Ancient history

Alfred the Great

Alfred, sometimes written Ælfred (born between 846 and 849 and died on October 26, 899), was king of Wessex from 871 until his death, and king of all the Anglo-Saxons from 878, without ever controlling all of English territory . Fourth son of King Æthelwulf and most likely the latter's first wife, Osburga, he succeeded his brother Æthelred as King of Wessex and Mercia in 871.

Alfred is famous for having organized the defense of the kingdom against the Danes, and consequently obtained the epithet "the Great":he is the only English monarch to be known as such. Details of his life are known to us through the works of a Welsh clergyman of the time, Asser, Bishop of Sherborne. As an educated man, Alfred supports education and improves the kingdom's legal system.

He is considered holy by the Roman Catholic Church and celebrated locally on December 12.


Alfred was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire (historic county of Berkshire), between 846 and 849. He is said to have shown himself to be a particularly handsome and promising child, and anecdotes from his childhood have remained in the annals. In 853, he is said to have been sent to Rome to be confirmed there by Pope Leo IV, who also “anointed him as king”. Later works describe this event as an anticipated coronation, in preparation for his succession to the throne of Wessex. However, this could not be predicted in 853, as Alfred then had three older brothers. It is more reasonable to consider this event as an investiture in the consular insignia or in certain royal titles, such as that of the sub-kingdom of Kent.

This story is probably apocryphal, although Alfred did take part in 854-855 with his father on a pilgrimage to Rome, staying for some time at the court of Charles the Bald, king of the Franks. In 858, Æthelwulf died.

Accession to the throne

During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, Æthelbald and Æthelberht, nothing is known of Alfred's life. But with the accession to the throne of his third brother, Æthelred, in 866, Alfred's public life began:he worked to deliver England from the Danes. During this reign, Asser gives Alfred his unique title of secundarius, which seems to indicate a position close to that expressed by the Celtic term tanist, official and recognized successor, in close connection with the reigning prince. This arrangement is probably made by the Witenagemot, to prevent the danger of a stormy succession should Ethelred die in battle. However, the arrangement of crowning a successor as second king is widespread among Germanic peoples, such as the Scandinavians or the Franks, with whom the Anglo-Saxons have ongoing relations.

In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Æthelred Mucil, the ealdorman of the Gaini, a people living in Lincolnshire near Gainsborough. This granddaughter of a former king of Mercia gives him five or six children, including a daughter, Æthelflæd, who will become lady of this country.

The same year, Alfred, fighting alongside his brother Æthelred, tried unsuccessfully to free Mercia from the pressure of the Danes. For almost two years, the payment of a tribute to the Danes allows Wessex to be spared. But at the end of 870 a conflict broke out, and the following year is rightly called "the year of Alfred's battles".

England in 871

Nine battles are fought with varying results. The place and date of two of them are lost. A successful ambush at Englesfield in Berkshire (December 31, 870) was followed by a crushing defeat at the Battle of Reading (January 4, 871), then, four days later, by the brilliant victory at Ashdown. near Compton Beauchamp, in the Shrivenham area. On January 22, 871, the English were again defeated at Basing, and on March 22, 871 at Marton, Wiltshire. The two unidentified battles may have occurred in the meantime.

In April of the same year, Æthelred was killed, and the responsibility for continuing the fighting then fell entirely to Alfred. While the latter attends the funeral and other official ceremonies surrounding the death of his brother, the Danes win in his absence a victory against the English, in an unspecified place. His presence, however, was not enough to prevent another defeat in May, at Wilton.

A truce is agreed between the two camps. For the next five years, the Danes went to war in other parts of England, and Alfred contented himself with posting several garrisons on the borders of the kingdom.

The war against the Vikings

The First Conflict (876-878) and the Peace of Wedmore

In 876, the new leader of the Danes, Guthrum the Elder, finally broke the truce by launching an attack against Wareham, which he ensured control. From this city, and under the pretext of coming to parley, the Danes began at the beginning of 877 a strong push towards the west which ended in the capture of Exeter. Alfred besieged them in this city and, a Danish reinforcement fleet having been dispersed by a storm, the Danes had to submit and fall back to Mercia.

As early as January 878, the Danish warriors organized a counter-attack against the fortified town of Chippenham, where Alfred was spending the winter, "and most of the people were reduced, with the exception of King Alfred, who was able to s 'escape with some others through woods and swamps, and after Easter he built a fort at Athelney, and from there he continued to fight the enemy' (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). Since the Council of Tours (567), the 12-day period between Christmas and Epiphany is sacred. This is probably the origin of the Christmas truce. Alfred, very attached to the new Christian values, refused, it is said, to give battle during the “twelve”. He had to abandon the stronghold of Chippenham.

A legend tells how, while fleeing through the swamps of Athelney near North Petherton in Somerset, a peasant woman unaware of his identity entrusted him with looking after some cakes she had set on the fire. Concerned about the fate of his kingdom, Alfred lets the cakes burn and is reprimanded when the woman returns. When she realizes who she is talking to, the peasant woman profusely apologizes, but Alfred persists in declaring himself at fault. The representation of Alfred, during his retirement in Athelney, as a fugitive abandoned by everyone, comes from this legend of cakes. In reality, he is already organizing his future victory. Another legend depicts him disguised as a harpist, breaking into Guthrum's camp to steal his battle plans.

In May, his preparations completed, he left Fort Athelney, joined on the road by other troops raised in Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. The Danes, for their part, leave Chippenham, and the two armies confront each other during the battle of Ethandun or Edington. Alfred won a decisive victory there, and obtained the submission of the Danes. King Guthrum and twenty-nine of his followers even agree to receive baptism. After a meeting between the two camps, a lasting compromise cutting England in two is found:the south-west for the Anglo-Saxons and the north-east, called Danelaw, under the domination of the Danes. Respecting the agreement (said by historians to be the Treaty of Wedmore, although no written document has survived), the Danes evacuated Wessex and western Mercia the following year.

The second conflict (884-886) and the peace of Alfred and Guthrum

England in 886

Although the North East of England, including London, still remained under Danish control, the event marked a reversal in the balance of power. The next few years were peaceful, with the Danes kept busy on the European continent. A landing of the English in Kent, in 884 or 885, although unsuccessful, pushes the Danes to revolt. Alfred manages to repress the insurrection and seizes London in 885 or 886. The treaty called "peace of Alfred and Guthrum" (often confused with the treaty of Wedmore) is then signed, consecrating the territorial expansion of the English and the capture of London.

The last conflict (892-897) and the final rout of the Danes

Once again followed a few years of truce. In the fall of 892 and 893, a final conflict arose. The Danes, whose settlements in Europe were becoming increasingly precarious, withdrew in two large waves to England:the refugees from the first wave, more numerous, settled in Appledore, and those from the second wave, led by Haesten, at Milton in Kent. The fact that the new invaders are bringing women and children shows that this was not just a raid to pillage, but a concerted attempt, with the Danes already there, to conquer the whole of England. . Alfred, in 893 or 894, positioned his troops so as to be able to observe the two populations. While he begins negotiations with Haesten, the Danes of Appledore go to war and push their forces northwest. But Alfred's eldest son, Edward (future Edward the Elder), defeats them in a battle at Farnham. Suffering defeat after defeat, they will find refuge on the island of Thorney in Hertfordshire, then in Essex, then join the forces led by Haesten, in Shoebury.

England in 897

Alfred, on his way to Thorney to bring reinforcements to his son, learns that other Danes are laying siege to Exeter:after a forced march west, he puts an end to it in time. At the same time, the troops led by Haesten go up the valley of the Thames, perhaps with the idea of ​​bringing aid to their compatriots. But they are intercepted by a large army under the command of the ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset, which pushes them back to the northwest, before finally encircling them at Buttington, not far from the mouth of the Wye. The Danes attempt to break through the English lines, at the cost of heavy losses:the few who manage to pass return to barricade themselves at Shoebury. After gathering reinforcements, they begin a rapid crossing of England to occupy the Roman ruins of Chester. In the middle of winter, the English give up a siege, and content themselves with destroying all the means of subsistence in the surroundings. In early 894, hunger drove the Danes to withdraw once more to Essex. By the end of the year, however, they descended the Thames by boat and established a fortified camp about thirty kilometers upstream from London. A frontal attack by the English fails, but later in the year Alfred discovers a way to obstruct the river in order to block any exit to enemy boats. Realizing they were surrounded, the Danes fled northwest and wintered in Bridgnorth. The following year (896 or 897), they gave up fighting. Some retreat to Northumbria, others to the east of England. Those with no previous connection to the island return to the mainland. The long campaign is over.

The outcome of the conflict testifies to the confidence inspired by Alfred's personality, his talent for commanding men, and also proves the effectiveness of his military reforms. These consisted of:

to divide the national militia (the fyrd) in two, so that one can replace the other at fixed intervals and that the continuity of military operations is guaranteed;
to build fortified towns and to establish garrisons at several strategic points;
to impose on any owner of five acres of land the military obligations of a vassal towards his suzerain, thus ensuring the support of numerous and well-equipped combatants .

Reorganization of the country

After his victory over the Danish invader, Alfred turned his attention to strengthening the royal navy, and ships were built according to the plans of the king himself, on the one hand to quell the assaults of the Danes from the east- Anglia and Northumbria on the coasts of Wessex, on the other to prevent the landing of new hordes. This does not constitute, as is often claimed, the beginning of the English Royal Navy, since there are earlier naval operations during Alfred's reign. A naval combat is certainly carried out under Æthelwulf (in 851), and others still before, probably in 833 and in 840. It is nevertheless a question of the creation of the first permanent war fleet of England

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, partisan, credits Alfred with building a new type of vessel, faster, more durable, and also more responsive than the others; but these new ships weren't a big hit, with rumors that they grounded in combat and sank in storms. However, the Royal Navy and the United States Navy proclaim Alfred founder of their traditions.

Alfred's main fighting force was split in two, "so that there was always half at home and half in the field" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). The level of organization required to mobilize his large army in two relays, in which one feeds the other, must have been considerable. The complexity attained by Alfred's administration in 892 is demonstrated by a reasonably reliable charter whose list of witnesses includes a thesaurius, cellararius and pincerna, respectively treasurer, keeper of food and butcher. Despite Alfred's irritation in 893 when a division, which had "completed its relay", abandoned the siege of a Danish army as Alfred arrived to relieve them, this system seems to have worked relatively well on the whole.

One of the weaknesses of the defenses before Alfred remains that, in the absence of a regular army, the fortresses are left largely unoccupied, creating the possibility for a Viking force to quickly secure a strong strategic position. Alfred significantly improved the condition of several fortresses in Wessex, as demonstrated by systematic excavations of four West Saxon market towns (Wareham, Cricklade, Lydford and Wallingford):"every time, the ramparts that archaeologists have dated Alfredian era constituted the first defense of the place". Specialists therefore believe that this kind of defense is not a construction of the Danes, simple occasional occupants. Their demonstration relies on existing copies of the formidable administrative manuscript known as the Burghal Hidage, dated less than 20 years after Alfred's death; it could even date from the reign of the still living king, since it undoubtedly reflects the administrative policy of the sovereign. This testimony attests to the positions of four fortresses, among others, which would have been permanently watched by a garrison. By comparing the town plans of Wallingford and Wareham with those of Winchester, one can see that “they are made according to the same plan4. These testimonies support the idea that these new towns are considered as centers of habitation as well as trading posts and that they can serve as a refuge in the event of an imminent threat. The Burghal Hidage tax code defines the obligations for the maintenance and defense of these towns. Populations are thus attracted to these cities where they are safe from the Vikings, and where they can be taxed by the king.

Alfred is thus credited with a certain reorganization of society, especially in the regions devastated by the Danish raids. Even if Alfred is not the author of the Burghal Hidage, it is undeniable that for the parts of Mercia retaken by Alfred from the Vikings, it was then that the system of shires (counties), hundreds (hundredths) and the tithe is introduced. This is perhaps the origin of the legend that Alfred invented this system of administrative division and taxation.

Regarding finance, the subject remains obscure, and Asser's description of how Alfred derived his income is at best an ideal. However, Alfred's care for justice seems to be supported as much by legend as by historians and he therefore seems to deserve his nickname "protector of the poor".

Of the action of the Witenagemot, a sort of court of peers, during the reign of Alfred, we do not know much. The circumstances as well as the character of the king could well have given more power to the latter. The laws enacted under Alfred were probably enacted at the end of his reign, when pressure from the Danes eased.
International Relations

Asser speaks of the excellent relations that Alfred would have maintained with foreign powers, but little certain information has reached us. He certainly corresponds with Elijah III, the patriarch of Jerusalem and probably sends a mission to India. Sending donations to the pope in Rome is quite common. Alfred's interest in foreign lands is also demonstrated by the additions he made to his translation of Orosius.

Around 890, Wulfstan of Hedeby set out on a journey from Hedeby in Jutland across the Baltic Sea to Truso, a trading town in Prussia. Wulfstan relates this trip to Alfred the Great.

His relations with the Celtic princes of the southern part of the island are better known. Early in his reign, the southern Welsh princes submitted to Alfred, due to pressure from North Wales and Mercia. Later, North Wales follows this example, while Mercia collaborates in the campaign of 893 (or 894). Alfred's donations to the monasteries of Ireland or the continent are noted by Asser and seem indisputable. The visit of three “Scots” pilgrims (among others, Irish) in 891 is undoubtedly authentic. The apocryphal account of the journey that Alfred would have made as a child in Ireland in order to be cured by Saint Modwenna demonstrates the interest shown in this island.

Christianity and literature

The history of the Church in Alfred's time is even more obscure. The Danish invasions weigh heavily on it, and the monasteries are privileged targets of the attacks. Although Alfred founded two or three monasteries and brought in foreign monks, there was no general revival of monasticism then.

Alfred himself bears eloquent testimony to the ruin of the teaching and education provided by the Danes and the virtual extinction of the knowledge of Latin, including among the clergy, in his translation into Old English of the pastoral letter from Pope Gregory I. As a remedy for these evils, he established a court school on the model of that of Charlemagne. For this, he brought scholars from Europe, such as the Bishop of Reims Hincmar, Abbé Grimbald, Jean Scot Érigène and from South Wales such as Asser. He went back to school himself, learned Latin at the age of forty and produced a series of translations into the Saxon language for the instruction of the clergy and the people, translations which have mostly come down to us. This effort is carried out at the end of his reign, probably during the last four years about which the chronicles are generally silent.

If we except the Handboc or Encheiridion which is lost and which seems to have been only a compilation of quotations, the first translated work is Dialogues of Gregory, a very popular book in the Middle Ages. Its translation is led by a great friend of Alfred, Werferth, Bishop of Worcester, the king providing only a preface. The following translation is that of the "Pastoral" of Gregory the Great, specially intended for the parish clergy. Alfred remains very close to the original. However, he adds a preface which is one of the most interesting documents of his reign, in which we see him ardently preoccupied with the means of spreading education among his people. The following two works belong to the field of history:Histories of Orosius and the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede the Venerable. Preference must be given to the translation of Orosius, even though this point has been much debated. Alfred modifies the text so much, by numerous additions and deletions, that he practically produces a new work. Alfred the Great also had a translation of the Seven Books Against the Pagans of Orosius, which he completed, for northern Europe, the geographical approach with the travelogues of navigators. For the translation of Bede, on the other hand, it remains very close to the text, no addition is made, even if some passages are neglected. In recent years Alfred's authorship of Bede's translation has been questioned. But skeptics have yet to fully substantiate their claims.

His most interesting translation is that of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, the most popular philosophy textbook in the Middle Ages. Alfred also takes great liberties with the original, and although G. Schepss demonstrates that many additions are not the work of Alfred himself but come from glosses and commentaries he uses, many passages show Alfred's genius. It is in this translation that we find the sentence regularly quoted:“My desire was to live with dignity all my life and to leave to those who would come after me the memory of my good achievements”. The work has come down to us in two manuscripts only. In one of them, the poems that dot the text are rendered in prose, in the other (Boethius' Meters), in verse. Despite great controversy on this subject, these verses are probably the work of Alfred. The authenticity of the entire work has never been in doubt.

Alfred gives his last work the name of Blostman, which comes from Blooms or Anthology. The first part is based mainly on the Soliloquies of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the rest comes from many sources and contains many characteristic elements of Alfred. The last words may be a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings:"Therefore he seems to me a very foolish man, and truly wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear”. (“He therefore appears to me to be a madman, a very unhappy man, the one who does not seek to understand the world here below, and who does not wish to reach this eternal life where everything will become clear.”). P>


Alfred died on October 26, 899, although the exact year remains uncertain — but not 900 or 901. The cause of his death remains unknown.


Alongside his own works, Alfred inspired other writings:the Saxon Chronicle, almost certainly, and a Saxon Martyrology of which we have only preserved fragments. He is said to have written a prose version of the first fifty psalms. This attribution is not proven but is perfectly possible. Additionally, Alfred plays a role in The Owl and the Nightingale which showcases his wisdom and knowledge of proverbs. Alfred's proverbs that have come down to us in a 13th-century manuscript contain sayings that probably draw their inspiration in part from the king.

A French satirical poem from the second half of the 11th century describes a fictional king inspired by Alfred the Great and King Arthur. Li Romanz des Franceis is André de Coutances' answer to this previous French satire directed against the English (and probably also against the Normans) as well as Arflet de Northumberland directly inspired by Alfred the Great. The excerpts refer to Arlfed as "the king of beer drinkers".

In honor of Alfred, the University of Liverpool has established a King Alfred Professorship in English Literature.