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Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon King

Suzette is a retired teacher who has been writing online for more than 10 years.

Alfred the Great, the first king of England, and the English language

Alfred the Great, the first king of England, and the English language

Who Was Alfred the Great?

Before there was William, Duke of Normandy, before there was Harold I of England, before there was the Battle of Hastings (1066), before there was William the Conquerer, there was Alfred the Great, also spelled AElfred, who was an Anglo-Saxon king, King of Wessex from 871-899. He successfully defended his kingdom against Viking and Danish conquests, and by the time of his death, he had united all of England under his rule.

He was the only Anglo-Saxon monarch to do this and the only English monarch ever to be given the name "the Great." He earned this name by his stalwart resistance to the Danes, his wise government and law-making, and by his revival in education and learning in English.

It was the historical writers of the 16th century who gave Alfred the moniker, "the Great," rather than Alfred's contemporaries. "The Great" has always stuck because of Alfred's patriotism, success against barbarism, promotion of education, and the establishment of rule of law as supporting his ideals.

King Alfred's Contribution to the English Language

By defeating the Danes, Alfred assured that English would be the spoken language. Had he not defeated them, we most likely would be speaking Danish today.

Alfred was a man of vision and a man way ahead of his time as he was a soldier, strategist, scholar, patron of the arts, and a legal and bureaucratic reformer.

Alfred succeeded to the throne in 871 upon his brother's death. Alfred married Ealhswith, a noblewoman from the royal house of Mercia in 867, therefore building an alliance with Mercia. He never expected to become king because he had three older brothers. But his three older brothers all died in battle, so Alfred became King of Wessex, and he was actually the most promising of all the brothers.

What we know about Alfred comes from two Old English documents: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which Alfred commissioned to be written, and Vita AElfredi (The Life of King Alfred), a biography, written by his teacher and friend, Roman Catholic Bishop Asser.

His Youth

At the age of four (853) Alfred was sent to Rome and again in the year 855, possibly on a pilgrimage with his father, AEthelwulf. During these journeys, on the way to Rome and back, Alfred spent time in the court of Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks, and the grandson of Charlemagne (France).

It was here that Alfred acquired knowledge and admiration for Charles and Charlemagne and their Carolingian revival (renaissance) of learning. He would tuck away these lessons and return to them later in his life and rule.

Alfred did not learn to read and write until the age of twelve which Bishop Asser, his biographer, called a "shameful negligence of his parents and tutors." In the Life of King Alfred, Asser wrote that Alfred was an excellent listener with an incredible memory and was able to retain poetry and psalms very well.

We also know from Asser's biography that Alfred suffered throughout his life from a painful and unpleasant illness. Asser described it so well in his biography that today doctors believe Alfred had either Crohn's disease or haemorrhoidal disease.

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Alfred's father died in 858 and was succeeded in rapid succession by his eldest son AEthelbald, then by son number two, AEthelbert, and then by son number three, AEthelred.

It was under AEthelred's rule that Alfred began learning the arts of war in the Anglo-Saxon's long-running battle against the Danes.

In the last years of the 8th century, England had been subject to raids by Vikings, the catch-all phrase for Scandinavian raiders or Norsemen. The Danes from Denmark fell into this category.

By the mid - 860's the Danish army invaded and landed in eastern England conquering Northumbria. But, when the Danes began going after Mercia and Wessex itself along with most of southern England, Alfred and his brother lead an expedition to resist the Danish incursions into Mercia.

The Danes refused to give battle and the Mercians paid the Danes to get rid of them. Then, the Danes moved to East Anglia invading and killing its king. By the end of 870, the Danes again came after Wessex in the southwest of England.

The Battle of Reading was the first battle in which Alfred was a commander. The Danes had taken the town of Reading and now the Saxons fought to take it back. The Saxons charged the Viking fortifications, but the Vikings sent the attackers on retreat.

Four days later, Alfred and his Saxon warriors returned and Alfred had his victory at Ashdown, but there were further defeats for the Anglo-Saxons at Basing, Meretum, and Wilton.

Alfred's brother died in battle in 871, and at twenty-one years of age, Alfred became King of Wessex. Because Alfred was an experienced military leader, he became king over AEthelred's two sons as they were underage. Wessex needed a strong leader to fight the Danes and Alfred fit the bill.

After the Anglo-Saxon defeat at Wilton, Alfred pounded out a peace agreement with the Danes and for five years the Danes left Wessex and turned their attention to other parts of England.

But, the Danes returned in the late 870s and again in the 890s and launched invasions of Wessex and other areas of Alfred's kingdoms, coming through Kent in the southeast to the Welsh borders in the northwest, attacking by land and sea.

Statue of Alfred the Great located in Winchester, England.  Sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925)

Statue of Alfred the Great located in Winchester, England. Sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925)

Quick Facts

  • Alfred the Great is also known as the "Father of the English Navy," for the fleet of warships he had built to attack the Danish fleet.
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Alfred's warships as "almost twice as long as those of the Danes, with sixty or more oars."
  • Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons scored a naval victory over a Danish fleet in 896 AD.

Alfred the Great's Rule

As Alfred grew older he became wiser, and he devised different, more cautious tactics for dealing with the Danes. He would besiege their fortified positions and starve them out or shadow their armies with guerrilla forces, who took their food supplies and then attacked, preventing the Danes from living off the land.

He reorganized the militia in each shire dividing it into two groups working in shifts to continue the cultivation of the land so it would not be entirely neglected while his men were at war. He strove for key positions to protect the general population and their goods saving them from Viking conquest and plunder.

As a result of these changes, Alfred was able to defeat the Danes at Cynwit and Ethandum in 878. Alfred then forced the Danish leader, Guthrum, to convert to Christianity and even became his godfather.

By the mid-880s Alfred took London (886) and had further victories at Farnham, Benfleet and Buttington in 893. Alfred's diplomacy with the Welsh paid off for him as they sent troops to aid him in his fight against the Norsemen.

After the capture of London, all of England not under Danish rule submitted to Alfred. By 896, the Danish threat to Alfred had dwindled away.

Alfred was now the first King of England.

"The pursuit of wisdom was the surest path to power."

— Alfred the Great

To consolidate his power as King of England, Alfred's vision and innovations in organizing his kingdom went a long way toward improving the daily life of the Anglo-Saxons. First, he organized his landholdings and villages and towns into shires. Each shire then had a fyrd, or local militia, and fortifications of key locations.

Strongholds known as burhs (the origin of the English word borough) were positioned no more than twenty miles from one another. Some had street plans and Alfred intended them to be permanent market towns and commercial centers rather than just strongholds in times of war.

Alfred also made his own code of laws, incorporating statutes from both Mercia and Kent, presumably to encourage acceptance of his claim to rule over all of England. He reinforced his kingly authority by introducing a new law on treason and an oath of allegiance.

Because Alfred was such a devout Christian, his own law code linked his laws with the Ten Commandments, suggesting he wanted people to think of him as a lawgiver with the divine right to rule.

Alfred's English Education Program

From the time he was a child when he visited the court of Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, Alfred was impressed with the education and learning going on in Charles' court and the scholars and scientists Charles brought in to teach all in his royal court. All the lessons Alfred had learned from Charles' court and tucked away as a youth now came to the forefront.

Like Charles the Bald and Charlemagne, Alfred established a court school and imported scholars from Europe and Wales to teach all. One of Alfred's scholars, Bishop Asser, became his biographer and this is from whom we get the information we know today about Alfred. He commissioned Bishop Asser to write a biography of him at this time.

Because Alfred had commissioned him, Asser's biography emphasized Alfred's positive attributes and aspects and did not dwell on the ruthless aspects any 9th-century king would have had. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a medieval historian, also wrote of and reinforced Alfred's favorable image.

Alfred proclaimed throughout his realm, "all free-born young men in England to set to learning." Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English to those wishing to advance to hold religious orders to continue their studies in Latin.

But, Alfred insisted that all learning throughout his kingdom be in English, and even the monks at the monasteries were to learn English along with Latin. This was Alfred's greatest achievement. He made sure the English language survived by defeating the Danes, and by his insistence that all learning and writing be in English. By doing this, he cemented English as the first language of England. The Anglo-Saxon Germanic English would survive on the island and there would be no major shifts or changes in the English language until the Norman invasion in 1066.

During the 880s, Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons experienced a lull and quiet time in the fighting with the Danes, and so Alfred sought great men of learning and scholars from all over Europe and Wales to come to his court to teach as they had to Charles' court.

Long years of fighting the Danes had left a disastrous effect on learning in his kingdom. Even many of the English clergy were ignorant of Latin, the universal language of the church. His monasteries were bereft of learning, manuscripts, and scribes.

When Alfred ascended to the throne of England, no one south of the Thames River could translate a letter from Latin to English.

Besides learning English and writing in English, Alfred also encouraged the study of art and architecture and he was responsible for building the monasteries at Athelney and Shaftesbury.

Few books of wisdom were written in English and so Alfred sought to remedy this. He maintained a court-centered program of translating into English books he deemed necessary for all men to know. Alfred believed so much in this that he actually translated some books into English himself.

The earliest work to be translated into English was the Dialogues of (St.) Gregory the Great, was a very popular book in the Middle Ages. Alfred added to this by translating from Latin to English four books himself:

  • St. Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care
  • Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy
  • St. Augustine's Soliloquies
  • The first fifty psalms of the Psalter

The Consolation of Philosophy became the most popular book of the Middle Ages in England. Alfred's translations and those he commissioned were viewed as untainted by the later Roman Catholic influences of the Normans.

Alfred restored religion and learning in Wessex and throughout his realm and he considered learning just as important to the defense of his kingdom as the building of burhs and warships.

Alfred wrote his religious beliefs down in a doctrine that stated that divine rewards and punishments were rooted in a vision of a Christian world order in which God is the Lord to whom kings owe obedience and through whom they derive their authority over their followers. This was intrinsic to Alfred's view of the world.

He strongly believed that God had entrusted him with the spiritual as well as physical welfare of his people. He believed if his kingdom was not educated he was answerable about this before God. Alfred's ultimate responsibility was the pastoral care of his people.

16th century mortuary chest believed to hold the remains of Alfred the Great

16th century mortuary chest believed to hold the remains of Alfred the Great

One of the greatest lasting legacies of Alfred was his patronage of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which was begun during his reign and continued until 1155. It has provided one of the most important sources of the history of England in the early Middle Ages.

Alfred the Great was one of the greatest warriors and forgers of peace in his kingdom, and his pursuit of English education and learning throughout his realm insured better lives for all Anglo-Saxons.

Alfred died in 899, and today historians don't know from what or exactly where Alfred is buried. His bones were moved several times after his death and it is believed by historians today that his ultimate interment is in Hyde Abbey along with his wife and children. It is presumed he is interred before the high altar there.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Suzette Walker


Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on April 16, 2017:

Aelfred was named 'the Great' by the Danes, a worthy opponent they'd never come across the likes of before their joint invasion of Wessex. He wasn't Anglo-Saxon, just plain West Saxon. It wouldn't be for a hundred years before his dream of an Aengla-Land became a reality (at least on vellum) under his grandson Aethelstan.

Guthrum, Aelfred's chief nemesis, targeted Chippenham in the dead of winter. January AD 878 where Aelfred had spent Christmas. For some time it was touch-and-go for Wessex but after a spirited come-back neither he nor Guthrum had the upper hand. Stalemate. The Treaty of Wedmore was agreed between Guthrum - now self-appointed king of East Anglia - and Aelfred, king of Wessex, whereby the Danes' presence in the eastern kingdoms was acknowledged. The Fem Borgene of the Danelagen (the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw, Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford), the kingdom of East Anglia and Deira, later Yorkshire under Haesten Ragnarsson were formally recognised. Aelfred's son-in-law Aethelstan (not to be confused with Aelfred's grandson through his daughter Aethelflaed) ruled western Mercia for Aelfred as 'sub-regulus', although he wanted to be king in his own right.

The creation of the Five Boroughs divided Mercia into an Anglian (western side) and a Danish entity along the old Roman road known in the middle ages as Watling Street, east of the city of London to Chester. Danish did become the lingua franca of the eastern shires, and much of the English language is of Danish extraction, including many everyday words such as 'freehold' (frihold), 'husband' (husmand), 'bairns' (boern), 'wath' (hvatn'), or shallow ford, 'thwaite' for clearing, 'thorpe' for village, 'by' for town, 'wyke' (vik), narrow sea inlet and 'rigg' (rygge) for ridge in North Yorkshire.

Look at place names: Whitby, Nunthorpe, Fartoft, Hayburn Wyke, Hampsthwaite... It goes a lot further, but it's only more apparent in the eastern counties and the north to the Tees, although Sunderland (Soenderland) means 'low lying land'. Danish made a come-back in 1016 under Knut.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 06, 2015:

Blackspaniel: Thanks so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. I find Aelfred to be quite an interesting man and he did much for England and the English language.

Blackspaniel1 on June 02, 2015:

Nice thorough treatment.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 22, 2014:

Thanks so much Genna. Some of these historical figures are important such as Alfred, because if not for him we all might be speaking Danish. LOL! Who knows? Just a twist of fate in history and a key defeat for the Danish and we have English being taught in our schools and our language throughout history. The last son that everyone thought would never be king, surprised everyone with his vision, his military prowess, and his loyalty to his nobles and Anglo-Saxons. There truly are only a few of "the greats" in history.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 22, 2014:

Dolores: Thanks so much for reading and I'm glad you enjoyed this and found it interesting. I love the names back then too - the women's names are something else, too. Thanks for your visit and I appreciated it.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on November 21, 2014:

Suzette, you are a master with these articles that are so meticulously research and presented. What I found most interesting about Arthur is how he saved the English language: “But, Alfred insisted that all learning throughout his kingdom be in English, and even the monks at the monasteries were to learn English along with Latin. This was Alfred's greatest achievement. He made sure the English language survived by defeating the Danes, and by his insistence that all learning and writing to be in English. By doing this, he cemented English as the first language of England.” So well done!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on November 21, 2014:

Thanks for the history lessen! Of course I'd heard of AElfred the Great but knew nothing about him. Now I know a bit about him and why he was so great! I love his father's name, Aethelwulf! (voted up and shared)

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 31, 2014:

OldRoses: Yes, you are quite right about England's early history of invasion. I will have to look into reading Ackroyd's history of England. It sounds very interesting. Thanks so much for your interest in reading this and I appreciate your comments.

Caren White on October 31, 2014:

Great hub! I'm reading "Foundation", the first book in Peter Ackroyd's series on the history of England. Great Britain is usually thought of as a colonial power. It's long history of being invaded over and over seems to have been forgotten. Voted up and shared.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 30, 2014:

travmaj: LOL! I came across the story of the burnt cakes, but I decided to focus on his educational reform for his people. I found that to be so interesting and amazing that he cared enough to not want illiterate subjects to rule. Not many many men are that secure in themselves and with such self-esteem, even today. Most monarchs at that time wanted an illiterate people because they are easier to rule. I love stories of people of history that had vision and were way ahead of their time in thought and deed. Thanks so much for your comments and visit and I am glad you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 30, 2014:

allpurposeguru: Yes, I find his educational reforms the best thing about him. He understood that 'knowledge is power' and made sure his subjects were not ignorant nor illiterate. It takes a strong, secure man to realize there is more to uniting a people than just the physical fighting and conquering. Without his strong vision who knows what language we all would be speaking today. Thanks so much for your interest and comments. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 30, 2014:

Anne: Yes, he truly was amazing and inspiring. It is good that he became King of England, because he was able to pull all the different tribes and people together to become one English people. United we stand, divided we fall. He really showed great belief in that phrase. I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful comments. Thanks so much for your visit. Most appreciated.

travmaj from australia on October 29, 2014:

Aelfred the Great came to life again with much more information than school ever taught me. What an amazing life and the legacy he left behind for England is truly admirable. When I saw the heading, a blast from a long ago past occurred - Alfred was the king who burnt the cakes. - He obviously had more important business to attend to. But that was my first reaction from many, many, moons ago - the things they taught you.

David Guion from North Carolina on October 29, 2014:

Fascinating! I knew he had united England, but if I ever knew about his educational efforts, it had slipped my memory. And I'm sure I never heard about his role in establishing the English language.

I'll bet English spelling made more sense in those days. :)

Voted up, interesting.

Anne Harrison from Australia on October 29, 2014:

Aelfred the Great was truly an amazing and inspiring man. It's interesting to think that his role in developing (and saving) the English language can be traced down the centuries to writers such as Tolkien, who was so inspired by the culture and language of a time prior to the Norman Conquest.

Voted up, thank you

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 29, 2014:

Thank you Eric. I am glad you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 29, 2014:

Thank you so much Jackie. I know, isn't it interesting that he forced his foe to convert and then became his godfather. But, doing that did the trick. No more invasions at the moment from that guy. Who ever conquers writes the history and determines its outcome. I am so pleased you enjoyed this and found it interesting. I try!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 28, 2014:

Excellent history lesson told in a very entertaining and informative style.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on October 28, 2014:

So interesting. It would be a story all on its own to know how he converted his enemy to Christianity and then became his godfather! You make history such a joy to read; I hated it in school.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 28, 2014:

Hi Bill. I can't imagine you missed this history lesson. You must have been absent that day. That is always my answer when I can't remember history. LOL! Thanks for you visit and I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 28, 2014:

Thank you Faith and I appreciate your support for my hubs. I think you come up with the greatest questions. I love answering your questions as they are so well thought out. I am glad you found this interesting and yes, his name spelling is Old English, and that is what I find so interesting about the English language. Thanks so much for your visit, Faith.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 28, 2014:

I've missed these history lessons. Thanks for a dandy!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on October 28, 2014:

Suzzette, you always go above and beyond in covering a topic in your comprehensive hubs, and this one is no exception. I always learn so much. Your love for history shines through in your hubs. That is interesting about the spelling of his name.

Voted up and interesting

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 28, 2014:

Thanks heidi. Not one we hear about much but so important to England's history and the English language. THanks so much for reading this and I am pleased you enjoyed it.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 28, 2014:

Certainly we don't too often hear about. Voted up and interesting!

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