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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

Alfred the Great through History

23rd August 2017, 17:30 to 19:00, Alington House, 4 North Bailey, David Barrow

The story of King Alfred has been told through the ages, often with dubious basis in historical fact. Separate the facts from the fiction surrounding one of Britain's founding monarchs in this free public talk. Part of our Late Summer Lectures Series.

No popular story has gone through more change than that of Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex at the end of the ninth century. After successfully defending his kingdom from Viking invasion, he put in motion a series of military, naval, educational and legal reforms that still impact our country today. 'Rule Britannia,' sang for years at the Last Night of the Proms, was originally written for a play celebrating this ancient British monarch. However, in the words of 'Alfred' himself in a recent episode of Horrible Histories: "I proved to the country I've got what it takes - but all people ask though: "Is it true about the cakes?""

This paper hopes to provide answers to that question and many others about the story of King Alfred. Where did the episode of burning the cakes come from? Why was it so popular? Why are the cakes the main element of his story that most people remember today? By way of a journey through the history of Alfred storytelling, I shall examine how the facts of history themselves have gone through dramatic change over the centuries. From the original Saxon chroniclers of Alfred's life, through the eighteenth century, to the hero-worship so prevalent in the Victorian period; from Winston Churchill's assertion that Alfred was 'the greatest Englishman that ever lived' to the king's appearance in Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom and its recent television adaptation - I will show how the figure of Alfred has been moulded to suit every age. My paper shall also discuss the important influences of many historical figures of the north of England, not least St. Cuthbert (buried of course in Durham Cathedral), to Alfred's developing legend.

David Barrow

I am a second-year PhD student at the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York. My AHRC-funded research concerns representations of King Alfred the Great and the Anglo-Saxons throughout the eighteenth century, with a focus upon moments when the past was creatively invoked to respond to national crises. An interdisciplinary approach to literature informs my research, which examines epic poetry, theatre, political theory, sculpture, music, painting, ship-building and landscape gardening. I have been fortunate enough to be involved in many non-academic research projects - not least authoring a publicly purchasable Viking-themed holiday tour for a York-based travel company.

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