Alfred the Great is synonymous with burnt cakes. It seems to be the one thing that people remember most about him. Whether or not you know the actually story behind it, you know his culinary exploits left a lot to be desired.
My reading material took a surprising twist this week as the latest editions of the various magazines I regularly purchase haven’t come out yet and I’ve finished everything else. I bought a copy of National Geographic’s History and a copy of BBC History Revealed. Primarily because NG’s headline article was entitled “Apocalypse – medieval visions of the end of the world”, which sounded quite fun, and the BBC HR headline article was “Your Essential Guide to the War of the Roses” which appealed to my inner Tudor history nerdiness.
However, before I got to either of those articles, I read one about Alfred the Great’s exploits, written by Nige Tassell. Now, this period of history is way before my interest is piqued, however the connection with the aforementioned cake burning label attracted my #baking interest. I’ve often heard my parents talk about cooking disasters as “doing an Alfred” and other than hearing he burnt some cakes, didn’t know anything more of the story.
So, here goes.
Alfred, youngest of five sons to King Aethelwulf of Wessex was born somewhere between AD 847 and 849 in Wantage. Three of his older brothers were king before he got there in AD 871. He was plunged straight into war with the Danish Ivar the Boneless (awesome names) who wanted to get his hands on Wessex. Only a month into his rule, Alfred lost a batted near Salisbury and was forced to make peace with the Danes.
Five years later the Danes were back having another go under Guthrum who managed to capture and blockage Wareham, which Alfred could not overcome. A flimsy peace was brokered based on a hostage swap but the Danes killed their hostages and high tailed it to Exeter. However, Alfred managed to outsmart them and after besieging the city, forced the Danes back to Mercia and submission; using brain over brawn.
Not to be outdone, the Danes attacked again, this time Chippenham in AD878, where Alfred has his Court. Alfred’s wife and children were spared but Alfred did a runner with a small band of supporters and went into hiding in Somerset, where he spent a troubled time foraging openly and stealthily from the heathens. This is where the famous cake incident happened.
Legend has it that in return for shelter, Alfred was put in charge of looking after the baking whilst the housewife went out to gather firewood. It seems Alfred’s mind wasn’t on the job and whilst he was focussing on tactics to overthrown the Danes, cakes were left unattended. However, Tassell wrote that this story didn’t come to light at the time as being recorded in Alfred’s biographer’s writing but some 100 years later. The whole cake burning escapade may not be true.
The good news is that Alfred did managed to overthrow Guthrum and formed a treaty that saw Gurthrum convert to Christianity and become Alfred’s godson. It meant the division of Mercia with each ruling half of the kingdom. Alfred set about restoring domestic agenda, rebuilding, teaching English and drawing up a code of law. Alfred died in AD 899 with half his previous kingdom still intact. It wasn’t until the 16th century the title of “the Great” was bestowed on him for saving his nation.
So next time I singe the edges of a cake, or burn my dinner, I’ll think twice of comparing it to “doing an Alfred”.
One thought on “Alfred the Great, maybe?”
Thanks for the potted history. We probably knew a bit more than you. There was a TV series a couple of years ago (The Last Kingdom) that helped us learn more, even though it was a dramatisation. He’s supposedly responsible for the beginning of a form of law. Also, we have a little link 😉