Alfred the Great lived from around 847, until 899, and was one of a long line of Kings from the the House of Wessex. He is the only English monarch to have been honoured with the title “The Great.”
King Aelfred the Great lived his life with the declared intention of “Living worthily as long as I live, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works.” History shows that he achieved these aims, and more, in his life, and as ruler of Wessex from 871 to 899.
Alfred (Old English-Aelfred) was a king amongst kings. After many years of conflict, largely on the losing side, against the marauding Danes in England, he managed to bring peace to the land, firstly by buying off the Danes, and ultimately by defeating them at the battle of Ethendun in 878. Alfred accepted the Danish colonisation of much of England. A line was drawn which ran north-westwards from London to Chester, defining an area north of this line which was termed the Danelaw. Peace followed, but Aelfred was astute enough to realise that he needed to remain in readiness against attackes from the Danes.
From 878, he improved his army, making sure it was always availiable at short notice to defend Wessex. He kept a part of the army in reserve in case of emergency. He improved the navy, built ships which were bigger and better than those possessed by the Vikings. He built up defences and fortified towns to ensure the safety of his people. He established a network of burhs (from which derives the modern borough), defensive settlements, that were located no more than 20 miles from one another. By 897 he had successfully halted the advance of the Vikings, a remarkable achievement.
With peace a reality in Wessex, Aelfred focussed on the lack of learning in England. He, himself a learned man, founded a variety of structures to educate his people. He established a court school for nobles. He encouraged scholars to come to England. He established English as the official written language, and personally translated books from Latin.
For a king living in Medieval times, his foresight was amazing, and in the eraly 890’s he began the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a record of the times in which he lived, and placed copies in monastaries and churches, and ensured that they were regularly updated. The chronicle was updated until the 12th century, and remains one of the few literary sources for English history from the time of the Romans, to the Norman conquests.
Aelfred established a legal Saxon system of Law, and limited the old traditions of blood feuding, by imposing penalties on people who were in breech of their sworn oaths.
Under his monarchy, Wessex thrived, and peace reigned for 21 years.
He had subdued an ancient enemy, educated his people, and introduced a rule of law.
A fitting epitaph to this enlightened medieval king was the statement by Florence of Worcester, in the 13th century. It reads as follows.
“Alfred the King of the Anglo-Saxons, the son of the most pious King Ethelwulf, the famous, the warlike, the victorious, the careful provider for the widow, the helpless, the orphan and the poor, the most skilled of Saxon poets, most dear to his own nation, courteous to all, most liberal, endowed with prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance; most patient in the infirmity from which he continually suffered; the most discerning investigator in executing justice, most watchful and devout in the service of God.”
Aelfred died in 899 at the age of 53.
Truly a Great man who lived way before his time!