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Why Alfred Burned the Cakes: A King and his eleven-hundred-year afterlife [Hardcover]

David Horspool
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

11 May 2006
When the BBC conducted the Greatest Briton poll in 2002, Alfred the Great was the only king to make it into the top 20. One can be sure that the story of the cakes left to burn in a Somerset hovel by a disguised monarch on the run was much of what the voters knew about him. This brilliant book offers a memorable portrait of a great ruler and the myths that grew around him. A little over a century ago, the only English king to be called 'the Great' could attract crowds of thousands to commemorate him. Now, even the most famous (and famously false) story about him, the burning of the cakes, is probably just a memory of 1066 and All That. This book shows how the Alfred of myth and the Alfred of history have become inextricably linked. For a long time, the legend of the burnt cakes was one of dozens of stories that were associated with the King and his time, from disguising himself as a minstrel to introducing the jury system. Alfred's historical achievements - saving his kingdom from invasion, attempting both to expand and educate his realm ?- and the way his story was told from the beginning, combined to make him the founding mythic figure of England. In stripping away the myths, historians have left an Alfred whose place in the popular imagination has all but vanished. This book attempts to recover a popular Alfred, understanding how he came to be 'Great', and how much myth had to do with that. A launch title in the new Profiles in History series, edited by Mary Beard. This series explores classic moments of world history- those 'ring-a-bell' events that we always know less about than we think!

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; First Edition edition (11 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1861977867
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861977861
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 14.2 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 530,422 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Horspool successfully combines a historical approach...with a perceptive analysis of the various tales the King engendered. (Times Literary Supplement)

explodes some of the myths surrounding his legacy, while retaining an interest in the genesis of the stories about him that have modern currency... (Observer)

David Horspool's Why Alfred Burned the Cakes does not seek to discredit the cult of Alfred as unhistorical but instead to look at why the myths surrounding him came into being. (Financial Times Magazine)

Myths...are scraped off like barnacles as the West Saxon hero is pulled from the morass of pious public schoolboy attitudes and sentimental Victorian values by a cheerfully revisionist historian. (Times)

This entertaining, pithy and thought-provoking book both embodies and explains the enduring resonance of Alfred's story. (Sunday Telegraph)

If you have time to read just one book about the great man, you should make it this one. (Daily Telegraph)

About the Author

David Horspool is the history editor of The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London and is now writing a book on English rebels.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Are you people serious? 1 April 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Having just finished this book, I have to say- What are you people smoking? I love this historical period and I never thought I'd read a book that could make it dull, pedestrian and confusing. The period of the Viking intrusions into England, and the English fight back from virtual national extinction is intrinsically dramatic and heroic. Alfreds role as the man who began the fight back (completed by his sons) plus his great culture, learning and religious devotion combine to make him one of the greatest Englishmen. That all gets washed away in this book, full of flip-flops, ifs, buts, maybes and perhapses. I discovered no new information about Alfred, and the opinions proffered were mundane.
The humour others refer to is almost entirely absent- and when present, is as dry and arch as a Victorian schoolmarms. Mr Horspool does represent 21st century prejudices well- he belittles the conversions of the norsemen to Christianity by insisting that the conquered always believe the 'magic' is stronger in the conquerors gods. Why then did the English kings of the sixth and seventh centuries accept Christianity, the religion of the British they conquered? Or indeed the Romans before them? Both ignorant and stupid.
He can't get his head around this idea that liberty may cost blood, sweat and unwelcome toil. He argues at one point that Alfreds Burghal system acted to make Englishmen less free. Presumably he thinks dead Englishmen are in theory freer.
Mr Horspools modish detachment (after all, he's not writing history) only serves to make this a trudge. All in all, its a subject still awaiting a decent book.
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7 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb! 19 May 2006
By rastar
A brilliantly incisive examination of the progress of a myth. David Horspool writes about with admirable humour, an enviable ability to assimilate a wide range of sources, and a sureness of historical touch which makes this the best book on Alfred I've ever read.
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5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 31 May 2006
I'm an avid reader of historical works but have always avoided Anglo Saxon history. However, I decided to bite the bullet with this excellent book and was entirely absorbed. Horspool has mastered a dense subject with a lightness of touch and freshness of voice. I could not reccommend it more highly.
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