Alfred the Great: in profile

Alfred the Great was king of Wessex from AD 871–99. He won a decisive victory against the Vikings at the battle of Edington in 878, and successfully defended his kingdom against further Viking attacks. Generally considered an enlightened warrior king, he brought scholars to his court, translated key texts from Latin and improved England’s legal system and defences.

When did you first hear about Alfred?

I got the Ladybird children’s book about him at school and have been interested in him ever since.


What kind of person was he?

Alfred was clever and insightful without being duplicitous. However, there was a certain amount of elbowing people out of the way to ensure that history would recognise his achievements. I doubt whether he really did let the woman’s cakes burn while on the run from the Vikings – but the story has been a great inspiration for not very good historians!

What made Alfred a hero?

His success in repelling the Vikings and helping to create a sense of national identity among England’s disparate kingdoms. He not only set up a system of burhs [fortified settlements] to defend the country against the invading Vikings, but convinced Englishmen that they could stand up to the Norsemen. The emphasis he placed on learning, language and literature also shows him to be ahead of his time.

What was Alfred’s finest hour?

I’d say there were two. Firstly, saving a version of Anglo-Saxon England from the Danes. Secondly, fusing his military and diplomatic skills with the power of the church to create a united kingdom of England.

Would there be an England as we know it today without Alfred?

No. It would have been a very different place and may well have been a split kingdom. It’s sometimes forgotten that the Normans built upon an established English kingdom – the system of the hundreds and the shires, and a version of civil society that might work – that was largely Alfred’s creation.

Are we in danger of losing sight of his greatness?

Yes, the popular view seems to be that nothing much happened in England between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving, and that our ancestors simply ran around in the dark during the intervening years. Believe me, it’s a lot more interesting than that!

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On the podcast | Robert Gallagher brings to light newly discovered evidence about Asser, the biographer of King Alfred:

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

He played people off against each other, and thought that anything was acceptable against the pagans. But his achievements far outweigh his defects. He wasn’t called “the Great” by accident!

What would you ask Alfred if you could meet him?

In the same way I asked my parents, who lived through the Second World War, what it was like not knowing we were going to win, I’d like to know if he really believed if he was going to triumph over the Vikings.

Ian Hislop is editor of Private Eye, and a team captain on the BBC quiz show Have I Got News For You


This content first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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