Saturday, September 17, 2005

King Alfred (849 - 899)

Known as King Alfred (Aelfred) the Great, or King of Wessex, he became ruler of the West Saxons after he and his brother defeated the Danes in the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire - the later death of his brother Ethelred left Alfred as successor in 871. He has the reputation of being a great warrior as well as a social reformer who built towns and promoted education by starting schools and translating texts from Latin. He is considered the first King of England.
Although the Danes were defeated at Ashdown, the West Saxons were forced to negotiate and pay tribute after losing further battles. But Alfred refused to surrender and in 878, he rallied men from Somerset and Wiltshire and again defeated the Danes in the Battle of Edington. The Danes made peace and Guthrum, their king, was baptised with Alfred as his sponsor. By 886, Alfred had freed London from Danish occupation and a treaty was made with Guthrum and the East Anglians. England was divided, with the east (between the Rivers Thames and Tees) declared to be Danish territory - later known as the 'Danelaw' - where English and Danes were treated as equals by law.
The failure of the Danes to make any more advances against Alfred was largely a result of the defensive measures he undertook during the war. He set about strengthening old forts and building new, and he ensured that his army was well organised. He also built up a navy to meet invasions. Larger ships were constructed to his own design for use against the coastal raids that continued even after 896.
Alfred understood the value of diplomacy and formed amicable relations with Mercia and Wales; Welsh rulers sought his support and even provided troops for his army in 893. As an administrator Alfred advocated justice and order. He established a code of laws, after studying the principles of law-giving in the Book of Exodus and the codes of Aethelbert of Kent, Ine of Wessex and Offa of Mercia. While avoiding unnecessary changes to custom, he limited the practice of the blood feud and imposed heavy penalties for breach of oath or pledge.
A most distinguishing characteristic was Alfred's belief in education. He held the view that Viking raids were a divine punishment for peoples' sins, which he attributed to the decline of learning, and so he offered patronage to scholars from Wales and the continent and he himself learned Latin, eventually translating books into English.
Alfred is still considered quintessential as a ruler of the Middle Ages. He resisted constant threat from the Danes while establishing himself as a wise and lawful ruler of England.


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