King Alfred and the Griddle Cakes

People of the middle ages, especially poor people, would have eaten griddle cakes with many meals.  It’s a simple flat bread fried on a griddle or even the hot stones of a hearth.  You can make and eat some while you listen to The Tale of King Alfred and the Griddle Cakes.

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The Tale of the Griddle Cakes

King Alfred was King of England after the Romans pulled out and left Britain to its own devices but before William the Conqueror invaded England.  Alfred had to contend with Viking hordes descending on his country, so even though he wasn’t a warrior by nature, he was a war leader out of necessity.

At one point the battles had been going badly.  Alfred’s armies had melted away and he had to make his way across the countryside in secret, begging food and lodging from his subjects.

He came across a poor hut owned by a herder and his wife.  They let Alfred in, not knowing he was their king.  The wife set cakes of bread out to bake on the griddle near the hearth and asked Alfred to watch them while she got on with her other chores.  Alfred sat staring into the fire, stewing over his predicament.  The wife came back inside and immediately smelled that something was wrong.  She rushed to the fire and scolded Alfred for letting the cakes burn while he daydreamed.

Alfred was a bit distracted by rampaging Danes and a flight for his life through the woods. But really is that any excuse to let the dinner burn? This illustration is from “A Chronicle of England” by James Doyle.

This was the low point in Alfred’s struggle with the invaders and from here on things began to look up for Alfred.  He retook London and forced the Danes to sign a treaty that became known as the Danelaw.

Make King Alfred’s Griddle Cakes

We don’t know the exact recipe the herd wife in the story would have used, but it was probably something like this one.

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened slightly
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 Tbsp. honey
  • 4 Tbsp. milk

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl.  Cut in the butter with a fork, pastry cutter, or your fingers until you have coarse crumbs.

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Add the honey and milk and stir it in.  Knead it a bit with your hands.

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Divide the dough into six roughly equal pieces.  Flatten each piece with your hands and fry it in a griddle over medium heat.  Flip after a minute or two.  Cook until it begins to brown.

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Serve with butter and jam if you like.

Additional Layers

  • No one knows for sure if this story of King Alfred is true, but it doesn’t really matter.  The purpose of the story is to show how low Alfred’s fortunes had fallen and to illustrate Alfred’s character.  He was humble and took the scolding like a man.  He did, after all, burn the little bit of food these poor people had and had been so willing to share with him.  Take the opportunity to use this story to teach character lessons as well as history.
  • Alfred was a truly great king in every sense.  Learn more about him.  Your teens should read the original account by Asser.
  • Notice that this bread has no leavening agent in it.  Though yeast in some form has been used since ancient times to leaven bread, commercial yeast and baking powder are pretty recent inventions. The yeast you can buy in a jar at the grocery store was developed during WWII for the troops.  Baking powder was first sold to households in the late 1800s.

More From Layers of Learning

Map of early Anglo Saxon kingdoms in England. This is just before King Alfred.
Map of early Anglo Saxon kingdoms in England. This is just before King Alfred.

A viking ship craft. These were the people Alfred was fighting.
A viking ship craft. These were the people Alfred was fighting.

An easy paper castle to print and make.
An easy paper castle to print and make.

2 Comments

  1. Poor old King Alfred! So glad to see children using hands-on, edible teaching tools! A great way to make the lesson stick!

    Would like to add, that pearlash, a predecessor of baking soda, was available in the late 18th century. Amelia Simmons and Hannah Glasse both used it. It was not as stable as modern chemical leavens, and thus needed to hit the oven ASAP, hence “quickbreads”.

    The women mentioned above were remarkable in the early days of America. If you haven’t read their recipes, (and homilies on the domestic arts) I urge you to do so. More teaching tools that stick to your ribs!

  2. It is more than this tale tells. If the dates are correct this story takes place in late winter. The danes invaded Chippenham from Gloucester on the 12th day of Christmas. Alfred fled from this battle and not long after this the story of burning the cakes occurs. For the poor lady these cakes would represent part of her dwindling store of food laid up from the previous summer harvest and would not be expected to be replaced until the next harvest in 6 months. For a people on the edge of starvation wasting food by letting it burn is a major issue. Her distress is more understandable.

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