ALFRED the GREAT, King of Wessex
KING ALFRED the Great, King of Wessex and later England, 23rd April 871 - 26th October 899
Alfred was born at Wantage in Oxfordshire in 849, fourth or fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. Following the wishes of their father, the sons succeeded to the kingship in turn. At a time when the country was under threat from Danish raids, this was aimed at preventing a child inheriting the throne with the subsequent weaknesses in leadership. In 870 AD the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, whose forces were commanded by Alfred's older brother, King Aethelred, and Alfred himself.
In 871 AD, Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire. The following year, Aethelred received mortal wounds in battle at Merton in Oxfordshire and Alfred succeeded his brother as king. In early 878, the Danes led by King Guthrum seized Chippenham in Wiltshire in a lightning strike and used it as a secure base from which to devastate Wessex. With only his royal bodyguard, a small army of thegns (the king's followers) and Aethelnoth earldorman of Somerset as his ally, Alfred withdrew to the Somerset tidal marshes. (It was during this time that Alfred allegedly burned some cakes which he had been asked to look after; the incident was a legend dating from early twelfth century chroniclers.)
Alfred reassessed his strategy and adopted the Danes' tactics by building a fortified base at Athelney in the Somerset marshes and summoning a mobile army of men from Wiltshire, Somerset and part of Hampshire to pursue guerrilla warfare against the Danes. In May 878, Alfred's army defeated the Danes at the battle of Edington.
The Danes made peace and Guthrum, their king, was baptised with Alfred as his sponsor. In 886 AD, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danes. England was divided, with the north and the east (between the Rivers Thames and Tees) declared to be Danish territory - later known as the 'Danelaw'. Alfred therefore gained control of areas of West Mercia and Kent which had been beyond the boundaries of Wessex.
Alfred built up the defences of his kingdom to ensure that it was not threatened by the Danes again. He reorganised his army and built a series of well-defended settlements across southern England, including a formidable chain of thirty defensive forts called burhs. He also established a navy for use against the Danish raiders who continued to harass the coast.
As an administrator Alfred advocated justice and order and established a code of laws and a reformed coinage. He had a strong belief in the importance of education and learnt Latin in his late thirties. He then arranged, and himself took part in, the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon.
By the 890s, Alfred's charters and coinage were referring to him as 'king of the English'. He died in October 899 AD and was buried at his capital city of Winchester.