Family tree for Alfred the Great showing:
King Alfred the Great was born in 849, the 5th son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh at Wantage, Berkshire. Alfred was not expected to become King since he had four elder brothers. In 853 he was taken to Rome to be confirmed by the Pope and it is likely that he was being prepared for a life in the Church. He made a second trip to Rome two years later with his father.
Succession of Alfred’s Brothers
Alfred’s eldest brother, Aethelstan, had died in 852, so when King Aethelwulf died, Alfred’s brother, Aethelbald became King. Aethelbald had no children so his unmarried brother Aethelberht succeeded. He was followed by the next brother, Aethelred.
In 866 the Great Heathen Army invaded Britain. This began a period of continual battles between the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons. In 871 King Aethelred was badly injured at the Battle of Meretum and died of his injuries on 15th April 871. Alfred had two children, Aethelhelm and Aethelwold but they were considered too young to take the throne and the crown passed to Alfred.
King of Wessex
Wessex continued to be repeatedly attacked by the Vikings. In 872 Alfred paid them off but they soon returned and demanded further payments. In 877, the Archbishop of Canterbury complained that Alfred was using church money to pay off the Vikings. After the Viking force devastated Chippenham, Alfred lost the support of the Witan and fled to the Somerset marshes.
Alfred and the Cakes Legend
The ‘Alfred and the Burnt Cakes’ legend stems from this period. Alfred was taken in and given shelter by a peasant woman who did not know he was the king. She asked him to watch some cakes for her, but he was so taken up with his thoughts about how to defeat the Vikings that the cakes were burnt.
The story may have some truth and Alfred and his family may well have been taken in by a peasant family who had no idea who he was. Equally likely is that the story is an allegory for Alfred’s situation. He had been so absorbed in trying to pay off the Vikings that he had not fully realised the extent to which he had lost the support of the Witan. He may even have been overthrown by a coup.
Whatever the truth of the story, Alfred did not give up or exile himself. Instead, he formulated a plan to regain his place as King and began rallying local militia.
In 878 Alfred defeated the Viking force at the Battle of Edington. The Viking leader Guthrum was forced to accept baptism and peace terms. The Treaty of Wedmore established the Danelaw, a region including the Midlands and East Anglia that was controlled by the Vikings. The peace lasted until the death of Guthrum in 890.
During the 880s, Alfred constructed a number of burghs (fortified towns) to make future Viking attacks more difficult. He also ordered that ships be built to attack Vikings before they could land.
Alfred the Great was a learned man and liked to be in the company of educated men and in 891 started the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to record the history of England.
In 892 a large force of Danes invaded. Alfred reached an agreement with one of the leaders, Haesten, but the Viking did not honour the agreement and lay waste to Benfleet. Nevertheless by 896, Alfred supported by his son, Edward had pushed the Vikings back and they had given up attacking Wessex.
Although Alfred was only King of Wessex, it was his dream that eventually one King would rule all of England. This dream would be realised by his grandson, Aethelstan.
Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by his son King Edward the Elder.
First published 2017; updated and re-published Oct 23rd 2021 @ 6:34 pm – Updated –
Harvard Reference for this page:
Heather Y Wheeler. (2017 – 2021). King Alfred the Great (849-899) Family Tree. Available: https://www.treesofblue.com/king-alfred-the-great-849-899. Last accessed January 15th, 2022