Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great was king of Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, and he became the first king of England. Historians gave him the title “Great” because he defeated the invading Danish Vikings and rescued a large part of Anglo-Saxon England from Viking conquest.
A KING IN HIDING
Alfred was born in ad 849 and was the youngest son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex. Alfred inherited the kingdom in 871 when his brother was killed while fighting against Danish Vikings. The Danish army had already conquered most of eastern England, including the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Essex. They were now attacking Wessex. Through a mixture of fighting and bribes, Alfred was able to keep the Danes away from Wessex until early in 878 when a surprise Danish attack forced him to hide among the ordinary people who lived in the Wessex marshes of the Isle of Athelney. According to legend, while hiding from the Danes Alfred stayed in the hut of a peasant woman. One day he was asked to watch over cakes in the oven but thinking of his own problems, he forgot about them and the cakes burnt.
DEFEATING THE DANES
In the summer of 878 Alfred came out of hiding and his army won a great victory against the Danes at the Battle of Edington. After the battle Alfred made Guthrum, the Danish leader, convert to Christianity. The Treaty of Wedmore between Alfred and Guthrum set out the boundaries of the Danelaw, which was the part of England ruled by the Danes. Neither side respected the treaty and fighting continued. In 879 Alfred’s army forced the Danes out of Mercia. He now concentrated on preparing Wessex and Mercia to withstand further Danish attacks. He built a series of fortified towns, known as burhs (boroughs), and built up a navy so that he could fight the Danes at sea. Alfred also reformed the Anglo-Saxon army to make it more efficient—half his men fought the Danes, while the other half worked the fields to ensure a supply of food. In 886 he captured London from the Danes. After this victory he was hailed as king of all the English. All the English, that is, who were not still living in the Danelaw under Danish rule.
Alfred did not learn to read until he was grown-up, but he proved to be an excellent student. He was able to read and write both the Latin language used by the Church and the Anglo-Saxon language, which became known as English. Alfred translated several religious works into English, and also wrote a code of laws. He became a champion of education and he set up several schools. King Alfred died in 899.