Upon Æthelred's death after Easter in 871, Alfred became king of the West Saxons and overlord of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex. Faced by an enemy too powerful to defeat decisively, Alfred cleared the Danes from Wessex by a heavy payment of tribute (see Danegeld) in 871. Alfred used the five-year respite that followed to begin building up a fleet. In 876 and 877 the Danes returned to ravage for several months and finally, halted by Alfred's army, swore to leave Wessex forever. However, in a surprise invasion early in 878 they crushed Alfred's forces, and he fled to Athelney in the fens of Somerset, where he organized a series of harassing raids on the enemy. The famous legend in which, unrecognized, he is scolded by a peasant woman for letting her cakes burn probably derives from this period of his life.
In May, 878, Alfred rallied his army and won a complete victory over the Danes at Edington. He then dictated the Peace of Chippenham (or Wedmore) by which Guthrum, the Danish leader, accepted Christian baptism and probably agreed to separate England into English and Danish spheres of influence. The Danes moved into East Anglia and E Mercia, and Alfred established his overlordship in W Mercia. Alfred captured (886) London and concluded another treaty with Guthrum that marked off the Danelaw E and N of the Thames, Lea, and Ouse rivers, and Watling Street, leaving the south and west of England to Alfred.
Security gave Alfred the chance to institute numerous reforms within his kingdom. Against further probable attacks by the Danes, he reorganized the militia, or fyrd, around numerous garrisoned forts throughout Wessex. Drawing from the old codes of Æthelbert of Kent, Ine of Wessex, and Offa of Mercia, he issued his own code of laws, which contained measures for a stronger centralized monarchy. He reformed the administration of justice and energetically participated in it, and he reorganized the finances of his court. He came eventually to be considered the overlord of all England, although this title was not realized in concrete political administration.
Alfred's greatest achievements, however, were the revival of learning and the establishment of Old English literary prose. He gathered together a group of eminent scholars, including the Welshman Asser. They strengthened the church by reviving learning among the clergy and organized a court school like that of Charlemagne, in which not only youths and clerics but also mature nobles were taught.
Alfred himself between 887 and 892 learned Latin and translated several Latin works into English—Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Orosius's universal history, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine's Soliloquies. A translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History is also commonly ascribed to him, but there is some doubt since it differs markedly in style from the others. Alfred liberally interpolated his own thoughts into his writings, and the Orosius is particularly interesting for the addition of accounts of voyages made by the Norse explorers Ohthere and Wulfstan. Although he probably was not directly responsible for the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, his patronage of learning undoubtedly encouraged it.
All these pursuits were interrupted, but not ended, by new Danish invasions between 892 and 896. The struggle was severe because Alfred's military reforms had not been completed and because the invading forces were joined by settlers from the Danelaw. He received strong support from his son Edward the Elder, his daughter Æthelflæd, and her husband, Æthelred of Mercia, and in the critical year of 893 the great Danish fort at Benfleet was successfully stormed. The one Danish attempt to penetrate deeply into Wessex was halted by Edward the Elder. In 896 the Danes slowly dispersed to the Danelaw or overseas, and Alfred's new long ships fought with varying success against pirate raids on the south coast. Alfred's career was later embroidered by many heroic legends, but history alone justifies calling him Alfred the Great.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.