Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great
   The most important and influential of the Saxon kings of England, Alfred has been known as "the Great" since the sixteenth century. As king of Wessex he was involved in a prolonged struggle with the Danes, who invaded England almost annually until the end of Alfred's reign. His victories over the invaders, as well as the navy he created, the network of fortifications he built to defend the country, and his various military reforms greatly curtailed the threat of invasion. He also reformed the law and promoted learning in his kingdom. As the patron of learning in his kingdom, Alfred sponsored the translation of many important Christian texts and even translated some of them himself. As a warrior, legal reformer, and educator, Alfred left an important legacy for his successors.
   The youngest of the five sons of the deeply religious but not very effective King Æthelwulf of Wessex - who also had one daughter - and his queen, the noble woman Osburh, Alfred was born in 849 in Wantage, Oxfordshire. Although little is known about his earliest years, it is likely that they were not marked by preparation to succeed to the throne, since Alfred's older brothers would surely have been expect to succeed to the throne before Alfred could. Asser, Alfred's biographer, does offer some information on his hero's earliest years. He says that Alfred was the most beloved of all the children of Æthelwulf and Osburh and was court. In chapter 22 of his life, Asser notes that as a child Alfred was "fairer in all forms than all his brothers, and more pleasing in his looks, his words and ways." He was a skilled hunter who practiced as often as he could, and continued to enjoy hunting as an adult, even though he was afflicted with illness his whole life.
   Asser notes too that Alfred was deeply religious and, as a boy and an adult, attended mass daily, prayed often, and gave alms generously. But the most remarkable thing Alfred demonstrated as a youth, and as king, was his great desire for learning. Although he did not learn to read until he was twelve and read Latin when he was older still, Alfred possessed "from his cradle a longing for wisdom." Although he learned to read only in later life, Alfred, according to Asser, "listened attentively" to Saxon poems until he could recite them from memory. Alfred's devotion to learning is revealed in a story his biographer tells of his boyhood. His mother, Osburh, promised her sons that whichever one of them could learn a book of Saxon poetry would receive the book as a prize. Alfred asked if she really meant to give one of them the book, and she replied that she would. Alfred had his master read the book to him and then he repeated it to his mother.
   Alfred's zeal for learning may have been inspired by two trips to Rome that he took early in his life. In 853 Alfred paid his first visit to the Holy See, where he was received by Pope Leo IV and underwent a special ceremony of investiture. According to both Asser's life and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred was anointed with the kingship by the pope - a most unlikely occurrence because of Alfred's older sons. It is more likely that Alfred was anointed as Leo's godson. In 855 Alfred made a pilgrimage to Rome with his father, who stayed a year. The journey to Rome and back went, as had the previous trip, through the Carolingian realm. On the return during the second trip, Æthelwulf, whose first wife had died, married Judith, the daughter of Charles the Bald, at whose court the pilgrims stayed. Alfred certainly came into contact with the dazzling culture of the court of Charles the Bald on this trip, which most likely left a lasting impression on a young boy who had a great thirst for knowledge. He may also have become aware of the great legacy of Charlemagne during this visit to the court of the great king's grandson. Charles the Bald had sought to revive the glories of the Carolingian Renaissance, and Alfred's exposure to those glories would surely have reinforced his own interests in learning. When he became king, Alfred attempted to revive learning and letters in his kingdom as the great Frankish rulers had in theirs.
   Alfred the Great (Perry-Castaneda Library)
   Alfred's path to the kingship was a most indirect one, because his older brothers had precedence over him to the throne. In fact, one of his brothers, Æthelbald, claimed his right to the succession while Æthelwulf was on pilgrimage in 855-856. Æthelwulf submitted to his son's demands by dividing the kingdom and ruling with his eldest son until Æthelwulf died in 858. Two other brothers preceded Alfred to the throne in the 860s. In that decade the Danish threat became increasingly serious and was the major focus of the king's activities. In 868, for example, Alfred joined his brother King Ethelred in support of the king of Mercia, Buhred, in a battle against invading Danes at Nottingham. The Danes continued their raids and had great success against various Saxon rulers, killing Edmund, king of East Anglia, in one engagement.
   Alfred succeeded his brother Æthelred on the throne in 871 and began the difficult struggle with Danish invaders that lasted most of his reign. In the first year of his kingship, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred fought numerous battles against various Danish warrior bands and although he won an important victory at Wilton against a much larger force, in all likelihood he lost most of the battles. In 872, to stem the tide of invasion, Alfred purchased a truce from the Danes, which allowed him time to strengthen his hold on the kingdom and prepare for future attacks. Alfred's truce kept the Danes away from his kingdom for several years, but the surrounding kingdoms were not as fortunate. In the 870s East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria were overrun by Danish armies, and at one point the Mercian king was forced to flee to Rome in the face of the onslaught.
   The Danes mounted a renewed challenge on Alfred's kingdom in 876. The next few years were the most difficult of Alfred's entire reign, and the Danes nearly took over his kingdom of Wessex. Indeed, in 878 the Danes drove Alfred from his kingdom to the island of Athelney. This was a dark time for Alfred and the English, but it was also the moment (but not the last) that Alfred showed his true greatness. Marshaling his forces from his base on Athelney, Alfred began to attack Danish forces over the course of seven weeks. These attacks culminated in a major victory over the Danes at the Battle of Eddington, breaking their army and driving them from the field. The Danes and their king, Guthrum, agreed to leave Wessex and convert to Christianity. Alfred's great victory saved his kingdom from occupation by the Danes, but it did not end the Danish threat. Guthrum merely turned his attention to other parts of England, and Alfred himself faced further challenges later in his reign.
   During the 880s Alfred strengthened his position in England. He extended his authority over other English kingdoms, most importantly Mercia. In 886 Alfred took control of London, an event of such importance to the English that, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes, "all the English people not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him" (Whitelock). Alfred also reorganized his military, so that he would be better prepared for future attacks by the Danes from land or sea. He reformed the fyrd, the traditional peasant militia of Anglo-Saxon England that was essential for local defense. Useful as the fyrd was for local defense, its greatest weakness was the unwillingness of peasant soldiers to serve outside their county or for significant lengths of time. Alfred could not resolve the problem of distance, but he was able to keep the fyrd in the field by dividing service into six-month terms and mobilizing half the peasantry for each term. He also built a series of burghs, fortified settlements throughout the kingdom that could serve as defensive positions or as bases of further operation and counterattack. Situated at key points throughout the realm, the burghs were primarily military garrisons, but some had administrative and financial functions, roles that became more important as time went on. Alfred also built a fleet of ships to meet the Danes on the open sea. The ships were larger than anything the Danes had and were certainly a match for the Danish ships.
   Alfred's military reforms were an important precaution, because he faced further attacks in the 890s. In 892 an invasion force crossed the channel from Francia in 250 ships, followed by a second fleet of 80 ships. Over the next several years, Alfred once again was forced to defend his kingdom and once again was successful. From 893 to 896 Alfred waged a series of offensives against the invading Danes, on occasion capturing their camps and forcing them to flee before being totally destroyed. In 896 Alfred's various military reforms served him to good end when he trapped a large Danish navy on the Lea River. Building fortifications and thereby cutting off their escape route, Alfred forced the Danes to abandon their ships and scatter. Although this victory did not end the Danish threat, which continued into the tenth and eleventh centuries, it did provide a degree of peace and stability in the kingdom, which Alfred was able to enjoy until his death on October 26, 899.
   Alfred's legacy, however, is not limited to his defense against the Danes and military reforms. Indeed, in some ways, his legal and literary contributions are more important than his other achievements. It was probably in the 890s that Alfred issued his compilation of the law. Building on the precedents of kings of Wessex, Kent, and Mercia, Alfred issued a legal code that was intended to cover all the English, even though Alfred referred to himself only as the king of the West Saxons. His use of oaths of loyalty in the code suggests Carolingian influence as well, but it was his genius that gave the code its final shape. He clearly borrowed from his predecessors, but introduced restrictions on the feud, the duty of subjects to their lords, and, as fitting a deeply religious king like Alfred, legislation protecting the church. His religious convictions were evident also in his concerns with learning and literacy in his kingdom. Alfred, lamenting the extreme poverty of learning in his kingdom, undertook the effort to translate a series of important Christian works into the Anglo-Saxon tongue, because many people in his kingdom could read their native tongue but could not read Latin, the language of learning. With his support translations of various works appeared, including Bede's History of the English Church and People, Pope Gregory the Great's Dialogues, a martyrology, and a work by St. Augustine of Hippo's supporter, Orosius, Seven Books against the Pagans. Alfred himself was responsible for a number of translations, including Pope Gregory's Pastoral Rule (Regula pastoralis), which Alfred translated as the Pastoral Care, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and Augustine's Soliloquies. The translations by Alfred vary in their loyalty to the original. The work of Gregory was closely translated, but for the works of Boethius and Augustine Alfred took great liberty with the text. He introduced new ideas and questions in the translation of Boethius, and he added material from the Bible, Gregory the Great, and other works by Augustine to the Soliloquies. These works reveal the breadth of Alfred's interests, and they continued to be copied into the twelfth century. It was also during Alfred's reign that the first compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was made.
   Alfred's contributions to the history of Anglo-Saxon England were numerous and varied. Even though his efforts to revive learning among the people were modest, his translations remain of interest today and had an important impact on scholars long after his death. His defense of the kingdom against the Danes provided England important infrastructure to continue the struggle after his death, even though it was to be nearly two centuries before the Danes were finally expelled from England and the threat of invasion ended. Alfred truly was one of the great kings of England.
   See also
 ♦ Hodges, Richard. The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: Archeology and the Beginnings of English Society. London: Duckworth, 1989.
 ♦ Keynes, Simon. "The British Isles: England, 700-900." In The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2, ed. Rosamond McKitterick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
 ♦ Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge, trans. Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983.
 ♦ Sawyer, Peter H. From Roman Britain to Norman England, 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
 ♦ Smyth, AlfredP. King Alfred the Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
 ♦ Sturdy, David J. Alfred the Great. London: Constable, 1995.
 ♦ Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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