Alfred the Great
There is a well known story of a king who, after being defeated in battle, was forced to take refuge in the marshes and act as a serving man for a poor woman living there. One day the woman asked him to watch some cakes she was baking, and the hapless king assented. The king was quickly lost in his thoughts, and after some time awoke with a start to see the woman gesticulating towards the charred cakes and rating him for his carelessness and lack of thrift.
The King was Alfred the Great, who ruled Wessex A.D. 871-899. It is among the greatest ironies of history that, as the historian and author G.A. Henty once remarked, “The incident of the burned cakes is, of all the actions of a great and glorious reign, the most prominent.” In fact, the story of King Alfred and his followers and their desperate struggle to defend their homeland is among the greatest stories of perseverance, valor and wisdom in all of recorded history.
It was in the year 870, when Alfred ruled as co-regent with his brother Ethelred that the Danes (Vikings) began to invade his kingdom in force. In 871, the Saxons fought the Danes in eight pitched battles, with varying fortunes. However, the Viking armies were made up of professional soldiers, while only a portion of the Saxon armies were soldiers, the rest being conscripted farmers. Although King Ethelred fell in the last of these battles and his kingdom was worn out by fighting, King Alfred was able to make a treaty with the Danes by which they withdrew in 872. For several years the peace was kept, and Alfred dedicated himself to restoring his kingdom to a state of defense.
But in 876 the Danes renewed the war, launching an invasion in overwhelming force. Alfred defeated the Danes in momentous battles against great odds by land and sea, and effectually trapped the main body of the invaders at the port of Exeter so that they promised to retreat and never return if their lives were spared. But Alfred’s forces were weakened in the struggle, and when the Danes received reinforcements and treacherously renewed the invasion, he was unable to resist the onslaught. Thus it was that the king, after many brilliant victories, found himself a fugitive on the isle of Athelney in the marshes of England.
The Danes now roamed freely through King Alfred’s kingdom, plundering and oppressing the people. But Alfred, undaunted, secretly prepared to renew the struggle. In May of 878 Alfred, having rearmed and reorganized his forces without alerting the Danes, marched suddenly to attack their central encampment at Chippenham. The Danes met him in pitched battle, and Alfred’s determined, well disciplined army won a decisive victory. Besieged in their camp and suffering from starvation, the Danes finally surrendered to the Saxons, and many of their leaders turned from paganism to Christianity. It was not long before the Danish incursions were renewed, but in the intervening time King Alfred was able to develop a strong, professional army and navy to check the invaders. After years of struggle, the steadfast courage and wisdom of King Alfred and the loyalty of his people had brought peace and freedom to his kingdom.
Alfred is regarded as the greatest of English kings, and he was the only one that the English have ever called 'the great'. In 886, when he freed London from the Danish invaders, he proclaimed himself 'King of the Anglo-Saxons' and 'King of the English'. At the time of his death in A.D. 899 he ruled Wessex and Western Mercia, and was acknowledged king of all the English who were not living under Danish occupation. For these reasons, and many others, he is regarded as the first monarch of all the English as a united people. He was an intellectual, and translated by his own hand many Latin texts into English so his people could read them. According to his biographer the Welsh monk named Asser, he was a deeply complex man who suffered a number of emotional and mental disorders, probably what we today would call obsessive compulsive disorder. But of all the English kings he is the only one who is not regarded as flawed in any way, and his own personal character has molded the English national character to the present day. He was succeeded as king by his eldest son Edward, known to history as Edward the Elder.
- “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” trans. Anne Savage
- Douglas Woodruff: "The Life and Times of Alfred the Great"