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Alfred the Great ( , "elf advice"; 849 – 26 October 899), was king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessexmarker from 871 to 899. Alfred is noted for his defence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of southern England against the Vikings, becoming the only English king to be given the epithet "the Great". Alfred was the first King of the West Saxons to style himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons". Details of his life are described in a work by the Welsh scholar and bishop, Asser. Alfred was a learned man who encouraged education and improved his kingdom's legal system and military structure.


Alfred was born in 849 at Wantagemarker, Oxfordshire (in the historic county of Berkshire). He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, by his first wife, Osburga. In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Æthelred Mucil.

At the age of five years, Alfred is said to have been sent to Romemarker where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV who "anointed him as king". Victorian writers interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his ultimate succession to the throne of Wessex. However, his succession could not have been foreseen at the time, as Alfred had three living elder brothers. A letter of Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a "consul"; a misinterpretation of this investiture, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion. It may also be based on Alfred's later having accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent some time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, around 854–855. On their return from Rome in 856, Æthelwulf was deposed by his son Æthelbald. With civil war looming, the magnates of the realm met in council to hammer out a compromise. Æthelbald would retain the western shires (i.e., traditional Wessex), and Æthelwulf would rule in the east. King Æthelwulf died in 858; meanwhile Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred's brothers in succession.

Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in English, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorise it. This story may be true, or it may be a myth intended to illustrate the young Alfred's love of learning.

Under Æthelred

During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, Æthelbald of Wessex and Æthelbert of Wessex, Alfred is not mentioned. However, his public life began with the accession of the third brother, Æthelred of Wessex, in 866. It is during this period that Bishop Asser applies to him the unique title of "secundarius", which may indicate a position akin to that of the Celtic tanist, a recognized successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. It is possible that this arrangement was sanctioned by Alfred's father, or by the Witan, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Æthelred fall in battle. The arrangement of crowning a successor as royal prince and military commander is well known among other Germanic tribes, such as the Swedes and Franks, to whom the Anglo-Saxons were closely related.

In 868, Alfred is recorded as fighting beside Æthelred in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the invading Danes out of the adjoining Kingdom of Merciamarker. For nearly two years, Wessex was spared attacks because Alfred paid the Vikings to leave him alone. However, at the end of 870, the Danes arrived in his homeland. The year which followed has been called "Alfred's year of battles". Nine engagements were fought with varying outcomes, though the place and date of two of these battles have not been recorded. In Berkshire, a successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefieldmarker on 31 December 870 was followed by a severe defeat at the siege and Battle of Readingmarker on 5 January 871; then, four days later, Alfred won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdownmarker on the Berkshire Downsmarker, possibly near Compton or Aldworthmarker. Alfred is particularly credited with the success of this latter battle. However, later that month, on 22 January, the English were defeated at Basingmarker and, on the 22 March at the Battle of Merton (perhaps Marden in Wiltshiremarker or Martin in Dorsetmarker), in which Æthelred was killed. The two unidentified battles may also have occurred in between.

King at war

Early struggles, defeat and flight

Coin of Alfred, king of Wessex, London, 880 (based upon a Roman model).

Obv: King with royal band in profile, with legend: ÆLFRED REX "King Ælfred".
In April 871, King Æthelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, despite the fact that Æthelred left two under-age sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold. This was in accordance with the agreement that Æthelred and Alfred had made earlier that year in an assembly at Swinbeorg. The brothers had agreed that whichever of them outlived the other would inherit the personal property that King Æthelwulf in his will had left jointly to his sons. The deceased's sons would receive only whatever property and riches their father had settled upon them and whatever additional lands their uncle had acquired. The unstated premise was that the surviving brother would be king. Given the ongoing Danish invasion and the youth of his nephews, Alfred's succession probably went uncontested. Tensions between Alfred and his nephews, however, would arise later in his reign.

While he was busy with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the English in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wiltonmarker in May. The defeat at Wilton smashed any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom. He was forced, instead, to ‘make peace’ with them. The sources do not tell what the terms of the peace were. Bishop Asser, spinning gold out of straw, trumpets that the 'pagans' agreed to vacate the realm and made good their promise; and, indeed, the Viking army did withdraw from Reading in the autumn of 871 to take up winter quarters in Mercian London. Although not mentioned by Asser or by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred probably also paid the Vikings cash to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year. Hoards dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871/2 have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge; these finds hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England. However, in 876 under their new leader, Guthrum, the Danes slipped past the English army and attacked and occupied Warehammarker in Dorsetmarker. Alfred blockaded them but was unable to take Wareham by assault. Accordingly, he negotiated a peace which involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a "holy ring" associated with the worship of Thor. The Danes, however, broke their word and, after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exetermarker in Devonmarker. There, Alfred blockaded them, and with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to submit. They withdrew to Mercia, but, in January 878, made a sudden attack on Chippenhammarker, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas, "and most of the people they reduced, 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 Athelneymarker in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe". From his fort at Athelneymarker, an island in the marshes near North Pethertonmarker, Alfred was able to mount an effective resistance movement, rallying the local militias from Somersetmarker, Wiltshiremarker and Hampshire.

Alfred watching the cakes

A popular legend, originating from 12th century chronicles, tells how when he first fled to the Somerset Levels, Alfred was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidentally let the cakes burn and was taken to task by the woman upon her return. Upon realizing the king's identity, the woman apologized profusely, but Alfred insisted that he was the one who needed to apologize. Another story relates how Alfred disguised himself as a minstrel in order to gain entry to Guthrum's camp and discover his plans. These stories emphasize not only the piety and Christian humility attributed to Alfred, but also the desperate straits to which he may have been reduced.

This was the low-water mark in the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. With all the other kingdoms having fallen to the Vikings, Wessex alone was still resisting.

Counterattack and victory

Statue of Alfred the Great at Wantage

In the seventh week after Easter [4-10 May 878], around Whitsuntide, Alfred rode to ‘Egbert’s Stone’ east of Selwood, where he was met by "all the people of Somerset and of Wiltshire and of that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea [that is, west of Southampton Water], and they rejoiced to see him". Alfred’s emergence from his marshland stronghold was part of a carefully planned offensive that entailed raising the fyrds of three shires. This meant not only that the king had retained the loyalty of ealdormen, royal reeves and king’s thegns (who were charged with levying and leading these forces), but that they had maintained their positions of authority in these localities well enough to answer Alfred’s summons to war. Alfred’s actions also suggest a finely-honed system of scouts and messengers. Alfred won a decisive victory in the ensuing Battle of Ethandun, which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshiremarker. He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity; and three weeks later the Danish king and 29 of his chief men were baptized at Alfred's court at Aller, near Athelney, with Alfred receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son. The "unbinding of the chrism" took place with great ceremony eight days later at the royal estate at Wedmore in Somerset, after which Guthrum fulfilled his promise to leave Wessex. There is no contemporary evidence that Alfred and Guthrum agreed upon a formal treaty at this time; the so-called Treaty of Wedmore is an invention of modern historians. The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum preserved in Old English in Corpus Christi College Cambridge (Manuscript 383), and in a Latin compilation known as Quadripartitus, was negotiated later, perhaps in 879 or 880, when King Ceolwulf II of Mercia was deposed. That treaty divided up the kingdom of Mercia. By its terms the boundary between Alfred’s and Guthrum’s kingdoms was to run up the Thames, to the Lea River; follow the Lea to its source (near Luton); from there extend in a straight line to Bedford; and from Bedford follow the Ouse River to Watling Street. In other words, Alfred succeeded to Ceolwulf’s kingdom, consisting of western Mercia; and Guthrum incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an enlarged kingdom of East Anglia (henceforward known as the Danelaw). By terms of the treaty, moreover, Alfred was to have control over the Mercian city of London and its mints — at least for the time being. The disposition of Essex, held by West Saxon kings since the days of Egbert, is unclear from the treaty, though, given Alfred’s political and military superiority, it would have been surprising if he had conceded any disputed territory to his godson.

Restoration of London, King of the English

For the next few years there was peace, with the Danes being kept busy in Francia. A raid on Kent in 884 or 885 close to Plucks Guttermarker, though successfully repelled, encouraged the East Anglianmarker Danes to rise up. The measures taken by Alfred to repress this uprising culminated in the taking (or more probably, retaking) of Londonmarker in 886. Alfred apparently regarded this as a turning point in his reign. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that "all of the English people (all Angelcyn) not subject to the Danes submitted themselves to King Alfred." Asser added that "Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, restored the city of Londonmarker splendidly ... and made it habitable once more." Alfred's "restoration" entailed reoccupying and refurbishing the nearly deserted Roman walled city, building quays along the Thames, and laying a new city street plan. It is probably at this point that Alfred assumed the new royal style 'King of the Anglo-Saxons.'

Further Viking attacks repelled

After another lull, in the autumn of 892 or 893, the Danes attacked again. Finding their position in Europe precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. They entrenched themselves, the larger body at Appledore, Kentmarker, and the lesser, under Haesten, at Miltonmarker also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonization. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from whence he could observe both forces. While he was in talks with Haesten, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred's oldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnhammarker in Surreymarker. They were obliged to take refuge on an island in the Hertfordshire Colnemarker, where they were blockaded and were ultimately compelled to submit. The force fell back on Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, coalesced with Haesten's force at Shoeburymarker.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrianmarker and East Anglianmarker Danes were besieging Exetermarker and an unnamed stronghold on the North Devonmarker shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and raised the Siege of Exetermarker. The fate of the other place is not recorded. Meanwhile the force under Haesten set out to march up the Thames Valleymarker, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Merciamarker, Wiltshiremarker and Somersetmarker, and made to head off to the northwest, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttingtonmarker. Some identify this with Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, others with Buttington near Welshpoolmarker. An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. Those who escaped retreated to Shoebury. Then after collecting reinforcements they made a sudden dash across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chestermarker. The English did not attempt a winter blockade but contented themselves with destroying all the supplies in the neighbourhood. Early in 894 (or 895), want of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of this year and early in 895 (or 896), the Danes drew their ships up the Thames and Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles (32 km) north of London. A direct attack on the Danish lines failed but, later in the year, Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river so as to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realised that they were outmanoeuvred. They struck off northwestwards and wintered at Cwatbridgemarker near Bridgnorthmarker. The next year, 896 (or 897), they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbriamarker, some to East Angliamarker. Those who had no connections in England withdrew back to Europe.

Military reorganization

Reconstituted fyrd

The near-disaster of the winter of 878, even more than the victory in the spring, left its mark on the king and shaped his subsequent policies. Over the last two decades of his reign, Alfred undertook a radical reorganization of the military institutions of his kingdom, strengthened the West Saxon economy through a policy of monetary reform and urban planning and strove to win divine favour by resurrecting the literary glories of earlier generations of Anglo-Saxons. Alfred pursued these ambitious programmes to fulfill, as he saw it, his responsibility as king. This justified the heavy demands he made upon his subjects' labour and finances. It even excused the expropriation of strategically located Church lands. Recreating the fyrd into a standing army, ringing Wessexmarker with some thirty garrisoned fortified towns, and constructing new and larger ships for the royal fleet were costly endeavours that provoked resistance from noble and peasant alike. But they paid off. When the Vikings returned in force in 892 they found a kingdom defended by a standing, mobile field army and a network of garrisoned fortresses that commanded its navigable rivers and Roman roads.

Alfred analyzed the defects of the military system that he had inherited and implemented changes to remedy them. Alfred's military reorganization of Wessex consisted of three elements: the building of thirty fortified and garrisoned towns (burhs) along the rivers and Roman roads of Wessex; the creation of a mobile (horsed) field force, consisting of his nobles and their warrior retainers, which was divided into two contingents, one of which was always in the field; and the enhancement of Wessex's seapower through the addition of larger ships to the existing royal fleet. Each element of the system was meant to remedy defects in the West Saxon military establishment exposed by the Viking invasions. If under the existing system he could not assemble forces quickly enough to intercept mobile Viking raiders, the obvious answer was to have a standing field force. If this entailed transforming the West Saxon fyrd from a sporadic levy of king's men and their retinues into a mounted standing army, so be it. If his kingdom lacked strongpoints to impede the progress of an enemy army, he would build them. If the enemy struck from the sea, he would counter them with his own naval power. Characteristically, all of Alfred's innovations were firmly rooted in traditional West Saxon practice, drawing as they did upon the three so-called ‘common burdens' of bridge work, fortress repair and service on the king's campaigns that all holders of bookland and royal loanland owed the Crown. Where Alfred revealed his genius was in designing the field force and ‘burhs' (boroughs), as these fortified sites were called, to be parts of a coherent military system. Neither Alfred's reformed fyrd nor his burhs alone would have afforded a sufficient defence against the Vikings; together, however, they robbed the Vikings of their major strategic advantages: surprise and mobility.

The burghal system; defence in depth

Alfred, in effect, had created what modern strategists call a defence-in-depth system, and one that worked. Alfred's boroughs were not grand affairs like the massive stone late Roman shore forts that still dot the southern coast of England (e.g. Pevensey and Richborough 'Castle'). Rather, the borough defences consisted mainly of massive earthworks, large earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches. The earthen wall probably were surmounted with wooden palisades, which, by the tenth century were giving way to stone walls. (The Alfredian defences are well preserved at Warehammarker, a town on the southern coast of England.) The size of the boroughs varied greatly, from tiny fortifications such as Pilton to large towns like Winchester. Many of the boroughs were, in fact, twin towns built on either side of a river and connected by a fortified bridge—much like Charles the Bald's fortifications a generation before. Such a double-borough would block passage on the river; the Vikings would have to row under a garrisoned bridge, risking being pelted with stones, spears, or shot with arrows, in order to go upstream. Alfred's thirty boroughs were distributed widely throughout the West Saxon kingdom and situated in such a manner that no part of the kingdom was more than twenty miles, a day's march, from a fortified centre. They were also sited near fortified royal villas, to permit the king better control over his strongholds. What has not been recognized sufficiently, is how these boroughs dominated the kingdom's lines of communication, the navigable rivers, Roman roads, and major trackways. Alfred seems to have had "highways" (hereweges--"army roads") linking the boroughs to one another. An extensive beacon system to warn of approaching Viking fleets and armies was probably also instituted at this time. In short, the thirty boroughs formed an integrated system of fortification.

The presence of well-garrisoned boroughs along the major travel routes of Wessex presented an obstacle for Viking invaders, especially those laden with booty. They also served as places of refuge for the populations of the surrounding countryside. But these fortresses were not mere static points of defence. They were designed to operate in conjunction with Alfred's mobile standing army. The army and the boroughs together deprived the Vikings of their major strategic advantages: surprise and mobility. It was dangerous for the Vikings to leave a borough intact astride their lines of communication, but it was equally dangerous to attempt to take one. Lacking siege equipment or a developed doctrine of siegecraft, the Vikings could not take these fortresses by storm. Rather, they reduced to the expedient of starving them into submission, which gave the king time to come to their relief with his mobile field army, or for the garrisons of neighbouring boroughs to come to the aid of the besieged town. In a number of instances, the hunter became the hunted, as borough garrison and field force joined together to pursue the would-be raiders. In fact, the only recorded success Viking forces had against boroughs in the ninth century occurred in 892, when a Viking stormed a half-made, poorly garrisoned fortress up the Lympne estuary in Kentmarker.

Alfred's burghal system was revolutionary in its strategic conception and potentially expensive in its execution. As Alfred’s biographer Asser makes clear, many nobles were reluctant to comply with what must have seemed to them outrageous and unheard of demands—even if they were for ‘the common needs of the kingdom’, as Asser reminded them. The cost of building the burhs was great in itself, but this paled before the cost of upkeep for these fortresses and the maintenance of their standing garrisons. A remarkable early tenth-century document, known as the Burghal Hidage, provides a formula for determining how many men were needed to garrison a borough, based on one man for every 5.5 yards of wall. This provided a theoretical total of 27,071 soldiers, which is unlikely to have ever been achieved in practice. Even if we assume that the mobile forces of Alfred were small, perhaps 3,000 or so horsemen, the manpower costs of his military establishment were considerable.

Administration and taxation

To obtain the needed garrison troops and workers to build and maintain the burhs' defences, Alfred regularized and vastly expanded the existing (and, one might add, quite recent) obligation of landowners to provide ‘fortress work’ on the basis of the hidage assessed upon their lands. The allotments of the Burghal Hidage represent the creation of administrative districts for the support of the burhs. The landowners attached to Wallingford, for example, were responsible for producing and feeding 2,400 men, the number sufficient for maintaining 9,900 feet of wall. Each of the larger burhs became the centre of a territorial district of considerable size, carved out of the neighbouring countryside in order to support the town. In one sense, Alfred conceived nothing truly new here. The shires of Wessex went back at least to the reign of King Ine, who probably also imposed a hidage assessment upon each for food rents and other services owed the Crown. But, it is equally clear that Alfred did not allow the past to bind him. With the advice of his witan, he freely reorganized and modified what he had inherited. The result was nothing short of an administrative revolution, a reorganization of the West Saxon shire system to accommodate Alfred’s military needs. Even if one rejects the thesis crediting the "Burghal Hidage" to Alfred, what is undeniable is that, in the parts of Mercia acquired by Alfred from the Vikings, the shire system seems now to have been introduced for the first time. This is probably what prompted the legend that Alfred was the inventor of shires, hundreds and tithings.

An English navy

Alfred also tried his hand at naval design. In 897 he ordered the construction of a small fleet, perhaps a dozen or so longships, that, at 60 oars, were twice the size of Viking warships. This was not, as the Victorians were wont to believe, the birth of the English Navy. Wessex possessed a royal fleet before this. Alfred's brother King Athelstan of Kent and Ealdorman Eahlhere had defeated a Viking fleet in 851, capturing nine ships, and Alfred himself had conducted naval actions in 882 and 884. But clearly the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and probably Alfred himself regarded 897 as marking an important development in the naval power of Wessex. The chronicler flattered his royal patron by boasting that Alfred's ships were not only larger, but swifter, steadier, and rode higher in the water than either Danish or Frisian ships. (It is probable that, under the classical tutelage of Asser, Alfred utilised the design of Grecian and Roman warships, with high sides, designed for fighting rather than for navigation.) Alfred had seapower in mind: if he could intercept raiding fleets before they landed, he could spare his kingdom from ravaging. In conception Alfred's ships may have been superior, but in practice they left a bit to be desired. His ships proved to be too large to manoeuvre well in the close waters of estuaries and rivers, the only places in which a 'naval' battle could occur. (The warships of the time were not designed to be ship killers but troop carriers. A naval battle entailed a ship coming alongside an enemy vessel, at which point the crew would lash the two ships together and board the enemy. The result was a land battle at sea.)

In the one recorded naval engagement in the year 897, Alfred's new fleet intercepted six Viking ships in the mouth of an unidentified river along the south of England. The Danes had beached half their ships, either to rest their rowers or to forage for food. Alfred's ships immediately moved to block their escape to the sea. The three Viking ships afloat attempted to break through the English lines. Only one made it. Alfred's ships intercepted the other two. Lashing the Viking boats to their own, the English crew boarded the enemy's vessels and proceeded to kill everyone on board. The one ship that escaped managed to do so only because all of Alfred's heavy ships became mired when the tide went out. What ensued was a land battle between the crews of the grounded ships. The Danes, heavily outnumbered, would have been wiped out if the tide had not risen. When that occurred, the Danes rushed back to their boats, which being lighter, with shallower drafts, were freed before Alfred's ships. Helplessly, the English watched as the Vikings rowed past them. But the pirates had suffered so many casualties (120 dead according to the Chronicle), that they had difficulties putting out to sea. Two of the three ships were driven against the Sussex coast. The shipwrecked sailors were brought before Alfred at Winchester and hanged.

Legal reform

In the late 880s or early 890s Alfred issued a long domboc or law code consisting of his "own" laws followed by a code issued by his late seventh-century predecessor King Ine of Wessex. Together these laws are arranged into 120 chapters. In his introduction Alfred explains that he gathered together the laws he found in many 'synod-books' and "ordered to be written many of the ones that our forefathers observed--those that pleased me; and many of the ones that did not please me I rejected with the advice of my councillors, and commanded them to be observed in a different way." Alfred singled out in particular the laws that he "found in the days of Ine, my kinsman, or Offa, king of the Mercians, or King Æthelbert of Kent, who first among the English people received baptism." It is difficult to know exactly what Alfred meant by this. He appended rather than integrated the laws of Ine into his code, and although he included, as had Æthelbert, a scale of payments in compensation for injuries to various body parts, the two injury tariffs are not aligned. And Offa is not known to have issued a law code, leading historian Patrick Wormald to speculate that Alfred had in mind the legatine capitulary of 786 that was presented to Offa by two papal legates.

About a fifth of the law code is taken up by Alfred's introduction, which includes translations into English of the Decalogue, a few chapters from the Book of Exodus, and the so-called 'Apostolic Letter' from Acts of the Apostles (15:23-29). The Introduction may best be understood as Alfred's meditation upon the meaning of Christian law. It traces the continuity between God's gift of Law to Moses to Alfred's own issuance of law to the West Saxon people. By doing so it links the holy past to the historical present and represents Alfred's law-giving as a type of divine legislation. This is the reason that Alfred divided his code into precisely 120 chapters: 120 was the age at which Moses died and, in the number-symbolism of early medieval biblical exegetes, 120 stood for law. The link between the Mosaic Law and Alfred's code is the 'Apostolic Letter,' which explained that Christ "had come not to shatter or annul the commandments but to fulfill them; and he taught mercy and meekness" (Intro, 49.1). The mercy that Christ infused into Mosaic Law underlies the injury tariffs that figure so prominently in barbarian law codes, since Christian synods "established, through that mercy which Christ taught, that for almost every misdeed at the first offence secular lords might with their permission receive without sin the monetary compensation, which they then fixed." The only crime that could not be compensated with a payment of money is treachery to a lord, "since Almighty God adjudged none for those who despised Him, nor did Christ, the Son of God, adjudge any for the one who betrayed Him to death; and He commanded everyone to love his lord as Himself." Alfred's transformation of Christ's commandment from "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matt. 22:39-40) to love your secular lord as you would love the Lord Christ himself underscores the importance that Alfred placed upon lordship, which he understood as a sacred bond instituted by God for the governance of man.

When one turns from the domboc's introduction to the laws themselves, it is difficult to uncover any logical arrangement. The impression one receives is of a hodgepodge of miscellaneous laws. The law code as it has been preserved is singularly unsuitable for use in lawsuits. In fact, several of Alfred's laws contradict the laws of Ine that form an integral part of the code. Patrick Wormald's explanation is that Alfred's law code should be understood not as a legal manual but as an ideological manifesto of kingship, "designed more for symbolic impact than for practical direction." In practical terms, the most important law in the code may well be the very first: "We enjoin, what is most necessary, that each man keep carefully his oath and his pledge," which expresses a fundamental tenet of Anglo-Saxon law.

Alfred devoted considerable attention and thought to judicial matters. Asser underscores his concern for judicial fairness. Alfred, according to Asser, insisted upon reviewing contested judgments made by his ealdormen and reeves, and "would carefully look into nearly all the judgements which were passed in his absence anywhere in the realm, to see whether they were just or unjust." A charter from the reign of his son Edward the Elder depicts Alfred as hearing one such appeal in his chamber, while washing his hands. Asser represents Alfred as a Solomonic judge, painstaking in his own judicial investigations and critical of royal officials who rendered unjust or unwise judgments. Although Asser never mentions Alfred's law code, he does say that Alfred insisted that his judges be literate, so that they could apply themselves "to the pursuit of wisdom." The failure to comply with this royal order was to be punished by loss of office. It is uncertain how seriously we should take this; Asser was more concerned to represent Alfred as a wise ruler than to report actual royal policy.

Foreign relations

Asser speaks grandiosely of Alfred's relations with foreign powers, but little definite information is available. His interest in foreign countries is shown by the insertions which he made in his translation of Orosius. He certainly corresponded with Elias III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and possibly sent a mission to Indiamarker in honour of Saint Thomas the Apostle, whose tomb was believed to lie in that country. Contact was also made with the Caliph in Baghdadmarker. Embassies to Rome conveying the English alms to the Pope were fairly frequent. Around 890, Wulfstan of Haithabu undertook a journey from Haithabumarker on Jutland along the Baltic Seamarker to the Prussian trading town of Trusomarker. Alfred ensured he reported to him details of his trip.

Alfred's relations with the Celtic princes in the western half of Britainmarker are clearer. Comparatively early in his reign, according to Asser, the southern Welshmarker princes, owing to the pressure on them from North Walesmarker and Merciamarker, commended themselves to Alfred. Later in the reign the North Welshmarker followed their example, and the latter cooperated with the English in the campaign of 893 (or 894). That Alfred sent alms to Irishmarker as well as to European monasteries may be taken on Asser's authority. The visit of the three pilgrim "Scots" (i.e. Irish) to Alfred in 891 is undoubtedly authentic. The story that he himself in his childhood was sent to Ireland to be healed by Saint Modwenna, though mythical, may show Alfred's interest in that island.

Religion and culture

In the 880s, at the same time that he was 'cajoling and threatening' his nobles to build and man the burhs, Alfred, perhaps inspired by the example of Charlemagne a century before, undertook an equally ambitious effort to revive learning. It entailed the recruitment of clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to enhance the tenor of the court and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth; an attempt to require literacy in those who held offices of authority; a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin works the king deemed 'most necessary for all men to know'; the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house; and the issuance of a law code that presented the West Saxons as a new people of Israel and their king as a just and divinely-inspired law-giver.

Very little is known of the church under Alfred. The Danish attacks had been particularly damaging to the monasteries, and though Alfred founded monasteries at Athelney and Shaftesbury, the first new monastic houses in Wessex since the beginning of the eighth century, and enticed foreign monks to England, monasticism did not revive significantly during his reign. Alfred undertook no systematic reform of ecclesiastical institutions or religious practices in Wessex. For him the key to the kingdom's spiritual revival was to appoint pious, learned, and trustworthy bishops and abbots. As king he saw himself as responsible for both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Secular and spiritual authority were not distinct categories for Alfred. He was equally comfortable distributing his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care to his bishops so that they might better train and supervise priests, and using those same bishops as royal officials and judges. Nor did his piety prevent him from expropriating strategically sited church lands, especially estates along the border with the Danelaw, and transferring them to royal thegns and officials who could better defend them against Viking attacks.

The Danish raids had also a devastating impact on learning in England. Alfred lamented in the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory I's Pastoral Care that "learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English, or even translate a single letter from Latin into English: and I suppose that there were not many beyond the Humber either." Alfred undoubtedly exaggerated for dramatic effect the abysmal state of learning in England during his youth. That Latin learning had not been obliterated is evidenced by the presence in his court of learned Mercian and West Saxon clerics such as Plegmund, Wæferth, and Wulfsige. But one should not discount entirely Alfred's account. Manuscript production in England dropped off precipitously around the 860s when the Viking invasions began in earnest, not to be revived until the end of the century. Numerous Anglo-Saxon manuscripts burnt up along with the churches that housed them. And a solemn diploma from Christ Church, Canterburymarker dated 873 is so poorly constructed and written that historian Nicholas Brooks posited a scribe who was either so blind he could not read what he wrote or who knew little or no Latin. "It is clear," Brooks concludes, "that the metropolitan church [of Canterbury] must have been quite unable to provide any effective training in the scriptures or in Christian worship."

Following the example of Charlemagne, Alfred established a court school for the education of his own children, those of the nobility, and "a good many of lesser birth." There they studied books in both English and Latin and "devoted themselves to writing, to such an extent .... they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts." He recruited scholars from the Continent and from Britain to aid in the revival of Christian learning in Wessex and to provide the king personal instruction. Grimbald and John the Saxon came from Francia; Plegmund (whom Alfred appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 890), Bishop Werferth of Worcester, Æthelstan, and the royal chaplains Werwulf, from Mercia; and Asser, from St. David's in southwestern Wales.

Alfred's educational ambitions seem to have extended beyond the establishment of a court school. Believing that without Christian wisdom there can be neither prosperity nor success in war, Alfred aimed "to set to learning (as long as they are not useful for some other employment) all the free-born young men now in England who have the means to apply themselves to it." Conscious of the decay of Latin literacy in his realm, Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English, with those wishing to advance to holy orders to continue their studies in Latin. The problem, however, was that there were few "books of wisdom" written in English. Alfred sought to remedy this through an ambitious court-centred programme of translating into English the books he deemed "most necessary for all men to know." It is unknown when Alfred launched this programme, but it may have been during the 880s when Wessex was enjoying a respite from Viking attacks.

Apart from the lost Handboc or Encheiridion, which seems to have been a commonplace book kept by the king, the earliest work to be translated was the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a book greatly popular in the Middle Ages. The translation was undertaken at Alfred's command by Werferth, Bishop of Worcester, with the king merely furnishing a preface. Remarkably, Alfred, undoubtedly with the advise and aid of his court scholars, translated four works himself: Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter. One might add to this list Alfred's translation, in his law code, of excerpts from the Vulgate Book of Exodus. The Old English versions of Orosius's Histories against the Pagans and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People are no longer accepted by scholars as Alfred's own translations because of lexical and stylistic differences. Nonetheless, the consensus remains that they were part of the Alfredian programme of translation. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge suggest this also for Bald's Leechbook and the anonymous Old English Martyrology.

Alfred's first translation was of Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, which he prefaced with an introduction explaining why he thought it necessary to translate works such as this one from Latin into English. Although he described his method as translating "sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense," Alfred's translation actually keeps very close to his original, although through his choice of language he blurred throughout the distinction between spiritual and secular authority. Alfred meant his translation to be used and circulated it to all his bishops.The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius was the most popular philosophical handbook of the Middle Ages. Unlike his translation of the Pastoral Care, Alfred here deals very freely with his original and though the late Dr. G. Schepss showed that many of the additions to the text are to be traced not to Alfred himself, but to the glosses and commentaries which he used, still there is much in the work which is solely Alfred's and highly characteristic of his genius. It is in the Boethius that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: "My will was to live worthily as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works." The book has come down to us in two manuscripts only. In one of these the writing is prose, in the other a combination of prose and alliterating verse. The latter manuscript was severely damaged in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the authorship of the verse has been much disputed; but likely it also is by Alfred. In fact, he writes in the prelude that he first created a prose work and then used it as the basis for his poem, the Lays of Boethius, his crowning literary achievement. He spent a great deal of time working on these books, which he tells us he gradually wrote through the many stressful times of his reign to refresh his mind. Of the authenticity of the work as a whole there has never been any doubt.

The last of Alfred's works is one to which he gave the name Blostman, i.e., "Blooms" or Anthology. The first half is based mainly on the Soliloquies of St Augustine of Hippo, the remainder is drawn from various sources, and contains much that is Alfred's own and highly characteristic of him. The last words of it may be quoted; they form a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings. "Therefore he seems to me a very foolish man, and truly wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear."

Alfred appears as a character in the twelfth- or thirteenth-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale, where his wisdom and skill with proverbs is praised. The Proverbs of Alfred, a thirteenth-century work, contains sayings that are not likely to have originated with Alfred but attest to his posthumous medieval reputation for wisdom.

The Alfred jewel, discovered in Somersetmarker in 1693, has long been associated with King Alfred because of its Old English inscription "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" (Alfred ordered me to be made). The jewel is about 2½ inches (6.1 cm) long, made of filigreed gold, enclosing a highly polished piece of quartz crystal beneath which is set a cloisonné enamel plaque, with an enamelled image of a man holding floriate sceptres, perhaps personifying Sight or the Wisdom of God. It was at one time attached to a thin rod or stick based on the hollow socket at its base. The jewel certainly dates from Alfred's reign. Although its function is unknown, it has been often suggested that the jewel was one of the æstels—pointers for reading—that Alfred ordered sent to every bishopric accompanying a copy of his translation of the Pastoral Care. Each æstel was worth the princely sum of 50 mancuses, which fits in well with the quality workmanship and expensive materials of the Alfred jewel.

Historian Richard Abels sees Alfred's educational and military reforms as complementary. Restoring religion and learning in Wessex, Abels contends, was to Alfred's mind as essential to the defence of his realm as the building of the burhs. As Alfred observed in the preface to his English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, kings who fail to obey their divine duty to promote learning can expect earthly punishments to befall their people. The pursuit of wisdom, he assured his readers of the Boethius, was the surest path to power: "Study Wisdom, then, and, when you have learned it, condemn it not, for I tell you that by its means you may without fail attain to power, yea, even though not desiring it". The portrayal of the West-Saxon resistance to the Vikings by Asser and the chronicler as a Christian holy war was more than mere rhetoric or 'propaganda'. It reflected Alfred's own belief in a doctrine of divine rewards and punishments rooted in a vision of a hierarchical Christian world order in which God is the Lord to whom kings owe obedience and through whom they derive their authority over their followers. The need to persuade his nobles to undertake work for the 'common good' led Alfred and his court scholars to strengthen and deepen the conception of Christian kingship that he had inherited by building upon the legacy of earlier kings such as Offa as well as clerical writers such as Bede, Alcuin and the other luminaries of the Carolingian renaissance. This was not a cynical use of religion to manipulate his subjects into obedience, but an intrinsic element in Alfred's worldview. He believed, as did other kings in ninth-century England and Francia, that God had entrusted him with the spiritual as well as physical welfare of his people. If the Christian faith fell into ruin in his kingdom, if the clergy were too ignorant to understand the Latin words they butchered in their offices and liturgies, if the ancient monasteries and collegiate churches lay deserted out of indifference, he was answerable before God, as Josiah had been. Alfred's ultimate responsibility was the pastoral care of his people.


Alfred is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church and is regarded as a hero of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion, with a feast day of 26 October, and may often be found depicted in stained glass in Church of England parish churches.


In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Ealdorman of the Gaini (who is also known as Aethelred Mucil), who was from the Gainsboroughmarker region of Lincolnshiremarker. She appears to have been the maternal granddaughter of a King of Mercia. They had five or six children together, including Edward the Elder, who succeeded his father as king, Æthelflæd, who would become Queen of Merciamarker in her own right, and Ælfthryth who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders. His mother was Osburga daughter of Oslac of the Isle of Wightmarker, Chief Butler of England. Asser, in his Vita Ælfredi asserts that this shows his lineage from the Jutes of the Isle of Wight. This is unlikely as Bede tells us that they were all slaughtered by the Saxons under Cædwalla. However, ironically Alfred could trace his line via the House of Wessex itself, from King Wihtred of Kent, whose mother was the sister of the last island king, Arwald.

Name Birth Death Notes
Æthelflæd 918 Married 889, Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia d 910; had issue. Edmund- died as teenager but recognised as heir
Edward 870 17 July 924 Married (1) Ecgwynn, (2) Ælfflæd, (3) 919 Eadgifu
Æthelgifu Abbess of Shaftesbury
Ælfthryth 929 Married Baldwin, Count of Flanders; had issue
Æthelweard 16 October 922(?) Married and had issue


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