By Susan Abernethy
“Therefore a man never attains virtue and excellence through his power; rather he attains power and authority through his virtue… Study wisdom, therefore, and when you have learned it, do not neglect it, for I say to you without hesitation that you can attain authority through wisdom” ~ Alfred the Great
On October 26, 899, Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, died. From the moment Alfred became King, Wessex was in a desperate struggle against the “heathen army”. Alfred managed to turn the Vikings away and set up conditions on the island for the unification of England. His great victory in 878 at Edington allowed for a period of relative calm so Alfred could begin a program of far reaching reform. He transformed the defense of the realm, rebuilt his naval fleet, and overhauled the law codes. Most importantly, he started a curriculum of education which he personally participated in. The Vikings came back in 892, putting Alfred’s new defenses on trial and were repulsed in 896 allowing Alfred to resume his reforms.
The most likely date and birthplace for Alfred was in 849 in Wantage. His father was King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his mother was Osburh. He had three older brothers and a sister. At the time of his birth, the likelihood of him becoming king was remote. Alfred was a favorite of his parents. Alfred spent most of his childhood at court in the care of his parents and his tutors. Although he had tutors, he laments in his biography to Asser that he didn’t learn to read English until he was older and he didn’t learn Latin until he was a grown man. When he was four, his father sent him on a trip to Rome. Pope Leo IV had an investiture ceremony where he made Alfred a consul (official of Rome).
Around 855, it is believed that Osburh died. Aethelwulf decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome and took Alfred with him. They spent a year traveling and on the way back, stopped at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks. Aethelwulf married Charles’ daughter Judith and brought her home. Alfred’s elder brothers were not happy about this wife, worried that she might have children who would have a claim to the throne of Wessex. Aethelwulf did not have any more children and died in 858.
Alfred’s elder brother Aethelbald ruled for two years. After his death Aethelbert ruled for five years. In 865, Aethelbert died and Aethelred became king. His reign would last for six years. During that first year, the Vikings were beginning to make strikes in several of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms on the island. Aethelred and Alfred would fight the Vikings together. Alfred took his place at council meetings and shared in his brother’s government. In 868, King Burhred of Mercia was under attack by the Vikings and asked Aethelred and Alfred for their help. They came to Burhred’s aid and made an alliance which included the marriage of Alfred to Ealhswith, the daughter of Aethelred Mucil, ealdorman of part of Mercia.
Asser tells us that during the wedding ceremony, Alfred became ill with some mysterious illness. We don’t really know what the exact illness was but it seems from the description it was an intestinal disorder which Alfred suffered from the time of his marriage for the rest of his life. Even when he wasn’t in pain, Alfred feared the next attack.
Alfred and Ealhswith had five surviving children. All the children received educations. The eldest was a daughter named Aethelflaed who would learn much from her father and continue his reform programs when she married the ealdorman of Mercia and helped him rule there. The second child was a son who became known as Edward the Elder and succeeded his father as king. Alfred gave his daughter Aelfthryth in marriage to Count Baldwin of Flanders. His daughter Aethelgifu became a nun and was made abbess of one of her father’s nunneries. The youngest son Aethelweard loved education like his father and studied at court in his father’s school.
Aethelred and Alfred continued the fight against the Vikings with some victories. In April of 871, Aethelred died, leaving two sons. These sons were too young to rule and fight Vikings so Alfred was named king by acclaim. There is no record of a coronation ceremony. There were nine engagements with the “Great Army” during the year he became king. It was too much for the men of Wessex. Alfred paid the Danes money and there was relative peace from 871 to 875.
In 875, the Danes made their way into Wessex. Alfred chased them but couldn’t get them to leave. Fighting and payments for peace lasted until Christmas in 878. The Danes attacked the royal palace at Chippenham and Alfred was forced to flee with his family. He chose the island of Athelney in Somerset to spend about four months in exile. He worked on a plan to expel the Danes. He and his men engaged in guerilla warfare. He sent word out to gather his supporters asking them to meet him in May at “Egbert’s Stone”.
Alfred and his army met Guthrum and his Danes at Edington and fought a deadly battle. Alfred was victorious. The Danes vowed to leave Wessex for good and Guthrum swore an oath to become a Christian. What few Viking attacks that occurred over the next few years were met by Alfred with swift and victorious action. In 886, Alfred took London from the Danes. Alfred and Guthrum made a treaty agreeing to boundary lines for their kingdoms. The Danes held Essex, East Anglia, the Eastern Midlands and north of the Humber River. Alfred was king from Cornwall to the areas in the east, south of the Thames. He delegated authority in the western Midlands to Aethelred of Mercia.
Alfred now turned his attention to reforming the government of Wessex. The capital of Wessex was established at Winchester. He compiled a code of laws in the English language that addressed all manner of crimes. Alfred wanted to replace justice by blood feud with justice administered in a court of law. Men were to keep their oaths, would be punished for treason, murder, rape, kidnapping and theft and must pay fines for bodily injury. He even set down the days when men had holidays from work. After setting up the codes, he enforced the administration of the laws by his officials.
The king wanted most urgently to set up a system of defense in his realm. He redesigned the navy with newly built ships. He inaugurated the rebuilding or starting from the ground up the cities of his territory. This was done by building fortresses and manning them year round, with half the men on duty and other half taking care of the harvest at home. Around the fortress would be a series of streets where people could build houses, churches and shops. Sometimes these cities would have mints to produce the new coinage of the realm. There were two major re-coinages in c. 875 and c. 880. He began administering the collection of taxes and allocating expenditures and promoting trade.
Alfred was very concerned with the spiritual well-being of his subjects. His building and rebuilding included churches. He personally founded an abbey at Athelney and a nunnery at Shaftesbury where his daughter was installed as abbess.
Alfred lamented his lack of education during his childhood. Because of this, one of his greatest achievements was his program to educate not only himself but his people. He started a school at court for the sons of noblemen along with other men and he encouraged his noblemen to learn to read. He recruited teachers and scholars to come to Wessex from all over England and the continent.
One of Alfred’s personal favorites of these scholars was a bishop from Wales named Asser. Asser taught Alfred to read and write Latin. Alfred himself translated from Latin to English these manuscripts: “Pastoral Care” by Pope Gregory the Great, “The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius, “Soliloquies” of Saint Augustine and a prose translation of the first fifty psalms of the Psalter. He worked in conjunction with others on translations of Pope Gregory’s “Dialogues”, “Histories against the pagans” by Orosius and Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History”. Alfred may have been involved in the commissioning of the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and his own biography by Bishop Asser.
From 892 to 896, the Vikings returned to raid and fight in England. Alfred’s plans for the defense of his kingdom paid off during this time of warfare. The fortresses and towns had troops who fought off the raiders. Alfred’s new ships fought the Vikings at sea. The Vikings soon came to realize they wouldn’t gain any new territory easily and either went to mingle with other Danes on the island or went back across the channel to raid on the continent.
Alfred now had peace in his kingdom. For the last three years of his life he continued his many reforms and furthered education in his realm. He drew up his will fifteen years before his death and it still survives to this day. As he lay dying, he called his son Edward to his side and gave him some of his cherished possessions. He died on October 26, 899 and was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester.
More articles by Susan Abernethy:
Further reading: “Alfred the Great” by Eleanor Shipley Duckett, “Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England” by Justin Pollard, “Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources” edited by Simon Keynes and Michael LaPidge, “The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England” edited by Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg