Alfred the Great

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Alfred the Great
King of Wessex
caption
Statue of Alfred at Wantage
Reign 871 – October 26, 899
Coronation April 1871
Full name Alfred
Titles King of the Anglo Saxons
Born c. 849
Died October 26, 899
Place of death Unknown
Buried Hyde Abbey (Now Lost)
Predecessor Ethelbert
Successor Edward the Elder
Consort Queen Ealswitha
Consort Earlswith
Consort to Ealswitha (Alswitha) of Mercia
Children 5 including Edward the Elder
Father Ethlewulf
Mother Osburga
Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester

Alfred the Great (c. 849 - 26 October 899) was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. He was the first monarch from the British Isles to style himself as 'King of the Anglo-Saxons' and so he is sometimes considered the first English king. Alfred started the Royal Navy in the 9th century.

Early childhood[change | change source]

Alfred was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex and Osburga. She was the daughter of Oslac, Athelwulf's butler.[a] Alfred was born in 849 in the royal village of Wantage then in Berkshire.[2] In the world he grew up in there was constant talk and fear of Viking raiders.[3] For fourteen years they had been raiding but a year after Alfred's birth they remained all winter.[4] The Viking menace was now settled on the island of Thanet in Kent.[5]

When he was about four Alfred's mother, Osburga, died.[6] At age twelve Alfred had difficulty finding a qualified teacher to help him learn to read and write. He finally overcame the problem and learned to read and write by using the writings of the church.[6] At some point in his childhood Alfred was made a consul (a high rank in Anglo-Saxon England styled on the Roman office of consul).[7] The ceremony involved him receiving a red cloak, a jeweled belt and a sword.[7] This ceremony meant he was not destined to join the church, as the younger sons typically were. His life as an adult would be as a nobleman and possibly, if he survived his four older brothers, as king someday.[7]

Before he was seven years old he had traveled to Rome twice.[8] In 853 Alfred was sent with an escort and met Pope Leo IV.[9] In 855 King Æthelwulf traveled to Rome taking his young son Alfred with him. They stayed in Rome a year and returned through France.[10] There king Æthelwulf and his son Alfred stayed at the court of Charles the Bald. Æthelwulf became engaged to Charles's eldest daughter, Judith, then about aged twelve. That same October they were married at Verberie in northern France.[b]

Succession[change | change source]

While Alfred and his father were in Rome and France, 855-856, his older brother Athelstan had died.[14] On the king's return his son Ethelbald, with his followers. was threatening a civil war.[14] To prevent this from happening Æthelwulf stepped down as king. He gave the rule over Wessex to his son Ethelbald. He took over the rule of Kent, Essex, Sussex and Surrey ruling Wessex as the under-king with his child bride Judith sharing his throne.[14] In 858 king Æthelwulf died.

Ethelbald, now the undisputed king, next did the unexpected. He married his and Alfred's stepmother Judith. According to Asser, all men in England were horrified.[15] Two years later in 860, Ethelbald was dead.[15] Alfred's third brother, Ethelbert, succeeded to the throne. He united all of Wessex into one kingship.[14] Queen Judith sold all of her extensive holdings in England and returned to France.[14]

The next brother to rule Wessex was Ethelbert.[16] In the same year he succeeded his brother there was a great Viking raid on the south coast of England. The Vikings plundered Winchester the chief city of Wessex and obtained a great deal of plunder. As they returned to their ships they were ambushed by Anglo-Saxons from Hampshire and Berkshire.[16] A few survived and returned to their ships. For the next three years Southern England was free of Viking raids.[16] But the year 865 saw the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in East Anglia.[17] For a time they were more interested in Northumbria. They gained control of York and moved south into Mercia then made their winter camp in Nottingham.[17] Meanwhile King Ethelbert died in early 866.[18] So far all the brothers had been childless and so the succession was passed from brother to brother. The fourth brother in line was Ethelred. He became king in 866.[18] It was at this time Alfred was given the title of Secundarius (Latin for secondary). This meant he was designated as heir to his brother King Ethelred.[19] in 868 Burgred, the King of Mercia, asked King Ethelred and Alfred for their help against the Danes (Vikings).[17] But their forces together could not defeat the Danes.[17] By 871 the Mercians and East Anglians had been defeated. Only Wessex could mount an army against the Vikings.[20] That year Wessex was invaded by a large Danish army. After many battles the Anglo-Saxons were able to slow the Danes' progress. Ethelred died.[20] He left a young son named Ethelwald who later rebelled against Edward the Elder.[20]

King of Wessex[change | change source]

Alfred became king in the middle of this conflict. But before the end of the year he succeeded in effecting a peace, probably by paying a sum of money to the invaders.

Alfred earned the name 'the Great' by defending the kingdom from Viking invasions. Alfred was a scholar and encouraged education in the kingdom as well as improving the legal system.

King of the Anglo-Saxons[change | change source]

By the close of the ninth century the four independent kingdoms of England had been reduced to just one.[21] Wessex was the only remaining kingdom not destroyed by the Vikings.[21] Beginning about 886 Alfred claimed to be the king of all the English.[21] The exception was those parts of England that were under Danish rule.[21] This was the beginning of unifying England under a single king.[21] For many Alfred was the first king of the English. But he did not technically rule all of England. That distinction was given to Athelstan (ruled 924–939).[22] King Ethelstan was Alfred's eldest grandson.[23]

In the 880s Alfred formed a marriage alliance with Mercia, still a powerful kingdom.[24] his daughter, Ethelflaeda, married king Ethelstan (II), of Mercia.[24] After his death Ethelflaeda ruled as Queen of Mercia.[25]

By 890 Alfred was making literacy among his people a priority.[26] There were still Viking attacks and Alfred was still telling his people to continue fighting and not give up.[26] Alfred died in 899.[27] He was succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder who was crowned on Whitsunday (8 June) 900.[27]

Family[change | change source]

In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Ethelred, surnamed Mucill, Ealdorman of the Gainas.[18] Together they had several children:

Notes[change | change source]

  1. The office of chief butler in an Anglo-Saxon royal household is most likely his title here. He would be a nobleman who held the honorary office of butler.[1]
  2. The marriage was at best a diplomatic alliance. Both men were suffering from Viking attacks, and formed a common alliance.[11] Charles heard of the low status of the wives of Wessex rulers.[12] He wanted her position safeguarded in England. Charles insisted that his daughter be consecrated queen.[13] Even though the king's wife in Wessex was not given the title of queen, Æthelwulf consented.[12] At her coronation she was anointed with chrism, usually reserved for anointing bishops and kings.[13]
  3. The Mercians historically crowned queens. Ethelflaeda reigned as queen alongside her husband, then after his death she reigned as queen regnant. During her rule she played a vital part in the defense of Mercia.[25]

References[change | change source]

  1. Laurence Marcellus Larson, The King's Household in England Before the Norman Conquest, Thesis (Ph. D.), University of Wisconsin (1902), p. 127
  2. Asser's Life of King Alfred, trans. L.C. Jane (London: Chatto and Windus, 1908), p. 1
  3. Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great: The King and His England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 21
  4. Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great: The King and His England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 22
  5. Benjamin Thorpe, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle according to the Several Original Authorities: Translation (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1861), p. 59
  6. 6.0 6.1 George Frederick Bosworth, Alfred the Great: His Life and Times (London, Macmillan and Co., 1914), p. 12
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Sarah Foot, AEthelstan: The First King of England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 33
  8. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 271-72 & 271 note 3
  9. Thomas Hughes, Alfred the Great (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1871), p. 38
  10. Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great: The King and His England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 32-33
  11. Frank Stenton, Anglo Saxon-England (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 245
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pauline Stafford, 'The King's Wife in Wessex 800-1066', Past & Present, No. 91 (May, 1981), p. 3
  13. 13.0 13.1 Jennifer Ward, Women in England in the Middle Ages (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), p. 120
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great: The King and His England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 36
  15. 15.0 15.1 Asser's Life of King Alfred, trans. L.C. Jane (London: Chatto and Windus, 1908), p. 15
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 John Allen Giles, The Life and Times of Alfred the Great (London, G. Bell, 1848), pp. 69-70
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings, Second Edition (London; New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 173
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Asser's Life of King Alfred, trans. L.C. Jane (London: Chatto and Windus, 1908), p. 155
  19. R. H. Hodgkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), p. 242
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 18, eds. Leslie Stephen; Sidney Lee (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1889), p. 26
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 N. P. Brooks, 'England in the Ninth Century: The Crucible of Defeat', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 29, (1979), p. 1
  22. 22.0 22.1 Sarah Foot, AEthelstan: The First King of England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 1
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 23.6 Detlev Schwennicke, Europäische Stammtafeln: Stammtafeln zur Geschichte der Europäischen Staaten, Neue Folge, Band II (Marburg, Germany: J. A. Stargardt, 1984), Tafel 78
  24. 24.0 24.1 Barbara Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 150
  25. 25.0 25.1 Pauline Stafford, 'The King's Wife in Wessex 800-1066', Past & Present, No. 91 (May, 1981), p. 4
  26. 26.0 26.1 Barbara Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 129
  27. 27.0 27.1 W. H. Stevenson, 'The Date of King Alfred's Death', The English Historical Review, Vol. 13, No. 49 (Jan, 1898), p. 77

Other websites[change | change source]