Whilst you might not think this to be the most important question ever asked about one of the truly revered figures from English history, it is the one most frequently posed whenever I give talks about my novels in The Shadow of the Raven series, all of which feature Alfred the Great.
Of course, the answer is that we’ll never know whether or not the story is true. It’s one of those strange ‘facts’ which have emerged from the misty realms of folklore and have somehow managed to survive the ravages of both time and historical interpretation. As such it’s easy to dismiss it as trivial nonsense yet even now, over 1000 years after it is supposed to have happened, it can reveal a good deal more than you might think about what was going on at this crucial turning point in English history.
To explain what I mean let me quickly summarise the backdrop to the story. England was all but dominated by the Vikings following the Great Invasion in 865 until Alfred’s realm of Wessex stood alone.
Alfred (and his older brother Aethelred) did sterling work in holding back the Vikings, fighting numerous battles and skirmishes in an attempt to drive them from Wessex.
Unfortunately, apart from Ashdown where the Saxons were successful, none of the battles were decisive and most could best be described as a ‘no score draw’ until, in 877, Alfred, no doubt weary and needing to regroup, returned to his Royal Vill at Chippenham for the winter. Whilst there, a surprise Viking attack led by Guthrum left his army all but annihilated and Alfred, we’re told, was forced to flee with a small band of survivors to hide out in the desolate marshes in the Somerset Levels. It is from this wretched period that the story of the cakes emanates – along with others.
Actually, recent archaeological findings may suggest that Alfred was not quite as isolated as we might have previously thought. For example, there is the suggestion that Ceolwulf II, the ruler of the neighbouring realm of Mercia, was also involved in the all-important Battle at Edington later that same year when the Saxons at last managed to turn the tide of the Viking invasion. However, the evidence for Ceolwulf’s part in this is far from conclusive. It rests on some coins which have been found from this period depicting both rulers side by side, suggesting that Alfred enlisted (or perhaps accepted) help from Ceolwulf. Does this infer two realms coming together to fight a common enemy or did they form an alliance once victory had been achieved?
Setting that aside, we can only imagine how devastating that defeat at Chippenham would have been for a man who stood to lose his entire Kingdom to the Vikings. Also, to go from the comfort of his Royal Vill to sheltering in the marshes would have been a severe blow not just to Alfred’s ego and his pride, but to his confidence as well. The marshes would have been a bleak and depressing place, particularly in winter, with precious little to commend them beyond the fact that they were probably a relatively safe place in which to hide – as I say in my novel, Blood and Destiny, Alfred would have gone there for one simple reason – the Vikings would not. Whatever the truth of that, it does at least put Alfred in the right place at the right time for the story about the cakes to be true.
It’s easy to envisage the situation where Alfred, ever determined, sets about planning how best to strike back – no easy task when most Saxons would have had their fill of battles and, anyway, many people probably thought him either dead or to have fled abroad. Some sort of covert mechanism for rallying what was left his army would have been needed, supported by tactics which can probably best be described as guerrilla warfare – striking when and where he could. It is generally accepted that he would have established a base within the marshes for that very purpose (the ‘Isle’ of Athelney is thought by many to have been a possible site for this) but in undertaking various raids he would have had to venture further afield and would doubtless have identified some isolated settlements where he could safely seek temporary shelter. Thus the prospect of him stopping off at one of these is certainly not an unreasonable proposition and, if he did, it is not too hard to think in terms of him resting whilst his host, supposedly a poor and wretched soul, went about her tasks. So why then did this great King abuse this poor woman’s hospitality and allow her cakes to be ruined?
The answer must surely lie in the fact that Alfred would have had a great deal on his mind at the time and a huge responsibility on his shoulders. Hardly surprising then that he was so distracted as to take his mind off such a menial task. If we want to be pedantic we could ask why the most important man in the realm was alone at this time – and assuming he wasn’t, why one of the others could not have been given the more mundane task of minding a few cakes leaving Alfred to concentrate on planning his come-back, rebuilding his kingdom and saving his people from the ravages of the Viking invaders. It is also recorded that Alfred was sometimes unwell, suffering from an inflammation of the gut (possibly Crohn’s Disease?) which may have been made worse by the stress of all he had endured and by the discomfort of living within the cold damp marsh through the winter. Might such a debilitating complaint have contributed to his being distracted?
So, from what we have so far it does seem plausible to assume that the incident could have happened. But there is a major flaw – having burned the cakes, it is said that the woman scolded him for his inattention to what, to her, would have been a very important task – preparing food for the table.
Well, let’s just look at that for a moment. Given that he was under attack, Alfred probably left Chippenham in haste with little more than his weaponry and the clothes on his back. Certainly it’s unlikely that he would have had any regalia or robes that might reflect his status and, whilst we don’t know exactly when the cakes incident is supposed to have taken place, even if it happened after only a few weeks of living rough, it’s reasonable to assume that Alfred would have looked dishevelled and well the worse for wear. Also, Wessex was the last piece in the Viking’s invasion jigsaw and they had only to capture Alfred in order to complete it and thereby secure their domination of all England. Thus the price on Alfred’s head would have been enormous – certainly enough to tempt someone to betray him and, in those circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to think of him disguising himself, with his true identity being known only to the small band of survivors whose loyalty was beyond question and whose fate was inextricably bound with his own. To achieve this, he may well have presented himself as just another ragged and destitute soul who had been driven from his home and thus the poor woman who offered him shelter may have had no idea who she was taking in. However, I have to question whether that is a realistic contention. Alfred, and those with him, would surely have had their war gear and weapons, particularly if they were indeed carrying out raids on Viking targets and positions. That alone should have marked them out as being at least of noble blood and for a lowly coerl or peasant woman to scold her betters over such a trivial matter as a few cakes seems highly improbable.
So, even finding Alfred in the right place at the right time and being able to envisage the circumstances in which he might have been seeking shelter at a humble abode, the story doesn’t quite hold water. However, there is another story which also stems from this period which suggests that Alfred disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and actually entered the Viking camp to learn what he could of Guthrum’s plans. That also makes little sense given all that was at stake for Alfred personally – not just the loss of his Kingdom, but also the prospect of a gruesome death given that the Viking’s hated spies and reserved some particularly brutal torments for those they caught! However, if you consider the two stories together there is a common thread depicting traits such as humility and bravado which are often ascribed to the heroes from our past – Robin Hood who robbed the rich and gave to the poor being a case in point. Folklore seems to embrace characteristics like these and so perhaps that’s what we’re hearing with both stories about Alfred – tales which spring from the popular culture of the time, perhaps originating in the tradition of oral story telling which is how most people would have heard and repeated them at the time. If so they are probably not entirely without foundation. Alfred was indeed a man of the people. Being the youngest of five brothers, he was never destined to be King in the first place, particularly as at that time succession was more a matter of selection rather than birthright. He earned the right to rule Wessex on the battlefield, proving himself a skilled and daring military commander. But, by the same token, he was also a very religious man, the depth of his faith perhaps stemming from the fact that as boy he twice made a pilgrimage to Rome which is thought to have made a huge impression on him. This would have been an important consideration at the time given that the Saxons were themselves a deeply religious people.
Put his military skill and his religious convictions together and you begin to understand why Alfred, as great warrior King, not only had the resolve and determination to win back his kingdom (when many probably thought that impossible) but he was also driven by an altruistic desire to improve things for all his subjects. That was a rare thing in those days when social justice could be described as rudimentary at best and it might well explain why these affectionate and flattering stories were founded – and why they endured. If that is indeed the case it is a much more significant part of Alfred’s story than the burning of a few cakes.
Actually, they probably weren’t cakes at all – they were more likely to be small loaves of bread but I find the image of those battle hardened Saxon warriors sitting down to scoff a few cakes between battles (burnt or otherwise) an endearing one. That said, I do wonder how or why a woman somewhere in or near the dank marshes at Athelney was cooking enough cakes to share – and where she got the ingredients in the middle of winter when large swathes of the realm were probably starving!
Most likely, wherever and however the story originated it has since been embellished by others over the centuries (including the Victorians who held Alfred in particular esteem), so much so that the truth of it is probably lost forever. Frankly I’m not sure it matters all that much if it is. The story of Alfred has served as both an inspiration and a role model throughout history to such an extent that if he hadn’t existed, we would probably have had to invent him. He is one of the few men in the history of the world to be afforded the title ‘Great’ which reflects all that he achieved – so what does it matter if his skills didn’t extend to baking a few cakes?