He finally stopped the Viking onslaught and arranged a peace treaty that would shape the British Isles for centuries to come. Alfred the Great also proposed education should be conducted in English and not Latin, making him the darling of English patriots to this day. 

Who was the man that has been called the first true King of England, and what made him so great?

A royal upbringing

Sometime in 849 CE, Osburg, wife of Æthelwulf, King of Wessex, gave birth to a son at the royal estate in Wantage, now part of modern-day Berkshire, England. This son, the youngest of six children, would be one of 4 sons to succeed their father as a King. However, despite being the youngest son, Alfred would go on to earn a historical moniker of greatness.

Alfred's grandfather had seized the throne of Wessex, one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of southern England, in 802 CE. He crushed the adjoining kingdom of Mercia in 825 CE, but it was left to his son, Alfred's father, Æthelwulf, to begin the fight against the now common occurrence of Viking raids deep into the Kingdom of Wessex.

Despite the raids, Alfred's father achieved some sort of security for his kingdom following the defeat of Viking warriors at the Battle of Aclea in 851 CE. With his kingdom secure, Alfred joined his father on a pilgrimage to Rome and would even spend some time in the court of Charles the Bald, King of West Francia, sometime around the mid 850s CE.

Brotherly royalty and the Viking invasions

King Æthelwulf would die in 858 CE, and the next decade would see all four of his sons rule. There is little written record, even in the Anlgo-Saxon Chronicle (normally a font of information -  if not necessarily fact - about this period of Anglo-Saxon history) of the rule of Alfred's two older brothers. When the third son of Æthelwulf, Æthelred, ascended to the throne, Alfred was officially announced as both a royal prince and a military commander. This would legitimatize Alfred's succession and help tighten the familial grip on power in Wessex.

From 865 CE, a series of smaller Viking armies started to arrive in England. Though never one unified army, these hordes of Viking warriors have been called "The Great Heathen Army." For more than a decade, these armies traipsed, trampled, raided, pillaged, and plundered their way through the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Æthelred's reign consisted of constantly battling various Viking armies throughout his kingdom, sporadically winning battles but never enough to expel the armies from his territory. Following a defeat by a Viking army at Merton in 871 CE, Æthelred died shortly after. Having had to wait for what seemed like an eternity after his father and three older brothers, Alfred would finally ascend to the throne of the Wessex and be crowned King of the West Saxons.

The Great Heathen Army was a coalition of Scandinavian raiders and warriors who invaded England around 865 AD. Photo: Michael Li / Pixabay

The Viking threat

Alfred's reign did not get off to a great start. In May 871 CE, fresh from burying his brother and consoling his two young nephews, Alfred's forces were defeated at the Battle of Wilton. This was seen as a last chance to try and expel elements of "The Great Heathen Army" from Wessex. It failed spectacularly and involved the Vikings taking up winter quarters in London.

Over the next seven years, Alfred fought on as the Viking stranglehold on central and (increasingly) southern England tightened. In fact, a surprise Viking raid on a royal fortress in Chippenham saw Alfred literally flee through the swamps to the relative safety of the marshes of what is now Somerset. By 878 CE., all other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been defeated and Alfred – conducting his resistance from an island fortress in the marshes – was to battle them alone.

His luck, however, was soon to change. Rallying forces around his kingdom, he launched and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington against Viking forces and their Anglo-Saxon allies. He then pressed the victory further by pursuing the fleeing Vikings to their fortress at Chippenham – the very one he had been forced to flee months before. A treaty was eventually signed, and the Vikings left the Kingdom of Wessex whilst Alfred took control of the riches of the small but burgeoning city of London.

Defending his kingdom and securing his greatness

Despite the Viking threat expelled from Wessex, Alfred was not complacent. He set about a series of legal, military, and educational reforms that helped establish his moniker of greatness.

Following the Battle of Edington, Alfred set about reorganizing the military defenses and capabilities of his kingdom. He established 33 burhs about 30 kilometers apart throughout his realm. 

These burhs were part of a new military defense system that involved walled towns and fortifications. The modern word "borough" has its origin that stretches back to these reforms, meaning a self-governing walled town or village. Regardless of where invaders would strike in his kingdom, a military force housed at a burh was no more than a day's ride away. Alfred is also set to have restored the Roman walls, which had fallen into disrepair and ruin since the 4th century CE, around the City of London as part of this strategy.

To help finance all this military organization, he undertook a series of legal and economic reforms. He set about compiling a huge legal text, a Domboc. These were a series of laws established by his predecessors, as well as the Ten Commandments from the Bible. With over 120 chapters, these were a mix of everyday legal do's and don'ts as well as Alfred's musings on the meaning of just what constitutes a "Christian law" and a "just ruler."

During this time, Alfred helped foster a renewed interest in education and the arts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is believed to have been written during his reign with a dubious genealogical link, linking the House of Wessex all the way back to the first man mentioned in the Bible, Adam. Alfred also promoted the study and writing of books in the English language. 

He is also set to have translated four tomes – including Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and St. Augustine's Soliloquies – from Latin into English himself. What made Alfred's passion for education and language even more impressive was that, according to Asser, a Welsh monk recruited by the King who would later write history's first biography of him, Alfred could not read or write until he was 12!

Alfred the Great saw the Viking raids and attacks as a source of divine punishment. Photo: saramarses / Pixabay

Further Viking invasions and death

Given about a decade of breathing space from further Viking invasions following their defeat at Edington, Alfred knew that the Vikings would eventually return. Alfred saw the Viking raids as a source of divine punishment, and soon, clerical scholars (including the aforementioned Asser) were soon attached to Alfred's court.

By 886 CE, Alfred crowned himself King of the Anglo-Saxons with all the other former Anglo-Saxon peers and nobles (who were now subjects of the Danelaw) giving their blessing. Viking raids continued through the 880s and into the 890s CE. He died, aged 51, on October 26, 899 CE. Modern diagnosis of illnesses that Alfred was said to have suffered include hemorrhoids or Crohn's disease, yet his cause of death is unknown. He left behind his wife, Eahlswith, who bore him six children, including his successor, Edward the Elder.

Alfred is remembered now as a man of letters who did much to help promote and spread the use of the English language during an era where it was just one of the many spoken in Anglo-Saxon and Danelaw England.  He is also fondly remembered as what some historians had argued as the first "King of England" when he was crowned "King of the Anglo-Saxons."

He was buried at New Minister, a Benedictine Abbey in Winchester, yet has been moved multiple times throughout history. With William the Conqueror's victory in 1066 CE securing the English throne for this Norman duke, many abbeys were destroyed, including New Minister. The monks moved his body to Hyde, where it laid at rest until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, starting in 1536 CE. Hyde was demolished and the stones used as a local quarry. 

However, Alfred's coffins laid undiscovered until 1788 CE, when convicts were used to construct a new jail. Some of the men sent to split rocks discovered Alfred's coffin and would eventually tear it to scrap pieces for sale. His bones were believed to have been scattered throughout the surrounding area.

The Netflix generation & is Alfred the Great more important than Martin Luther King, Junior?

Alfred the Great is now commonly known as a character in the popular Netflix series, The Last Kingdom (about the resistance of the Kingdom of Wessex against Viking raids) and was ranked #14 on a BBC list of the 100-Greatest Britons conducted back in 2002.

A recent British MP complained just this year that the history curriculum at schools needed to focus more on English medieval history. According to Conservative MP Alexander Stafford, there was too much focus on "Hitler and Henry VII," the London Economic quoted him saying. Stafford noted that "There is a lot more of our history; our country is quite old…we need to discuss it." 

In regards to Alfred, Stafford also quipped that the current history curriculum left students in a situation where they "are far more likely to learn about Martin Luther King than they are about Alfred the Great." 

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