ALFRED, surnamed the Great, was born at Wantage, in Berkshire, in 849. His father was Ethelwolf, son of Egbert, king of the West Saxons, and though the youngest of four sons, he succeeded to the crown, on the death of his brother Ethelred, at the age of 23. He had already given decisive proofs of high ability as a general, in repelling the incessant invasions of the Danes, at that time the most terrible warriors in Europe. After he succeeded to the throne, he redoubled his exertions to restore the independence of his country. At first he strove without success, whilst the Danes continued to pour fresh bands upon the coast, and the Anglo Saxons either bent to the yoke or forsook their homes. In 878, the invaders had completely overrun the whole kingdom of the West Saxons. Alfred, no longer able to collect an effective army, was obliged to seek security in the hills and forests, and for some time found refuge in a cowherd's hut. He still, however, kept up some communication with his friends, and as soon as the people began once more to arm against the Danes, he built a stronghold on an elevation or Island, (still known as Athelney, i.e., the "Island of the Nobles," or the "Royal Island,") amid the marshes of Somersetshire, to which he summoned his faithful followers. From this fortress he made frequent successful sallies against the enemy, and after a comparatively short time he found himself at the head of a considerable army, with which he totally routed them (878) near Edington, in Willshire.
After this decisive victory, the power of Alfred steadily increased both on land and sea - for already he had built England's first fleet - he beat the Danes in numerous battles, and gradually their possessions were confined to the northern and eastern coast. In 886, Alfred, without any formal installation, became recognized as the sovereign of all England, a title to which he had proved his right by the most undisputable of arguments. During the ensuing years of peace, he rebuilt the cities that had suffered most during the war, particularly London, erected new fortresses, and trained the people in the use of arms; while at the same time he encouraged husbandry and other useful arts, and founded those wise laws and institutions which contributed so much to the future greatness and welfare of England. Of his political institutions, little is known beyond the fact that he compiled a code of laws, divided England into counties, hundreds, and tithings, and thoroughly reformed the administration of justice by making these tithings, hundreds, etc., as far as was practicably possible, responsible for the offenses committed within their jurisdiction. Alfred is also said - though erroneously as is now believed - to have been the author of "trial by jury." In an age of ignorance and barbarism Alfred was an accomplished scholar, and a zealous patron of learning. No prince of his age did so much for the diffusion of knowledge, and few monarchs of any time have shown an equal zeal for the instruction of their people.
The peaceful labors of Alfred, were, in 893, interrupted by a fresh invasion of Northmen, under Haesten or Hastings, more formidable than any that had yet been attempted in his reign. The defection of the East Anglians and Northumbrians added to the difficulties with which he had to contend. Alfred, however, was fully prepared, and though, during their protracted stay in his dominions, the invaders overrun a large extent of country, and committed considerable depredations, they were beaten in almost every encounter with the English, and finally quelled. Alfred died on the 27th of October 90l, aged 52, leaving his country in the enjoyment of comparative peace and prosperity, the fruit of that wise and energetic rule which has made his memory dear to all generations of Englishmen, as their best and greatest King.