Alfred the Great: King of Wessex 871-899

Hamo Thornycroft's statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester, Hampshire, England UK. Kings and Queens of England and Britain
Hamo Thornycroft's statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester, Hampshire, England UK. Credit: Daniel Bosworth/VisitBritain

We chart the reign of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great, who successfully fought off the Vikings.

In the early Middle Ages, England was divided into seven kingdoms but, as the 9th century progressed, marauding hordes of Vikings took control of large areas in the north and east. By the time Alfred the Great succeeded the throne of Wessex on 23 April 871, following the death of his elder brother Ethelred I, he had already been involved in skirmishes with the ‘Great Heathen Army‘.

After seven years of defensive manoeuvres, however, Alfred the Great oversaw a key victory at Edington in May 878. This defeat of the Vikings prompted a peace treaty with the Danish King Guthrum. There followed a period of relative prosperity for the kingdoms of Mercia (broadly the West Midlands, Lancashire and Cheshire) and Wessex (the south of England stretching from Cornwall in the west to London and Kent in the east).

Aside from his prowess on the battlefield, Alfred’s main claim to greatness lay in his willingness to reform. Alfred helped to establish one of the UK’s first naval fleets, as well as a system of burhs (or fortified towns) at regular intervals across Wessex. He also imposed
a 120-chapter law code, expanded taxation and encouraged learning by personally translating key Latin texts into English.

Key dates:

  • 878 Rhodri the Great, known as ’King of Wales’, is killed in battle by the Anglo-Saxons
  • 886 Alfred the Great restores English rule in London and renames it ‘Lundenburh’
  • 893 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an annual record of events, is compiled for the first time

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