Friday, 26 October 2012

Don't Burn the Cakes!

et us celebrate Alfred the Great, who died today in 899 AD. Alfred was the father of Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians, who is one of my heroines (I blogged about her here), so I thought he desreved a mention. Alfred is, of course, famous for burning the cakes: he was (allegedly) hiding from the Danes in a humble cottage belonging to an old woman who asked him to keep on eye on her baking while she popped out for a bit, and the king (allegedly) forgot. He obviously lacked the culinary skills of the delectable Paul Hollywood, who I am sure would have had something to say about the disaster!
King Alfred, pictured in a 13th century
I must admit I always have a tendency to muddle Alfred up with King Arthur and Hereward the Wake, producing a composite figure of a heroic, mythical leader charging about the marshy countryside righting wrongs and repelling all invaders, with a little help from God and a magical wizard...

Anyway, Alfred became king of Wessex in 872 and won a series of key battles against the Danes before negotiating a treaty with them in 886, which established that land to the north and east of England (roughly the area between the Thames and the Tees) was subject to Danish law. Alfred hung on to Wessex, and also gained West Mercia and Kent. Think of the outcome as being like the football results – Invading Pagan Danish l, True Blue Christian Brits 3!

The pact put Alfred into a much stronger position (top of the league, but under threat of demotion, as it were) and gave him a chance to protect his new, enlarged kingdom by improving the army, erecting fortifications throughout the southern part of the country, and creating a navy to protect the coast. In addition to being a great military leader, he was an able civil administrator: he reformed coinaged, introduced a fairer justice system, and new laws, and promoted learning, especially for churchmen. It is believed that he learned Latin when hewas in his thirties, and helped translate books into Anglo-Saxon.

He supported the church and is said to have been a friend of Pope Marinus, who is thought to have given him gifts, including a piece of the True Cross. There always seems to be a lot of supposition involved in this period of history – early records are not always to be relied on, as they don't always separate fact from fiction.

By the time he died, at the age of 50, Alfred (who is the only English king to be known as'the Great'), he had pulled much of the south of England into a single realm, with unified laws and money, and he was known as the King of the Anglo Saxons on coins and documents. He was buried in Winchester, which was his capital city.

I think it's worth remembering his achievements, and there's only one possible way of celebrating – with cake! I doubt that Anglo Saxon cakes (I'm sure they had them) cooked on hot stones over an open fire were not as tasty as those available today, but there's plenty of choice, so just select your favourite. And to accompany it raise a glass of wine to the king who could rule a kingdom – but didn't know how to bake cakes!
The Alfred Jewel, which is kept in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. It's use
 is unknown, but it is inscribed with the words 'aelfred mec heht gewyrcan' -
Anglo Saxon for 'Alfred had me made'.

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