The Anglo-Saxon Alfred (849-899), sometimes called Alfred the Great, was king of Wessex from 871 to 899. He successfully halted the advance of Danish armies seeking to conquer the English, and he stimulated a revival of learning among his war-ravaged people.
The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes who had migrated to the island of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries and had wrested control of what is now England from the native Britons. After their conversion to Christianity in the 7th century, they absorbed much Latin culture, which blended with their Germanic traditions to form a distinctive civilization and increasingly stable political and social institutions. The process of reducing the many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to a unified nation under a centralized monarchy was still in its early stages when the Danes, another Germanic nation far more warlike than the Anglo-Saxons had become, began raiding the English coast in the last years of the 8th century. The raids became full-scale invasions. Alfred's courage and military skill, however, prevented the Danes from conquering England, although they were later successful, early in the 11th century.
Alfred was born in 849, the youngest of six children of Ethelwulf, King of Wessex. Alfred's youth was highlighted by two trips to Rome in 853 and 855, where he was honored by the Pope; it was also plagued by sickness and the insecurity of his position as youngest son. Although Alfred could neither read nor write, he loved the traditional poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, which he memorized as it was read to him. Asser, his biographer, says that on one occasion he was stimulated to learn these heroic songs by a desire to outdo his older brother and win the praise of his mother.
All of Alfred's brothers were dead by 871, and he became king at age 22. Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom that had not been conquered by the Danes during the invasion of 866, and by 871 the Danes had established permanent settlements in the North Midlands and in East Anglia. Early in 878, while Alfred's armies were scattered for the winter, an army under Guthrum left Gloucester in Danish-controlled Mercia and made a surprise attack on the West Saxons, capturing much of the kingdom. Alfred, facing disaster, withdrew to the marshlands of Dorset with a small troop. The famous story of his taking refuge in the house of an old lady and, in his distracted state, letting her cakes burn through inattention, is unfortunately a later legend. But Alfred's situation was indeed desperate.
At Easter 878 he fortified the Isle of Athelney in Somerset, and his battles with Danish raiding parties encouraged more and more West Saxons to join him secretly. Seven weeks after Easter, Alfred left Athelney for a rendezvous of the militias of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. Ten days later at Edington, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, Alfred's army decisively defeated the Danes. The invaders swore to leave Wessex, and Guthrum was baptized a Christian. The English were saved, and the King began at once to reorganize the land and sea defenses of the West Saxons in order to prevent further Danish inroads. These strategic innovations and Alfred's ability to use his forces well allowed him to turn back another major Danish attack during his reign. Launched from Scandinavia in 892, this invasion ended in 896 without appreciable success despite aid from the Danes already settled in England.
Having gained a respite from military crises, Alfred gathered around himself a dedicated group of English and foreign clerics. In 887, when he was 38, he began to learn to read English and Latin. Between 893 and 899 he and his scholars translated several major Latin works to make them accessible to his subjects and thus restore the preeminence in religion and culture England enjoyed before the Danish invasions. Alfred explained his aims in a moving preface to the translation (893) of St. Gregory's Pastoral Care. The later translations which he probably initiated or undertook himself included Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Orosius's Universal History, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine's Solioquies. In his first attempts at translation, Alfred seems to have had the Latin text read and explained to him and then to have dictated a translation or paraphrase to scribes. In later works the quality of his prose improved, and he interpolated his own views on man's nature, trials, and destiny along with interesting comments on the world as the Anglo-Saxons knew it.
Alfred codified a set of laws for his kingdom and probably aided in the wide dissemination of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a quasi-official record of the experiences of his people. His intellect, imagination, and energy seemed to grow in his last years. On his death in 899, he left a record of achievement which earned him his reputation as the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, as well as a legacy of military preparedness and strategy on which were based the victorious campaigns of his immediate successors against the Danes.
Further Reading on Alfred
The main source of information about Alfred is Asser's Life of King Alfred, edited by William Henry Stevenson (trans. 1904), written by Alfred's chaplain, Asser. A modern biography is Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great (1956; published in England as Alfred the Great and His England, 1957). Also useful is the chapter on Alfred in Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963). Alfred's reign and achievements are recorded in G. N. Garmonsway, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1953). His career is thoroughly considered and placed in the context of Anglo-Saxon history in R. H. Hodgkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons (2 vols., 1935; 3d ed. 1952), and F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947). For an assessment of Alfred's contribution to Anglo-Saxon culture see Stanley B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (1965).