- Alfred "The Great", King Of England was king of the West Saxons in England. He
saved his country, Wessex, from Danish conquest, laid the basis for the
unification of England under the West Saxon monarchy, and led a revival of
learning and literature. He was such an outstanding leader in both war and
peace that he was called "the great."
As a boy, he was curious and eager to learn. There is a story his mother
offered a prize to the first of her five sons who learned to read. Alfred, the
youngest, won the prize, a book of Anglo-Saxon poems. Before he was 7, he had
traveled to Rome twice, and was confirmed by Pope Leo IV. These travels
impressed upon young Alfred the contrast between the civilized parts of Europe
and his more backward England.
Alfred became king in 871, after the death of his fourth brother. The West
Saxons had been at war with the Danes for many years. After several losing
battles, Alfred made peace with the invaders. But the Danes renewed their
attacks four years later, and defeated Alfred at the Battle of Chippenham.
Alfred finally defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. The Danish
leader, Guthrum, agreed to be baptized a Christian. After the Danes broke the
peace once more, Alfred won his greatest military victory, the conquest of
London in 886. The Danes withdrew to the eastern third of England, called the
Danelaw. All the English people, both in and out of Wessex, who were not
subject to the Danes recognized Alfred as their king, and paid him homage.
A legend tells how Alfred took shelter in the house of a peasant woman while he
was fleeing in disguise from the Danes. The woman ordered him to watch some
cakes cooking on the hearth. When he allowed them to burn, she scolded himseverely.
Alfred built forts at strategic points and stationed a fleet of ships along the
coast to protect his kingdom and guard against invasion. He also issued a great
code of laws to improve government.
Education declined because the Danes had looted monasteries and churches, the
only centers of learning. Few even among the clergy could read or write.
Alfred brought teachers and learned men to Wessex from Wales, norther England,
and Europe. He himself helped translate books from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. He
also kept a record of current events. Called the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," it
was continued after his death until 1154. It is the best source for Anglo-Saxon
"The World Book Encyclopedia", 1968, p A333.