Alfred And The Cakes

For years the Danish Vikings had plagued the various Saxon kingdoms, creating havoc by pillaging and burning. They robbed the monasteries killing the monks and stealing the church gold. But in recent years things had changed, instead of simply raiding, the Danes had come to conquer and stay. Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, had all fallen to the Danish invaders, leaving Wessex as the only Saxon kingdom not yet under the thrall of the Danes.

Despite being hard pressed by the invaders, The Saxon King, Ethelred with his younger brother Alfred (Aelfred) at his side, won a stunning victory over the enemy on the 8th of January 871 at Ashdown. The victory however was short lived. The Saxons were overwhelmed by the Danes on 22nd of January at Basing. The Saxons rallied, but after a hard fought battle were again beaten and Ethelred killed at the battle of Merton. Alfred became king of Wessex on the death of his brother and was forced to negotiate the payment of Danegelt - Literally a payment to get the Danes to leave his Kingdom alone.

For the next few years a peace of sorts reigned, as the Danes consolidated their gains elsewhere. But in 876 Guthrum a new leader of the Danes appeared and captured Wareham. A peace was negotiated by Alfred, and hostages taken by both sides. It wasn't long before Guthrum broke faith with their agreement and attacked and captured Exeter. The Saxons retaliated and besieged by Alfred and his army, Guthrum agreed to another peace. Alfred insisted that this time Guthrum and his men decamp to Mercia.

The uneasy peace held until January 878, when Guthrum attacked without warning and overran the Saxon army at Chippenham, while Alfred's court was still celebrating the twelve days of Christmas. Alfred had no choice but to flee to the marshlands and tidal swamps surrounding Athelney in the Somerset levels. There he licked his wounds and began to rebuild his army.

According to legend, when the king - in disguise to avoid detection by Guthrum's Men - first arrived in the swamp, he sought shelter with the family of a swineherd. The wife of the swineherd not knowing her guest was a king, asked Alfred to keep an eye on the cakes and make sure they didn't burn. Alfred agreed, but having other things on his mind, allowed the cakes to burn. The wife returned and gave him a piece of her mind and a clout around the ear too boot. The tale has passed into legend, but whether it is true or not, no one knows. But what history does show is that Alfred left the swamp in the spring and defeated Guthrum at Eddlington, then went on to become Alfred the Great, the king of England.

The Cakes would not be what we call cakes, but would most likely be oatcakes, part of the family's staple diet and be eaten as an alternative to bread. The recipe below is the nearest I can get to the original.

Oatcakes. Ingredients:

A spoonful of pig fat
4 oz oatmeal (porridge oats)
A pinch of salt
Some warm water


Melt the fat; add it to the oats and salt. Stir in warm water until you have softish dough. Powder board with dry oatmeal, turn dough onto it and kneed. Flatten out dough cut into portions Bake on a hot griddle for approx five minutes a side, should be cooked but not brown.

And remember, DON'T BURN THE CAKES.

Copyright Fred Watson 2007

The above was written by Fred Watson and you can find other examples of his writing on his website.

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About The Author, Fred Watson
Fred Watson published his first book, a fantasy adventure novel aimed at the 8-12 age group in November 2006. A grandfather of four, he loves to write for all age groups, has an abiding interest in history and continues on a regular basis to add new stories etc to his website.Footprint Publishing