Alfred the Great: A Brief History

article_a926874adf4d01b0_1360073243_9j-4aaqsk   Fig 1. Alfred the Great from Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex 


The Anglo-Saxon period is one of the most fascinating periods of  British history. The English language which has evolved over the last thousand years, has its routes in Old English. The period following the end of Roman Britain is often called the Dark Ages. In fact this was a period of enlightenment for many parts of the country, monks such as Bede in Northumbria wrote extensively in Latin. What we now know  of today as England was split into several kingdoms, which included Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, East Anglia and Wessex.

The late C9 was a time of immense turmoil in Britain, the Great Heathen Army of Vikings invaded and conquered most of the kingdoms of England. Wessex stood alone in the struggle against the invaders. It was the Wessex of Alfred the Great that prevented Anglo-Saxon Christian civilization from being submerged by the the Viking tide. Alfred was born in Wantage in Berkshire between 847 and 849, we know this from Asser  a Welsh monk who wrote a history of the kings life.  Alfred was one of five sons of King Aethelwolf , he was thus considered unlikely to succeed to the throne. He was a religious man and he visited Rome twice as a boy, he was initially sent to Rome by his father.In April 871 his brother King Æthelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex (Hindley, 2006).


The Viking Invasion

In 972 the Great Heathen Army invaded Wessex, after suffering a year of minor defeats by the Danes, Alfred was forced to buy them off. The  army returned again in 878 taking most of Hampshire and Wiltshire, Alfred was forced to flee to the Somerset marshes. Most people have heard of the legend of Alfred and the burning cakes, this ‘legend’ was written later in the C12. The year 878 was the decisive turning point in the conflict (Hindley, 2006), Alfred defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington and forced their leader Guthrum to sue for peace. The conditions of this peace treaty were that Guthrum should be baptised a Christian, the peace also recognised the Danish land or Danelaw which stretched in a line from London to Chester and finally the Danes were forced to recognise Alfred as King of Wessex. The Danelaw consisted of Northumbria, Yorkshire, Leicestershire and parts of East Anglia, perhaps the route of the so called north/south divide which we hear of today may stem from this division of land. The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle mentions that the Danes began to settle in this territory.

The Outcome

Following defeat of the Danes, Alfred reorganised his kingdom. He realised that Vikings relied heavily on their long ships and to counter this threat he spent money on building a navy to defend against the raids of the Vikings.  He promoted literature in his kingdom and reintroduced literature. Much has been said on the this subject of Alfred’s domestic policies and I do not wish to delve to deep into it here. Nevertheless, the defeat of the Danes provided time for Alfred to prepare for future attacks.

The Burghs

Even though the Danes were defeated, Alfred knew that they still posed a threat to his kingdom. He thus set about reorganising his army. He introduced a system where half of the army was to be ready for service while the other half were stationed in the burghs. The burghs were walled towns which were placed at strategic locations and on major settlements, they were constructed to counter the threat of Viking attacks which had plagued the kingdom for many years. The walls varied and depended on the nature of the settlement, for example some towns such as at Winchester, the Roman walls were repaired and a ditch added. While in others such as Wareham a wooden palisade and ditch was constructed.  The burghs had a regular grid of streets, some of which can still be seen today.

The banks of the Saxon Burgh of Wareham Fig.2. The banks of the Saxon Burgh of Wareham, still visible today.

Death and Legacy

The reorganisation of the army, the creation of the burghs and of a navy ensured Wessex was prepared for future attacks.  This system would pave the way for the conquest of the Danelaw by his successors, especially Aethelstan who would become the first King of England. Alfred was  instrumental in the survival of Anglo-Saxon culture and to the continuation of the English language.You can still see the visible legacy of Alfred in the landscape today. The Burghs of Wareham and Winchester can still be seen with their banks and ditches.



References Hindley.G, 2006, A Brief History of the Anglo Saxons, London, Robinson


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