Delving Deep

My apologies to many of you. This post will be somewhat heavier than the others. However, this is our history, right? And it is important to understand what stands behind what we think we know. So I shall take a brief look at a few of the key early documents that I have used to research King Alfred, a “man on the move.” There are of course many other later sources and I shall be compiling these into a reference list for my book. (Update: my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move is now published and available on Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.)

The most important source is the set of documents known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, with the oldest versions written solely in Old English. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are a set of several documents that differ in detail. Where I refer to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is in the main manuscript A, sometimes known as the Winchester manuscript, that I am referring to. Although there are nine known versions (labelled by the letters A to I) we do not know how many there once were. All of the versions available to us today have been derived or copied from earlier documents. Nonetheless, it is thought that there was a single original document that has not survived. The parts of this original Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that deal with Alfred are thought to have been written more or less at the same time that Alfred was king. Version A is the oldest and probably the closest to the original text and there is evidence that it was commenced in the last years of the ninth century, also while the king, who died in 899, was alive. Modern English translations are available and I encourage those with an interest to obtain a copy. Where I have obtained dates for events from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, these are the adjusted dates that take into account the fact that in the past the New Year did not always commence onJanuary 1st. This may be important as readers may find, paticularly in older texts,that a different date (usually one year later) may be provided.

My well-thumbed copy of Michael Swanton’s work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. This book is highly recommended to anybody who wants to delve into Anglo-Saxon history.

I also refer to a chronicle written by a person called Æthelweard, which is thought to have been written in the  970s-980s. This is thought to bea translation from Old English into Latin of a lost Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that differed from the others in some aspects. However, it stands separate from the versions A to I of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentioned above. Interestingly, Æthelweard was a descendant of Alfred’s elder brother Æthelred. Indeed, he was writing it for Mathilde, who was an abbess of Essen Abbey in today’s Germany who happened to be a direct descendent of King Alfred via  his son King Edward the Elder. Æthelweard’s chronicle is written in particularly difficult Latin. I was particularly grateful to have the support of the translation by John Allen Giles, published in 1906.

I also refer to Geffrei Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis (history of the English), written in Lincolnshire in Early French in the 1130s. It is clear that for the period relevant to King Alfred a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was being used. It is possible that this version may have been lost and also that it may have differed from other versions. However, it seems impossible to know whether the information only available from Gaimar, such as Alfred’s fleeing to Whistley after the battle at Reading or the inclusion of Dorset forces in the run up to the Battle of Ethandune,  derives from a lost Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or from a less reputable source.

This is a beautiful book. However, it may not be that easy to get hold of (at a sensible price!)

I also repeatedly refer to the writings of Asser, which has become known to us as The Life of King Alfred. Asser was a Welsh monk who spent much time with King Alfred and his writings are sometimes viewed as a biography of the King. Asser records that he was writing Alfred’s biography in 893, as in chapter 91 of his work he tells us that he was writing in Alfred’s forty-fifth year. It therefore seems that he was writing at about the same time that the original Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  started to be written.

A superb piece of work by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. As you can see I have read it until it has fallen apart. Highly recommended. Several key documents (including the Life of King Alfred) dealt with in one book

However, there has been controversy over whether this work was written by Asser or by some other person at a laterdate pretending to be Asser. The arguments for the work having not been written by Asser were strongly put forward by Alfred Smyth, who instead suggested that a monk called Brythferth, who was attached to Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) penned or collated the document around the year 1000.  Indeed, I personally find that if one strips away from The Life of King Alfred what could have been obtained from other documents (including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) one is left wondering how a biographer could write so little about King Alfred that was new or different. Unfortunately, the only known ancient copy of The Life of King Alfred was burnt in a fire in 1731. However, an Archbishop of Canterbury called Matthew Parker, who had owned this copy, had published a printed (as opposed to hand-written) version in 1574. A problem is that Matthew Parker, apparently with a team of people working for him, added to and “improved” the text. Although modern eyes have spotted obvious additions, the more clever additions or changes may remain undetectable. We shall visit problem elsewhere when we look at the matter of King Alfred’s burning of the cakes.

An older book than the one by Keynes and Lapidge. However, a pleasure to read and full of detail. Has Asser in Latin for those who want that.

However, even if the Life of King Alfred had not been written by Asser, it does not necessarily mean that the contents are erroneous. For example, while other sources provide no indication of Alfred’s birth place, The Life of King Alfred tells us that Alfred was born at Wantage. It must still be the case that, even if the work was written around the year 1000 by someone other than Asser, the location of Wantage could have been correct and based on evidence available at that time. It is clear to me through my research that the predominant view is that the work of Asser was indeed written by Asser. However, I continue to entertain the possibility that The Life of King Alfred may not have been written by Asser, whilst accepting the possibility that the contents of this document may be largely factually correct. That the document is always correct is unlikely as there are known errors. For example, the author locates York on the north bank of the Humber, which it clearly is not. Fortunately, however, a large part of the historical events recorded by Asser are corroborated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Please visit the website for the forthcoming book.

What about the Cakes?

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available at Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Although I could find no evidence that Alfred burnt any cakes it seems appropriate for me to say a few more words about this famous and persistent legend. When talking to people it is often the first thing that comes up. It first appears in the anonymous Vita S Neoti (Life of St Neot), which seems to have been put together in the late tenth century, where it states that the burning of the cakes took place at Athelney (King Alfred’s refuge in the Somerset Levels prior to his successful reconquest of his kingdom that took place after his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandune in 878). The story of the cakes found its way from the Vita S Neoti  into a twelfth century compilation of documents that became known as the Annals of St Neots. Then in the sixteenth century it got lifted from the Annals of St Neots and inserted by the theologian Matthew Parker into his copy of Asser’s Life of King Alfred.  Because the writings of Asser have been viewed as a serious historical source, this must have given the story a real boost and is probably why it is so famous today. We cannot ultimately prove that it was inserted by Matthew Parker (as opposed to somebody even before him doing it) because the Life of King Alfred that he would have been working from was destroyed in a fire in 1731 and there are no known surviving ancient copies. The result, nonetheless, was that for a significant period of time the story of the cakes was treated as an integral part of the writings of Asser, when this in fact was not the case.

In brief, the earliest version of the story tells us that Alfred turned up on his own at a pig farmer’s (subulcus, swineherd, was changed in the Annals to uaccarius, cowherd, for reasons unknown) cottage on Athelney where he was taken in and stayed for some days whilst he awaited God’s mercy, and keeping in mind the patience that had been demonstrated by the biblical Job. One day, while the pig-farmer was out taking his pigs to a field, the farmer’s wife started baking loaves of bread (not cakes), but then became occupied with other domestic duties. The loaves started to burn and the wife pointed out to Alfred that although he was quite happy to eat them, he hadn’t been so keen to turn them over when he could see that they were burning. It appears that Alfred was shaken but not stirred, and he proceeded to then turn the loaves over.

The tale was recast many times subsequently and I suspect a whole book could be written tracing these variations.

There is a legend that the story of Alfred burning of the cakes took place in a field south of the rectory at Brixton Deverill in Wiltshire. However, the Vita S Neoti clearly indicates that this supposed baking mishap took place at Athelney.

Please visit the website for more information on the forthcoming book.