In one of his prefaces, Alfred wrote 'so general was its [Latin] decay in
England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could
understand their rituals in English or translate a letter from Latin into
English ... so few that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames
when I came to the throne.'
To improve literacy, Alfred arranged, and took part in, the translation (by
scholars from Mercia) from Latin into Anglo-Saxon of a handful of books he
thought it 'most needful for men to know, and to bring it to pass ... if we
have the peace, that all the youth now in England ... may be devoted to
These books covered history, philosophy and Gregory the Great's 'Pastoral
Care' (a handbook for bishops), and copies of these books were sent to all
the bishops of the kingdom. Alfred was patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
(which was copied and supplemented up to 1154), a patriotic history of the
English from the Wessex viewpoint designed to inspire its readers and
celebrate Alfred and his monarchy.
Like other West Saxon kings, Alfred established a legal code; he assembled
the laws of Offa and other predecessors, and of the kingdoms of Mercia and
Kent, adding his own administrative regulations to form a definitive body of
'I ... collected these together and ordered to be written many of them which
our forefathers observed, those which I liked; and many of those which I did
not like I rejected with the advice of my councillors ... For I dared not
presume to set in writing at all many of my own, because it was unknown to
me what would please those who should come after us ... Then I ... showed
those to all my councillors, and they then said that they were all pleased
to observe them' (Laws of Alfred, c.885-99).
By the 890s, Alfred's charters and coinage (which he had also reformed,
extending its minting to the burhs he had founded) referred to him as 'king
of the English', and Welsh kings sought alliances with him. Alfred died in
899, aged 50, and was buried in Winchester, the burial place of the West
Saxon royal family.
By stopping the Viking advance and consolidating his territorial gains,
Alfred had started the process by which his successors eventually extended
their power over the other Anglo-Saxon kings; the ultimate unification of
Anglo-Saxon England was to be led by Wessex.
It is for his valiant defense of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for
securing peace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the
reconstruction of Wessex and beyond, that Alfred - alone of all the English
kings and queens - is known as 'the Great'.