King Alfred of Wessex, better known as King Alfred the Great, has continued to be one of the most celebrated monarchs in English history. He was endlessly influential within his own society, especially regarding the future of England and the very idea that a united England could even exist. As you could imagine, many legends sprung up around Alfred in the centuries after his passing, but how much of it is true? Read these facts to get a better idea of this English king.
1. Don’t Lie About Your Age
It’s unknown when exactly Alfred was born, but historians have determined that it was somewhere between the years 847 and 849 AD. His birthplace a royal estate in Wantage, a village which now lies within modern-day Oxfordshire.
2. Alfred the Unexpected
Born to King Æthelwulf and Osburh, Alfred was actually the youngest of five boys. Being so far back in the line for the throne, there was very little pressure on him to become a mighty warrior-king. Thanks to input from his mother, Alfred’s education was less focused on martial and military prowess than his older brothers and more on higher learning and poetry.
3. History in the Making
We should take a moment here to emphasize that Alfred, despite being an English king, was never the King of England as was later established. During Alfred’s lifetime, England was divided into several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the most powerful ones being Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex. Over the years, these kingdoms changed size, and some even merged together (more on that later), but with the invasion of Danish and other Scandinavian forces, everything would change.
4. Sis on the Run
Aside from his four brothers, Alfred also had one sister, who was the middle child amongst her siblings. Æthelswith would be married off to Burgred, the King of Mercia. Sadly, she and her husband would be forced to flee Mercia, and the rest of England, when their kingdom was conquered by the Great Heathen Army (more on that later) in 874 AD. Burgred and Æthelswith settled in Italy, where both would later die and be laid to rest.
5. Short-Lived Successor
In 858, Alfred’s father, Æthelwulf, died. His eldest son, Æthelstan, was the King of Kent, so the rule of Wessex fell to his second son, Æthelbald. However, Æthelbald’s rule would only last two years before his own death!
6. How Can One Man be in Five Places?!
Five major statues dedicated to Alfred currently stand today. Three of them are found in England, specifically in Winchester, Pewsey, and the Wantage market place. The other two statues are actually found in the United States; one is located in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County Courthouse, while the second one stands, fittingly enough, in the campus of New York’s Alfred University.
7. The Primary Antagonists
In Alfred’s day, the Vikings were one of the Anglo-Saxons’ most powerful and dangerous enemies. Because they worshipped the Norse gods, the Christian Anglo-Saxons called their troops “the Great Heathen Army.” It’s been accepted that this historical horde was led by three sons of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok. These men were Ivar the Boneless, Ubba, and Halfdan (also known as Hvitserk). The trio conducted an invasion of England as vengeance for their father’s death in Northumbria, as well as out of a desire to conquer and pillage.
8. Hindsight is 20/20
Alfred’s life, particularly his early struggles as King of Wessex, were portrayed on film in the 1969 epic Alfred the Great. The film featured a cast which included Michael York, Ian McKellan, Julian Glover, and David Hemmings as the titular king. Unfortunately, the film was a disastrous flop during its day, and is all but forgotten nowadays, even though it featured two future actors from Game of Thrones and one future actor from Lord of the Rings.
9. Pious Potentate
One of Alfred’s most well-known traits was his piety. Throughout his life, Alfred was highly devoted to defending the Church, and he would offer pardons to pagan invaders if they converted to Christianity.
10. Splitting Hairs, Here
Only two kings in England have been known as “the Great:” Alfred the Great and Cnut the Great. However, Cnut was a Danish king who managed to build an empire that consisted of Denmark, England, and Norway, so Alfred still holds the title as the only English king known as “the Great.”
11. Fight with Your Mind
Contrary to what subsequent statues of Alfred might have you believe, Alfred was never famous for his abilities as a fighter. Based on what is known of him, Alfred was far more focused on winning wars through intelligence and diplomacy rather than leading warriors into battle.
12. Holy Visit
As a child, Alfred was taken to Rome on a pilgrimage by his father. While he was in Rome, Alfred received confirmation from Pope Leo IV himself. The historical records claim that the Pope also “anointed him as a king,” though this might have been written with the benefit of hindsight, as there was no way that anyone would have expected the boy to become king with four living older brothers.
13. Matchmaker Matchmaker
By 868 AD, Alfred was considered the heir apparent to his older brother, King Æthelred. Their sister had already been established in Mercia, as we’ve previously mentioned, but in another effort to secure Mercia and Wessex together, Alfred married Ealhswith, the daughter of a Mercian nobleman. As was typical of Anglo-Saxon royalty, Ealhswith wasn’t known as a queen, even when her husband was king. Little is known of her, though we do know that she bore Alfred five children, named Æthelflæd, Edward, Æthelgifu, Ælfthryth, and Æthelweard. Two of them would become monarchs, but more on them later.
14. That Wasn’t Me!
Contrary to what Victorian historians would later claim, Alfred was not the man who first established the English Navy. The kingdom of Wessex already had fleets of ships before Alfred was alive. Alfred’s eldest brother defeated a fleet of Vikings in 851, more than thirty years before Alfred ever dabbled in naval business.
15. Second Son
Alfred’s youngest child was Æthelweard. Like Alfred, Æthelweard was given an extensive education in the arts. While he would never inherit the throne of Wessex, he did get ownership of vast properties thanks to his father and brother. Æthelweard was said to have had two sons who died fighting the Norse and Danes, while Æthelweard himself predeceased his older brother by around four years.
16. And Then There Was One Brother Left
By 868 AD, the Great Heathen Army had successfully invaded and conquered Mercia under the leadership of Ivar the Boneless. Since Wessex was right next door to Mercia, Ivar decided to make it two for two. The 19-year-old Alfred assisted his older brother, King Æthelred, in nine major battles with the Great Heathen Army which eventually resulted in Æthelred’s death in 871.
Ivar the Boneless
17. Great, but Not Great Enough
Due to his famous piety, Alfred has long been venerated and respected by the Catholic Church. He is also frequently depicted in the glass windows of parishes connected with the Church of England. However, despite the efforts of King Henry VI of England centuries, after Alfred’s death, Alfred has not been canonized a saint by the Vatican. If only he’d performed a few more miracles…
18. Mother of a Dynasty
Almost nothing is known of Alfred’s youngest daughter, Ælfthryth. The only thing that was recorded of her was that she married the Count of Flanders, Baldwin II. Among the children she had in her life was Arnulf who, like her father, was called “the Great.” Through Ælfthryth, the House of Flanders would hold their titles and lands for nearly three centuries.
19. Makes for a Good Story!
In 2013, the Canadian-Irish co-production Vikings first premiered. The hit series follows the exploits of the Danish raiders Ragnar Lothbrok and his family, albeit in a very historically inaccurate manner. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Alfred would appear in the show. Though the young Alfred has been portrayed by several actors, the most consistent one is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. As of 2019, it is entering its sixth and final season, with plans for a spin-off series after that.
20. Spread the Word!
One particularly influential impact that Alfred made upon the Anglo-Saxon population was his determination to promote widespread education. In order to do this, Alfred switched the primary educational language from Latin to English. This caused the schools to be less of an elitist institution for the nobility and exponentially increased the literacy rate in his kingdom.
21. Holier Than Thou
Alfred’s third child, Æthelgifu, was reportedly just as tormented by ill health as her father. According to Bishop Asser, Æthelgifu entered the service of the Church and became the Abbess of Shaftesbury Abbey when her father founded it in 890. Virtually nothing is known of Æthelgifu’s time as a nun and abbess, but we can assume that it involved far less singing than The Sound of Music depicted about abbey life.
22. It’s Not Over Yet!
With just a few followers, Alfred established a small fort within the swamps of Athelney (modern-day Somerset). Alfred would direct guerrilla attacks against the Danes from within the swamps, even as bands of loyal men slowly gathered to his banners. The tide began to turn with the defeat of the Danish leader Ubba that same year at the Battle of Cynwit.
23. Wessex Is Too Small for Me!
From 871 to 886 AD, Alfred was known as the King of West Saxons. However, Alfred’s greatest ambition was to drive the Danes out of England and unite all the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under his own rule. Through diplomacy and military conquests, Alfred launched offensive campaigns against the Danish-held territories of England, bringing more and more land back under Anglo-Saxon control. From 886 AD until his death, Alfred was known as the King of Anglo-Saxons.
24. What a Coincidence!
Two men from the late 18th century wrote epic poems about Alfred’s life. These men were Henry James Pye, the Poet Laureate of England from 1790 until 1813, and Joseph Cottle, an acquaintance of William Wordsworth.
25. I Look Forward to Reading it, Bishop!
Very rare among Anglo Saxon kings of old, Alfred had a biographer who was alive during his own lifetime. Asser was a Welsh monk who traveled to Wessex and won the favor of the king. He was eventually appointed the Bishop of Sherborne. He wrote a biography of Alfred which has since been the primary source of information that we have on Alfred’s life.
Granted, there are some problematic elements with it. The biography was written while Alfred was still alive, and doesn’t list any events after 893 AD, and some historians have made a claim that the book wasn’t actually written by Asser. However, most are convinced that it is genuine, and Bishop Asser’s biography of Alfred continues to be held in high regard as a point of study and information.
26. Lucky Fourteen
In 2002, the BBC held a poll for a television series titled 100 Greatest Britons. Despite all the centuries of potential candidates succeeding him, Alfred managed to snag the 14th spot on the list, beating out the likes of Freddie Mercury, Henry V, Stephen Hawking, and the Duke of Wellington.
27. Like Father Like Son
Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, succeeded his father as King of the Anglo-Saxons and would continue his father’s ambition of uniting England. However, it wasn’t until the reign of Edward’s own son, Æthelstan, that all of England was brought together under one king.
28. In Defence of the Realm
The key to Alfred’s military success against the Danes was the burhs. For those of you looking confused, a burh was a fortified town with a strong garrison set up to respond to any Danish raiders. More than thirty such burhs were established, requiring a quarter of all the freemen in Wessex to garrison them and guard against invasion attempts. Naturally, this was an unprecedented expense, and Bishop Asser wrote about how the nobles in Alfred’s time were reluctant to go along with this venture. However, Alfred was resolute, and the burhs proved successful in deterring invasion.
29. Oh Bother…
The most famous story associated with Alfred involves him while he was on the run from the Danes in 878 AD. A peasant woman allowed him to stay in her humble abode without realizing that he was the king and became enraged when Alfred accidentally allowed wheaten cakes to burn. She proceeded to either verbally or even physically berate him, depending on who’s telling the story. Sadly, this story is most probably a fabrication, but it’s still fun to picture that lady accosting a king over burnt cakes.
30. Marriage Bargains
Alfred’s eldest child was a daughter named Æthelflæd. Alfred married her to Æthelred, a nobleman of Mercia. Alfred hoped that the weakened Mercia would rally to his son-in-law as their new ruler so that Wessex would have a firm ally. While Æthelred did fight valiantly against the Danish and Norse invaders, poor health led to an early death.
31. Who Said Women Couldn’t Rule?
Despite living in a world where the wives of kings weren’t even called queens, Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd had an incredible life full of great accomplishments. Upon the death of her husband, Æthelflæd took charge of Mercia. Known as the Lady of Mercians, she proved a crucial ally to her brother when he became King of Wessex. Such was her role in the war against the Danes that her story became renowned, even in subsequent medieval society. Honestly, we’re wondering when her biopic is coming out!
32. Turning History into Bestsellers
Beginning in 2004, British author Bernard Cornwell brought a whole new level of attention to the life of Alfred with his series of books known as The Saxon Stories. The historical fiction series follows a Saxon warrior named Uhtred who is raised by the Danes after becoming their prisoner in his childhood. As a result, his loyalties are constantly divided between Saxons and Danes, even as he fights for Alfred of Wessex. The books, numbering eleven so far, have been highly successful worldwide and have introduced a new generation of readers to the story of Alfred and the formation of England as a single political entity.
33. Triumphant Adaptation
It should surprise nobody that Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories have been adapted for the silver screen. The series, named after the first book in the series, is titled The Last Kingdom and features a slightly condensed story of this era. Alfred is portrayed in the series by actor David Dawson. The series is a collaborative effort between the BBC and Netflix and has been very highly acclaimed thus far. As of 2019, it has been renewed for its fourth season.
34. My Hour of Triumph
The Battle of Edington (or Ethandun) is counted as Alfred’s greatest military achievement. Despite being driven into hiding in 878 AD while his kingdom was overrun, Alfred rallied men at Athelney until he had enough to challenge Guthrum and his army. While we don’t know how many men fought the battle, or even where it is located, we do know that Alfred managed to defeat Guthrum once and for all. Guthrum never again challenged Wessex, preferring instead to rule in East Anglia. To further cement his victory, Alfred oversaw Guthrum’s baptism and adoption of a Saxon name, even becoming the Danish king’s godfather.
35. Rule the Waves!
Anyone familiar with the Royal Navy or the British Army will have doubtless heard a rendition or two of the patriotic song “Rule Britannia.” You might be wondering where that song came from, and it turns out that the song was originally part of a theatrical production about Alfred the Great. Alfred was originally a masque, but eventually became converted to an opera. “Rule Britannia” serves as the finale in the piece in celebration of Alfred’s victory at Edington.
36. That Tail Won’t Chase Itself!
Despite his piety and his shining reputation, Alfred spent his youth being more promiscuous than your college roommate! Regardless of their age or social standing, Alfred didn’t discriminate in the bedroom (or wherever else he might have been busy). If you think this might just be salacious gossip to spice up a history textbook, keep in mind that Alfred’s biographer, Bishop Asser, was the one who originally wrote about it, and this is the same man who spends the same book praising Alfred every second page. Like Shakespeare would do with Henry V years later, Asser portrayed Alfred’s troublesome youth as an obstacle to overcome before he was worthy to be king.
37. I Feel Ill…
Thanks to the writings of Bishop Asser, it’s known to historians that Alfred spent much of his life suffering from an illness which caused him a lot of discomfort. Based on the symptoms described by Asser, it’s been determined that Alfred may have suffered from the inflammatory bowel sickness known as Crohn’s disease. If this was the case, he’d certainly be in good company; this was the same illness which would plague Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, centuries later.
38. The Usurper
Alfred’s brother Æthelred left two sons behind, with his eldest, Æthelwold, next in line to become king. However, Æthelwold was a child when his father died, and there were enemies at the doorstep of Wessex. Alfred used the chaotic situation, as well as his previous blessing from the Pope, to persuade enough nobles to make him king instead of his nephew.
39. Elizabeth Wasn’t the First!
In 876 AD, a Danish army under the leadership of King Guthrum attempted to invade Wessex. After many skirmishes and failed peace talks, the Danes were eventually cornered in Devon. There they awaited a massive fleet which would relieve them and provide needed supplies. However, the fleet was caught in a massive storm while en route, and most of the ships were sunk, leaving the Danes stranded and out of options. They soon surrendered to Alfred’s forces.
40. The Low Point for Wessex
Despite defeating the Danes in Devon, and making a peace agreement with them, Alfred’s troubles with the Danish leader Guthrum were far from done. In the early days of 878 AD, the Danes made a surprise attack on the royal fortress of Chippenham while Alfred was staying there for Christmas. The overwhelming majority of those staying at Chippenham were slaughtered or taken prisoner, while the King and his family barely escaped.
41. Nice Try, Nephew
You might be wondering what became of Æthelwold, Alfred’s nephew who was passed over for his father’s throne. He and his younger brother would be looked after by their uncle, though he made sure that neither one of them was taken seriously or given a chance to build a following. After Alfred’s death, Æthelwold joined forces with a Danish army to overthrow Alfred’s son and install himself on the throne. The subsequent revolt was brief and brutal, with Æthelwold roundly defeated and killed at the Battle of the Holme.
42. The King is Dead
On the 26th of October 899, Alfred died of unknown causes (though historians have suggested that he succumbed to Crohn’s disease based on the symptoms described by Bishop Asser). He was initially buried in Winchester Cathedral’s Old Minster before being moved to the newly constructed New Minster four years later. It’s been speculated that the New Minster was built specifically to lay Alfred to a more prestigious rest.
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