Feast Day : October 26
Name meaning: Elf counsel; all peace
Alfred, the youngest of either four or five sons of the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelwulf of Wessex, was born in 849 in Wantage, Berkshire. King Aethelwulf may have considered a career in the Church for Alfred, as the boy visited Rome in 853. In 869, at age 20, Alfred married the Mercian princess Aetheswitha or Ealswyth to cement an alliance between Mercia and Wessex, and they had five or six children. The greatest threat to Wessex in the ninth century were the invasions of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia by Danish Vikings. In 868, Alfred’s older brother, St. King Aethelred, led his armies into Mercia to stop the Danes. Alfred, only 19, was Aethelred’s deputy. By 871, the Danes were pushing the Anglo- Saxons farther south into Wessex. King Aethelred was killed at the battle of Merton, and the kingship passed to Alfred. Although poorly supported, Alfred managed to hold back the Danes for seven years, mainly through alliances with the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: the beginnings of a united England. In 878, the Danes attacked Wessex for four months, and Alfred retreated into the marshes of Somerset to regroup. Reorganizing his army, Alfred defeated the Danes at Edington later that year. He signed the Treaty of Wedmore with the Danish king Guthrum and divided England along the road from London to Chester. Anything north of this line, including York and East Anglia, became the Danelaw—ruled according to Danish law—and lands south were English. Alfred forced the Danish leader to convert to Christianity. To prevent further invasions, Alfred built fortresses and strongholds throughout Mercia, rebuilt the army by requiring military service of all free men, and formed a navy with ships of his own design. But Alfred’s successes lay not just in conquest. He learned to read and write, eventually translating many Latin texts into Old English, including the treatise Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great (Gregory I), the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and most probably the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede. Alfred also encouraged literacy among his nobles, founding a court school for the clergy and young people and inviting scholars from all over Europe to teach there. He introduced decent and fair laws throughout the kingdom, making no distinction between his English and Welsh subjects. But perhaps Alfred’s greatest contribution was his patronage of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle tells the stories and events of Christianity from the time of Christ through 1154 and is often the only source of information about the Danish invasions. The book also includes accounts of the Norman Conquest. The Chronicle is one of the first books written in the vernacular, and its description of the reign of King Stephen shows the language moving from Old English to Middle English. Alfred suffered from unspecified diseases, perhaps psychosomatic in nature, which caused him pain, illness and self-doubt all his life. He was never king of England, although his reign strengthened the rule of later English kings. Alfred’s image did appear on coinage. Alfred died October 26, 899, and was deemed “the Great” in the 17th century.