Alfred The Great

Alfred The Great

NAME Alfred the Great (The "Great" was bestowed upon him in the 17th century). His real name was Aelfred meaning "Elf Counsel."

WHAT FAMOUS FOR King of Wessex

BIRTH b 849 Wantage, Berks.

FAMILY BACKGROUND His father was Ethelwulf, the King of Wessex, Kent and Essex. His mother, Osburh. Ethelwulf's first Wife.
Alfred was the youngest of five brothers and the favourite son. The successive deaths of his three elder brothers between 860 and 871 could hardly have been foreseen. When Ethelwulf, the King, died, The Witan (A sort of Saxon Parliament), chose Alfred to succeed him, ahead of his two surviving elder brothers.

CHILDHOOD As a young boy, despite not being able to read, young Alfie particularly enjoyed listening to the court bards reciting poetry. He seems to have been a child of singular attractiveness and promise, and tales of his boyhood were remembered. It is said he desired to own a particular manuscript of Anglo Saxon poems. Alfred managed to borrow it and he promptly gave the manuscript to someone else who read it to him. The young Prince had a natural retentive memory and he repeated the whole thing ad verbatim to his Mother, who gave him the book.
At five years old, in 853, 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".

EDUCATION Even as a youngster , Alfred had a great love for learning, even though he had no formal education during his childhood. Young Alfie did not learn to read until the age of twelve, whereupon he fell in love with books. He learnt off by heart, the daily services of the church, Psalms and prayers.
As a king, Alfred gained a reputation as a patron of education. He ordered as an anti Viking strategy, that all Wessex youth should be taught to read in English and later in Latin. He believed this would make his subjects holy and wise and stop the Viking raids which were divine punishment for sin.
Alfred invited various notable scholars to teach at the court school, that he had founded, though tennis wasn't on the syllabus. He also encouraged Monasteries to expand their educational work. Alfred, himself, having taught himself Latin in his late thirties, translated various works from Latin to old English, to help his people learn.
Doing a period of peace between 887-92 from those irritating Vikings, he learnt Latin.

CAREER RECORD 871 Fought Vikings at battles of Ashdown and Merton. Succeeded his Brother Ethelred, as King. A few years of peace
876 Those pesky Vikings invade England
878 Alfred is forced to retreat to the Isle of Athelney. He defeats the Vikings at Edington, a treaty is signed and the Danelaw (a defining of the boundaries giving the Vikings Eastern England and King Alfred Western England), is agreed.
886 Alfred captures London from the Danes and moves the focus of commercial and other activity into the city.
893 Vikings invade again. Darn persistent those Vikings
897 Vikings withdraw again (phew!).

APPEARANCE Alfred was clean-shaven, barrel chinned, rather ordinary looking but with a kindly countenance. A weathered & tanned face, (it was tanned by the smoke from the central hearths in the places he stayed-an early form of self-tanner). If this doesn't give you a clear enough idea, why not pop down to Winchester for the day and have a look at the statue of him at Winchester Broadway.

FASHION Alfred owned a gold enamel and crystal oval jewel, with the inscription of "Aelfred Mec Heht Gewyrcan" (Alfred ordered me to be made). The Alfred Jewel, as it is imaginatively titled, can be found today (I assume you are not reading this on a Sunday, when its closed), in the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.

CHARACTER By temperament a Scholar, pious, charismatic. Basically he was great.

RELATIONSHIPS AND FAMILY Alfred married Ealhswith, who was descended from Mercian kings in 868. She bore him two sons & three daughters. They had five or six children, one of whom, Edward the Elder, (870-924) succeeded Alfred and made Wessex into the most powerful Kingdom in the British Isles. A daughter, Ethelfleda, became Queen of Mercia in her own right.

MONEY A 50% tither, Alfred gave his income to the poor, the monasteries, his court school, and an annual gift to the Pope at Rome.
He taxed his subjects with Peter's Pence, a tax on individual households going to the Pope at Rome. It continued to be charged at intervals until the Reformation.
During his reign, Alfred undertook a reform of the currency system. He deemed it necessary to establish a series of new mints around the country. As a result every borough got its own mint to help pay for the costs of running and defending the borough, and maybe to suck when feeling hungry.

INTERESTS FOOD AND DRINK King Alfred was seeking refuge, incognito, from those exasperating Vikings who had conquered the kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria and reduced Mercia to a fragment of its former size. The king stayed in a hut on the Isle of Athelney in Somerset, which belonged to a poor Anglo Saxon swineherd and his family and the wife asked the unrecognised monarch to keep an eye on the baking cakes. Alfred was deep in thought and the cakes were burnt. As a result the royal refugee was verbally roasted by the woman of the house. Actually it is felt this story might merely be a legend, but any biography of the "Cordon Bluh!" King is incomplete without the cake story

LITERATURE Here's some literature factoids for Alfred.
1. Having learnt Latin Alfred translated with the help of scholars from Mercia and published the Anglo Saxon equivalent of best-sellers. They were the first prose to be written in old English, previously all literature had been written in Latin. These included:
Bede's History of the English People, which tells of the early Anglo Saxon peoples and their conversion to Christianity.
Boethus' Consolation of Philosophy, a significant work, largely influenced by Plato's philosophy. Despite being written by a heathen Roman, it contained a great deal of good Christian ethics. Alfred's translation had a great influence on English literature.
Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care," which was originally written with the view of the Spiritual education of the Clergy. Alfred was still working on this when he died.
2. Alfred was thought to have supervised the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a sort of retrospective Newspaper, detailing historical events from Roman times. It continued until 1154.
3. Alfred compiled a book of laws ominously called The Doom book. It might sound like the name of an early horror novel, but the title comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "d?m" (pronounced "dome") meaning "judgment", or "law."
4. Because of Alfred?s concern for the spiritual effect of the Viking?s pillaging and ravaging, he let go his ideal of maintaining the Latin tongue as a general pattern for worship and begun a Christian library in the Anglo Saxon language.

NATURE Alfred was the first Englishman to provide horses for his troops
The English monarch commemorated his victory at the Battle of Edington with a chalk white horse on the downs near Westbury, which still can be seen today.

HOBBIES AND SPORTS Alfred was a keen and skilled huntsman & falconer.

SCIENCE Alfred was a keen scientist, in an Anglo Saxon sort of way. He invented a Candle Clock, which was a candle that was marked to tell the time. He used it to divide his day into equal portions of royal duties, study and prayer and rest.

PHILOSOPHY & THEOLOGY A devout Christian confirmed by the Pope in Rome, Alfred attended the New Minister Church in Winchester, which later became the medieval Hyde Abbey. He came to the English throne during a period where the Christian culture of his kingdom was under threat from the Vikings. The new king believed that God was sending those northern heathens as a punishment for his subjects? neglect of the study of the Bible. His understanding of kingship was based on the conviction that the role of the king is to be Christ?s deputy on Earth and that he is always under the judgement of God.
After King Alfred defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington, he required their king, Guthrum, to be baptized and he himself stood as a godfather.
Alfred showed the benefits of forgiveness when the Viking leader Haestan broke an agreed peace and made a fortified camp at Benfleet. Arthur?s sons Edward and Ethelred stormed their camp and took Haestan?s wife & sons as captives. Arthur sent them back to him. Haestan never fought Alfred again.
Throughout his reign Alfred attempted to encourage his people to live by the Word of God. To help with this he had many Churches and Monasteries, which had been destroyed by the Vikings, rebuilt and the Gospels and many Psalms translated from Latin into English. He once said ?there is only one foundation on which to build any kingdom & that is the sure foundation of Jesus Christ. It is on that foundation I will build my kingdom.?

LAW Alfred promulgated the first laws in more than a century in England, and rewrote them in common speech. It was said that the king instilled throughout England such respect for the law that it was commonly said that in his day one might leave precious jewels hanging on a roadside bush & no one would venture to take them.

SCANDAL Alfred was stainless in character.

MILITARY RECORD Not a man of much natural strength but a considerable warrior. In his youth Alfred fought with his brother, Ethelred against the Vikings. He was a militant Christian who baptised his enemies after defeating them in battle. His successes against the Vikings can be attributed to his revamped Army, the newly founded Navy and the fortified towns. I'm sure all the prayers that Alfred sent up to Heaven didn't go amiss either. He reorganised military service so that half the home guard were farming and the other half were in the field against invaders.
Under the laws of Alfred anyone caught fighting in the presence of a bishop had to pay 100 shillings in compensation. The fine rose to 150 shillings if an archbishop was present.
Here is Alfred's military CV:
871 Alfred won, with his brother a vital victory at the Battle of Ashdown . It wasn't all a piece of cake and two months later, the Vikings more than held their own in another great fight at Merton. A few days later his brother died and Alfred succeeded him. The new king wisely bought off his Scandinavian enemies, allowing himself time to organise his defences.
872-5 A time of peace, which he spent in constructing 60 Oar Longboats , similar to those used by the Vikings and training would be Steve Redgraves. Alfred used patrols of the East Anglican coast, using Seamen from Frisiar until he'd trained his own fighting men.
He organised his Army into interchangeable active service and farming Sections led by ealdormen. Alfred also developed a system of Burhs, which were fortified towns, each located no more than 20 miles from the next one-less than a days march.
878 After gaining Mercia, the Vikings unsportingly made a surprise attack at Chippenham, where Alfred was celebrating Christmas. The King was forced to withdraw to the Isle of Athelney, in the Somerset fens with a few supporters, where he burnt those cakes. Disguised as a harper he visited Danish camps and gained information about their strength & movements. The fugitive King quickly rallied his troops and won an emphatic victory against Guthrum at Edington in May. A treaty was made and Danelaw resulted. The Danish Vikings kept East England, Alfred retained the west and the Viking king was baptised.
885 Alfred successfully repels the Danish invasion of Kent
886 Alfred recaptured London, which had fallen into disrepair and rebuilt and populated the former fortified Roman city. He is recognised as king of all England not under Danish rule. By now the Danes were confined to the north of England.
893-96 After a few years peace, those infuriating Vikings, trying to have their cake and eat it, invaded again. Alfred's Son, Edward beats the re-invading Norsemen at Bridgenorth with the help of a strengthened navy and support from the Welsh.
897-901 Unmolested by those Vikings from Denmark in the last few years of his reign., Alfred left England in apple pie order. His defensive stratagem prevented a future for his people of Carlsberg lager, Danish bacon and pastries being devoured in their Lego homes.

HOMES Alfred spent most of his time wandering between his 29 burhs. He would spend a few days in each, the king and his retinue being fed and entertained by the locals.
After capturing London, Alfred switched his capital to it from Winchester. He saw its potential as a defensive town on the Thames.
Alfred's stone palace is thought to lie deep beneath the western part of Winchester Cathedral close.

TRAVEL Before the age of seven, Alfred had already been taken twice to Rome to visit the Pope. As a very young boy, he accompanied his father to Rome in 853, where the pope gave him the title of Roman consul. Again in 855, this time his pilgrimage lasted a year, and he was accompanied by the presumably folically challenged Charles the Bald, King of the Franks.

HEALTH AND PHYSICAL FITNESS In his younger days the devout King Alfred asked God to send him a disease that would suppress his lustful thoughts without preventing him from ruling. The answer to his prayer was hemorrhoids-well he did ask. An epileptic, coupled with being a Crohn?s disease sufferer, Alfred's health was often poor. Presumably he needed a lot of 'Elf counsel' ha..ha...! (cough).

DEATH Alfred died in 899, and was buried, with his wife and son, in a Winchester monastery that was closed during the Reformation. His resting-place remains a mystery but his bones are believed to have been moved as much as four times since he died. In 1999 his grave was found at the site of the former Hyde Abbey in Winchester.

APPEARANCES IN MEDIA 1. Alfred the Great (1969) A film starring David Hemmings turning the tide against those pillaging and ravaging but not very ravishing Vikings.
2. Thomas Arne's "Alfred," which demonstrated Alfred's desire that Britons would never be slaves. This musical drama includes the original version of "Rule Britannica."
3. Asser's "Life of Alfred." Asser, The Bishop of Sherborne, wrote this biography during Alfred's lifetime. It is the first known biography of an Englishman who hadn't achieved sainthood.

ACHIEVEMENTS 1. Alfred undertook the cultural and intellectual regeneration of his people. In his reign many works were translated and copied and a number of Schools were founded.
2. Alfred developed the English navy and reorganised the army. He was the only English ruler to resist Danish invasions successfully.
3. As a result of Alfred's translations into old English, West Saxon became prevalent in prose literature
4. Alfred's laws, which were rewritten in common speech. were the first to make no distinction between the English and Welsh people.
5. Alfred encouraged and enhanced the spiritual life of his people.
6. According to the book 1066 and All That, Alfred was "a good thing." Not only that he was the only English King to be called "Great."
7. Alfred was revered and loved by his people and united England, he was the first king of the Western Saxons to refer to himself as "King of the English." Churchill called him the greatest Englishman ever.

Sources and

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