Alfred the Great: Who Was King Alfred of Wessex?

We take a closer look at King Alfred of Wessex, better known as Alfred the Great, his story and his profound influence on history.

Embarking on a journey back in time, we encounter a figure whose name resonates through the annals of history with a rare distinction — Alfred the Great. Born amidst the verdant landscapes of Wantage, Oxfordshire in 849, Alfred’s life was one marked by adversity, triumph, and an unwavering commitment to the betterment of his realm. Ascending to the throne initially as the King of the West Saxons in 871, and later transcending to the esteemed title of the King of the Anglo-Saxons from 886 till his demise in 899, his reign was anything but commonplace. The annals of history vividly recount Alfred’s indomitable spirit in the face of the menacing Viking invasions, his sagacious administrative reforms, and his pioneering vision for education.

Alfred the Great’s epoch was a crucible, where the destiny of England was forged amidst the clash of swords and the ink of scholarly pursuits. His military acumen was not merely about conquest, but the preservation of his homeland against the incursions of the Danes. His legislative foresight ushered in a legal code that sought to mete out justice fairly, laying the rudiments of governance that echo through England’s constitutional framework to this day. Yet, it was perhaps his impassioned advocacy for education and literacy that truly delineates Alfred from many of his contemporaries. Propagating the use of English over Latin in primary education, and initiating the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred’s reign marked the dawn of a new epoch in the annals of English literacy and historiography.

As we delve deeper into the life and legacy of Alfred the Great, we shall traverse through the vicissitudes of his military campaigns, explore the indelible imprint of his legislative and educational reforms, and unveil the lineage of royalty that connects the past with the present. The epithet ‘the Great’ is not a mere appellation, but a testimony to the legacy of a king whose vision transcended the exigencies of his time, carving a niche in history that continues to be revered and studied with a sense of awe and reverence.

Join us as we traverse the annals of a bygone era, illuminating the life of a sovereign whose sagacity and valour continue to echo through the ages, epitomising the quintessence of what it truly means to be great.

Early Life and Ascension to the Throne:

Born in the quaint town of Wantage, Oxfordshire in 849, Alfred’s early life was a blend of royal prerogative and personal adversity. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex and his first wife, Osburh. A journey to Rome at the tender age of four was Alfred’s initial interaction with a world beyond the shores of his homeland. His second voyage to Rome was alongside his father, a journey that etched a lasting impression on the young prince.

The untimely demise of his parents left Alfred under the guardianship of his elder brothers, all of whom would reign before him. The throne of Wessex passed from his eldest brother Æthelbald to Æthelbert, and then to Æthelred. It was during Æthelred’s reign that Alfred began to emerge as a formidable force, demonstrating his military prowess in battles against the Viking invaders who threatened the very fabric of Anglo-Saxon civilisation.

The ascension of Alfred to the throne in 871, following the death of Æthelred, marked the beginning of a new era. The Kingdom of Wessex, under Alfred’s sagacious rule, would not only withstand the Viking onslaught but would lay the foundations for a unified English kingdom. From the outset, Alfred’s reign was a testament to his strategic acumen, his unyielding resolve, and his indomitable spirit in the face of adversity.

The transition from a young prince to a revered king was not a path strewn with roses, but Alfred’s fortitude and visionary leadership ushered in an epoch of unprecedented reforms, military victories, and the blossoming of Anglo-Saxon culture and literacy.

The life of Alfred the Great is a narrative of resilience, ingenuity, and a relentless pursuit of a vision for a prosperous and enlightened kingdom. His early life and ascension to the throne set the stage for a reign that would etch his name in golden letters in the annals of English history, a legacy that continues to be a beacon of royal sagacity and valour.

Personal Life of Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great, a pivotal figure in English history, was not only a military strategist and a learned king but also a family man whose personal life played a significant role in the shaping of medieval England.

Family Background

Alfred was born around 849 in Wantage, Berkshire, into the royal family of Wessex. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf and his wife, Osburh. Alfred’s early life was marked by the Viking invasions of England, which shaped his future as a warrior and a king. His upbringing in a royal household instilled in him the qualities of leadership and scholarship that would later define his reign.

Marriage and Consort

In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, a noblewoman of Mercian descent. This union was not merely personal but also a strategic alliance that strengthened the bonds between Wessex and Mercia, two of the most powerful kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England. Ealhswith was the daughter of Æthelred Mucel, an ealdorman of the Gaini, and his wife Eadburh, who was from a royal Mercian lineage.

Children and Succession

Alfred and Ealhswith had several children, who played crucial roles in the continuation of Alfred’s legacy and the future of England:

  • Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians: Often referred to as the ‘Lady of the Mercians,’ Æthelflæd was a formidable ruler in her own right. Following her marriage to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, she played a key role in the defence and administration of Mercia, particularly after her husband’s health declined.
  • Edward the Elder: Succeeding Alfred as the King of the Anglo-Saxons, Edward continued his father’s work in uniting and defending English territories against Viking invasions. His reign saw the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon power and the expansion of controlled lands.
  • Æthelgifu, Abbess of Shaftesbury: Æthelgifu dedicated her life to the church and served as the abbess of Shaftesbury Abbey, a religious institution founded by Alfred. Her position underscored the importance of Christianity in Alfred’s rule and his efforts to revive learning and piety in his kingdom.
  • Ælfthryth, Countess of Flanders: By marrying Baldwin II, Count of Flanders, Ælfthryth established a link that would have political and military implications for both Wessex and Flanders. This alliance was part of Alfred’s broader diplomatic strategy to secure his kingdom’s borders.
  • Æthelweard: Although less is known about Æthelweard compared to his siblings, he is believed to have been involved in the intellectual and administrative life of the kingdom, continuing his father’s legacy of scholarship and governance.

Military Exploits:

The era of Alfred the Great was fraught with the incessant menace of Viking invasions, a shadow of doom that loomed over the English realm. It was a period of unyielding warfare where the fate of a nascent nation hung precariously in the balance.

Viking Onslaught:

Upon his ascent to the throne, Alfred found his kingdom in the throes of a dire struggle against the Viking invaders. These Norse marauders, with their longships and battle-hardened warriors, threatened to engulf the fledgeling English territories in a tide of blood and fire. The ferocious engagements with the Vikings put Alfred’s military mettle to a stern test.

The Battle of Edington:

The crescendo of this relentless struggle reached a pivotal juncture at the Battle of Edington in 878. Here, Alfred marshalled the forces of Wessex in a do-or-die confrontation against the Viking horde led by Guthrum. With a blend of strategic acumen and indomitable spirit, Alfred secured a decisive victory, turning the tide in favour of the Anglo-Saxons. This triumph was not merely a military achievement, but a watershed moment that marked the preservation of English identity against a fierce and formidable foe.

The Treaty of Wedmore:

Following the resounding victory at Edington, Alfred showcased a blend of magnanimity and pragmatism by forging the Treaty of Wedmore with Guthrum, whom he also stood as a sponsor for at his Christian baptism. This treaty delineated the boundaries between the Anglo-Saxon and Viking territories, giving birth to the Danelaw, a domain where Norse laws held sway. This demarcation brought a semblance of peace and stability, allowing Alfred to turn his gaze towards the internal strengthening of his realm.

Challenges and Defeats:

Addressing the query, “Who was Alfred the Great defeated by?” presents a nuanced vista. While the annals of history laud Alfred for his military prowess, like any sovereign of his epoch, he too faced setbacks. Some skirmishes saw the Vikings having the upper hand, but the overarching narrative was one of a resilient king who, through a blend of martial skill and sagacious diplomacy, managed to preserve his kingdom’s sovereignty amidst a tumultuous era.

Alfred the Great’s military exploits were a blend of valour, strategic brilliance, and an unwavering resolve to safeguard his realm’s heritage and sovereignty. It was a narrative of a king who, amidst the clanging of swords and the cries of war, etched a legacy of resilience and hope in the heart of England.

Legislative and Educational Reforms:

In a realm beleaguered by external threats, Alfred the Great didn’t merely stop at defending his kingdom’s borders. He embarked on a visionary journey to instil a rich legacy of legislative and educational reforms. His reign was a confluence of martial might and enlightened governance, heralding a new dawn in the annals of the English monarchy.

Legal Code:

Alfred’s legislative acumen was manifested in his establishment of a legal code, a significant stride towards a structured governance model. Drawing inspiration from the biblical texts and earlier Saxon laws, he crafted a code that sought to uphold justice and fairness. His legal framework was a tapestry of wisdom and judicious governance, aimed at creating a realm where justice wasn’t merely a word, but a lived reality.

Literacy and Learning:

Answering the query, “What was Alfred the Great known for?” brings us to one of his most profound legacies – the promotion of literacy and learning. At a time when Latin was the lingua franca of the learned, Alfred championed the cause of English. He advocated for primary education in English, making learning accessible to a broader swathe of society.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Alfred’s vision extended beyond the immediate, venturing into the realms of historiography. Under his aegis, the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle commenced a monumental endeavour that documented the annals of the Anglo-Saxons. This Chronicle wasn’t merely a record; it was a narrative that connected the past with the present, providing a coherent sense of history and identity.

Translation Endeavours:

In a bid to make knowledge accessible, Alfred undertook the Herculean task of translating Latin texts into English. His translation endeavours included seminal works, bridging the chasm between the ecclesiastical elite and the common folk. Through these translations, Alfred brought the light of knowledge to the doorsteps of his subjects, fostering an environment of intellectual curiosity and enlightenment.

Ecclesiastical Reforms:

Alfred’s reign also saw a rejuvenation of ecclesiastical establishments, aligning the religious institutions with his vision of an enlightened realm. He sought to cultivate a symbiotic relationship between the throne and the altar, fostering an ethos of moral and spiritual upliftment.

Alfred the Great’s legislative and educational reforms were a beacon of enlightened governance amidst the tumult of the Viking Age. His reign was a narrative of a king who wielded the sword with valour and the pen with wisdom, crafting a legacy that resonated through the corridors of time, echoing the ethos of a true visionary.

Succession and Legacy:

The fabric of time weaves tales of monarchs, yet few leave an enduring legacy like Alfred the Great. As the sun set on his illustrious reign in 899, a new dawn beckoned with the ascension of his son to the throne, ensuring the continuity of a legacy rooted in wisdom, valour, and visionary governance.

Edward the Elder:

Answering the query, “Who became king after Alfred the Great?” introduces us to Edward the Elder, his worthy successor. Ascending to the throne, Edward inherited a realm that had been fortified through military vigilance and enlightened through scholarly pursuits. Under his reign, the consolidation and expansion of the English realm continued, building upon the foundations laid by his revered father.

Legacy Through Lineage:

Edward the Elder was but the first in a lineage of rulers who bore the indelible imprint of Alfred’s legacy. His reign saw the continuation of the struggle against the Viking incursions, yet it was underpinned by a vision of governance that mirrored the enlightened ethos of his father. The torch of legacy passed through generations, with each scion of Alfred’s lineage carrying forth the flame of a united and enlightened realm.

Alfred’s Ideals:

The seeds of governance sown by Alfred bore fruit through the annals of the English monarchy. His legal code, advocacy for education, and military reforms were cornerstones that shaped the narrative of a nation poised between the clutches of marauding invaders and the quest for a distinctive identity.

Enduring Legacy:

Alfred the Great’s legacy was a tapestry of martial, legislative, and scholarly pursuits that crafted a narrative of hope, resilience, and enlightenment. It was a legacy that transcended the ephemeral and ventured into the realm of the enduring, resonating through the annals of history as a testament to visionary leadership.

The annals of time often fade the memories of monarchs into the oblivion of forgotten epochs. Yet, the narrative of Alfred the Great echoes through the corridors of time, a tale of a king whose vision sculpted the destiny of a realm, laying the foundations of a legacy that would endure through the ages. Through the lens of succession and legacy, the tale of Alfred the Great and his progeny is a voyage through the tapestry of time, exploring the indelible imprint of a visionary monarch on the annals of English history.

Alfred’s Final Years and Death:

The twilight of Alfred the Great’s life was marked by continued endeavours to fortify his realm both militarily and intellectually. Even as the sands of time trickled towards the inevitable, Alfred’s indomitable spirit stood as a bastion against the adversities that sought to engulf his beloved realm.

Age at Time of Death:

Answering the query, “How old was Alfred the Great when he died?” reveals a life of significant accomplishments within a relatively short span. Born in the year 849 and passing away in 899, Alfred the Great was 50 years old at the time of his demise. His relatively short life was a testament to a relentless pursuit of a vision that sought to elevate his realm to the epitome of enlightened governance.

Final Accomplishments:

Alfred’s final years were not a descent into oblivion but a continued ascendancy of his visionary ideals. His ceaseless efforts to fortify his realm against external threats and internal discord were a beacon of hope amidst the pervasive gloom of the era. His enduring engagements in translating Latin texts, promoting education, and refining the legal code were threads in the rich tapestry of his illustrious reign.

Passing the Torch:

As the end approached, the mantle of leadership transitioned smoothly to his son, Edward the Elder. The seamless transition was a reflection of Alfred’s meticulous planning and foresight, ensuring that his realm remained on the path of progress and enlightenment even as he bid adieu to the earthly realm.

Enduring Beyond the Grave:

Alfred the Great’s demise was not an end, but a transition – a legacy etched in the annals of history, resonating through the lineage of monarchs who followed in his stead. His life’s work continued to shape the destiny of the English realm, embodying a legacy of resilience, wisdom, and visionary governance.

The tale of Alfred the Great’s final years and death is not one of melancholy, but a narrative of hope and an enduring legacy. It’s a tale that transcends the ephemeral, venturing into the realm of the enduring, illuminating the path for generations of enlightened governance that would follow in his wake. Through the lens of history, the narrative of Alfred the Great’s final years is a voyage through a life lived with a purpose, a purpose that resonated through the annals of time, crafting a legacy of enlightened governance.

The Great Epithet:

The epithet ‘the Great’ isn’t a title bestowed lightly upon monarchs; it is a distinction earned through a legacy of exceptional governance, military valour, and a vision that transcends the rigours of time. Alfred’s reign is a golden chapter in the annals of English history, a narrative that justified the honour of being deemed ‘the Great.’

Bestowal of the Title:

The title of ‘the Great’ was posthumously bestowed upon Alfred in the 16th century, a period far removed from his reign. This epithet wasn’t just a reflection of his military triumphs but a comprehensive recognition of his visionary governance, administrative reforms, and unwavering commitment to the betterment of his realm and subjects.

A Singular Honour:

The distinction of ‘the Great’ sets Alfred apart from other English monarchs. He remains the only English monarch honoured with such a title, a testament to a legacy that left an indelible imprint on the tapestry of English history. His reign was a confluence of military might, legislative wisdom, and a relentless pursuit of knowledge.

Lasting Legacy:

The epithet ‘the Great’ isn’t merely a title, but a narrative of a king who envisioned a realm rooted in justice, knowledge, and a robust defence against adversarial forces. Alfred’s military acumen, coupled with his advocacy for education and legal reforms, crafted a legacy of a visionary monarch whose narrative continues to resonate through the annals of time.

The ‘Great’ in Alfred the Great isn’t merely a formality; it’s a recognition of a legacy that blossomed amidst the adversities of Viking invasions and internal discord. A legacy that propelled the realm of England onto a path of enlightened governance, fortified defence, and a thriving culture of knowledge and education. The tale of Alfred the Great is a narrative interwoven with the threads of valour, wisdom, and a ceaseless quest for a better tomorrow, epitomising the essence of greatness in the annals of monarchy.

Is Queen Elizabeth related to Alfred the Great?:

The genealogical trails of British royalty weave a rich narrative filled with historical tapestries that echo through the ages. One such tapestry is the legacy of Alfred the Great, whose lineage is often delved into when tracing the roots of modern British monarchy.

Genealogical Exploration:

In addressing the query, “Is Queen Elizabeth related to Alfred the Great?” historical and genealogical trails beckon. The lineage of Alfred the Great is intertwined with the broader narrative of English royalty. Late Queen Elizabeth II was indeed descended from Alfred the Great, with historians and genealogists tracing the lineage through numerous generations of royalty.

Ancestral Threads:

The ancestral thread connecting the late Queen Elizabeth II to Alfred the Great traverses through a long line of monarchs, each contributing to the rich narrative of the English monarchy. This genealogical link is a testament to the enduring legacy of Alfred the Great, whose influence echoes through the lineage of British royalty.

Historical Resonance:

The genealogical connection between the late Queen Elizabeth II and Alfred the Great isn’t a mere historical footnote. It embodies a continuum of royal lineage, linking the annals of early English monarchy to the more recent monarchs. It’s a thread that intertwines the past with the present, reflecting the enduring legacy of a monarch whose reign was a cornerstone in the edifice of English monarchy.

Echoes of Legacy:

The legacy of Alfred the Great isn’t relegated to the annals of history but continues to resonate through the lineage of modern British monarchy. His visionary governance, military valour, and advocacy for education and legal reform are echoes from the past that reverberate through the lineage of British royalty, reflected in the royal lineage of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

The royal connection between Alfred the Great and the late Queen Elizabeth II is a voyage through the annals of time, tracing the lineage of visionary monarchs whose reigns have indelibly imprinted the narrative of English history. It reflects the enduring legacy of Alfred the Great, a legacy that continues to resonate through the lineage of British royalty, embodying a continuum of visionary governance and enlightened leadership.


As we traverse the annals of history, the epoch of Alfred the Great emerges as a luminary beacon amidst the tumultuous storms of the Viking Age. His reign wasn’t merely a chapter in English history; it was a seminal epoch that laid the foundational stones for the nascent English nation.

Alfred the Great was a multifaceted monarch – a valiant warrior who stemmed the Viking tide, a sagacious ruler who envisioned a realm governed by justice and knowledge, and a visionary whose foresight charted a course for the blossoming of English identity. His military exploits, legislative reforms, and educational initiatives were catalysts that propelled the English realm into a new era of enlightened governance.

The legacy of Alfred the Great resonates through the lineage of British royalty, embodying a continuum of visionary monarchial reign. His narrative is a testament to a life dedicated to the betterment of his realm and the welfare of his subjects. The epithet ‘the Great’ isn’t merely a title; it’s a reflection of a legacy that continues to inspire, educate, and evoke a sense of awe and reverence.

As we conclude our exploration of Alfred the Great’s life and legacy, we are left with a narrative that transcends the ephemeral and ventures into the realm of the enduring. His tale is an inspiring voyage through the vicissitudes of a bygone era, illuminating the path for generations of enlightened governance that would follow in his wake.

Engage with this narrative, delve into the multifaceted legacy of Alfred the Great, and explore further the indelible imprint he left on the tapestry of English history. The tale of Alfred the Great is a rich reservoir of historical, cultural, and educational exploration, awaiting the curious mind to discover and unravel.

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