Alfred the Great - 871-899
By 796 Wessex , on the Celtic fringe of western England, was ruled by Egbert, sometimes thought of as the first King of England. Egbert's grandson was Alfred, known as the Great for his dominant personality and relentless defence of his kingdom against Viking invaders from Scandinavia.
After routing the Danes, he allowed them to stay in the settlements that they had created in the north and east of England. Alfred agreed that a line between London and Chester would define their respective territories, though Alfred would remain overlord of the northern section, as well as King of Wessex.
In 886 Alfred captured London and in the subsequent peace treaty allowed the Danes to stay in East Anglia, but Wessex and the south were left to Alfred. In the following years Alfred showed himself to be an imaginative and innovative peacetime ruler; in fact, it has been said that if he had never fought a battle he would still have been one of Britain's greatest kings.
He reorganised the defences of Wessex and set up a rota-system for military service, so that he could always have a standing army and yet men could also get on with their farming or other jobs in peace. He restored fortresses throughout Wessex and caused new ones to be built, thus founding dozens of new towns. These were 'boroughs' (the Saxon word burh meant 'fortress'). The largest of these in Wessex was his capital, Winchester.
Alfred was an educated man who could read and write, and translated works from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. There were few like him, though scholars could be found in monasteries. One of these was Bede who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of England.
Another history, compiled under Alfred's rule, was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a history of England from before the arrival of the Romans.
Alfred encouraged learning and craftsmanship, especially gold and silver work. During his reign there was considerable activity in the translation from Latin manuscripts, and the encouragement of the building of churches and monasteries.
He was on good terms with the Church and an admirer of Pope Gregory, who was a shrewd politician, and had written a book of advice to bishops called Pastoral Rule. Alfred translated the book finding in it good advice for all those in power over others. His study and concern of kingship and its duties and responsibilities was one of his best qualities.
One of the best known stories of Alfred concerns him 'burning the cakes'. The story tells that when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb Alfred sought refuge in a woodcutter's hut. One day, the woodcutter's wife asked him to watch over the cakes which she had placed in the oven.
Alfred, preoccupied with his own problems, neglected the cakes, and allowed them to burn. On returning the woodcutter's wife yelled at King Alfred and said,'Now, none of us will have any supper because of you.' When the woodcutter came home, he recognized the stranger by the stove. He said to his wife, 'This is King Alfred'. The woodcutter's wife bowed to King Alfred's feetand said, I'm sorry that I shouted at you'.
Alfred was only fifty when he died in Winchester in 899. A thousand years later his great reign was celebrated by the erection of a magnificent statue in Winchester, his capital city.
It is sad to record that Alfred's remains have been lost. In the eighteenth century some bones were found in a stone coffin on the site of Hyde Abbey in Winchester. They were tipped out and reburied. A century later they were dug up again, exhibited in London, and then returned to Winchester. They now rest outside the east end of St Bartholomew's Church in that city. . . . But no one will ever know if these are really Alfred's.
Key Events during the Reign of Alfred the Great
871 - Alfred succeeds his brother Ethelred as King of Wessex.
876 - Southern Northumbria is colonized by the Danes.
877 - Mercia is partitioned between the English and the Danes.
878 - Danes invade Wessex. Alfred takes refuge on the Isle of Athelney and prepares his forces against the Great Army of Guthrum. The questionable story about Alfred burning the cakes took place during this period. Alfred defeats Guthrum's army at Ethandune in Wessex.
886 - Alfred captures London and fortifies the city.
890 - Alfred builds the first permanent fleet of warships in England, ready to engage Viking ships.
891 - Alfred starts to compile the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Written in Anglo-Saxon, the language spoken by the people, rather than Latin, the language of the Church.
894-5 - Alfred translates Orosius's Historia Adversus Paganos and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation into Anglo-Saxon.
899 - Death of Alfred, probably in Wessex.