The Significance of Alfred the Great

Inheriting a kingdom that seemed completely doomed, Alfred the Great turned defeat into victory, preserving Anglo-Saxon England.

Mar 15, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
who was alfred the great
Alfred the Great, via britishheritage.com

 

From 871 to 899 CE, Alfred the Great presided over the throne of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. At a time filled with great challenges, Alfred shone as a beacon of hope, guiding the disparate kingdoms of England into a united force in the face of great peril that, without him, would have surely succeeded in bringing an end to Anglo-Saxon England.

 

Alfred the Great was a visionary, a warrior, a reformer, and an educator, taking great steps to improve the literacy of his realm. He was also one of the greatest kings to have ever ruled in England.

 

Early Life of Alfred the Great

 

Born in 849 to the king of Wessex, Æthelwulf, Alfred was the youngest of six children. With three older brothers, his succession to the throne did not seem likely.

 

anglo saxon map
A map of the seven kingdoms (heptarchy) of Anglo-Saxon England around 800 CE, during the reign of Ecbehrt, Alfred’s grandfather; via historyhit.com

 

From an early age, he discovered a love for books. His mother gave him a book of poetry as a prize for being able to memorize it. Alfred’s dedication to literature would later make him passionate about spreading books throughout the kingdom.

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However, the reality during his childhood was not as peaceful as paging through illuminated manuscripts. The British Isles were a fractured place. To the west and north were Celtic, the kingdoms of the Britons who had no love for the Anglo-Saxons, while the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been the subject of great rivalries, especially between the Kingdom of Mercia and Alfred’s own Kingdom of Wessex.

 

To add to the constant rivalries were the increasingly bold Viking raids, which would evolve into a full invasion. In the 840s, these raids became bigger and more frequent, and major battles were fought with significant losses in life. Æthelwulf and his sons Æthelstan and Æthalbald suffered losses as well as great victories.

 

After the short reigns of his three older brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, and Æthelred, Alfred was crowned king, but before this could pass, England was invaded by a huge Viking force called The Great Heathen Army.

 

Alfred fought in battle alongside his brother Æthelred trying to keep the Danes (Vikings) under Ivar the Boneless out of Mercia. Nine battles were fought, and the Danes won the majority of them. Thus, when Æthelred died in 871, Alfred inherited the throne of a kingdom that was weakened and in dire peril.

 

Alfred, however, did not consign himself to defeat. He hastily set about reforming the military capabilities of Wessex and prepared to wage a more effective war against the Great Heathen Army.

 

The King at War

alfred great battle edington
The Battle of Edington, as portrayed in the series The Last Kingdom (2015-2022), clearly demonstrates the shield wall tactic that was employed; via historica.fandom.com

 

By the time of Alfred the Great’s accession to the throne, the Danes controlled Northumbria, East Anglia, and vast swathes of Mercia. Half of Anglo-Saxon England was under the control of the heathens. While Alfred was busy with his brother’s burial ceremony, the Danes defeated an Anglo-Saxon army. Alfred rejoined the army but suffered another bitter defeat at Wilton. Alfred, realizing the impossible situation he was in, sued for peace. The terms of the truce are not recorded, but the Danes ended up taking residence in London, a vital trade hub and a springboard from which the Danes could attack all of southern England.

 

In 876, the conflict flared up again, and the Danes attacked and captured the town of Wareham on the southern coast. Alfred could not retake the city and paid the Danes off with an agreement to exchange hostages. The Danes, however, broke their promise, killed their hostages, and left the city. Two years later, the Danes attacked the royal stronghold of Chippenham, and Alfred was forced to flee. Many of the Wessex nobles began collaborating with the Danes under the command of Guthrum, but the Kingdom of Wessex held out. While hiding in the marshlands of Somerset, King Alfred the Great led a resistance campaign against his enemies. Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom left that was not under the control of the Danes.

 

alfred great treaty chippenham
England in 878 after Guthrum signed a treaty after his defeat at Chippenham. The realm was legally split between the Anglo-Saxons and the “Danelaw;” via thehistoryofengland.co.uk

 

In 878, after carefully planning an offensive, Alfred came out of hiding and met with the lords still loyal to his cause. They rallied the Wessex armies and won a great victory known as the Battle of Edington. From there, Alfred pushed on, surrounding Guthrum and the Danes at Chippenham. With the prospect of starving to death, Guthrum surrendered, and a peace treaty was signed, which split Mercia between the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons. Guthrum and a number of other Danes were also forced to convert to Christianity. Although Guthrum was neutralized, other Dane armies existed, and Alfred had his hands full dealing with smaller conflicts in the years to come.

 

Nevertheless, Wessex was secure, and Alfred the Great could focus on strengthening his kingdom.

 

Alfred’s Reforms

alfred great naval victory
Anglo-Saxons securing victory over the Danes in a naval battle, from Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via thetimes.co.uk

 

Conflict with the Danes had brought many realities to light regarding the shortcomings of the traditional Anglo-Saxon methods of mobilizing forces and fighting battles. King Alfred the Great immediately set about remedying the problems, issuing a more streamlined taxation system and forming a standing field army, significantly upgrading the fyrd system that was in place.

 

This standing army was housed in a network of “burhs” – 33 in all – which were fortifications built all over Alfred’s lands. Landowners were responsible for feeding the soldiers stationed in these new burhs constructed in precise locations in order to maximize defensive abilities and hamper Viking raids. In addition, the burghal system was connected by a network of roads that would make traveling from one burh to the other a quick and easy process. All in all, 27,000 soldiers were needed to garrison all the burhs, and as a result, any military threat to Wessex could be responded to with force within just a day.

 

As well as beefing up the defenses on land, Alfred the Great ordered building a small fleet of ships that patrolled the waterways throughout the kingdom. When the Viking raids began again, Wessex was fully prepared to deal with the threat. The naval element had mixed results in practice, but the idea was sound, and it was an important step towards the beginning of England’s long naval tradition.

 

alfred great danes
King Alfred and the Danes by Andrew Benjamin Donaldson, c. 1890, from Winchester City Council’s Topographical Art Collection, via historyanswers.co.uk

 

King Alfred the Great also instituted a number of legal reforms codified in the “domboc,” or “doom book.” It consisted of his own laws in addition to laws written by his predecessors and was based on Mosaic Law – the ordinances composed by Moses. Alfred devoted considerable attention to judicial matters and spent much time reviewing judgments made in his absence. His dedication to justice and fairness were defining features of his character.

 

Perhaps one of Alfred the Great’s biggest concerns was the improvement of education in England, which, linked to religion, had suffered as a result of the Viking incursions. During the Middle Ages, most education was conducted in Latin through the Church. Alfred changed this trend and promoted English as the primary language of instruction. In addition to improving education throughout the realm, he opened his own “court school,” which was intended for the education of his own children, children of the nobility, as well as children with a less noble heritage. Quality educators were hired from the continent, and education was conducted in Latin and English.

 

The Viking Problem Continues…

alfred great london
Alfred the Great turns the Danes out of London, via viking-store.com

 

Despite Guthrum’s surrender, the Danes continued to be a thorn in Alfred’s side. Throughout the 880s, smaller incursions and raids were dealt with in a timely fashion. These included skirmishes on land and at sea. Alfred the Great’s forces were far more successful than they had been in the previous decades and proved that the military reforms were working.

 

In 886, Alfred retook London and began restoring it. That same year, he became known as the “King of the Anglo-Saxons.” Anglo-Saxons across England, both in Danish-occupied lands and in the remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, recognized Alfred as the single, unifying king of the Anglo-Saxons.

 

After the death of Guthrum, there was a power vacuum, and other Danish lords took the opportunity to renew conflict with the Anglo-Saxons. In 892 (or 893), a fleet of 330 ships carried Dane soldiers, women, and children toward Kent in an attempt at conquest and colonization. Although defeated at Farnham and Benfleet, Danes from Northumbria rose and besieged Exeter in support of their kinsmen. Alfred the Great, leading his army, rode to the aid of Exeter and lifted the siege. Another large force of Danes attempted conquest, but they too were outmaneuvered by Alfred’s forces who blocked the rivers with chains. With their primary mode of transport neutralized, many invaders gave up the struggle and assimilated into the Danelaw territories, while others returned to the continent.

 

The Legacy of King Alfred the Great

alfred great statue
Statue of King Alfred the Great, from SeraphP/Shutterstock.com, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Alfred died in 899 at the age of 50 (or 51). The cause of his death is unknown, but he had been sickly for most of his adult life. It is suspected that he had Crohn’s disease and possible hemorrhoids. Nevertheless, his life had been one of great success for the Anglo-Saxon people.

 

In the face of overwhelming odds, he united the Anglo-Saxons into one nation and beat back those who sought to end Anglo-Saxon England. He was accepted as the first king of all Anglo-Saxons in England. Although he died before the reconquest of England could begin, he set the stage for his descendants to eradicate all Danish rule in England and return the whole of England to Anglo-Saxon control.

 

hyde abbey plaque
The plaque at Hyde Abbey, where Alfred the Great’s body was laid to rest, via royalrestingplaces.com

 

In addition to his military victories, he strengthened a much-weakened kingdom, improving bureaucracy, and making massive strides in improving literacy and education among his subjects.

 

Alfred the Great’s rule was one of enlightened vision and determined focus. He cared deeply about his people and the future of his kingdom. He suffered soul-destroying setbacks, but he never abandoned his duties as a king.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.