Ethelred the Pious
Alfred was the last king of Wessex, the last great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England. He is best remembered as a folk hero in southern England, where his legend has strayed rather far from the historical facts.
Alfred was born in 849 Wantage in Berkshire, the fifth son of King Ethelwulf. The Viking invasions took their toll on the royal family, and by 865, the fourth son, Ethelred the Pious, had to step forward to assume the throne. During Ethelred's turbulent reign Alfred was trained in war, and his first battle proved to be a fateful one, the Battle of Ashdown, fought not far from Alfred's birthplace.
The battle occurred in January 871, when Alfred was 21. Ethelred spent the morning in prayer and sacrament while the Danes under Halfdan Rangnarsson moved into position and began firing arrows at the waiting Saxons. The impetuous young prince urged his brother to hurry and lead his men, but Ethelred insisted that God came first. Showing a streak of unconfidence, which was to prove uncharacteristic, Alfred decided to wait for Ethelred, sacrificing position and initiative to the Danes. The Saxons were routed.
For two years Alfred and Ethelred attempted to turn the tide, but they were driven into Kent and forced to make a last stand at Headcorn. Ethelred died in the battle, and Alfred escaped with a small band of men.
Alfred was now rightful King of Wessex and Kent, but the whole of his realm lay in Danish hands. He became an outlaw, gathering fighting men where he could get them and attacking Danish forces whenever the chance allowed. He managed a hasty coronation at Canterburh, apparently sneaking into the town by night and awakening the archbishop. He ranged far during his decade-long insurgency, occasionally amassing large enough forces to engage in pitched battles, but more often harassing small Viking armies as they moved or camped.
In 881, Alfred was captured during a raid on a village in the jarldom of Djúra-bý, in the defunct Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. He was executed as soon as the jarl learned his identity. King Halfdan, infamous for his cruelty, is said to have killed the hapless jarl for depriving him of the chance to personally dispose of Alfred.
Alfred married a woman named Ealhswith while still a teenager and certainly had children by her. None of them are known to have claimed the West Saxon throne after Alfred's death, if indeed they survived.
In England's South Country, Alfred's legend is revered. He symbolizes resistance to authority, daring, and piety, certainly. But more importantly, he has become a regional symbol, a figure of pride and strength in a region that has always been dominated economically, culturally, and politically by the North. The Southern dialects of Englesk have always been held as substandard, for example: modern attempts to legitimize the Southern way of speaking have been dismissed by most as "glorifying the uneducated." The South's economy, too, was traditionally dominated by large lords, in contrast to the pattern of independent land ownership that prevailed in the North. So although Alfred most likely conceived of his struggle as one of Saxon against Dane, or perhaps Christian against Pagan, his story is most often framed as one of South against North, and in the stories he usually ends up getting the better of his northerly adversaries.
One story, perhaps first told in the twelfth-century Alfredssaga, has Alfred seeking shelter in a peasant woman's hovel during a lean time. Not realizing who he is, the woman asks the king to watch some cakes on the fire while she works outside. Alfred is brooding about his kingdom and allows the cakes to burn. The woman berates him until he reveals his identity, whereupon she apologizes profusely; but the gracious Alfred insists that he has let her down. Another story has Alfred disguising himself as a minstrel to infiltrate the Danish camp, getting him the information he needs to win a great victory.
The legends often insert happy endings quite different from the fate of the historical Alfred. Some modern versions, which draw freely and indiscriminately from legend and modern scholarship, suggest Alfred was able to find refuge on the Isle of Wight, a place where some Saxon nobles really did escape to flee the Vikings. Some other modern portrayals stray from both the old tales and the historical record. A recent play Greatheart shows Alfred bedding Halfdan's wife and secretly fathering the entire line of Jorvikian kings. Audiences continue to flock to performances, while the history faculties of every university in England continue to poo-poo it.
All in all, Alfred's role in history may have been minor-- his successes tended to be small and fleeting, his failures large and permanent. But this historical Alfred has been almost entirely covered up by the hero of the South Country, and few can doubt that he has inspired many who also face insurmountable foes.