Alfred the Great (Wantage, 848 or 849 – Winchester, October 26, 899) was ruler of the western Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899, now venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church.
Alfred was the last son of Etelvulf of Wessex and Osburga of Wight, who perished during his childhood. He had three brothers-Ethelbald, Etelbert, Ethelred-and a sister, Etelswith; his half-brother was Atelstan of Kent.
The last of his family to ascend the throne, he, like all his relatives, spent much of his life defending the kingdom from Viking raids. After claiming a decisive victory at the Battle of Ethandun in 878, he entered into an agreement with his opponents creating the administrative entity known as Danelaw, in the territories of eastern Anglia and southern Northumbria. The creation of a territory for the Danelaw was established by the agreement between Alfred and the Viking commander Guthrum, who became King of East Anglia after converting to Catholicism. The alliance with Guthrum and other Welsh kings ensured that Alfred and his successors extended their influence to the whole of England.
Alfred, a learned man, encouraged education and improved the state legislative system through the creation of a regulatory code (Doom Book): for this reason he was called “the English Justinian.” According to Anglo-Saxon historians, Alfred strove to create an early unified culture in England by calling in members of the clergy from the Carolingian Empire to train the kingdom”s clerics and nobles according to practices in use on the European continent. He fostered the development of places devoted to the production of manuscripts in Latin and Old English, the preeminent texts of which were theological and historical in nature. Prominent among them is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which traces the history of England from the Roman period to the 12th century; composed by the Welsh bishop Asser, a friend of Alfred”s, and continued by anonymous scribes always close to the Anglo-Saxon and English nobility.
Alfred”s grandfather, Aegbert, became king of Wessex in 802: according to historian Richard Abels, contemporaries thought it unlikely that he would establish a lasting dynasty. For two centuries three families had fought for the West Saxon throne, and no son had followed his father as king. No ancestor of Egbert had been king of Wessex since Ceawlin in the late 6th century, but he was believed to be a paternal descendant of Cerdic, progenitor of the West Saxon dynasty. This circumstance made Egbert an aetheling, that is, a prince eligible for the throne. After Egbert”s reign, the Cerdic dynasty no longer enjoyed the political clout necessary to nominate a papal aetheling. When Aegbert died in 839, he was succeeded by his son Aethelvulf; all subsequent kings of West Saxony were descendants of Aegbert and Aethelvulf, as well as also being sons of kings.
By the early ninth century England was almost entirely under Anglo-Saxon control. Mercia dominated southern England, but its supremacy ended in 825, when it was finally defeated by Aegbertus at the Battle of Ellandun. The two kingdoms became allies, an event that did not guarantee greater defense from Viking invasions but inextricably linked the fates of the two kingdoms . In 853, King Burgred of Mercia requested the help of West Saxony to suppress a Welsh rebellion, while Etelvulf led a contingent of West Saxons in a joint campaign that ended in success. In the same year Burgred married Etelvulf”s daughter, Etelswith, shortly before their voluntary exile, caused by Viking threats to dethrone and kill him.
In 825 Egbert sent Etelvulfo to invade the Mercian subregnum of Kent, and his viceroy, Baldred, was driven out shortly thereafter. By 830, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex had submitted to Egbert, who appointed Etelvulf to rule the southeastern territories as king of Kent. The Vikings ravaged the Isle of Sheppey in 835 and the following year defeated Aegbertus at Carhampton, Somerset, but in 838 he outclassed an alliance of Cornish and Vikings at the Battle of Hingston Down, reducing Cornwallis to the status of a client kingdom. Aethelvulph”s success prompted him to appoint his eldest son Atelstan as viceroy of Kent. Aegbert and Etelvulf may not have intended a permanent union between Wessex and Kent because both sons appointed as viceroys and high-ranking officials in Wessex. Both kings retained overall control and their subordinates were not allowed to issue their own currency.
Viking raids increased in the early 840s on both sides of the English Channel, and in 843 Etelvulf lost at Carhampton. In 850, Atelstan defeated a Danish fleet off Sandwich in the first recorded naval battle in English history. In 851, Etelvulf and his second son, Aethelbald, prevailed over the Vikings at the Battle of Aclea and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “carried out the greatest massacre of an army of pagan raiders that has been spoken of to date, sealing a great victory.” Aethelvulf died in 858 after experiencing betrayal by his own second son Aethelbald, who did not return the throne upon his father”s return from Rome, leaving only Sussex and Kent to his brothers. Aethelbert, third son, after the death of his older brother, managed to reunite the kingdom by retaking Wessex and Essex, in the same form that would later be inherited by Alfred.
Alfred was the son of Etelvulf, king of Wessex, and his wife Osburga. According to his biographer Asser, writing in 893, “in the year of our Lord 849, Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons,” was born in the crown fief called Wantage, in the district known as Berkshire. This date is accepted by the editors of Asser”s biography, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, as well as other historians such as David Dumville and Richard Huscroft. However, West Saxon genealogical lists state that Alfred was 23 years old when he became king in April 871, implying that he was born between April 847 and April 848. This dating is adopted in the biography provided by Alfred Smyth, who considers Asser”s work unreliable, a charge rejected by other historians. Richard Abels in his biography puzzles over both sources, without selecting a more reliable one: he therefore gives the date as between 847 and 849, while Patrick Wormald in his entry on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives 848 or 849. Berkshire was historically disputed between Wessex and Mercia: as late as 844, a map showed that it was part of Mercia, but Alfred”s emergence in the county constitutes evidence that, by the late 840s, control had passed to Wessex.
The youngest son of six brothers, his older brother Atelstan was old enough to be appointed vice-king of Kent in 839, nearly 10 years before Alfred”s birth. The latter died in the early 850s. Alfred”s next three brothers were later kings of Wessex. Aethelbald (858-860) and Aethelbert (860-865) were also many years older than Alfred, while the same was not true of Aethelred (865-871), who was only a year or two older. Alfred”s only known sister, Etelswith, married Burgred, king of the kingdom of Mercia in 853. Most historians believe that Osburga, a descendant of the kings of the Isle of Wight, was the mother of all of Etelswith”s children, but some suggest that the older ones were born to a first wife whose details remain unknown. Asser describes her as “a very religious woman, noble by temperament and birth.” The latter passed away in 856, when Etelvulf married Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, king of the West Franks.
According to Asser, in his childhood Alfred won a beautifully decorated book of English poetry, offered as a prize by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it. The woman must have likely read it to him, because his mother died when he was about six years old and he did not learn to read until he was twelve. In 853, Alfred appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where he reports on his journey to Rome during which he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, who “anointed him monarch.” In Victorian times, writers interpreted this event as an early coronation in preparation for his eventual succession to the throne of Wessex. This is an unlikely reconstruction: his succession could not have been foreseen at the time because Alfred had three brothers older than him in life. A letter from Leo IV shows that Alfred was appointed consul, and a misinterpretation of this investiture, whether intentional or accidental, could account for the subsequent confusion. The event could be based on the fact that Alfred later accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he spent some time at the court of Charles the Bald, king of the Franks, around 854-855. Upon their return from Rome in 856, Aethelvulf was deposed by his son Aethelbald. With civil war looming, the magnates of the kingdom gathered in council to form a compromise. Etelbald preserved the western counties (i.e., historic Wessex) and Etelvulph reigned in the east. After King Etelvulph”s death in 858, Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred”s brothers in succession-Ethelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred.
Alfredo”s brothers in power
Alfred is not mentioned during the brief reigns of his older brothers Aethelbald and Aethelbert. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the great Danish army that landed in eastern Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that made up Anglo-Saxon England in 865. Alfred”s final approach to the court began in 865 at the age of 16, when he ascended the throne of his third brother, 18-year-old Aethelred. During this period, Bishop Asser assigned Alfred the exclusive title of secundarius, which might indicate a position similar to that of the Celtic-era tanistry, that is, a recognized successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. This arrangement may have been sanctioned by Alfred”s father or witan to protect himself from the danger of a disputed succession if Aethelred fell in battle. It was a well-known tradition among other Germanic peoples, for example Swedes and Franks to whom the Anglo-Saxons were closely associated, to crown a successor as royal prince and military commander.
In 868 Alfred is reported as fighting alongside Aethelred in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the large pagan army led by Ívarr Boneless out of the adjacent Kingdom of Mercia. The Danes arrived home in late 870, and nine skirmishes were fought in the following year, with mixed results; the locations and dates of two of these battles remain a mystery. A successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield in Berkshire on December 31, 870 was followed by a severe defeat during the siege and battle of Reading by Ívarr”s brother Halfdan Ragnarsson on January 5, 871. Four days later, the Anglo-Saxons prevailed at the Battle of Ashdown at Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. The Saxons were defeated at the Battle of Basing on January 22 and then on a second occasion on March 22 at Marton (possibly Marden, Wiltshire, or Martin, Dorset). Aethelred died shortly thereafter in April.
In April 871, the departure of Aethelred was followed by the accession to the throne of Alfred of Wessex and the burden of his defense, despite the fact that the late monarch had two sons who were minors at the time, Aethelm and Aethelvald. Such a choice is understandable when one considers the agreement that Aethelred and Alfred had made earlier that year at an assembly in an unidentified place called Swinbeorg. The brothers had agreed that whichever of them survived the other would inherit the estates that King Aethelvulf had left jointly to his sons in his will. The descendants of the deceased would receive only the property and wealth that their father had assigned to them and the additional fiefs that their uncle had acquired. The unstated premise was that the surviving brother would become monarch. Given the Danish invasion and the youth of his nephews, Alfred”s ascendancy probably received no challenge.
While he was busy with funeral ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at an unknown location and then again in his presence at Wilton in May. The setback dissolved any remaining hope that Alfred could drive the invaders out of his kingdom: therefore, he had to enter into a peace with them. Although the terms of the understanding are not recorded, Bishop Asser wrote that the pagans agreed to leave the kingdom and kept their promise.
The Viking army withdrew from Reading in the fall of 871 to occupy winter quarters in Mercian London. Although it is not mentioned by Asser or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred probably handed the Vikings a hefty sum to induce them to leave, just as the Mercians would do the following year. Of the riches dating from the Viking occupation of London in 871
In 876, under their three leaders Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend, the Danes overcame the Saxon army by attacking and occupying Wareham, Dorset. Alfred blocked them but proved unable to seize Wareham after storming it. He negotiated a peace that involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, with the Danes giving their word on a “sacred ring” associated with the worship of the god Thor. The Danes went back on their word and, after killing all the hostages, fled with the favor of night to Exeter, Devon.
Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon, and considering that the pagan reinforcement fleet was lost track of after a storm, the Danes were forced to submit and retreated to Mercia. In January 878, the Danes attacked without warning Chippenham, a royal stronghold where Alfred had stayed to spend Christmas “and killed most of the people there except the ruler. He, with a small retinue, made his way through woods and marshes and after Easter made a fort at Athelney, in the Somerset marshes: from that post he continued to fight against the enemy.” From Athelney, an island located in the marshes near North Petherton, Alfred managed to organize a campaign of resistance, rallying local militia from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. 878 constituted the nadir of the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: with all the other kingdoms fallen to the Vikings, only Wessex remained to resist foreign assaults.
In the seventh week after Easter (May 4-10, 878), in the environs of Whitsuntide, Alfred rode to Egbert”s Rock east of Selwood, where he was welcomed by “all the people of Somerset and Wiltshire and that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea (i.e., west of the Solent Canal), rejoicing to see him.” Alfred”s removal from his stronghold in the marshes was part of a carefully planned offensive that involved increasing the fyrd in numbers from three counties. This meant not only that the monarch had the support of the alderman, senior royal officials and thegn charged with collecting and leading these forces, but that they had maintained their authoritarian positions in these localities well enough to respond to his call to war. Alfred”s actions also suggest the existence of a system of scouts and messengers.
Alfred achieved a decisive victory at the subsequent Battle of Edington, which may have been fought near Westbury. Afterwards, he chased the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and let them starve to submission. One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity. Three weeks later, the Danish king and 29 of his leading men were baptized at the royal court at Aller, near Athelney, with Alfred receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son. According to Asser, “the removal of the chrism” [the strip of linen or silk that encircles the forehead of the confirmed after anointing with chrism] on the eighth day took place at a crown fief called Wedmore. In the same location Alfred and Guthrum negotiated what some historians called the Treaty of Wedmore, but it was not until a few years after the cessation of hostilities that a formal understanding was signed. Under the terms of the so-called document, the converted Guthrum was to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. Accordingly, in 879 the Viking army left Chippenham and headed for Cirencester. The formal treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, preserved in Old English in Corpus Christi College (manuscript 383), and in a Latin compilation known as Quadripartitus, was negotiated later, perhaps in 879 or 880, when King Ceolwulf II of Mercia went deposed. The act effectively divided the kingdom of Mercia: according to the terms, the boundary between the kingdoms of Alfred and Guthrum followed the River Thames to the River Lea, after which it followed the course to the source of the latter (near Luton). From there it proceeded in a straight line to Bedford, and from the latter position it flanked the River Ouse to Watling Street.
In essence, Alfred succeeded to the Ceolwulf kingdom consisting of western Mercia, while Guthrum incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an expanded version of the kingdom of eastern Anglia (henceforth the entity took the name Danelaw). Moreover, Alfred would preserve control of the Mercian city of London and its mints, at least for that historical juncture. In 825, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that the people of Essex, Sussex, Kent and Surrey surrendered to Aegbertus, Alfred”s grandfather. From then until the arrival of the great Danish army, Essex had been part of Wessex. After the founding of the Danelaw, it appears that a section of Essex passed into Danish hands, but this is an unclear event.
With the signing of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, which is believed to have taken place around 880, which is when Guthrum”s people began to settle in East Anglia, the Danish commander could be said to be a neutralized threat. The Viking army, which had remained in Fulham during the winter of 878-879, sailed to Ghent and was responsible for episodes of warfare on the continent from 879 to 892.
Although large-scale conflicts did not occur for some time after the signing of the peace with Guthrum, minor raids still occurred along the Wessex coast in the 880s. In 882, Alfred engaged in a small naval battle against four Danish ships. Two of the ships ended up destroyed and the others surrendered. The incident of one of the four naval battles is reported to us by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, three of which involved Alfred. Similar skirmishes with Viking raiders acting independently would occur for some time to come, bringing back memories of those of decades past.
In 883 Pope Marinus exempted the Saxon quarter of Rome from taxation, perhaps in exchange for Alfred”s promise to send annual alms to the Holy See: such an event may be the origin of the medieval tax known as St. Peter”s obolus. The pope also sent gifts to Alfred, including what was believed to be a fragment of the True Cross.
In 855 particular clamor aroused in England a sacking in Kent, an Allied kingdom in the southeast, which again featured Guthrum. Asser”s account of the raid places the Danish raiders in the Saxon town of Rochester, where they completed a temporary fortress to besiege the city. In response, Alfred immediately convoyed an Anglo-Saxon force against the Danes, who, instead of engaging the Wessex army, fled to their ships anchored on the beaches and sailed to another part of Britain. The retreating Danish force would not leave Britain until the following summer. Meanwhile, not long after the failed Danish project in Kent, the British ruler sent his fleet to East Anglia. The purpose of this expedition remains shrouded in mystery, but Asser says it was in response to looting. After sailing up the Stour River the fleet caught sight of thirteen or sixteen Danish ships (sources vary) and a battle ensued. The Anglo-Saxon fleet emerged victorious and, as Huntingdon relates, “laden with spoils.” The victorious vessels were discovered in the act of leaving the Stour River by a group of Danes at the mouth of the waterway and lost the fight, perhaps because they were already exhausted from the previous fight.
A year later, in 886, Alfred reoccupied the city of London and decided to make it habitable again, as it was in poor condition. He entrusted the settlement to the care of his son-in-law Aethelred, alderman of Mercia. Restoration progressed in the second half of the 880s and is believed to have revolved around a new street plan, the addition of fortifications in addition to the existing Roman ones, and, according to some, even the construction of defensive structures located on the southern bank of the River Thames.
At that time almost all chroniclers agree that the Saxon people of pre-united England submitted to Alfred”s authority. In 889 Guthrum, or Atelstan by his given name, Alfred”s historic enemy and king of East Anglia, died and was buried at Hadleigh. Guthrum”s death changed the political landscape: the resulting power vacuum stimulated other warlords thirsty for power and eager to take his place to fight in the following years. The quiet years of Alfred”s life were coming to an end.
After another lull, in the fall of 892 or 893, the Danes struck again. Finding their position in continental Europe precarious, they crossed into England on 330 ships organized into two divisions. The major trunk entrenched at Appledore and the minor one under Hastein at Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought wives and children with them, which suggests a concrete attempt to execute conquests and colonize in a stable manner. Alfred, in 893 or 894, settled in a position from which he could observe both forces.
While in negotiations with Hastein the Danes at Appledore rose up and attacked northwestward. Hired by Alfred”s eldest son Edward, they were defeated at the Battle of Farnham in Surrey and had to take refuge on an island at Thorney, on the River Colne between Buckinghamshire and Middlesex, where they were blockaded and forced to give hostages and promise to leave Wessex. They later went to Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined Hastein”s forces at Shoebury. Alfred was on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he learned that the Danes from Northumbria and East Anglia were intent on besieging Exeter and an unnamed stronghold on the North Devon coast. The monarch immediately rushed westward and initiated the so-called siege of Exeter. The fate of the other location is not revealed in the sources.
The group under Hastein decided to march down the Thames Valley, perhaps with the idea of assisting their allies to the west. They were joined by a large army under the three great aldermen of Mercia, Wiltshire, and Somerset and forced to head northwest, eventually being overrun and blockaded at Buttington (some identify the site with Buttington Tump at the mouth of the Wye, others with Buttington near Welshpool). An attempt to break through the British lines failed, and the fugitives retreated to Shoebury. After gathering reinforcements they suddenly launched across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chester. The British did not attempt a winter blockade, contenting themselves with destroying all supplies in the district.
In early 894 or 895 food shortages forced the Danes to retreat once again to Essex. At the end of the year the Danes recalled their ships along the Thames and Lea and entrenched themselves 32 km north of London. A frontal attack on the Danish lines failed, although later in the year Alfred took the opportunity to blockade the river to prevent the Danish ships from leaving. The Danes realized they had been outmaneuvered, moved away to the northwest and wintered at Cwatbridge, near Bridgnorth. The following year, in 896 (or 897), they gave up the fight and some retreated to Northumbria, others to East Anglia. Those who had no family ties in England returned to Scandinavia.
Death and burial
Alfred died on October 26, 899 at the age of 50 or 51. The cause of his death is unknown, but he apparently suffered throughout his life from a painful and unpleasant illness. His biographer Asser provided a detailed description of his symptoms, a circumstance that has enabled modern physicians to provide a possible diagnosis. It is thought that he suffered from Crohn”s disease or hemorrhoids. His grandson, King Edredo, apparently suffered from a similar disease.
Alfred was temporarily buried in Old Minster church in Winchester with his wife Ealhswith and, later, his son Edward the Elder. Before his departure, he ordered the construction of the Benedictine Abbey of New Minster, hoping it would become a mausoleum for him and his family. Four years after his death, the bodies of Alfred and his family were exhumed and moved to their new burial place in New Minster, remaining there for 211 years. When William the Conqueror ascended the English throne after the Norman conquest in 1066, many Anglo-Saxon abbeys faced demolition and replacement with Norman cathedrals. Those that suffered such a fate included that of New Minster, where Alfred was buried. Before the demolition, the monks had exhumed the bodies of Alfred and his family to safely relocate them to a new location. The monks moved to Hyde in 1110, a little north of the city, and moved to the city abbey along with Alfred”s body and those of his wife and children, who were buried in front of the high altar.
In 1536, many Roman Catholic churches were vandalized by the English people, spurred by disillusionment with the church during the troubled period of the dissolution of the monasteries. One of the religious buildings was Alfred”s burial place, Hyde Abbey. Once again, the site where the remains rested was violated on a third occasion. Hyde Abbey closed its doors in 1538, during the rule of Henry VIII: at that time, the church site was demolished and treated like a quarry, with the stones that made up the abbey then reused in local architectural works. The stone tombs that housed Alfred and his family remained underground, and the land returned to cultivation. The burials remained intact until 1788, when the site ended up being acquired by the county for the construction of a city jail.
Before construction began, inmates who would later be imprisoned at the site were sent to probe the ground in order to prepare it for construction. While digging the foundation trenches, the inmates discovered the coffins of Alfredo and his family. The local Catholic priest, one Milner, told about this event:
The condemned men cut up the stone coffins, the lead lining the coffins was sold for the price of two guineas, with the bones scattered inside scattered around the area. The prison faced demolition between 1846 and 1850. Further excavations carried out proved inconclusive in 1866 and 1897. In 1866, amateur antiquarian John Mellor claimed to have recovered a number of bones from the site that he claimed were those of Alfred. These came into the possession of the vicar of the nearby St. Bartholomew”s Church, who reburied them in an anonymous grave in the local cemetery.
Excavations conducted by the Winchester Museums Service of the Hyde Abbey site in 1999 identified a second pit dug in front of where the high altar would have been located, identified as probably dating back to Mellor”s 1866 excavations. The 1999 archaeological excavation revealed the foundations of the abbey buildings and some human remains, indicated at the time to belong to Alfred; they were later found to belong to an elderly woman instead. In March 2013, the Diocese of Winchester exhumed the bones from St. Bartholomew”s anonymous grave and placed them in secure storage. The diocese did not claim they were Alfred”s bones, but intended to secure them for later analysis and from the attentions of people whose interest may have been piqued by the recent identification of the remains of King Richard III. The bones were radiocarbon dated but the results showed that they were from the 1300s, reasoning that they were not of the early medieval English monarch. In January 2014, a pelvis fragment that had been unearthed in the 1999 excavations of the Hyde site and later teasported to a warehouse at the Winchester Museum, where it was radiocarbon dated to the correct period. It was speculated that the bone might have belonged to Alfred or his son Edward, but this has not been proven.
The Germanic tribes that invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries relied on the unarmed infantry provided by their tribal association, or fyrd: the military might of the various kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England depended on this system. The fyrd referred to the local Anglo-Saxon county militia in which all freemen were required to serve; those who refused to serve were liable to fines and even risked losing their property. According to the legal code of King Ine of Wessex, issued c. 694:
The chronology of failures in Wessex that preceded Alfred”s success in 878 suggests that the traditional approach to the recruiting system had become flooded to the advantage of the Danes. While the Anglo-Saxons and Danes attacked settlements for plunder, the tactics employed differed. In their raids, the former preferred to attack frontally, coordinating their forces and forming a wall of shields with which they advanced against the opponent for the purpose of breaking the defensive wall. The Danes preferred to opt for easy targets, mapping prudent raids to avoid risking their spoils with complicated attacks. Alfred noted how they used to launch attacks from safe bases from which they could retreat in case of strong enemy resistance. Since in practice the Danes also resorted to entrenchments, occupation of fortifications and the construction of palisades, the English ruler did not hesitate to resort to starving his opponents on certain occasions.
The process by which the Anglo-Saxons deployed forces to defend themselves against enemies made them vulnerable to the Vikings. It was the responsibility of the fyrd of the county of reference to handle local raids. The king could call up the national militia to defend the kingdom, but in the case of the Viking raids, logistical and communication problems prevented the warriors from being assembled quickly enough. It was only after the raids began that an appeal was made to feudal lords, inviting them to involve their subjects in battle. It is therefore likely that in practice large regions may have been devastated before the defensive garrisons could rally and arrive in time. Although landowners were obliged by the king to provide these men when called upon, during the attacks of 878 many deserted Alfred and collaborated with Guthrum.
By virtue of such a scenario, Alfred capitalized on the relatively peaceful years following his victory at Edington by devoting himself to an ambitious restructuring of the Saxon defenses. During his trip to Rome, Alfred had stayed with Charles the Bald and it is possible that he learned how the Carolingian kings had dealt with Viking raiders. Based on their experiences, he was able to baste a more workable fiscal and defensive regime for Wessex. The system of fortifications in pre-Viking-era Mercia may have exerted some influence, but only when Viking raids resumed in 892 did Alfred find himself better prepared to deal with them with infantry groups, with mobile garrisons that had to be on hand at all times, and with a small fleet of ships concentrated in the rivers and estuaries.
Alfred also tried his hand at naval design. In 896 he ordered the construction of a small fleet, perhaps a dozen long ships that, being 60-oared, were twice as large as their Viking counterparts. In any case, it cannot be argued that the birth of the English navy took place at that stage, as Victorian-era historians claimed. Wessex had already possessed a royal fleet before Alfred”s reign. The latter”s older brother, the viceroy Atelstan of Kent and the alderman Ealhhere had in fact defeated a Viking fleet in 851 by capturing nine ships; Alfred himself had also already conducted naval actions in 882. The year 897 marked an important development of Wessex as a naval power. The author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that Alfred”s ships were bigger, faster, more stable, and sailed the waves better than the Danes or Frisians. It is likely that, under Asser”s classical school teachings, Alfred exploited the design of Greek and Roman warships, with high sides designed for combat rather than navigation.
Alfred sensed that giving birth to a sea power could obviate the problem of raids: being able to intercept raiding fleets before they landed could avert the devastation of the kingdom. It is plausible that the vessels were designed to be larger, but in practice they proved too unmaneuverable to move easily in the shallow waters of estuaries and rivers, the only places where a naval battle could be fought. The warships of the time were not designed to sink others, but rather to convoy troops. It is therefore assumed that, as in the case of the naval battles that took place in Scandinavia in the late Viking Age, the clashes may have involved flanking a ship to an opposing vessel, engaging the two, and finally boarding. The result generated a battle with hand-to-hand fighting on board the two fixed ships.
In a clash in 896, Alfred”s new fleet of nine ships intercepted six Viking vessels at the mouth of an unidentified river in southern England. The Danes had landed from half their ships and scattered inland. Alfred”s men immediately moved to block their escape, and the three Scandinavian ships afloat attempted to break through the English lines, with only one managing to escape. In fact, the British ships intercepted the other two. Tying the Viking boats to their own, the English crew climbed aboard and proceeded to kill the hostiles. One of them was able to escape because Alfred”s heavy ships ran aground when the tide went out. In the battle, the Danes appeared heavily outnumbered, but as the tide rose, they returned to their boats, which, thanks to less strong winds, broke free first. The British had to watch the attackers flee imposingly, having suffered so many losses (120 dead against 62 Frisians and British) that they had difficulty pushing out to sea. Too damaged to row beyond Sussex, two Scandinavian ships were pushed against the Sussex coast (probably at Selsey Bill). The shipwrecked crew was brought before Alfred in Winchester and hanged.
Administration and taxation
The inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England had a threefold obligation, based on their land ownership: the so-called “common burdens” of military service, the necessity of serving as sentries in fortresses, and the task of providing labor in bridge repair. This triad of duties was traditionally called trinoda necessitas or trimoda necessitas. The term used in Old English for the contravention reserved for those who engaged in acts of negligence, recklessness or inexperience during military service was called fierdwite. In order to keep the burhs operational and reorganize the fyrd as a standing army, Alfred extended the taxation and conscription regime based on the revenues earned by the owners of a particular plot of land. The hide constituted the basic unit of the system on which the tax burdens falling on an individual were assessed. This also crystallized an evolution in the meaning of the term, as hide originally denoted instead the amount of land sufficient to support a family.
The burh system
The basis of Alfred”s new military defense system consisted of a network of burhs, or defensive forts distributed at tactical points throughout the kingdom. There were 33 burhs, spaced about 30 km apart, which enabled the military to face attacks anywhere in the kingdom in a single day.
Alfred”s burhs (of which 22 were elevated to borough status, that is, urban centers surrounded by walls) ranged from ancient Roman towns, as in the case of Winchester, where stone walls were repaired and ditches added, to massive walls built using the pisé technique surrounded by wide ditches, probably reinforced with wood cladding and palisades as at Burpham, in West Sussex. The size of the hamlets varied from tiny outposts like Pilton, Devon, to large fortifications in established settlements, the largest of which was Winchester.
A document now identified as the Burghal Hidage (Family of Burghs) provides an overview of how the defensive web functioned. It is a list of burghs that provided the estimated “family” of neighboring districts that were subject to the borough defense contribution, each contributing to the maintenance and equipping of men for the fortifications in proportion to the number of “families” for which they responded. A total of 27,071 soldiers, about one in four of all freemen in Wessex, was needed to keep the apparatus standing. Many of the burhs were twin towns that straddled a river and were connected by a fortified bridge, like those built by Charles the Bald a generation earlier. When there were two defensive structures located along opposite banks of the waterway, garrisoning the passage of boats was easier. For this reason, Viking ships sometimes had to sail under a manned bridge flanked by men armed with stones, spears or arrows. Other burhs were located near fortified royal villas, allowing the ruler better control over his strongholds.
The burhs were connected by a road system maintained for military purposes (herepath). The routes made it possible to quickly assemble an army, sometimes from more than one country, to confront the Viking invader. The road network posed significant obstacles to Viking invaders, especially those laden with loot; the system threatened Scandinavian routes and communications, making them far more dangerous. The Vikings had neither the functional equipment nor the knowledge to set up a siege against a burh, thus having to adapt their fighting methods to quick attacks and quick retreats in the face of well-defended fortifications. The only means left to them was to starve the burh into submission, but this gave the crown time to dispatch reinforcements or garrisons that arrived from neighboring burhs along road routes. In such cases, the Vikings appeared extremely vulnerable to pursuit by the king”s joint military forces. Alfred”s burh system was so well-conceived a success that when the Vikings returned in 892 and stormed a half-built and poorly manned fortress in the Lympne estuary in Kent, the Anglo-Saxons were able to limit their advance to the outer borders of Wessex and Mercia. Alfred”s installation presented itself as revolutionary in its strategic conception, though costly in its execution. His coeval biographer Asser reported that various nobles hesitated to provide a response to requests for support that came to their attention, although these were necessary to meet “the common needs of the kingdom.”
In the late 880s or early 890s, Alfred issued an articulate domboc or legal code composed of his own laws, followed by a code issued by his late 7th-century predecessor, King Ine of Wessex. The set of these normative provisions, organized into 120 chapters, was preceded by an introduction. In it, Alfred explained that the collection was also based on ancient texts and was ordered “to report in writing many of the rules that our ancestors observed, those that I liked. I declined to report many of those that did not convince me at the suggestion of my advisors, making changes to them.”
Alfred specifically identified the laws that “were in force in the days of Ine, my kinsman, or Offa, king of the Mercians, or King Ethelbert of Kent, who first among the English people received baptism.” He added, rather than supplemented, Ine”s laws in his code and reenacted the set of compensation fines enacted by Ethelbert in cases of injury caused to various parts of the body, except for a couple of unreiterated provisions. It is not known whether Offa had issued a legislative code, a circumstance that has prompted historian Patrick Wormald to speculate that Alfred drew on the capitular legation of 786 presented to Offa by two papal legates.
About one-fifth of the Law Code is taken up by Alfred”s introduction, which includes English translations of the Ten Commandments, some chapters of the Book of Exodus, and the Apostolic Letter of the Acts of the Apostles (15:23-29). The introduction can best be understood as Alfred”s meditation on the meaning of the Christian law. This is inferred by virtue of the continuity between the gift of God”s law to Moses and Alfred”s own issuance of the law addressed to the West Saxons. In this way, it linked the holy past to the historical present, and Alfred, as lawgiver, proposed himself as an advocate of divine legislation.
Alfred divided his code into 120 chapters because 120 was how old Moses was when he died and, in the numerical symbolism of early medieval biblical exegetes, 120 stood for law. The link between the Mosaic law and Alfred”s code concerns the Apostolic Letter: it explained that Christ “came not to break or nullify the commandments, but to fulfill them; and he taught mercy and meekness” (Intro, 49.1). The mercy that Christ infused into the Mosaic law was to shine through in the penalties provided for injuries, which have been clearly reproduced in the barbaric law codes since the Christian synods “established, through that mercy which Christ taught, that for almost any misdeed monetary compensation could be fixed for the injured person without constituting a sin.” The only crime that escaped compensation through money was the betrayal of the lord to whom a particular person was answerable, “for God Almighty judged no one among those who despised him, nor did Christ, the Son of God, judge anyone for those who betrayed him to death; and he commanded everyone to love his lord as himself.” Alfred”s interpretation of Christ”s commandment from “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39-40) to “love your lord as you would have loved Christ himself” underscores the importance Alfred attached to lordship, which he understood as a sacred bond instituted by God for the government of man.
When one moves from the introduction of the domboc to the rules themselves, it remains difficult to follow a logical arrangement, as the first impression is of having to make one”s way through a mixture of various laws. The code, as preserved, appeared to a more careful judgment to be for judicial purposes. As an example, various laws of Alfred contradicted the laws of Ine, which formed an integral part. Patrick Wormald”s explanation is that the Alfredian code should be understood not as a legal manual but as an ideological manifesto of kingship “designed more for symbolic impact than practical direction.” In practical terms, the most important law in the code may have been the first: “We recommend, it being an absolutely necessary behavior, that every man carefully keep his oath and promise,” a fundamental principle of Anglo-Saxon law.
Alfred devoted considerable attention and care to judicial matters. Asser also emphasized his concern about how justice was administered. That is why, according to Welsh, the king insisted on reviewing a second time the disputed judgments executed by his aldermen and high-ranking officials and “would carefully examine almost all verdicts rendered in his absence anywhere in the kingdom, for the purpose of seeing whether they were just or unjust.” A writing made during the reign of his son Edward the Elder describes Alfred as he was intent on syndicating one of these appeals in his chamber.
Asser portrayed Alfred as a Solomonic judge, thorough in his judicial investigations and critical of royal officials who had made unfair or hasty judgments. Although the chronicler never mentioned the legislative code, he stated that Alfred fought to ensure that his judges were educated and could read and write, so that they could apply themselves “to the pursuit of wisdom.” Failure to comply with this royal order was to be punished by disqualification from office.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, commissioned in Alfred”s time, was perhaps to be written to glorify the unification of England, while The Life of King Alfred was intended to promote Alfred”s personal achievements and qualities. It also seems possible that the document was intended to be circulated in Wales, Alfred having imposed his authority over that area.
Asser speaks in enthusiastic tones about Alfred”s relations with foreign powers, despite the fact that little definite information is available. His interest in foreign realities is demonstrated by his efforts in his translation of Orosius. In addition, he exchanged missives with Elijah III, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and embassies in Rome, transmitting English alms to the pope with relative frequency. Around 890, Wulfstan of Hedeby embarked on a journey from his hometown in Jutland along the Baltic Sea to the Prussian trading town of Truso (located in present-day northeastern Poland). The English ruler personally collected the details of this journey.
Alfred”s relations with the Celtic princes in the western half of Britain are clearer. Relative to the beginning of his reign, according to Asser, the princes of South Wales, because of the pressure unleashed by the northern part of the region and Mercia, recommended themselves to Alfred and trusted in his intervention against the Vikings. Later, during his reign, the North Welsh followed suit and cooperated with the English in the 893 (or 894) campaign. Asser also reports on Alfred”s sending of alms to Irish and Continental monasteries. In that vein, historians believe certainly occurred the visit of three “Scots” (i.e., Irish) pilgrims to the English royal court in 891. The account that, during his childhood, he came to Ireland to ask St. Modwenna for healing from his illness may highlight the future ruler”s interest in that island.
In the 880s, at the same time as he was “flattering and threatening” his nobles to build and rule the burhs, Alfred, perhaps inspired by the example of Charlemagne almost a century earlier, undertook a similarly ambitious effort aimed at triggering a cultural awakening. During this historical phase, Viking raids were often interpreted as divine retribution, and Alfred may have wanted to leverage religious fear with the intent of appeasing the wrath of the Almighty.
The revival of culture came through several factors: an increase in the number of ecclesiastical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to improve the tenor of the court and the episcopate; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the descendants of his nobles and intellectually promising boys from non-aristocratic backgrounds; an attempt to require literacy for those in positions of authority; a series of vernacular translations of Latin works that the king considered “most necessary for all men to know”; the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of the king, with a genealogy going back to Adam aimed at thus endowing the West Saxon kings with biblical ancestry.
Very little is known about the Church in Alfred”s time. Danish attacks, covetous for riches had proved particularly damaging to religious buildings. Alfred”s founding of the monasteries of Athelney and Shaftesbury represented a novelty in Wessex, as the last monastic houses had been opened in the early 8th century. According to Asser, Alfred attracted foreign monks to England to populate Athelney, there being little interest for locals to pursue a monastic career.
The monarch did not undertake any systematic reform of church institutions or religious practices in Wessex. In his view, the key to the spiritual revival of the kingdom was to appoint pious, learned, and trustworthy bishops and abbots. As king, he saw himself as responsible for both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Secular and spiritual authority did not constitute distinct categories for Alfred.
At the same time, he proceeded to distribute his translation of Gregory the Great”s Cura Pastoralis to his bishops so that they could better train and supervise priests. In addition, he proposed to ask the bishops themselves to fulfill the roles of royal officials and judges. Despite the outstretched hands to the clergy for the reasons stated above, Alfred had no qualms about expropriating church lands concentrated in strategic locations, particularly properties along the Danelaw border, and transferring them to royal thegns and officials who could better defend them from Viking attacks.
Effect of Danish raids on education
The Danish incursions had a devastating effect on education in England. Alfred complained in the preface to his translation of Gregory”s Cura Pastoralis that “learning had declined so drastically in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could fully understand their divine duties in English or who were able to translate a single missive from Latin into English. I suppose also that there are not many beyond the Humber.” Alfred undoubtedly provided an exaggerated account, with dramatic tones intended to reiterate the abysmal state of learning in England during his youth. That Latin learning had not been obliterated is evidenced by the presence in his court of learned Mercian and West Saxon clerics such as Plegmund, Wæferth, and Wulfsige.
Manuscript production in England fell precipitously around 860, when the Viking invasions began, only recovering at the end of the century. Numerous Anglo-Saxon manuscripts burned along with the churches that housed them. A solemn diploma from Canterbury Cathedral, dated 873, is so poorly written and ruined that historian Nicholas Brooks postulated that a scribe was either so blind that he could not read what he wrote or that he knew little or no Latin. “It is clear,” Brooks concludes, “that the metropolitan church must have been utterly incapable of providing effective training in scripture or Christian worship.”
Establishment of a court school
Alfred established a court school for the education of his own children, noble children and promising non-aristocratic boys. There they studied books in both English and Latin and “devoted themselves to writing, to such an extent that they were judged to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts.” He recruited scholars from the Continent and Britain to help in the revival of Christian culture in Wessex and to provide personal instruction to the king. Grimbald and John the Saxon came from France; Plegmundo (whom Alfred appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 890), Bishop Wærferth of Worcester, Atelstan, the royal chaplain Werwulf, from Mercia, and Asser, from southwest Wales.
Promotion of English language education
Alfred”s cultural ambitions seem to have gone beyond the establishment of a court school. Believing that without Christian wisdom “there can be neither prosperity nor success in war,” Alfred aimed “to educate (until they prove useful for some other employment) all freeborn youth now in England who have the means to apply themselves in study.” Aware of the decline of Latin literacy in his kingdom, Alfred proposed that primary education should be in Old English, while those who wished to advance to holy orders should continue their studies in Latin.
Few “books of learning” appeared to be written in English; Alfred sought to remedy this through an ambitious program centered on the translation into English of writings he deemed “absolutely necessary for all men to know.” It is not known when Alfred initiated the work, but this may have been during the 880s, when Wessex was benefiting from a respite from Viking attacks. The monarch remained, until recently, often considered also to be the author himself of many of the translations, but that claim has now been questioned in almost all cases. Scholars most often refer to the Old English versions as “alfredian,” indicating that they probably had some connection to his patronage, but it is unlikely that they were the product of his pen.
Apart from the lost Handboc or Encheiridio, which seems to have been a common book owned by the king, the first work translated was the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a decidedly popular writing in the Middle Ages. The work was undertaken at the behest of Alfred by Werferth, bishop of Worcester, with the king merely providing a preface. Remarkably, Alfred, no doubt with the advice and help of his court scholars, translated four works himself: Gregory the Great”s Cura Pastoralis, Severinus Boethius” De consolatione philosophiae, Augustine of Hippo”s Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter.
One could add to this list the translation, contained in Alfred”s Law Code, of excerpts from the Vulgate version of Exodus. Those in Old English of Paul Orosius” Histories Against the Pagans and Bede the Venerable”s Ecclesiastical History of the English People are no longer accepted by scholars as Alfred”s own works because of lexical and stylistic differences. However, the consensus remains that they were part of the Alfredian work project. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge also advance a similar hypothesis for Bald”s Leechbook and the anonymous Old English Martyrology.
The preface to Alfred”s translation of Pope Gregory the Great”s Cura Pastoralis explained why he felt it necessary to make works like this available from Latin to English. Although he described his method as aimed at rendering “sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense,” the translation stays very close to the original even if, through his choices, the distinction between spiritual and secular authority was blurred. Alfred intended to employ the work by making it available to all his bishops. Interest in translating the Cura Pastoralis was so well transplanted that copies were still being made in the 11th century.
Boethius” De consolatione philosophiae was the most popular philosophical manual of the Middle Ages. Unlike the translation of the Pastoral, the Alfredian version is very loosely based on the original and, although G. Schepss revealed that many of the additions to the text were due not to the translator himself but to the glosses and commentaries adopted, many aspects reflected philosophies of kingship in Alfred”s milieu. It is in Boethius that the oft-quoted phrase recurs: “To put it briefly: I wished to live in a worthy manner while I lived, and after my life, I wish to leave to the posthumans my trace in good works.” The book has come down to us only through two manuscripts: one of them is prose, the other a mixture of prose and verse.
The last Alfredian work is the one bearing the name Blostman (“Blossoming”) or Anthology. The first half was based mainly on the Soliloquies of St. Augustine of Hippo; the rest is drawn from various sources. The material was designed to contain much of what was peculiar to Alfred and highly characteristic for him. Consider the last words, which form an appropriate epitaph “for the noblest of English kings seems to me a very foolish and truly miserable man he who will not increase his understanding of the world while he is alive. One must be seen in the same way who always desires and yearns to reach that endless life where all will be made clear.” Alfred appears as a character in the 12th or 13th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale (“The Owl and the Nightingale”), where his wisdom and skill with proverbs is praised. The Proverbs of Alfred, a 13th-century work, contains sayings that were probably not due to Alfred, but attested to his posthumous medieval reputation for wisdom.
The so-called Alfred jewel (Alfred Jewel), discovered in Somerset in 1693, has long been associated with the monarch because of its Old English inscription AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (“Alfred commanded me to be created”). The jewel is about 6.4 cm long, made of gold filigree, and encloses a piece of polished quartz crystal below which is set an enameled cloisonné with the image of a man holding floral scepters, perhaps an impersonation of the Sight or Wisdom of God.
Once attached to a thin rod or staff set on the hollow socket at its base, the jewel surely dates to Alfred”s reign. Although its function is unknown, it has often been suggested that the jewel was one of the æstels (bookmarks) that Alfred ordered sent to each bishopric accompanying a copy of his translation of the Pastoral. Each æstel was worth the princely sum of 50 mancusi, a figure which would justify the quality workmanship and expensive materials of the Alfred jewel.
Historian Richard Abels views Alfred”s education and military reforms as complementary. Restoring religion and learning in Wessex, Abels argues, was in the king”s mind as essential to the defense of his kingdom as the building of the burhs. As Alfred observed in the preface in his English translation of Gregory the Great”s Cura Pastoralis, kings who fail to obey their divine duty to promote learning can expect earthly punishments to befall their people. “The pursuit of wisdom,” he assured his readers of Boethius, “was the surest way to power: yearn therefore for wisdom, and, when you have learned enough, do not condemn what you have done, for I tell you that through wisdom you may invariably attain power, yea, though you may not desire it.”
Asser and the chronicler”s portrayal of the West Saxon resistance to the Vikings as a Christian holy war should be interpreted as more than just rhetoric or propaganda. It reflected Alfred”s belief in a doctrine of divine rewards and punishments, rooted in a vision of a hierarchical Christian world order in which God is the Lord to whom kings owe obedience and through whom they derive their authority over their subjects. The need to persuade his nobles to undertake efforts for the “common good” prompted Alfred and his court scholars to reinforce and deepen the conception of Christian kingship, inherited by building on the work of earlier rulers including Offa, ecclesiastical writers including Bede and Alcuin, and various participants in the Carolingian revival. This was not a cynical way of thinking about religion to justify to his subjects the need to give obedience, but an intrinsic element in Alfred”s worldview. He believed, like other rulers of ninth-century England and France, that God had entrusted him with the spiritual and physical well-being of his people. If the Christian faith had fallen into disrepair in his kingdom, if the clergy had been too ignorant to understand the Latin words that overflowed in the offices and liturgies, if the ancient monasteries and collegiates had been abandoned through indifference, he was responsible in God”s eyes in the same way as Josiah. Alfred”s ultimate goal was therefore about the careful care of his people.
Asser wrote about the monarch in his Life of King Alfred:
Asser also reports that Alfred did not learn to read until he was 12 or older, an event described as “shameful neglect” by his parents and guardians. Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory, remembering poetry and psalms very well. In this regard, Asser recounts a curious episode from the future ruler”s youth. After showing him a text, his mother tested him and his brothers by saying, “I will give this book to the one among you who will learn it the fastest.” Having then eagerly asked his mother if she really kept her word, Alfred set about it, learned it and recited it to his mother.
Apparently, Alfred carried a little book with him, probably a medieval version of a pocket notebook, which contained psalms and many prayers that he often used to quote. Asser writes, these “he collected everything in one book, as I was able to see for myself; everywhere and at every juncture of daily life, he carried it with him for the sake of prayer, never parting with it.” An excellent hunter, Alfred saw, according to contemporary sources, no rivals in this practice.
Although he was the youngest of his siblings, he was probably the most open-minded. His desire to increase the rate of education may have stemmed from his love at a young age for English poetry and a desire to read in written texts what would go with time or memory forgotten. Asser reports that Alfred “could not satisfy his craving for what he most desired, namely the liberal arts; this was because, as he usually said, there were no good scholars in the whole kingdom of the West Saxons at that time.”
In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Etelredo Mucel, alderman of the Gaini, one of the local tribal groups. Ealhswith”s mother, Eadburh, was related to the royal family of Mercia.
The two had five or six children, including Edward the Elder, who succeeded his father as king, Ethelfleda, who became lady of the Mercians, and Elfrida, who married Baldwin II of Flanders. His mother was Osburga, daughter of Oslac of the Isle of Wight, grand butler of England. Asser, in his Vita Ælfredi states that this element would highlight her connection with the Jutes of the Isle of Wight. This is an unlikely claim, since Bede the Venerable reports that they were all slaughtered by the Saxons under Caedwalla.
Osferth is described as a relative in King Alfred”s will, and records show that he preserved a high position until 934. A deed dating from the reign of King Edward described him as the king”s brother, a misinformation according to Keynes and Lapidge; in the opinion of Janet Nelson, he would be an illegitimate son of King Alfred.
Alfred is venerated as a saint by some Christian traditions. Although Henry VI of England tried unsuccessfully to have him canonized by Pope Eugene IV in 1441, he was venerated in some years by the Catholic Church; however, the current “Roman Martyrology” does not mention him. The Anglican Communion venerates him as a Christian hero with a minor feast day on October 26: he is often depicted on stained glass windows in British parishes.
Alfred commissioned Bishop Asser to write his biography, inevitably providing a viewpoint that was not neutral and focused on the positive aspects of the man. Later medieval historians such as Godfrey of Monmouth also reinforced Alfred”s favorable image. At the time of the Reformation, the monarch was seen as a pious Christian ruler who promoted the use of English rather than Latin, reasoning that the translations he commissioned were considered untainted by the later Catholic influences of the Normans. As a result, it was the 16th-century writers who bestowed on Alfred his epithet “the Great,” whereas this is not traced in any of Alfred”s contemporaries. The title was retained by later generations who admired Alfred”s patriotism, his success against barbarism, promotion of education and establishment of the rule of law.
A number of educational institutions and university facilities boast Alfred”s name in their designation, including the University of Winchester, a university and college in the small town of Alfred, New York state, a prestigious secondary school in Wantage, Oxfordshire, the school in Barnet, north London, and other institutions located in the UK or the US.
The Royal Navy named a ship and two coastal outposts HMS King Alfred, while one of the U.S. Navy”s first ships was named USS Alfred in his honor. In 2002 Alfred was ranked number 14 on the BBC”s list of the 100 most influential Britons following a vote taken throughout the United Kingdom.
Various statues dedicated to Alfred the Great have been erected in Winchester (erected in 1899 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Alfred”s death), Pewsey (unveiled in 1913 to mark the coronation of King George V), Wantage, the University of Albany in upstate New York, and Cleveland, Ohio.
Alfredo the Great is the protagonist of Gaetano Donizetti”s 1823 opera seria of the same name. After a film was dedicated to him in 1969 under the direction of Clive Donner, Alfredo is part of the novel series The Stories of the Saxon Kings written by Bernard Cornwell; and the derivative TV series The Last Kingdom played by David Dawson. Alfred is also featured in the TV series Vikings, where he will be called by the name Alfred, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. He is also portrayed in the 2020 video game Assassin”s Creed: Valhalla, where he plays an ambiguous role, being an antagonist but secretly helping the protagonist eliminate the order he heads.
The legend of the cake
Legend has it that when Alfred first fled to Somerset Levels he was given refuge by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch over some cakes she had left baking on the fire. Absorbed in thoughts related to the problems of his reign, Alfred unintentionally allowed the cakes to burn and was scolded by the woman upon his return. There is no contemporary evidence to support the truthfulness of the legend, but it is possible that it spread as an oral tale. The first time it ended up reported in written texts occurred about a century after Alfred”s death.