• Imagining History

Who was King Alfred the Great? - Find out in this Handy Guide for Kids

Updated: May 10



Alfred the Great was the king of Wessex and, later, the first King of the Anglo-Saxons. He is the only King in English history to be labelled ‘The Great’ - but how did he manage to get himself such a complimentary title?


Alfred had 4 older brothers, who all ruled as King of Wessex before him. When Alfred's brother, Ethelred, was King of Wessex, Alfred supported him in nine battles against the Vikings. Wessex became the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom not to fall to the Vikings. Sadly, in the year 871, Ethelred died of battle injuries and Alfred became King.


The Viking threat was stronger than ever, but Alfred bought himself some time by paying the Vikings not to attack Wessex. The Vikings called this payment the Danegeld.


But the peace between Wessex and the Vikings didn't last long. In the year 878, the Viking leader, Guthrum, launched a surprise attack on Alfred's base in Chippenham. He was forced to flee and he went into hiding in the Somerset Levels. Here, Alfred and his men were hiding in the marshes and relying on local people to supply them with shelter and food.


A Map of England showing Danelaw

Legend has it that during this time, a peasant lady asked Alfred to watch her cakes as they cooked on the fire. He received a stern telling off when he accidentally let the cakes burn! There is some debate about whether the legend of the burnt cakes is true (this story was written 100 years after Alfred’s death), but one thing's for sure - you wouldn't want Alfred on your team in a baking competition!


After gathering his forces, Alfred defeated Guthrum and the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. Alfred and Guthrum agreed to split the English land between the pair of them. There was now a boundary between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the South and the large bits of England that the Vikings had conquered through invasion in the North and East. The Viking land was called the Danelaw. Alfred kept Wessex in the South-West.


Page 1 of the Peterborough Chronicle

Unfortunately, the Vikings were not a unified group of people. This meant that Alfred's Kingdom was still occasionally under threat from Viking groups not lead by Guthrum. As a result, Alfred dedicated much of his reign to protecting his people. He built forts and walled towns called "burhs", built warships to defend the coast from raiders and better organised his army.


Despite the constant threat of Viking invasion, Alfred made time for one of his main passions - literacy. On a trip to Rome as a boy, he had learned to read and write. As an adult he felt education was important. He translated many books from Latin to English so that more people could read them. He also encouraged monks to start writing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - an account of Anglo-Saxon history.


So, what do you think? Did King Alfred deserve the title of "the great"?





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