Statue of Alfred the Great as you enter Winchester
I love history, pretty much any kind but particularly English history. Probably because that is partly my history since the majority of my ancestors came from England. I recently took a week long class about Alfred(Ӕlfred is the Saxon spelling) the Great and I learned so much about this Man that I wanted to tell you about him briefly.
Alfred was born in Wantage England in 849. He was the 5th son of King Ӕthelwulf, King of the West Saxons. Ӕthelwulf’s kingdom basically included all of the southern part of England (on map this includes Kent, Sussex, Wessex, and Dumnonia (Cornwall).
Kingdoms at the time of Alfred's birth, before the Viking invasions began in earnest
Since he was the youngest of 5 sons, there was really no intention of him ever becoming King, so he focused on learning the art of warfare as a young man. However after the death of each brother, and the country facing the constant threat of Danish raids, he was picked to be the next King instead of the young sons of his brothers.
Because he was not intending to become a king, he felt that as a king:
“a king ruled not only over a land and its people but through them. They had been entrusted to him by God so that he might through them ‘virtuously and worthily administer the authority’ committed to him” (Alfred The Great by Richard Ables).
He was crowned King on April 23, 871, succeeding his brother Ӕthelred, after demonstrating his leadership qualities in his role as second in command to his brother. He was a religious man, he also believed in military power and led his troops against the Viking invaders three times. In 876 the Danish leader, Guthrum led an invasion into Wessex that forced Alfred and his troops to flee. During the next 2 years he gathered troops throughout his kingdom and in 878 he again faced and defeated his Danish invaders with a deciding victory at the Battle of Edington. As part of the peace treaty, Guthrum was to be baptized. In 886, Alfred negotiated a peace treaty with the Dane which divided the country geographically into 2 kingdoms, the “Danelaw” and the Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons.
Map of England after the Danelaw is established by King Alfred. His Kingdom included Wessex and Mercia.
Now that peace had, for the most part, been established, Alfred did not sit around but instead began to build the most progressive defensive system ever know to England. He began organizing his army and built a series of well-defined “forts” know as Burhs (pronounced “burr's”). He implemented this in 3 phases. Phase one, was by using already existing sites that had defensive walls in place. Most of these were former Roman forts or fortified towns. Our class visited one of these burhs that is still standing today in Portchester, England.
Inside the Roman Walls of Portchester that King Alfred used as one of the burhs.
Me, outside the burh at Portchester. The tower behind me was added during the Medieval period.
Phase two, was to strengthen existing defensive structures and add new walls around exsisting towns. This included the Roman town of Winchester, and phase three, was to build new burhs and towns. After these were built and fortified, his people were never more than one day away from protection if there was another invasion. He also divided his army into two parts so that the soldiers took turns being on duty.
Map of the locations of the larger burhs established by King Alfred for defense of the country
Like many great leaders throughout history, King Alfred was a strong believer in "Peace through strength".
Once the country's defenses were in place, King Alfred then focused on increasing the education and spirituality of his nobles. He had always felt that the Danish invasions were a result of the wickedness of his nobles, so he brought in religious men to teach the Gospel and to educate his people.
1st-Site of an Abbey that was built at the time of King Alfred. 2nd is the lower level of the Palace built by King Alfred but destroyed by Oliver Cromwell (yuck, gag) after the Civil war in 1651. Only the Great Hall (below) is left from the time of King Alfred.
(Medieval, the Anglo-Saxon Cathedral that Alfred had built was replaced by this larger Cathedral on the same location.)
He reigned until his death in October, 899 at the age of 50, and was buried in Winchester.