Alfred the Great Biography
ALFRED, or ÆLFRED, THE GREAT (848-900). King of Wessex from 871 to 900. He was born at Wantage, in Berkshire, in 848. His father was Æthelwulf, King of the West Saxons. Alfred, the youngest of five sons, succeeded to the throne in 871, on the death of his brother Æthelred. His reign, which lasted nearly 30 years, is noteworthy, first, because of the wars with the Danish invaders; second, because of the interest which the King took in education. Before discussing his real achievements, however, it may be well to speak briefly of some things erroneously attributed to him. In the popular legends he has been regarded as the author of many reforms and institutions which were in no way due to him. His real and great merits have been overlooked because of the actions incorrectly credited to him. Except for the false statements in many secondary works, it would be unnecessary to say that he did not institute trial by jury and that he was not the founder of the University of Oxford. The picturesque tales of his hiding from the Danes, of the burned cakes, and of his visit to the Danish camp disguised as a harper, are inventions of a later age.
Alfred became King in the midst of a Danish invasion. After several battles he was able to make peace with the enemy, probably by paying them money. In the following years there was peace, but in 876 the marauding expeditions began again, and by the beginning of 878 the Danes were successful almost everywhere and met with no general resistance. About Easter, 878, Alfred established himself at Athelney and gathered there all the forces that he could. Several weeks afterward he marched to Brixton, gathering troops as he went, and in the battle of Ethandun, probably Edington in Wiltshire, he defeated the Danes and captured their stronghold. The Danish King Guthrum was baptized, and the peace of Wedmore followed. There were some less important engagements in the following years, but on the whole, for the next 14 years Alfred was able to give his time to the internal affairs of his kingdom. In 892 (or 893) the Danes, who had been driven away by Arnulf (q.v.), King of Germany, made a descent upon England. For four years the warfare went on almost continuously, but at last the Danes were driven off --some to Northumbria, some to East Anglia, and others to the Continent. These Danish invasions had an important influence on the history of England. By crushing the individual kingdoms, they worked, unwittingly, for the unity of England. Alfred, by withstanding them successfully, made his kingdom the rallying point for all the Saxons and prepared the way for the eventual supremacy of his descendants.
Alfred was an enthusiastic scholar and a zealous patron of learning. When he came to the throne, as he himself wrote, he found little or no interest in education and few learned men. He invited to his court native and foreign scholars, of whom the best known are Asser and John Scotus Erigena. He labored himself, and encouraged others to labor, for the education of his people. The composition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may have been due to his initiative. He himself translated works which he thought would be useful to his people, and instead of merely translating literally, he expanded or omitted portions in order to make the work more serviceable. His principal, works were translations of the following: Boëthius, Consolation of Philosophy; Orosius, History of the World; and Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care. Of the last there is an excellent edition in the publications of the Early English Text Society. He is said to have translated, or to have had translated, the Soliloquies of St. Augustine. Alfred may have translated Bede's Ecclesiastical History, but there is much controversy concerning this, as the translation seems to be made into the Anglian dialect and not the West Saxon. If it was not the work of Alfred, it may have been made under his direction. See Miller, The Old English Version of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Early English Text Society (London, 1890); Schipper, König Alfreds Uebersetzung von Bedas Kirchengeschichte (Leipzig, 1897).
His laws show no striking changes from the laws of earlier kings; in fact, he disclaimed originality and spoke of his work as mainly a compilation of existing laws. But they are marked by two characteristics which deserve notice: first, they are intensely religious; second, they make no distinction between English and. Welsh, as the earlier laws had done.
Alfred died, Oct. 28, 900. (The date 901 given by the Anglo-Saxon sources seems to be wrong.) But the millenary of King Alfred was celebrated on Sept. 18, 1901, at Winchester, the former capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The commemorative exercises were participated in by many distinguished men from all English-speaking countries. On September 20, the day of the most important functions, all the delegates joined in a great procession and marched to the site where the colossal statue of Alfred, the work of Thornycroft, was unveiled, and the oration was delivered by Lord Rosebery.
In the United States the Society of American Authors encouraged the celebration of "the one thousandth anniversary of the founder of the Anglo-Saxon race." Exercises were held on October 28 in libraries and schools in various cities. The chief celebration was in New York City, where Alfred Bowker, the Mayor of Winchester, was the guest of honor.
Bibliography. The great contemporary sources of information for Alfred's life are Asser's Life of Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Of each of these there are several editions in the original Latin; translations can be found in the Bohn Librarv; in Stevenson's Church Historians of England, and elsewhere. The genuineness of Asser's work has been the subject of much controversy, but most scholars now believe it to be a contemporary work, with some later interpolations.
Of secondary works Pauli's König Alfred, edited by Thomas Wright, is still deserving of mention. The constitutional events of the reign are described in Stubbs, Constitutional History, vol. i (Oxford, 1891) . The millenary celebration caused the production of many books and articles. Of these the following may be mentioned: Plummer, Life and Times of Alfred the Great (Clarendon Press, 1902); Earle, The Alfred Jewel, (Clarendon, 1901); Bowker, Alfred the Great (London, 1899), which contains seven special studies by Sir Walter Besant, Sir Frederick Pollock, Frederic Harrison, and others; Conybeare, Alfred in the Chroniclers (London, 1900); Draper, Alfred the Great (London, 1901); Harrison, Writings of King Alfred (New York, 1901); Hughes, Alfred the Great, new edition (London, 1901); Jeffery, A Perfect Prince, The Story of the England of Alfred the Great (London 1901); Macfayden, Alfred the West Saxon (London, 1901); Wall, Alfred the Great: His Abbeys of Hyde, Athetney, and Shaftesbury (London, 1900); Snell, Age of Alfred (New York, 1912); Greswell, Story of the Battle of Eddngton (Taunton, England, 1910). Mr. Slade, of the Library of Congress, has prepared a bibliography of Alfred, which aims at completeness; consult also the bibliography in Wülker, Grundriss zur Geschichte der Angelsächsischen, Litteratur, pp. 386-451 (Leipzig, 1885).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. I (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 397-398.