Popularly considered the first king of England, Alfred the Great was born in 849 AD to King Æthelwulf of Wessex and his wife Osburh in the village of Wantage, in an area now known as Oxfordshire. He is one of only two kings of England who has “the Great” after his name – the other being King Cnut.
Unusually, considering that Alfred’s reign was well over a thousand years ago, there is a surprising amount of primary sources available for looking at King Alfred, the most important of which was compiled by Asser, a monk from Wales who later became bishop of Sherborne, who wrote a highly detailed biography of the king called the Life of King Alfred.
He was his parent’s youngest son and had four elder brothers, Æthelstan, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, as well as one elder sister called Æthelswith. Yet, in spite of being at the bottom of the pack, he quickly became the favourite and was therefore raised in the royal court by his parents and tutors. In these early years, he formed a great love of poetry; Asser tells us that one time his mother said she would give a book of English poetry to the son of hers who could memorise its contents before the others. Being cunning, Alfred took the book to his tutor, who helped him learn every poem in the book and then went to recite them to Osburh. In his youthful days, he also took joy in learning psalms (religious poems) from the Bible and a fair few prayers.
When Alfred eventually came to the thrown after the passing of his brother, who by then had become King Æthelred, in the year 871 at a time when the kingdom he had suddenly inherited was under threat from a large Viking presence in England, which had recently been strengthened by the arrival of reinforcements. Alfred soon realised he simply did not have the manpower to defeat the invaders and eventually sought out a peace agreement with them. As a result, the Vikings left Wessex – which, by 870 AD, was the last remaining free Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
However, tension between the Saxons and the Viking started up again not long after and culminated in the Battle of Edington in 878 AD, in which the Vikings were defeated, requiring them to abandon their conquering of Wessex.
This brought about a period of peace in Wessex from 878-892 AD, during which Alfred reconstructed and reformed his kingdom. Alfred undertook many construction projects, directing the building not just of royal residences, but also of towns, cities and fortifications. To protect against any future invasions from the Vikings, he also had built a number of burghs, (fortified towns) strategically placing them so that most people lived no more than twenty miles from these defences.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and its retreat from Britain, levels of education and religious belief, which went hand in hand in the Dark Ages, had similarly deteriorated. Alfred was keenly aware of this and set about finding the best scholars, mostly priests and other holy men, to make up for the shortage of intellectuals in the kingdom. Added to this he set up a school at court for his children and the sons of the upper-classes, as well as child prodigies from lower down the social ladder. He even undertook a scheme of translating classic Latin works into Anglo-Saxon, so that they could be read widely by his subjects.
At this period he also had written a new law code, based very much on his Christian faith (it had 120 chapters, the same age at which the biblical prophet Moses died) so as to keep order in his prospering kingdom.
Towards the end of his reign, King Alfred was being named as ‘the king of the English’ in his charters and on coins. By the time of his death in 899 AD Alfred had kick-started the flourishing of Anglo-Saxon civilization with his focus on reconstruction and reform, earning him his place in history as the first true monarch of England.
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred (Penguin, 1983)
Image: By unknown (Vector graphics by Nicholas Shanks) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons