Who was Alfred the Great and is The Last Kingdom’s portrayal of the Anglo-Saxon King realistic?

King Alfred is one of the most iconic figures of British history, whose success in battle made him the only English monarch to be known as “the Great”.

His military struggles against the Viking invaders provide the setting for the BBC historical epic The Last Kingdom, which has returned for a second series.

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King Alfred is the only English monarch to be known as “the Great”

But who was Alfred the Great really, and how accurate is his portrayal in the bloodthirsty BBC drama?

Who was Alfred the Great?

Alfred was born in 849 in the village of Wantage, Oxfordshire, as the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex.

His three older brothers all ruled Wessex before him, with Alfred taking the throne in 871 after the death of the King Aethelred.

Before becoming king Alfred spent several years fighting the Vikings who were wreaking devastation in England, and won several decisive victories.

A statue of Alfred in Winchester, his capital

The early years of his reign were characterised by continuous conflict with the Norse armies, as one by one the other major English kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia fell to the raiders.

By 878, Wessex was the only kingdom still resisting the “Great Heathen Army”.

As the Danes ransacked his kingdom, Alfred retreated to the marshes with his remaining soldiers, where they waged guerrilla warfare against the invaders.

Coins minted during the reign of Alfred the Great

After rallying his forces at ‘Egbert’s Stone’, Alfred won a glorious victory against the Vikings at the Battle of Edington, marking a turning point in his reign.

It meant he could negotiate a treaty with the Danes, which led to a period of relative peace (although regular skirmishes still took place), and the chance to rebuild Wessex.

Alfred successfully repelled the Viking invaders and expanded Wessex

Through shrewd diplomacy, Alfred expanded the territory of his kingdom, establishing strong defences and a reformed army which meant another large-scale Viking invasion in the 890s failed.

Beyond these successes, Alfred is credited with creating the first English navy,  promoting education and establishing a revolutionary system of law and order.

He died in 899 after a reign of almost 30 years, leaving behind a kingdom on its way to becoming the England we know today.

What is the story of Alfred burning cakes?

Legend has it that when he fled with his depleted army to the swamps of Somerset in 878, Alfred took refuge at the home of a peasant woman.

Not knowing who he was, the woman left him to look after a batch of cakes she was baking on the fire.

The story of Alfred burning the cakes first surfaced in the 12th century

However, Alfred was so preoccupied with defeating the huge Danish army that he let the cakes burn, and was berated by his host.

The story is meant to demonstrate just how low the humble king had sunk and how dire the Saxons’ situation was, in stark contrast with the glory that followed.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that it ever took place – the tale surfaced in the 12th century, long after Alfred’s death.

How realistic is The Last Kingdom?

Alfred, who is played by David Dawson, is one of the central characters in the BBC historical epic The Last Kingdom, which follows the fictional hero Uhtred.

For all his military success, the king portrayed is no real warrior. Indeed, he is shown to be thin and sickly, suffering from crippling bowel problems.

He may enjoy military success, but the Alfred in The Last Kingdom is no warrior

This is accurate, with the king thought to have suffered from ill-health throughout his life – many historians believe he had Crohn’s disease.

Alfred’s piety is a constant source of annoyance for pagan hero Uhtred during the series, with the king surrounding himself with Christian monks.

And it’s true that the king is renowned for his enthusiasm for the church and promotion of learning.

He recruited monks from across Britain and abroad to revive religion in his kingdom, and set up schools to educate his children and those of his closest nobles at a time when generally only men of the church were literate.


Indeed, his support for the church played a significant part in him going from plain King Alfred to Alfred the Great.

He commissioned Bishop Asser, one of Uhtred's enemies in The Last Kingdom, to write the glowing biography of him that remains the main evidence of his achievements.

Alfred wasn't actually known as "The Great" during his reign – he was dubbed with that title by the writers of the 16th century, largely based on his reputation as a pious Christian ruler.

Uhtred finds himself repeatedly manipulated by wily Alfred

However, in The Last Kingdom, we also see another side of Alfred: his ability to be cunning and unscrupulous, with Uhtred often manipulated by the wily ruler.

There is no record of this side of the king, but it is difficult to see how he could have flourished without this ruthless streak.

The world in which Alfred lived was one of savagery, betrayal and violent infighting.

So, for all of his Christian beliefs, in these troubled times he would have had to had been a cold, manipulative character just to survive – let alone manage his kingdom with such success.