All heroic figures have to have nadirs to fight back from, adversity to overcome – and there’s a reason that the Saxon King Alfred is the only English ruler ever to be popularly known as ‘The Great’. The one thing that most people think of when his name is mentioned is the burning of the cakes. True or not, it comes from Alfred’s time of greatest struggle – as a battle-beaten guerilla hiding out in the marshlands of the Somerset Levels, with any hope of victory over the usurping Danes seemingly lost.


Overturning this desperate state, and forging some kind of peace with the Danes, must surely be Alfred’s greatest achievement. But there was one greater masterstroke in Alfred’s reign, the main reason we still celebrate his successes over 1,100 years later. He was the first of our rulers to commission his own biography, written during his lifetime by the Welsh bishop Asser. Understanding the value of good propaganda was just one of Alfred’s many smart moves in his 28 tumultuous years as leader of Wessex.

When did Alfred become king?

Long celebrated as a king who ruled more with his brain than by bloodlust, Alfred’s very name means ‘wise elf’. The importance of education, and things higher than victory in battle, was impressed on him at a very young age, when his father Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome in 853 and took Alfred – then aged four – with him.

The example of the Roman Church stayed with Alfred, who would fight for a more civilised form of government, firmly built on Christian piety, for the rest of his life. No chronicler, however, claims that Alfred was built for warfare, and his life was plagued by ailments now thought to stem from the excruciating bowel disorder, Crohn’s disease.

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Æthelwulf had his work cut out on his return to Britain to avoid civil war when his elder son Æthelbald refused to give up his regency. But, ultimately, both father and son died within a couple of years, with Wessex passing to the next brother in line, Æthelbehrt. Five years later, in 865, his death gave Alfred’s closest brother Æthelred the crown and, in the same year the Vikings arrived, led by the terrifying Ivar the Boneless.

Over the next five years, the invading Danes bloodily took hold of northern kingdoms including Northumbria and East Anglia, and at the start of 871 – ‘the year of nine battles’ – Æthelred suffered a humiliating defeat against them at Reading. With the King ailing, and further attacks on Wessex expected, only four days later the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire had to be led by the King’s 22-year-old younger brother, Alfred.

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Although never a warlord in the mould of his pagan adversaries, the cerebral prince was said to have ridden to a perforated sarsen stone (a large boulder, as used at Stonehenge), known as the ‘Blowing Stone’, and used it to summon the people from miles around to defend their lands against the invaders. The success of the ensuing battle, however, was short lived, and further defeats followed before the month was over. By Easter, Æthelred was dead and Alfred had inherited the beseiged Kingdom of Wessex.

Why was the battle of Edington important?

Even while Alfred was arranging his brother’s funeral, the Danes continued to stage attacks on Wessex and, by May, he was forced to pay the Great Heathen Army to withdraw to Mercian London. Peace, however, was brief. The Danes, under their new leader Guthrum, were soon to be found pillaging Dorset, breaking an oath of peace made in the name of Thor, before withdrawing with their spoils to Exeter.

The Alfred Jewel is an enamel, quartz and gold likeness minted during the King’s lifetime and rediscovered in Somerset in 1693. Bearing the legend “Alfred ordered me made”, the jewel shows a clean-faced monarch and is now believed to have been the handle to a pointer made for reading books Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The Alfred Jewel is an enamel, quartz and gold likeness minted during the King’s lifetime and rediscovered in Somerset in 1693. Bearing the legend “Alfred ordered me made”, the jewel shows a clean-faced monarch and is now believed to have been the handle to a pointer made for reading books Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Despite being on their guard, however, the English forces had a surprise in store in January 878. Chippenham was a royal court, Alfred’s home, and the pious King was celebrating Twelfth Night when Guthrum’s forces attacked, laying waste to everyone they found, unprepared, with many forces away for the yule period. Alfred had been married to a Mercian noblewoman, Ealhswith, ten years earlier, and already had at least two children including the four-year-old future King Edward the Elder. Thankfully they were spared the Danish butchery. Alfred, however, with what little retinue survived, had to escape and plan his revenge.

The year 878 is seen as the lowpoint of Saxon England, with the Danes now in charge of all kingdoms. Alfred created a fort on the central Somerset Isle of Athelney, 60 miles southwest of Chippenham, and plotted. His old strategy of buying off the Danes was no longer an option. Only all-out victory in battle would suffice.

In early May, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone, and called a levy to bring together the remaining forces of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire that were still loyal to him and create a force that could easily crush Guthrum’s men in battle. Accordingly, where the village of Edington in Wiltshire now stands, a bloody battle commenced, as Asser later reported: “Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely... at last he gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress.” The White Horse at Westbury is said to commemorate this, Alfred’s greatest victory.

Guthrum had fled to his own stronghold, removing all food from them in a sortie. After holding out for two weeks, he submitted to Alfred and the Treaty of Wedmore was agreed. The key demand was that Guthrum be baptised into the Christian Church, taking the name Æthelstan and accepting Alfred as his adopted father. This also marked the establishment of the Danelaw, a formal division of England where the newly christened Æthelstan could happily withdraw, his conversion ensuring that his standing with the people he ruled over would be stronger than ever. He died in East Anglia after 12 years of relative peace.

What was the Danelaw?

A hard-won peace was only found in Saxon England thanks to the agreement that gave rise to the Danelaw. This determined the portion of the country to be ruled over by the Viking invaders, via English puppet rulers, in return for Alfred’s Wessex being safe to the south (not just safe actually, but expanded, with extra lands in the south-east under Saxon rule).

Although never intended as the name of a geographical area, we now know this region to have stretched roughly from the north banks of the Thames up to the River Tees. The simplest way to envisage the region is to imagine a line drawn between London and Chester in the north-west – everything to the east of that line was under the Danelaw.

Many areas within the Danelaw region remained largely Saxon, of course, but Viking settlement – and the differences in language, law and culture that came with it – was intensively centred on cities like York, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln. Danish roots remain strong in areas like Yorkshire, Newcastle and Essex to this day. For instance, DNA evidence shows that Derby residents still bear strong hereditary connections to Denmark.

Alfred in peacetime

Alfred was now finally free to rebuild the shattered Wessex cities and to try to forge the kind of kingdom he felt a Christian society demanded. London was carefully redesigned, with some street plans that still hold to this day. The King also issued his own 120-chapter law code, partially dictated by himself and partially based on previous Saxon legal edicts. Or, at least, as he admitted, “those that pleased me – and many of the ones that did not please me, I rejected with the advice of my councillors, and commanded them to be observed in a different way.”

Alfred was said to always carry a notebook with him, jotting down prayers and observations that would become useful. The resultant legal document was largely Alfred’s own meditation upon Christian law, with extended Biblical translations. Education was seen as central to Alfred’s vision of a better England, with court schools established and the furtherance of teaching in the English language. Meanwhile judges were required, for the first time, to be literate and learned before they were allowed in office – even if the fundamental law that underlined the entire disparate collection of rules was the old Saxon requirement, that loyalty to the Lord (Alfred, rather than Jesus) remained paramount.

It would be wrong to depict the late 9th century as a time of peace and rebuilding – and ironically, it was the death of his old enemy Guthrum that caused the trouble, creating a power vacuum that a whole host of Danes were itching to fill. The regular incursions from invaders required the English to develop their own weapons of war – including the design of a new fleet of boats twice the size of the Danes', an early step towards the country’s reputation for naval mastery. This increased force wasn’t just for defence either, but for raids on the Danes to fill the royal coffers.

So close to the dawn of a new century and only 50 years old, King Alfred died of unknown causes on 26 October 899, succeeded by his son Edward, who in turn ruled for 25 years without allowing Alfred’s powerbase to fall back to its 878 nadir. Indeed, it would be his son, another Æthelstan, who first managed to reunite all the Saxon Kingdoms, and become truly the first King of England.

In a sign of English policy for centuries to come, very soon the English kings were invading Scotland, and making themselves overlords of the whole of Britain. As for Alfred himself, no more remains of him than of King Arthur – he was buried with fitting majesty in Winchester, before being moved to Hyde Abbey just outside the city in 1110. The graves of Alfred and his family managed to survive Henry VIII’s Reformation, but were ultimately scattered in the building of a prison on the site in the 1780s. Today, attempts are afoot to find some remnant of Alfred’s body, Richard III-style, but hopes are low of any meaningful identification being made.

But unlike so many of his contemporaries and indeed descendants, Alfred has little need for DNA analysis to be celebrated – as the English nation grew in strength and international power, the Saxon hero grew in reputation, earning the ‘Great’ soubriquet by the 16th century. Although his story is stirring, it could have been as murky a history as any first millennium ruler, had he not kept his firm faith in the power of the written word, and the English language.

Bishop Asser was the person who gave Alfred true immortality and who allowed his words to stay with us, 1,117 years after his death: “I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.”

Did Alfred the Great burn the cakes?

While Alfred commissioned his own biography, all that hard work could easily be undone by one imaginative later writer hoping to add to the legend. Most people who hear the name of Alfred the Great will automatically leap to the story of him burning the cakes, and yet the tale wasn't recorded until the 12th century (along with another tale of the King stealing into the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel).

That said, a perfectly plausible event like this can tell us so much about kingship. It may have been a real event, which survived locally through storytelling.

Illustration of Alfred being scolded for burning the cakes
As Alfred considered his battle plans, the woman’s cakes – or breads, as they actually were – went neglected (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The yarn remains that, after the Danish successes of 878, when Alfred was fighting for his survival guerilla-style in the marshes around Athelney in the central Somerset Levels, he was taken in by a charitable peasant woman and offered shelter on the understanding that, while she went out to search for wood, he was to keep an eyes on the ‘cakes’ (actually some form of simple bread), which were baking by her fire.

He eagerly agreed, but when his hostess was gone, Alfred was so absorbed with ruminating on how to get back at the Vikings and restore his rule, that the cakes were burned by the time the old woman returned; she forced the King out into the cold with abuse for his foolishness. While this episode said a great deal about the fragility of royalty, the experience never harmed Alfred – his victory was imminent.

Jem Roberts is a freelance writer


This content first appeared in the August 2016 issue of the BBC History Revealed