1902 Encyclopedia > Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great
King of Wessex (from 871)

, the youngest son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons, was born at Wantage in Berkshire in 849 A.D. At an early age he was summoned to the assistance of his brother iEthelred against the Danes. These formidable enemies, whose object hitherto had been mere plunder, were now aiming at a permanent settlement in the country, and after ravag-ing and subduing Northumbria, East Anglia, and the greater part of Mercia, they fell with their united forces on Wessex itself. A series of encounters took place, in which Alfred greatly distinguished himself, especially at Ashdown, where the Danes were routed with great slaughter, and left several of their most famous leaders dead on the field of battle. ^Ethelred dying in the midst of the struggle, Alfred was unanimously elected king (871), in the twenty-second year of his age. About a month after his accession he met the enemy at Wilton, where, after a long and doubtful struggle, he was defeated. Both parties were now becoming tired of the war. Immense loss had been suffered on both sides, and although the Danes on the whole had been victorious, their victories had brought them no substantial results. A treaty of peace was con-cluded, and the Danes withdrew to London.

On the cessation of hostilities, Alfred was enabled to turn his attention to naval affairs. The sea was swarming with pirates, and their descents on the coast kept the country in a state of jierpetual alarm. To cope with them successfully Alfred resolved to meet them on their own element, and a naval victory which he gained over seven Danish rovers in 875 is the first on record won by Englishmen. In the following year the peace of 871 was broken. An army of Danes from East Anglia, under their king, Guthrum, sailing along the south coast, landed in Wessex, seized upon Wareham, and afterwards upon Exeter, then the centre of a disaffected Celtic population, and it « was not till 877 that the country was once more free from the invader.

The year 878 was the most eventful in the course of Alfred's reign. At mid-winter, without any warning, the Danes came pouring into Wessex from the north, seized Chippenham, and making it the centre of their operations, quickly overran the country. Many of the inhabitants, in despair, fled into foreign lands, and Alfred, totally unprepared to meet the storm, retired to the marshes of Somerset. Never at any other period, either before or after, were his fortunes so low, and the national existence itself was at stake. Had Alfred, like his kinsman Burked of Mercia, left his peoj)le in their hour of need, the heathen Dane in all probability would have acted like the heathen Englishmen before him—a new race would have possessed the land, and the names of England and Englishmen would have disappeared from the page of history. Alfred's mis-fortunes only roused him to fresh exertions, and his military skill and valour enabled him to carry his people in safety through this momentous crisis. Fortifying him-self at Athelney about Easter, he secretly matured his plans for meeting the enemy, and seven weeks after, having collected his forces at Brixton near Selwood, he rapidly advanced in a north-easterly direction, and was close upon the Danes before they had any intelligence of his approach. A fierce conflict ensued at Ethandun, now Edington, in which the Danes were entirely defeated ; and about fourteen days after this they were compelled to sue for peace. By the treaty of Wedmore, Watling Street (the old road running across the island from London to Chester and the Irish Channel) was to be the boundary between Alfred and the Danes, the latter were to be vassals to the kings of Wessex, and their chiefs to receive baptism. This treaty was observed by the Danes with much greater fidelity than those of an earlier date had been. Guthrum their king and about thirty of their chiefs were baptized at Wedmore, and Alfred, who stood sponsor for Guthrum, gave him the name of iEthelstan. The Danish army after this slowly withdrew, and eventually settled down peaceably in East Anglia. The acceptance of Christianity by their chiefs seems indeed to have broken for a time the fierce crusading energy which gave a special animus to the piratical expedi-tions of the heathen Danes.

As soon as peace had been concluded Alfred turned his attention to the internal affairs of his kingdom. He vigorously set to work to put the country in a complete state of defence. Old fortifications were repaired and new ones raised in suitable localities. The fleet was brought into a state of greater efficiency, and it was Alfred indeed that laid the foundation of England's naval greatness. He cleared the land of the bands of robbers that infested it, and took care that justice was impartially administered to all his subjects, severely punishing any wilful perversion of it on the part of the judges. In his code of laws, which is a compilation from those of his predecessors, he wisely abstained from introducing much of his own, giving as his reason that he was afraid it might not be accepted by posterity. He greatly encouraged commerce, and took a lively interest in geographical discovery. We have from his pen a minute account of two voyages of Ohthere, especially of the one round the North Cape into the White Sea, and also of a voyage of Wulfstan to the Baltic. And it is to Alfred that we are indebted for the best account that has reached us of the Germany of the 9 th century.

Alfred's devotion to learning, and his exertions in the cause of education, are among the most remarkable features of his reign. So deep was the popular ignorance when Alfred ascended the throne that, according to his own testimony, hardly any one south of the Thames could under-stand the ritual of the church or translate a Latin letter. It was one of the strongest and most cherished of his purposes that this state of matters should be entirely changed, and that every free-born English youth who had the means should qualify himself to read English correctly. In order to accomplish this, he rebuilt the monasteries which had been cast down in the late wars, and which were the great centres of education in those days, invited learned men from all quarters to his court, and by their assistance completed a number of works for the diffusion of knowledge throughout his dominions. These were not original compositions but free translations of Latin authors that were held in much esteem at the time, and the fact that Orosius and Bede are two of the works he selected, shows the high value he set upon an acquaintance with history and geography. A copy of his version of Gregory's Pastoral Care was sent to every diocese for the benefit of the clergy. It is in the preface to that work that Alfred gives his touching account of the decay of learning, and expresses his desire for its revival. But the work which seems to have had the greatest attraction for him was The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius. In his translation of this work Alfred gives us more of his own original composition, and a deeper insight into his thoughts and feelings, than in any other of his works. His Manual or Handbook, which is known to have been in existence in the 12th century, is lost, and this is the more to be regretted since, besides the extracts from Latin authors which it contained, it is believed that he had inserted in it not a few compositions of his own.

In occupations such as these fifteen years of comparative tranquillity, disturbed now and then by troubles with the Danes, passed away. A fresh swarm from abroad had landed in Kent in 885 and besieged Rochester, but on the king's approach they raised the siege and returned to their ships. The next eight years were years of uninterrupted peace; but the Danes, suffering a severe defeat at the hands of Arnulf, king of the East Franks, sailed for England in two divisions in 893. One of these divisions was under the command of the terrible Hastings. Their arrival was a signal to the Danes of Northumbria and East Anglia, who rose in great numbers to aid their kinsmen. Alfred, however, was better prepared to meet the danger than he had formerly been. His towns were so strong that the Danes seem studiously to have avoided them. A body of the enemy was routed by Alfred at Farnham in Surrey. Another great host, moving to the west in the line of the Thames, was followed by three of Alfred's alder-men to Buttington in Montgomeryshire and completely defeated. Those who escaped made their way to Essex. Leaving their wives and children there, and receiving considerable additions to their numbers, they crossed the country once more and established themselves within the fortifications of the old Roman town of Chester, which was then uninhabited. There they remained for the winter, when, provisions failing them, they removed to Wales, and with the harvest of plunder they gathered there they retreated into Essex by way of the friendly districts of Northumbria and East Anglia. So rapid had their movements been that Alfred's army was unable to keep up with them. The same year (895), before winter set in, the Danes sailed up the Thames into the Lea, and selecting an advantageous position on the banks of the latter stream, constructed a fortress about 20 miles above London. As this proved a considerable annoyance to the citizens, the}-attacked it the following summer, but were repulsed with great loss. During harvest the king was obliged to encamp in the neighbourhood of the city to protect the reapers while gathering in their crops. He afterwards raised two forts on each side of the Lea, and so effectually blocked up the passage of the river that the enemy abandoned their vessels and proceeded to Bridgenorth on the Severn. In the summer of 897 the great Danish host broke up, and part of them returned to the continent. The rest dis-persed through Northumbria and East Anglia, and for some time gave Alfred no little trouble by their piratical excursions. By means of vessels formed after a model of his own, of unusual length and speed, he succeeded at last in curbing his Danish foes, but not till after a desperate encounter with them on the south coast, in which the advantage was not all on his side. The war was, as usual, accompanied by pestilence, and great numbers perished, many being persons of the highest rank in the state. The rest of Alfred's reign, about which we know almost nothing, seems to have been passed in peace. He died in the year 901, at the age of fifty-two, and was buried at Winchester.

The memory of Alfred has ever been gratefully cherished by his countrymen. There never perhaps was a monarch so highly esteemed; and traditional stories of the most fascinating description cluster around his name, in which he appears almost to as much advantage as in real history. Institutions that existed long before his time, but whose origin it is impossible to trace, have erroneously been attributed to him; and in the times of Norman oppres-sion, when the people were groaning under the burden of slavery, they fondly called to mind the " Darling of the English," to whom they ascribed all those rights and privileges which they so highly valued, and of which they had been unjustly deprived. Time but adds to Alfred's praises. With one consent our historians agree in char-acterising him as the wisest, best, and greatest king that ever reigned in England.

The following is a list of Alfred's works :— 1. Manual or Handbook, of which no copy is known to exist. 2. Laws (see "Wilkin's Leges Anglo-Saxoniccs, 1721, and Thorpe's Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, London, 1840). Transla-tions into Old English (Anglo-Saxon) of the following :—3. Bede's Ecclesiastical History, edited by Wheloc, Cambridge, 1643-4, and by Smith, Cambridge, 1722. 4. The Universal History of Orosius, edited by Thorpe, London, 1857. 5. The Consolations of Philosophy, by Boethius, edited by Fox, London, 1864. 6. Gregory's Pastoral Care, edited by Sweet for the Early English Text Society, London, 1871-2.

For further information about Alfred see Pauli's Life of Alfred and Freeman's Old English History and History of the Norman Conquest.

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