred.
A crowd gathered around the Statue of King Alfred at Winchester in 1901. Source: Historic England Archive AA81/01846.

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.

Further reading

I work in Historic England’s Content Team. I originally come from a corner of Essex rich in history. My previous background was as an archaeologist, having worked around England, Central Europe and the Near East.

7 comments on “The Life and Times of King Alfred the Great

  1. Thanks for this detailed post – it is very much appreciated.

  2. Very well written, easy to read and so interesting. Thank you Robin.

  3. astracash

    Excellent article.

  4. Brian Holder

    We English ought to know more about Alfred and family, is a book planned?

  5. That was fascinating, thank you Robin. I do prefer buildings to people, history wise, but it’s always good to close up the gaps in our shared history. And I love the statues, stained glass window and book picture. Good stuff. 🙂

  6. Ruth Abel

    Thank you very much, this was very interesting. I new some of the story from my school days and you have added to it.

  7. Alan Gareth SPILLER

    Thanks. All very interesting. I have never thought of the historical significance of so many present-day little villages. Very well written blog!

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