In this picture we see a 19th century rendition of Alfred and the burning of the cakes by a great Scottish genre painter, David Wilkie. The background for this story is that Alfred had received numerous setbacks from the invasions of the Vikings. He had lost battle after battle as the Vikings conquered almost all the remainder of the Anglo-Saxon sections of Britain. Alfred had withdrawn to the swampy area, called Athelney. While wandering through the woods he stumbled across a cottage with a swineherd and his wife. The swineherd goes off and leaves Alfred alone with his wife who is baking some cakes on the fire. She asks him to watch the cakes; Alfred does not and is roundly scolded by the woman who does not recognize him. There are many aspects to the story that connect with Alfred’s humility. He does not pull rank and reprimand her, but instead learns from her. Pay attention to your simple duties even if you are pondering the larger questions of the protection of the realm.
Adam Smith, as usual, had it right in the Theory of Moral Sentiments; he would have agreed with the swineherd’s wife: “The most sublime speculation of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty.”
In the full quotation from Adam Smith, we have the justification of King Alfred’s position compared to that of his predecessor, Ine, who chose to leave the world and retreat into a monastery:
“The administration of the great system of the universe, however, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country: that he is occupied in contemplating the more sublime, can never be an excuse for his neglecting the more humble department; and he must not expose himself to the charge which Avidius Cassius is said to have brought, perhaps unjustly, against Marcus Antoninus; that while he employed himself in philosophical speculations, and contemplated the prosperity of the universe, he neglected that of the Roman empire. The most sublime speculation of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty.”
Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury
We owe the story of Alfred and the Cakes to Matthew Parker (1504-75), Archbishop of Canterbury, who was the first to print Asser's Life of King Alfred in 1574. He picked it up from a 10th century manuscript he thought was written by Asser, Alfred’s biographer.
The story of the cakes originally appeared in an anonymous Vita S. Neoti (Life of St Neot), probably composed in the late tenth century, whose author is thought by many scholars to have made it up. A later version of the story was incorporated into the Annals of St Neots, which appear actually to have been compiled at Bury St Edmunds during the second quarter of the twelfth century. Parker noticed the similarities between the Annals and Asser's Life, and deduced that the Annals were written by Asser, although in fact it was the later compiler of the Annals who had made use of the Life. He therefore interpolated the story exactly as he found it in the Annals at the appropriate point in his text of Asser's Life.
But the story reflects Alfred’s Christian understanding of both his mission and that of his Anglo-Saxon followers. To be a “chosen people” or a “new Israel” does not lead to a swaggering triumphalist imperialism. It is the heaviest of duties and obligations. Alfred saw his duties in the light of adverse divine judgment for his personal sins and the sins of his fellow Anglo-Saxons. One can read the following passage and be reminded of Christ’s forty days in the wildnerness.
“There is a place in the remote parts of English Britain far to the west, which in English is called Athelney and which we refer to as ‘Athelings’ Isle’; it is surrounded on all sides by vast salt marshes and sustained by some level ground in the middle. King Alfred happened unexpectedly to come there as a lone traveller. Noticing the cottage of a certain unknown swineherd (as he later learned), he directed his path towards it and sought there a peaceful retreat; he was given refuge, and he stayed there a number of days, impoverished, subdued and content with the bare necessities. Reflecting patiently that these things had befallen him through God’s just judgement, he remained there awaiting God’s mercy through the intercession of His servant Neot; for he had conceived from Neot the hope that he nourished in his heart. ‘Whom the Lord loveth’, says the apostle, ‘He chastiseth; He scourgeth every son whom he adopteth’ (Hebrews xii, 61). In addition to this, Alfred patiently kept the picture of Job’s astonishing constancy before his eyes every day. Now it happened by chance one day, when the swineherd was leading his flock to their usual pastures, that the king remained alone at home with the swineherd’s wife. The wife, concerned for her husband’s return, had entrusted some kneaded flour to the husband of sea-borne Venus [Vulcan, the fire god, that is, the oven]. As is the custom among countrywomen, she was intent on other domestic occupations, until, when she sought the bread from Vulcan, she saw it burning from the other side of the room. She immediately grew angry and said to the king (unknown to her as such): ‘Look here, man,
You hesitate to turn the loaves which you see to be burning, Yet you’re quite happy to eat them when they come warm from the oven!’
But the king, reproached by these disparaging insults, ascribed them to his divine lot; somewhat shaken, and submitting to the woman’s scolding, he not only turned the bread but even attended to it as she brought out the loaves when they were ready.”
Parker’s interest in Alfred is almost enough to have escalated Alfred from a DWEM (Dead, White, European Male) to a WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant). There was a great interest in the early church by the Elizabethan Protestants who wanted to find a pure church in Anglo-Saxon England before the Roman Catholic mission of Augustine of Canterbury.