Who was Alfred the Great?

There were many famous Anglo-Saxon kings, but the most famous of all was Alfred, one of the only kings in British history to be called 'Great'.

His father was king of Wessex, but by the end of Alfred's reign his coins referred to him as 'King of the English'.

He fought the Vikings and then made peace so that English and Vikings settled down to live together. He encouraged people to learn and he tried to govern well and fairly.

Who was Alfred, and why was he so great? Find out about King Alfred's life.

Stories about Alfred the Great

A lot of what we know about Alfred the Great comes from stories that have been written about him.

One story says that Alfred went to Rome at the age of four to meet the Pope. When he came home, his mother promised a book of English poetry to the first of her sons who could read it to her. With the help of his tutor, Alfred memorised the book so he could recite it by heart and won.

Later in his life the young King Alfred had to hide from the Vikings on a marshy island called Athelney, in Somerset. A famous story tells how, while sheltering in a cowherd's hut, the king got a telling-off from the cowherd's wife. Why? He accidentally let her cakes (or bread) burn on the fire when he forgot to watch them.

Listen to passages from the Monk Asser's biography of Alfred called 'The Life of King Alfred'

How did he rule?

Alfred became king in AD871 when his elder brother died.

During his reign he was advised by a council of nobles and church leaders. This council was called the Witan.

Alfred made good laws and believed education was important. He had books translated from Latin into English, so people could read them. He also told monks to begin writing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

To help protect his kingdom from Viking attacks, Alfred built forts and walled towns known as ‘burhs’. He also built warships to guard the coast from raiders and organised his army into two parts. While half the men were at home on their farms, the rest were ready to fight Vikings.

Alfred died in 899 and was buried at his capital city of Winchester.

A statue of Alfred the Great
This statue of Alfred can be seen at Winchester (Hampshire)

Click on each of the kings below to find out who they were and how they ruled.

Who was Athelstan?

Athelstan was Alfred the Great’s grandson. He reigned between AD925 and AD939 and was the very first ‘King of all England’.

Athelstan was a successful soldier. In AD920 he took York from the Vikings and pushed the boundaries of England.

One of Athelstan’s most famous victories was at the Battle of Brunanburh. He defeated an invasion by the king of Scotland, who attacked with help from the Welsh and the Danes from Dublin.

Athelstan wasn’t just a soldier though: he worked hard to make his kingdom strong by writing laws and encouraging trade.

Memorial tomb for Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire
Athelstan was buried at Malmesbury. At the time of his death he was recognised as the very first 'King of All England'.
An Anglo-Saxon village