Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons, Died October 26, 899

Alfred the Great, born around 848/49 and passing away on October 26, 899, held the title of King of the West Saxons from 871 to approximately 886 and then became King of the Anglo-Saxons from around 886 until his death.

During his reign, significant administrative and military reforms were implemented, leading to enduring transformations within England.

Born in Wantage

Alfred was the offspring of Æthelwulf, the King of Wessex, and his spouse Osburh. In the words of his biographer Asser, who wrote in 893, “In the year 849, according to the Lord’s Incarnation, Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons, was born in Wantage, which was in Berkshire at the time.

This birthdate has garnered acceptance from Asser’s biographers, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, as well as from other historians like David Dumville and Richard Huscroft.

Alfred's father Æthelwulf of Wessex in the early 14th-century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England
Alfred’s father Æthelwulf of Wessex in the early 14th-century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England

Nevertheless, West Saxon genealogical records suggest that Alfred was 23 years old when he assumed the throne in April 871, implying a birth window between April 847 and April 848.

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This dating is supported by Alfred Smyth in his biography of Alfred, though he accuses Asser’s biography of being fraudulent, a charge that is dismissed by other historians.

Alfred’s Only Known Sister, Æthelswith

Alfred was the youngest among six siblings born to Æthelwulf, the King of Wessex, and his wife Osburh. His eldest brother, Æthelstan, had already reached an age where he was appointed as a sub-king of Kent in 839, nearly a decade before Alfred’s birth.

Æthelstan passed away in the early 850s. Alfred’s next three brothers sequentially ascended to the throne of Wessex. Æthelbald (858-860) and Æthelberht (860-865) were significantly older than Alfred, while Æthelred (865-871) was only a year or two his senior.

Alfred’s only known sister, Æthelswith, entered into matrimony with Burgred, the King of Mercia, in 853. Although most historians attribute all of Æthelwulf’s children to Osburh, there is some speculation that the older siblings might have been born to an unrecorded first wife.

Alfred’s mother, Osburga, hailed from a lineage connected to Oslac of the Isle of Wight, who held the prestigious position of Chief Butler of England.

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Asser, in his Vita Ælfredi, suggests that this lineage connects Alfred to the Jutes of the Isle of Wight. However, this assertion is doubtful, as historical accounts from Bede inform us that the Jutes were annihilated by the Saxons under Cædwalla, making such a lineage unlikely.

Charles the Bald, King of West Francia

Osburh, as depicted by Alfred’s biographer Asser, was characterised as “an exceedingly devout woman, distinguished both in temperament and lineage.” She passed away prior to 856, when Æthelwulf entered into marriage with Judith, the daughter of Charles the Bald, King of West Francia.

Charles the Bald as depicted in the Vivian Bible, c. 845
Charles the Bald as depicted in the Vivian Bible, c. 845

In 868, Alfred united in matrimony with Ealhswith, the daughter of Æthelred Mucel, a prominent figure in Mercian society holding the title of Ealdorman of the Gaini. The Gaini likely constituted one of the tribal factions within the Mercian realm. Ealhswith’s mother, Eadburh, belonged to the Mercian royal lineage.

Together, Alfred and Ealhswith had a family of five or possibly six children, among whom were Edward the Elder, who succeeded his father as king, Æthelflæd, who assumed the title of lady of the Mercians, and Ælfthryth, who entered into matrimony with Baldwin II, Count of Flanders.

Osferth of Wessex is noted as a relative in King Alfred’s will and held influential positions attesting charters until 934.

Read More: The Story of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

In a charter from King Edward’s era, he was referred to as the king’s brother, although scholars such as Keynes and Lapidge believe this to be a mistake. According to Janet Nelson’s perspective, Osferth likely was an illegitimate son of King Alfred.

Ivar the Boneless

Upon ascending the throne, Alfred faced several years of relentless Viking invasions. In 868, he was documented as actively engaging in battle alongside Æthelred, their joint efforts aimed at thwarting the Great Heathen Army led by Ivar the Boneless from conquering the neighboring Kingdom of Mercia.

The Danes eventually arrived in his homeland toward the close of 870, precipitating a series of nine skirmishes in the ensuing year, yielding mixed outcomes. Regrettably, the specific locations and dates of two of these battles remain unrecorded.

Viking encampment,
Viking encampment, part of the ‘Hever in History’ event. Credit: Peter Trimming

In April 871, the passing of King Æthelred of Wessex thrust Alfred into the role of ruler of Wessex and its defense. This transition occurred despite the presence of Æthelred’s two underage sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold.

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This succession was in accordance with a prior agreement reached by Æthelred and Alfred earlier that year during a gathering at an undisclosed location known as Swinbeorg.

Under the terms of their agreement, whichever of the brothers outlived the other would inherit the personal assets that King Æthelwulf had bequeathed jointly to his sons in his will.

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878. Credit: Hel-hama - CC BY-SA 3.0
A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878. Credit: Hel-hama – CC BY-SA 3.0

The sons of the deceased would only receive the properties and wealth that their father had designated for them and any additional lands acquired by their uncle.

The underlying assumption was that the surviving brother would ascend to the throne. Given the Danish invasion and the youth of his nephews, Alfred’s accession likely transpired without significant opposition.

King of the Anglo-Saxons

Originally known as the “King of the West Saxons,” Alfred later adopted the title of King of the Anglo-Saxons around 886, as his rule extended over more of England.

Although he was not the first monarch to assert dominion over all English territories, his reign marked the beginning of an unbroken lineage of kings governing the entire England, known as the House of Wessex.

A map of burhs named in the Burghal Hidage
A map of burhs named in the Burghal Hidage

Alfred achieved a decisive triumph in the Battle of Edington in 878 and brokered an accord with the Vikings, establishing the region known as the Danelaw in the North of England.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Additionally, Alfred played a pivotal role in the conversion of Viking leader Guthrum to Christianity. He diligently defended his kingdom against Viking attempts at conquest, ultimately emerging as the preeminent ruler in England.

Asser, a 9th-century Welsh scholar and bishop, provides a detailed account of Alfred’s life.

Alfred, Taxation and Defense for Wessex

During a journey to Rome, Alfred had the opportunity to stay with Charles the Bald. It is plausible that he studied the strategies employed by the Carolingian kings in dealing with Viking marauders.

Drawing from these lessons, Alfred implemented a system of taxation and defense for Wessex. There existed a network of fortifications in pre-Viking Mercia, which may have served as a source of inspiration.

When Viking raids resumed in 892, Alfred was well-prepared to confront them, boasting a standing, mobile field army, a network of garrisons, and a modest fleet of ships for navigating rivers and estuaries.

Emperor Charlemagne’s Reforms

Alfred earned a reputation as a notable reformer, and his visionary ideas left a lasting imprint on the educational system crafted during his reign. He attached significant importance to translating Latin texts into English, thereby expanding the availability of books for educational and intellectual pursuits.

Emperor Charlemagne’s reforms greatly influenced Alfred, inspiring him to establish court schools. These schools aimed to provide a well-rounded education not only to the nobility but also to individuals of lower status.

King Alfred The Great Statue, Winchester
King Alfred The Great Statue, Winchester

Alfred took care to ensure that these schools were staffed by the finest scholars, offering a curriculum dedicated to the liberal arts. Alfred’s profound intellectual inclination manifested in his approach to reforming and elevating Anglo-Saxon society during his rule.

Thanks to his educational reforms, Alfred was regarded as a learned and benevolent figure with a composed and thoughtful demeanor.

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He actively promoted education, advocating for primary instruction to be conducted in Old English instead of Latin. Additionally, he enhanced the legal system and military structure, contributing to an improved quality of life for his people.

The King is Dead

Alfred’s life came to an end on October 26, 899, when he was approximately 50 or 51 years old. The exact cause of his death remains a mystery, though he endured a persistent and distressing illness throughout his lifetime.

Page from the will of Alfred the Great
Page from the will of Alfred the Great

His biographer Asser provided a detailed account of Alfred’s symptoms, enabling modern medical experts to propose possible diagnoses, which include Crohn’s disease or hemorrhoids. Curiously, his grandson King Eadred also seemed to suffer from a similar ailment.

After his passing, Alfred was initially interred at the Old Minster in Winchester alongside his wife Ealhswith.

Prior to his demise, he had commissioned the construction of the New Minster, envisioning it as a future mausoleum for himself and his family.

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Four years following his death, Alfred and his family’s remains were exhumed and relocated to their new resting place within the New Minster. There, they rested peacefully for a span of 211 years.

However, with the ascent of William I the Conqueror to the English throne after the Norman conquest in 1066, a wave of changes swept through the land.

Where is the King?

Many Anglo-Saxon abbeys met their demise and were supplanted by Norman cathedrals. Unfortunately, the New Minster abbey, which housed Alfred’s remains, was among those affected.

Before its demolition, the monks of the New Minster took care to relocate the bodies of Alfred and his family to a more secure location.

They moved to Hyde in 1110, a short distance north of the city, where they established Hyde Abbey. Here, the remains of Alfred, his wife, and their children were interred before the high altar, ensuring their continued rest in a new sacred space.

Sadly, Hyde Abbey met its demise in 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries, and investigations suggest that the tomb was subjected to looting.

It is widely held that certain skeletal remains were publicly exhibited in the 19th Century before eventually finding their resting place at St. Bartholomew Church. There whereabouts has been lost to history.