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Who was Alfred the Great?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Alfred the Great (849-900), King of Wessex. A son of Aethelwulf, he succeeded his brother Ethelred in 871, at a time when the Danes had conquered most of England and were massing their forces against Wessex.

In the first year of his reign Alfred is said to have fought them in nine battles; then, to obtain breathing-space, he made peace and built a fleet to repel the invaders at sea. However, in a surprise attack the Danes overran Wessex and Alfred was forced into hiding in the marshes of Athelney in Somerset. In 878 he re-emerged to win a great victory at Edington, after which he made the Peace of Wedmore with Guthrum, the Danish leader. In 886 England was partitioned along the line of Watling Street, the Danes keeping the part known as the Danelaw lying north and east of the line, while Alfred ruled Wessex lying to the south and west.

This agreement enabled Alfred to concentrate on rebuilding his ruined kingdom. He restored justice, issued a code of laws, constructed churches and monasteries and rebuilt London. Foreign scholars and monks were invited to the kingdom to revive learning and Alfred himself learned Latin and probably instigated the commencement of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. To improve defence, he reorganized the army, built numbers of burghs or forts and expanded the West Saxon fleet.

When war broke out again in 892, Alfred inflicted some defeats on the Danes but was unable to put an end to the fighting. He suffered all his life from a mysterious disease and died about the age of fifty at Winchester, where he was buried in the cathedral.


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