King Alfred the Great is one of Christendom’s great heroes. He remains one of England’s most loved monarchs, both in his own time and throughout history. His leadership of Wessex and the English kingdoms saved his people from the Vikings and left a lasting legacy of Christian virtue on the nation to come.
King Alfred and the Vikings
Alfred was king of Wessex in the days when England was divided into separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Before his reign, during the reign of his brother, Ethelred, the Danes had invaded and settled in kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, and gradually moved into Wessex. Though England was not one united kingdom at the time, during these times of Danish occupation, the eyes of the English kingdoms looked to Wessex for leadership. The presence of a royal dynasty, the organization of local defensive shires, and the geography of Wessex made it the most strategic kingdom to lead in the defense of the English kingdoms.
Ethelred and Alfred lead the defensive against the invading Danes, seeking to guard Christindom on the island against the invading pagan forces. They met success at the battle of Ashdown in 871, the first defeat of the Vikings by the English. Bishop Asser, from whom much of the information we know about Alfred the Great comes, wrote of the battle,
The heathens had seized the higher ground, and the Christians had to advance uphill. There was in that place a single stunted thorn tree which we have seen with our own eyes. Round about this tree, then, the opposing ranks met in conflict, with a great shouting from all men- one side bent on evil, the other side fighting for life and their loved ones and their native lands.
The Danes were driven away and defeated soundly, losing one of the Viking kings. Ashdown was an important victory against the Danes. Churchill, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, says, “If the West Saxons had been beaten all England would have sunk into heathen anarchy. Since they were victorious the hope still burned for a civilised Christian existence on this Island.” This first victory was instrumental in giving the Saxons momentum against their adversaries.
Ethelred was later killed in battle, and Alfred succeeded his brother as king.* After a series of defeats by the Vikings, an arrangement was made for the Danes to leave Wessex, at least for a time, and stay in their occupied lands in Mercia. After a period of peace, the Danes broke their agreement with the West Saxons and attacked again, eventually sending Alfred and a band of his men into hiding in the marshes of Somerset. After several years, the king was able to summon his thegns and ealdormen to raise up the militias, mounting a counterattack on the Vikings and reclaiming Wessex and control of parts of the northern kingdoms. Many of the former pagan enemies were later baptized and nurtured in the Church, and Guthrum, king of the Danes, was adopted as Alfred’s son.
King Alfred’s Contribution
- Through Alfred, the Saxon peoples and the Danes who settled in the land blended to form what would become a Christian English nation.
- Alfred strengthened the defense of his kingdom. He developed the English navy. He also strengthened the strategic system of burhs, military fortresses and places of refuge for the villagers. Both of these allowed the Isle to resist future Viking attacks from the Continent.
- Alfred revived learning in the English kingdoms. He himself was a scholar, largely self-taught, who personally translated Latin works to English and oversaw the translation of others. He established schools for children of noble and common status alike, emphasizing the study of English and Latin, writing, and the liberal arts.
- Alfred pursued justice, writing law codes based on the best of the old laws as well as including provisions to prevent oppression.
- He saw to the spiritual well-being of his people, both those in his court and the kingdom in general. He emphasized Christian piety and devotion, translated theological works, sought to appoint wise and faithful bishops, and strengthened monasticism after many monasteries suffered under Viking attacks.
King Alfred is the only monarch in English history to be given the title “The Great,” and with good reason. His life of courage, leadership, endurance, and Christian virtue shaped the future of England.
*Alfred was the youngest of four or five brothers. Their father had arranged that the younger brothers would succeed the older upon death of the king, to keep from having a boy on the throne when military strength and leadership was needed against the Danes.
– Churchill, Winston. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Birth of Britain.
– Roberts, Roberts, and Bisson. History of England.