Alfred the Great: How 'Great' was he?
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Alfred of Wessex is one of the only monarch in English or British History to be called ‘the great.’ Even Edward III and Elizabeth I were never given the prestigious title, so, how great was he?
Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde (1790) SOURCE: National Trust, Stourhead
Alfred was the fifth son of King Æthelwulf, King of Wessex born around 847CE and with four older brothers, was never really meant to be king of anything. But, in 871 with England on the brink of becoming a Viking colony, his brother King Æthelred died, leaving the throne to Alfred. A pious yet sickly man, possibly suffering from Crohn's disease, leaving many in Wessex less than thrilled with the prospect of him on the throne. In a world where brute strength and leadership was paramount, Alfred appeared to have very little of ether.
The England that Alfred was born into wasn’t a united country. Life in 9th century Britain was centred around the farm and family life, with many dangers around every corner. Cities such as London, Winchester and Canterbury left by the Romans, were the only centralised places of government. With many people never leaving the village they were born in. Life hadn’t changed much since the Saxon ‘invasion’ of the 5th and 6th centuries and the people on the street most likely didn’t care who was king, as long as they didn’t go hungry and weren’t taxed to heavily. Britain itself was split up into different kingdoms with no single ruler with four main kingdoms in England alone. Wessex in the south home to the west saxons, Northumbria in the north which by the 9th century was a blend of Saxon and danish peoples, Mercia which stretched from the welsh borders to the humber river and East Anglia in you guessed it, modern day East Anglia. Scotland’s main kingdom was Strathclyde in the south west of the country with Wales and what is today Cornwall, spilt further minor kingdoms with the idea of a united kingdom of England or even more far fetched, Britain not entering the minds of many.
A modern map showing the main Saxon, Welsh, Scottish and Celtic kingdoms in the year 800 SOURCE: Christian Ionita (2010)
After successive Viking raids in the late 9th century, Alfred and its likely the other Kings of Britain, paid of the Danish raiders to stay away. the Danegeld, as it would be known, ensured relative peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians that had settled in eastern Britain, in an area that encompassed most of Northumbria and East Anglia known as the Dane Law but, the peace wouldn't last for long. Under the leadership of King Guthrum, the Danes invaded Wessex, forcing Alfred to flee his capital of Winchester and its at this point where the legend of Alfred really takes a turn. It all gets a little bit hazy from here but somewhere between 876 and early 878 Alfred, defeated and essentially homeless, escapes to the marshes of Somerset where legend would have you believe he burned some cakes which he had been asked to look after. The story goes on to describe how when the women who asked Alfred to look after her cakes realised what he had done, she berated him for his carelessness without ever knowing that it was in fact the king she was addressing. One potential reason for Alfred burning the cakes, was that his mind was firmly on home, and how he cared deeply about taking it back and restoring the land to Christian rule. Another possibility is that he was a bad cook, I guess we'll never know for certain. Alfred was soon done with his Anglo-Saxon gap year around the marshes he was ready to take take back his birth right and, take the fight to the Danes.
In the 870's, there wasn't a formal, professional army for a King to call upon in his hour of need. Alfred relied on the Fyrds, local militia forces made up of local men with spears and other crude tools to bludgeon and kill. Controlled by local aldermen, who would swear oaths of allegiance to lords or Kings and in so, provided men for military service. Alfred, now done with the cakes, set about gathering the fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and met the 'Great Heathen Army' led by Guthrum at Edington. The battle took place in May of 878 with details of the battle few and far between but, what is known is that it was a great victory for the Saxon army led by Alfred who was able to route the Danes and, convince Guthrum to convert to Christianity, an incredible act in such a religiously divided world.
Alfred spent the next 20 years of his reign strengthening Wessex's position, forging alliances with Mercia by marrying his daughter, Æthelflæd to the Mercian king Æthelred, and constructing a series of fortified towns called Burhs, to keep the Viking raiding parties at bay. Deeply invested in the church, Alfred built many a place of worship in Wessex but most importantly, he is considered the first king of ‘England’ to really start to write things down. A strange concept to understand in the 21st century but, in the post Roman days, Latin or Greek were the only languages used in books or legal dealings. Alfred new the importance of the written word and started to document his laws, decisions and political dealings, and he did it in Old English. Alfred didn’t finish there, he looked to completely overhaul the education system, that until that point, was virtually non existent and it was saved for the few and the very privileged. Taking inspiration from the legendary Charlemagne, he introduced Court Schools allowing not only the nobles but the lesser people of his kingdom to learn. Wether it was a conscious effort at the time or merely later chronicles putting the pieces together, Alfred seemed to want to unit the christian peoples of England under one crown, and he saw himself as the man to do it.
Alfred the Great statue, Winchester SOURCE: Tony Baggett / Shutterstock.com
Unfortunately, Alfred wouldn't live to see his work completed, dying suddenly some time in 899, leaving his son, Edward to become king of the West Saxons. Alfred laid the foundations for Edward, and his daughter Æthelflæd, who became sole ruler of Mercia in 911, to continue to galvanise Wessex rule in England, and continue the idea of a United Kingdom (not to be confused with the actual United Kingdom of the 18th century) under the Christian rule of one king. joining forces, Edward and Æthelflæd would continue their Father's work in securing their borders and furthering the influence of Wessex but it wasn't until 925, when Æthelstan, Alfred's grandson took the throne, that 'England' was first mentioned.
Most of the information we get about Alfred only comes from one source. the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written by a bishop Asser, and was commissioned by Alfred so its likely that the work is kind to him but, that doesn't take away from the achievements of Alfred. In an ideal world where I decided who is great and who isn't, both Alfred and his daughter, Æthelflæd would get the title as they both contributed enormously to England and as a kingdom. Æthelflæd was able to rule, as a women, in a time that was patriarchal and sexist and continue the work of her late father setting further foundations for a united England. Alfred has to be considered one of the greatest rulers that the isle of Britain has ever known, a man with his mind firmly fixed on the future. some say that Alfred was just a good propagandist but I disagree, without Alfred, England would look very different today.