I first became intrigued by the character and story of Alfred the Great when I had what I was quite certain was an absolutely brilliant idea for a series of children’s books. The scenario was to be that many of the iconic episodes of British history were actually brought about by a boy and his time-travelling dog. In the case of Alfred, for example, the famous cakes would never have been burnt had it not been for our heroes. Genius, no?
Well, perhaps not. But it was this idea that first introduced me to the delights – and dangers – of research. My first three children’s books had featured incompetent ghosts and witches who wanted to be on reality TV — not much need for in-depth investigation there. My fourth was a contemporary story drawn from my own experience. If I was to write about Alfred the Great – even peripherally – I needed to do some research.
Naturally, I turned first to the internet. I soon discovered that Athelney (the place where Alfred discovered he had no future as a chef) was not far from where I live in Somerset. Perfect! Athelney would surely be to Alfred as Tintagel is to Arthur: there would be a baker’s called Alfred’s Olde Cake Shoppe, a café called Burnt Offerings, and I would be able to buy any number of books about my new-found hero.
But Athelney turned out to be not at all like Tintagel. It is an isolated spot, long accessible only by causeway and still cut off, sometimes, by floods. There is no village as such: no shops, no cafés, no tourist tat — no tourists, in fact, just a long, low mound behind a farmhouse with nothing to mark it as Alfred’s but a stubby nineteenth-century monument.
I leaned on a gate, gazing across the willow-edged fields towards Glastonbury Tor, listening to the sound of the wind and the plaintive cries of the water birds. What had begun as a bit of a joke became something more serious and much more interesting. It seemed to me that Alfred would have looked out over a very similar landscape in 878. His world and mine felt strangely close.
Just then, an old man came out of a nearby bungalow. He told me later that he worked for the farmer who owned the land. He nodded at me. ‘You’ll be looking for Alfred, I expect,’ he said. He told me that Channel 4’s Time Team had visited recently, planning a dig on the mound. The programme’s first episode had been filmed at Athelney, ten years before. At that time, the team was not allowed to dig within the area of the scheduled ancient monument. Now there was to be a thorough excavation.
Suddenly, everything was coming up Alfred. I decided to forget about my original idea, and do as the old man had inferred. I would go looking for Alfred.
I had been interested in the Dark Ages since studying Anglo-Saxon literature as part of my English degree, and I remembered that I had somewhere a book by Michael Wood called In Search of the Dark Ages. I went home and re-read it. I soon realised that Alfred was a far more significant figure than I had realised. Indeed, Wood concludes that ‘through the fire of Athelney and Edington … [Alfred] became a man who saved the essential Englishness of our culture and language.’ In 878, Wessex was the last English kingdom standing. Alfred, its king, was in hiding. The smart money would have been on Guthrum and his Vikings. If they had won, and ruled the whole of this island instead of just part of it, would we now be speaking a variant of Danish?
By now I was hooked. But how to find out more? Asser’s Life of King Alfred, I discovered, was written in Alfred’s own lifetime, by someone who actually knew him. Perfect! Later, I learned one of the first lessons of research: just because it’s contemporary doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Alfred, the king, had commissioned Asser, his subject, to write the Life, so it was unlikely to be objective. Even so, no other Anglo-Saxon king has a biography written by a contemporary.
I made notes, and began to compile a timeline, cross-referring to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which is a collection of records of invasions, battles, births and death of kings, significant marriages and disturbing omens such as eclipses or comets). I discovered that Alfred had travelled once or possibly twice with his father to Rome, to be received by the Pope — so I read about the early history of the papacy to get a picture of what Rome would have been like at the time and what impression it might have made on a small boy from a distant island. I came across Judith, a Frankish princess, who became Alfred’s stepmother even though she was only a handful of years older than him — little more than a child herself. Her story was intriguing — so I read about her ancestor, Charlemagne, too.
All this was fascinating, but I was beginning to realise that the research was so absorbing that it was coming to be an end in itself. Instead of bringing me closer to Alfred it was drawing me away from him. I needed to stop the research and start the novel.
It was at this point I realised that some things didn’t add up. There is a story, for instance, that Alfred’s mother showed her five sons a beautiful illuminated book, telling them that she would give it to whichever of them could learn to read it first. Alfred, who was the youngest, immediately set off to learn to read, and triumphantly claimed the book. But other sources say that Alfred’s mother died when he was very young. And by the time he was of an age to read, his eldest brother was running a kingdom of his own — and the other brothers were also considerably older. I tried to find out exactly how old they would have been, and came up with conflicting birth dates. I began to worry. If I couldn’t even be sure of dates, let alone the stories Asser told, what could I be sure of?
Fortunately, at this stage, I came across Dr Joanne Parker, an expert on Alfred then at Bristol University. She told me what she knew about Alfred’s brothers — and, more importantly, how little anyone knew for certain. She ended cheerily: ‘On the bright side, it does leave you with plenty of room for poetic licence!’
So I stopped worrying and started to make things up. I wanted to use the book story, for instance, because it illustrates Alfred’s love of learning — but I decided that it should be Judith, Alfred’s young stepmother, who taught him to read and set the book as a prize. Judith was only a few years older than Alfred; he first met her when he was on the way back from Rome with his father. It was likely, I thought, that the two would have been friends. And what, in Alfred’s upbringing, had made him into the man he became? It seemed to me that Judith might have been part of that.
When I came to work on a structure for the novel, I saw that I had another problem. In books for children, the viewpoint figure is almost invariably a child because it is generally believed that children will identify more readily with a main character who is their own age (or a little older — someone they might aspire to be). That was fine for the story of Alfred’s childhood, but not for the great crisis of his reign in 878, when he was about 30. At first I thought about writing from the point of view of a servant, or a young member of his court. Then I thought about his children — who were they? What age would they have been?
And that was how I stumbled on Aethelflaed. (In the book I called her Fleda, for simplicity’s sake. So many names began with ‘Aethel’, meaning ‘noble’.) She would have been round about ten — perfect! And, I discovered, she later became Lady of the Mercians – Myrcna Hlaefdige, as the Chronicle calls her – and a great leader in her own right, so she was clearly strong-minded and brave. She became my point-of-view character for the crucial moment in Alfred’s life, when he was at risk of losing everything.
So I had to make sure that she would be there with Alfred on Athelney. It was unlikely that he would voluntarily have taken her, I reasoned: surely he would have sent his children to a place of safety. But I knew, from what she achieved later in life, that she was tough and courageous. It seemed perfectly feasible that, in the scurry and panic, the mist and the snow, she could have borrowed her brother’s clothes and inveigled her way into the small band of men that was heading for the marshes.
After Athelney, I kept Aethelflaed at the heart of her story, following her concern for her father as he became ill, her anger and hurt when she thought he had let her down, her determination to do everything she could to help him realise his eventual vision of a country that would be safe for all his people. Alfred was my hero, but in Aethelflaed, thanks to the research, I found my heroine.