King Alfred the Great Glastonbury
849 –899 AD


Alfred was indeed a great King. His first achievement was to unify the warring Anglo-Saxon tribes into a cohesive force. He successfully defended his kingdom against the Danish (Viking) attempt at conquest, and by the time of his death had become the dominant ruler in England.

Alfred had a reputation as a learned and merciful man of a gracious and level-headed nature, who encouraged education and improved his kingdom's legal system, military structure and his people's quality of life.

Early Life
Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon name was Ælfrēd or Ælfrǣd which meant , "elf counsel" or "wise elf". His father, Ethelwulf, King of Wessex, had a number of sons who succeeded him but their reigns were short.
Alfred was the youngest son and had learned his great warrior skills while second-in-command to his elder brother Ethelred. Together they had put up great resistance to the invading Danes and won a temporary victory at the battle of Ashdown in 870 AD.
King of Wessex
Alfred became King of Wessex in 871 AD and reigned for 28 years. The Danes were a constant enemy, making repeated attempts to invade England. Led by Guthrum, they continued to push the Anglo-Saxons west. They mounted a surprise winter attack on Alfred’s court at Chippenham. The court fled and Alfred was forced to take refuge in the Somerset marshes at Athelney.
He spent the winter in these marshes waiting for better weather before engaging the Danes again. This period of inactivity seems to have spawned the legend recounted below:
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“King Alfred and the burnt cakes
Legend has it that Alfred was hiding in a peasant woman’s hut and she asked him to watch the griddle cakes cooking on the fire. Lost in thought about his predicament Alfred let the cakes burn. The old woman shouted at him for his carelessness. Her outburst seemed to galvanise Alfred into action and he came out of the marshes and caught the Danish leader, Guthrum in a surprise battle in Wiltshire.
Success led to success and finally Guthrum surrendered. Alfred insisted he leave Wessex and accept Baptism as a Christian. The Danes retreated to East Anglia.“
What Really Happened
In May 878 AD, Alfred did emerge from the marshes and called his army together. At Edington, near Trowbridge in Wiltshire he challenged Guthum to battle.
Battle of Edington 878 AD
The Anglo-Saxons used the old Roman technique of forming a shield wall with their spears poking out through the gaps. The battle was fierce and took all day but the Danes were driven back to Chippenham. There they were trapped in Alfred’s old fort. After a siege of 14 days the starving Danes surrendered to Alfred. In return for withdrawing from the rest of England Alfred allowed Guthrum to return to East Anglia and the north but not before he had Guthrum baptised as a Christian.
The epithet ‘Great’
Only two English monarchs have been called “the Great” – Alfred and Canute. He was also the first King of the West Saxons to style himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons".
Not only was he a great warrior but he was an innovator and a thinker. He introduced the concept of fortified towns or burghs no more than 20 miles apart within Wessex. He encouraged the peasants to move into the towns by providing them with free plots of land in exchange for which they provided a defence force.
He built a new and improved navy to combat the sea-faring Danes. Alfred’s uniform code of laws ensured a well ordered kingdom and he also restored monastic life to the decimated monasteries of the Church. He divided England into two halves, the south and west where Saxon law prevailed, and the north and east where Danish law ruled. The two systems of law were not dissimilar.
Alfred’s other great contribution to the advancement of his people was the establishment of schools and the passing on of knowledge. He personally translated several books written in Latin into the Anglo-Saxon language. A rare Anglo-Saxon artefact known as Alfred’s Jewel dates from this time.
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Alfred’s Jewel
Alfred’s Jewel is an extremely beautiful small gold, crystal and enamel ornament designed to fit on the end of a rod or staff. Its association with Alfred is based on the inscription “Alfred had me made” on the rim of the jewel. Some authorities think these rods or staffs were used as pointers in the schools and the inscription refers to Alfred’s part in introducing education. Alfred’s Jewel is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Death - 26 October 899 AD
Surprisingly, it is thought that Alfred did not die in battle but from a longstanding hereditary illness thought to have been either Crohn’s Disease or haemorrhoidal disease.
He was buried initially in Winchester Old Minster but was later moved in front of the High Altar in Hyde Abbey church, but when the church was demolished during the Dissolution in 1539, the grave was covered in rubble.
It was in 1788 that the royal grave was rediscovered but tragically the bones were unearthed and scattered.

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