Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great


Founder of the English navy, Alfred the Great was born at Wantage in Berkshire, the son of King Aethelwulft of Wessex. The boy prince was sent to Rome at the age of four; there he met Pope Leo IV and was impressed by the glory of Roman Christianity. He went on a second trip to the Eternal City, this time with his father, in A.D. 855.

Alfred’s father died, and his three older brothers all had short lives and reigns. To Alfred’s surprise, he came to occupy the throne of Wessex at the age of 24.Alfred became king at a time of crisis for Wessex and for Anglo- Saxon England as a whole. Danish invaders were close to overrunning the entire land. Four Anglo-Saxon king¬ doms — Mercia,Northumberland, East Anglia, and Wessex — remained, but all of them faced dire peril.

Alfred had first fought the Danes under his older brother Aethelred’s leadership. In A.D.871, the year he came to the throne, Alfred fought nine gen¬ eral engagements against the invaders. After losing the Battle of Wilton, he made an unsatisfactory peace with the Danes to give himself and his kingdom room to breathe.

Alfred married Ealhswith, a descendant of Mercian kings, and cultivated good relations with both Mercia and Wales. He built new forts in Wessex and strengthened older ones that had fallen into decay. He also built the first English ships, trying to prepare for an

eventual offense against the Danes. Believing that the Danish raids were a punishment from God, he embarked on a program of religious education. He recruited important scholars from the continent and began a series of text translations from Latin into Anglo-Saxon.The king himself translated Pastoral Care by Saint Gregory the Great.

The peace ended in A.D. 876. Guthrum, a Danish leader, brought an army into Wessex and captured many of its important towns. Alfred himself fled to refuge in a small fort in the Somerset marsh¬ es. From there, he harassed the Danes with small raids. Alfred gathered his forces and emerged from the swamps to win a remarkable victory over the Danes at Edington in A.D. 878. Following the battle, the Danes who had surrendered were bap¬ tized as Christians. The Danes then withdrew from Wessex. Guthrum and his fol¬ lowers respected the peace until his death in A.D. 891.

In A.D. 892, some 250 Danish ships brought the “Great Heathen Army” to England. Alfred met and defeated the Danes in battle after battle. His guerrilla warfare tactics, combined with the use of his ships, allowed him to gain the upper hand quickly. By A.D. 897, the Danes had fled to East Anglia and Northumberland.At the time of Alfred’s death in A.D. 899, Wessex remained free and became the center of Anglo-Saxon law and tradition.