No Baker He, but a King; Taking a Second Look at a Fabled Ninth-Century Monarch

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

No Baker He, but a King; Taking a Second Look at a Fabled Ninth-Century Monarch


Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Perched as we are to elect leaders across the land, there might not be a better time to consider what constitutes sustained and heroic leadership.

Or, we might just pick up David Horspool's "King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends" to remind ourselves that what we make of our leaders often does not match the absolute truth and even history may not ever, absolutely, adjudicate matters.

Take King Alfred. The legend attached to his reign (though there is some dispute over whether he was England's first king or whether his kingdom even included all of England) proceeds thusly: On the run from Vikings some time near Twelfth Night 878, Alfred, king of Wessex, holed up in a cowherd's hovel. Laying low and unrecognized, the king is asked by the mistress of the hovel to watch the baking cakes, but something goes very wrong.

Mr. Horspool writes that "a typical version" of what happened next comes from Charles Dickens in his "A Child's History of England" (1851-3):

" . . . being at work on his bow and arrows, with which he hoped to punish the false Danes when a brighter time should come, and thinking deeply of his poor unhappy subjects whom the Danes chased through the land, his noble mind forgot the cakes, and they were burnt. 'What!' said the cowherd's wife, . . . 'you will be ready enough to eat them by-and-by, and yet you cannot watch them, idle dog?'"

While, as Mr. Horspool writes, "there is no contemporary evidence for the cowherd, the hovel, the wife or the cakes . . . and the story was probably invented to make an obscure saint associated with Alfred's family look good," the fact remains that rather "better attested events" do exist: "the Vikings' driving out of Alfred and his followers from Chippenham about Twelfth Night 878 and the mustering of a force to meet them in battle at Edington, nearly four months later."

The romance of the disguised king who would subsequently triumph is a story most likely better known to English schoolchildren than to their counterparts here. It is a story Winston Churchill called "one of the gleaming toys of history," a tale not unlike our own story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the difference in the stories, of course, is that one legendary leader 'fessed up while another did not. Nevertheless, this bit of folklore has had a vigorous life of its own and has afforded Mr. Horspool the opportunity to explore how an incident in history can be tailored over time to suit the fashions and preferences of the ages.

Mr. Horspool is meticulous in attempting to uncover contemporary or near-contemporary sources for the Alfred story including the writings of Bishop Asser, which in many instances "simply reproduces the entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for individual years. …

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No Baker He, but a King; Taking a Second Look at a Fabled Ninth-Century Monarch
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