King Alfred. The Basics

This blog on King Alfred has become quite large, so I thought I would write a summary to enable those less familiar with him to quickly get an idea about his life. My approach, as in my book, is based around the locations in the UK that can be associated with this great king. There will be many links, and I invite you to explore these. You may wish to bookmark this page as it can also serve as a launchpad to the other pages in this blog, which might otherwise be tedious to find.

Alfred was King of Wessex between 871 and 899. We are told by Asser, a companion and “biographer” of King Alfred, that he was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire. His parents were King Æthelwulf of Wessex, who was initially interred at Steyning, West Sussex, and Osburh. He was born in 849 and died in 899. However, we do not know how or where he died. He was buried at Winchester, firstly at the Old Minster (demolished), then at the New Minster (demolished), then at Hyde Abbey (largely demolished at the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII). The whereabouts of his remains is currently unknown.

King Alfred in the Market Square, Wantage, Oxfordshire.
King Alfred in the Market Square, Wantage, Oxfordshire.

He was present at several battles/engagements with the Vikings. Those up to, and including, the Battle of Meretun were while his brother Æthelred was king. The locations of the recorded battles/engagements are: Nottingham (868), Reading (871), Ashdown (871), Basing (871), Meretun (871), Wilton (871), Wareham (876), Exeter (876), Ethandun/Edington (878), Rochester (884), Kent (892, where Alfred camped between two Viking armies), the River Lea (895, when he obstructed the river, trapping the Vikings).

Perhaps the most famous part of his life starts when he was hiding out on the Somerset Levels at Athelney after the Vikings had seized Chippenham and large parts (at least) of Wessex in 878. You may read elsewhere that King Alfred fled from Chippenham with his family when the Vikings attacked. However, I could find no evidence that Alfred was there when the Vikings attacked. It was from Athelney that King Alfred started his reconquest of the Wessex that he had lost to the Vikings. It is at Athelney that King Alfred is supposed to have burned the cakes, but there is no evidence that this is anything other than a legend. After preparing for battle, King Alfred left Athelney, went to a place called Egbert’s Stone, where his supporting troops from different counties converged. They then moved on for on final stop at a place called Iglea (Iley), and the following day they marched to the site of the Battle of Ethandun, believed to be at Edington, in Wiltshire (although some favour Bratton Down). It was here that King Alfred gained a crucial victory over the Vikings. After their defeat, the Viking leader, Guthrum, was baptised by King Alfred at Aller, Somerset, and he was then hosted by Alfred at the royal estate at Wedmore, in Somerset. Guthrum’s men eventually settled in East Anglia.

King Alfred in the grounds of Sherborne Abbey, Dorset
King Alfred in the grounds of Sherborne Abbey, Dorset

King Alfred was clearly highly religious, and had been taken to Rome twice by his father while he was a young child. Asser tells of when, before he got married, he went to visit the resting place of a St Gueriir (at St Neot in Cornwall), and while he was there he asked for his current affliction to be replaced by something less debilitating. He then went on to be married, but he was struck down on his wedding night by the presumed new ailment. Sutton Courtenay, in Oxfordshire, has been put forward as the location of his wedding, but this is not certain. King Alfred was involved in translating (and did some translating himself) of some religious texts.

He founded Shaftesbury Abbey (Dorset) and had his daughter installed there as abbess. He would also have had connections to Sherborne Abbey (Dorset), because two of his elder brothers (and possibly a third) who had also been kings were buried there, and after Alfred’s death, Asser would become a bishop there. Another of his brothers was buried at Wimborne, some time after the Battle of Meretun. Alfred was next in line and it is interesting to speculate whether Alfred therefore became king at Wimborne (Dorset).

King Alfred took control of London in 886, but entrusted the city to Æthelred, who ruled Mercia (at least the western part, as eastern Mercia was soon to be conceded to the Vikings) and who was also his son-in-law as he had married his daughter Æthelflæd. It seems that King Alfred retained the upper hand in both London and western Mercia

King Alfred in a stained glass window in St Andrew's church, Aller, Somerset
King Alfred in a stained glass window in St Andrew’s church, Aller, Somerset

The main sources for investigating King Alfred are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and The Life of King Alfred, written by (probably) Asser. We are also very fortunate in having some surviving charters (documents transferring or confirming rights or land etc.). Although the authenticity of many of these have been challenged, we can work out from these that Alfred was at particular places, including Dorchester (Dorset). Please see here for more about sources.

There really is much, much more to write, but hopefully you will follow the links, or for the full picture, my book is available through Amazon and book shops. Click on the image of the cover to find out more.