Alfred the Great is most famous for ‘burning the cakes’. But this story doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of this Anglo-Saxon king; nor is it the only tale to have surrounded Alfred through the centuries. David Barrow (University of York) looks at how Alfred the Great has been represented in fact and fiction. This podcast was recorded during our series Late Summer Lectures 2017.
No popular story has gone through more change than that of Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex at the end of the ninth century. After successfully defending his kingdom from Viking invasion, he put in motion a series of military, naval, educational and legal reforms that still impact our country today. ‘Rule Britannia,’ sang for years at the Last Night of the Proms, was originally written for a play celebrating this ancient British monarch. However, in the words of ‘Alfred’ himself in a recent episode of Horrible Histories: “I proved to the country I’ve got what it takes – but all people ask though: “Is it true about the cakes?””
David Barrow provides answers to that question and many others about the story of King Alfred. Where did the episode of burning the cakes come from? Why was it so popular? Why are the cakes the main element of his story that most people remember today? By way of a journey through the history of Alfred storytelling, this podcast examines how the facts of history themselves have gone through dramatic change over the centuries. From the original Saxon chroniclers of Alfred’s life, through the eighteenth century, to the hero-worship so prevalent in the Victorian period; from Winston Churchill’s assertion that Alfred was ‘the greatest Englishman that ever lived’ to the king’s appearance in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom and its recent television adaptation – David shows how the figure of Alfred has been moulded to suit every age.
He also discusses the important influences of many historical figures of the north of England, not least St. Cuthbert (buried of course in Durham Cathedral), to Alfred’s developing legend.
Find out more
Here are David’s suggestions of other works that may be of interest:
- Cox, Oliver. “‘Rule Britannia!’ King Alfred the Great and the Creation of a National Hero in England and America, 1640-1800.” PhD thesis. University of Oxford, 2013.
- Horspool, David. Why Alfred Burned the Cakes: A King and his Eleven-Hundred-Year Afterlife. London: Profile Books, 2006.
- Keynes, Simon. “The Cult of Alfred the Great.” Anglo-Saxon England. 28 (1999): 225-356.
- Parker, Joanne. ‘England’s Darling’: The Victorian Cult of Alfred the Great. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007.
- “Heroes for all Times.” Ian Hislop’s Olden Days. BBC2. May 21, 2014.
Late Summer Lectures 2017 runs from 16th August to 4th October, in Alington House, Durham. Everyone is warmly welcome to this free public series. Lectures start at 17.30.