King Alfred and the Cakes


I first heard the story of King Alfred and the Cakes when I was at Primary School. The story was not, as I remember, told in any particular context, or if it was, I quickly forgot the context; but not the story. I was immediately warmed with admiration for this good king, who though preoccupied with matters of great importance, not only put up with the peasant woman's scolding, but, acknowledging his own incompetence in kitchen matters, was prepared to subject himself to her instruction and correction.

Later on, when I became interested in Englisc ('Anglo-Saxon') history, I remembered the story and could immediately associate it with the historical King Alfred. Later still I learned that the earliest version of the story was told in an anonymous Vita S. Neoti [Life of St Neot], probably composed in the late tenth century, whose author is thought by many scholars to have made it up. A later version of the story was incorporated into the Annals of St Neots, which appear actually to have been compiled at Bury St Edmunds during the second quarter of the twelfth century (1). This version was known to Matthew Parker (1504-75), Archbishop of Canterbury, who was the first to print Asser's Life of King Alfred in 1574. He noticed the similarities between the Annals and Asser's Life, and deduced that the Annals were written by Asser, although in fact it was the later compiler of the Annals who had made use of the Life. He therefore interpolated the story exactly as he found it in the Annals at the appropriate point in his text of Asser's Life.

The story, in its earliest form, is as follows:

"There is a place in the remote parts of English Britain far to the west, which in English is called Athelney and which we refer to as 'Athelings' Isle'; it is surrounded on all sides by vast salt marshes and sustained by some level ground in the middle. King Alfred happened unexpectedly to come there as a lone traveller. Noticing the cottage of a certain unknown swineherd (as he later learned), he directed his path towards it and sought there a peaceful retreat; he was given refuge, and he stayed there a number of days, impoverished, subdued and content with the bare necessities. Reflecting patiently that these things had befallen him through God's just judgement, he remained there awaiting God's mercy through the intercession of His servant Neot; for he had conceived from Neot the hope that he nourished in his heart. 'Whom the Lord loveth', says the apostle, 'He chastiseth; He scourgeth every son whom he adopteth' (Hebrews xii, 61). In addition to this, Alfred patiently kept the picture of Job's astonishing constancy before his eyes every day. Now it happened by chance one day, when the swineherd was leading his flock to their usual pastures, that the king remained alone at home with the swineherd's wife. The wife, concerned for her husband's return, had entrusted some kneaded flour to the husband of sea-borne Venus [Vulcan, the fire god, that is, the oven]. As is the custom among countrywomen, she was intent on other domestic occupations, until, when she sought the bread from Vulcan, she saw it burning from the other side of the room. She immediately grew angry and said to the king (unknown to her as such): 'Look here, man,

You hesitate to turn the loaves which you see to be burning, Yet you're quite happy to eat them when they come warm from the oven!'

But the king, reproached by these disparaging insults, ascribed them to his divine lot; somewhat shaken, and submitting to the woman's scolding, he not only turned the bread but even attended to it as she brought out the loaves when they were ready."

The status of the text of the Life of Alfred has itself been queried many times - one recent query being by Alfred Smyth (King Alfred the Great, OUP 1995) who doubted whether it was written by Asser and put forward the opinion that it was composed by Byrhtferth of Ramsey at the turn of the eleventh century. He demoted it from a contemporary text, written during the life of Alfred by a biographer who knew him well, to one composed by another well after his death. His theories have largely been dismissed by the academic world, their arguments neatly summarised in the latest work of Professor Richard Abels (Alfred the Great, Longman 1998).

However, with both the original story of the cakes subjected to doubt, as well as the Life of Alfred written by Asser, we could feel ourselves somewhat at a loss. However the general person is not reading these documents as a historical scholar. I am by no means attempting to cast aspersions on historical scholarship - I have some pretensions in that direction myself - but I think that it can be taken too seriously in the wrong context. It is doubtless important to know, for the benefit of the historical record, the precise difference between truth and falsehood; but there are other, equally valid branches of scholarship which the more broad-minded may take into account.

It is known that to every famous person anecdotes become attached, as if by some kind of magnetism. This is even true of historical personages of our own time, such as Winston Churchill. There are many anecdotes of witticisms, supposedly uttered by the great man, which are in fact apocryphal, but he was known for his keen wit and so he has accumulated other examples that he did not actually say (although who can know whether he would not have said them in the appropriate circumstances). As a figure recedes into the past, so the numinous cloak of his reputation tends to diminish, except in the case of a really super-hero, in which case it continues to grow in the mind of the folk. King Solomon is one of these figures, whose name even appears in a tale made up as recently as the turn of the last century by Rudyard Kipling in the Just So Stories.

These stories that accrue around the names of the truly great are not necessarily falsifications in the accepted sense of the word. They only tend to stick to the personage if they have a semblance of truth - if one could think 'Yes - this is how the person would have reacted in these particular circumstances'. They are, if you like, parables of the person, in the sense of Christ's descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven: 'the Kingdom of Heaven is like ... '. They tell us more about the personality of the hero, but in a way that is easily assimilated and remembered by the hearer. I feel I know enough about King Alfred to be able to say that if he were in the circumstances depicted in the story of the cakes, he would have reacted in the manner in which the story shows him reacting. Who, indeed, can say whether the story, or something very like it, is factually true or not, whatever the history of the text? I guess that something like it had a very good chance of happening, which is why the story gained currency in the first place. The anonymous author could have made King Alfred turn on the peasant woman and say imperiously: 'How dare you speak to me in that fashion? Be aware that I am the King of England;' but that would not have been true to the character of the king, and in that form the story would not have gained currency.

What parts of Asser's Life of Alfred are false, what are true, and what are anecdotes imported into the story because they 'fitted' will doubtless be sorted out in time, and the scholar-jackals soon got their teeth into the meat so liberally scattered by Srnyth. However, owing to the care of such men as Matthew Parker, we still have the original stories available to us. The central fact - that there was a man called King A1fred (reigned 871-99) who, in spite of being reduced to being a mere guerrilla leader in the marshes of Somerset, rallied his men and took back his kingdom of Wessex when it seemed lost for ever, and then laid such a foundation of culture and wisdom that his children were able to expand it to the kingdom of England - is undeniable. His inherent ability, goodness, courage and modesty shine through these stories.

The events of later years, when the great kingdom that he re-founded was raped and pillaged by uncivilised barbarians, the descendants of those Vikings against whom he won his finest victory, have only dimmed his light, and not extinguished it. Through the darkest days that followed the Norman conquest the light continued to glimmer. Men like Hereward of Bourne (popularly known as Hereward the Wake) and Robin of Loxley (known as Robin Hood) were caught in its glow and made other, lesser lights of their own. It is up to us to fan its glowing embers and to carry it high, thus honouring our heritage, redeeming the years of darkness, and restoring Alfred's England to the God-pleasing place that he left to us.

Holy Alfred, Mighty King,
who tamed the barbarous Vikings and restored Wessex
and yet was subject to the scolding of a peasant woman,
Pray to God for us.


1) Cambridge, Trinity College MS R. 7.28