King Alfred the
The Greatest of All Kings?
ow Alfred became king of Wessex was more by circumstance than birth. Alfred has been acknowledged as having four elder brothers and one sister. All the brothers except Aethelstan, who died in about 850, reigned in turn from second to last born, following the death of their father Aethelwulf in 855. The only sister was named Aethelswith.
Aethelbald reigned from 855 - 860
Aethelbert reigned from 860 - 866
Aethelred reigned from 866 - 871
ethelred, Alfred's only surviving elder brother had
two sons. The eldest would have been declared king if primogeniture had been a common
practice at the time. It was decided however that a strong and more mature ruler was
required to defend Wessex.
essex was the subject of almost constant attack from the Danes, or Vikings, as they are more commonly known.
lfred was twenty two when he was declared king. He
was semi illiterate but at the same time articulate. Illiteracy was not uncommon, even
among the aristocracy. It is strange how little we know about this period as far as the
Saxon rulers are concerned. So it is surprising that we know so much about Alfred. This is
basically all down to one person. A Welshman and confidant of the king, by the name of
Asser . It is the chronicles written by this man that give us a good insight into Alfred,
his life and the torment he must have suffered.
s constantly stated, Saxon chronicles have to be examined carefully to sift the underlying information, which is generally correct, if somewhat romantic, biased or jingoistic.
Firm and Fair
ser tells us that Alfred suffered from mental and physical deformities. What these may have been are not really explained by him. It is a fact however, that his contribution to this countries heritage and culture are immense. He was a fair king but would not tolerate disobedience. He only too well understood the constant threat from the Danes on his kingdom and made reparations. It is surprising it took him so long as Wessex was always under constant threat. He indulged in a massive construction program. From fortifications to moving buildings stone by stone, especially those of religious or other importance.
o understand this you must return to his formative years. In 853 when Alfred was four years old, he was sent by his father to Rome to stay with Pope Leo IV who treated him like a son he could never have. For what purpose his father sent him there, and what relationship his father had with the Pope is also rather vague. It is a fact in most families that the youngest child is always treated differently to the others. Whatever the reason, it had a profound effect on Alfred. Two or three years later he visited Rome again with his father, who thought he was close death. After about a year, his father had still not died, so they returned to England.
Pious And Willing To Learn
lfred loved poetry and art and was a very pious person. He was unable to read but had a phenomenal memory. He could memorise whole manuscripts when read to him. It is very difficult to accept that Alfred was semi illiterate, as his time spent in Rome, prayers spoken and sung in Latin plus his exposure to Latin manuscripts including learned men, who could read, make Asser's words difficult to totally accept.
Caught By Surprise
he first conflict we know Alfred engaged in was against the Danes in 868 when he fought beside his brother in Mercia. He would have been nineteen at the time. In those days a battle veteran. His brother died in 871 leaving Alfred in total control of Wessex in preference to Aethelred's sons, for the reasons described earlier. In 878 there came a turning point in Alfred's life. A large force of Danes invaded Wessex in the middle of winter. This almost totally defeated the west Saxon army giving the Vikings the upper hand. Unfortunately for them, they failed to capture Alfred who retreated underground, Robin Hood style.
Escape To Athelney
n the Easter time he moved to a place called Athelney in Somerset. Here he built a fortification. To take on the Danes he recruited his forces clandestinely in Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. He had been using Guerrilla tactics for much of this time against the Danes. Alfred now felt confident and strong enough to take them on face to face.
uring his time in exile, the following story has become a legend. Alfred was hiding in the home of a cowherd. The wife was baking some bread as Alfred was making some arrows for his bow. Unfortunately the bread started to burn, but Alfred was so engrossed in what he was doing, he let them burn, much to the anger of the wife, who castigated him for his stupidity and thoughtlessness, never knowing he was the king. This story possibly never happened but a distortion of other events by the 12th century chronicle of St Neot's. The more popular version of this story is of Alfred burning the cakes.
Alfred And Edington
lured learnt quite a lot from this defeat by the Danes. The first thing he did was fortify his own camp. A practice the Danes always adhered to. He rallied his men and did battle with the Danes at a place called Edington in Wiltshire. He inflicted a heavy defeat on the Danes and their leader.
For Gods Sake
uthrum the Viking, who had declared himself king previously, was forced to accept baptism. Not the usual course of events for people who were pagan and better known for rape and pillage. What Alfred did in Wessex after the battle of Edington was to organise in a methodical way so that everybody had a role and felt secure. His achievements were remarkable for those times. His first task was to set about protecting the whole of Wessex on a grander version of Athelney. His defences included fortresses or burh's built all over southern England. The word borough is used today which was derived from word burh. These places became populated and eventually turned into villages and towns that we know now today.
ot only did he introduce fortifications but managed to organise an army that was always ready at short notice to protect Wessex. It consisted of what we would call a regular army known as thegns and peasant militia or fyrd. This will be discussed more in other sections as this is important in the forces available to Harold II in the Battle of Hastings. Alfred was not only confident of taking on the Danes on land. He had many ships constructed so that he could engage them even before they reached English soil. The Danes continued to invade for almost the next hundred years, off and on. But the defences put up by Alfred made him almost untouchable. This system was admired throughout Europe, and was copied, especially by Henry the Saxon king of Germany 919-36.
I Must Learn To Read Properly
aving secured the defence of his kingdom of Wessex. He started to yearn for the more intangible things in life. At the age of 38 in 887 he decided to learn to read Latin. He had learned men at court, but literacy was never considered a pre-requisite so it must have been a problem as far as tutors were concerned. We can only assume that with his extremely good memory he picked up the language quite quickly. He had at least five major works translated into English. So he must have been able to read quite well as it is thought that he was one of the translators. Probably the most famous was Augustine's Soliloquies. Alfred was only fifty years old when he died in 899. English culture and way of life that we take for granted may have been very different if it was not for this man. He shaped and moulded Wessex so that the Saxon kings that followed, although not so well known, continued his work to eventually unite the whole of England.
© copyright Glen Ray Crack -
Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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