Friday, 23 June 2017

Why was King Alfred the Great ‘Great’?

by Libby Young

There have been many laudable monarchs throughout the history of England, but only one English king has ever been dubbed “the Great”. King Alfred the Great, perhaps the most famous of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, has held a prominent place in history due to his many achievements. Not only a great military leader, Alfred also implemented many social reforms that helped lead England on its path to unification and power.

Alfred was born in 849 AD and was fourth in line to the throne of Wessex. At this time, England was divided into three kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex, and these kingdoms fought not only amongst themselves, but against the continual Danish (Viking) raids that had been common ever since 793 AD, when Vikings attacked St Cuthbert’s church in Lindisfarne, Northumbria. The height of the terror came after a ‘Great Army’ of Vikings landed in East Anglia in 865, and began to conquer vast swathes of Anglo-Saxon territory. In April 871, following the deaths of his father and three older brothers, the 22 year old Alfred ascended to the Wessex throne, and he quickly set about removing the Danish threat. By 875, only Wessex remained independent of Viking rule.

It was through his struggles with the Danes that Alfred earned his military renown. In January 871 the Danish army was defeated at the Battle of Ashdown, and although Alfred did not become king until after the battle, it was him rather than his brother who received the most acclaim. Despite the Wessex victory, King Aethlred (Alfred’s older brother) died, and the now crowned Alfred was forced to withdraw to the Somerset marshes. However, Alfred continued to fight against the Danes, using guerrilla warfare until the Battle of Edington in 878, when he once again defeated the Danish invaders. After fighting for 14 days and a forced retreat, the Danes sued for peace, and with the realisation that he would be unable to completely drive the Vikings from the rest of England, Alfred accepted. Under the Treaty of Wedmore, Alfred gained control of West Mercia and Kent, areas previously outside of the borders of Wessex. Although the time that followed was merely a lull in the onslaught of the Viking attacks, it provided a brief period of peace that England had not known for many decades and allowed Alfred to start work on his fortifications.


After proving his skills on the battlefield, Alfred now showed his strength in strategic fortifications. Alfred quickly started to improve the defences of Wessex to ensure it would not be threatened by the Danes again. One of his lasting legacies was the construction of fortified towns (or burghs). Burghs were placed at junctions of existing trading routes in order to attract settlers who received plots. In return, they  were expected to help defend the burgh in times of war. The network of burghs was centered around Winchester (the capital of Wessex) and due to their locations on main river routes, no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles from the safety of one of these settlements. These burghs proved effective in defences against invading Vikings, and many have endured and remain in use today; Chichester was fully established as one such burgh.

Alfred also improved his army and navy.  The previous militia was reorganised into two halves which operated on a rota basis, which consequently improved the speed and effectiveness of the defensive system. The naval improvements were also a success, and meant that in 882 the new navy won a battle against the previously superior Viking ships.

Finally, Alfred also brought about many social reforms that improved life in England. Alfred showed a passion for learning throughout his life, and learnt Latin during his thirties. Recognising that the continual Viking raids on monasteries had led to a deterioration in literacy, Alfred arranged and even took part in the translation of several key books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon. This allowed them to be enjoyed by a wider audience when they were sent to all the bishops of the kingdom. Alfred was also a patron of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, which are still referenced to this day. Other campaigns included the reformation of the coinage, and the establishment of law codes which provided strong foundations for the development of English law.


In conclusion, King Alfred the Great was remarkable for a variety of reasons. His many accomplishments included being a skilled military commander, improving the defence and fortification of his kingdom, and introducing new social reforms which helped shape the country for the better. Alfred’s defeat of the Vikings set Anglo-Saxon England on the path to unification, and although it was Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, who became the first ‘King of the English’, Alfred played a monumental role in the process, surely earning him the title ‘the Great.’

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