Alfred the Great (Alfred)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Alfred the Great (Alfred)

Alfred the Great (Alfred) (849-899) Anglo-

Saxon king, lawgiver, and sage

Under threat from Norse conquerors, the Anglo- Saxon monarch Alfred the Great defended the southern kingdom of Wessex from invasion. He was the youngest of five sons. Three of his brothers succeeded their father Aethelwulf as king, two for only short periods, before Alfred succeeded to the throne in 871. According to Alfred's biography, Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred, 893), by the Welsh monk Asser, the newly crowned king garrisoned towns against the incursions of the Danish king Guthrum but failed to retrieve the kingdom of Mercia from Nordic marauders. However, Alfred won three more campaigns and captured London in 886. His construction of a network of forts and a fleet of ships thwarted the Danes' attempt to add Wessex to its empire. Peace produced a cultural renaissance featuring learning centers, a manuscript archive at Winchester, and the king's handbook of laws called the Doom Book (ca. 900), the basis of English common law and jurisprudence and the unifier of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into one nation.

In 891, Alfred commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an accomplishment that earned him the title of father of English prose. The text describes the size and settlement of Britannia before delineating a pattern of rule and conquest, era by era. A modest summation of Alfred's military victory in 871 notes the constant skirmishing in nine battles, proof of his long years in the saddle ahead of soldiers and guerrilla forces. By summer 875, Alfred had launched England's first navy and captured one of seven Viking rovers, the longboats that enabled Norse predators to strike rapidly, loot, murder, and slip away. Entries for the mid- 890s attest to the unceasing job of warding off the Danish plunderers.

Updates of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154. According to the commentary on Alfred's death, his subjects considered him king of all the English. A posthumous manuscript of WISDOM LITERATURE, The Proverbs of Alfred (ca. 1251), reflects in alliterative verse that he was “king ant cleric, / ful wel he louede godis werc. / He was wis on his word” (king and religious leader who loved godly work. He spoke wise words; 1908, 1-2).


Alfred the Great. The Proverbs of Alfred. Translated by Edvard Borgstrom. Stockholm: Hakan Ohlsson, 1908.

Smyth, Alfred P King Alfred the Great. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.