Who Was Alfred the Great?

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13313

One of only two English kings called "Great," Alfred fought the Vikings, promoted education, set English as the language and London as the capital, and laid the foundation for the British monarchy.



learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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There are several interesting stories told about Alfred that will help introduce him to you. One is about how he learned to read, and the other is about how he angered a peasant woman by accidentally allowing her oatcakes to burn!

Listen to both stories in King Alfred and the Cakes, from British - Speak British English:

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Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex from 871-886, became King of all the Anglo-Saxons when he saved the country from being completely overrun by the Vikings. He ruled from 886 to 899.

King Alfred

When the Romans left Britain, they left the native Britons unprotected. The country was soon invaded and overtaken by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

These Germanic tribes set up seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, called the Heptarchy. They were later merged into the four kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex.

Britain in 802

Image by Lotroo, via Wikimedia Commons, was released into the public domain.

Alfred was the son of Aethelwulf, King of Wessex. He was the last of six children and did not expect to rule the kingdom. But one by one, all of his elder brothers died, and Alfred became king in the year 871.

Battle of Edington

Not long afterward, a great army of Vikings invaded, swiftly moving through Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. The only Kingdom left was Wessex, and it was left to King Alfred of Wessex to stop the complete overthrow of Anglo-Saxon England.

The map below shows the invasions of the Vikings' Great Heathen Army:

map of Viking invasions

Image by Hel-hama, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The story about the oatcakes occurred when Alfred and his army were attacked and driven into the marshes of Somerset.

As you watch a portion of the video below, take notes on important dates, places, and people, and find out why a horse is carved into this hillside in Wessex:

Westbury white horse

The video also mentions a man named Asser, a bishop who wrote Alfred's life story. As you watch, write down your answers to these questions:

  • Who was Guthrum?
  • What was Alfred doing when attacked at Chippenham?
  • What is the Isle of Athelney?
  • What did Alfred and his men do there in the temporary camp?
  • Why was the Battle of Edington important?
  • Why is the horse there on the hillside?
  • What did Guthrum (the Viking warrior) do after the battle?
  • How was the land divided afterward?

The Search for Alfred The Great | BBC Documentary:

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Education and the Welfare of the People

Alfred had won a great military victory in the Battle of Edington, but he wasn't just a military leader. He was also a great ruler and believed in the idea of the noble Christian king. He wanted to rule his people justly and provide for their welfare.

portrait of Alfred the Great, 1790

Image [cropped] by Samuel Woodforde, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Alfred reorganized the military and fortified many towns so that they could defend themselves from the Vikings. He also ordered a fleet of strong ships to be built, which some consider the beginning of the British Navy.

Alfred wanted to unite the Anglo-Saxon people into one nation. Eventually, his descendants were able to free the country from Viking domination and form a united England.

As you heard in the story of how he learned to read, Alfred greatly valued books, learning, and knowledge. He gathered many great books and had them translated into English.

He encouraged education among his nobles, religious leaders, and all free-born men. Not only that, but he wanted them to be taught in English, not Latin, which was the common language for education at that time.

Watch another clip from the The Search for Alfred The Great | BBC Documentary:

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In 886, Alfred captured London and declared himself the King of the Saxons. He also rebuilt the city, and there is now a plaque in London commemorating what Alfred did to restore it:

Southwark Bridge plaque

Image by David (talk), via Wikimedia Commons, was released into the public domain.

  • So, what do you think? Are the English justified in calling King Alfred great?

Move on to the Got It? page, where you'll review what you learned and teach someone else why Alfred is called great!

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