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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.
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 Danegeld) 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 Danelaw 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 Ohthere and Wulfstan. Although he probably was not directly responsible for the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, his patronage of learning undoubtedly encouraged it.
Renewed Danish Invasions
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).