Alfred the Great (849 AD - 899 AD) Alfred the Great
King of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and one of the outstanding figures of English history, as much for his social and educational reforms as for his military successes against the Danes. He is the only English monarch known as 'the Great'.
Alfred was born at Wantage in Oxfordshire in 849, fourth or fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. Following the wishes of their father, the sons succeeded to the kingship in turn. At a time when the country was under threat from Danish raids, this was aimed at preventing a child inheriting the throne with the related weaknesses in leadership. In 870 AD the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, whose forces were commanded by Alfred's older brother, King Aethelred, and Alfred himself.
In 871 AD, Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire. The following year, he succeeded his brother as king. Despite his success at Ashdown, the Danes continued to devastate Wessex and Alfred was forced to withdraw to the Somerset marshes, where he continued guerrilla warfare against his enemies. In 878 AD, he again defeated the Danes in the Battle of Edington. They made peace and Guthrum, their king, was baptised with Alfred as his sponsor. In 886 AD, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danes. England was divided, with the north and the east (between the Rivers Thames and Tees) declared to be Danish territory - later known as the 'Danelaw'. Alfred therefore gained control of areas of West Mercia and Kent which had been beyond the boundaries of Wessex.
Alfred built up the defences of his kingdom to ensure that it was not threatened by the Danes again. He reorganised his army and built a series of well-defended settlements across southern England. He also established a navy for use against the Danish raiders who continued to harass the coast.
As an administrator Alfred advocated justice and order and established a code of laws and a reformed coinage. He had a strong belief in the importance of education and learnt Latin in his late thirties. He then arranged, and himself took part in, the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon.
By the 890s, Alfred's charters and coinage were referring to him as 'king of the English'. He died in October 899 AD and was buried at his capital city of Winchester.
Originally compiled on the orders of King Alfred the Great, approximately A.D. 890, and subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th Century. The original language is Anglo-Saxon (Old English), but later entries are essentially Middle English in tone.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle began to be compiled in around 890 A.D., at the command of King Alfred the Great (871- 899) and consists of a series of annals written in the Old English language.
Alfred ordered that copies be made of the original manuscripts and distributed to monasteries across the length and breadth of England, which were to be regularly updated. One particular version of the the chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154 and dates to the end of King Stephen's reign.
Nine versions of the chronicle have survived to the present day. Of these seven are written entirely in the Anglo-Saxon language. Another version survives in Old English with a translation of each annal into Latin. The other, known as the Peterborough Chronicle, is recorded in Old English with the exception of the last entry, which is in early Middle English. Six of these copies are kept at the British Library.
The Chronicle is the oldest history of any European country in a vernacular language. Its early entries are essentially an official history of the Wessex dynasty and it is one of the few literary sources we possess for England's history during the period. Reporting on the reign of King Egbert, it states:-
'The moon darkened on Christmas Eve. That year King Ecgbryht overcame the Mercian kingdom, and all that was south of the Humber. He was the eighth king who was ruler of Britain; the first was Aelle, king of Sussex, who had done this much. The second was Ceawlin, king of Wessex, the third was Aethelbryht, king of Kent, the fourth was Raedwald, king of East Anglia; the fifth was Edwin, king of Northumbria; the sixth, Oswald, who ruled after him; the seventh was Oswald's brother Oswiu. The eighth was Ecgbryht, king of Wessex, and this Ecgbryht led troops to Dore against the Northumbrians. They offered him submission, and a treaty; with that they parted'
The chronicle records the Battle of Hastings:-
'Then Count William came from Normandy to Pevensey on Michaelmas Eve, and as soon as they were able to move on they built a castle at Hastings. King Harold was informed of this and he assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple tree. And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides. Then King Harold was killed, and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Grythe his brother, and many good men, and the French remained masters of the field...'
The sufferings of the common people during the Civil War of Stephen and Matilda are also vividly described:-
'In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a mild good humoured man who inflicted no punishment, then they commited all manner of horrible crimes. they had done him homage and sworn oaths of fealty to him, but not one of their oaths was kept. They were all forsworn and their oaths broken. For every great man built him castles and held them against the king; they sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour on the castles; and when the castles were built they filled them with devils and wicked men.
By night and by day they siezed those they believed to have any wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold or silver, they put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures, for never were martyrs tortured as they were. They hung them up by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke. They strung them up by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung coats of mail on their feet. They tied knotted cords round their heads and twisted it until it entered the brain. they put them in dungeons wherein were adders and snakes and toads and so destroyed them. Many thousands they starved to death. I know not how to, nor am I able to tell of, all the atrocities nor all the cruelties which they wrought upon the unhappy people of this country. It lasted throughout the nineteen years that Stephen was king, and always grew worse and worse. Never did a country endure greater misery, and never did the heathen act more vilely than they did. And so it lasted for nineteen long years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds and men said openly that Christ and his saints slept.'