Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Month: May 2016

Murder in Mercia

I made a few accusations over on Andrea Cefalo’s blog:

“Breaking News, October 1st, AD 959: King Edwy dies suddenly, aged 19. His younger brother will henceforth be king of the whole country.

Nobody questions. Nobody accuses. This family has a habit of dying young; it’s well documented. The younger brother goes on to reign so successfully that he gains the nickname “the peaceable.” He gets a good write-up in the press and all his favourite churchmen get Sainthoods.

Case closed.

Hmm. Okay. Well, we can’t examine the facts, because that’s all we’ve got – Edwy died. So let’s do a little bit of detective work, because while the chronicles of the time called it death, I like to call it murder…

First of all, let’s take a look at this family of “Ed” kings who had such a propensity to die young:


The tree timeline above illustrates the relatively short reigns of kings Edmund, Eadred, and Edwy.

In 937 Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, had won a decisive victory over the Scots and Irish, but died two years later. For whatever reason, he neither married nor produced offspring. Commentators kindly speculated that this was because he was nobly saving the throne for his brothers, but I don’t think so. They were not his full brothers, and I have reason to suppose that he was not overly enamoured of his half-brothers (but more of that later.)


In 939, King Athelstan died without wife or heir.

Well, whatever the truth of the matter, when he died the throne passed to his half-brother, Edmund. It seemed the royal line of succession was assured when Edmund’s wife bore him two sons. But Edmund died when his sons were aged just 6 and 2 and he himself was only about 25.

Edmund I of England

Since King Edmund’s sons were considered too young to rule at the time of his death, the throne passed to his half-brother.

The boys, considered too young to rule, were overlooked and the crown then passed to another of Athelstan’s half-brothers, Eadred. He managed to chase Erik Bloodaxe, the notorious Viking, out of York, but the effort seemed to have exhausted him because he, too, died relatively young at around the age of 32. He was unmarried and childless.

King Eadred of England

Though King Eadred was successful at keeping Vikings at bay, he, like his half-brother Athelstan, died without an heir.

So the line of succession went back to his little nephews, the sons of Edmund. The eldest of the two, who was by this stage aged about 15, was crowned king. Edwy (Eadwig) was famously good-looking. In fact, he was caught in bed on his coronation night with his wife…and her mother. He was not, it’s fair to say, universally loved. And waiting in the wings was his little brother, Edgar. He actually remained fairly little throughout his life, but being short of stature didn’t stop Napoleon (yes, I know that fact’s been discredited in recent years, but it suits my point).

King Eadwig of England

Since King Eadred died without heirs, the crown was passed to his elder brother’s famously handsome son, Eadwig (pictured above).

A lot of ink has been spilled in the debate over what happened next, but it seems that Edgar rather wanted to be a king and didn’t really want to wait for his brother to die. Edwy tried to ingratiate himself with the nobles by giving away land, but it seems they were not swayed, and in 957, two years into his reign, Edwy’s kingdom was carved up, with his younger brother being declared king in Mercia and Northumbria. Edwy was left with Wessex.

Diploma of King Eadwig 956

King Edwy tried to buy nobles with gifts of land.

So far, so peaceful. After all, it was not unprecedented to divide a kingdom among sons – remember Athelstan? When his father died, Athelstan (his natural firstborn son) was declared king of Mercia, while his eldest half-brother was given the kingdom of Wessex. But … Mysteriously, and extremely conveniently, that half-brother was dead within four weeks, and Athelstan became king of both countries (which at this time, effectively meant being king of the whole of English England.) Now, I’m not accusing Athelstan, (okay, I am!) but I really don’t think he liked his half-brothers overly much!

King Edgar New Minster Charter

During his elder brother’s reign, the kingdom of England was divided and Edgar (pictured above) was named king of Mercia and Northumbria.

Anyway, back to 957, and the two brothers who are sort of sharing the kingship. Edgar, the littlest, holds court in London and Edwy, the elder brother, remains in the Southwest. Yet for some reason, in the autumn of 959, Edwy’s to be found in Gloucester, which is not in Wessex, but the heart of Mercia. And then, on the 1st of October, aged just nineteen, he drops dead. At the time, there was no suggestion of foul play. But there’s something which needs to be borne in mind: Remember Edwy’s bedroom shenanigans on the night of his coronation? After he was chastised for having over-friendly relations with his wife’s mother, he banished Abbot Dunstan, who was subsequently recalled from exile by Edgar and became one of the leading lights of the monastic reform movement, and was eventually canonised. Dunstan’s hagiography was written, like all chronicles at this time, by a monk. Clerics writing the pages of history will tend to write favourably about those who have been generous to them, or who they think have been most pious. Edgar was known for his piety and for his support of the monastic reformers, and there is simply no chance that any finger of suspicion would have been pointed, much less would the accusations have been committed to vellum.

Dunstan Mercia England

Abbot Dunstan, who chastised King Edwy for lust, was banished and later brought back by Edwy’s brother, King Edgar. After his death, the clergy wrote favourably of the abbot.

Yes, the men in the royal family had a habit of dying young. Yes, it’s quite feasible that Edwy choked, or had undiagnosed heart failure, or just had a surfeit of something, which was quite a favourite way to expire among later medieval kings. But add to this the fact that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, a political rival of Dunstan’s, also died in mysterious circumstances that same year, allowing Dunstan to become Archbishop in his place, and it’s starting to add up to something a bit more suspicious. I have no proof, of course, but absence of evidence didn’t help Richard III’s case much, either. Those little boys in the tower could also have died of natural causes. But does anybody believe that?


Here’s that little family tree again, just because those Ed names can get a bit confusing. And a little footnote: See ‘Edward the Martyr’? History sort of repeated itself, because when Edgar died, (aged 32, no foul play suspected) he left two young sons by different mothers. The eldest was crowned, but was murdered, allegedly by retainers of his stepmother, on behalf of his half-brother, who then became king. Sound familiar?

Edward the Martyr Poisoned Chronicle of England

This image from The Chronicle of England (1862) illustrates the poisoning of Edward the Martyr, King Edgar’s son and succesor. Some suspect Edward’s brother and stepmother played a role in his death.

“Edwy’s cause of death remains unknown.” Yep, but I think I might have an idea…

Alvar the Kingmaker

This article originally appeared HERE

Ruthin – From King Arthur to the Beatles in 528 ft

Packing to stay at Ruthin Castle Hotel, my plan was to write a piece about the history of that building, and the medieval castle ruins in the grounds. As history goes, it packs a punch: the ‘modern’ castle, built in 1828, was owned by the Cornwallis-West family who entertained Lady Randolph Churchill and Edward VII, who in turn entertained his mistresses, including Lilly Langtry and Patsy Cornwallis-West, the chatelaine, whose daughter married the Duke of Westminster.

Outside, the crumbling walls of the original castle bear testament to the onslaught of Owain Glyndwr in 1400. Created originally by Dafydd, brother of the last native prince of Wales, (and who was executed in 1282, the first high-profile recipient of Edward I’s hanging drawing and quartering), the castle was granted to Reginald de Grey, ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.

In 1923 Ruthin Castle opened a clinic for “Internal Diseases” run by the wonderfully named Dr Sir Edmund Ivens Spriggs.

So far, so interesting. But stepping through the archway that takes you on a short walk to the market square, I found a beautiful street with astonishing architecture.

And on almost every house, there was a plaque. I hadn’t initially realised, because the first house caught my eye only because it was for sale (alas, well out of my reach.)

The house belonged to Sir John Trefor, one-time speaker of the House of Commons. It seems that Sir John lost his position after an accusation of bribery, but my admittedly limited research points to some aspect of decidedly unfair play on the part of his accusers.

I walked on, thinking little more than how lovely and quaint this street was.

But at the end of Strydd Castell (Castle Street) are the buildings that make up the outline of Ruthin Square. Here I found the old court house, now a bank. At first glance, it is notable for having been the first building subjected to attack by Glyndwr. But a plaque on the wall told me a little bit more about its history:Here, it seems, a Franciscan Friar, Charles Mahoney, was hanged from the gibbet in 1679. Why was a Friar hanged? I discovered that he had been on his way home to Ireland having been preaching in Europe when he was shipwrecked off Milford Haven and tried to make his way north on foot, in hope of finding passage back to Ireland. Alas, he was arrested, charged with being a catholic priest and hung, drawn and quartered.

He’d had the misfortune to be caught at a time when Titus Oates was having success with his anti-catholic ‘smear campaign’, the Popish Plot.

On the other side of the square is another building (also now a bank).

Outside this bank is a stone where King Arthur reputedly slew Huail, the brother of Gildas the historian.  According to the life of St. Gildas, written in the 12thc by Caradoc of Llancarfan, when Gildas heard the news of his brother’s death, he came from Ireland and was able to kiss Arthur and forgive him.

Walking back towards the castle on the other side of the street, I came upon the ‘oldest timber-framed building in Wales’. Nantclwyd y Dre dates from 1435/6 and belonged originally to a wealthy weaver named Goronwy ap Madog. The house was extended throughout the centuries and each room inside is decorated to show the different periods during which the house was inhabited.

Work will begin next year to extend the Tudor garden, to which I was allowed access, even though the house was shut for the winter.

Cynthia Lennon’s former home

This section of Strydd Castell is a tenth of a mile and by the time you get to Nantclywd y Dre you are almost back at the castle gateway. One last building brings us almost up to date, though. For this is the home occupied until recently by Cynthia Lennon, wife of John. She ran a restaurant in the town for a number of years.

I spoke to a local estate agent who pointed out that Ruthin is practically unique, in that one can drive straight from the countryside into a medieval town centre – there is no modern ‘urban sprawl’.

On other streets in Ruthin you will find Siop Nain, a grade II listed building which, as a print shop in 1850, was used to print the Welsh national anthem, for the first time, in Welsh. In the square is a house which was bought by Hugh Myddleton in 1595. He, apparently, provided London with its first clean water supply. Further down the hill is Ruthin Gaol, the ‘only purpose-built Pentonville style prison open to the public as a heritage attraction’ (Ruthin Gaol official website.)

Should you wish to venture a little further away from Ruthin, the abbey of Valle Crucis is unusual in having an upper floor dormitory complete with roof and partially remaining inner walls. At Llangollen is the famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct, an example of the work of engineer Thomas Telford. If you can manage the climb you can ascend 1818 ft up Moel Famau to see the – alas, never completed – Jubilee Tower, planned in honour of George III’s golden jubilee in 1810


I’m never surprised by the wealth of history and historical sites in Wales, but for me, there was a joyous astonishment to discover how much history is contained within that short walk between Ruthin Castle and the town square. 528 ft only, but 16 centuries. I came looking for a medieval castle; I found so much more.

All photos taken by and copyright of the author.

[This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog on 25th October, 2015]


The Ruination of Wycoller

In a hidden valley, about three miles from Colne in Lancashire, lies the village of Wycoller. It was abandoned in the late 20th century, but the story of its decline began many centuries earlier.

In order to visit the village, you have to leave your car in the car park and walk down a steep path. Even before you arrive in the village, there are clues to its history and the reason for its former prosperity.

These vaccary stones (pictured above) can be found in fields all around the village and are reminders of when the village of Wycoller was one of five local vaccaries, specialising in cattle rearing. In the early 14th century most of the village was involved in some capacity, including the building of cattle folds and felling timber for alterations to shippons, and there are records to show that the payment for building a house for heifers was 2s 6d.

The Tudor Aisled Barn

The Tudor age saw the village grow richer still from the textile trade, as sheep began to replace cattle. The inhabitants combined farming with the preparation of wool, spinning, weaving, and the manufacture of clothing. A field above the village still bears the name Tenter Field, a reference to the practice of stretching cloth out on tenterhooks while it dried.

The population increased, because of the weaving work. At one point in the late 18th century, 78% of the heads of households were weavers. Such was the success of the village that there were three hatters resident in Wycoller.

Above: the medieval pack-horse bridge with, below, the signs of centuries of traffic.

But the boom could not last; handloom weavers were no match for the mills in nearby Trawden, Winewall, and Colne. Between 1820 and 1871 the population fell from around 350 to 107, and those who remained were mostly farmers.

Then, in 1890, the Colne Water Corporation announced plans to flood the village to make a reservoir. The buildings were not under threat, but nearly 200 acres of prime farmland were bought up by the Corporation. Underground water reserves were discovered and the work never went ahead, but it was too late. Wycoller became but a ghostly shadow in the valley, with buildings becoming derelict.

The main attraction in the village is the ruin of Wycoller Hall. This building seems to serve as a symbol of the history of the village. Where once it was a splendid 16th century manor house, with a magnificent fireplace, it is now a ruin, open to the elements since the late 19th century when the roof was taken off and sold. Originally owned by the Hartley family, the hall was extended in the late 18th century by its last owner, Squire Cunliffe.

A drawing showing how the fireplace would have been used

A keen gambler, Cunliffe also borrowed money against Wycoller Hall to fund the building work. He died – heavily in debt – in 1818. The property passed to his nephew Charles Cunliffe Owen, but Charles could not afford to pay off the debts and the estate was divided up among the creditors. The hall passed to a distant relative, and then to the Rev. John Roberts Oldham. The latter arranged for large parts of the stonework to be sold off to build the cotton mill at Trawden.

Wycoller is situated between Pendle and Haworth. Links with the latter are well-documented: Wycoller Hall was frequently visited by Charlotte Bronte and it was the inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre.

No such established link exists between Wycoller and Pendle, but as my companion remarked on the day we visited, it is not hard to imagine that many pedlars passed through, in the times of prosperity. Is it possible that this one passed through Wycoller at some point?

From the confession of ‘Pendle Witch’ Alison Device, 30th March 1612 (as recorded by Thomas Potts in Discovery of Witches, 1613): ‘At which time she met with a peddler on the high-way, called Colne-field, near unto Colne: and she demanded of the said peddler to buy some pins of him; but the said peddler sturdily answered that he would not loose his pack; and so she parting with him: presently there appeared to her the black dog, which appeared unto her as before: which black dog spoke unto her in English, saying “what wouldst you have me to do unto yonder man?” Alice asked the dog what it could do and it told her it could lame the man, who, before he was gone ‘forty roodes (300 yards) further, he fell down lame.’

The clapper bridge, above, has various names, which sum up the history of Wycoller: hints of a much earlier age are contained in the name Druids’ Bridge, it was also known as the Hall Bridge, because it is the nearest of Wycoller’s seven bridges to the hall, and it has been referred to as theWeavers’ Bridge, because of the generations of handloom weavers who used it to cross the river.

There is one, final, poignant note about this once thriving village. Just like the pack-horse bridge, the clapper bridge had a deep groove where the stone had been worn down by the journeys back and forth of the clog-wearing weavers. But in 1910 the groove was chiselled smooth by a local farmer, after his daughter had a fatal accident on the bridge.

Wycoller repays a visit. The tiny, peaceful hamlet contains within it many visual hints of a rich and varied history. Inhabited once more, nevertheless it retains a silence that respects its past and allows the visitor to sit, contemplate, and listen for the ghosts of a once lively hub of industry and trade.

For a look ‘behind the scenes’ pop over to my Blog Post

[This article originally appeared on the EHFA Blog on September 26th, 2015]

“Word Hoard” and the Pitfalls of Dialogue Authenticity

I hold your oaths fulfilled.” Thus spake Aragorn in the film of Tolkien’s Return of the King. Listening, I wondered if all the dialogue was derived from Old English (OE). The short answer is no, but it reminded me of the time I decided to see if it was possible to construct dialogue for my books (set in Anglo-Saxon England) using only words derived from OE and Old Norse (ON).

Here’s some dialogue from a very early draft of one of my novels (unpublished*):

“No no, all is well; you sit. It is cooler here in the yard. I was thinking, though, that the roads from the south may be hard enough to ride on now, which means that Lord Helmstan might be home soon. Can we bake a few more loaves? Would it help to knead the rest outside?”
“It would, my lady, thank you. There is enough flat bread to see us through, but if I can find how my idle daughters do with the grinding, I can bake with yeast and the finest ground meal to make bread for the lord. With your leave, I will go now and get that husband of mine to lift me down another bag of meal.”

Hmm. It doesn’t flow brilliantly well, does it? And it’s not even all OE – lift, for example, is 12th century ON, bag is 13th century ON.


Codex Sangallensis 878 (9th century)

So, if we want to use only OE-derived words, what can we use, and what can’t we use? It’s surprising:

Alliterative couplets are okay – hale and hearty, forgive and forget.

But whilst we can reckon, we can’t count.

We can’t want, but we can crave, or wish.

We can eat our food at the board, but not the table, and we’ll sit on a stool, not a chair. Sounds a little uncomfortable; a bit basic. It gets worse:

You can’t smile; you can only smirk or grin. (But since that means ‘to bear your teeth’ it doesn’t sound as benign as a smile, somehow.)

You can’t have a smell or an aroma; you can only have a stench.

The problem is that so many OE words now have negative connotations (we have the Normans to thank for a lot of that.)

And as for those Four-Letter-Words, well, the really nasty ones are not Anglo-Saxon and oddly, although I’ve just said that they hold such negative connotations, the Anglo-Saxon four letter words are now considered relatively inoffensive and, after all, they simply described body parts/functions – shit, arse, etc.

Ursine preference for forest-based defecation‘ somehow sounds more archaic than ‘Bears like to shit in the woods,’ and yet one would be more authentic than the other (even though like is 12th century ON)

And when, in the same (unpublished)* novel, I needed my main character to respond to a threat thus:
“You can try. Mercia has never yet bent to the rule of a Dane, be he Viking or Churchman,”
I found that using the 13th century try was preferable to:

“Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” – All OE-derived words, yes, but a little too modern-sounding!

Keep calm and fight on - image

Keep calm and fight on – image

Some other words just don’t translate at all – for flower you’d have to use blossom but that’s not really a singular noun, in so far as one couldn’t pick a blossom. You can’t have ceremony, or feast, or celebrationsymbel is not a word that has survived.

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons had different concepts, because while you could use eyes, chin, nose, brows and cheeks, there is no OE word which equates to the modern face (13th century) and to describe beauty you would have to talk of winsomeness.

image -

image –

Some modern words carried different meanings: I tend to have my characters say naught because nothing meant something entirely different, akin to being an outcast, literally no thing. Dream is another word which conveyed a different concept, being more like a waking vision, or daydream.

Familial relationships become difficult to describe if we are too strict, because we can’t have uncle, aunt or cousin, although we can have brother, sister, mother and father. Grandmother should really be greatmother, but it’s clunky. In other family matters though, we can choose the OE forms, and have burials instead of funerals and weddings instead of marriages, which helps to build up the Anglo-Saxon ‘voice’.

Where it becomes nigh on impossible is with the little, useful words. The conjunction because , for example – it’s hard to see what could replace it in the following passage from To Be a Queen:
“So be it. But it is only because she is my sister that I bow to you.”

The sharp scything noise set his teeth on edge. Every Mercian in the room had his hand on his sword hilt, the blade hitched up to protrude from the scabbard. Alhelm stepped forward and fixed the piercing blue gaze on Edward once more. “No, my lord, it is only because she is your sister that we bow to you.”

Sometimes, therefore will do instead, but not in all cases. I asked Jim Sinclair, OE specialist, for a suggestion: “One possibility is for or that, as in ‘But it is only for that she is my sister‘, … connected to how it would have been expressed in OE (“Ac hit is ānlīce for þæm þe hēo is mīn sweostor…”)

Some more ‘little’ words which aid flow are seem, appear, doubt, and grateful (which is ‘very’ modern – 16th century).
“I should have felled him where he stood. Rotting crow-body … ” Helmstan sat down and shoved his legs straight out in front of him. “I reminded him that he is not one of us, but I only spoke the truth.”

niEqKqXiAHow to replace reminded? I bade him hark back? Try it yourself – and no, you can’t have reconsider, or pointed out!

In the following passage from To Be a Queen, the words in bold are not OE, but are short, conveying urgency:

Five or six more steps through a river suddenly flowing treacle brought him to the bubbles of wet cloth. Batting aside a floating shoe, he grabbed the centre of the sodden, sinking lumps. Waist deep only, merciful Jesus, but so many weeds. Come here girl. He flipped her over and lifted her clear of the dragging wetness. Legs planted, he centred his weight and brushed the hair from her face. She coughed and he allowed himself to breathe again.
Girl is 13th century, merciful is 12th century. Could I have used OE? Jim says, “Tricky. Girl would be maid or maiden which are somewhat archaic and so narrower in meaning, though would work quite nicely in OE. Merciful is virtually impossible; there are some wonderful words for mercy/merciful in OE which haven’t [survived] and the closest I can get is mild-hearted, which I don’t think really does it.”

Later in the chapter:

“I am here to look after you while my father cannot. As one day I will look after Wessex as my father has not. You are my sister. What else is there to know about why I saved you from drowning?”
I asked Jim how I could say this without using save or rescue. “There’s no obvious candidate here that I can think of. Possibly something simpler like kept from (Why I kept you from drowning) but, again, it’s not really the same.”

Furthermore, drowning is 13th c. Drenching is the closest but doesn’t convey the same meaning.

In the following two short sentences, is there a pithy alternative to the bold words?

Kings are only as strong as the men who surround them.” Jim: “In OE you would use the word ymb meaning about, so maybe “Kings are only as strong as the men about them,” or “ the men they keep about them.”

Sometimes it is but one man who makes the difference.” Jim says, “There are few OE options that have survived, but maybe an alternative idiomatic expression might be ‘to turn the tide’ – “Sometimes it is but one man who can turn the tide.”?

So, whilst we seem to have established that it’s necessary to use later words to make the dialogue flow, there are some which give a ‘flavour’ of the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking and talking.

Hit one, and the other will bleed. Ceolwulf only wears the king-helm because Guthrum’s Vikings hold it on his head.”

King-helm is better than crown, and king-seat would be a better alternative to throne – even today, German is full of compound nouns. Weapon-man is better than warrior; fyrdsman better than soldier. To continue giving a sense of time and place, we use fowler’s hut instead of mews.

We can’t be sticklers; I’m not sure we would want novels set in Tudor England, or even Chaucer’s time, to have dialogue in impenetrable Middle English.

Ultimately, then, it has to be a tale (not a story!) of authenticity (14th via Old French) versus truth (OE).

And if you don’t agree, then have a read of this book and see if you still want to use only OE words:


(This article originally appeared on the EHFA Blog on 28th August, 2015

[* This book has since been published under the title Alvar the Kingmaker]


The Senses in Anglo-Saxon England

A friend told me recently that he had been reading about the Roman occupation of Britain and he asked me why, when the abandoned towns and villas were still there, did the Angles and Saxons not move into them?

We know they were still there because they were given ‘English’ names and yet archaeological evidence points to the Germanic settlers building their own wooden houses and villages, in some cases very near to the abandoned buildings. Did they not have the skills required to restore and maintain these buildings?

Reconstructions, such as those at West Stow, and the excavation of great halls such as Yeavering, show that they were not incompetent builders. Tacitus said that none of the Germanic tribes on the continent lived in walled cities, so it’s more likely that the Anglo-Saxons preferred to live in buildings that kept them feeling close to the natural world. So how did that affect the way they communicated? What was sound like for them?

The acoustic properties of wooden buildings offer opportunities for intimate conversation. Sound will fall away, muffled by the absorbent materials in the building. Living communally provides companionship and a strong sense of belonging, but it must have been a boon to be able to conduct private conversations if the need or urge arose. Stone buildings have large spaces where sound echoes and resonates.

Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period these cavernous buildings were being built and we have evidence that people were exploiting this, to great effect. The Winchester Troper dates from around AD1000 and includes possibly the oldest written music, designed to be performed in Winchester Cathedral. A sample can be heard on Youtube800px-Winchester_TroparThe Anglo-Saxon period covers more than half a millennium and by the end of the period many folk were living in towns rather than small hamlets, but it has been estimated that in early modern England, sounds above 60 decibels were rare; it is safe to assume, therefore, that this applies equally to the early medieval period.

The loudest natural sound was probably thunder, followed by animal noises. Of man made noises, in the earlier period, musical sounds would have been produced from lyres and wooden flutes. Louder sounds would be made by timber construction, the metallic clanging emanating from the smithy, and explosions. Not gunpowder, but the ignition of flour dust in mills.

As Kevin Leahy, author of Anglo-Saxon Crafts, explained to me, when I was looking for a plausible way for one of my novel’s characters to make murderous mischief: “The suspension of fine flour in air is a highly explosive mixture which could be set off by a candle or a bearing of [a] wheel running hot. I suppose an Anglo-Saxon water powered mill is less likely to run away than a wind-mill (supposedly introduced during the Crusades) but in any event the explosive mixture would have been present.”

As mentioned above, there were no windmills, but the sound of the water mill wheels would have been familiar to most – a man was considered to be a wealthy thegn if he had a water mill of his own and a fine example of a water mill has been excavated at Tamworth.

With the absence of modern background noise, the sound of birdsong would have been prominent and the sounds of domestic animals, the bark of a dog, the sound of cattle or sheep, would have been identifiable, not just to the owners, but to all those who lived nearby.

As for the sense of touch, no doubt wood and metal felt the same 1000 years ago as they do now. The Anglo-Saxons would also have been familiar with the texture of enamel, which they worked into their jewellery, Cloisonne-style, and coloured pot and glass beads.

We know that they combed their hair with combs made from antler bone, which must have felt a little different from our plastic ones.

As for clothing, a well-known author once said to me that she assumed that the Anglo-Saxons just wore sacks tied round the middle. Well yes, let it be said that their costumes were not as elaborate as those of later periods. The simplest weave they produced was a plain, or ‘tabby’ weave which varied in quality from coarse (yes, that’s the sacking!) to very fine fabrics including not just wool, but linen too: at Sutton Hoo, the remains of a fine linen pillowcase were found.

There were also patterned twills, made using a more complex weaving sequence and used for luxury fabrics. Sometimes they employed a method called ‘pile-weaving’ where loops were inserted during the weaving process, resulting a sort of ‘shaggy’ material which was occasionally used for cloaks.

So they were familiar with a number of different textures, and, though it was generally imported early in the period, the richer folk knew what silk felt like. King Oswald of Northumbria (AD634-42) is known to have given silk and gold hangings to his religious foundations.

At the very end of the period, Edward the Confessor’s body was wrapped in a golden-coloured silk shroud woven using a ‘damask’ technique.

We know that fabrics were not simple; a charred shirt found at Llangorse, where a scene in my book shows Aethelflaed avenging the murder of one of her abbots, is an example of embroidery from the early 10th century.

Silk threads were also woven through fabrics to give an iridescent shimmer. There has been a great deal of debate on the precise meaning of the term “Godweb” which might have been a description of this fine, silken weave. It is certainly probable that contrasting colours were woven to produce a form of what we would call ‘shot silk’.

Many scraps of material have been found on the back of brooches: The Fuller brooch, dated to the ninth century, depicts all the senses, in the form of a man pictured rubbing his hands, smelling a plant etc. It is made of niello (a black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides used as an inlay) and silver, and is perhaps associated with the court of Wessex.782px-Brit_Mus_Fuller_BroochBrooches, used for decoration as well as for holding garments in place, were often fashioned using complex metal-working techniques.

We are all familiar with the exquisite jewellery of Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but the Anglo-Saxons also worked with leather and used this to decorative effect on sword sheaths and embossed leather book binding. The Stonyhurst Gospel buried with St Cuthbert in AD687 is a lovely example.The_St_Cuthbert_Gospel_of_St_John._(formerly_known_as_the_Stonyhurst_Gospel)_is_the_oldest_intact_European_book._-_Upper_cover_(Add_Ms_89000)Mention of leather and metal working should move me on to discuss smell, but whilst there were dangers inherent in jewellery-making – as Stephen Pollington told me: “Processes such as fire-gilding (with mercury as the vehicle) are incredibly dangerous and … an unwary goldsmith overcome by mercury fumes is [a] possibility” – mercury is actually odourless.

And it seems that during this period, urine was not used in the tanning process; instead they used tannic acid derived from oak bark or oak galls. However, the process of removing the hair and fur from the skins involved folding the hides and leaving them to ‘sweat’ in a warm place to encourage bacteria to eat away at the hair root to allow it to be scraped. This is essentially a rotting process and cannot have smelled pleasant.

The Anglo-Saxons called November ‘Blood Month’ and again, the smell of slaughtered animals must have been quite overwhelming. Of course, the occasional bread oven aside, most cooking was done on open fires, and hearth fires blazed inside buildings, integral to warmth, well being and the culture of hearth-companions. Glynis Baxter, Heritage Officer at West Stow summed it up succinctly when she said to me, “The only thing we can say with any certainty is that the houses and clothing of the Anglo-Saxons would have smelt of smoke!”

This comment came at the end of a discussion about the use of ‘strewing herbs.’ Later in the medieval period, herbs such as meadowsweet were strewn on the floors as an early form of air-freshener. Since meadowsweet was known to the Anglo-Saxons (they called it meadow wort) and they had a term, bench plank, which refers to sprung wooden floors, I think it is plausible that they might have strewn herbs on their floorboards to make the halls smell a little more fragrant.

Reconstruction artists such as Judith Dobie and Peter Dunn show us how the buildings, villages and towns might have looked. But what else could the Anglo-Saxons see?

We know about the texture of fabric, but gold work was used for edging garments such as tunics at the neck, wrist and hem. Colours were bright; blue was derived from woad, red from madder and purple from lichen. There was a visible social distinction between rich and poor, but even ‘homespun’ garments would have had variations, deriving from brown, black, white and grey sheep.

Such beasts would have looked different from modern farm animals and there is plenty of information about rare and ancient breeds for us to be able to picture what these animals would have looked like, for example the long-snouted Tamworth pig.386px-TamworthaberdeenshireAnd bacon was available all year round. As far as taste is concerned, Anglo-Saxon food was limited, as you might expect, but they had a variety of foods to choose from: a typical feast would contain some of the following: beef, mutton goose or pork in the winter, and game, lamb or kid in the summer and along with bacon, poultry was available all year round.

People living near the sea or a river would have fresh fish, and shellfish in the winter. Cheeses would be fresh in the spring and summer, and hard (having been hung and smoked) in the winter. Fruit, nuts, pulses and beans were all available as were various fresh vegetables.

Wine, mead and beer were drunk, whilst milk and buttermilk were served to children. Foods were therefore largely seasonal and local, but bread was of course, a staple. However, many people did not have access to mills, or the means to pay the lord to use his mill, and would grind using quernstones.

Loaves were not always baked and risen and often folk ate flatbreads. Perhaps all we need to know about the taste is that bread was contaminated by pieces of grit from the millstones so that by middle age, many people had teeth so worn down that they would be in constant pain caused by exposed dentine.

A rather sad side-note is that grain was often infected, with the seeds of the corn cockle (which are poisonous) and with Ergot, a fungal disease. It seems likely that the hero of my second novel perished from eating contaminated bread. But historical fiction is a wonderful thing and I allowed him to die less prosaically, in battle!

With no surviving buildings it might seem hard, at first, to begin to piece together what the Anglo-Saxons heard, saw, smelled, tasted and felt. But archaeological evidence, extant texts, and the occasional haul of treasure allow us, slowly, to build a picture of how they lived their daily lives.

Further reading/references:
Beowulf Aelfric’s Colloquy
Anglo-Saxon Crafts – Kevin Leahy
Anglo-Saxon Food – Ann Hagen
The Mead-Hall – Stephen Pollington
The Senses in Late Medieval England – CM Woolgar
Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England – Debby Banham
Dress in Anglo-Saxon England – G Owen-Crocker
The Real Middle Earth – Brian Bates

(This article appeared on the EHFA Blog on 13th July 2015)

All images Public Domain apart from:

Fuller brooch used under Commons Licence author Johnbod
Tamworth pig used under Commons Licence author Anlace at Wikipedia

My Appearances on Other Blogs

Guest appearances on other blogs

 As well as blogging here, I’ve been lucky enough to be allowed to ‘moonlight’ on some other wonderful blogs too:


I met author Deborah Swift for coffee and scones HERE

I’ve been chatting with Elizabeth Caulfield Felt HERE

I was asked by Miriam Drori to write a letter from one of my characters HERE

And ‘Aethelflaed’ was interviewed by Helen Hollick HERE

My characters were in court – The Maiden’s Court – defending themselves HERE

I wrote about how my novels came into being, on David’s Book blurg HERE

I was interviewed by Zeba Clarke on her blog HERE

I’ve written a guest post on 10th Century murder on Andrea Cefalo’s blog HERE

Mercedes Rochelle invited me to write a guest post on her blog HERE

As did Samantha Wilcoxson HERE

I am a regular contributor to the wonderful English Historical Fiction Authors blog and you can see my contributions HERE

I was honoured to be interviewed by Maria Grace for her Writing Superheroes slot and you can find out about my alter-ego HERE

Author Georgia Hill kindly invited me to tell her all about my Writer’s Cave, and you can read about that HERE

Author Pam Lecky invited me into her library and you can read that conversation HERE

I’ve just been interviewed by Fiona Mcvie HERE

What I learned when writing my novels, on Matthew Harffy’s blog

My character, Alfreda talked to History Imagined

and she appeared with some other characters on Layered Pages

Alvar was up in court, defending himself at The Maiden’s Court

I’ve been asked to write a number of articles for Indie BRAG
and I’ve also contributed to Discovering Diamonds
Which also reviewed Alvar (Top 10 Reviewed of all time!!)

The wonderful Helen Hollick welcomed Aethelflaed on to her A-Z blog hop

and Alison Morton welcomed Alvar on to her Writing Blog

Anna Belfrage asked me to talk about Aethelflaed, and reviewed To Be A Queen

Lisl Zlitni took more than a passing interest in 1066 and all things Anglo-Saxon on her blog Before the Second Sleep and featured Alvar too

She also overheard a conversation between Alvar and King Edgar

Kata wrote a letter to her love on Miriam Drori’s blog

I wrote about the decline of Mercian power HERE

and about a little known incident in history for Suzanne Adair’s Relevant History blog

Author Prue Batten asked me to float away to a desert island

Sophie Schiller hauled me into a round table discussion

and Wayne Turmel asked me for a light-hearted overview of my books on his website

Mystery writer Terry Lynn Thomas had lots of questions about Alvar the Kingmaker

As did Emma Mitchell, who put me in the spotlight as a Chill Books honouree

B.R.A.G Interview

B.R.A.G. Interview with Colleen Turner

This week I was honoured and thrilled to be interviewed by Colleen Turner on her blog

A Literary Vacation

Because my book To Be A Queen has been awarded an IndieBRAG gold medallion.

Below is the interview in full:

Hello, Annie, and welcome to A Literary Vacation! To start off with, please tell us a little about your book, To Be A Queen.

Hello Colleen, and thank you for having me as your guest. To Be A Queen is the story of Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great. It charts her life, from her childhood living in fear of the Viking invaders, to her marriage of convenience as part of the alliance between Wessex and Mercia, and finally to her years of having to rule Mercia after her husband falls ill and is unable to lead his army against the Vikings.

I love the fact that Aethelflaed was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom and that she was able to rule and lead her adopted Mercian people even when, at least initially, they hated her for being a foreigner. How do you think she was able to do this in a time when it seems so unlikely? Was there anything special about her in particular that you think made this possible?

Aethelflaed had lived In Mercia when she was a small child, but I don’t think this helped her much when she returned there as a bride. There is anecdotal evidence that an attempt was made on her life as she made her way to Mercia after her wedding, and many of the Mercians, fiercely independent and proud, resented the alliance with Wessex. They were running out of kings, and therefore options, but it was still unprecedented to have a woman lead a country at this time. She was royalty, being both the daughter and sister of a king, but even so, she must have had some outstanding qualities – not only did the Mercians agree to her leading them, but her powerful brother, Edward, who succeeded Alfred, also allowed her to rule, rather than taking over himself. Clearly she had strength, but she must have been very charismatic, too, for such doughty old warriors to agree to being led by her.

What drew you to Aethelflaed’s story? How did you first discover this fascinating woman?

The book began, for me, with a single sentence. I was sitting in a lecture theatre as an undergraduate and my tutor was talking about Aethelflaed’s husband, Ethelred. She said, “Nobody knows where he came from.” I had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere, and I was fascinated. I hoped one day to write his story, and years later, when I sat down to begin the research, I quickly realised that, whilst he was an interesting figure, (and I’m still probably a little bit in love with him!) the real story was that of his remarkable wife.

What sort of research went into writing To Be A Queen? Did you do any traveling as part of your research?

Very little has been written about her, so research, initially, was difficult. I started off by reminding myself about her father’s reign before trying to research her life. Ultimately, Mercia was absorbed into Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by Alfred, and it was written by monks from Wessex, so Mercia doesn’t get the greatest press. There are annals which say a little more about her, but some have been discredited, so I really needed to keep my historian’s hat on when appraising the usefulness of those sources. I knew where to find, and how to interpret, such documents but what I didn’t know so much about was how these people lived – what they wore, what they ate, what type of crops they grew. I spoke to a lot of leading academics who helped me enormously, and gradually I was able to piece together a picture, and really begin to think of these people as, well, people. I didn’t travel, (well, not purposely) because there is virtually nothing left of their world. The Anglo-Saxons primarily built with wood, and none of those buildings has survived. I relied on archaeological evidence and town plans which have been drawn up using that evidence. My daughter is currently at university in the heart of old Mercia, but driving through the modern towns and cities I don’t get much feel for the 9th and 10th century settlements that were once there. Even the landscape, right down to the shape of the coastline, has changed so much in the last 1100 years.

Was there anything you discovered as part of your research that you found surprising or shocking?

Without giving too much away, I did discover how explosive flour dust can be! I also realised that Alfred the Great was not quite so successful as we perhaps all assume. Analysing his career, I found that most of his military successes occurred after his alliance with Mercia and once his children joined the fight. As I continued to write and research, I found myself getting quite cross that neither Aethelflaed nor her brother ever got the credit they deserved; their military and strategic campaigns were ultimately much more successful than their father’s.

Historical fiction happens to be my all-time favorite genre and I find myself going back and forth between what periods of history are my favorite to read about. Do you have a favorite time period to write and/or read about, or do you enjoy jumping around as I do?

I always wanted to write about the Anglo-Saxons, and in a way that portrayed them as early medievals, rather than dragon-slaying, magical, mythical folk from a world far removed from ours. But when it comes to reading, I often turn to my second-favourite period of history, the seventeenth century. I’m also drawn to fiction set in and around WWI. But if something catches my eye and it’s a good story, I’ll read it. Sitting on my kindle just now I have a WWII love story, a Victorian thriller and a Tudor mystery!

What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?

My kids have all pretty much left home now, so my life doesn’t revolve round their schedules like it once did. I work part-time as a freelance music teacher, but at the moment all my classes are on the same day of the week. The rest of the time I try to be disciplined and get to my ‘desk’ (the dining room table!) for about 8.30am and, after checking emails, social media etc, I aim to write until 5pm. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s something to shoot for! Often I go out and about, collecting information and taking photos for magazine articles and I have to admit, it is nice to get away from the computer keyboard now and again.

What drew you to independently publish To Be A Queen as opposed to seeking traditional publishing?

When I’d finished ‘Queen’ I felt certain I had a strong story, and a unique one. I wrote off to several agents and one got back to me really quickly. He signed me up on the spot and a day later another agent approached me. I had the luxury of being able to turn down the offer of representation! My agent encouraged me to get working on the next book, which I did. And then I wrote another, all the time naively assuming that my agent was working hard to secure me a publishing contract. For whatever reason, he wasn’t, and, with three completed novels I decided to have a go at publishing independently. I can honestly say I have never regretted that decision – not only has it given me a lot of freedom, but it has brought me into contact with many other authors whose support and willingness to share their experiences and wisdom has been invaluable.

How did you discover indieBRAG and what does it mean to you to have To Be A Queen awarded the BRAG Medallion?
I discovered it through social media, where I kept seeing mention of it. I noticed, on books I’d read, this mysterious little gold medallion on the cover. I began to wonder what it was all about, so I visited the website. I wondered if I could possibly get one of these prestigious medallions, but at the time it was closed to submissions. I put my name on the waiting list and I waited. And waited. I read lots of blog articles and interviews by BRAG honorees and BRAG readers and reviewers and kept hoping … and then the submissions opened up and I submitted ‘Queen.’ I knew the whole review process would take a while and I had almost forgotten about it when I received the email telling me the book had been awarded a coveted medallion. I was thrilled. To me it means validation; the recognition by readers who are experienced and really know what they are looking for, that my book is of a standard high enough to be considered worthy of a medallion. I’m incredibly proud.

Thank you, Annie, for taking the time to stop by and answer my questions!

A Message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Colleen has chosen to interview Annie Whitehead, who is the author of To Be A Queen, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ® , a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as Past Encounters merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.


Find the interview and more about Colleen HERE and find her on Twitter