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King Alfred the Great

Updated on June 22, 2015

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great, as all history students know, was given shelter by a peasant lady when avoiding the Danish invaders. The lady told him to watch the cakes that were baking on the hearth while she went out. He was so preoccupied with his troubles with the kingdom and the marauding Danes that he forgot the cakes and they were burned. She gave him a tongue lashing, not realising that he was her King. He took it like a man and admitted that it was his fault.

Alfred comes to the throne

Alfred was born in 849 at Wantage in Oxfordshire. His parents were King Ethelwulf and Queen Osburga of Wessex. He had three elder brothers and in 856, Ethelwulf was deposed by his son Ethelbald. Civil war was imminent and the politicians met in council to work out a compromise. Ethelbald would rule over the western shires, traditional Wessex, and Ethelwulf would rule in the east. King Ethelwulf died in 858, and Wessex was ruled by the three of Alfred's brothers in succession.

In 868, Alfred fought beside his brother, Ethelred in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the invading Danes out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia. Then, at the end of 870, the Danes arrived in Alfred's territory. There followed a year of battles. Nine battles were fought against the Danes.

In Berkshire, a successful result at the battle of Edgefield on 31 December 870 was followed by a defeat at the Battle of Reading on 5 January 871; then, four days later, Alfred won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown. Alfred is particularly credited with the success of this battle. Later that month, on 22 January, the English were defeated at Basing and, on the 22 March at the Battle of Merton in which Ethelred was killed. This period was the lowest in the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. With all the other kingdoms having fallen to the Vikings, Wessex alone was still resisting. There were other battles that happened in between these major ones, but these are not recorded. When King Ethelred died, Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex, on a prior agreement with Ethelred that whoever outlived the other would rule. Ethelred had two sons, Ethelhelm and Ethelwold, but they were both children so they were not considered for the monarchy.

Many battles

While Alfred was involved with the burial ceremony for his brother, the Danes struck again and defeated the English in his absence. He hurried to Wilton when news came that the Danes were about to attack the town. Alfred was defeated at Wilton and any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom was dashed. He was obliged to do a deal with them. The terms of the peace are not known. What is known is that the Danes vacated Wessex and took up winter quarters in Mercian London.

It is assumed that Alfred paid the Vikings to leave, as the Mercians had to do in the following year. Finds of gold coin dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871/2 have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge and these finds hint at the amount of money involved in making peace with the Vikings. The next five years were fairly peaceful with the Danes occupying other parts of England. Then in 876 their new leader, Guthrum, and his army attacked Wareham in Dorset and set themselves up in the town. Alfred set up a blockade but was unable to take Wareham by assault. He therefore negotiated peace which involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, the Danes swearing on a holy ring associated with their worship of Thor. This meant nothing to the Danes, however, as they broke their word, killed all the hostages and slipped away under cover of darkness to Exeter. Alfred blockaded them again and as the Danish fleet of reserves had been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced into submission. They withdrew to Mercia, but, in January 878, they again made a sudden attack on Alfred's royal stronghold in Chippenham where Alfred had been staying over Christmas. King Alfred and a small band of men made their way through the woods and swamps and made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, where he led skirmishes upon the Danish invaders. From this fort in the marshes Alfred was able to mount an effective resistance movement.

In May of 878, Alfred rode to a meeting of the people of Somerset, Wiltshire and a part of Hampshire and they planned an offensive, raising an army from the three shires. The king had the loyalty of his Earldormen, royal reeves and king’s thegns and they were charged with levying and leading their forces in answer to Alfred’s summons to war. Alfred won a decisive victory in the ensuing Battle of Ethandun which was fought near Westbury in Wiltshire. He pursued the Danes to their headquarters at Chippenham and starved them into submission. A term of surrender that Alfred insisted on was that Guthrum convert to Christianity, and three weeks later the Danish king and 29 of his chiefs were baptised at Alfred's court at Aller, near Athelney, where Alfred received Guthrum as his spiritual son. Guthrum then fulfilled his promise to leave Wessex. There is no evidence that Alfred and Guthrum agreed upon a formal treaty at this time but Guthrum incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an enlarged kingdom of East Anglia. Alfred was to have control over the Mercian city of London.

For the next few years there was peace, with the Danes being kept busy in France. The Danes raided Kent in 884 or 885 but were successfully repelled, causing the East Anglian Danes to rise up. Alfred quickly put down this rebellion which culminated in the re-taking of London in 886. Alfred's restoration of the city entailed reoccupying and refurbishing the nearly deserted Roman walled city, buildings and quays along the Thames, and laying out a new city street plan. It is probably at this point that Alfred assumed the new royal style 'King of the Anglo-Saxons.'

Finally Peace

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 divided themselves into two bodies, the larger body at Appledore in Kent and a lesser body at Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought women and children with them, indicating an all out attempt at conquest and colonization. Alfred took up a position where he could observe both of these forces. While he was in talks with the Danes at Milton, the Appledore Danes broke out and travelled to the northwest. They were overtaken by Alfred's oldest son, Edward and were defeated in a battle at Farnham in Surrey. They took refuge on an island in the river where they were blockaded and had to submit.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were attacking Exeter. He hurried westward and raised a siege at Exeter. Meanwhile the force at Milton set out to march up to the west, but they were met by a large force of the three Earldormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset and made to head off to the northwest, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington. An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. Those who escaped retreated to Shoebury. They gathered reinforcements and made a dash across country to Chester. The English did not attempt a blockade but instead destroyed all the supplies in the area. The Danes retreated to Essex, then sailed their ships North to Bridgenorth. The next year, 896 or 897, they gave up the struggle. Many of them retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia, but those who longed for home sailed to Europe.

The next four years were years of hard work. After the devastation to the country caused by the Danes there was a lot to do. Churches were rebuilt, towns and cities remodelled and universities opened. The people got back to studying and learning, building and teaching.

In 901, Alfred died and was buried at Winchester.


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    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks jayjay, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 8 years ago from Bristol England

      Brilliant hub, I really enjoyed reading it. Well done