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.

Over the centuries, we have had some truly remarkable monarchs, along with a fair few less remarkable ones as well.

If we go way back to Anglo Saxon times, it’s safe to say that there were quite a few rulers during that period, as life expectancies were, shall we say, short at best. At a time where fierce battles ravaged the kingdom, life as a king was incredibly dangerous to say the very least.

One ruler that is synonymous with that time period, however, is King Alfred of Wessex, better known to many as Alfred the Great.

But just how great was Alfred, and was he really as perfect as many historians would have us believe?

Here’s a quick look at the life and times of King Alfred of Wessex.

So, Just Who Was Alfred The Great?

King Alfred of Wessex, better known as Alfred the Great was born 849 and died in 891.

He helped to ensure that England didn’t fall to the Danes and campaigned and promoted vigorously for literacy and learning, as he saw the importance of education and intelligence.

Upon his birth, it was highly unlikely that he would become king. Born to Æthelwulf King of Wessex, and his wife Osburh, Alfred had four older brothers, who would surely succeed him to the throne.

Moreover, Alfred apparently had no desire to be a ruler, as he was far more interested in literacy and the arts, especially English poetry and Latin.

Alfred is said to have envied intelligent and educated individuals, and despite yearning for education, he had no means of receiving it until he became much older.

As he grew older, he joined the military on active service in 868, where finally, he received some form of education and could focus on learning, rather than on being a soldier.

Before that, however, he had a little combat experience as he had travelled with his brother, King Æthelred I, to defend the kingdom between the Thames and the Humber from an invading Danish army who had taken control of Northumbria in 865.

It turns out that the Danes, clearly outmatched, refused to fight and a truce was called.

In 865, Alfred married Ealhswith.

There Are Other Ways To Win A War

When his brother died in 871, Alfred took the throne of Wessex.

During this time, Danish Vikings once again invaded and defeated the Saxon army whilst he was burying his brother.

In May, in Wilton, the Danes were once again victorious, and Alfred was forced to make peace with them and call a truce.

Now, nobody knows exactly what this truce entailed, but the Viking army withdrew in autumn of that same year, and many historians believe the only logical explanation for this is that Alfred paid them, or came to some sort of financial agreement with them to leave.

This again shows that battles aren’t always won by brute force alone.

The Death Of King Alfred of Wessex

In 899, aged either 50 or 51 (historians aren’t sure) Alfred died, though the cause of death is unknown.

Apparently, though, throughout his life, he was inflicted by either Crohn’s disease or haemorrhoids which could have killed him.

The Legend Of King Alfred’s Burnt Cakes

If you’re out in the woods and come across lumps of hard, black pieces of fungi that resemble lumps of coal stuck to decaying wood, they’re actually a form of fungus which people call ‘King Alfred’s Burnt Cakes’.

These black lumps, once fully dry, make excellent tinder for starting a fire, but why the name?

Well, the legend goes that in the 9th century when England was being ravaged by the Viking invaders, Alfred was forced to seek refuge from them in the home of a peasant woman, who kindly took him in and gave him refuge.

In return, she asked that he keep an eye on some bread cakes she was baking, whilst she did chores and ran errands.

Alfred, presumably preoccupied with the fact that hordes of blood-thirsty Viking warriors wanted his head, forgot about these bread cakes and allowed them to burn to lumps of black charcoal.

Embarrassed, Alfred took the cakes and hurled them into the woodland to hide the evidence, which is why we call this particular genus of fungi ‘King Alfred’s Burnt Cakes’.