THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 November 2018

What you won't see in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

There are riches aplenty in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. On display are several famous early English manuscripts, including BeowulfDomesday Book and Codex Amiatinus. But there isn't any mention of certain stories that you might expect, such as Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the sea, Lady Godiva's ride and ‘the Dark Ages’. These aren't featured in the exhibition because there is no evidence that they actually happened. 

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Drawing showing the real King Cnut and his wife Emma donating a cross to the New Minster Liber Vitae, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Winchester, c. 1031: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

 

Alfred and the Cakes

Take, for example, King Alfred (d. 899). Alfred is best known today for a story that claims he was an incompetent kitchen assistant. He was taking refuge in the marshes in South-West England, avoiding an approaching Viking army, when he supposedly hid in the home of a humble peasant. She asked him to watch some cakes she had placed in the oven, but Alfred was ruminating about his dire straits and let the cakes burn, and so the woman upbraided him for his carelessness.

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The story of Alfred and the cakes, from the first Vita sancti Neoti: Add MS 38130, f. 1r

This story seems to have originated in the first Life of St Neot, composed centuries after Alfred’s death. The story also made its way into a 12th-century English sermon (Cotton MS Vespasian C XIV, ff. 145v–151r) and the annals of St Neots, and it was there that it was read in the 16th century by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Parker added this story to the Life of King Alfred written by Asser, bishop of Sherborne (d. 909). The rest, as they say, is history …

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Opening of a copy of Asser’s Life of Alfred made by Stephen Batman, one of Parker’s chaplains: Cotton MS Otho A XII/1, f. 1r

This story may have some vague links to pre-Conquest sources. For example, the earliest versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which are on show in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition) record that Alfred retreated into the marshes after he was defeated by the Vikings in 878. But there is no mention of any cakes.

‘878: In this year in the midwinter after twelfth night the enemy army came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people submitted to them, except King Alfred. He journeyed in difficulties through the woods and fen-fastness with a small force’ (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. by Dorothy Whitelock, p. 49)

 

King Cnut and the Sea

Alfred is not the only king who inspired later legends. If you ask a Briton or Dane what they know about King Cnut (d. 1035) — who ruled both countries in the early 11th century — they will probably tell you the story about King Cnut and the sea. According to this story, King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, but the sea ignored him.

There are variations in emphasis in different re-tellings of this story and this image is still used by modern political commentators to mock politicians who vainly fight against real or figurative tides of change. Either way, if you come to our exhibition, you will see the only known manuscript portrait of Cnut made during his lifetime but you won't find any references to Cnut turning back the tide.

The story of Cnut trying to turn back the tide is a later invention, often attributed to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon (d. c. 1157), writing more than a century after Cnut's death. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command the waves.

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Account of Cnut and the sea in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, England, late 12th or early 13th century: Arundel MS 48, f. 91r

Henry of Huntingdon’s account does point towards an important and verifiable aspect of Cnut’s career: his extravagant piety. According to Henry, after that day on the seashore Cnut never wore his crown again, but instead placed it over a crucifix. Documents and manuscripts from Cnut’s own reign confirm that he went to great lengths to portray himself as a good Christian king. The only manuscript portrait of Cnut shows him and Queen Emma donating a jewelled cross to the altar of the New Minster. In the New Minster Liber Vitae, Cnut is not giving up his crown along with the crucifix: rather, angels descend to affix the crown to his head.

 

Lady Godiva

One famous Anglo-Saxon lady does not make an appearance in the exhibition: Lady Godiva, or Godgifu, who allegedly rode naked through Coventry to protest against the taxes demanded by her husband, Earl Leofric of Mercia. This story first appears in the much later chronicle of Roger of Wendover (d. 1236). As late as the 18th century, the story was still being embroidered: Peeping Tom, the figure who was struck blind when he sneaked a peek at Godiva, was first recorded in 1773.

Godiva was a real historical figure: she is mentioned in charters and is recorded in Domesday Book as a major landowner in 1066. But she was only one of a number of fascinating early medieval English women who owned land, were pious and influenced politics.

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A 12th-century charter purporting to be a writ from Edward the Confessor confirming gifts made by Leofric and Godgifu: Add Ch 28657

 

The Dark Ages

Above all, you won’t find any reference to the Dark Ages in this exhibition. The ‘Dark Ages’ are a derogatory term applied to the early Middle Ages, to suggest a time of chaos and a poverty of evidence. To judge by the objects on display, the Anglo-Saxon period was instead highly sophisticated, with the Anglo-Saxons themselves forging long-distance relationships with Scandinavia, Rome, Byzantium and the Carolingian empire. Our blogpost Golden oldies provides perfect proof that this was not a Dark Age.

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Remarkable artwork in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

So there are no burnt cakes, disobedient waves or naked noblewomen on display at the British Library. We would recommend instead that you visit the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition before it closes on 19 February 2019, in order to discover the real hard evidence for yourselves.

 

Alison Hudson

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