Alfred the Great
Alfred (848/9–899) (he would have written his name as Ælfred) is the one among pre-Conquest kings in England of whom most is known. Consequently, he has been known as 'Alfred the Great', and it has been claimed that he was the first king of England. This is not so: he was king of the West Saxons, and called himself 'King of the Anglo-Saxons' (Angelcyn, "except except what was under subjection to the Danes" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) after he became a form of overlord of the kingdom of Mercia. The Danes still ruled the Danelaw - most of northern England.
Alfred's greatness, which is undisputed, rests on a number of different achievements:
- as a fighting man in times of war, Alfred was very successful.
- He so defeated the Danes at the battle of Edington in 878 that Guthrum, the Danish king, made peace and converted to Christianity.
- His organizing powers were exceptional: he managed his forces well, exploiting his fyrd, or militia, resources to the full, and constructing a chain of forts round his kingdom which prevented Danish attack. The administration this required is recorded in the 'Burghal Hideage', a central record of the taxation and levies required - a remarkable document surviving in a later version dating from the reign of Alfred's son and successor Edward the Elder (870s?–924).
- Some of this organizing power was devoted to shipbuilding and maritime defence. Alfred never had a fleet to match the 300 or so ships that the Vikings habitually employed; he avoided pitched battles at sea, contenting himself with picking off stragglers. But he added hugely to the mobility of his army on land, and managed to defend the coast. If he was not, as sometimes called, 'the father of the Royal Navy', "Alfred was the father of an English navy" (ODNB).
- He was a great law-giver. His 'Law book' is to a large extent a codification of existing customary law; but it also attempts to bring the customs of different parts into line, with each other and with the Law of God, as transmitted by Moses.
- As a scholar, Alfred not only encouraged learning in his dominions and argued for the importance of understanding Latin for the goal of sapientia (wisdom), he wrote himself - extraordinarily, for a monarch of his time. He wrote an introduction to the translation by Werferth, Bishop of Worcester, of teh Dialogues of Pope Gregory I (the Great), and himself translated Gregory's Pastoral Care, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter. One might add to this list Alfred's translation, in his law code, of excerpts from the Vulgate Book of Exodus.
- As the list of his words indicates, Alfred has some claim to be considered a pious Christian king.
Alfred is the only English - or British - king to have been awarded the title of 'the Great'. For the breadth of his abilities and his interests no less than for his achievements in peace and in war, he seems to deserve it.
- See also Alfred and the cakes, for a well-known legend about the king.