A brief introduction to

5 Things to Know About King Alfred the Great

Get a quick picture of some of the achievements of the only English monarch to be called ‘the Great’.

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.

Costumed reenactor sstaging a battle between Vikings and Saxons.
Reenactment of a battle between Vikings and Saxons. © Historic England Archive PLB/N050053.

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.

A map of England showing the area dominated by the Vikings: the north, East Anglia and the east midlands; and the "English" areas comprised of Wessex in the south and western Mercia on the border with Wales.
A map of England showing the situation after King Alfred’s treaty and the areas of Viking control. © Michelle Bridges / Alamy Stock Photo.

Through clever politics and a marriage alliance, he influenced neighbouring territory in western England (western Merica).

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.

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

‘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
Reconstruction art showing a stone fort with repairs made in wood and wattle, with groups of timber buildings in the interior.
Reconstruction by artist Peter Dunn showing how the Saxons re-used the Roman fort at Porchester. © Historic England Archive IC081/009.

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.

The end of a reading pointer decorated with gold and enamel work.
The Jewelled terminal of a pointer or aestel, known as the Alfred Jewel. © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A silver coin with the inscription 'Aelfred Rex' and a portrait of the King in the style of a Roman emperor.
A silver coin of King Alfred. © Granger, Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

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. You can add your own photographs and information via our Enrich 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.

1 comment on “5 Things to Know About King Alfred the Great

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