King Alfred the Great 849 – 899

Alfred the Great

 Family tree for Alfred the Great showing:


Short Biography

Early Life

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.

Alfred’s eldest brother, Aethelstan, had died in 852, so when his father died, his brother, Aethelbald became King. Aethelbald had no children so his unmarried brother Aethelberht succeeded. He was followed by the next brother, Aethelred. Aethelred had two children, Aethelhelm and Aethelwold but when their father died they were considered too young to take the throne and the crown passed to Alfred.

From the time of his accession Wessex was under repeated Viking attacks. Alfred bought them off in 872 but they soon returned. 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.

Alfred’s Return

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.

Alfred was a learned man and liked to be in the company of educated men. He started the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to record the history of England. Although Alfred only ruled 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.


Published Jan 29, 2017 @ 6:34 pm – Updated – Jul 5, 2020 @ 11:29 pm

Harvard Reference for this page::

Heather Y Wheeler. (2017 – 2020). King Alfred the Great 849 – 899. Available: Last accessed September 23rd, 2021