Alfred the Great

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Alfie's statue in Winchester.
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but yesterday is

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Secrets of times gone by

Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871 until his death in 899. While not the only English monarch called "Great" (Egbert, Cnut, and William the Bastard were all called this at some point), he is the only one to whom the appellation has stuck, because of his epic victories against the Vikings, his political skills, the founding of the Royal Navy, and his promotion of laws and liberal arts.

Rise to the throne[edit]

His father was King Athelwulf. He was the youngest son and was preceded on the throne by his brothers Ethelbald, Ethelbert and Ethelred. His mother was Osburga of the Isle of Wight.

The oldest brother, Athelstan, and his son, died soon after defeating the Vikings (generally called "Danes" by the English, although most might have come from Norway) in a sea battle at Sandwich. Ethelbert and Ethelred also died in battle. Alfred distinguished himself in the Battle of Ashingdon, leading the attack upon the Danes, while his brother King Ethelred I was still at prayer.

Upon the death of Ethelred at the Battle of Meretun in 871, the Witangemot crowned Alfred king. His older brother Ethelred was survived by two sons, Athelwold and Athelhelm (aged four and two years old), but they were passed over.

War with the Danes[edit]

Alfred inherited the throne of a kingdom on the brink of extinction. The Danes had already overrun the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. After a surprise attack at Chippenham the Danes routed Alfred and Wessex until he and a small group of survivors took refuge in the swamps of Somerset at the Isle of Athelney (now a small hill on a farm in Somerset). From here Alfred organised the resistance to the Danes until he was able to defeat them and reconquer Wessex. He made peace with the Danish leader Guthrum at the Peace of Wedmore, and divided England between Wessex and the Danelaw, and Guthrum became a Christian.

Political achievements[edit]

Alfred reorganised defences by establishing fortified settlements called "burhs" and a standing navy with large ships able to engage and defeat the Danes at sea.

Having stabilised his kingdom, Alfred began to re-establish learning by translating Latin works, such as The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and Cura Pastoralis by Pope Gregory and establishing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


Alfred died in 899, apparently of an illness he had much of his life which caused him great pain. It is now hypothesised that this might have been Crohn's Disease.

In 2012, following the successful identification of Richard III's remains, Alfred's supposed remains were put into protective custody.

Contribution to rationality[edit]

Alfred sent explorers to the Baltic and emissaries to India, and had some of the Bible translated into English, as well as many other key texts. He established five editors to assist his project - one of whom was called "Werewolf".[1][note 1]

Five hundred years afterwards, the Roman Catholic Church was denouncing, persecuting and burning men such as Wycliffe and Tyndale for doing just that (see Bible translations). The perceived threat of this was that if ordinary people were to have access to religious works, particularly the Bible, they would question the teachings of the Church — which is exactly what happened. These facts show just how far ahead of his time Alfred was in the quest for rationality in religion and in science.


  1. Actually the name is "Werewulf", but that's still pretty cool.


  1. Alfred the Great, ed. Alfred Bowker.