Alfred the Great

Part 3: Always Learning

The Somerset Levels was also the setting for perhaps the most famous story about Alfred. Historians still don't agree on how much (if any) of the story is true, but many people view it as a good story all the same.

As the story goes, Alfred, on the run, seeks food and shelter from a peasant woman. He doesn't reveal his identity, and he doesn't have any of the trappings of royalty with him. The woman sees only a bedraggled, hungry, desparate man and is moved enough by his plight to share her meager food with him.

Cooking on the hearth are "cakes," which were not sweet treats but small loaves of bread. (Other versions of the story that what was cooking were oat cakes or griddle cakes, a kind of pancake.)

The woman needs to leave the hearth to do something else, and she charges Alfred with watching the cakes to ensure that they don't burn.

Some versions of this story say that the woman is the wife of a woodcutter and that she lives in a tiny hut and that she needs to leave Alfred to watch over the cooking cakes because she needs to go milk her cow. Other versions of the story say only that the woman has to leave for a time.

The end of the story is always the same, however: Alfred, preoccupied with the great challenges before him–of rallying his men, of keeping hope alive in the face of a determined Danish advance across England, of trying to live up to the kingly precedent set by his father and brothers–lets the cakes burn. The woman returns, and all that is left of her precious food is burnt crumbs. The woman scolds Alfred, who slinks back into the marshes.

Some versions of the story say that the woman hit Alfred with a stick; that might have accelerated his departure from the woman's presence.

Alfred did apologize for burning the cakes, though, and promised not to burn them again, if he were given a second chance. And that is the point of the story, true or not, as it has been told to English schoolchildren for many, many years.

Another lesson from that set of events is that it is important to focus on immediate needs rather than worrying only about the future. Alfred was so busy trying to plan what he was going to do days and weeks in the future that he ignored his immediate need of dealing with his hunger and ended up ruining his food source.

Part 4: The Measure of His Success

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