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Alfred Duggan


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Alfred, later known as Alfred the Great, was the youngest of three brothers, sons of Ethelwulf, King of Wessex. He did not expect to be anything more than a princeling (atheling) for the rest of his life, but all his brothers were in poor health and the first two lived for only short periods after coming to the throne. The third brother was Ethelred, whom Alfred loved best. During his reign the great Danish army, which had been fighting in France, came to England with the aim of conquering the whole country. Alfred proved an able warrior and leader and when Ethelred died in 871 Alfred succeeded him as King of Wessex.

After some initial successes, in January 878 Alfred was caught out by a sudden Danish attack on his royal stronghold at Chippenham, where he had gone to celebrate Christmas. He and his family, together with a few followers, managed to escape to the marshes of Somerset, where they took refuge on the island of Athelney.

Here we duly get the famous episode of the cakes. As Duggan tells it, Alfred, while hunting alone in the forest, takes refuge in bad weather in the hut of an elderly peasant woman. He is left to look after some cakes that the woman is baking on the stove, while she goes out to fetch some wood. But he falls into a reverie and allows the cakes to burn. On her return the woman berates him and when her husband arrives shortly afterwards the couple start to eject him from the hut. Just then one of Alfred's companions comes in search of him and his identity is revealed. The elderly couple are appalled to realise what they have done, but Alfred excuses them; even so, in Duggan's version the old woman still looks sourly at him as he leaves.

The story of the cakes is probably legendary (it is first recorded in the 12th century) but no doubt Duggan thought his readers would feel cheated if it were not included since it is the one thing that everyone 'knows' about Alfred.

Alfred assembled new forces to counter-attack the Danes and won a decisive victory at Edington. The Danish king, Guthrum, converted to Christianity and went with most of his followers to settle in East Anglia. Duggan represents his conversion as sincere.

Although the power of the invaders was broken after Edington this was not the end of fighting for Alfred, for Danish raids and attempts at invasion continued for some time, but by about 896 the kingdom was at peace and Alfred was recognised of King of England, not just King of Wessex.

The book spans Alfred's life from the age of four, when he was in Rome with his father and was made a Consul of Rome by the Pope, who invested him with a cloak and a small sword. The campaigning is vividly described and Alfred's complex character is well brought out. Inevitably, perhaps, the concluding chapters are somewhat anticlimactic after the excitement of the war years. We see Alfred administering his kingdom and encouraging education, while he learns Latin himself from his Welsh chaplain, Bishop Asser. At his death in 899 he was succeeded by his son Edward, an outstanding warrior and military strategist in his own right.


%T The King of Athelney
%A Alfred Duggan
%I Faber and Faber
%C London
%D 1961
%P 302pp
%K fiction

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