Who says King Alfred burned the cakes?

March 09, 2007

King Alfred burned the cakes, right? Wrong. For a start they were loaves - and for another thing, the Vikings reckon their terrifying-sounding hero Ragnar Hairybreeks should take the blame for this ninth century catering disaster.

University of Leeds professor Rory McTurk says the tale of Alfred and the cakes is probably the one story we all know about the Anglo-Saxon ruler, a detail as closely woven into popular history as Robert the Bruce being inspired by a spider and King Harold getting an arrow in the eye.

But he insists it may be mere propaganda, from a time when much of Britain was under Viking control - the Danelaw - and when both sides used stories to bolster their own position and blacken the names of their enemies.

Prof McTurk, of the University's School of English, says the story was used to mark a watershed in the conflict. "Alfred had suffered a series of defeats by the Viking armies - and was virtually in flight at the time," he said.

"The story says he took refuge in Athelney, Somerset, where a swineherd's wife left him to watch the loaves cooking beside the fire. But Alfred was distracted by thinking hard about his fate and about how to fight back - and the loaves burned. The woman reproved him, not realising he was the King."

The English used the story to mark a turning point in his life. "Whether or not the legend is true, Athelney was of massive significance to Alfred," explained Prof McTurk. "He built a fort, rallied his troops and from this point onwards did much better against the Vikings."

But the Vikings had their own stories, tales passed down by the invaders to justify their reasons for being in England. "The hero of one of their stories, Ragnar Hairybreeks, burned loaves too," he said, adding that the change from "loaves" to "cakes" in the story is a much more recent development.

"The English stories portray the Vikings as devils," said Prof McTurk. "The slaying of King Aella of Northumbria in York in 867 is an example - the Vikings carving an eagle into Aella's back, and ripping out his lungs in a horrific sacrifice. But the Viking tradition re-tells the story as a justified act of revenge."

Over the 200 years that followed, the Viking settlers gradually assimilated into the population, but even after the Norman conquest they maintained contact with Iceland, the Orkneys and mainland Scandinavia. And the pro-Viking stories of the Danelaw period were re-told in the Icelandic sagas.

"In the sagas from the 13th century onwards there is quite a lot of information about raids against the English," said Prof McTurk, adding that the intervening years, during which the stories were passed down by word of mouth, had allowed them to change, become distorted - and the propaganda to become "fact".

Which is why we will never know for sure if Alfred the Great - or even Ragnar Hairybreeks - should have passed into legend as the most notorious baker of Anglo-Saxon times.
-end-
Professor Rory McTurk's inaugural lecture "Who says King Alfred burned the cakes?" will be given at the University's Rupert Beckett lecture theatre at 5.30pm on Monday March 12. Admission is free, and the lecture is open to all.

For more information

Prof Rory McTurk is available for interview. Contact via Simon Jenkins, University of Leeds press office, on +44 113 3435764, 07791 333229

University of Leeds

Related Vikings Articles from Brightsurf:

Blonde Scandinavians or well-travelled Southern Europeans? Research busts myths of Vikings
Our notion of the Scandinavian Viking very likely stems from films rather than history.

New Viking DNA research yields unexpected information about who they were
In the popular imagination, Vikings were fearsome blonde-haired warriors from Scandinavia who used longboats to carry out raids across Europe in a brief but bloody reign of terror.

World's largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons reveals they weren't all Scandinavian
Invaders, pirates, warriors - the history books taught us that Vikings were brutal predators who travelled by sea from Scandinavia to pillage and raid their way across Europe and beyond.

Vikings had smallpox and may have helped spread the world's deadliest virus
Scientists have discovered extinct strains of smallpox in the teeth of Viking skeletons - proving for the first time that the killer disease plagued humanity for at least 1400 years.

Researchers find evidence of smallpox in the viking age
The fatal disease smallpox is older and more widespread than scientists so far have proved.

National report card rates states' safety policies for high school athletes
In the two years since the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) first assessed all 50 states and the District of Columbia on key health and safety policies for high school athletes, 31 states have adopted new policies -- 16 this year alone.

The origin and future of spam and other online intrusions
What does the future of digital spam look like, what risks could it pose to our personal security and privacy, and what can we do to fight it?

Study shows that Vikings enjoyed a warmer Greenland
After reconstructing southern Greenland's climate record over the past 3,000 years, a Northwestern University team found that it was relatively warm when the Norse lived there between 985 and 1450 C.E., compared to the previous and following centuries.

DNA tool allows you to trace your ancient ancestry
Scientists at the University of Sheffield studying ancient DNA have created a tool allowing them to more accurately identify ancient Eurasian populations, which can be used to test an individual's similarity to ancient people who once roamed the earth.

Birds have time-honored traditions, too
By faithfully copying the most popular songs, swamp sparrows create time-honored song traditions that can be just as long-lasting as human traditions, finds a new study.

Read More: Vikings News and Vikings Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.