Alfred and the Cakes

Alfred the Great. Ever heard of him?

Alfred was the King of Wessex (part of today’s England) from 871 to 899. Since he was the youngest of five sons of king Æthelwulf, there was little expectation that he would wear the crown and so he was sent to Rome to stay with Pope Leo IV for three years. He would almost certainly have received the education and tutoring appropriate to his station, but Alfred was never more than semi-literate according to all histories.

Despite the fact that he could not read, Alfred had a prodigious memory. As a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in Saxon, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it. Later in life he was reputed to be able to memorize complete books that were read to him. (Was he dyslexic?)

Alfred also suffered from a mysterious malady. Alfred’s illness continued, on and off, for twenty years. One of his three older brothers, King Athelbald also died of some similar illness, too, and even Alfred’s grandson, King Edred, suffered from a similar ailment. Modern doctors suggest it could have been Crohn’s disease.

Now at this time, Wessex was under constant attack from Viking raiders. An army of Danes landed in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England in 865. They conquered Northumbria and East Anglia. In 870 the Vikings turned their attention to Wessex.

By this point, three of Alfred’s brothers had died, two while wearing the crown. His brother Æthelred wore the crown. Alfred? Bishop Asser applied to Alfred the unique title of “secundarius” making his the recognized successor. As such, Alfred spent the next year in battle, nine engagements. Alfred was about twenty-two years old.

When his brother died, Alfred became king. Alfred probably paid the Danes gold to buy a peace that lasted five years. Then a new leader, Guthrum, led the Danes against Wessex once more. In January 878, the Danes attacked a royal stronghold where Alfred had been staying over Christmas. King Alfred with a little band made his way by the woods into the marshes of Somerset.

Now to the story of the burnt cakes.


Separated in the wilderness from his friends and companions, Alfred stumbled onto the cottage of a cowherd, where he asked for shelter. The man’s wife, a woman known for the sharpness of her tongue, did not recognize the king, but let him enter. As he stood by the fire, trying to warm himself, she told him to watch the barley cakes she was baking while she milked the cows.

However, Alfred soon forgot the cakes, deep in thoughts of his defeat and the defense of his kingdom. When the woman returned, she found the cakes burnt. Incensed she berated him. When he said he had forgotten to watch them she said, “Men! When you saw the cakes burning, why were you too lazy to turn them? For you are glad enough to eat them when they are all hot!”

My father insisted there was a moral to this story which he put roughly this way. Do all things that come to your hand well, no matter what.

After this.

Between 6 and 12 May AD 878, Alfred won the Battle of Edington. He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity.

Alfred died on 26 October 899. During the last twenty years of his life, he had to contend with Danish raids. In addition to this he reorganized the military, the tax system, established a navy, revised the legal system and established a court school. Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English. He also established a program to translate books deemed worthy from Latin to English.


To see some of my short stories go to