Alfred was the King of Wessex from AD 871 to 899.
He lived at a turbulent time when the course of English history hung in the balance as the Vikings invaded the small kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons.
1. He fought off Viking invaders from his Kingdom
All the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen to the Vikings.
But even after a surprise attack on him at Chippenham, Wilshire, Alfred waged war against the Scandinavian invaders from his base at Athelney in the Somerset marshes.
He built up his forces and defeated the Vikings decisively at Ethandune, probably near Edington, Wiltshire.
2. He did not rule over all of England
Alfred has been called called ‘the founder of the English Nation’, but this was not the case.
After the battle of Ethandune, Alfred made a treaty with the Vikings, dividing up England so that they controlled the North, East Anglia and the East Midlands as ‘the Danelaw’, and he held southern England.
Through clever politics and a marriage alliance, he influenced neighbouring territory in western England (western Mercia).
His work enabled his successors to finish the task of uniting England under the House of Wessex.
3. He built fortifications
Alfred organised a network of defended places known as ‘burhs’. We know them from documentary sources, as well as through archaeology.
‘Burhs’ varied in size and complexity:
- Some were small, simple palisades
- Others were large earthwork enclosures containing settlements that would grow into towns (such as Cricklade, Wiltshire)
- Further burhs were old hillforts or former Roman towns or forts (like Porchester, Hampshire) whose defences were repaired
- The best-preserved earthworks are at Wareham, Dorset
4. He was a great supporter of learning
Documentary sources tell us that the Vikings seriously disrupted learning, effectively monopolised by the church.
Alfred encouraged learning and literacy for the monks and clergy by encouraging writing in Old English and Latin.
Symbolic of Alfred’s literacy campaign were the reading pointers or ‘aestels’ given to favoured churchmen.
A beautiful example of these, known as the ‘Alfred Jewel’, was found near Athelney with the inscription ‘Alfred had me made’.
5. He carried out economic reform
Alfred reformed his coinage to bring the silver content back up to acceptable standards to help give economic stability after the chaos of the invasion.
This was important because trust in the coinage relied on its precious metal value.
The role of Historic England
Some of the important sites mentioned are protected by being ‘scheduled’. You can find out more about these and other places online at the National Heritage List for England. Add your own photographs and information via the Missing Pieces Project.
Good. Thank you.
Isn’t the territory of western England spelled “Mercia”? Above in point no. 2 it is spelled “Merica.”
Thanks for spotting, we have corrected that.
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