Alfred the Great

King of the West Saxons

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Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great
King of the West Saxons

Picture courtesy of Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

Throughout the 9th century the Vikings were a constant threat to the people of Britain. The raiders dominated the north and east of the country by the middle of the century, and made periodic incursions into the south and west. In Alfred's time, there was a real risk of a total Viking conquest of the English kingdoms.

When Alfred inherited the throne of Wessex in 871 he was only 22. From then until the battle of Edington in 878, Alfred was almost completely occupied with the defence of his kingdom. His defeat of the Vikings at Edington brought more settled conditions, which, apart from some further unsuccessful Danish incursions in the 890s, were to last for some years. Following the depredations of the war years, Alfred set about rebuilding his kingdom. That many of the Danes who had settled in England were converted to Christianity was an unexpected bonus. Alfred persuaded Guthrum, whom he defeated at Edington, to accept baptism.

Alfred was determined to reconstruct the learning and scholarship that had been lost, and to that end brought in the best foreign scholars he could find from neighbouring kingdoms and the continent. Alfred, having been well-educated himself, took a leading part in this intellectual revival, looking not only to his clergy but his leading laymen as well. The king’s scheme included the translation of various classic works into then common tongue, a task that he assisted with himself. At the end of his last work he wrote:

“He is a very foolish man, who will not increase his understanding while he is still in this world, and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.”

Alfred was also a very devout king. He attended mass daily and observed the canonical hours. He devoted half his income and half his time to the service of religion. The money for the church was given to the poor, to religious foundations and the re-establishment of monasteries, to the court school, and to various churches. Alfred clearly saw the church as the servant of the people. A legal code Alfred produced was to be interpreted in a Christian spirit of compassion, and the code itself recognised the place of the church in society.

Alfred was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester. Because of his courage and his Christian virtues, he has been called “the Great”, the only English monarch to be given that title.

BORN: 849 AD, Wantage, England

DIED: 26 October 899 AD, Winchester, England