Alfred, called Alfred the Great (849–899), king of Wessex, the domain of the West Saxons in the south of England. He reigned 871–99.
Alfred was the most illustrious of the Anglo-Saxon kings and one of the most remarkable men of the Middle Ages. He brought to a halt the Danish conquest of England and strengthened the West Saxon monarchy, thus preparing the way for the eventual union of England under one king. Amidst the devastation wrought by years of warring against the Danes, he fostered a revival of religion, education, and literature in Anglo-Saxon England. Throughout his long reign, Alfred showed himself to be an imaginative military leader, a wise and determined ruler, and a skilled statesman.
Alfred was born at Wantage, the youngest son of King Ethelwulf and one of four brothers to become king. At the age of four he was sent to Rome for part of his early education. There he met Pope Leo IV and other churchmen and rulers from the Continent. He made a second visit to Rome in 855, but little is known of his activities over the next decade. As he grew to manhood, however, Alfred developed a marked piety and an inquiring intellect (even though he remained illiterate until he was nearly 40 years old).
In 868 Alfred was second in command to his brother, King Ethelred, as they prepared to confront the Danes (Vikings) who had overrun northern England. By 870, the invaders were pressing into Wessex. At the battle of Ashdown in 871, forces led by Alfred routed the enemy in a surprise counterattack.
In April of 871 Ethelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the throne. More Danes arrived, and the West Saxon army was hopelessly outnumbered but nevertheless fought a series of battles. A temporary peace was bought with a tribute, or bribe, paid to the Danes.
In 876 the Danes again attacked Wessex, plundering the countryside as they advanced. Alfred was eventually forced to withdraw his soldiers to the isle of Athelney. Here he built a fort, regrouped his forces, and in the spring of 878 took the offensive. At the battle of Edington he decisively defeated the army of Guthrum, Danish ruler of East Anglia (eastern England). By an agreement signed at Wedmore (878), the Danes consented to withdraw from West Saxon lands and to accept Christianity. This victory was a turning point in early English history, for it proved that the Danes could be stopped.
In the years that followed, King Alfred strengthened Saxon defenses against future Danish penetrations. He reorganized local government in the districts ravaged by the Danes. The army was made larger and more flexible; fortification of towns throughout southern England was undertaken; and construction of a fleet of large, swift vessels was begun.
Sporadic fighting with the Danes continued during Alfred's reign. He repelled an invasion of Kent in 885 and in 886 drove the Danes from London. The treaty of Wedmore signed that year set boundaries for the Danelaw—the area in the hands of the Danes, roughly northeastern England. Alfred then combined various petty states not under Danish control into one Saxon kingdom. Gaining the loyalty of the people by his resourceful leadership, he was recognized as sovereign of an area nearly twice the size of the territory his brother had ruled.
War raged again during 892–96, when a horde of invading Vikings was joined by Danes from the Danelaw. After four years of withstanding their sieges Alfred drove them from Wessex. His work of bringing the whole of England into one kingdom was continued by his son, Edward the Elder, who became king in 899.
During relatively peaceful times, Alfred enthusiastically devoted his attention to reviving and maintaining learning. He brought many notable scholars to Wessex, making his capital at Winchester a center of intellectual life. Among these learned men was Asser, a Welsh monk, who wrote the first biography of Alfred and aided the king in translating literary works from Latin to English. Alfred supervised the translation of and made additions to five major works, including the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory I and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He also encouraged the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , an early history of England.
Alfred issued a new code of laws, in which he selected and restated the best laws of his predecessors. He established a school for young nobles in his court and restored and promoted the Christian faith.