Alfred The Great, 849 A.D. to 887 A.D. - First King of England
Born in what is now Wantage, Berkshire to King Aethelwulf and his wife Osburh, of the royal house of the Jutes of Wight, Alfred was the youngest of five sons born to the King and Queen. At the age of four Alfred was sent by his father to be instructed by Pope Leo IV in Rome, and revisited the city with his father two years later to be confirmed in the Church.
At his fathers behest the kingship was passed down the line of brothers, rather than risk handing the crown to an underage child at a time when the country was coming under increasing attack by Viking raiders from Denmark. The Danes had already conquered East Anglia and Mercia, and their kings were either tortured to death or fled. The Danes then turned their attentions to Wessex, the sole surviving independent Saxon kingdom.
Upon the death of his elder brother King Aethelred shortly after the Battle of Ashdown in 871, Alfred ascended to the throne to become King of the West Saxons, and decided to give way to the more powerful Norse raiders and pay a form of taxation, known as 'Danegeld', essentially ensuring that Wessex could remain independent, as long as they paid for the privilege.
This peace lasted for some time, but in early 878, the Danes led by King Guthrum seized the settlement of Chippenham in Wiltshire, and drove the local populace from the surrounding area. With only his royal bodyguard, a small army of followers and the earl of Somerset as his ally, Alfred withdrew to the Athelney tidal marshes in Somerset, which he knew well from his childhood. It is here that the apocryphal story of 'Alfred and the griddle-cakes' allegedly took place. According to the 12th-century Chronicle of St Neot's, Alfred was in so much danger that he was forced to travel anonymously and sought lodging in a peasant woman's hut. Told to mind the cakes cooking on the fire, Alfred let his thoughts wander to his troubles, and possible solutions to the predicament his country was in. In his absent-mindedness, the cakes burned, and the peasant woman gave her king a good scolding for his carelessness.
Burnt cakes or not, Alfred spent his time in the marshes productively, gathering allies and fighting a guerrilla war against the occupying forces, which culminated in the 878 Battle of Edington, where his forces went up against a more powerful Viking force and routed them. Despite this seemingly decisive victory, the next few years were filled with minor skirmishes with the Danes, leading Alfred to attempt a more lasting solution
In 886, Alfred took the initiative himself and attacked the Danish-held city of London in an attempt to reduce the number of lands ruled under the Danelaw. the King realised that he alone couldn't drive the Vikings from the island, and instead drew up the treaty of Wedmore. Under the terms of the treaty King Guthrum was converted to Christianity with Alfred as godfather and the pair partitioned the island along the line of the old Roman Watling Street. This treaty gave Alfred control of the old lands of Wessex as well as areas of West Mercia and Kent, and the Danes the north and east of the country. Alfred strengthened his ties with these other regions which came under his control with a series of strategic marriages, and developed a series of fortifications and Britains first navy to guard against any continuation of Viking aggression.
After successfully bringing peace to the region with his military deeds, Alfred attempted to repair the damage wrought by years of war which had all but destroyed the cultural life of his people. He translated Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy and Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory I into Old English, encouraged learning and the keeping of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and he also established a code of law, which provisioned for the protection of the rights of ordinary citizens.
Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by his eldest some Edward the Elder. He was buried at the Abbey in his capital city, Winchester, the burial place of the West Saxon royal family.
Despite the fact that he only ruled around a quarter of the land which is now considered 'England', he laid the foundations on which the country grew. It is for this reason that he is the only English monarch in history to carry the title "the Great."