Sunday, January 29, 2023

Alfred the Great – WHY? Lessons Learned!

Alfred, also spelled Aelfred, byname Alfred the Great, (born 849—died 899), king of Wessex (871–899), a Saxon kingdom in southwestern England. He prevented England from falling to the Danes and promoted learning and literacy. Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle began during his reign, circa 890.

When he was born, it must have seemed unlikely that Alfred would become king, since he had four older brothers; he said that he never desired royal power. Perhaps a scholar’s life would have contented him. His mother early aroused his interest in English poetry, and from his boyhood he also hankered after Latin learning, possibly stimulated by visits to Rome in 853 and 855. It is possible also that he was aware of and admired the great Frankish king Charlemagne, who had at the beginning of the century revived learning in his realm. Alfred had no opportunity to acquire the education he sought, however, until much later in life.

He probably received the education in military arts normal for a young man of rank. He first appeared on active service in 868, when he and his brother, King Aethelred (Ethelred) I, went to help Burgred of Mercia (the kingdom between the Thames and the Humber) against a great Danish army that had landed in East Anglia in 865 and taken possession of Northumbria in 867. The Danes refused to give battle, and peace was made. In this year Alfred married Ealhswith, descended through her mother from Mercian kings. Late in 871, the Danes invaded Wessex, and Aethelred and Alfred fought several battles with them. Aethelred died in 871, and Alfred succeeded him. After an unsuccessful battle at Wilton he made peace. It was probably the quality of the West Saxon resistance that discouraged Danish attacks for five years.


In 876 the Danes again advanced on Wessex. They retired in 877 having accomplished little, but a surprise attack in January 878 came near to success. The Danes established themselves at Chippenham, and the West Saxons submitted, “except King Alfred.” He harassed the Danes from a fort in the Somerset marshes, and until seven weeks after Easter he secretly assembled an army, which defeated them at the Battle of Edington. They surrendered, and their king, Guthrum, was baptized, Alfred standing as sponsor; the following year they settled in East Anglia.

Wessex was never again in such danger. Alfred had a respite from fighting until 885, when he repelled an invasion of Kent by a Danish army, supported by the East Anglian Danes. In 886 he took the offensive and captured London, a success that brought all the English not under Danish rule to accept him as king. The possession of London also made possible the reconquest of the Danish territories in his son’s reign, and Alfred may have been preparing for this, though he could make no further advance himself. He had to meet a serious attack by a large Danish force from the European continent in 892, and it was not until 896 that it gave up the struggle.

The failure of the Danes to make any more advances against Alfred was largely a result of the defensive measures he undertook during the war. Old forts were strengthened and new ones built at strategic sites, and arrangements were made for their continual manning. Alfred reorganized his army and used ships against the invaders as early as 875. Later he had larger ships built to his own design for use against the coastal raids that continued even after 896. Wise diplomacy also helped Alfred’s defense. He maintained friendly relations with Mercia and Wales; Welsh rulers sought his support and supplied some troops for his army in 893.

Alfred succeeded in government as well as at war. He was a wise administrator, organizing his finances and the service due from his thanes (noble followers). He scrutinized the administration of justice and took steps to ensure the protection of the weak from oppression by ignorant or corrupt judges. He promulgated an important code of laws, after studying the principles of lawgiving in the Book of Exodus and the codes of Aethelbert of Kent, Ine of Wessex (688–694), and Offa of Mercia (757–796), again with special attention to the protection of the weak and dependent. While avoiding unnecessary changes in custom, he limited the practice of the blood feud and imposed heavy penalties for breach of oath or pledge.

Alfred is most exceptional, however, not for his generalship or his administration but for his attitude toward learning. He shared the contemporary view that Viking raids were a divine punishment for the people’s sins, and he attributed these to the decline of learning, for only through learning could men acquire wisdom and live in accordance with God’s will. Hence, in the lull from attack between 878 and 885, he invited scholars to his court from Mercia, Wales, and the European continent. He learned Latin himself and began to translate Latin books into English in 887. He directed that all young freemen of adequate means must learn to read English, and, by his own translations and those of his helpers, he made available English versions of “those books most necessary for all men to know,” books that would lead them to wisdom and virtue. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by the English historian Bede, and the Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans, by Paulus Orosius, a 5th-century theologian—neither of which was translated by Alfred himself, though they have been credited to him—revealed the divine purpose in history. Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care of St. Gregory I, the great 6th-century pope, provided a manual for priests in the instruction of their flocks, and a translation by Bishop Werferth of Gregory’s Dialogues supplied edifying reading on holy men. Alfred’s rendering of the Soliloquies of the 5th-century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, to which he added material from other works of the Fathers of the Church, discussed problems concerning faith and reason and the nature of eternal life. This translation deserves to be studied in its own right, as does his rendering of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. In considering what is true happiness and the relation of providence to faith and of predestination to free will, Alfred does not fully accept Boethius’ position but depends more on the early Fathers. In both works, additions include parallels from contemporary conditions, sometimes revealing his views on the social order and the duties of kingship. Alfred wrote for the benefit of his people, but he was also deeply interested in theological problems for their own sake and commissioned the first of the translations, Gregory’s Dialogues, “that in the midst of earthly troubles he might sometimes think of heavenly things.” He may also have done a translation of the first 50 psalms. Though not Alfred’s work, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the greatest sources of information about Saxon England, which began to be circulated about 890, may have its origin in the intellectual interests awakened by the revival of learning under him. His reign also saw activity in building and in art, and foreign craftsmen were attracted to his court.

Alfred visiting a monastery school

In one of his endeavours, however, Alfred had little success; he tried to revive monasticism, founding a monastery and a nunnery, but there was little enthusiasm in England for the monastic life until after the revivals on the European continent in the next century.

Alfred, alone of Anglo-Saxon kings, inspired a full-length biography, written in 893, by the Welsh scholar Asser. This work contains much valuable information, and it reveals that Alfred laboured throughout under the burden of recurrent, painful illness; and beneath Asser’s rhetoric can be seen a man of attractive character, full of compassion, able to inspire affection, and intensely conscious of the responsibilities of kingly office. This picture is confirmed by Alfred’s laws and writings.

Alfred was never forgotten: his memory lived on through the Middle Ages and in legend as that of a king who won victory in apparently hopeless circumstances and as a wise lawgiver. Some of his works were copied as late as the 12th century. Modern studies have increased knowledge of him but have not altered in its essentials the medieval conception of a great king.


What were Alfred’s military achievements?

Written by Julia Martinez

Fact-checked by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

© SeraphP/

Much of Alfred’s reign as king of Wessex was consumed with defending his kingdom against Danish invaders. By the time he was king, Danish armies had overrun the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and most of Mercia, gaining political power in those regions and establishing settlements of armies. Alfred’s kingdom was thus in a precarious position.

Alfred began battling the Danes in 870, months before he acceded to the throne. He lost more battles than he won but put up enough resistance to be left alone for several years. In 876, however, a large Viking force under the Danish king Guthrum began to make attacks on Wessex. Though these initial efforts did not result in significant gains, in 878 Guthrum made a surprise assault on Alfred and his army at Chippenham that nearly brought about the total submission of Wessex. Basing himself in the Somerset marshes, Alfred later that year assembled an army and laid siege to Guthrum at Edington in what came to be known as the Battle of Edington. The Danish army surrendered, and Guthrum and his important followers were baptized. They afterward settled East Anglia, a region that came to be known as the Danelaw.

Although Alfred was faced with further Danish invasions later in his reign, the victory at Edington marked a hiatus in the struggle that lasted until 885, and, moreover, it proved that Wessex would not be as easily vanquished as other kingdoms in England. The last Danish army of Alfred’s reign came in 892, but these invaders found it much harder to break into Wessex. They were repeatedly blocked, beaten back, and besieged, and their advances ceased in 896. The failure of the Danes to penetrate the kingdom was largely due to Alfred’s excellent defensive strategy, which involved a network of burghs (forts) that stretched throughout his kingdom. The burghs were sites that he built up and fortified during the war, ensuring that they were continually manned. There was such a stronghold within 20 miles of every settlement in Wessex. In addition, Alfred later ordered ships built of his own design to use against the Danish coastal raiders.


What was Alfred like as a governor of his kingdom?

Written by Julia Martinez

Fact-checked by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

© Images

As king of Wessex, Alfred administered his kingdom very efficiently, organizing his finances and precisely measuring services and payments due from tenants of his burghs. The burghs that he had erected and fortified as a defense against Danish attacks were divided into hides, a form of land measurement used in Old English times. These divisions of land were the foundation of Alfred’s taxation and conscription system; fractions or totals of hides measured payments and services owed. The number of men that would defend the wall of a burgh was judged based on the number of hides. These careful calculations helped to keep Alfred’s kingdom secure. The king’s administrative skill also extended to his household, as both his will and the account in a biography of him written in 893 reveal a meticulous allocation of labour and corresponding payments to his family members and secular followers.

Alfred was an assiduous ruler in matters of law and the execution of justice. He scrutinized the judicial processes of his kingdom and required judges to be literate and have a good education; in his view, ignorance made a man unfit for such an office. His special concern in this was the protection of the weak, as it was in his law-giving. The king himself drew up an important law code, after studying the principles of law-giving in the biblical book of Exodus and the codes of other Anglo-Saxon kings. Criminal jurisdiction became severe during Alfred’s time and was rigorously enforced by his successors. 


What was the importance of literacy and learning to Alfred’s rule?

Written by Julia Martinez

Fact-checked by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

© traveler1116— DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Alfred’s avid dedication to learning defined the years of his reign as king of Wessex following his victory at Edington in 878, after which he sought to improve his own knowledge and promote educational reform in his kingdom. Although he had displayed a desire for learning in his youth, he was unable to commit himself to these interests until later in his life. His unexpected accession to the throne foisted heavy military responsibilities upon him, and the early years of his reign were consumed by repelling ruthless Danish assaults. During an interlude in these invasions (878–885), however, Alfred began to assemble a court of scholars in order to remedy the illiteracy and lack of learning that he observed in England at large. In Alfred’s mind, learning was essential to his kingdom because it resulted in the acquisition of wisdom. The king considered this wisdom not a simple knowledge of law and letters but an understanding of how to live according to God’s principles; moreover, he believed that such wisdom was necessary for the proper execution of justice in his realm.

The scholars Alfred invited to his court were largely from abroad, notably two from the Carolingian realm, which had recently enjoyed its own cultural renaissance. These scholars assisted Alfred in learning Latin so that he could translate Latin books into English (a project that they likewise took part in) for the benefit of his subjects, who by his day had for the most part lost all knowledge of the Latin language. Alfred translated such books as he believed were “most necessary for all men to know,” including Pope Gregory’s Pastoral CareSt. Augustine’s Soliloquies, and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Many of these contain Alfred’s own meditations on the meaning of kingship.

As many in his kingdom were illiterate even in their native tongue, Alfred also established a school at court where freedmen of adequate means (not only noblemen) could learn to read. While literacy in English was meant to serve as a foundation for learning Latin, Alfred’s educational system had the effect of elevating the vernacular, allowing English to become a language of prose literature.