King Alfred (The Great) has been described as the greatest King who ever lived. But, there was much more than that because, at one brief time in his life all the world and all it would become held in the balance. In sixty seconds the whole future of the world was decided.

Alfred was the youngest of four brothers, Ethelbald, Ethelbert and Ethelred. There had been one other brother but he died quite young. There was also one sister Ethelswitha for whom I have a particular fondness. The King, Ethelwulf had deliberately named Alfred without an Ethel name to remind him that, with three elder brothers, he would never be King. No point in putting ideas into the childs head of hunting accidents or something happening to his elder brothers when he'd grown up.

When he was five or six years old Alfred was sent on pilgrimage to Rome. England was a deeply Christian Country and the Cerdingas (descendents of Cerdic) perhaps more than most. The Pope was a kindly old man who didn't know quite what to do with this young princeling but, that gloomy, wet island of England far to the north were strong supporters of Gods Church on Earth and so he should do something nice to honour the boy. So, he anointed him as a Consul of Rome, giving him white consular robes and even a sword suitable to his stature.

Alfreds huscarls (bodyguards sworn for life) were suitably impressed. Here they had seen Gods emmissary on Earth anoint Alfred with the sacred chrism which would only be used to anoint a King. Alfred was King of somewhere, although they weren't quite sure where. Or perhaps he had been anointed as a future King? Either way he would be a powerful King as he'd been anointed by the Pope himself and not just some Archbishop. On the way out to Rome the child had had some gentle ribbing from the huscarls but there was none of that on the way home. Alfred rode at the head of his column of armed and mounted men as though he was already King.

But at six years old Alfred cared little for that. When he arrived back at Wantage in Wessex the first thing he did was fly into his mothers arms to recount his adventures. As the youngest of her children Alfred may have held a special place in the heart of Queen Oesburghe. She didn't spoil the child but, taught him and his siblings the values of loyalty and obedience to Gods law and the laws of men.

In her reading lessons to the children Oesburghe used a little book of poems. Beautifully bound in green leather with gold lettering on the cover. Inside, each page was wonderfully illuminated. The Queen offered this as a prize to the first of her children who could recite the poems from the book. More than the book Alfred wanted to please his mother and so each day he had some cleric read the poems to him until he'd memorised them. That might not have been quite what Oedburghe had in mind but, she smiled at him indulgently and gave him the book anyway.

When Alfred was in his teens Oesburge passed away and within a few short months the King had remarried. To Judith from France whose descendents would one day include the Lady Matilda and Duke William of Normandy. But to Alfred this was a betrayal of his mothers memory. Where was the loyalty to his mother when she was barely cold in the ground before the King had taken a younger woman to his bed? I don't think Alfred ever forgave his father for that.

The bad feelings between Ethelwulf and his children continued and to avoid civil war the kingdom was separated into two parts. Ethelwulf taking the eastern part and his eldest son Ethelbald taking the west.

This was probably one of the happiest times of Alfreds life. Here he was with his brothers and sister and, away from his much disliked father. The Court didn't move around that much in those days as it later would in the norman manner but, you always knew when you were in the Court of the Cerdingas. All of them, with the exception of Ethelswitha, had this most peculiar dry hacking cough like a pack of foxes grunting at each other. Perhaps their german constitution didn't suit the cold and gloomy dampness of England? There they'd sit at the high table. Ethelbald as King in the centre, Ethelbert on his right and Ethelred on his left. Alfred next to Ethelbert and Ethelswitha next to Alfred.

It didn't last long though and soon Ethelswitha moved to live with her husband King Burghed of Mercia to whom she'd been betrothed since she was four years old.

It was around this time that the Great Army had been roaming around Europe for twenty or thirty years. This was an army of many thousands of Danish pirates together with their families, servants and slaves. They'd turn up in your Country, build a huge fortified camp and begin to ravage the countryside. Most liitle kingdoms fyrds couldn't stand against thousands of professional warriors and so it was usually easier just to pay them to go away. They wouldn't stay away for long though and in a few years they'd be back. This wasn't entirely dishonest by their lights as, when some left or were killed and then more men joined the band they considered themselves to be a new army and were therefore entitled to more danegeld to leave again.

There'd been sporadic raids along the english coast for years and Alfred had fought alongside his brother Ethelbald (the King) and later, after Ethelbald had died he went also with the new King, Ethelbert. In all these battles Alfred fought in the front rank with his brothers. Then, in 865 Ethelbert died and Ethelred became King of Wessex and Kent with Alfred as his Underking.

But then in 869 there was horrendous news....the Great Army had landed in England. All was in disarray as they ravaged far and wide across the Country. They captured and tortured King Edmund of East Anglia most horribly to death. Ethelred and Alfred fought many battles against the danish Earls. Ethelred taking the right flank and Alfred leading the left. Sometimes they won but, sometimes they must pay to make the bands go away. The brothers were agreed on one thing above all else. England was Gods own Country and the heathen must be fought without surrender.

Then Ethelred was killed at the battle of Merton in 871 leaving Alfred as King of all the saxons in southern England.

One evening in 874 there was a great commotion in the hall just as Alfred was sitting down to dinner. A tumult of men and horses in the courtyard and then King Burghed of Mercia slunk into the hall with Ethelswitha at his side. His huscarls skulked shamefaced in the shadows.

Burghed had had enough. He was running away and abandoning his people to their fate. Taking all the gold he could carry he would flee to Rome and keep his own skin safe. The King could hardly keep the disgust from his face and, in truth, I don't think he really tried. A King that wouldn't fight, Alfred hadn't imagined such a creature could exist.

Burghed sidled off to a room in shame to spend the night while Alfred and Ethelswitha discussed the future into the early hours. Ethelswitha must of course follow her husband into exile, no blame would be placed on her for following the honourable path of standing by him. Before dawn Burghed slipped quietly away with Ethelswitha and his shamefaced huscarls. Alfred would no longer see his beloved sister in this life again as she passed away on her journey to Italy.

With Burghed gone Alfred was now King of all the english. The survival or fall of the whole Country depended on his shoulders alone. One man with his civilian fyrd facing an army of thousands of hard bitten professional soldiers.

He sat close to the fire on that chilly morning eating his breakfast of bacon, hard bread and wine......And began to lay his plans.