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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > August 2016 > History Makers: Alfred the Great

History Makers: Alfred the Great

Largely remembered for his lapses in the kitchen, the Saxon king was actually the saviour of his people and should be saluted as such, says Jem Roberts
TRUE COLOURS Alfred immortalised in a stained-glass window at Winchester Cathedral. Winchester was both the capital of Wessex and where Alfred died in 889

A ll heroic figures have to have nadirs to fight back from, adversity to overcome – and there’s a reason that the Saxon King Alfred is the only English ruler ever to be popularly known as ‘Te Great’. Te one thing that most people think of when his name is mentioned is the burning of the cake. True or not, it comes from Alfred’s time of greatest struggle – as a battle-beaten guerilla hiding out in the marshlands of the Somerset Levels, with any hope of victory over the usurping Danes seemingly lost.

Overturning this desperate state, and forging some kind of peace with the Danes, must surely be Alfred’s greatest achievement. But there was one greater masterstroke in Alfred’s reign, the main reason we still celebrate his successes over 1,100 years later. He was the first of our rulers to commission his own biography, written during his lifetime by the Welsh bishop Asser. Understanding the value of good propaganda was just one of Alfred’s many smart moves in his 28 tumultuous years as leader of Wessex.

The Great Heathen Army takes to the seas
ALAMY X2, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, GETTY X4, TOPFOTO X1

THE WISE ELF

Long celebrated as a king who ruled more with his brain than by bloodlust, Alfred’s very name means ‘wise elf’. Te importance of education, and things higher than victory in battle, was impressed on him at a very young age, when his father Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome in 853 and took his four-year-old youngest son with him. Te example of the Roman church stayed with Alfred, who would fight for a more civilised form of government, firmly built on Christian piety, for the rest of his life. No chronicler, however, claims that Alfred was built for warfare, and his life was plagued by ailments now thought to stem from the excruciating bowel disorder, Chron’s disease. Æthelwulf had his work cut out on his return to Britain to avoid civil war when his elder son Æthelbald refused to give up his regency. But, ultimately, both father and son died within a couple of years, with Wessex passing to the next brother in line, Æthelbehrt. Five years later, in 865, his death gave Alfred’s closest brother Æthelred the crown and, in the same year the Vikings arrived, led by the terrifying Ivar the Boneless.

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August 2016 issue of History Revealed.
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