Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Alfred

Without a doubt the most famous of our pre-Norman Conquest Kings, Alfred was the fourth son of Ethelwulf of Wessex, and the fourth of his sons to become King.

Alfred was born in 849 at Wantage in Oxfordshire, while his father was King of Wessex.

At a very young age, he accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome. Ethelwulf had abdicated first, leaving the kingdom in the hands of his eldest son Ethelbald. On the way back, they spent some time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, and it was there that Ethelwulf married the 13-year-old Judith, Charles’s daughter.

Alfred’s love of learning probably started at his time. Being obviously unlikely to become King himself, he was being groomed by his father for the Church.

In the 860s, Alfred fought a number of battles against the Danes alongside his brother Ethelred. In 871, Ethelred died of wounds he had received in battle, and Alfred succeeded as king, being crowned at Kingston-on-Thames.

Alfred was very soon in action again, at the Battle of Wilton, where he was defeated by the Danish Army. Over the next few years there were several other battles, but after a while the Danes concentrated on Mercia. At this point Alfred laid the foundations of the English navy.

From 876, Guthrum and his allies began attacking Wessex again. Guthrum’s power base was in East Anglia.

Alfred managed to defeat the Danes at Wareham and in a sea battle off Swanage, but in 878 Guthrum attacked the Royal court at Chippenham, and Alfred and his supporters had to flee into Somerset.

This is the period of desolation for Alfred when the best-known stories about him are set. Certainly his kingdom had been reduced to the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes, but the stories are probably fanciful.

Alfred being berated by the old woman for burning the cakes is designed to show how his mind was entirely on ways to reconquer his kingdom, to the exclusion of anything else.

The other story involves him entering Guthrum’s camp disguised as a harpist, in order to hear his enemies’ plans.

They are both good stories, but may or may not have any basis in fact.

The fact is that he did fight his way out, get together an army, and with the help of his allies in Devon manage to defeat Guthrum at Edington.

This led to Guthrum agreeing to be baptised into the Church. This historic event happened at the old Roman town of Cirencester, and peace was declared after the Treaty of Wedmore.

Alfred was now able to consolidate his position. He was regarded as King by all the English, but the Midlands and the North of England however were still under Danish control.

He fortified twenty five boroughs, including Oxford and Hastings, and refortified the old City of London. The English had until then lived outside the City, in the Strand and Aldwych areas.

He updated the legal code originated by Ine of Sussex, and made frequent visits around the country to ensure that his officials were carrying out his laws. This ensured that the officials had to learn to read, and he decreed that the sons of freemen should learn to read English, adding that those expected to reach high office should also learn to read Latin. He also set the hitherto chaotic Anglo Saxon Chronicle into good order.

In the 890s war with the Danes broke out again. He then reorganised his naval capacity, and for this is remembered as the founder of the English navy. Alfred’s growing strength, both on land and sea, gradually reduced the potency of the Danish threat, and the invaders became more interested in peaceful co-existence than attack.

Alfred himself was a complex man, who seems to have been beset by various illnesses as well as a touch of hypochondria. He encouraged learning and the arts, as well as Christianity, military strength and justice. He remains the only English King to be afforded the title “the Great”, and is without a doubt one of the greatest influences in the formation of a unified England.

Alfred married Ethelswith, daughter of Ethelred, a Mercian ealdorman from Gainsborough, in 868, before his brother’s untimely death led to him becoming King.

He died in 899, and was buried at the New Minster in Winchester, where the Cathedral stands today. His remains were later removed to Hyde Abbey, on the edge of Winchester.

There are at least three statues of Alfred in public places. One is at his birthplace, Wantage; another is at Pewsey in Wiltshire; and the best known is at Winchester.

His widow Ethelswith became a nun at St. Mary’s Abbey, Winchester, where she died and was buried in 905. She was, after her death, widely regarded as a saint.

Alfred was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder. Other children were Ethelfleda, the Lady of the Mercians, who reconquered Leicester and the rest of the East Midlands, died at Tamworth and was buried at Gloucester Cathedral; Edmund, the eldest son, who was crowned as future King but died before his father; Elfrida, who married Baldwin II, Count of Flanders, and was the ancestor of Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror; Ethelgiva, a nun at Shaftesbury Abbey; and Ethelweard, who took little part in public life.

There is no question that Alfred deserves his position as the most remembered King in pre-Conquest England.