There is no way that this can be any more than a brief summary
of events during Alfred's reign, but it may give an outline of the
circumstances he faced during this crucial period of English history.
The Early Years
Alfred was born in Wantage in 849 AD, according to Asser's Life, and was the youngest of the five sons of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He was born into an England which was already suffering from inroads from Danish marauders, and was soon to see the arrival of those who were looking to conquer territory, and settle down permanently.
Alfred passed his early years peacefully, a child whose adult brothers were able to assist their father in running the kingdom. Nevertheless, he was sent to Rome as a boy, where he was received with honour by the Pope, and the journey there and back must have exposed him to a wider variety of people and experiences than he could ever have encoutered in Wessex.
In 865 a "great heathen army" arrived in England, and soon took advantage of a dynastic dispute in
Northumbria to subdue that divided kingdom. By 870 they had made inroads into Mercia, and had subdued East Anglia,
killing its king Edmund. By 871 they had been joined by another army from overseas, and were attacking Wessex in
earnest. So began the time of trial for Alfred and his remaining brother, King Aethelred.
The Beleagured King
The men of Wessex met the Danes in a series of battles early in 871. The most famous of these was at Ashdown where, if Asser is to be believed, the young prince Alfred outshone his brother King Aethelred. There were victories, but not decisive ones, and when Aethelred died after Easter Alfred found himself ruling a kingdom which was far from secure. Peace was secured only by coming to terms with the Danes, paying them to go somewhere else.
By this time many of the Danes were settling down in the lands to the north east of Wessex, and tightening their grip on the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In 875/6 Wessex again came under attack, and Danish hosts occupied Wareham and Exeter. Alfred reacted vigorously to these attacks, and by 877 had again come to terms with the invaders, who withdrew to Mercia professing peace.
Alfred was completely unprepared for the next invasion, which took place shortly after Christmas. The Danes siezed Chippenham and overran much of Wessex, killing and driving off many people, and forcing Alfred to flee to the Somerset marshes with a small band of retainers. While the people of Wessex submitted to the invaders, Alfred took refuge at Athelney and regrouped. This time of Alfred's greatest need is the setting for many folk tales, such as the burning of the cakes.
Recovery and Reform
As the people of Wessex realised that their king was still alive, they began to recover hope. In May 878 Alfred reassembled his army at Egbert's Stone, and met the Danes in battle at Edington in Wiltshire. Here he won a great victory, pursuing the enemy and besieging them in their base at Chippenham, and forcing their surrender. His victory was such that their "king" Guthrum accepted baptism with Alfred as his sponsor, and the host withdrew from Wessex and settled in East Anglia. Along with part of Mercia and Northumbria, this became the Danelaw, the English land under Danish control. Some years later Alfred signed a treaty with Guthrum laying down exactly where the boundary was, but this did not prevent Alfred and his descendants gradually following a policy of reconquest.
This victory over Guthrum's host gave Alfred a breathing space, time to begin the reforms which were necessary if his kingdom were to have any chance of survival. He began to develop a system of defence based around fortified strongholds (burhs), he reorganised his army into two parts, one of which was always available, and he demonstrated through his actions that he would move vigorously against any threat. He also began to encourage a revival in learning and in religious faith, setting up schools, translating books into English, and making sure that his people had access to "certain books which are the most necessary for all men to know" (from his preface to his own translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care).
The Final Years
to be continued
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