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18th century portrait of Alfred the Great

King of the English: The life of Alfred the Great

Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde (1763-1817)

Alfred the Great spent his life fighting the Vikings and laying the foundations for the Kingdom of England. The only English monarch to be called ‘the Great’, Alfred was equally adept on the field of battle as he was off it. Not only was he a great wartime leader but also a forward-thinking social reformer during peacetime.


On 8th June 793 AD, a group of seafaring Norse people from Scandinavia crossed the North Sea and landed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the northeast coast of England. Viking raiding parties increased in size and frequency over the coming decades until 865 AD, when a large Scandinavian army was amassed on English shores.

Known as the Great Heathen Army, the Vikings sought to conquer and settle instead of just raid. When they arrived, England was divided into four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms - Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia.

Alfred’s early years

Born in 849 AD in Wantage, England, Alfred was the youngest of six children. He lived in the Kingdom of Wessex, which was based in the southwest of modern-day England. His father was Aethelwulf, who had ruled Wessex since 839 AD.

From a young age, Alfred demonstrated a keen interest in learning English poetry and developing a fascination with Latin. He visited Rome twice during his early years, even meeting the Pope who anointed him an honorary consul of the city.

With four older brothers, it seemed improbable that Alfred would ever become king. However, after his father died in 858 AD, Alfred’s elder brothers inherited the throne in succession, each ruling for a period of time before their deaths.

From prince to king

In 868 AD, Alfred married Ealhswith, the daughter of a Mercian nobleman. The pair had five children together.

When the Great Heathen Army arrived, Alfred’s next oldest brother, Aethelred, was King of Wessex. The same year Alfred wed Ealhswith he began his military career, as he was recorded fighting alongside his brother against the Vikings.

One by one over the next few years, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell to the invading hoard until only Wessex remained independent. In 871 AD, Aethelred died leaving Alfred to inherit the throne at the age of 21.

Fighting the Vikings

Unable to drive the Vikings out of his land, Alfred was forced to make peace. The peace lasted for the next five years until the Norsemen once again mounted an assault on Wessex. In 877 AD, the Danish King Guthrum made a surprise attack on Alfred’s royal household at Chippenham, forcing Alfred to flee into the nearby woods with a small group of men.

Establishing a fort at Athelney in the Somerset marshes, Alfred began to rally together an army from the local populace. Conducting guerrilla-style attacks on the Danes for the next few weeks, Alfred eventually amassed a large enough force to fight a battle on the open field.

Victory, co-existence & Danelaw

At the Battle of Edington in 878 AD, Alfred claimed a decisive victory against Guthrum, which led to a peace agreement between the two known as the Treaty of Wedmore.

As part of the agreement, Guthrum was forced to accept baptism with Alfred being declared his godfather. Guthrum’s forces were also required to leave the kingdom of Wessex, allowing Alfred to reclaim his stronghold at Chippenham, as well as further territorial gains in Kent and West Mercia.

A short while later, Guthrum and Alfred came to another agreement. The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum looked to set out a lasting peace between the two, defining the boundaries of their territories and agreeing on peaceful trade.

Viking laws and customs held sway on the eastern side of Britain with a territory spanning from London in the south, through the Midlands and up to the north of the country. The area became known as Danelaw, deriving its name from the Old English 'Dena lagu' meaning 'Danes’ law'.

Strengthening the defences

Although Viking raiding parties continued to cross boundary lines, the years that followed were relatively peaceful.

Alfred used the opportunity to rebuild his kingdom and strengthen his defences. He first reorganised his army into a system that allowed it to be more responsive to Viking raiders, which included a new tax and conscription system.

He then established fortified settlements across southern England, ensuring they were well-manned and ready to fend off any further threats from overseas. These were known as 'burhs', the Old English word for ‘boroughs’.

Alfred’s careful planning meant that no part of Wessex was beyond 20 miles from one of these new settlements. He also established a new navy, equipped with larger and faster ships; a sturdy seafaring defence to keep the Vikings at bay.

Social reformer

Together with his military improvements came an abundance of new social reforms. Alfred established a code of law, assembling previous rules and introducing new administrative regulations to create a unified Anglo-Saxon law.

He also sought to bring the Anglo-Saxon people into a more unified culture, believing that the decline in education and learning, due to the Viking raids, had been catastrophic for their society. The only way to rectify this was to promote education and intellectual pursuits and so he brought the best scholars over from abroad to teach in schools.

Alfred even learnt Latin in his thirties to help translate several books into Anglo-Saxon to aid the advancement of literacy in his kingdom. Alfred also commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the greatest historical sources on Anglo-Saxon England ever produced. It also played a pivotal role at the time of promoting the unification of England and celebrating Alfred and his monarchy.

Death and legacy

In 886 AD, Alfred went on the offensive again and captured London, a significant territorial gain that laid the foundations for future generations to make further reprisals against the Vikings. After his victory in London, Alfred began styling himself as the 'King of the English'. Coinage began to refer to him in such a way.

For most of his life, he'd suffered from various ailments leaving him sickly and frail. He passed away aged 50 in 899 AD from unknown causes. He was buried in Winchester and his eldest son Edward succeeded him to the throne.

Alfred’s valiant defence of Wessex, along with his wide-ranging military and social reforms, had established the early structure of English society. His descendants, especially his grandson Æthelstan, began spearheading the complete unification of Anglo-Saxon England.

This was accomplished by 945 AD, after Eric Bloodaxe, one of the most famous Vikings in history and the then King of Northumbria, was finally driven out of the region. Danelaw was no more.