Alfred the Great
ALFRED THE GREAT
Reigned 871–899. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, was the first king in England to identify himself with the "English"; during his reign, he laid the foundations for the eventual political unification of England. The Viking invasions, which began again shortly before Alfred's reign, provided an opportunity for Alfred to unify the Englishmen against a common enemy; he then organized and implemented England's first plan of national defense. His conception of kingship led to the foundation of the English monarchy. Alfred respected education and worked to recover that which had been lost through the Viking depredations.
Alfred was born in 849 in Berkshire. He was the youngest of six children and spent his early years traveling around the kingdom with his parents, King Æthelwulf and Queen Osburh. They were very pious and passed on their religious devotion to their children. Alfred visited Rome twice; the first time he was only four years old and was received by Pope Leo IV, who designated him as a spiritual son. Alfred's second journey to Rome was even more fruitful. At the time, Pope Leo was fortifying the area around St. Peter's against the Saracens, and it is possible that Alfred learned some valuable military strategies
from the Pope, i.e., the best defense against invaders was to meet them at sea and defeat them there. He also became devoted to the papal see and remained so for the rest of his life. Both on the way to and from Rome, Alfred and his father, who was newly widowed, spent time at the court of Charles the Bald, king of the Franks. On the return journey, Æthelwulf married Charles' daughter, Judith, and brought her back to England. Alfred was very impressed by the scholars he found at the Frankish court, which became a model for his own kingdom many years later.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelwulf died in 858, two years after returning from Rome, and was succeeded by his son Æthelberht. Five years later, Æthelberht too, was dead, and England was facing the threat of Norse invasions. Alfred's only surviving brother, Æthelred, became king, and during his reign the Vikings moved further and further into England each year, "making peace" with the weaker English kingdoms around Wessex. Alfred, meanwhile, had married Ealswith, a Mercian noblewoman, thus strengthening the alliance between the kingdoms. In 867, the Vikings took up winter quarters in Mercia. The Chronicle records that the Mercian king, Burgred "begged Æthelred, king of Wessex, and his brother Alfred to help them fight against the host". However, despite receiving their aid, Burgred was eventually forced to make peace with the Vikings.
The Vikings soon conquered East Anglia and by 870 they were attacking Wessex from their base at Reading. Æthelred and Alfred fought against them but to little avail; despite winning several important battles, the brothers were unable to gain a definitive advantage over their enemies. For Alfred, this situation became desperate when another Norse army arrived at Reading, and his brother Æthelred died shortly thereafter from wounds received during battle.
Alfred became king during one of the darkest times in England's history. Of the major English kingdoms, only Wessex survived, and the Danes had established armies in over one-third of England. His biographer, Asser, wrote that Alfred "did not think that he alone could ever withstand such great ferocity of the Vikings, unless strengthened by divine help, since he had already sustained great losses of many men while his brothers were alive" and after much fighting, Alfred made peace with the enemy. Several years later, in 873, the Vikings drove King Burgred out of Mercia; he went to Rome and the Saxon leadership in that kingdom passed to an ealdorman, Ethelred, who later became one of Alfred's strongest allies.
During the next five years the Vikings continued to move into England, creating what was known as the Danelaw and forcing the English to make peace with their armies. In 878, the third invasion of Wessex began simultaneously with an attack on Devon, and Alfred was forced into hiding in the Somerset levels. He fortified Athelney and in May of 878, rallied the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and parts of Hampshire. Two days later, there was a great battle at Edington in Wiltshire, from which Alfred emerged victorious. As part of the resulting peace treaty the Viking leader Guthrum and many of his comrades converted to Christianity. Alfred stood as his sponsor and later honored Guthrum and his soldiers with feasting and gifts. The Vikings promised to leave Wessex at once, and they returned to East Anglia.
Alfred had nearly 14 years of relative peace, and he used that time to create a plan of national defense for England. He began a thorough military reorganization consisting of three major innovations. The first was the division of the fyrd (standing army) into two halves, each serving six months. This was designed to give some continuity to the English military actions; mounted warriors fought in the field while the fyrdmen at home guarded the land from sudden raids. The second, and possibly most important of Alfred's measures, was the building of large fortifications (burhs ) at strategic locations to defend against the Vikings and later to serve as bases in the reconquest of the Danelaw. Alfred's defensive measures were very similar to those taken by Charles the Bald, and he adopted the Carolingian tactic of controlling movement along a river by building along both banks and connecting them with bridges. The third innovation was establishing a fleet of large, fast ships to challenge the Vikings on the seas.
After ensuring the survival and protection of the English, Alfred set about restoring the monastic life of the Church in England and actively pursued the revival of literature and learning. For two generations England had seen little but warfare and was a ruined landscape of burnt monasteries and churches, squalid farms, and poor, ignorant people. Alfred began to remedy that through a vigorous program of religious revival and scholarship. Nearly half of his revenue was devoted to educational ends. He brought foreign scholars and craftsmen to his court from every country in Christendom and established a great school for teaching the sons of thanes and free men to read and write. Alfred also made himself a master of Latin. He translated what he considered the most useful works of Christian and classical knowledge into the vernacular, including Pope Gregory I's Pastoral Care, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine's Soliloquies. As part of his religious program Alfred founded two religious houses. One was at Athelney, where he had sheltered during the Viking invasions, and the other at Shaftesbury, where his daughter Æthelgifu was made Abbess. He supported those religious houses that had survived the Viking depredations, and created an environment within the Church as a whole where the visual and literary arts could flourish.
Alfred also enacted a uniform law code for the good of his subjects, with great emphasis on oath keeping and settling of feuds, and horrible punishment for treason. But Alfred's law codes were more than just a means for keeping social order; according to Simon Keynes, "The act of law-making was a public display of the king's royal power, and provided an opportunity for him to express his political and ideological aspirations in legal form."
In 886, Alfred recovered London from the Danes and entrusted it to his ally and soon to be son-in-law, Ethelred of Mercia. The Chronicle records that "all the English people submitted to him except those who were under the Danish yoke." Alfred was now not only king of Wessex but of all free Englishmen, and their acceptance of him as such expressed a feeling that he represented interests common to the entire race. This event can be seen as the beginning of English unity; in charters of the late 880s and early 890s, Alfred is referred to as "king of the Anglo-Saxons."
The Vikings returned to England in 892 but made little headway against Alfred's fortified kingdom, and many of them settled instead in the Danelaw. Alfred continued to improve the burghal defenses of England, working closely with his son Edward, his daughter Æthelflaed, and her husband, Ethelred of Mercia. Together, they laid the foundations for the eventual conquest of the Danelaw and unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Alfred died on Oct. 26, 899, and was buried at Winchester. In his 28-year reign, he had preserved Wessex from the Viking invasions and thus saved England. He also took innovative military measures to protect England from further invasions, emerging as perhaps the first "English" king. He rescued many religious houses and began the restoration of learning and literature. In the words of Arthur Bryant, Alfred not only saved a Christian state by his exertions, but made it worth saving.
Bibliography: r. abels, Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England (Berkeley 1988). r. abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (New York 1998). c. brooke, From Alfred to Henry III 871–1272 (New York 1969). j. campbell, ed. The Anglo-Saxons (Ithaca 1982). d. dumville, Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: Six Essays on Political, Cultural, and Ecclesiastical Revival (Woodbridge 1992). d. dumville and s. keynes, gen. eds. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition (Cambridge 1996). d. fisher, The Anglo-Saxon Age (London 1973). s. keynes and m. lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' and Other Contemporary Sources (Hammondsworth 1983). a. p. smyth, Alfred the Great (Oxford 1995). f. stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1989). m. swanton, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Routledge 1996).
[l. a. lehtola]
"Alfred the Great." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alfred-great
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