King Alfred the Great: Britain’s First Spy? 

King Alfred the Great from the ninth century was a significant ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, a man whose life is marked by his relentless efforts to defend his kingdom against Viking invasions. 

He is one of the most important figures of early English history and the only British King or Queen to be referred to as 'Great’. An important part of his remarkable story is set in Somerset, England.

According to legend, Alfred was in his early 20s when he ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, an area covering much of southern England, from 871 until his death in 899.

From 871 onward, the young King faced repeated Viking attempts to invade his kingdom. An 878 invasion took Alfred by surprise and he hid at Athelney, in the marshlands of central Somerset to plot his counterattack with the men of Wiltshire and part of Hampshire. Alfred is said to have arrived in disguise at Athelney and took his refuge in a swineherd’s cottage. In another legend, Alfred set out from Athelney dressed as a minstrel and invaded the Danish camp to learn their secrets. He found them idle and explained to his men how to defeat their foes.

King Alfred the Great: Britain’s First Spy? 

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King Alfred the Great from the ninth century was a significant ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, a man whose life is marked by his relentless efforts to defend his kingdom against Viking invasions. 

He is one of the most important figures of early English history and the only British King or Queen to be referred to as 'Great’. An important part of his remarkable story is set in Somerset, England.

According to legend, Alfred was in his early 20s when he ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, an area covering much of southern England, from 871 until his death in 899.

From 871 onward, the young King faced repeated Viking attempts to invade his kingdom. An 878 invasion took Alfred by surprise and he hid at Athelney, in the marshlands of central Somerset to plot his counterattack with the men of Wiltshire and part of Hampshire. Alfred is said to have arrived in disguise at Athelney and took his refuge in a swineherd’s cottage. In another legend, Alfred set out from Athelney dressed as a minstrel and invaded the Danish camp to learn their secrets. He found them idle and explained to his men how to defeat their foes.

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Alfred the Great statue

Alfred the Spy: Fiction or Fact?

While the tale of Alfred infiltrating a Viking camp as a spy may be more fictional than factual, the historical accounts of his strategic brilliance and determination in the face of Viking invasions paint a compelling picture of a remarkable leader in early English history.

Alfred's resilience eventually paid off. He regrouped his forces, implemented military reforms, and successfully defended Wessex against further Viking attacks. His efforts laid the foundation for the eventual unification of England under his descendants. Alfred later became ruler of neighbouring Mercia laying the foundations for the kingdom of England.

Alfred was buried at the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester but it appears his remains were moved by monks to the newly built Hyde Abbey in 1100, which was then dissolved in 1536. The location of the remains of Alfred and others in his royal family are unknown.

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