Thursday, 12 May 2022

Of burnt cakes and chronicles by Ally Sherrick

This week marks the anniversary of a key event in English history – a turning point which decided the fate of Anglo-Saxon England and if it’s not too grand a claim, the future of the English language too.

In May 878, Alfred, King of the West Saxons – the epithet ‘the Great’ was bestowed on him by admirers in the 16th century – fought Guthrum, the pagan leader of the invading Danish army at what became known as the Battle of Ethandun (modern day Edington in Wiltshire). It was a battle for the survival of both Alfred and his kingdom of Wessex.


King Alfred the Great as portrayed in later times

At the beginning of the same year, he had been beaten back by the Vikings in his own lands and forced to hide out in the marshes of the Somerset Levels. Here, while he considered what to do next so the story goes, a peasant woman, not recognising him as the king, asked him to mind some wheaten cakes she was cooking over a fire. Distracted by the slightly more pressing concern of how to hold on to his kingdom, Alfred took his eye off them and they burnt to a cinder, much to the annoyance of their maker. 

But clearly the thinking time paid off. The win at Ethandun just a few months later allowed Alfred to demand both the baptism of Guthrum as a Christian and more crucially the retreat of the Vikings from the Kingdom of Wessex back to East Anglia.  It was an important victory and one that gave Alfred the breathing space to regroup and live to fight another day.

Many of the things for which Alfred is now rightly celebrated stem from the many years he spent battling the Danes – improvements to the way his army – or fyrd – fought; the introduction of Viking-style long-ships to meet the enemy on their own terms, and the creation of a system of fortified towns or burhs which allowed for better protection of his people in the face of further attacks.

But equally significant was the work Alfred did to encourage the spread of learning through the translation of some key works of religion and philosophy from Latin into English. He even translated some of these texts himself including Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care – a guide to help bishops and priests lead their congregations and to live a moral life – and which he sent out copies of with a specially crafted aestel or bookmark. It’s believed by historians that the beautiful Alfred Jewel, discovered near Athelney Abbey in Somerset, the site of Alfred’s marshland hiding place, is one of these.


The beautiful Alfred Jewel, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The words, in Old English, round the side spell out: 'Aelfred Mec Heht Gewyrcan' – or, ‘Alfred ordered me made'

As part of this work to develop a culture of greater literacy, Alfred may also have encouraged the creation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was first set down during his reign and most likely at his court.

The Chronicle was a combination of history and diary – a record of all the most significant things that had happened in Britain since the first attempted conquest by the Romans under the leadership of Julius Caesar leading up to – and beyond – Alfred’s own reign. It was written in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular – now referred to as Old English – and for the historical element of the text, relied on other earlier sources, including Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People).


 A page from one of the versions of the Chronicle showing an entry from the year 871

It is not one single text but rather a collection of separate but related ones. Alfred ordered copies to be made of the original Chronicle and then had them sent out to monasteries across his lands. Updates were issued at future points in time, but scribes working in the individual monasteries added their own entries too. In certain parts of the country, entries continued to be made until well beyond the Norman Conquest, as in the case of the Peterborough Chronicle kept by the monks of Peterborough Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

The Chronicle provides a shared history which historians suggest Alfred hoped would help unite his people in spirit against further Viking attacks – another weapon in his armoury. Entries vary from the record of deaths of well-known people – including kings and queens – to battles and also, in more detailed entries, to whole military campaigns. The majority are written in prose, but there are poems too, including The Battle of Brunanburh, an account of the real-life battle between King Aethelstan, Alfred’s grandson and an alliance of the Kings of Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde – a conflict regarded as pivotal in the founding of a unified England.

This, one of the more colourful entries, relates to the earlier Viking raids, when bands of Danes and Norwegians came to the shores of Northumbria looking for treasure and slaves:

Year 793

Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. A great famine soon followed these signs, and shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter.


 As with all documents that claim to be historical records of events, the Chronicle should be handled with care – as every historical novelist will know. Events are often reinterpreted and re-presented to suit the needs of those commissioning or keeping the records. But to my mind, it’s all the more fascinating because of that.

Writing Prompt

If you were tasked with writing a modern-day version of the Chronicle, how would you seek to record key events and happenings? Would you try to make them as factual as possible, or would you indulge in a spot of embellishment and perhaps include one or two ‘fiery dragons’ of your own.

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by 
Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading about Alfred - I did a little Anglo-Saxon at university but know relatively little of that period in history. Thank you Ally!


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