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Middle Ages

Alfred the Great

History >> Biographies >> Middle Ages for Kids


Early Life

Alfred was born in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex which was located in the southwest of England. Alfred's father, Aethelwulf, was king of Wessex and Alfred grew up as a prince. He had four older brothers, however, so it was doubtful that he would ever be king.

Alfred was an intelligent child who loved to learn and memorize poems. He traveled to Rome as a child where he met the pope. The pope anointed Alfred as an honorary consul of Rome.

After Alfred's father died in 858, his brother Aethebald became king. Over the next several years each of his brothers died until his last elder brother, Aethelred, was crowned king.

Painting of Alfred the Great holding sceptor
King Alfred the Great
by the Founder of Oriel College

Fighting the Vikings

Throughout much of Alfred's life the Vikings had been raiding England. In 870, the Vikings had conquered all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. Alfred became his brother's second in command. He led the Wessex army to a great victory at the Battle of Ashdown.

Becoming King

In 871, the Vikings continued to attack. Alfred's brother Aethelred died in one of the battles and Alfred was crowned king. Over the next several years Alfred fought off the Vikings. After many battles, he thought they had finally achieved some kind of peace.

In 878, the Danish King Guthrum led a surprise attack against Alfred and his army. Alfred managed to escape, but with only a few men. He fled to Athelney where he plotted his counterattack. Many of the men of Wessex were tired of the constant raids and attacks of the Vikings. They rallied around Alfred at Athelney and soon the king had a strong army again.

Burning of the Cakes Legend

One legend tells the story of Alfred escaping from the Vikings. At one point he took refuge in the home of an old peasant woman who did not know he was the king. The peasant woman was baking cakes when she had to go outside to tend to the animals. She asked Alfred to watch over the cakes. Alfred's mind was so occupied with the war that he forgot to watch the cakes and they burned. When the peasant woman returned she scolded him for not properly watching the cakes.

Peace with the Vikings

With his new army, Alfred counterattacked the Vikings. He defeated King Guthrum and took back his stronghold at Chippenham. He then required that the Vikings convert to Christianity and established a peace treaty where the Vikings would remain on the eastern side of Britain. The Vikings land was called the Danelaw.

Ruling as King

Alfred was a great leader in battle, but he might have been an even better leader during peacetime. Once peace had been established with the Vikings, Alfred went about rebuilding his kingdom.

With so much focus on fighting off the Vikings, the educational system of England had almost disappeared. Alfred knew that education was important, so he founded schools and rebuilt monasteries. He even translated some classic works from Latin into English himself.

Alfred also made other reforms and improvements to his kingdom including building forts throughout the country, establishing a strong navy, and bringing talented European scholars and craftsmen across the channel to England. He also established a national code of law.


Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by his son Edward. It would be his grandson Aethelstan who would be called the first King of England.

Interesting Facts about Alfred the Great

More subjects on the Middle Ages:

Feudal System
Medieval Monasteries
Glossary and Terms

Knights and Castles
Becoming a Knight
History of Knights
Knight's Armor and Weapons
Knight's coat of arms
Tournaments, Jousts, and Chivalry

Daily Life in the Middle Ages
Middle Ages Art and Literature
The Catholic Church and Cathedrals
Entertainment and Music
The King's Court

Major Events
The Black Death
The Crusades
Hundred Years War
Magna Carta
Norman Conquest of 1066
Reconquista of Spain
Wars of the Roses

Byzantine Empire
The Franks
Kievan Rus
Vikings for kids

Alfred the Great
Genghis Khan
Joan of Arc
Justinian I
Marco Polo
Saint Francis of Assisi
William the Conqueror
Famous Queens

Works Cited

History >> Biographies >> Middle Ages for Kids

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