Best known for: Establishing peace with the Vikings and building the Kingdom of England
Alfred was born in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex which was located in the southwest of England. Alfred's father, Aethelwulf, was king of Wessex and Alfred grew up as a prince. He had four older brothers, however, so it was doubtful that he would ever be king.
Alfred was an intelligent child who loved to learn and memorize poems. He traveled to Rome as a child where he met the pope. The pope anointed Alfred as an honorary consul of Rome.
After Alfred's father died in 858, his brother Aethebald became king. Over the next several years each of his brothers died until his last elder brother, Aethelred, was crowned king.
King Alfred the Great by the Founder of Oriel College
Fighting the Vikings
Throughout much of Alfred's life the Vikings had been raiding England. In 870, the Vikings had conquered all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. Alfred became his brother's second in command. He led the Wessex army to a great victory at the Battle of Ashdown.
In 871, the Vikings continued to attack. Alfred's brother Aethelred died in one of the battles and Alfred was crowned king. Over the next several years Alfred fought off the Vikings. After many battles, he thought they had finally achieved some kind of peace.
In 878, the Danish King Guthrum led a surprise attack against Alfred and his army. Alfred managed to escape, but with only a few men. He fled to Athelney where he plotted his counterattack. Many of the men of Wessex were tired of the constant raids and attacks of the Vikings. They rallied around Alfred at Athelney and soon the king had a strong army again.
Burning of the Cakes Legend
One legend tells the story of Alfred escaping from the Vikings. At one point he took refuge in the home of an old peasant woman who did not know he was the king. The peasant woman was baking cakes when she had to go outside to tend to the animals. She asked Alfred to watch over the cakes. Alfred's mind was so occupied with the war that he forgot to watch the cakes and they burned. When the peasant woman returned she scolded him for not properly watching the cakes.
Peace with the Vikings
With his new army, Alfred counterattacked the Vikings. He defeated King Guthrum and took back his stronghold at Chippenham. He then required that the Vikings convert to Christianity and established a peace treaty where the Vikings would remain on the eastern side of Britain. The Vikings land was called the Danelaw.
Ruling as King
Alfred was a great leader in battle, but he might have been an even better leader during peacetime. Once peace had been established with the Vikings, Alfred went about rebuilding his kingdom.
With so much focus on fighting off the Vikings, the educational system of England had almost disappeared. Alfred knew that education was important, so he founded schools and rebuilt monasteries. He even translated some classic works from Latin into English himself.
Alfred also made other reforms and improvements to his kingdom including building forts throughout the country, establishing a strong navy, and bringing talented European scholars and craftsmen across the channel to England. He also established a national code of law.
Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by his son Edward. It would be his grandson Aethelstan who would be called the first King of England.
Interesting Facts about Alfred the Great
Despite being very courageous and a great leader, Alfred was physically a sickly and frail man. He struggled with illness most of his life.
He is the only English ruler to be called "the Great".
Alfred divided his army into two groups. One group would stay home with their families while the other group guarded the borders from Viking raids.
Alfred was called "King of the English" on his coins.
Alfred captured London in 886 and rebuilt much of the city.
Legend says that Alfred once disguised himself as a minstrel and snuck into a Viking war camp to spy on them.