by James D. Irwin

On This Day…

899— Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, the man who defeated the Vikings and united the Britons, died.

The statue depicted was erected in Winchester in 1901 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Alfred’s death (at that time historians believed Alfred to have died in 901). Winchester was the capital of Alfred’s ancestral kingdom of Wessex. But why bother? Colin Firth comes from Winchester, and he’s won an Oscar, why not bung a statue of him up at the arse end of the high street?

The answer is that Colin Firth is yet to have ‘the Great’ attached to his name. Yet. In fact Alfred is the only Briton ever to have been referred to as ‘the Great’ (not counting magicians).

Alfred was so bloody good at being king that an attempt was made to make him a Saint. It never came to pass, but the Anglican Church has a feast day in his honour. Mostly because he beat the living shit out of the Vikings, but there are other marks of greatness.

Alfred was the youngest of four children, all named Ethel-something (Ethelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred), all who ruled Wessex one after the other.

In 870 Ethelred faced a battle with the Danes. He wanted to spend time praying before heading into battle… too much time for Alfred’s liking. In fact Alfred got bored of waiting, and took command of Ethelred’s army. By the time Ethelred was done praying Alfred had already won the battle.

Following Ethelred’s death in April the next year, Alfred became King of Wessex, whereupon he continued doing what he did best: killing Scandinavian invaders. In 878 all of Northumberland and East Anglia had been conquered, along with Mercia (the Midlands). No English King had defeated an entire Viking army, but things changed at Edington when the horn-hatted Carlsberg drinkers came up against Alfred the soon-to-be-Great. It remains the only occasion in which an English king has defeated a whole Viking army, although admittedly their threat has diminished substantially since the 11th Century.

However, by 878 the Vikings had fought back significantly, largely by breaking promises, killing lots of hostages, and generally conducting themselves in an unsporting manner. After a surprise attack which left most of Alfred’s men dead, he and a few others managed to escape. Alfred was given shelter by an old peasant woman, and all seemed lost. But like any good movie, this was just the low ebb before the heroic climax.

Gathering militias from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire Alfred lay the foundations for a resitance movement. Seven weeks after Easter, the Battle of Ethandun took place. Alfred won, and pushed the Danes back to their Chippenham stronghold where they were starved into submission. Alfred then forced them to convert to Christianity. Following this the Danish didn’t bother Alfred much, surrending in 881 after being bested in naval warfare— Alfred was widely credited by the Victorians as creating the English navy, although that is not quite true. He did however, in 896, come up with designs for new warships.

In 886 Alfred re-occupied London, fortified it, and set about restoring the city. By this point in proceedings the rest of the Saxons submitted to Alfred, unifying the Britons. Alfred never gave himself the title ‘King of England’, but he pretty much was.

In the later years of his life the Danes had another go, but were ultimately repelled first by destroying all their supplies, and then by outmanouvering their ships on the Thames. Alfred, much more than a warrior, was a great tactician.

He also invented the lantern, presumably so he could kill Vikings in the dark. His design was largely unchanged until the invention of electricity.

For these reasons and more he was recently voted Britain’s 14th Greatest Person. In 893 the Bishop of Sherborne wrote a biography of Alfred, which is still available in stores now!