Skip to main content

King Alfred the Great: Anglo-Saxon Ruler and Reformer

As an author focusing on British royal history, I find it interesting to look at the figures who made a difference to the country.

The Alfred Jewel was commissioned by Alfred the Great as a reading pointer. Today it is on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

The Alfred Jewel was commissioned by Alfred the Great as a reading pointer. Today it is on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

Alfred, the Youngest Son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex

Anglo-Saxon Alfred (Aelfred) was born circa 847-849 in Wantage in modern-day Oxfordshire. His parents were King Aethelwulf of the House of Wessex and his first wife Osberga. The dynasty was less frequently called the Cerdicings after the founder Cerdic.

Alfred was the youngest of six children. His eldest brother Aethelstan was King of Kent. He disappeared from records in 851, presumed dead. Brothers Athelbald, Aelberht and Aethelred were Kings of Wessex before Alfred. Their sister Aethelswith became Queen of Mercia through her 853 marriage.

Alfred received military training, but he was raised for a career in the Roman Catholic church. In preparation for religious and scholastic life, Alfred, a keen student, accompanied his father on pilgrimages to Rome in 853 and 855.

In 855-6, Aethelwulf and Alfred spent time as guests of King Charles the Bald in West Francia (early France), and in 856, Aethelwulf married Charles's daughter Judith of Flanders. It remains unclear whether Osburga was dismissed or dead by this time.

The Anglo-Saxon realms and Danelaw in 886.

The Anglo-Saxon realms and Danelaw in 886.

5 Anglo-Saxon Kings in 13 Years

King Aethelwulf died in January 858, and he was succeeded by Aethelbald in Wessex and Aethelberht in Kent.

Aethelbald's reign ended with his death in summer 860. Aethelberht assumed the dual role of King of Wessex and Kent. When he died in 865, the kingdom passed to Aethelred as King Aethelred I.

There were unceasing attacks from the Vikings, who strode off their longships and into Anglo-Saxon lands determined to win territory. Records for 868 show that Alfred and Aethelred I battled against the Vikings' Great Heathen Army that was commanded by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson. In 870, the king and Alfred suffered a significant defeat at the hands of the enemy.

The following year Aethelred I "went the way of all flesh, having vigorously and honourably ruled the kingdom in good repute, amid many difficulties, for five years." He left a widow and two infant sons who were bypassed in the succession. Uncle Alfred, ready and able to rule and fight invaders, was proclaimed the King of Wessex incorporating Kent.

Alfred's Wife Ealhswith Was Not a Queen

The monk and scribe Asser wrote that in 868, Alfred "was betrothed to and married a wife from Mercia, of noble family, namely the daughter of Æthelred (who was known as Mucel), ealdorman of the Gaini. The woman's mother was called Eadburh, from the royal stock of the king of the Mercians." The marriage between Alfred and Ealhswith strengthened the alliance between Wessex and Mercia.

In accordance with House of Wessex custom, Ealhswith was not proclaimed the queen of Wessex. A former queen named Eadburh had accidentally poisoned her husband, King Beorhtric, while trying to eliminate a rival, so subsequent Wessex wives were not awarded the title or power.

Their union brought five children:

Aethelfled: Later Lady of the Mercians by marriage.

Edward: Edward the Elder when King of the Anglo-Saxons. He was the father of Aethelstan, the first king of all England.

Aethelgifu: She became Abbess of Shaftesbury.

Aetheweard: He married and had two sons, Aethelwine and Aelfwine. Both sons died during the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

Aelfthryth: Later Countess of Flanders by marriage.

The statue of King Alfred the Great in Wantage Market Square, Oxfordshire.

The statue of King Alfred the Great in Wantage Market Square, Oxfordshire.

The Legend: King Alfred Burnt Cakes

Between 871 and 876, there was a period of peace until the Vikings invaded Wessex, and further blood was spilled. Alfred negotiated a cessation of hostilities and an exchange of hostages and oaths to maintain the peace. The invading army reneged and murdered all of their Anglo-Saxon hostages.

King Alfred spent Christmas in the town of Chippenham (today in Wiltshire), which the Danish Vikings invaded in early January. Alfred managed to escape into woodland (in modern-day Somerset), but many Anglo-Saxons were slain.

At this time, the legend originated about Alfred taking refuge in a peasant lady's kitchen on the Somerset Levels. Distracted by his situation, he forgot her instruction that he shouldn't allow her cakes to burn. He did and was boldly scolded by her.

In 878, King Alfred led a guerilla army to the Battle of Ethandun (Edington) to fight against Gunthrum and the Great Heathen Army. This was a great victory for the Anglo-Saxons, and peace was agreed upon in the Treaty of Wedmore.

Gunthrum and the army agreed to settle in allotted areas of Mercia, Northumberland and East Anglia. This became Danelaw.

Alfred claimed London from the Danes in 885 when they reignited hostilities. War broke out again in 893, and it lasted for four years before peace was restored.

King Alfred's Cakes (They're Not Cakes)

Alfred the Great Reformer and Educator

The Anglo-Saxons were unified. They regarded Alfred as their undisputed ruler.

He worked hard to improve the lives of his subjects. He enacted legal and judicial reforms and utilised the Ten Commandments as a code of conduct to abide by.

He reenergised naval forces by commissioning long boats that were superior to the Viking ships. Alfred also reorganised his armies, and he created a network of fortified towns named burhs that were sufficiently robust and manned to repel the infrequent incursions from the more volatile Danes.

Alfred believed that the Viking invasions were a punishment from God for sins committed by the Anglo-Saxon people and that sins occurred due to a lack of education. How could people be wise without undertaking studies?

He proclaimed that all sons of free men of adequate means (no mention of their daughters) should learn to read and write English. Alfred recruited scholars from across Europe, set up a school for his children and learned Latin and translated manuscripts into English for his people to read.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the primary source for early English history, was first circulated in 890, and its creation has been attributed to Alfred's educational campaign.

A silver coin from the reign of King Alfred the Great.

A silver coin from the reign of King Alfred the Great.

Alfred the Great's Array of Resting Places

Throughout his life, Alfred the Great experienced episodes of pain and illness. Modern doctors believe that he might have had Crohn's Disease. He died in October 899, aged fifty or fifty-one, of unknown causes but probably as a result of his lifetime of indifferent health. He was succeeded by Edward the Elder.

Alfred was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester, and he was then transferred to the New Minster, which he had commissioned. Edward the Elder oversaw the completion of the building project. Ealhswith joined Alfred in 902, and Edward the Elder was buried with them in 924.

In 1109 King Henry I ordered the relocation of the New Minster, and it was renamed Hyde Abbey. In 1110 Alfred, Eahlswith and Edward the Elder were reburied in the abbey after their coffins were processed through the streets of Winchester.

During Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, Hyde Abbey was demolished. Their burial places were forgotten as time passed. In 1788 a small prison was constructed on the land upon which the abbey had once stood. The convicts who built the prison unearthed bones but reburied them.

St. Bartholomew's Church in Winchester is King Alfred the Great's final resting place.

St. Bartholomew's Church in Winchester is King Alfred the Great's final resting place.

Excavations Reveal Anglo-Saxon Remains

In the 19th century, bones were discovered during excavations. These remains were reinterred at the local St. Bartholomew's Church. Subsequent digs have revealed bones that, when carbon tested, do not match Alfred's timeframe. However, one fragment of pelvis bone found in 1999 is from Alfred's era.

Unfortunately, the mystery cannot be solved because the identity of the owner can't be confirmed. It may be Alfred, Edward the Elder or another Anglo-Saxon male.


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.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle