, Alfred “The Great”

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Alfred "The Great"
b: 849
d: 899
Born at Wantage, Berkshire, in 849, Alfred was the fifth son ofAethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. At their father''s behest and bymutual agreement, Alfred''s elder brothers succeeded to the kingship inturn, rather than endanger the kingdom by passing it to under-agechildren at a time when the country was threatened by worsening Vikingraids from Denmark.
Since the 790s, the Vikings had been using fast mobile armies, numberingthousands of men embarked in shallow-draught longships, to raid thecoasts and inland waters of England for plunder. Such raids wereevolving into permanent Danish settlements; in 867, the Vikings seizedYork and established their own kingdom in the southern part ofNorthumbria. The Vikings overcame two other major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,East Anglia and Mercia, and their kings were either tortured to death orfled. Finally, in 870 the Danes attacked the only remaining independentAnglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, whose forces were commanded by KingAethelred and his younger brother Alfred. At the battle of Ashdown in871, Alfred routed the Viking army in a fiercely fought uphill assault.However, further defeats followed for Wessex and Alfred''s brother died. As King of Wessex at the age of 21, Alfred (reigned 871-99) was astrongminded but highly strung battle veteran at the head of remainingresistance to the Vikings in southern England. In early 878, the Danesled by King Guthrum seized Chippenham in Wiltshire in a lightning strikeand used it as a secure base from which to devastate Wessex. Local peopleeither surrendered or escaped (Hampshire people fled to the Isle ofWight), and the West Saxons were reduced to hit and run attacks seizingprovisions when they could. With only his royal bodyguard, a small armyof thegns (the king''s followers) and Aethelnoth earldorman of Somerset ashis ally, Alfred withdrew to the Somerset tidal marshes in which he hadprobably hunted as a youth. (It was during this time that Alfred, in hispreoccupation with the defence of his kingdom, allegedly burned somecakes which he had been asked to look after; the incident was a legenddating from early twelfth century chroniclers.)
A resourceful fighter, Alfred reassessed his strategy and adopted theDanes'' tactics by building a fortified base at Athelney in the Somersetmarshes and summoning a mobile army of men from Wiltshire, Somerset andpart of Hampshire to pursue guerrilla warfare against the Danes. In May878, Alfred''s army defeated the Danes at the battle of Edington. According to his contemporary biographer Bishop Asser, ''Alfred attackedthe whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divinewill eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, andpursued them to their fortress (Chippenham) ... After fourteen days thepagans were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold andfear, and they sought peace''. This unexpected victory proved to be theturning point in Wessex''s battle for survival.
Realising that he could not drive the Danes out of the rest of England,Alfred concluded peace with them in the treaty of Wedmore. King Guthrumwas converted to Christianity with Alfred as godfather and many of theDanes returned to East Anglia where they settled as farmers. In 886,Alfred negotiated a partition treaty with the Danes, in which a frontierwas demarcated along the Roman Watling Street and northern and easternEngland came under the jurisdiction of the Danes - an area known as''Danelaw''. Alfred therefore gained control of areas of West Mercia andKent which had been beyond the boundaries of Wessex. To consolidatealliances against the Danes, Alfred married one of his daughters,Aethelflaed, to the ealdorman of Mercia. Alfred himself had marriedEahlswith, a Mercian noblewoman, and another daughter, Aelfthryth, to theCount of Flanders, a strong naval power at a time when the Vikings weresettling in eastern England.
The Danish threat remained, and Alfred reorganised the Wessex defences inrecognition that efficient defence and economic prosperity wereinterdependent. First, he organised his army (the thegns, and theexisting militia known as the fyrd) on a rota basis, so he could raise a''rapid reaction force'' to deal with raiders whilst still enabling histhegns and peasants to tend their farms.
Second, Alfred started a building programme of well-defended settlementsacross southern England. These were fortified market places (''borough''comes from the Old English burh, meaning fortress); by deliberate royalplanning, settlers received plots and in return manned the defences intimes of war. (Such plots in London under Alfred''s rule in the 880sshaped the streetplan which still exists today between Cheapside and theThames.) This obligation required careful recording in what becameknown as ''the Burghal Hidage'', which gave details of the building andmanning of Wessex and Mercian burhs according to their size, the lengthof their ramparts and the number of men needed to garrison them. Centred round Alfred''s royal palace in Winchester, this network ofburhs with strongpoints on the main river routes was such that no part ofWessex was more than 20 miles from the refuge of one of thesesettlements. Together with a navy of new fast ships built on Alfred''sorders, southern England now had a defence in depth against Danishraiders.
Alfred''s concept of kingship extended beyond the administration of thetribal kingdom of Wessex into a broader context. A religiously devout andpragmatic man who learnt Latin in his late thirties, he recognised thatthe general deterioration in learning and religion caused by the Vikings''destruction of monasteries (the centres of the rudimentary educationnetwork) had serious implications for rulership. For example, the poorstandards in Latin had led to a decline in the use of the charter as aninstrument of royal government to disseminate the king''s instructions andlegislation. In one of his prefaces, Alfred wrote ''so general was its[Latin] decay in England that there were very few on this side of theHumber who could understand their rituals in English or translate aletter from Latin into English ... so few that I cannot remember a singleone south of the Thames when I came to the throne.''
To improve literacy, Alfred arranged, and took part in, the translation(by scholars from Mercia) from Latin into Anglo-Saxon of a handful ofbooks he thought it ''most needful for men to know, and to bring it topass ... if we have the peace, that all the youth now in England ... maybe devoted to learning''. These books covered history, philosophy andGregory the Great''s ''Pastoral Care'' (a handbook for bishops), and copiesof these books were sent to all the bishops of the kingdom. Alfred waspatron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which was copied and supplemented upto 1154), a patriotic history of the English from the Wessex viewpointdesigned to inspire its readers and celebrate Alfred and his monarchy.
Like other West Saxon kings, Alfred established a legal code; heassembled the laws of Offa and other predecessors, and of the kingdoms ofMercia and Kent, adding his own administrative regulations to form adefinitive body of Anglo-Saxon law. ''I ... collected these together andordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, thosewhich I liked; and many of those which I did not like I rejected with theadvice of my councillors ... For I dared not presume to set in writing atall many of my own, because it was unknown to me what would please thosewho should come after us ... Then I ... showed those to all mycouncillors, and they then said that they were all pleased to observethem'' (Laws of Alfred, c.885-99).
By the 890s, Alfred''s charters and coinage (which he had also reformed,extending its minting to the burhs he had founded) referred to him as''king of the English'', and Welsh kings sought alliances with him. Alfreddied in 899, aged 50, and was buried in Winchester, the burial place ofthe West Saxon royal family.
By stopping the Viking advance and consolidating his territorial gains,Alfred had started the process by which his successors eventuallyextended their power over the other Anglo-Saxon kings; the ultimateunification of Anglo-Saxon England was to be led by Wessex. It is forhis valiant defence of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securingpeace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in thereconstruction of Wessex and beyond, that Alfred - alone of all theEnglish kings and queens - is known as ''the Great''. [Royal]
  • 849 - Birth - ; Wantage, Berkshire, England
  • 899 - Death -
  • From 871 to 899 - Reign - as King of Wessex
- 839
- 856
Family Group Sheet - Child
PARENT (M) Ethelwulf
Marriageto Judith of Flanders
Marriageto Osburga
PARENT (F) Osburga
Marriageto Ethelwulf
FatherOslac of Isle of Wight
Marriageto Judith of Flanders
MAlfred "The Great"
Birth849Wantage, Berkshire, England
Marriageto Ealhswith
Family Group Sheet - Spouse
PARENT (M) Alfred "The Great"
Birth849Wantage, Berkshire, England
Marriageto Ealhswith
PARENT (F) Ealhswith
Marriageto Alfred "The Great"
MEdward "The Elder"
Marriageto Elfleda
Marriageto Eogwyn
Marriageto Edgiva
Marriageto Baldwin II
[S240]Official Web Site of the British Monarchy, The
Descendancy Chart
Alfred "The Great" b: 849 d: 899
Ealhswith d: 905
Charles III "The Simple" b: 17 SEP 879
Adelaide of Normandy b: ABT 1030 d: BEF 1090
10 Adeliza of Louvain b: ABT 1103 d: 23 APR 1151
Henry I of England d: 1 DEC 1135
10 Adelaide of Leuven d: 1158
Swanhilde d: 1132
Albert III, Count of Namur b: 1048 d: 1102
Henry I of la Roche b: ABT 1100 d: 1126
Nicholas d''Oisy, Lord of Avesnes b: ABT 1130 d: ABT 1170
Ernest I, Duke of Swabia d: March 31 or May 31, 1015
Herman IV, Duke of Swabia b: ABT 1015 d: JUL 1038
Adelaide of Susa b: 1014/1020 d: 19 DEC 1091
Agnes of Poitou b: ABT 1025 d: 14 DEC 1077
10 Agnes of Germany b: 1072/1073 d: 24 SEP 1143
Matilda of Swabia b: OCT 1048 d: 12 MAY 1060
10 Aimery I, Viscount of Châtellerault b: ABT 1075 d: 7 NOV 1151
Edmund I b: ABT 921 d: 946
Edgar "The Peaceable" d: 8 JUL 975
Ethelred "The Unready" II b: ABT 972 d: 1016
Edmund II d: NOV 1016
Agatha b: BEF 1030 d: AFT 1070
Margaret Of Scotland b: ABT 1045 d: 16 NOV 1093
Máel Coluim mac Donnchada b: ABT 1031 d: 13 NOV 1093
10 Henry of Scotland b: 1114 d: 1152
Ada de Warenne b: ABT 1120 d: 1178
Henry I of England d: 1 DEC 1135
Adele of Vermandois b: 910/915 d: 1 JAN 960
Adelina of Holland b: ABT 990 d: ABT 1045
Agnes, Countess of Ponthieu b: ABT 1080 d: AFT 1105
10 William III of Ponthieu b: ABT 1095 d: JUN 1172
Adelaide of Normandy b: ABT 1030 d: BEF 1090
Adelaide of Normandy b: ABT 1030 d: BEF 1090
Philip I of France b: 23 MAY 1052 d: 30 JUL 1108
Adelaide of Maurienne b: 1092 d: 18 NOV 1154
Agnès de Garlande b: 1122 d: 1143
Hawise of Salisbury b: 1118 d: 1152
Adèle of Champagne b: ABT 1140 d: 4 JUN 1206
William I b: ABT 1028 d: 9 SEP 1087
Adela b: ABT 1067 d: 8 MAR 1137
Henry I of England d: 1 DEC 1135
Adeliza of Louvain b: ABT 1103 d: 23 APR 1151
Swanhilde d: 1132
10 Adelaide of Leuven d: 1158