Alfred The Great, king of the West Saxons, born at Wantage in Berkshire in 849, died probably in 901 (Oct. 26 or 28). He was the fifth and youngest son of Ethelwolf, king of the West Saxons, and seems to have been his favorite child. He was sent in his fifth year to Rome, where Leo IV. (according to the Saxon chronicles) " consecrated him king." However, the throne was first occupied by three of his brothers in succession. In the reign of Ethel-red, the last of them, an unusually formidable invasion of the Danes occurred, and Ethelred was slain (871). Alfred, who had been his brother's most efficient general, was thereupon, at the age of 22, declared king by the earls and chiefs, with the consent of the whole nation. He succeeded in making a temporary peace with the invaders, which left them free to overrun the other provinces of the island. This truce lasted till 876. Alfred, meanwhile, finding it impossible to raise an army able to cope with them in the field, fitted out a naval force, with which on the commencement of hostilities he worsted them in several engagements, and in the spring of 877, according to Asser, drove 120 Danish ships on shore, causing the destruction of all on board. The next January they invaded the kingdom in greater numbers than ever.

The king, with a few followers, sought safety in the woods and among the hills, and for a few months found shelter in the hut of a cowherd at Athelney, a secluded spot surrounded by marshes and accessible only by a single bridge. Here after a while he was joined by a band of fighting men, and, fortifying his position, made occasional inroads upon the possessions of the enemy. In May, 878, having been joined by an armed body of his subjects, he attacked the main army of Danes at Eddington, and routed them with great slaughter. It was on the day before this battle that he is said to have entered the enemy's camp disguised as a harper. The defeated king Godrun or Guthrun and his followers were made to embrace Christianity, and received the modern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridge as a place of residence. They became the subjects of Alfred, who in the course of six years seems to have made himself the virtual ruler of all England, though never formally recognized as such. His conduct before his misfortunes seems to have been haughty and selfish; but after his restoration his rule was wise and beneficent.

The few years of tranquillity from 886 to 893 were employed by him in restoring the cities and fortresses which had been destroyed during the war, improving the navy, of which he is esteemed the founder, systematizing the laws, and in literary labors. The last invasion of the Northmen in his reign took place in 894, under a leader named Hastings, and after a struggle which lasted three years, of which every part of the country was in turn the theatre, they were once more driven out. He established an elaborate system of coast defences, erecting some 50 fortresses at various points, and regulated the military service so as to keep only one half the population capable of bearing arms in the field at a time, leaving the remainder to cultivate the soil. It is probable that the code of laws which bears his name is chiefly compiled from the enactments of his predecessors. He made great improvements in the administration of justice, caused the rights of property to be respected, and made great efforts for the advancement of literature and education. Although he is said to. have been 12 years of age before he was taught the alphabet, he afterward became possessed of extraordinary learning.

He invited literary men to his court from all parts of Europe, and although the prevailing tradition that he founded the university of Oxford is doubtful, he certainly did much for the improvement of the monastic school which had previously existed in that place. He made numerous translations from the Latin of works which he considered adapted to the wants of his countrymen, among which are the Liber Pastoralis Cur of Pope Gregory the Great, Boethius's Be Consolatione Philosophiae, and Bede's " History of England." He married Elswith, the daughter of a Mercian nobleman, by whom he is said to have had four sons. His disposition was gentle and amiable, and his bearing frank and affable toward all. He was merciful and forgiving toward his enemies. His health was never good; in his youth he suffered from piles; and at the age of 20 he was attacked by an undetermined internal disease causing terrible pangs, which he bore with stoical serenity, never suffering his labors to be interrupted.