Alfred the Great (849-899) was the fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. By the time of his death, he had become the dominant ruler in England after defending his kingdom against a major Viking attempt at conquest.
Alfred was born in Wantage in 849 and died in 899. Upon the death of his father, Aethelwulf, Alfred’s elder brothers first succeed their father in order of birth. This was Aethelwulf’s way of making sure the seat of power didn’t pass to someone who was too young to reign, amidst a very unstable time. Unstable it certainly was, as the Kingdom of Wessex was under the threat of Viking raids by the Danes.
By 870, all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen to the Vikings. The Vikings eventually established a territory that we refer to as ‘Danelaw.‘ Wessex alone was still standing, unconquered. As anticipated by Alfred and his older brother, King Aethelred, by the end of that very year, Wessex was under attack. Alfred and King Aethelred commanded the kingdom’s forces themselves. The following year, 871, has been historically described as “Alfred’s year of battles.” Nine recorded battles were fought with varying outcomes.
Alfred became king upon the death of his brother on April 23, 871. The raids ensued. The Danes were on a mission to take over the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom standing, and despite all odds, Alfred was on a mission to defend it and ward them off. While Alfred was preoccupied with burial ceremonies for his brother, the Vikings took a vicious victory at Wilton that May. This defeat smashed Alfred’s hope to drive the Danes from his kingdom. Instead, he was forced to make peace, the terms of which are unknown. According to Richard Abels in Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, the result was that the Danes were probably paid cash to vacate the realm, much as the neighboring Mercians would do the following year. Still, this major loss at Wilton left Alfred in retreat for several years, and thanks to his likely peace treaty, the Danes occupied other parts of England for the next five years.
In 876, the Danes had a new leader, Guthrum, who intended to finish what his predecessor started. The Danes slipped past the English army and took control of Wareham in Dorset. Alfred tried to blockade them, but the battle was true to be a loss. According to the ancient Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he negotiated peace by exchanging hostages and oaths. The Danes swore on a “holy ring” associated with the worship of Thor. The Danes, however, broke their word. They killed their hostages and escaped to Devon in the middle of the night. Alfred blockaded them and they were forced to submit.
However, in January 878, the Danes made a surprise attack on a royal stronghold called Chippenham. Alfred had been staying there over Christmas. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates that “most of the people they [the Danes] killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe.” From there, Alfred is known to have forged a massive resistance movement.
Around May 878, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone, where people of three neighboring provinces gathered to rejoice at his sight as he emerged from the hidden marshland stronghold he had been living in. Much like a hero right out of a Lord of the Rings novel, he rode in on a horse to visit people who viewed him as a symbol of hope, even though his survival after the January attack was likely debated.
Alfred’s emergence was part of a careful plan to unite the fyrds of three different shires. A fyrd was an army mobilized from freemen to defend their shire during a royal expedition. All of them swore their allegiance to him.
Somewhere between the 6th and 12th of May 878, Alfred and his kingdom took a major victory at the Battle of Edington. According to Asser, a Welsh monk alive during the time of Alfred, described in his Life of King Alfred: “Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans [the Danes/Vikings], and striving long and bravely…at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress [i.e., Chippenham].”
Following Alfred’s 878 victory, the Danes took refuge in Chippenham, and the West Saxons removed all the food that their enemies might take from the area. Starving, the Danes begged for peace, and Alfred was given hostages and the oath that they would leave his kingdom immediately. Unlike the last treaty Alfred made with them (which they broke), they had been completely defeated this time, and were less likely to abandon their word.
Following his victory in defending England against “the Great Heathen Army” (as described by The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and after signing the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum after another less-vicious confrontation in 884, Alfred still had to fight off several other minor independent Viking raids, but he maintained his victorious status. He became the most powerful king in England at that time, and even had Guthrum (now king of East Anglia, ruled by his fellow vikings) convert to Christianity, which shows the major shift in power. He built up the defences of Wessex to ensure the Danes wouldn’t threaten it again. He reorganized his army and built extremely well defended settlements throughout southern England. He also established a navy to ward off the independent Viking raids that ensued across the coast.
Alfred advocated for justice and order and established a code of laws and reformed coinage. He also established many schools because of his belief that education was of the upmost importance (he himself even learned Latin in his late thirties). He arranged and even helped with the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, or as we call it today, “Old English.”
By the time of his death in 899, Alfred’s charters and coinage were referring to him as ‘king of the English.’