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Let Them Eat Cakes

On December 3, 1775, Lieutenant (soon to be swashbuckling captain) John Paul Jones of what was to become the United States Navy raised the flag on the fledgling country’s first warship, the Alfred. It was named the Alfred as a poke-in-the-eye to the Royal Navy, which counted the Wessex king (and sometime naval architect) Alfred the Great as its legendary founder. If King George III could trace his ancestry back to Alfred, so too could the rebellious colonists lay claim to Alfred as the father of the common law.

Vanquisher of the Vikings, translator of the Church Doctors, sponsor of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, champion of public education, and the only English monarch acclaimed as “the Great”, it seems there was nothing that this “most perfect character in all history” could not do—and no noble cause for which he could not serve as an inspiration. If Arthur was the poetic model of medieval kingship, Alfred was the real deal.

This review appears in May’s Quadrant.
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Daniel Anlezark’s nifty little guide to Alfred the Great (849–99; reigned 871–99) opens, of course, with the story of how he burned the cakes. As many Quadrant readers will remember (but few of their grandchildren will have learned), at the lowest point of his reign, when he had all but lost his kingdom to a surprise Christmas invasion by the Great Viking Army in 877-78, Alfred was lying low on the Isle of Athelney in the cottage of an old woman, who had tasked him with watching the cakes baking in the oven while she went about her chores. Except that the cakes in the oven were actually loaves on a fire, the old woman was a young wife, and the incident almost certainly never happened. No matter: Alfred was so preoccupied with regaining his kingdom that he burned the cakes, he was so humble that he accepted the old woman’s rebuke with equanimity, and his people loved him so much that they flocked to his side and swept him to victory over the heathen Vikings. The Viking king Guthrum converted to Christianity, accepted Alfred as his godfather, and promised never to bother the English again.

Written in a tone that might best be described as “affectionately sceptical”, Anlezark’s Alfred the Great covers the main points of the Alfred legend, the documented historical exploits of Alfred the warrior, and the remarkable (if often exaggerated) career of Alfred the translator of Latin texts, all in 100 pages. Skipping lightly over the half-century of Alfred’s life and the eleven centuries of his afterlife, Alfred the Great is the perfect book for people who learned about Alfred in school but can’t quite remember what was so Great about him. Those with grandkids who have attended school recently (and thus have never heard of Alfred) can tell them that Alfred was the real-life winner of the Sega video game Total War: Thrones of Britannia—and offer to bake them cupcakes if they read the book.

Alfred the Great
by Daniel Anlezark
ARC Humanities Press, 2017, 103 pages, £12.95

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and a frequent contributor to Quadrant.

5 comments
  • Michael

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s Wife

    There is a possibility that the tale of King Alfred burning the cakes is a piece of bowdlerised oral memory of a pagan ceremony being performed at Athelney when Alfred was in dire need of help. Probably spurred on by his warriors, it may have been made in order to beseech victory for the Christian cause. Burning valuable foodstuffs and spreading the ashes on warrior’s foreheads was an old pagan ceremony to propitiate the gods for a favourable outcome. I have forgotten the reference, but I did read about that practice some years ago in some arcane piece of scholarship on pagan traditions, and have since wondered if the unlikely ‘cross old woman’ story was a cover up for such backsliding behaviour in extremis in Athenney. We do know that a mix of pagan and Christian elements still formed part of the culture of the converts of Alfred’s Wessex just as they did in the less secure Christianity of the Kingdom of Mercia in those days. Fighting the Danes may have required stealing a little of the Dane’s ritual techniques, in the eyes of the near-defeated men of Wessex.

    Burned cakes or not, the Fourth Series of ‘The Last Kingdom’, which dramatises Bernard Cornwell’s pacey storytelling vitalising these times, is now on Netflix. This tale of Lord Uhtred, the man born a Saxon but raised a Dane, intertwines with the life of Alfred. It exemplifies some of the interpretive bewilderment about the old ways of religion vs the new in the days of this King called The Great, whose vision was to unite the ‘four’ kingdoms into one Engaland. I’d recommend all Four Series for winter nights viewing by the fireside and the novels as a good sword-fighting read too, whether you get hooked into the twelve books in this saga or just the first one. If you like that sort of thing, that is. I do.

  • pgang

    Elizabeth I’m finding Series 4 Ep 1 to be tacky and uninteresting – rather disappointing after the earlier releases which were, admittedly, becoming increasingly silly. I haven’t finished the episode yet and don’t know that I will. While providing excellent entertainment I found the series to be childishly biased against Christianity, misrepresenting it as the bleak superstition, rather than the actual Viking superstitions. The latter were always made to look so much more clever than the silly Christians.
    In respect to the mixing of paganism with Christianity you are definitely onto something, because there is contemporary evidence for the same. I knew a pastor who served at Hermannsburg who described exactly the same thing among his flock, as he experienced a somewhat alarming admixture of deep Christian faith and lived superstition. He also narrated an incident in which he, shaking in his boots, helped to break up a serious tribal riot with a public rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, which calmed things down. When all was said and done the people knew which side their spiritual bread was buttered on.

  • Michael

    reply from Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s wife.
    Pgang, as with all series that are big hits, the later episodes tend to loose some of the oomph of the earlier ones. “The Last Kingdom’ gained its original power from the forensic characterisation of actor David Dawson as the scholarly, ambitious and ice-cold Alfred counterpointed against the raw intelligence, warrior soul and passion for the Nordic Valholl of Alexander Dreyman’s Uhtred. Once Alfred has died, then the other characters (such as Finnan, Uthred’s Irish Christian second in command) have to compensate, with new kings as well as the Lady of Mercia brought to the fore to keep the theme of Alfred’s dream of a Christian resurgence alive in the story. The general theme of paganism in retreat, with Uhtred as a late proponent, is still held reasonably well, better in the books though than in this later TV series, where Christianity gets the greater share of any scornful treatment, as Uhtred’s world view now dominates. We all miss Alfred, that is for sure.
    The tension that Uhtred is a pagan who constantly fights on the side of Christians demonstrates the religious flexibility of the times though and adds to the drama.
    My theories about the origins of the myth of a British ‘king’ Arthur, published in Quadrant in 2018 concerning pagan vs Christian conflicts in the fifth and sixth centuries, claim that the Christian civilising message eventually became strongly (and usefully for Christians) incorporated into the remnant pagan mythology. This was obvious religious syncretism, as your contemporary evidence also shows can happen whenever cultures meet.

  • whitelaughter

    Michael, be very wary of tales of these ‘ancient pagan practices’. The earliest surviving ‘pagan’ work is the Mabinogi, written several centuries after Alfred! Most of the ‘pagan’ tales we have are outright lies, the drivel written by Margaret Mead being one of the more famous examples.
    It is worth remembering that what we know was recorded by monks, so similarities to Christian customs are probably caused by the monks describing what they’d heard in a framework that they understood; or that was convenient for conversion work. Consider the classic saga on Norse myth, the Prose Edda – the Norse gods have a line of descent through Troy to Adam and Eve!

  • Michael

    whitelaughter, I think you may be addressing me, Elizabeth Beare, writing within my husband’s subscription. There is a way to get a dual membership on Quadrant with two people given commenting rights, apart from obtaining two subscriptions, which seems wasteful, but I haven’t yet figured it out.

    The Welsh Mabingion was recorded in the 12th to 13th centuries and underwent many revisions and translations uup to the 19th century. It is a collection of oral tales. It is by no means the main source of traditional Welsh (Brythonnic) lore. Far earlier, for instance, was the folkloric Mirabilia section of the Welsh Historia Britonnum, dating from circa 825AD, famed for its mention of matters Arthurian, and ante-dating King Alfred’s floruit from 871AD to 899AD, There are many textual (including Roman texts) and other non-textual sources such as inscriptions, artistic styles, archaeological investigations and artefacts etc for documenting ancient pagan practices and traditions within Wales and across the British Isles and beyond.
    Available also is considerable supportive recording of later practices that mirror those recorded in ancient times by literate cultures. Due care must be taken to sort out the biases of writers and the assess the nature of their sources, I do agree, but to suggest we cannot standardise or at least recognise some practices with regard to pagan and heathen activities in the past is to deny some very good evidence. It is a matter of assessing the quality of the evidence. For example, no-one sensible would regard Snorri Sturluson’s Edda transcriptions as being ‘pure’ records, unbiased by Christian input, as the genealogies he provides make quite clear, but other evidence from late-pagan cultures in Sweden and Iceland can suggest he recorded some genuine myths of earlier Scandinavia, adding his own disapproving commentary at times. Such biases can also inform us in interesting ways. One of the things I have tried very much to do in my own work, on King Arthur, is to show how a Christian writer called Gildas provided information through such a prism of Christian wish-fulfilment that he unwittingly offered scope for the wild goose chase that created a mythical human king out of an old defeated god. Re Margaret Mead, she recorded a traditional Polynesian culture after considerable missionary contact using informant recall, and did it badly. Again, the bias of the recorder must be recognised, as ever, and the cautious historical approach of comparing differing sources must be used. One must always assess informants and their motivations as well as the material they offer, as Mead’s critics such as Maurice Freedman did by seeking alternative perspectives to Mead’s information gathering. This allowed Mead’s incautious and personally ethnocentric work to be largely rejected. Uncritical acceptance is never the way to go when doing ‘remnant’ anthropology in order to uncover cultures now lost to written history.

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