Throughout history, there has been one epithet used consistently to describe the most powerful, successful, and important rulers of a kingdom or empire – “the Great.” There was Ramesses II in Egypt, Cyrus in Persia, Alexander in Greece, Constantine in Rome, Peter in Russia, and so, so many more.
But not so many in England, though, as the nation has proven to be quite stingy when it comes to that particular moniker. It’s got other badass nicknames, like William the Conqueror or Richard the Lionheart, and more than its fair share of weird ones, such as Ethelred the Unready or Edward the Confessor, but not so many “Greats.” In fact, there is only one English king who ever received this appellation – Alfred the Great. You’ll notice we said “English king” and not “King of England” which is why we’re not counting Cnut.
But what did Alfred do to be worthy of such a title? That’s the question we will attempt to answer today. From fending off the Viking invasion to putting England on the path of a single, unified kingdom, we look at the life and reign of Alfred the Great.
Enter The Viking Age
Alfred was born in 849 AD, at Wantage in Berkshire County, where the royal estate once stood. He was the youngest of six children to Æthelwulf, King of Wessex, and his wife Osburh.
Alfred was born during a time of great turmoil and change for England. For centuries, ever since the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England, the land had been traditionally divided into seven kingdoms. They were Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex, Kent, Sussex, and Essex. This period of English history was known as the Heptarchy, but it ended in the 9th century thanks mainly to Alfred’s grandfather, Egbert, King of the West Saxons, who managed to bring Kent, Sussex, and Essex under his domain, thus claiming sovereignty over all of southern England and transforming Wessex into the most powerful kingdom in the land.
But that was not the biggest change that England faced. No, there was something else. An external threat that posed a much greater danger and would, ultimately, have a much more significant impact on British history. The Vikings had invaded England.
Vikings hardly need an introduction, but let’s give them a quick one anyway. They were seafaring raiders from Scandinavia who arrived on English shores during the late 8th century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the main sources for this period of history, named 787 AD as the year when three ships full of Northmen “sought the land of the English nation” for the first time. The first thing they did was kill the local official called a reeve who set out to meet them, so it was clear from the very beginning that these new arrivals did not come with peaceful intentions. Then, a few years later, in 793 AD, another landmark moment came when the Vikings raided the monastery on Lindisfarne Island, also known simply as Holy Island because it was such an important center for Christianity. Raids had occurred before, but this one sent a devastating shockwave throughout the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, and today is regarded by many as the start of the Viking Age in England. The Anglo-Saxons knew that things just got real, or the more expressive way that the Chronicle put it: “…on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”
During the first few years of their invasion, the Viking forces consisted mainly of small raiding parties that sailed the waterways looking for places to plunder. But they soon discovered that the pillaging was good, the weather was warm, and the resistance was minimal, so more and more Vikings decided to stick around and settle in England.
Rise to the Throne
By the time Alfred was born, the Vikings had become a serious problem for most of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, but not so much for Wessex which had the strength to repel any invasion attempts. During Alfred’s childhood years, his father and his older brothers fought several battles against the Vikings, generally with positive results. In 851 AD, Alfred’s father, King Æthelwulf, defeated the invaders at the Battle of Aclea which was described in the Chronicle as “the greatest slaughter of the heathen army that we have ever heard reported.” That same year, Alfred’s eldest sibling and King of Kent, Æthelstan, fought a Viking fleet near Sandwich. Even though he won the day, Æthelstan completely disappeared from the historical record from then on so, presumably, he was killed in battle.
But even with Æthelstan dead, Alfred still had three older brothers ahead of him in the queue for kingship, so his prospects of ever taking the throne were not looking too promising. In 853, his father sent young Alfred to Rome, entrusting him to the care of Pope Leo IV. Then, two years later, Leo passed away, as did Æthelwulf’s wife. This prompted the aging king to make a pilgrimage to Rome, which was something that he had wanted to do for a long time but kept putting off. He picked up Alfred on his way back to Wessex and, just to make the return trip a bit more interesting, he stopped by the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, and married his 12-year-old daughter, Judith of Flanders.
If you thought the new trophy wife would make things awkward back home, you don’t know the half of it yet. While Æthelwulf was gone, he left his oldest son, Æthelbald, in charge of the kingdom. As it turned out, Æthelbald liked being king, so when his father returned the following year, he didn’t feel like ceding power back to him. As you might imagine, this made for a tense family reunion. Æthelbald had the support of some powerful officials, as well, so, for a time, there was a distinct possibility of a civil war breaking out in Wessex. Ultimately, though, cooler heads prevailed. Maybe Æthelwulf feared he would lose the war against his son. Maybe he feared that internal strife would serve Wessex up to the Vikings, who were greedily sharpening their axes. Maybe he just thought he was getting too old for this bit, but he reached a compromise and divided the kingdom into two parts, one for him and one for his son.
The compromise was effective at preventing a civil war, but it didn’t matter for too long because Æthelwulf died just two years later, in 858. In his will, he tried to divide everything as equitably as possible in order to prevent any power struggles between his sons. He gave his kingdom to his two oldest sons, the aforementioned Æthelbald and Æthelberht, although we’re not quite sure who ruled over what. Again, it didn’t really matter for long because, just two-and-a-half years later, Æthelbald also kicked the bucket and, at that point, Æthelberht came to rule over the whole shebang.
One final interesting tidbit about Æthelbald. Remember Judith of Flanders, his father’s 12-year-old bride? Well, after Æthelwulf died, she got remarried to Æthelbald, which would make her Alfred’s stepmother and his sister-in-law.
Æthelberht served as King of Wessex for five whole years, doubling his older brother’s hi-score. The kingship went to the next sibling waiting in line, Æthelred, not to be confused with Æthelred the Unready who came a bit later. He did one better than Æthelberht, reigning for six years before dying in 871 AD. And just like that, with all of his siblings dropping like flies, it was now time for Alfred to take the throne. And to be honest, he could not have picked a worse time for it, because his kingdom was now under serious threat from the most brutal and destructive force to ever come to his lands – the Great Heathen Army.
The Viking Scourge Overwhelms England
In 865 AD, the same year that Æthelred became King of Wessex, a giant Viking force invaded England. It was known as the Great Heathen Army, after how it was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and it became clear that this time, the Vikings were not interested in simply plundering a few monasteries, filling their coffers with gold and silver, and spending the winter in England before returning back home. This time, the Vikings were here to stay.
If we allow ourselves to indulge a little and treat the Norse sagas as historical fact, then we can say that the army was chiefly led by the sons of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, who was supposedly killed by King Aella of Northumbria by being cast into a pit of venomous snakes. Therefore, it was up to his offspring – Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ubbe, and Ivar the Boneless – to avenge his death. That is, ostensibly, the reason for the assault, although many would argue that, given how successful the Vikings had been in the decades since they first arrived in England, it was only a matter of time before they launched a full-scale invasion.
The one thing that was clear was that none of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were prepared for such a force and started falling one by one. The Vikings first arrived in East Anglia, but the king bribed them with gold and provisions to leave his kingdom alone. Instead, they traveled into Northumbria, where they captured the city of York and installed a puppet leader as the new king before moving on to Mercia where they captured the city of Nottingham. Mercia and Wessex were allies, so King Æthelred led an army in 868 to try and take back Nottingham. His brother Alfred also joined the fray, marking the first time that he fought the Vikings, although with mixed results. The siege on Nottingham was inconclusive so, ultimately, the Norsemen were paid off and they left again, returning to East Anglia where they slew King Edmund the Martyr and replaced him with another puppet-king.
Obviously, it was only a matter of time before the Danes would target Wessex, and that time came in 870 AD. The West Saxons started off on the right foot, with a victory at the Battle of Englefield. However, the good times didn’t last long because just four days later, Æthelred and Alfred rallied their army and attacked the main Viking encampment at Reading, hoping to strike a decisive blow to the enemy. Unfortunately, that was not what happened, as Alfred’s chief chronicler, Asser, relates to us:
“Four days afterward, King Æthelred and his brother Alfred, uniting their forces and assembling an army, marched to Reading, where, on their arrival at the castle gate, they cut to pieces and overthrew the heathen whom they found outside the fortifications. But the heathen fought no less valiantly and, rushing like wolves out of every gate, waged battle with all their might. Both sides fought long and fiercely, but at last, sad to say, the Christians turned their backs, the heathen obtained the victory and held the battlefield…”
This West Saxon defeat was followed by a big victory at the Battle of Ashdown, and then by another loss at Merton soon after that. It was becoming clear that, while the Great Heathen Army was formidable, the Kingdom of Wessex was no pushover. The two sides were evenly matched, so determining a victor would be no easy feat. It wouldn’t be Æthelred’s problem anymore, though, because he died shortly after the loss at Merton, leaving Alfred to take up the mantle of king and deal with the Viking invasion knocking at his door.
And deal with it he did, the best way he knew how – he paid them off. Not very heroic, sure, but realistically, it was the only way to save his newly-gained kingdom. Right after he became king, Alfred’s forces suffered a few more losses, including a bad one at Wilton, so he had no choice but to make peace with them and let Mercia deal with the problem. Of course, Alfred knew that this was merely a stalling tactic. The Vikings were startled, but they would soon be back, and in greater numbers, but he hoped that, by then, he would be ready for them.
Alfred VS Guthrum
Wessex’s loss was Mercia’s gain, and by “gain” we mean that they gained a whole lot of angry Norsemen who stormed into London to spend the winter there. Now, it was Mercia’s turn to play “Pass the Viking,” so they paid them off, as well, and the Great Heathen Army traveled up north to Northumbria, where the people had rebelled against their puppet-king.
Alfred’s tactic brought him a few years of peace, as the Norse invaders were busy ravaging the other kingdoms, but another war was always inevitable. And as if his enemy wasn’t strong enough already, the Vikings received reinforcements from Scandinavia known as the “Summer Army.” But this actually worked in Alfred’s favor because the Danes were so certain of their success that they divided their army into two parts. Half of it went south towards Wessex, while the other half was led by Halfdan who took it into Scotland and Ireland. By that point, there had been a few changes in the leadership of the Great Heathen Army. Two of the original leaders, Ivar the Boneless and Bagsecg, had both been killed in battle during the previous years, and Halfdan himself would die in Ireland a short while later. The army that traveled south was led by a man named Guthrum, who would go on to have a very close connection to Alfred.
Anyway, the renewed fighting kicked off in 876 AD, when the Danes stormed the town of Wareham, which was taken by surprise and offered little resistance. Unfortunately for Alfred, Wareham was pretty heavily fortified. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of laying siege on his own town so, begrudgingly, he paid them off again in order to make peace. Once the Viking army had left Wareham, it took them about five seconds to double-cross the West Saxons and attack another fortified town, this time Exeter, intending to spend the winter within the safety of its walls. Now, however, Alfred gained the advantage because the fleet that would have reinforced the Heathen Army encountered a great storm off the coast of Dorset and over 120 longships were wrecked against the cliffs. An open battle might have gone in his favor but, like before, the Norsemen preferred to stay inside Exeter, surrounded by hostages. They held a pretty good bargaining chip, so the West Saxon king made peace with them once more. Once spring arrived, the Vikings departed Exeter, this time actually leaving Wessex and heading into Mercia.
But they would not wait another five years before attacking Wessex again. It had become clear that Alfred’s kingdom was the last piece of the puzzle for them; the only realm they had not yet managed to subjugate. Sure, they raided it a few times and got paid a pretty penny for it, but combat-wise, the two sides were like Rocky and Apollo, pretty evenly matched. However, Guthrum was determined to settle the matter once and for all.
In January 878, he led a surprise attack on Chippenham in Wiltshire County, using it as a base of operations to launch multiple raids throughout Wessex. Some claim that Alfred himself had been at the royal estate at Chippenham over Christmas, which was why the Vikings chose it as their target, but that he managed to escape in time with a small retinue of bodyguards and retreat to Somerset. There, Alfred settled at Athelney, which became his stronghold as he coordinated with local militias to raise an army and strike back at the invaders.
Alfred decided to fight fire with fire and use the Danes’ guerilla tactics against them. Also, he burned some cakes. In case you have no idea what we’re talking about, there’s an old, popular legend about Alfred taking shelter inside the home of a peasant woman who did not recognize him and just assumed he was another Saxon soldier. She let him rest and went outside to collect more firewood, warning him to keep watch over some cakes that were baking in the fire. Alfred, however, had more pressing issues on his mind, so he did not notice when the cakes started to burn. The woman returned home to the smell of charred bread and gave Alfred a proper scolding for being so negligent and forgetful, not realizing that she was shouting at her king. But Alfred was humble and forgiving, so he simply apologized to the woman, thanked her for her kindness, and went on his way. After all, he had an invasion to fight off.
After seven weeks of skirmishes, Alfred had assembled an army of about 3,000 men from Wiltshire, Somerset, and Hampshire and was ready to clash with Guthrum and his Vikings. The battle occurred at Edington, in early May 878, and it was a resounding victory for Alfred, forcing the Danes to retreat back to Chippenham. Asser, the chronicler gives us more details:
“The next morning at dawn he moved his standards to Edington, and there fought bravely and perseveringly by means of a close shield-wall against the whole army of the heathen, whom at length, with the divine help, he defeated with great slaughter and pursued them flying to their stronghold. Immediately he slew all the men and carried off all the horses and cattle that he could find without the fortress, and thereupon pitched his camp, with all his army, before the gates of the heathen stronghold.”
As you can see, Alfred showed no mercy to the injured and captured, and removed all the animals out of the reach of the Norsemen, intending to starve them out of their fortress. After 14 days, the cold and hungry Danes were ready to accept Alfred’s terms. The King of the West Saxons had won the day.
Visions of a United England
The Battle of Edington was unlike any other defeat the Vikings had suffered in England and it came at a pivotal point in its history. Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia had already fallen to the invaders. If Guthrum had won here, chances were good that Wessex would have followed, thus giving the invaders the complete set.
But Alfred realized that one victory was not enough to completely drive the Vikings out of England. Instead, he came up with some realistic terms for peace at the Treaty of Wedmore. The Vikings had to leave Wessex, obviously, and Guthrum had to be baptized as a Christian. Probably the truly surprising part was that the Vikings actually kept their word this time. Not only did they head back to Mercia, but three weeks later, Guthrum and 30 of his closest men descended upon the village of Aller to receive their baptisms. Guthrum was lowered into the holy font by Alfred himself, and then adopted the Christian name of Athelstan.
Afterward, Guthrum ruled as King of East Anglia for over a decade, maintaining a relatively cordial relationship with Alfred. A few years later, the two of them formalized an official treaty, known simply as the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, which encouraged trade between their two sides and also agreed upon equal punishments should a Dane kill a Saxon or vice-versa. But most importantly, the treaty established the boundaries of their two kingdoms, which were recognized by both kings. They were described as running “up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street.” Basically, each kingdom got half of Mercia, with London staying on the Wessex side and the Norse side becoming known as Danelaw.
The new treaty brought Alfred and his kingdom some much-needed peace, although they didn’t become immune from raids, which continued all throughout the rest of his reign. Fortunately for them, most were only minor skirmishes. It seemed that the bulk of the Viking army still looking for a good brawl had had enough of the English weather and had crossed the Channel to the continent to fight with the Franks.
This gave Alfred the time he needed to reorganize his army and his defenses, trying to make his kingdom as Viking-proof as possible. He developed a strong navy to counter the dreaded Viking longships. He introduced a new tax and conscription system which maintained a standing army on a rotation basis so that he could raise a “rapid reaction force” in the event of a raid without having to take the peasants away from their crops. Most importantly, Alfred went on a building spree of fortified settlements called burhs, positioned strategically throughout the kingdom so that no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles away from such a refuge.
Alfred kept busy outside of his scuffles with the Danes, as well. He realized that after more than a century of Vikings plundering and burning most monasteries they ran across, the number of people in his kingdom who still spoke Latin was about the same as those who spoke Klingon. Therefore, he enacted a kingdom-wide literacy program by translating books on history, geography, philosophy, and religion from Latin to Old English and distributing them to all the bishops in Wessex who could disseminate them among their congregations. He also commissioned the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a vital document on the history of England, which we have already used extensively in this bio.
During the 890s, the Viking attacks picked up the pace again, but thanks to Alfred’s military reforms, they did not pose a serious threat to Wessex. By that point, Alfred styled himself as “King of the English” instead of “King of the West Saxons.” It was clear that his ultimate goal was to unite all of England, a lofty ambition that Alfred would not live to see fulfilled. He died on October 26, 899 AD, aged 51, and although he did not unify England, he set the wheels in motion and allowed his son and grandson to finish his work. The Kingdom of England would emerge less than three decades later, in a story that we will continue another time.