King Alfred the Great

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  • Topic: Alfred the Great, Wessex, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
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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 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 kingdom's 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. Though he is said to have suffered from many illnesses during his life, Alfred also played a key part in keeping Danish Vikings from overrunning all of England. Each of Alfred's older brothers ruled Wessex during their lifetimes. After the death of his brother Ethelred in 871, Alfred became king. During most of Alfred's reign, his kingdom was at war with the Danes, who had captured a large part of the north of England. In fact, the year that he came to power there were nine major battles as well as numerous minor raids. The Vikings won most of these battles and captured London from the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. This allowed them to sail up the Thames River and harass Wessex. In 878, Alfred organized a large army and defeated the Danish king Guthrum. Eight years later, Alfred's 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. 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 of St. 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, 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

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Of the many distinguished figures in mankind's recorded history to have the title 'Great' accorded them, posterity has allowed a mere handful to retain it. Alfred, England's 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 England's 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 historians know him best — he was also a man of vision, learning, and a great statesman. These qualities saved a nation and...
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