Winchester, UK - Alfred the Great and Crohn's Disease

Alfred Winchester-2.jpg


Winchester, UK - Alfred the Great and Crohn's Disease

Catalog Entry

King Alfred the Great ruled the Saxon kingdom of Wessex located in southwestern England from the year of 871 to 899. Alfred is the only English monarch known as “the Great.” This could be due to his work defending against Viking invasion and social reforming. It is known that through much of his life, King Alfred suffered from illness that caused him severe pain. Asser, the Welsh bishop of King Alfred, studied the king’s illness and kept records of his symptoms. In Asser’s book ‘Life of Alfred,’ he writes much on the subject of Alfred’s health. Fortunate for us, we can now look at the book and learn about the King’s symptoms. Upon studying his symptoms, many people have come up with a plethora of conditions the king may have suffered from, including neuritis, epilepsy, sexually transmitted diseases, etc. After all of this studying, we have come to the conclusion that is most likely that King Alfred had suffered from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract (Crohn’s.)

Much of the information we have about Alfred’s condition comes from Asser’s writings. In his book, Asser explains that Alfred had a huge feast after his marriage to his Merican bride Ealhswitch. It was after the feast that Alfred began experiencing a sudden severe pain. The pain had lasted and the cause was unknown to most physicians. Alfred’s illness being such a mystery to the doctors caused people to speculate. They questioned if the illness was caused by spells and witchcraft, the devil, or simply an unfamiliar fever. Because medicine has advanced so much since Alfred’s time, we have a much better understanding of Alfred’s symptoms. Comparing Alfred’s symptoms such as the severe pain and anal lesion to present day illness, we can come to the conclusion that Alfred was most likely suffering from Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease is an incurable life long disease. Crohn’s disease causes chronic inflammation of the digestive system, typically the intestine and colon. This can cause ulcers to form. Doctors are still unsure what causes crohn’s disease, but factors such as a person’s immune system, genes and environment can influence whether or not they get the disease. It is also known that the disease affects people in different ways, but some common symptoms are abdominal pain and cramping, fever, fatigue, and blood in stool as well as pain and lesions in the anal region, due to frequent bowel movements. Crohn’s disease can last years and in some cases can be life long, with symptoms worsening overtime. This can explain why King Alfred experienced the illness throughout his life with the pain worsening on the night of the feast.

In someone who has Crohn’s disease, the immune system attacks the bowel or gastrointestinal system and damages it. This disease affects the way your body takes in important nutrients and can have a negative impact on the way your body digests food and gets rid of wastes. Symptoms can be off and on. Remission can also take place when the ulcers start to heal.

This fluctuation in symptoms can be seen in the case of Alfred who experienced periods of chronic pain where he was unable to leave his room, as well as periods of no symptoms. While Crohn’s is not a debilitating condition, most patients must make take the disease and its possible flare ups into consideration when planning everyday activities.

Crohn’s disease first became regarded as a medical condition in 1932 by famous gastroenterologist Dr. Burrill Crohn, who the disease is named after. Though, this was not the first time the condition was described. The first explanation given of the disease was given by an italian physician named Giovanni Battista Morgagni when diagnosing a patient who suffered from symptoms common in Crohn’s. Prior to Dr. Crohn and his colleagues’ discovery, any disease that involved the small intestine was reared as intestinal tuberculosis. The discovery of these doctors helped patients who were misdiagnosed and were given the wrong treatments due to these misdiagnoses. As our medical knowledge increases with time, we are able to treat patients in a more efficient way.

During the time of King Albert’s life, medicine was far less advanced than it is now. Science was not the main focus at this time. Rather, people looked to things like religion and supernatural forces to explain illnesses. In the case of Albert, when physicians were puzzled by his symptoms, the first thought of the people were to blame it on supernatural forces, such as witchcraft or the devil being jealous of him being such a good man. As our knowledge of science and medicine has increased over time, doctors have looked back on King Alfred and his illness. Modern doctors have been able to study the little knowledge we have on Alfred’s condition and hypothesize that the king was most likely suffering from Crohn’s disease.

King Alfred’s condition has shown us just how much medicine has changed overtime and how as we gain a better knowledge of certain conditions, we can treat a wider range of people. While it is difficult for us to prove that King Alfred for sure suffered from Crohn’s disease, from studying his symptoms that were written about is Asser’s the ‘Life of Alfred,’ we can come to the conclusion that Alfred most likely suffered from this condition. King Alfred’s illness caused him to fluctuate between periods of no suffering and periods of debilitation pain. Alfred suffered through periods of time where he could not leave his room due to the pain in his abdomen being so severe. This would be difficult for anyone to deal with, but particularly a king who must rule a country at war. King Alfred suffered from pain through much of his life with no relief. While Alfred’s condition was devastating, we are lucky to have records of it to help us study and make further medical advancements.


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“A Look Back at Our Beginning.” Crohn's & Colitis Foundation,

“Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?” Boaring Medievalist​, 5 Aug. 2018, at/.

Robertson, Sally. “History of Crohn's Disease.” News Medical,26 Feb. 2019,

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Catalog Entry Author(s)

Madison Sideleau, Student, Fitchburg State University


Kisha G. Tracy



“Winchester, UK - Alfred the Great and Crohn's Disease,” Cultural Heritage through Image, accessed January 27, 2020,

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