The whole of the land

Alfred "The Great"

Alfredthe Great was born somewhere around the year 847 to 849 A.D. was king of England 871-899, though at no time did he rule over the whole of the land. Alfred is famous for his defence of the kingdom against the Danes Vikings, and gained the epithet, "the Great", as a result. Details of his life are known as a result of a work by the Welsh scholar, Asser. A learned man, Alfred encouraged education and improved the kingdom's law system.

Alfred was Wantage in Berkshire, the fourth son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex (or Aethelwulf). He succeeded his brother, Ethelred I as King of Wessex and Mercia in 871. At the age of five years old, he is said to have been sent to Rome, where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, who is also said to have "anointed him as king." That, however, could not have been foreseen in 853, as Alfred had three elder brothers living. This tale is likely fictional, though in 854-855 Alfred almost certainly did go with his father on a pilgrimage to Rome, spending some time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks. In 858, Ethelwulf died.

In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucill, who is called ealdorman of the Gaini, a folk who lived in Lincolnshire about Gainsborough. She was the granddaughter of a former King of Mercia, and they had five or six children, one a daughter, Ethelfleda, who would become queen of Mercia in her own right. The same year Alfred, fighting beside his brother Ethelred, made an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Mercia from the pressure of the Danes. At the end of 870 the storm burst; and the year which followed has been called "Alfred's year of battles." Nine general engagements were fought with varying fate, although the place and date of two of them have not been recorded. A successful skirmish at Englefield, Berkshire, was followed by a severe defeat at Reading, and followed four days later, by the brilliant victory of Ashdown. On January 22 the English were again defeated at Basing, and on March 22 at Marton, Wiltshire.

Ethelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the whole burden of the contest. While he was buried with the burial and associated ceremonies for his brother, the Vikings defeated the English in his absence. After this peace was made, and for the next five years the Vikings were occupied in other parts of England, Alfred merely keeping a force of observation on the border. But in 876, the Vikings, under a new leader, Guthrum, slipped past him and attacked Wareham. Alfred blockaded them at Exeter, and a relieving fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Vikings had to submit and withdraw to Mercia. But in January 878 they made a sudden swoop on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been keeping his Christmas, "and most of the people they reduced, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way.

After the dispersal of the Vikings invaders Alfred turned his attention to the increase of the Royal Navy, and ships were built according to the king's own designs. To repress the ravages of the Northumbrian and East Anglian Vikings right on the coasts of Wessex. There had been earlier naval operations under Alfred. One naval engagement was certainly fought under Aethelwulf (in 851), and earlier ones, possibly in 833 and 840. The new ships weren't a great success, as we hear of them grounding in action and sunk in a storm. But both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy claim Alfred as the founder of their traditions.

Much, too, was needed in the way of civil re-organization, especially in the districts ravaged by the Vikings. In the parts of Mercia , the shire system seems now to have been introduced for the first time. This is the one grain of truth in the legend that Alfred was the inventor of shires. The finances also needed attention; but the subject is obscure, and we cannot accept Asser's description of Alfred's appropriation of his revenue as more than an ideal sketch. Alfred's care for the administration of justice is testified both by history and legend; and the title "protector of the poor" was his by unquestioned right. Of the action of the Witangemot we do not hear very much under Alfred. That he was anxious to respect its rights is conclusively proved, but both the circumstances of the time and the character of the king would tend to throw more power into his hands. The legislation of Alfred probably belongs to the later part of the reign, after the pressure of the Danes had relaxed.

The history of the church under Alfred is most obscure. The Danish inroads had told heavily upon it; the monasteries had been special points of attack, and though Alfred founded two or three monasteries and imported foreign monks, there was no general revival of monasticism under him. To the ruin of learning and education wrought by the Danes, and the practical extinction of the knowledge of Latin even among the clergy, the preface to Alfred's translation into Old English of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care bears eloquent witness. It was to remedy these evils that he established a court school, after the example of Charlemagne; for this he imported scholars like Grimbald and John the Saxon from Europe and Asser from South Wales; for this, above all, he put himself to school, and made the series of translations for the instruction of his clergy and people, most of which yet survive. These belong unquestionably to the latter of his reign, likely to the last four years, during which the chronicles are almost silent.

How Alfred died is unknown. Even the year is uncertain. The day was the 26th of October, and the year is now generally thought to have been 899, not 900 or 901 as was previously accepted. Alfred's accession to the throne A.D. 871-872... Ref. History of the Anglo-Saxons by Sir Francis Palgrave (1876), Alfred died six nights before "All-Hallows Mass-day," in the year 901, in the fifty-third year of his age; prematurely, if years be alone reckoned, but full of desert and honor.

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