Alfred was born in the village of Wanating, now
Wantage, historically in
Berkshire but now in
Oxfordshire. He was the youngest son of King
Æthelwulf of Wessex by his first wife,
In 853, at the age of four, Alfred is reported by the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been sent to Rome where he was
Pope Leo IV, who "anointed him as king".
Victorian writers later interpreted this as an anticipatory
coronation in preparation for his eventual succession to the throne of Wessex. This is unlikely; his succession could not have been foreseen at the time as Alfred had three living elder brothers. A letter of Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a "
consul"; a misinterpretation of this investiture, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion. It may also be based on Alfred's later having accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent some time at the court of
Charles the Bald,
King of the Franks, around 854–855.
On their return from Rome in 856 Æthelwulf was deposed by his son
Æthelbald. With civil war looming the
magnates of the realm met in council to hammer out a compromise. Æthelbald would retain the western shires (i.e. historical Wessex), and Æthelwulf would rule in the east. When King Æthelwulf died in 858 Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred's brothers in succession: Æthelbald,
Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won as a prize a book of Saxon poems, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it. Legend also has it that the young Alfred spent time in Ireland seeking healing. Alfred was troubled by health problems throughout his life. It is thought that he may have suffered from
Crohn's disease. Statues of Alfred in Winchester and Wantage portray him as a great warrior. Evidence suggests he was not physically strong and, though not lacking in courage, he was noted more for his intellect than as a warlike character.