King Alfred the Great
King Alfred the Great was born at Wantage, in 849, on a royal manor of his father’s holding, a family estate which long afterward he himself would leave in legacy to his wife. Alfred was the youngest of five children, four sons and a daughter, born to Ethelwulf by his wife Osburh. When Alfred was four years old, his father, the king, who by now had long despaired of getting to Rome in the present state of things, decided to send Alfred there, to at least receive the blessing of the Holy Father. The pope at the time, Leo the IV, gave Alfred the blessing to become king. Alfred’s time came in the year mid-April 871, when King ?thelred died. Only a king of full age could defend the land, and although ?thelred left children, Alfred, his constant companion in the war, was immediately recognized as his successor (Duckett 20).
King Alfred was now in charge of stopping the Danes from occupying Wessex. Alfred was already an experienced military leader, as he had participated in several campaigns against the invading Danes (Bruce 3). The West Saxons had now made an alliance with Mercia. Yet in 868, the Danes met both Mercians and West Saxons; the two nations had formed an alliance, which had been strengthened that year by the marriage of Alfred and Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian ealdorman (Bruce 4). Alfred and his elder brother King ?thelred personally led the Wessex contingent, yet not even the combined forces of the Mercians and the West Saxons could handle the strength of the Danes.
Alfred felt constantly threatened, and had to fight skirmishes with the Danes for many years. In order for Alfred to be successful he had to establish an organized army. Alfred began by developing stronger defensive measures for his land. In the southern part of Britain he established several new fortified cities, better than the smaller forts, where great groups of people could gather for protection. However, Alfred was not content with being on the defensive. He also attacked the Danish-held City of London in an attempt to diminish the lands ruled under Dane law (Bruce 4). No Anglo-Saxon king was ever strong enough to coerce a recalcitrant peasantry. Except Alfred who decided to allow half the men liable for service to remain at home while the other half was out against the Danes (Stenton 261).
In order for Alfred to keep peace and defeat the Danes, he had to win many major battles. On Easter Sunday 878, when King Alfred withdrew into the Isle of Athelney, there was every likelihood that before the end of the year Wessex would have been divided out among the members of the Danish army. King Alfred made sure that Wessex would escape that fate. Although Alfred did lose a major battle against the Danes only four years ago, he overcame them in 878 when he won the Battle of Edington. Alfred showed strong resistance by constantly engaging Danish raiding parties from his base in Athelney. After nearly seven weeks of strong battles, Alfred was able to begin defeating the Danes (Stenton 253). Along with Alfred’s idea of coercing a recalcitrant peasantry, he had other ways of defeating the Danes as well. Alfred began building warships in order to develop a navy. The ships in which Alfred built were twice as long as those which they were intended to meet (Stenton 253). These warships enabled Alfred to match the power of the sea, in which the Danes had, and in the end, gained peace for his people and the country.
After bringing peace to his land, he then began implementing his reforms. Alfred started by signing a peace treaty with King Guthrum. Alfred drew up this treaty by himself. Although fighting continued between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, this treaty marks the end to a major war (Seyfried 2). Along with signing this peace treaty, Alfred also devised a law for his land. This new law was referred to as the “home sitting” law. In his violent world, safety and quiet were prized possessions, and the law protected them fiercely. The ancient laws made unauthorized intrusions into the home a serious crime, called hamfare. They also punished house violence more severely than street violence. Alfred treated violations of this peace with great severity as an offense against himself (Knight 12).
King Alfred was one of the greatest leaders in wartime and in peace. Alfred received the title ‘the great’, for being so powerful and influential during his reign as king. Alfred was known as “the founder of the English nation.” King Alfred the Great achieved many great military and political successes during his reign, but more importantly through his dedication to the teaching of the liberal arts, he helped preserve the literary tradition of the Anglo-Saxons (Appletoft 2).
Education declined because the Danes had looted monasteries and churches, the only centers of learning. Few, even among the clergy could read or write. Alfred brought teachers and learned men to Wessex from Wales, northern England, and Europe. He himself helped translate books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon. Alfred’s appreciation for education began very early in his life. In 853 Alfred was sent to see Pope Leo IV in Rome, for instruction. This instruction, no doubt, focused on religion rather than on the liberal arts. This trip to Rome helped Alfred realize the effects the Church has in education. Alfred would fully acknowledge this role when he becomes king (Appletoft 5). Behind all those daily labors and secular duties of Alfred which we have followed in this book lay always his devotion to his faith, not only in word and in offering, but in practice (Duckett 193). Every morning he was in his place at Mass; regularly he observed the Hours of the church; often he was found at night in his chapel, absorbed in solitary prayer, reciting psalms from his “Handbook” (Duckett 194). So important to Alfred was the ability to read and write that he began to demand that other nobles of the land be able to do so. Alfred once told a group of judges who were poorly educated; they were told “either to relinquish immediately their offices of worldly power, or else to apply themselves much more attentively to the pursuit of wisdom.” Inevitably they chose the latter option (Appletoft 6).
In the last twelve years of his life, from 887 until 899, the king was giving all the time he could spare from the campaigns of war and the burden of government to his work of enlightening the ignorance of his people, making books available to them in their own language. This job was, indeed, furthered and eased by his learned friends. Yet much of it was to be done by himself, carried out in his own way, in words chosen by himself, and with an increasing desire for his independence not only of these counselors but, as time went on, of the very originals which he undertook to translate (Duckett 142). It was through his devotion to his country, doubtless, and his interest in its history that Alfred turned his mind to those Old English annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. All scholars agree that they were compiled during his reign; but experts differ in their theories regarding the manner and the source of this compiling (Duckett 191). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the first great work of English prose and the most important source of English history from about 800 to 1066. No other European country has a history in its own language being so old. Alfred following destructive raids began the Chronicle as part of a cultural renewal by Danish invaders. The first part of the Chronicle, dealing with events up to 891, was adapted from earlier English historical sources, now lost. After about 892, a number of writers contributed to the Chronicle in copies circulated among several English cathedrals. The Chronicle consists of short yearly descriptions of major events, especially warfare, and the activities of kings and bishops. Many entries consist of only one line. The longest entry runs more than 100 lines and deals with the death of William the Conqueror in 1087. Many years have no entries. The earliest important entry in the Chronicle refers to events in A.D. 449. The final entry was made in 1154. If it were not for King Alfred, we would not have any knowledge of any events in Anglo-Saxon history (Appletoft 7).
King Alfred the Great’s reign ended in the year 899 when he passed away. The last year of Alfred’s life show him in council at Chelsea, discussing with his son-in-law, Ethelred, and his archbishop, Plegmund, plans for the restoration of London (Duckett 196). He died on the twenty-sixth of October, 899, when he was not far from his fiftieth birthday. The History of Saint Cuthbert, found in a manuscript of the twelfth century, tells among its stories that in Alfred’s last hours he “called to his side his son Edward, intrusted to his care gifts for Saint Cuthbert’s honoring, two circlets for the arm and a golden censer, and earnestly bade him to love God and this Saint and to place in them his hope, as he himself ever had done and still most zealously was doing” (Duckett 198). He was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester, where, its clergy soon declared, “in insane imaginings, that his ghost in human form was roaming amid its buildings at night” (Duckett 199). We may still read the king’s last will and testament, drawn up sometime between 873 and 888, in its Old English original. In a preface Alfred writes of disagreements arising out of the inheritance of lands once owned by his brother, King Ethelred. Alfred resolves any problems that may arise by dividing his land fairly. The king divided out his lands and money among his family, his sons, his daughters, his nephews, and his wife. Gifts of money, also, were left to each of his ealdormen; to his archbishop and his bishops; to the officials and personal attendants who gave him their service at court. Further instructions bade that those who inherited the king’s lands should leave these in legacy, in possible, to their male children. Finally, the king wrote, “I pray in the Name of God and His Saints that none of my kin or of my heirs vex any of those dependents for whom I have paid money. Let these choose whatever lord they will” (Duckett 200). Alfred the Great will always be remembered as a great king, and as one of the greatest leaders to ever rule mankind.