He seems to have been a child of singular attractiveness and promise, and stories of his boyhood were remembered. At the age of five, in 853, he was sent to Rome, where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, who is also stated to have "annointed him as king." Later writers interpreted this as an anticipatory crowning in preparation for his ultimate succession to the throne of Wessex. That, however, could not have been foreseen in 853, as Alfred had three elder brothers living. It is probably to be understood either of investiture with the consular insignia, or possibly with some titular royalty such as that of the under-kingdom of Kent. In 855 Alfred again went to Rome with his father Aethelwulf, returning towards the end of 856. About two years later his father died.
During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, Aethelbald and Aethelberht, nothing is heard of Alfred. But with the accession of the third brother Aethelred in 866 the public life of Alfred begins, and he enters on his great work of delivering England from the Danes. It is in this reign that Asser applies to Alfred the unique title of secundarius, which seems to indicate a position analogous to that of the Celtic tanist, a recognized successor, closely associated with the reigning prince. It is probable that this arrangement was definitely sanctioned by the Witangemot, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Aethelred fall in battle. The arrangement of crowning a successor as co-king, however, is well-known among continental Germanic peoples, including the Franks, with whom the Anglo-Saxons had close ties.
In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucill, who is called ealdorman of the Gaini, an unidentified district. The same year the two brothers made an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Mercia from the pressure of the Danes. For nearly two years Wessex had a respite. But at the end of 870 the storm burst; and the year which followed has been rightly called "Alfred's year of battles."
Nine general engagements were fought with varying fortunes, though the place and date of two of them have not been recorded. A successful skirmish at Englefield, Berkshire (December 31, 870), was followed by a severe defeat at Reading (January 4, 871), and this, four days later, by the brilliant victory of Ashdown, near Compton Beauchamp in Shrivenham Hundred.
On the 22nd of January the English were again defeated at Basing, and on the 22nd of March at Marton, Wiltshire, the two unidentified battles having perhaps occurred in the interval.
In April Aethelred died, and Alfred succeeded to the whole burden of the contest. While he was busied with a funeral and associated ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the English in his absence at an unnamed spot, and once more in his presence at Wilton in May. After this peace was made, and for the next five years the Danes were occupied in other parts of England, Alfred merely keeping a force of observation on the frontier. But in 876 part of the Danes managed to slip past him and occupied Wareham. From there, early in 877 and under the pretext of negotiations, they made a dash westwards and seized Exeter, England. Here Alfred blockaded them, and a relieving fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes had to submit and withdrew to Mercia. But in January 878 they made a sudden swoop on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been keeping his Christmas, "and most of the people they reduced, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way . . . by wood and swamp, and after Easter he . . . made a fort at Athelney, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe" (Chronicle).
The idea that Alfred, during his retreat at Athelney, was a helpless fugitive rests upon the legend of the cakes. In reality he was organizing victory.
By the middle of May his preparations were complete and he moved out of Athelney, being joined on the way by the levies of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. The Danes on their side moved out of Chippenham, and the two armies met at Edington in Wiltshire. The result was a decisive victory for Alfred. The Danes submitted. Guthrum, the Danish king, and twenty-nine of his chief men accepted baptism. By the next year (879) not only Wessex, but Mercia, west of Watling Street, was cleared of the invader. This is the arrangement known to historians as the peace of Wedmore (878), though no document embodying its provisions is in existence. Though for the present the north-eastern half of England, including London, remained in the hands of the Danes, in reality the tide had turned. For the next few years there was peace, the Danes being kept busy on the continent. A landing in Kent in 884 or 885, though successfully repelled, encouraged the East Anglian Danes to revolt. The measures taken by Alfred to repress this revolt culminated in the capture of London in 885 or 886, and the treaty known as Alfred and Guthrum's peace, whereby the boundaries of the treaty of Wedmore (with which this is often confused) were materially modified in Alfred's favour.
Once more for a time there was a lull; but in the autumn of 892 or 893 the final storm burst. The Danes, finding their position on the continent becoming more and more precarious, crossed to England in two divisions, amounting in the aggregate to 330 sail, and entrenched themselves, the larger body at Appledore, England and the lesser under Haesten at Milton in Kent. The fact that the new invaders brought their wives and children with them shows that this was no mere raid, but a deliberate attempt, in concert with the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes, to conquer England. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position whence he could observe both forces. While he was negotiating with Haesten the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck north-westwards, but were overtaken by Alfred's eldest son, Edward, and defeated in a general engagement at Farnham, and driven to take refuge in Thorney Island in the Hertfordshire Colne, where they were blockaded and ultimately compelled to submit. They then fell back on Essex, and after suffering another defeat at Benfleet coalesced with Haesten's force at Shoebury.
Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed fort on the coast of North Devon. Alfred at once hurried westwards and raised the siege of Exeter; the fate of the other place is not recorded. Meanwhile the force under Haesten set out to march up the Thames valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset, and forced to head off to the north-west, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington, which some identify with Buttington Tump at the mouth of the Wye River, others with Buttington near Welshpool. An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated with loss; those who escaped retreated to Shoebury. Then after collecting reinforcements they made a sudden dash across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chester. The English did not attempt a winter blockade, but contented themselves with destroying all the supplies in the neighbourhood. And early in 894 (or 895) want of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of this year and early in 895 (or 896) the Danes drew their ships up the Thames and Lea and fortified themselves twenty miles above London. A direct attack on the Danish lines failed, but later in the year Alfred saw a means of obstructing the river so as to prevent the egress of the Danish ships. The Danes realized that they were out-maneuvred. They struck off north-westwards and wintered at Bridgenorth. The next year, 896 (or 897), they abandoned the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia; those who had no connections in England withdrew to the continent. The long campaign was over.
The result testifies to the confidence inspired by Alfred's character and generalship, and to the efficacy of the military reforms initiated by him. These were (1) the division of the fyrd or national militia into two parts, relieving each other at fixed intervals, so as to ensure continuity in military operations; (2) the establishment of fortified posts (burgs) and garrisons at certain points; (3) the enforcement of the obligations of thanehood on all owners of five hides of land, thus giving the king a nucleus of highly equipped troops.
After the final dispersal of the Danish invaders Alfred turned his attention to the increase of the Royal Navy, and ships were built according to the king's own designs, partly to repress the ravages of the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes on the coasts of Wessex, partly to prevent the landing of fresh hordes. This is not, as often asserted, the beginning of the English navy. There had been earlier naval operations under Alfred. One naval engagement was certainly fought under Aethelwulf (in 851), and earlier ones, possibly in 833 and 840. Nor were the new ships a great success, as we hear of them grounding in action and foundering in a storm. Much, too, was needed in the way of civil re-organization, especially in the districts ravaged by the Danes. In the parts of Mercia acquired by Alfred, the shire system seems now to have been introduced for the first time. This is the one grain of truth in the legend that Alfred was the inventor of shires, hundreds and tithings. The finances also needed attention; but the subject is obscure, and we cannot accept Asser's description of Alfred's appropriation of his revenue as more than an ideal sketch. Alfred's care for the administration of justice is testified both by history and legend; and the title "protector of the poor" was his by unquestioned right. Of the action of the witangemot we do not hear very much under Alfred. That he was anxious to respect its rights is conclusively proved, but both the circumstances of the time and the character of the king would tend to throw more power into his hands. The legislation of Alfred probably belongs to the later part of the reign, after the pressure of the Danes had relaxed.
Asser speaks grandiosely of Alfred's relations with foreign powers, but little definite information is available. He certainly corresponded with Elias III, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and probably sent a mission to India. Embassies to Rome conveying the English alms to the pope were fairly frequent; while Alfred's interest in foreign countries is shown by the insertions which he made in his translation of Orosius.
His relations to the Celtic princes in the southern half of the island are clearer. Comparatively early in his reign the South Welsh princes, owing to the pressure on them of North Wales and Mercia, commended themselves to Alfred. Later in the reign the North Welsh followed their example, and the latter co-operated with the English in the campaign of 893 (or 894). The Celtic principality in Cornwall, which seems to have survived at least till 926, must long have been practically dependent on Wessex. That Alfred sent alms to Irish as well as to continental monasteries may be accepted on Asser's authority; the visit of the three pilgrim "Scots" (i.e., Irish) to Alfred in 891 is undoubtedly authentic; the story that he himself in his childhood was sent to Ireland to be healed by St. Modwenna, though mythical, may point to Alfred's interest in that island.
The history of the church under Alfred is most obscure. The Danish inroads had told heavily upon it; the monasteries had been special points of attack, and though Alfred founded two or three monasteries and imported foreign monks, there was no general revival of monasticism under him. To the ruin of learning and education wrought by the Danes, and the practical extinction of the knowledge of Latin even among the clergy, the preface to Alfred's translation into Old English of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care bears eloquent testimony. It was to remedy these evils that he established a court school, after the example of Charlemagne; for this he imported scholars like Grimbald and John the Saxon from the continent and Asser from South Wales; for this, above all, he put himself to school, and made the series of translations for the instruction of his clergy and people, most of which still survive. These belong unquestionably to the later part of his reign, not improbably to the last four years of it, during which the chronicles are almost silent. Apart from the lost Handboc or Encheiridion, which seems to have been merely a commonplace-book kept by the king, the earliest work to be translated was the Dialogues of Gregory, a book enormously popular in the middle ages. In this case the translation was made by Alfred's great friend Werferth, bishop of Worcester, the king merely furnishing a preface. The next work to be undertaken was Gregory's Pastoral Care, especially for the benefit of the parish clergy. In this Alfred keeps very close to his original; but the introduction which he prefixed to it is one of the most interesting documents of the reign, or indeed of English history. The next two works taken in hand were historical, the Universal History of Orosius and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The priority should probably be assigned to the Orosius, but the point has been much debated. In the Orosius, by omissions and additions, Alfred so remodels his original as to produce an almost new work; in the Bede the author's text is closely adhered to, no additions being made, though most of the documents and some other less interesting matters are omitted. Of late years doubts have been raised as to Alfred's authorship of the Bede translation. But the sceptics cannot be regarded as having proved their point.
We come now to what is in many ways the most interesting of Alfred's works, his translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, the most popular philosophical manual of the middle ages. Here again Alfred deals very freely with his original and though the late Dr G. Schepss showed that many of the additions to the text are to be traced not to Alfred himself, but to the glosses and commentaries which he used, still there is much in the work which is solely Alfred's and highly characteristic of his genius. It is in the Boethius that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: "My will was to live worthily as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works." The book has come down to us in two manuscripts only. In one of these the poems with which the original is interspersed are rendered into prose, in the other into alliterating verse. The authorship of the latter has been much disputed; but probably they also are by Alfred. Of the authenticity of the work as a whole there has never been any doubt. The last of Alfred's works is one to which he gave the title Blostman, i.e., "Blooms" or Anthology. The first half is based mainly on the Soliloquies of St Augustine of Hippo, the remainder is drawn from various sources, and contains much that is Alfred's own and highly characteristic of him. The last words of it may be quoted; they form a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings. "Therefore he seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear."
Besides these works of Alfred's, the Saxon Chronicle almost certainly, and a Saxon Martyrology, of which fragments only exist, probably owe their inspiration to him. A prose version of the first fifty Psalms has been attributed to him; and the attribution, though not proved, is perfectly possible.
How Alfred died is unknown. Even the year is uncertain -- the arguments on the whole are in favour of 900. The day was the 26th of October.