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A Summary of the Life of Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great was born in 849 in Wantage, Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), and he is the only English king to have been given the suffix 'the Great'. Alfred was King of Wessex/King of the West Saxons, and latterly, as he was the one Anglo-Saxon leader defeating the Vikings on a regular basis, regarded as the King of the Anglo-Saxons. King Alfred the Great was the first really great king of post-Roman England.

The achievements of Alfred the Great included bringing in a fairer legal system, and for his ambitions in raising the standards of learning among his people. Alfred the Great made England a safer nation both on land and at sea, and Alfred was called 'the father of the English Navy'. Alfred the Great is also famously remembered for defeating the invading Danes (part of the Viking invasion), most famously at the Battle of Edington in 878, south of Chippenham, Wiltshire.

As the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great had a vast expanse of land to defend, which covered a good deal of South West England - modern day Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, and Devon (and, for a time, Wessex also included Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire), also later incorporating Kent and Sussex. Alfred's father, Ethelwulf, was also a king of Wessex. Alfred's mother, Osburga, really passed on her ability to read to him, and his three brothers. A story, which may be myth, is that Alfred won a book of poetry, after his mother offered it as a prize to the first of her sons who could memorize it.

One of the most intriguing stories in British history is of Alfred hiding from the Danes in a woman's house, in the marshy area of Athelney, Somerset, and burning the cakes he was meant to be watching, and consequently receiving a good scolding.

Alfred married Ealhswith, who was daughter of Ethelred Mucil, at Winchester (then England's capital city) Cathedral (now in Hampshire) in 868, or 869, when he was around the age of 20. Ealhswith was from a Lincolnshire family, and the couple had several children, though, how many, seems unclear. At least five, anyway, including the next king after Alfred, Edward the Elder.

In 871 Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown, after which, a white horse was, as legend would have us believe, carved into the Berkshire Hills, now Oxfordshire, as a reminder of the victory (which is still there today. It is known as the Uffington White Horse, and is probably 3,000 years old, from the Bronze Age, though it may have been overgrown by grass, and re-cut to make it appear as a new creation). Alfred was crowned as King of Wessex, again at Winchester Cathedral, shortly after.

Remembered as a good man, Alfred the Great showed his humanity to his great Danish adversary Guthrum. Alfred actually adopted Guthrum as his own son! Another wonderful story is that Alfred disguised himself as a minstrel to enter Guthrum's camp, thus gaining some useful information...

Alfred the Great died on October 26th, probably in 899, and he was buried in Winchester. He had been King of Wessex since 871. Alfred was a devout Christian, and in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church he is venerated as a saint (possibly because of his victories against the pagan Vikings, who were terrifying much of Europe in the 9th Century). 'The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' was probably another product of Alfred the Great's reign, with Alfred encouraging monks to record Anglo-Saxon history in England. Alfred also took London back from the Vikings. Statues of Alfred the Great are in Winchester and Wantage.

Copyright © Paul Rance/

The Anglo-Saxons
~James Campbell (Editor)
Penguin Books Ltd
Paperback - March 28, 1991
Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons
~Francis Pryor
Hardcover - September 20, 2004
The Anglo Saxons (British Museum Activity Book S.)
~John Reeve, Jenny Chattington
British Museum Press
Paperback - November 1, 1999

BOOKS ABOUT THE SAXONS AND ANGLO-SAXONS available from - in association with

Product photo The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Michael Swanton (editor)
Product photo A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, 14)
J. R. Clark Hall
Product photo Anglo-Saxon Crafts
Kevin Leahy

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