If we today know anything at all about King Alfred the Great (circa 849–899), it’s most likely because we’ve heard the legend of the burnt cakes.
After being defeated in battle by the Danes, a people associated with the Vikings, Alfred fled to the marshlands of Somerset and the tiny Isle of Athelney. Alone and shivering with the winter’s cold and damp, he found shelter in the hut of a humble peasant woman. The old woman, who had no idea of Alfred’s identity, was cooking cakes, a sort of flatbread, beside the fire. When she needed to do chores in the yard, she asked her guest to keep an eye on the cakes in her absence.
Like so many fellows before and since, Alfred soon became lost in his thoughts and forgot about the cakes. Given the desperate situation of his kingdom and his own person, he undoubtedly had much to turn over in his mind. When after a few minutes the old woman returned, the cakes were burned and blackened. Furious, and irate that this man could not perform even so simple a task, she seized her broom and gave him a few whacks, all the while calling him a fool.
The story was particularly popular among the Victorians for its double message: The king bore his swats and scolding without complaint, regarding them as well-deserved, and he took away the lesson that contemplating great difficulties could lead to turning a blind eye to vital details.
Defender of the Realm
Though this story is most likely a legend, Alfred developed into a king who could multitask and who showed enormous interest in specifics, especially when these involved defending and building up his people and his kingdom. Because of his many achievements, he is the only English monarch to bear the honorific “The Great.”
First and most necessary among these accomplishments were his strategies for protecting southern England from the Danes, who were not only raiding but also settling in parts of Britain. Alfred was around 21 when he became king in 871, and would spend the next three decades strengthening his Saxon forces.
After winning a crucial victory against these intruders at Edington in 878, Alfred successfully negotiated a peace with King Guthrum that extended the boundaries of his kingdom of Wessex. From that point on, he worked tirelessly to thwart further Danish intrusions. He reorganized his militia, his fyrd, so that he always had a force of men on hand to protect his kingdom. He established a system of burhs, or fortresses, across his territory to stop Danish invasions and to offer protection to his subjects if such incursions were attempted. Finally, he founded a navy which, with its swift ships and skilled sailors, could help parry thrusts from the seagoing Danes.
In seizing control of London in 886, Alfred was recognized as king of the English in all territories not held by the Danes. After his death, his son and grandson continued this work and drove the last of the Danish intruders from England.
The King of Accomplishments
Yet Alfred was more than simply a warrior-king.
His efforts in the realms of governance, administration, and the legal system contributed greatly to the success of his monarchy and to the establishment of a nation. He was familiar with the laws of earlier Saxon kings, studied the examples of lawgiving found in the Book of Exodus, and initiated his own code of law. He paid close attention to the finances of his court and to its administrators. He established mints in several burhs, and in the decade prior to his death these coins bore the inscription “King of the English.”
But outside of war and politics, it is in the realm of education and literature that this king engraved his deepest legacy. The sacking of monasteries by the Vikings had left Wessex bereft of Latin and learning, and Alfred campaigned throughout his reign for their restoration. Given the time and place in which he lived, this realization of the value of books and learning seems extraordinary.
In his book “King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends,” David Horspool writes: “To Alfred, a personal interest in wisdom was a facet of true Christian kingship. And the withering away of learning in his kingdom was not a regrettable side-effect of defending the realm. It was a root cause of that kingdom’s vulnerability to attack, a ‘punishment’ for neglect. … His programme to revive learning was a practical as much as a symbolic or spiritual measure.”
A lover of books since boyhood, who learned Latin as an adult, Alfred led the way in this revival by personally translating such authors as Boethius and Gregory the Great, and by having other works translated into “Englisc“ (English). Though he attempted without great success to revive the English monastic system—this would come later—he invited scholars from the continent to the island to help with this restoration of learning. His emphasis on having books reproduced in the native tongue probably helped preserve this early form of English.
As noted in “The Proverbs of Alfred,” a poem of the 12th century, “He wes king and he wes clerek,” meaning “He was king and he was a scholar.”
The 21st century has seen a renewed interest in both Alfred and in Anglo-Saxon culture.
The novels in Bernard Cornwell’s “The Last Kingdom Series,” which tell the story of the birth of England and features as its hero Uhtred of Bebbanburg, are bestsellers and became the basis for a popular television series that ran for five seasons.
Cornwell fans, newcomers to his work, and chefs who enjoy reading about the history of food or discovering new recipes will be pleased to know about the just-released “Uhtred’s Feast: Inside the World of the Last Kingdom.” Here Mr. Cornwell has written several sections of historical notes on Alfred’s England as well as three new stories about Uhtred—as a boy, then as an adviser to the king, and as a prince—while culinary writer Suzanne Pollak adds 60 Anglo-Saxon recipes as well as many comments on the cookery and households of that time.
“Uhtred’s Feast” is an entertaining introduction to the kitchens and the history of a long-ago and often obscure historical epoch.
When asked over a decade ago what had aroused his interest in the Anglo-Saxon era—he was then best known for his historical novels centered around the Napoleonic War period—Mr. Cornwell stated: “Years ago, when I was at university, I discovered Anglo-Saxon poetry and became hooked on that strange and often melancholy world.”
Readers wishing for a deeper descent into “that strange and often melancholy world” may turn to William G. Carpenter’s epic poem, “Eϸandum” (or Ethandun), the site of the battle we today call Edington. Writing in the iambic pentameter of blank verse, the poet imaginatively re-creates Alfred, his friends, and his enemies, and the world in which they lived and died, their spiritual beliefs, and the hard and often harrowing lives they led. In this short sample, we get a taste of these things and Mr. Carpenter’s style:
So Alfred fought, and men around him fought,
closing with Gormr’s rowers face-to-face,
like wretches who’d lost everything of worth,
their children, cattle, lands, their wives, their lives,
their weapons whetted by impending death.
Mr. Carpenter includes notes, several maps, and a glossary of names to help his readers sort out details of that time. The illustrations provided by artist Miko Simmons add to this story, capturing the rough-and-tumble spirit of the men and women of that time.
Mr. Carpenter told The Epoch Times that the movie “Braveheart,” Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Aeneid,” and St. Augustine’s “Confessions” had inspired him to compose this magnum opus. “The parallel conversion stories of Alfred and Gormr are aimed at Christians and potential Christians,” he said, “while the story of West Saxon survival is aimed at all who cherish a revival of the West. More particularly, I have envisioned the audience as classically oriented youth who claim their inheritance in Latin Christendom.”
A warrior battling for his people, their culture, and their faith; a king devoted to law and justice; and a scholar who sought to connect with the past and revive true learning; this was Alfred the Great.
Given those attributes, and given the trials of our own time, it is little wonder that so many men and women living today find him a figure of fascination and a model for living.
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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.