King Alfred’s legendary burning of the cakes was the subject of my first history lesson, delivered by my mother as she popped a tray of rock cakes in the oven. Her notion of where the incident took place was vague; ‘In the woods somewhere’, she said…handing me the spoon to lick. I was no wiser after I started school, where mum’s lesson was repeated almost word for word.
My interest in Alfred was rekindled when my partner Rob and I bought a holiday house by the Thames near Medmenham in Buckinghamshire. It is believed that invading Vikings crossed the river here, setting up camp on a nearby estate still known as Danesfield. The Danes were on their way to fight King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon forces, further west. It is interesting that during WWII Danesfield became the headquarters for the RAF photographic intelligence unit.
After a humiliating series of defeats, Alfred retreated to the Isle of Athelney, deep in the Somerset fens. According to legend it was here that he took refuge in the cottage of a peasant woman, neglecting her precious cakes as he plotted his return to the fray.
A ROYAL PILGRIMAGE
I may have waited years to find the facts behind the fable, but eventually I decided to visit Athelney (no longer an island since the fens were drained). The tiny hamlet is just off the A361, a few km north-east of Taunton.
The focus of my visit was a memorial in honour of Alfred. We searched for it without success, until a mechanic at the local garage gave us directions. He told us the memorial was on private property at Athelney Farm, but assured us that the owner loved chatting about the Anglo-Saxon King.
We were grateful for the advice, but as we drove through the gates of the farm I wondered how current his information was. There was an air of neglect about the place, and some of the rusting implements in the outbuildings were museum pieces. All was quiet at the house until my nervous knock was answered by what sounded like a dozen baying guard dogs throwing themselves against the door. I was relieved when a bearded, gnome-like figure appeared at a side window. He didn’t seem at all anxious to talk about Alfred, but gestured me towards a field, where we found the memorial. It marks the site of a monastery, founded by Alfred in gratitude for the protection he received. How I wished my mother had still been alive…I could have updated her history lesson.
On the horizon we recognized a distinctive hill called Barrow Mump, accepted as the most probable site of the fort Alfred built when he reassembled his army. The hill rises beside the village of Barrow Bridge, and after leaving Athelney we drove over to make the steep climb to the summit. No trace of the fort remains, but there are picturesque ruins of a medieval church and spectacular views over the countryside. Naturally, the local pub is called The King Alfred. On display is a table with scorch marks, supposedly caused by the very cakes Alfred burned. Sadly, I was unable to make the leap of faith required to believe this!
Alfred set out from his fort in 878, leading his men to victory against the Danes at Edington, on the Wiltshire Downs. The Viking forces were then driven north to Chippenham, where a treaty was negotiated.
In 1694 a stunning gold and enamel jewel dating from the 9th century was found a few kilometres from Athelney at North Petherton. A teardrop of rock crystal protects the enamel and the chased gold setting is inscribed; Alfed mec heht gewyrcan – Alfred ordered me to be made.
The jewel is thought to have been the decorative crown of a pointer, used for following lines of manuscript. If so, it is a fitting memento of a king who was at heart more scholar than soldier. From 892-899 Alfred translated five books from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, including Bede’s History of the English Nation. He also established a highly successful system of law and order. During his reign it was said that precious jewels could be left by the roadside for days, yet remain untouched by passers-by.
Ironically, when I first visited Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to see the Alfred Jewel it had been been temporarily removed to a bank vault, after an attempt to steal it. Fortunately it is now back in place, as we discovered while showing some Australian friends around. Click HERE to read the story.
The King died at Winchester in 901. Despite being named Alfred the Great, our preoccupation with burnt cakes allowed King Harold’s skirmish with the Normans at Hastings to overshadow Alfred’s victory against the Danes. But for a culinary mishap, the best known event in English history may well have been The Battle of Edington, 878.
Do leave a message in the box below. Don’t forget to complete the simple anti-spam sum before pressing ‘SUBMIT’.