Monday, 20 August 2012

Alfred the Great

(d. 899) King of Wessex (r. 871-899). The youngest son of Aethelwulf of Wessex, Alfred succeeded to the throne on the death of his brother Aethelred I. The early years of his reign were taken up by a life-and-death struggle with the Danish Great Army, culminating in the near collapse of Wessex after a surprise attack on the royal manor at Chippenham in midwinter 878 forced Alfred into hiding at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset. From there, Alfred rallied his forces, and that May he won a decisive victory over the Danes at Edington and besieged their base at Chippenham, forcing them to surrender. By the treaty of Wedmore, the Danish king Guthrum accepted baptism and withdrew his army to East Anglia. Alfred embarked on a thorough reorganisation of the defences of Wessex, building a series of fortresses or burhs, reforming the army, and building a fleet to take on the Vikings at sea. He built a close relationship with Mercia, marrying his daughter Aethelflead to its ruler ealdorman Aethelred, and also with Northumbria, presenting himself as leader of all English not under Danish rule. In 886 Alfred recaptured London from the Danes after Guthrum had broken the the peace the previous year. In the peace settlement, Alfred forced Guthrum to grant equal rights to the English living under his rule. The effectiveness of Alfred's defences were tested by the arrival of a large Viking army from Francia in 892. But despite receiving support from the Danish settlers in the Danelaw, this new onslaught was contained. The Vikings faced constant harassment by Alfred's forces and in 896 their army broke up, most to settle in the Danelaw, others to join the Viking army on the River Seine.

A devout Christian, Alfred believed the Viking attacks were a punishment from God for the laxity of the English Church. As a result, Alfred began a programme of educational reform to raise the standard of the clergy, inviting scholars from abroad and translating into English several major works, including Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care. He was responsible for beginning the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. In the late Anglo Saxon period, Alfred's reputation was overshadowed by those of his successors, Edward the Elder and Athelstan. Alfred's reputation began to grow in the 12th century, thanks to chronicler William of Malmsbury, and by the 16th century he had acquired his title 'the Great', the only English king to be so distinguished. Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, Alfred's reign can be seen as decisive in English history, marking the beginning of a national kingship. In his combination of political, military and scholarly abilities. Alfred stands alone among the leaders of medieval Europe.

Notes from Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age by John Haywood. Thames & Hudson 2000. pp 21-22

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