He left young sons, but the men of Wessex crowned Alfred king, because they needed a grown man to lead them in their desperate campaigning. Yet his reign opened inauspiciously: defeated near Wilton, he offered in despair to pay the Vikings to depart. He must have known, from the experience of Mercian, Northumbrian and Frankish kings, that such blackmail only bought a short respite, but the condition of his realm was such that even a moderate time for reorganization might prove valuable. The enemy had suffered so much in the year of the six battles that they held off for some space from Wessex, seeking easier prey on the continent and in northern England. In 874 they harried Mercia so cruelly that King Burgred fled in despair to Rome; the victors divided up his realm, taking the eastern half for themselves, and establishing in it a confederacy, whose jarls occupied the five boroughs of Stamford, Lincoln, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester. But the western half they handed over to an unwise thegn named Ceolwulf, who bought for a short space the precarious title of king by paying great tribute.
Alfred employed the four years of peace, which he had bought in 871, in the endeavour to strengthen his realm against the inevitable return of the raiders. His wisdom was shown by the fact that he concentrated his attention on the one device which must evidently prove effective for defence, if only he were given time to perfect it, the building of a national navy. He began to lay down galleys and long ships, and hired pirates renegade Vikings no doubt to train crews for him and to teach his men seamanship. The scheme, however, was only partly completed when in 876 three Danish kings entered Wessex and resumed the war. But Alfred blockaded them first in Wareham and then in Exeter. The fleet which was coming to carry them off, or to bring them reinforcements, fought an indecisive engagement with the English ships, and was wrecked immediately after on the cliffs of the Isle of Purbeck, where more than 100 galleys and all their crews perished. On hearing of this disaster the vikings in Exeter surrendered the place on being granted a free departure.
Yet within a few months of this successful campaign Alfred was attacked at midwinter by the main Danish army under King Guthrum. He was apparently taken by surprise by an assault at such an unusual time of the year, and was forced to escape with his military household to the Isle of Athelney among the marshes of the Parrett. The invaders harried Wiltshire and Hampshire at their leisure, and vainly thought that Wessex was at last subdued. But with the spring the English rallied: a Danish force was cut to pieces before Laster by the men of Devonshire. A few weeks later Alfred had issued from Athelney, had collected a large army in Selwood, and went out to meet the enemy in the open field. He beat them at Edington in Wiltshire, blockaded them in their great camp at Chippenham, and in fourteen days starved them into surrender. The terms were that they should give hostages, that they should depart for ever from Wessex, and that their king Guthrum should do homage to Alfred as overlord, and submit to be baptized, with thirty of his chiefs. Not only were all these conditions punctually fulfilled, but (what is more astonishing) the Danes had been so thoroughly cured of any desire to try their luck against the great king that hey left him practically unmolested for fourteen years (878-892). King Guthrum settled down as a Christian sovereign in East Anglia, with the bulk of the host that had capitulated at Chippenham. Of the rest of the invaders one section established a petty kingdom in Yorkshire, but those in the Midlands were fubject to no common sovereign but lived in a loose confederacy inder the jarls of the Five Boroughs already named above.
The boundary between English and Danes established by the peace of 878 is not perfectly ascertainable, but a document of a few years later, called Alfred and Guthrum's frith, gives the border as lying from Thames northward up the Lea to its source, then across to Bedford, and then along the Ouse to Watling Street, the old Roman road from London to Chester. This gave King Alfred London and Middlesex, most of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, and the larger half of Mercia; lands that had never before been an integral part of Wessex, though they had some time been tributary to her kings. They were now taken inside the realm and governed by the ealdorman Aethelred, the kings son-in-law. The Mercians gladly mingled with the West Saxons, and abandoned all memories of ancient independence. Twenty years of schooling under the hand of the Dane had taught them to forget old particularism.
Alfred's enlarged kingdom was far more powerful than any one of the three new Danish states which lay beyond the Lea and Watling Street: it was to be seen, ere another generation was out, that it was stronger than all three together. But Alfred was not to see the happy day when York and Lincoln, Colchester and Leicester, were to become mere shire-capitals in the realm of United England. The fourteen years of comparative peace which he now enjoyed were devoted to perfecting the military organization of his enlarged kingdom. His fleet was reconstructed: in 882 he went out with it in person and destroyed a small piratical squadron: in 885 we hear of it coasting all along Danish East Anglia. But his navy was not yet strong enough to hold off all raids: it was not till the very end of his reign that he perfected it by building long ships that were nigh twice as large as those of the heathen; some had 60 oars, some more; and they were both steadier and swifter and lighter than the others, and were shaped neither after the Frisian nor after the Danish fashion, but as it seemed to himself that they would be most handy. This great war fleet he left as a legacy to his son, but he himself in his later campaigns had only its first beginnings at his disposal.
His military reforms were no less important. Warned by the failures of the English against Danish entrenched camps, he introduced the long-neglected art of fortification, and built many burhs, stockaded fortresses on mounds by the waterside wherein dwelt permanent garrisons of military settlers. It would seem that the system by which he maintained them was that he assigned to each a region of which the inhabitants were responsible for its manning and its sustentation. The landowners had either to build a house within it for their own inhabiting, or to provide that a competent substitute dwelt there to represent them. These burh-ware, or garrison-men, are repeatedly mentioned in Alfred's later years. The old national levy of the fyrd was made somewhat more serviceable by an ordinance which divided it into two halves, one of which must take the field when the other was dismissed. But it would seem that the king paid even more attention to another military reform, the increase of the number of the professional fighting class, the thegnhood as it was now called. All the wealthier men, both in the countryside and in the towns, were required to take up the duties as well as the privileges of membership of the military household of the king. They became of thegnright worthy by receiving, really or nominally, a place in the royal hall, with the obligation to take the field whenever their master raised his banner. The document which defines their duties and privileges sets forth that every ceorl who throve so that he had fully five hides of land, and a helm, and a mail-shirt, and a sword ornamented with gold, was to be reckoned gesithcund. A second draft allowed the man who had the military equipment complete, but not fully the five hides of land, to slip into the list, and also the merchant who has fared thrice over the high seas at his own expense. How far the details of the scheme are Alfred's own, how far they were developed by his son Edward the Elder, it is unfortunately impossible to say. But there is small doubt that the system was working to some extent in the later wars of the great king, and that his successes were largely due to the fact that his army contained a larger nucleus of fully armed warriors than those of his predecessors.
Military reforms were only one section of the work of King Alfred during the central years of his reign. It was then that he set afoot his numerous schemes for the restoration of the learning and culture of England which had sunk so low during the long years of disaster which had preceded his accession. How he gathered, scholars from the continent, Wales and Ireland; how he collected the old heroic poems of the nation, how he himself translated books from the Latin tongue, started schools, and set his scribes to write up the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is told elsewhere, as are his mechanical inventions, his buildings, and his dealings with missionaries and explorers.
The test of the efficiency of his work was that it held firm when, in his later years, the Danish storm once more began to beat against the shores of Wessex. In the years 892-896 Alfred was assailed from many sides at once by viking fleets, of which the most important was that led by the great freebooter Hasting. Moreover, the settled Danes of eastern England broke their oaths and gave the invaders assistance. Yet the king held his own, with perfect success if not with ease. The enemy was checked, beaten off, followed up rapidly whenever he changed his base of operation, and hunted repeatedly all across England. The campaigning ranged from Appledore in Kent to Exeter, from Chester to Shoeburyness; but wherever the invaders transferred themselves, either the king, or his son Edward, or his son-in-law Aethelred, the ealdorman of Mercia, was promptly at hand with a competent army. The camps of the Danes were stormed, their fleet was destroyed in the river Lea in 895, and at last the remnant broke up and dispersed, some to seek easier plunder in France, others to settle down among their kinsmen in Northumbria or East Anglia.
Alfred survived for four years after his final triumph in 896, to complete the organization of his fleet and to repair the damages done by the last four years of constant fighting. He died on the 26th of October 900, leaving Wessex well armed for the continuance of the struggle, and the inhabitants of the Danelagh much broken in spirit. They saw that it would never be in their power to subdue all England. Within a few years they were to realize that it was more probable that the English kings would subdue them.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.