For more great articles, subscribe to British Heritage magazine today! Alfred the Great King of the west-Saxons, born Wantage, berkshire, england 849; died 899. Alfred was the fifth son of Ethelwulf, or? Helwulf, king of Wessex, and Osburh, his queen, of the royal house of the jutes of Wight. When he was four years old, according to a story which has been repeated so frequently that it is generally accepted as true, he was sent by his father to rome, where he was anointed king by pope leo. This, however like many other legends which have crystallized about the name of Alfred, is without foundation. Two years later, in 855, Ethelwulf went on a pilgrimage to rome, taking Alfred with him.
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Here was signed the Treaty of any Wedmore. Alfred, realizing that lasting peace was only possible by accepting the danish presence, suggested they occupy east Anglia. Guthrum acceded and essay even accepted the Christian faith by being baptized at the marsh-bound church of Aller, close by Alfreds former fastness. The danes defeat secured Wessex for Alfred but, with his country in squalor nd ruin, Alfreds genius as a ruler really emerged in the uneasy peace that followed. From his capital at Winchester he introduced a wealth of imaginative reforms that have left us a rich heritage. His military innovations included splitting his field army — or fyrd — into a bi-partied system. One half of the levies serving until their comrades had left their crops to relieve them. Alfred also enlarged the English fleet, manned it with Frisian sailor who could match the viking pirates and thereby gained the honor of being the founder of the royal navy. But more importantly he fortified existing villages and created new ones at strategic sites. Many of these burhs are still with us — shaftesbury, chichester, Exeter, Oxford, london — and by making the surrounding populous responsible for a burhs garrison he endured their continued existence. This article was written by tim woodcock for British Heritage magazine.
From his island fastness of Burrow Mump, deep in the sedgemoor marshes near Athelney, alfred called on his people to rally around the golden dragon standard of Wessex. Alfred met his army near Kingston deverill by the wylie river. From there they hurried north to meet Guthrums heathen army by the northern edge of Salisbury Plain between the iron-age fort of Bratton and Edington village. Sweeping down steep-sided gullies in a packed column, the saxons split the danish horde asunder and drove them pell-mell back to their stockade at Chippenham. A brief siege ended in probably the most important victory ever won on British soil, known as the battle of Ethandun. In victory, alfred showed true statesmanship. When avenging the devastation of repeated Danish about attacks must have seemed fully justified he took the defeated Danish king to a vill at the mouth of Cheddar Gorge and entertained him royally.
The other was the undependable nature of the saxon armies. Comprised mostly of farmers, they had a habit of dispersing when crops needed tending and immediate threats were parried. Alfred used the time he had bought well. While the danes busied themselves with easier prey in the north, Alfred reorganized his tattered field army and made good the saxons other great weakness, their lack of ships to meet the sea-heathens before they landed, by building the first English navy. But Alfreds energetic and revolutionary re-organization proved ineffective against the greed and determination of the danes massive force under King Guthrum — the Great Army. After a series of inconclusive forays the danes, smarting from stubborn Saxon resistance, made peace and retreated, only to strike back almost immediately. Together with a danish fleet ravaging the south coast they penetrated deep into wessex, seizing the royal vill near Chippenham and laying waste to the countryside. In the face of such overwhelming odds the saxon resistance crumbled away and Alfred barely escaped with his life. His people must the have despaired and yet, when Alfreds cause seemed utterly lost, they still remained loyal to their tenacious monarch.
When Alfred ascended the throne in 871 he succeeded the last of three elder brothers who, between them, had barely ruled for a decade, characterized by defeat at the hands of increasingly powerful Danish armies. Amid these defeats, Alfred won a glorious victory at Uffington, not far from his birthplace, just months before he became king. He moved decisively to meet a huge danish army advancing east, and he routed them. But the peace he won was fragile and one of his first acts as king was to ensured it by paying the danes to leave. Like an ill-wind they always returned and Wessex enjoyed only a brief lull before the inevitable storm broke upon them again. Two key factors gave the danes an immense advantage. One was their command of the sea.
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Known as a modest man, he must have been acutely aware of his own lack of learning and seen how important literate lieutenants were to an effective government. The Church of Rome wielded immense power and its influence extended to almost writing every aspect of Saxon life. It also had a near monopoly on the acquisition of knowledge as its official language, latin, could be read and spoken only by church officials and understood by a mere handful of Wessex clergy. This awareness of the acute lack of Saxon books probably led his to have written a series of histories — each compiled in a different monastery, each added to year-on-year-that have come to be known as the Anglo-saxon Chronicles. Much of it is beautifully illustrated and it is often regarded as Alfreds greatest achievement. But one of Alfreds greatest gifts to posterity was the translation of a collection of great Latin works into his native saxon tongue.
But we must not get the impression that the young Alfred was a weak and sickly lad, forced by ill-health to bury his head in books and set apart from his peers. We do know that, whatever his affliction was, he led a vigorous life as befitted a wessex atheling. Alfreds love of hunting was renowned and his skill as a warrior is testified in his successes against the danes. And, in an age when the nobility treated their subjects as family possessions, Alfred emerges as a generous and affable monarch whose Christian ideals led him to believe that true christian kingship was to have a genuine responsibility towards his country — a task entrusted. In this he laid the foundations of a code that was embodied in the English monarchy for a thousand years. Such a visionary approach to monarchy was in stark contrast to continental rulers who were often barbaric in their treatment of subject and foe alike.
Despite his larger-than-life attributes he was a mere mortal born in 849, or thereabouts, into the house of Cerdic. This was a royal house, to be sure, but subservient to the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia until the closing years of his father Ethelwulfs reign. His birthplace was a palace or vill that lay at the foot of the berkshire downs close by what is now Wantage. The vill here — wessex kings had several vills at various locations — has vanished without a trace, but we can suppose that it was little more than a grandiose wooden hall with a scattered community of farm buildings. Ill health marred Alfreds childhood. The youngest of four sons, he had little prospect of taking on the burden of ruling Wessex, so he was allowed to pursue his love of learning, a peculiar pastime for a saxon atheling that must have earned him some derision from his elder brothers.
One of the many stories that illustrate Alfreds aptitude tells of how his mother, Osburh, showed her sons a beautifully illuminated book of Saxon poetry and promised to make a gift of it to the first of them to read. Alfred found a tutor, learned to read it aloud, and won the rare book when he was only six years old. King Ethelwulf was a devout Christian and is believed to have been a monk, pursuing a life of study at Winchesters monastery while Alfreds grandfather reigned. Their shared love of knowledge must have created a close bond between father and his youngest son, and Alfred accompanied Ethelwulf on a pilgrimage to rome, an arduous journey taking two years. Rome was still an awe-inspiring city despite the ravages of repeated sackings by barbarian hordes. The huge diplomatic centre of Western Europe would have made a huge impression on the boy alfred.
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Alfred, Englands darling for more than a thousand years, had The Great bestowed upon him in medieval times by an English nation proud of their ancestor. Alfred had a diminutive and isolated stage on which to performed, compared to the likes of Alexander or Peter. Alfred, when he became king of the west Saxons, was monarch of Wessex, a wedge of southern England between the Thames Valley and the English Channel. Wessex, a prosperous land of scattered farmsteads and hamlets, seemed doomed to annihilation at the hand of marauding armies of piratical vikings, heathen warriors that had already devastated Europe and laid waste to Englands midland and northern kingdom. But Alfred was to prove of different mettle than his unfortunate neighbours. Not only was he a canny and tireless campaigner — it is by his battlefield honours that many british historians know him best — he was also a man of vision, writing learning, and a great statesman. These qualities saved a nation and earned for Alfred the lasting title The Great despite having only a relatively minor role in the long play of history. Legend has it that Alfred was directly descended from Wodin, the nordic God of victory. History tells a more prosaic tale.
Although he did not study latin until his late 30s, a few years later he began translating important Latin works into English. His translations included writings. Augustine, pope Gregory i the Great, and the historian Bede. Alfred saw that making more books available in English would encourage wider literacy. Alfred is known as Alfred the Great because his military victories protected England from falling under foreign rule, good and his learning improved the education of his people, introducing them to latin culture. Alfred the Great Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 Print Friendly 9 comments font font of the many distinguished figures in mankinds recorded history to have the title Great accorded them, posterity has allowed a mere handful to retain.
sail up the Thames river and harass Wessex. In 878, Alfred organized a large army and defeated the danish king Guthrum. Eight years later, Alfreds forces helped to recapture london, and the fighting stopped for a time. Alfred made an important treaty with Guthrum, which established rights for Anglo-saxons in Danish territory and granted rights to danes in Anglo-saxon territory. The vikings resumed their raids in the 890s under different leaders, but Alfred began constructing forts in the countryside and ordered larger, faster ships built. With these new defenses, he trapped the danish fleet up the Thames and again drove the invaders from his kingdom. Alfred became an accomplished scholar.
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King Alfred the Great Alfred the Great (849 26 October 899) was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. Alfred successfully defended his kingdom against the viking attempt at conquest, and by his death with had become the dominant ruler in England. He is the only English monarch to be accorded the epithet the Great. Alfred was the first King of the west Saxons to style himself King of the Anglo-saxons. Details of his life are described in a work by the 10th century welsh scholar and bishop Asser. Alfred was a learned and merciful man who encouraged education and improved his kingdoms legal system and military structure. Alfred was the fifth son of Ethelwulf, king of Wessex, a kingdom in the south of England. He did not learn to read until he was 12, but he was responsible for starting the English tradition of education.