When Alfred, fifth son of Aethulwolf, became king, Wessex stood alone against the Vikings. In early 878, the kingdom submitted to the Danes and Alfred took refuge in the tidal marshes of Somerset, carrying on the defence of his realm with guerilla warfare and making plans to reform his army at Athelney.
In May 878, Alfred attacked and defeated the Danes at Eddington. With this achievement, he became the first king of all the English.
At heart a scholar, Alfred dedicated his rule to the improvement of his kingdom. He drew up a single legal code, organized the country’s finances, established protected towns and, most astonishingly, began a program aimed at providing education for all the people in his kingdom.
While continuing to defend his borders from Danish attacks, he supervised the translation, from Latin to English, of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Orosius’ Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans (Cawthorne, 18). He established art and culture in Anglo Saxon Britain by inviting scholars from all over the continent to his court and patronized such works as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In addition, Alfred personally translated Saint Gregory’s Pastoral Care and the Soliloquies of Saint Augustine of Hippo (Cawthorne, 18).
He is the only English king to have the honorific “the Great” and at the age of 55, near the end of his life in 899, he made the following reflection:
What I set out to do, was to virtuously and justly administer the
authority given to me, and to do it with wisdom. For without wisdom,
nothing is worthwhile…It has always been my desire to live honourably
and to leave my descendants my memory in good works. For each
man, according to the measure of his intelligence, must speak what
he can speak and do what he can do.
|Alfred the Great's statue at Winchester|
Cawthorne, Nigel. Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House Of Windsor. Arcturus: London, 2010.