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Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great Alfred (ruled 871–899) was born in Wantage, Berkshire, in 849. He was the fifth son of King Aethelwulf, who had insisted that each of his sons become king of Wessex in turn after him, rather than risk allowing young children to accede to the throne and weaken the monarchy. In 870, the Danes, a Viking people, attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, whose forces were commanded by King Aethelred, Alfred’s older brother. At the Battle of Ashdown in 871, Alfred routed the Danish army. However, Wessex suffered several defeats after that, and Aethelred himself died of battle injuries. On becoming king, Alfred managed to secure four years of peace with the Danes, before they attacked Wessex again in 876.

Alfred on horseback

Alfred is scolded for allowing cakes to burn


Following a new Danish onslaught, Alfred was forced to retreat to a small island of Athelney in the Somerset Levels in 878. It was from here that he masterminded his comeback (and, according to legend, burning cakes he had been asked to mind while deep in thought). Summoning an army of men from the counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Hampshire, Alfred waged a kind of guerrilla warfare against the Danes. Victory at Edington followed in May of the same year.

Alfred’s biographer Bishop Asser wrote:  “Alfred attacked the whole pagan [Danish] army fighting ferociously in dense order, and, by divine will, eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them to their fortress. After fourteen days …they sought peace”.

Although statues portray him as a great warrior, Alfred was not physically a strong man. While not lacking in courage, he was noted more for his cleverness than his warlike character.

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