Alfred Becomes King of Wessex
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Alfred’s remarkable reign was that he should ever have become King of Wessex at all. He was the fifth son of King Ethelwulf , three of his elder brothers reigning before him (the other died before Ethelwulf); and the third of those brothers, Aethelred, had two sons who in more peaceful times might have been expected to inherit the throne. But the 9th century was not a peaceful age: the Danes were ravaging England, long beyond the stage when they merely raided. Shortly before Alfred’s accession Mercia had fallen to the Vikings , leaving only Wessex in Saxon hands.
Under such circumstances, with the survival of the kingdom at stake, a warrior king was needed in Winchester , not a minor; thus earlier 871 Aethelred had agreed to Alfred becoming King of Wessex after his death.
Alfred proved the saviour of Saxon England, though he would suffer further defeats – the surprise attack at Chippenham in 878 nearly proving the death of his hopes – before securing his kingdom. His long (by the standard of the age) reign lasted until his death in 899: by that time he had created a navy, changed the legal system, accumulated great wealth, and most significantly devised and implemented the plan to use burhs – defensible sites at most 20 miles distant from other settlements in Wessex and eventually Mercia – to protect his people and lands.
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