Born at Wantage, in Berkshire, Aelfred was the fifth child of Ethelwulf, King of Wessex and Queen Osburgh. His early life was spent mostly in the court of his parents, and he was much influenced by them in matters of learning and religion. Ethelwulf, before acceding to the throne of Wessex, was educated at the Old Minster in Winchester, by Bishop Swithun. It is known that Aelfred made at least two pilgrimages to Rome, one at the age of four, and one in the company of his Father, two years after the death of Queen Osburgh, his mother. Having left two of Aelfreds eldest brothers to rule over Wessex and Kent, Ethelwulfe returned to a divided Kingdom. Kent and the South East were relinquished to him by Ethelbert, but Ethelbald refused to surrender Wessex. Ethelwulf died almost a year later.
Ethelbald died in 860 and was succeeded by Ethelbert until 865, when he too died and the throne passed to Ethelred I.
In 868 Aelfred married Ealhswith, the granddaughter of the King of Mercia. Aelfred was later to grant her an estate in Winchester, upon which the Nunnaminster was built.
In 870 the Danes attacked Wessex, and over wintered at Reading. Early in 871 King Ethelred and Aelfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown, though Ethelred later died of wounds received in the battle.
Now King of Wessex, Aelfred was forced to negotiate a sort of peace with the Danes, literally paying them to leave his Kingdom alone (Danegelt). Aelfred used the time this bought to strengthen his Kingdom and to also develop the beginnings of a Naval fleet. At first using mercenaries, he later built a large fleet of ships to a design superior to that used by the Danes.
In 876 the Danes re-invaded Wessex under a new leader, Guthrum, who established a base at Wareham. Aelfred was once again obliged to negotiate with the Danes, but Guthrum broke faith with their agreement and seized Exeter the following year. The city was put to siege and Guthrum requested reinforcements from the Viking fleet. Aelfred sent his small fleet of mercenary ships to intercept them, but a storm wrecked 120 ships of Guthrums fleet and he was forced to withdraw from Wessex into Mercia.
In 878 Guthrum suddenly attacked Aelfred & his household at Chippenham over Christ Mass. Aelfred fled to Athelney in the Somerset levels and lodged, with his wife and children, in the house of a swineherd. Guthrum proclaimed himself King of Wessex. Aelfred raised a small following and started attacking the Danes in a guerilla war. News of his survival spread, and just seven weeks after Guthrum's surprise attack Aelfred confronted him at Eddington, pursued the Danes to their camp and laid siege to it. Fourteen days later the Danes surrendered. Although Guthrum was Aelfreds prisoner, Aelfred and Guthrum agreed to divide England into two, along a boundary from Watling Street in London across country to Chester. Later that year Guthrum was baptised into the Christian Church, with Aelfred in attendance at a ceremony on the Isle of Aller, and Guthrum settled peacefully in East Anglia until his death ten years later.
In 896, nine of Aelfreds new ships engaged and defeated six Danish ships from East Anglia that were raiding towns all along the south coast. The captured crews were later sent in chains to Winchester, where they were hanged as a warning to others. It seemed to work as the rest of Aelfreds reign was relatively peaceful, and he was able to effect many reforms. TOP of PAGE