Alfred


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Alfred,

849–99, king of Wessex (871–99), sometimes called Alfred the Great, b. Wantage, Berkshire.

Early Life

The youngest son of King Æthelwulf, he was sent in 853 to Rome, where the pope gave him the title of Roman consul. He returned to Rome with his father in 855. His adolescence was marked by ill health and deep religious devotion, both of which persisted for the rest of his life.

Little is known of him during the reigns of his older brothers Æthelbald and Æthelbert, but when Æthelred took the throne (865), Alfred became his secundarius (viceroy) and aided his brother in subsequent battles against the Danes, who then threatened to overrun all England. When the Danes began their assault on Wessex in 870, Æthelred and Alfred resisted with varying results: they won a victory at Ashdown, Berkshire; they were defeated at Basing; and they had several indecisive engagements.

Reign

Early Wars with the Danes

Upon Æthelred's death after Easter in 871, Alfred became king of the West Saxons and overlord of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex. Faced by an enemy too powerful to defeat decisively, Alfred cleared the Danes from Wessex by a heavy payment of tribute (see DanegeldDanegeld
, medieval land tax originally raised to buy off raiding Danes and later used for military expenditures. In England the tribute was first levied in 868, then in 871 by Alfred, and occasionally thereafter.
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) in 871. Alfred used the five-year respite that followed to begin building up a fleet. In 876 and 877 the Danes returned to ravage for several months and finally, halted by Alfred's army, swore to leave Wessex forever. However, in a surprise invasion early in 878 they crushed Alfred's forces, and he fled to Athelney in the fens of Somerset, where he organized a series of harassing raids on the enemy. The famous legend in which, unrecognized, he is scolded by a peasant woman for letting her cakes burn probably derives from this period of his life.

In May, 878, Alfred rallied his army and won a complete victory over the Danes at Edington. He then dictated the Peace of Chippenham (or Wedmore) by which Guthrum, the Danish leader, accepted Christian baptism and probably agreed to separate England into English and Danish spheres of influence. The Danes moved into East Anglia and E Mercia, and Alfred established his overlordship in W Mercia. Alfred captured (886) London and concluded another treaty with Guthrum that marked off the DanelawDanelaw
, originally the body of law that prevailed in the part of England occupied by the Danes after the treaty of King Alfred with Guthrum in 886. It soon came to mean also the area in which Danish law obtained; according to the treaty, the boundary between England and
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 E and N of the Thames, Lea, and Ouse rivers, and Watling Street, leaving the south and west of England to Alfred.

Reforms and Achievements

Security gave Alfred the chance to institute numerous reforms within his kingdom. Against further probable attacks by the Danes, he reorganized the militia, or fyrd, around numerous garrisoned forts throughout Wessex. Drawing from the old codes of Æthelbert of Kent, Ine of Wessex, and Offa of Mercia, he issued his own code of laws, which contained measures for a stronger centralized monarchy. He reformed the administration of justice and energetically participated in it, and he reorganized the finances of his court. He came eventually to be considered the overlord of all England, although this title was not realized in concrete political administration.

Alfred's greatest achievements, however, were the revival of learning and the establishment of Old English literary prose. He gathered together a group of eminent scholars, including the Welshman Asser. They strengthened the church by reviving learning among the clergy and organized a court school like that of Charlemagne, in which not only youths and clerics but also mature nobles were taught.

Alfred himself between 887 and 892 learned Latin and translated several Latin works into English—Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Orosius's universal history, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine's Soliloquies. A translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History is also commonly ascribed to him, but there is some doubt since it differs markedly in style from the others. Alfred liberally interpolated his own thoughts into his writings, and the Orosius is particularly interesting for the addition of accounts of voyages made by the Norse explorers OhthereOhthere
, fl. 880, Norse explorer. His account of his voyage around the North Cape, along Lapland, and into the White Sea was incorporated by Alfred the Great in the introduction to his Anglo-Saxon translation of Orosius' universal history and was requoted by Hakluyt in his
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 and Wulfstan. Although he probably was not directly responsible for the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon ChronicleAnglo-Saxon Chronicle,
collective name given several English monastic chronicles in Anglo-Saxon, all stemming from a compilation made from old annals and other sources c.891.
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, his patronage of learning undoubtedly encouraged it.

Renewed Danish Invasions

All these pursuits were interrupted, but not ended, by new Danish invasions between 892 and 896. The struggle was severe because Alfred's military reforms had not been completed and because the invading forces were joined by settlers from the Danelaw. He received strong support from his son Edward the ElderEdward the Elder,
d. 924, king of Wessex (899–924), son and successor of Alfred. He fought with his father against the Danes. At Alfred's death (899) Edward's succession was disputed by his cousin Æthelwold, who allied himself with the Danes of Northumbria and East
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, his daughter Æthelflæd, and her husband, Æthelred of Mercia, and in the critical year of 893 the great Danish fort at Benfleet was successfully stormed. The one Danish attempt to penetrate deeply into Wessex was halted by Edward the Elder. In 896 the Danes slowly dispersed to the Danelaw or overseas, and Alfred's new long ships fought with varying success against pirate raids on the south coast. Alfred's career was later embroidered by many heroic legends, but history alone justifies calling him Alfred the Great.

Bibliography

See J. A. Giles, ed., The Whole Works of King Alfred the Great (1858, repr. 1969); biographies by P. J. Helm (1963) and H. R. Loyn (1967); F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).

References in classic literature ?
There does not breathe on God's earth a nobler-souled, more generous fellow, than Alfred, in all that concerns his equals; and we got on admirably with this property question, without a single unbrotherly word or feeling.
Alfred who is as determined a despot as ever walked, does not pretend to this kind of defence;--no, he stands, high and haughty, on that good old respectable ground, the right of the strongest; and he says, and I think quite sensibly, that the American planter is `only doing, in another form, what the English aristocracy and capitalists are doing by the lower classes;' that is, I take it, appropriating them, body and bone, soul and spirit, to their use and convenience.
Then Alfred went musing into the deserted school- house.
Filmore has adopted her, and she lives with them, so you will have her for a neighbour when we go home--perhaps for a near relation; for there is a tenderness between her and Alfred, I suspect, and I should be gratified by the match, since Filmore means to provide for her in every way as if she were his daughter.
At Basle we were joined by my brother Alfred, now a handsome, self- confident man of six-and-twenty--a thorough contrast to my fragile, nervous, ineffectual self.
Alfred (five), who, as I mentioned, has of his own election joined the Infant Bonds of Joy, was one of the very few children who manifested consciousness on that occasion after a fervid address of two hours from the chairman of the evening.
I can't abide your losing the money you've scraped together for Alfred.
It is a source of the greatest satisfaction to me, Sir Alfred," the Minister was saying earnestly, "to find such royal and whole-hearted support in the city.
Idylls of the King, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, (Macmillan).
It is a familiar story how Alfred, king from 871 to 901 of the southern kingdom of Wessex
But you could have knocked us all down with a feather when, three months ago, she suddenly announced that she and Alfred were engaged
He has mentioned to Twemlow how he regards Sophronia Akershem (the mature young lady) in the light of a sister, and Alfred Lammle (the mature young gentleman) in the light of a brother.