- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006


By David Horspool

Harvard University Press, $19.95, 228 pages

Perched as we are to elect leaders across the land, there might not be a better time to consider what constitutes sustained and heroic leadership.

Or, we might just pick up David Horspool’s “King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends” to remind ourselves that what we make of our leaders often does not match the absolute truth and even history may not ever, absolutely, adjudicate matters.

Take King Alfred. The legend attached to his reign (though there is some dispute over whether he was England’s first king or whether his kingdom even included all of England) proceeds thusly: On the run from Vikings some time near Twelfth Night 878, Alfred, king of Wessex, holed up in a cowherd’s hovel. Laying low and unrecognized, the king is asked by the mistress of the hovel to watch the baking cakes, but something goes very wrong.

Mr. Horspool writes that “a typical version” of what happened next comes from Charles Dickens in his “A Child’s History of England” (1851-3):

” … being at work on his bow and arrows, with which he hoped to punish the false Danes when a brighter time should come, and thinking deeply of his poor unhappy subjects whom the Danes chased through the land, his noble mind forgot the cakes, and they were burnt. ‘What!’ said the cowherd’s wife, … ‘you will be ready enough to eat them by-and-by, and yet you cannot watch them, idle dog?’”

While, as Mr. Horspool writes, “there is no contemporary evidence for the cowherd, the hovel, the wife or the cakes … and the story was probably invented to make an obscure saint associated with Alfred’s family look good,” the fact remains that rather “better attested events” do exist: “the Vikings’ driving out of Alfred and his followers from Chippenham about Twelfth Night 878 and the mustering of a force to meet them in battle at Edington, nearly four months later.”

The romance of the disguised king who would subsequently triumph is a story most likely better known to English schoolchildren than to their counterparts here. It is a story Winston Churchill called “one of the gleaming toys of history,” a tale not unlike our own story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the difference in the stories, of course, is that one legendary leader ‘fessed up while another did not. Nevertheless, this bit of folklore has had a vigorous life of its own and has afforded Mr. Horspool the opportunity to explore how an incident in history can be tailored over time to suit the fashions and preferences of the ages.

Mr. Horspool is meticulous in attempting to uncover contemporary or near-contemporary sources for the Alfred story including the writings of Bishop Asser, which in many instances “simply reproduces the entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for individual years.”

Mr. Horspool also details how many other Alfred stories grew over time including the legends that as a child, young Alfred beat his brothers in a reading competition, later founded the Royal Navy, invented the jury system in use to this day and the candle clock besides.

Though much of the book is informed by scholarship, Mr. Horspool is adept at recording how Alfred has fared in popular culture, the nadir of which might well be the movie “Alfred the Great” (1969), starring David Hemmings. There, the monarch was memorably described by Pauline Kael as “‘some sort of sword-swinging pacifist with a Gandhian anti-sex, self deprivation twist.’ This ‘confused’ Alfred, reluctant to succeed to the throne (as Kael asked, ‘was there ever a hero-king who wasn’t reluctant?’) … has taken over in popular portrayals.”

However, Mr. Horspool’s fastidious work does get readers as close as one might be able to get to the truth of the ancient king, who, among other things, suffered from a bad case of “piles.”

Though it may be difficult to credit Alfred with all that has favorably attached to his name, Mr. Horspool makes a good case that he was a force for good: “Perhaps the explanation for Alfred’s receiving popular credit also has something to do with the impression he leaves of being founder, if not of England, then of English.”

And the roots of what we know about the early monarch’s concern for language and study is probably best summarized by Mr. Horspool when he writes:

“It is easy for a modern reader to take nineteenth-century or earlier view of Alfred with a large pinch of salt: when Arthur Conan Doyle tells us that Alfred’s aim was that ‘every boy and girl in the whole of the nation should be able to read and write,’ we know that he is writing more for his own time than ours.

“But equally, when Asser’s ‘neurotic’ Alfred is dismissed, and a resolute ‘all-rounder’ is put in his place with a keen eye for the uses of propaganda and an understanding of the benefits of co-operation with European ‘partners,’ we should acknowledge the likelihood that this too may be a contemporary imposition on a ninth-century subject.”

We will likely never know with certainty all the details of King Alfred’s reign. However, Mr. Horspool’s exacting and engaging narrative brings us closer to it and to a deeper understanding of how history makes myths of leaders past and how and why we embrace their stories.

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