Primary History

Anglo-Saxons: Alfred the Great

  • Why was Alfred so great?

    Great Anglo-Saxon kings included Offa of Mercia (who built Offa's Dyke) and Edwin of Northumbria (who founded Edinburgh or 'Edwin's burh'). But the most famous of all is Alfred, the only king in British history to be called 'Great'.

    Alfred was born in AD849 and died in AD899. His father was king of Wessex, but Alfred became king of all England. 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.

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  • King of the English

    Alfred became king in AD871. His elder brothers had each been king in turn before him, and he had been fighting the Vikings all his life. Alfred went on fighting the Vikings when all seemed hopeless. Finally, he won an important battle at Edington in Wiltshire in AD878. After that, some Vikings agreed to live in peace, though fighting still went on.

    Alfred's capital was Winchester. In AD886, his army captured London (which had belonged to Mercia before the Vikings seized it). By now Alfred was called 'King of the English' on his coins. This shows how important he was.

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  • Stories about Alfred

    One story says Alfred went to Rome at the age of 4, to meet the Pope. When he came home, his mother promised a handsome book to the first of her sons who could read it to her. Alfred learned it by heart, recited it, and got the book.

    Later 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 man's wife. Why? He let her cakes (or bread) burn. Another story says Alfred went into the Viking camp disguised as a minstrel, to find out what the Vikings were planning.

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  • How Alfred governed

    King Alfred was advised by a council of nobles and Church leaders. The council was called the witan. The witan could also choose the next king. Alfred made good laws. He had books translated from Latin into English, and translated some himself. He told monks to begin writing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

    Alfred built warships to guard the coast from Viking raiders. He built forts and walled towns known as burhs. He split the fyrd (the part-time army) into two parts. While half the men were at home on their farms, the rest were ready to fight Vikings.

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Fun Facts
  • To test if a person was guilty of a crime, he had to hold a red-hot iron! If his hand healed quickly, he was innocent. If not, he was guilty.

  • Alfred's ships were bigger than Viking ships, with 60 oars.

  • When the Viking chief Guthrum was baptized a Christian, Alfred was his godfather.

  • From Alfred's burh (a fortified town) comes our word 'borough'

  • The Anglo-Saxons knew the Earth was round, but wrongly believed the Sun and stars went round the Earth.

  • The biggest Anglo-Saxon towns, such as Winchester, had fewer than 10,000 people.

  • In a burh or fortified town, 4 men stood to guard every 5 metres of wall. The actual measurement used was a 'pole' (16 feet roughly).

  • Alfred's daughter Ethelflaeda married the Mercian leader Ethelred. Together, they fought the Vikings.

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Jump to: A-D | E-L | M-R | S-Z

A to D

ale
Drink made from barley.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A history of England begun in the 800s.
archaeologist
A person who finds out about the past by looking at old objects or buildings that are buried under the ground.
barn
A farm building.
Bayeux Tapestry
An embroidery telling the story of the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Bede
An English monk and historian. He lived from about 673 to 735.
Beowulf
A long poem about a hero, probably made up before AD 800, and written down later.
brooch
Ornament used to fasten clothing.
capital
The main town or centre of government of a country.
Celts
People in Britain before the Romans invaded in AD43.
Charlemagne
King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor.
charm
A magical object or words, to protect a person from harm.
Christian
A person who follows the religion taught by Jesus Christ.
conquer
To beat an enemy and control them using force.
court
The place where a king meets his followers and gives commands.
cremate
To burn a dead body to ashes.

E to L

evidence
Objects and facts that give clues as to what happened long ago.
freeman
A person who was not a slave and owned land.
Hadrian's Wall
Wall marking the northern frontier of Roman Britain.
historian
A person who studies the past.
hearth
A fireplace, usually in the middle of a house, and with no chimney.
influence
The effect of a person or things on another.
invaders
People who attack and try to take over land from other people.
Latin
Language of the Romans.
longship
Viking ship with a sail and oars.
loom
Machine for weaving cloth.
lyre
A small harp played at Anglo-Saxon feasts.

M to R

mail shirt
Armour made from chain mail, worn on the upper body.
monastery
The building where monks live.
monk
A male member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
nun
A female member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
oxen
Strong cattle used to pull carts and ploughs.
pagan
A person who worships many gods.
Picts
People who lived in Scotland at the time of Roman Britain.
Pope
Head of the Roman Catholic Church.
potter
Person who makes pots, jars and bowls from clay.
raider
An enemy who attacks and then goes away.
rank
Status or position in society.
Reconstruct
To rebuild something as it was.
riddle
A puzzle based on playing with words.
Romans
People who ruled an empire 2,000 years ago
runes
The letters of the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

S to Z

Scots
People in Scotland; they called themselves Gaels - 'Scots' was a name the Romans gave them.
settlement
A place where people make their homes.
slave
A person who is not free but is owned and made to work by another.
smith
A worker who makes things from metal, usually iron.
strip fields
Long narrow ploughed fields.
Sutton Hoo
Site in Suffolk, England, of a king's ship-burial.
thane
An Anglo-Saxon nobleman who owned land.
thatch
A roof covered in straw or reeds.
tribe
A group of people who share a common background and culture.
Vikings
People from Scandinavia who were fighters, sea-travellers, traders and farmers.
walled
Having a defensive wall or wooden barrier around it, such as a walled town.
warrior
A person trained to fight in battle.
weaving
Making cloth.
well
A hole dug to supply drinking water to a settlement or house.
Wergild
Money paid to a murdered Anglo-Saxon's family by the murderer.
will
A document setting out how a person wants their possessions shared out after death.