Here, Barbara Yorke, professor emerita of early medieval history at the University of Winchester, tells you everything you need to know about King Alfred, the only English monarch known as ‘the Great’…
Q: Who was King Alfred?
A: Alfred was the fifth son of King Æthelwulf (839-58), ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex – the area south of the river Thames. When he was born at Wantage in 849, it might have seemed unlikely that Alfred would ever become king, but in a period of increasing Viking attacks, his four brothers all died as young adults.
Alfred had to take over as king of Wessex in 871 in the middle of a year of nine major battles between the West Saxons and Vikings, which the former were lucky to survive. Alfred was also tested in 878 when he was forced to retreat to the marshes of Athelney (Somerset), scene of some of the legendary stories about him, including the well-known burning of the cakes.
However, Alfred came back to win a decisive victory in the same year over his Viking opponent Guthrum at Edington (Wiltshire). There were further serious Viking attacks in the 890s, but by this time Alfred had made military improvements and was better able to resist them with the help of West Mercian [an Anglo-Saxon kingdom north of Wessex] and Welsh allies.
In 868 Alfred had married Ealhswith, a descendant of the Mercian royal house, probably as part of a long-term West Saxon plan to bring the royal houses of the two provinces closer together.
They had two sons and three daughters, who survived to adulthood. The middle daughter became abbess of Shaftesbury nunnery, one of two religious houses founded by Alfred. The other was at Athelney, perhaps in thanksgiving for his escape there from the Vikings.
The other two daughters entered into diplomatic marriages to the ruler of Mercia and the Count of Flanders. Little is known of Alfred’s ‘spare’, his second son, Æthelweard, but his heir, Edward, succeeded their father in 899, and continued the family success story.
Q: Alfred is well known for his victories against the Vikings. Can you tell us about them?
A: Alfred’s priority was survival in the face of Viking attacks. There had been four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the time of Alfred’s birth, but before his death all but Wessex had been overrun by the Vikings, and their kings killed or exiled.
Having survived by the skin of his teeth all-out Viking attacks in the 870s, when the other provinces fell, Alfred then enacted a series of military reforms to make Wessex less vulnerable in the future. Most important was a network of fortified and garrisoned sites that created ‘fortress Wessex’, which the Vikings were unable to penetrate to any great extent in the 890s.
Alfred also organised a rota of military service to make keeping forces in the field for any length of time more viable; the field army could respond quickly to a request for aid from a local garrison should the Vikings attack. The king also overhauled his naval forces, bringing in experienced Frisian sailors to help with his new designs for ships.
Q: What else is he best known for?
A: There are many Anglo-Saxon kings who were great military commanders – what makes Alfred stand out is that he was also interested in learning, and in the promotion of English as a written language.
Here we can see the impact of the great religious and cultural movement from across the Channel, known as the Carolingian Renaissance, which had also much influenced his father. Alfred recruited Carolingian scholars [from what is now France and western Germany], as well as others from within Britain to act as his advisers on improving educational and religious standards in Wessex.
He himself studied key works with them, and these seem to have had a profound effect on his own understanding and concept of duty, which he felt others at his court should share. He assisted in the translation of some of these works from Latin into Old English, so that they could be more readily understood within his kingdom.
Alfred’s resistance to the Vikings required a major commitment from his subjects, and so he may well have been attracted to the Carolingian emphasis on obedience to the king as a religious duty, and perhaps also sought to reinforce an English, Christian identity in opposition to a Scandinavian, pagan one.
The title ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ was one he used towards the end of his reign, as he became increasingly influential beyond Wessex itself.
Q: Why is King Alfred significant?
A: Military and intellectual activities were in themselves sufficient to have established Alfred’s reputation, but what really made him stand out to succeeding generations was the fact that his Welsh adviser Asser wrote a biography of the king in 893.
This work undoubtedly contains useful information about Alfred and his family, but it is also based on classical, Biblical and Carolingian ideals of kingship, which can cause a difficulty in distinguishing idealisation from fact.
It may be significant that Alfred is not known to have endorsed the work or ordered its circulation. It may not be how he thought of himself or how he wanted to be remembered.
But in the 19th century, when there was great interest in Anglo-Saxon origins of the English state and character, there were no such doubts. Alfred was “the most perfect man in history”, and the famous statue in Winchester was erected in 1901 as the climax to international celebrations of the millenary of his death.
Q: In our December issue, Alex Burghart considered whether we’re guilty of overplaying Alfred’s greatness. What do you think?
A: Alex Burghart was right to suggest that Alfred’s reputation is in danger of being exaggerated. As a result of being the only Anglo-Saxon king to have a contemporary biography, he has been sometimes handed the credit by later writers for everything of note that happened in the Anglo-Saxon period.
Alfred did not invent Anglo-Saxon law or the navy, though he did write laws and design ships. There was also an element of luck in his survival at the beginning of his reign, and in the fact that the Vikings were more interested in eastern England that was closer to their homelands.
Mercian involvement was crucial to his success in defeating the Vikings in the 890s. But to a certain extent Alfred made his own ‘luck’, a quality much prized in Anglo-Saxon leaders, and the qualities of intellectual curiosity, inventiveness and an essential attention to detail come through in Asser’s account, for all its problems.
Alfred does seem to have been a rather exceptional ruler, but it seems to have been a case of the right person in the right place at the right time.
Q: Where, when and how did Alfred die, and who was he succeeded by?
A: Alfred died on 26 October 899. The exact circumstances and the place of his death are not known.
He was laid to rest at first in the cathedral in Winchester, the Old Minster, but his elder son and successor at once commissioned work on a bigger, grander church – the New Minster immediately to the cathedral’s north. It seems to have been intended as a burial place for the new dynasty of English kings founded by Alfred.
The bodies of Alfred and Ealhswith were transferred to New Minster, to be joined eventually by Edward himself and other members of the royal family. Edward continued and developed the policies of his father, and used the idea of garrisoned, fortified centres offensively against Viking-settled areas of eastern England.
By 920 he had extended his rule to the river Humber, and Edward’s own son Athelstan (who reigned from 924–39) gained control of the rest of England to create the country more or less as we know it today.
Q: What might we learn from the discovery of a piece of pelvic bone, most likely belonging to King Alfred or to his son, Edward?
Right os coxa (part of the pelvis) of an older adult male from the latest antiquarian pit at the site of the High Altar, Hyde Abbey. (Photo University of Winchester)
A: In 1110 the monks of New Minster relocated to the suburb of Hyde in the north of Winchester, because of the cramped conditions in the centre, and took with them the bodies of Alfred, Edward and Ealhswith, which were laid in honoured positions in front of the High Altar.
It was thought that their bodies had been lost when the site was dug up for a prison in the late 18th century. In the 19th century an amateur historian claimed he had dug up their bones, but no one locally believed him, and it appears that he had in any case been digging in the wrong part of the site.
These bones were the ones buried in an unmarked grave in St Bartholmew’s graveyard in Hyde. Radio-carbon testing for the recent BBC Two programme established once and for all that they were later medieval in date.
However, Dr Katie Tucker, the osteoarchaeologist from the University of Winchester who led investigations, checked whether there might be other human bones of interest from the previous excavations at Hyde Abbey.
Part of a male pelvis found near the High Altar produced a radio-carbon date centring on the 10th century, thus raising the possibility that it could be part of the body of either Alfred or his son, Edward. This leaves us with the exciting possibility that further remains of them might be recovered.
Asser provides no physical descriptions of either Alfred or Edward, so the thought that we might one day be able to rediscover their appearance and give them a proper reburial is an enticing prospect.
Barbara Yorke is professor emerita of early medieval history at the University of Winchester, from which she has recently retired after a long career. Her research interests lie with early medieval British history, with special interests in kingship, conversion, Wessex, women, religion and 19th-century Anglo-Saxonism.
Major publications include Kings and Kingdoms in Early Anglo-Saxon England, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages and The Conversion of Britain 600-800.