In his book on Alfred the Great, historian Justin Pollard notes that it was in the 16th century that King Alfred was first called 'Alfred the Great' - no reference, no note, no bibliographical text that matches up with this claim.

Can anyone shed light on exactly who the bright spark was that named him thus - when, where, and why?


2 Answers 2


The first reference to Alfred as "the Great" was in Book 26 of the Historiae Anglicae by Polydore Vergil published in 1534.

Note that it took a while for this epithet to take hold. Originally, he had no epithet, except "The Learned" from the Chronicle of Roger of Howden (1174-1201). Notably NONE of the major original histories of England describe him as "Great". This includes the following:

  • The Lambeth Chronicle (15th century)

  • Actes and Monuments by John Foxe

  • Chronicle of John Hardynge 1543

  • Annales of England John Stow 1592

  • Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland

None of these books describe Alfred as "Great".

The reason why he probably started to get singled out was because there was a lot of history about him, due to the Life written by Asser, and because there was a popular set of oral tranmission verses known as the "Proverbs of King Alfred". These proverbs were well known among the common folk and recited at entertainments, so he was kind of a folk figure.

  • Are you referring to the line '... they chose to create as their king Ethelred’s son Alfred, a man of great virtue, and to kill off all the Dacians.'? (Vergil - book 8, chapter 3 - ) the Latin reads 'deliberant regem facere Alfredum Etheldredi filium, virum magna virutis, ac Dacos sine discrimine ad internecionem persequi' philological.bham.ac.uk/polverg/8eng.html - Book 26 is a later period - at least in the 1555 version. May 14, 2014 at 18:26
  • The critical notes to the on-line edition here (philological.bham.ac.uk/polverg/intro.html) state that "no modern edition of the Latin text is available, and printed English translations are only available for thirteen of the twenty-seven Books (the portion from the beginning to the Norman Conquest, and that covering the reigns of Henry VI through Henry VIII)" - which just raises more questions than it answers with regard to my original question, I'm afraid - pointing to a possible translation of Vergil, if that theory indeed turns out to be true. May 14, 2014 at 18:27

The answer is in wikipedia

Consequently it was writers of the sixteenth century who gave Alfred his epithet as 'the Great', rather than any of Alfred's contemporaries.

Wikipedia references Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England

  • 3
    While this does partially answer the question, History.SE is not here to quote Wikipedia.
    – Luke_0
    May 10, 2014 at 2:57

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