Why Was King Alfred So Great?

Once again I want to thank Jason for inviting me to Guest Post on his blog. Jason does so much to help authors promote their work and I know we all really appreciate it.


Portrait of Alfred the Great from the 19th century. Author: Founder of Oriel College, after a painting in the Bodleian Library in Oxford by an English School. Public Domain.

King Alfred the Great is one of the two protagonists in my Sons of Kings trilogy. I first became interested in his story when I lived and taught in Wantage, his place of birth, for six years in the 1970s. The story of his long fight against the invading Danes had intrigued me even before I moved to the town, and in Wantage I learnt so much more about him. Unfortunately, it was to be many more years before I could actually set to and write about him.

Over the past three thousand years there have been fewer than twenty individuals to have been given the title of ‘the Great’. Among them are Cyrus and Alexander in Ancient Greece and at the beginning of Christian times we have Pompey and Herod – then Constantine almost three centuries later. In the Western Empire we see the Frankish king and Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), and the German Otto 1 becoming known as ‘the Great’.

Among the many monarchs in Britain over the centuries, we have two kings who became ‘Great’. One is King Cnut (more commonly known as Canute) the king of Denmark, Norway and England in the 10th century, best known for supposedly holding back the waves. Although he is often described as the ‘most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history’ Cnut was Danish, not British or Anglo-Saxon, so is often overlooked as a ‘great’ British king.


Canute the Great illustrated in an initial of a medieval manuscript, circa 1320. Author unknown. Public Domain.

But King Alfred of Wessex  was definitely  a Saxon – although the title of ‘greatness’ wasn’t bestowed upon him until post medieval times.

Compared to other ‘greats’ like Constantine and Charlemagne, whose exploits covered huge areas and involved enormous decisions, Alfred’s story is significant only when we consider the poverty of his resources and lack of means – as well as his own personal battle against a debilitating illness throughout his adult years. In the face of such adversity, his story is one of triumph of character.

book 2 map 1

Alfred’s military engagements are generally the best known events of his reign. Starting with his defeat of the Danes at Ashdown while he was still only second-in-command to his brother, King Aethelred, his long struggle against overwhelming numbers of Norse invaders is one that has been loved by story-tellers down the centuries. His desperate withdrawal to the Somerset marshes over the Christmas of 877-78 continues to spark the imagination. At his lowest ebb, when all seemed lost, the tale of him burning the woman’s cakes (loaves of bread) has been compared to that of Robert the Bruce encountering the spider in the Scottish cave.


A Victorian portrayal of the 12th century legend of Alfred burning the cakes. 1864. Author: William Edmund Doyle, 1822-1892 Public Domain

These stories illustrate men being inspired by a simple event to take heart and start rethinking plans for reaching their goals. The stories are turning points.

This beautiful jewel made of enamel and quartz enclosed in gold, is called ‘The Alfred Jewel’. It was ploughed up in a field in North Petherton in Somerset in 1693, only a few miles from Athelney – where Alfred had made his camp on his withdrawal into the Somerset marshes. Written on the jewel in Anglo-Saxon English is ‘Alfred had me made’. The jewel is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The Alfred Jewel

Alfred never looked back from his time in the marshes. He went on to raise another army and win a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington in early May, 878.

Although this was by no means the end of Alfred’s battles with the Danes, it was the start of his great leadership and his putting many defensive measures into practice across his kingdom, including the construction of burhs – settlements with defensive outer walls.


The walled defence round a burh: Winchester, Alfred’s capital. Saxon and medieval work on Roman foundations. Source: geog.org.uk  Author: Peter Trimming. Creative Commons

Alfred’s ‘greatness’ is a tribute to his far-reaching views in many aspects of ruling his kingdom and his boundless constructive energy. He made military and naval advancements and is often regarded as the founder of the English Navy. As an administrator, Alfred advocated justice and order and established a code of laws and a reformed coinage.


Coin of Alfred, King of Wessex, London 880.( Alfred Rex =King Alfred). Author: PHGCOM photographed at the British Museum. Public Domain

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.


King Alfred the Great was fond of reading and learning. From a book dated 1905. Source:  H.E. Marshall ‘Our Island Story’. Author: A.S. Forrest  Public Domain

The first step towards the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was made by Alfred’s father, King Aethelwulf, when he made a treaty with King Beorhtwulf of Mercia. But Alfred paved the way still further, firstly by marrying a Mercian woman and later, by marrying his eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, to a Mercian ealdorman.

In doing this – and the fact that his son-in-law never took the title of King of Mercia – Alfred, and his own son, Edward, after him, could take on that role.  It was Alfred’s grandson, Aethelstan, who extended control as far as the Scottish borders and became known as ‘the first king of the ‘English’.

Many stories about Alfred refer to him as ‘the wise king’, ‘England’s darling’ or ‘Truthteller’. But one chronicler (in the Abingdon Chronicle) didn’t like Alfred at all, calling him ‘a Judas … piling bad deeds on top of each other’. The reason he gives is that Alfred ‘violently alienated estates from the monastery’.

It is true that Alfred became very unpopular with many of the monastic orders. At times during his long fight, it had been necessary to ‘pay off’ the Danes. In other words he needed huge sums of money to pay them ‘tribute’, or Danegeld, in order to buy peace for a while. For the means to do this, he was forced to turn to both the Wessex nobility and the Church. The monasteries, in particular, were not at all pleased about that!

Perhaps, in this case, the monks should have been told, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it…’ If Alfred hadn’t taken their lands and money, the Danes would have done. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Alfred did, indeed, say something very similar – in his politest Anglo-Saxon, of course.

Alfred the Great died at the age of fifty in October AD 899 and was buried at his capital city of Winchester.

Visit my blog at https://milliethom.wordpress.com/


The Life and Times of Atlfred the Great by Douglas Woodruff
In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood
Wikipedia for several images.


12 thoughts on “Why Was King Alfred So Great?

  1. Pingback: Why Was King Alfred So Great? — HarsH ReaLiTy | History... Our Evolution

  2. Great summary! Although some of the things mentioned are open to interpretation. An example would be the burh defences supposedly set-up by Alfred. We know that the document that refers to these (The Burghal Hidage) is in fact of C10th origin (probably Edward the Elder) and more recent work by Steven Bassett places the burh fortifications of Mercian origin.

    Great images and quick run-through though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Matthew. Thanks for the interesting comment. As with many structures in history, I realise the origins of burh defences are open to question. According to some sources, some of them even had their basis in Roman times and were simply added to or rebuilt in later periods. Alfred probably just played his part in a continuous process as and when defensive measures were needed. Alfred’s son, Edward and even Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, were known to have had many burh defences either improved or built from scratch.
      It’s an interesting topic to look into, and I’ll now have to take a look at the work of Steven Bassett. So thank you for pointing me in his direction – it’s very much appreciated.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Millie Thom and commented:

    I thought I’d share this Guest Post, so kindly posted by Jason, theopinionatedman, on his blog, Harsh Reality. Thank you, Jason!
    As one of the two main characters in my trilogy, I’ve lived with King
    Alfred for a few years now and decided to write a little about his ‘greatness’, So here it is…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, metalman, that’s a really nice comment.
      I’ve always liked the Middle Ages, too, although until fairly recently in the UK, the period from the end of the Roman occupation of Britain (AD 420) until the Norman invasion of 1066 was just the ‘Dark Ages’. Funny how things change. I love it all, anyway! Alfred’s been a favourite of mine since I lived in Wantage in the 1970s. The question of why he and no other British monarch was ‘Great’ always intrigued me.

      Liked by 2 people

      • No problem. That era seems to be missed out quite a bit even thought there is a lot of history to it. I’ve been to Wantage a couple of times but didn’t know that about it. Again, thanks for enlightening me.


        • Hi again. For some reason I’d assumed you were in the US. So if you’ve been to Wantage you’ll probably have seen the White Horse up on the Ridgeway? It’s a pretty area and steeped in history from way back in Neolithic times.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think I’ve been in there a couple of times. It is a pretty area and should I go again, I’ll check out the history. Originally, I am from the US but have been living in the UK for the past 30 years.

            Liked by 1 person

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