Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: Alfred the Great

Why Not the Anglo-Saxons?

I was privileged to attend a lunch a couple of years ago with, amongst others, Sarah Waters and Fay Weldon. They were kind enough to ask me about my writing and when I told them that my first three novels were set in Anglo-Saxon England, Sarah Waters said she knew little about the period and Fay Weldon commented that their costumes “Weren’t very sexy.”

A dear friend of mine concurred, adding that the Anglo-Saxons all wore brown sacks instead of dresses. She said that when she reads a novel set in Tudor England, she can envisage the scenery and the costumes.

King_Henry_and_Anne_Boleyn_Deer_shooting_in_Windsor_Forest

In 2013, the author Sebastian Faulks was publicising the Chalke Valley/Penguin History prize for secondary school children. Youngsters were encouraged to write stories set in the following ‘Periods of importance’ : Norman Conquest to Wars of Roses (1066-1485) The English Civil War and the Restoration (1642-1685) The Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815) The British Empire (1759-1947) and the Cold War (1945-1991)

Now, I’m not going to argue that these periods were not important, but why narrow the field? Taken in isolation, these periods of history mean little. Can one really understand the significance of the Napoleonic period without first studying the preceding years, including the circumstances which led to the French Revolution? Periods of history are only important if you set them in context, if you know what’s gone before.

1066? How can you realise its significance and the changes it wrought unless you know what England was like pre-conquest?

Is it true; does it simply boil down to the fact that it wasn’t ‘sexy’ enough, that it can’t easily be envisaged?

There are stories from the ‘Dark Ages’ that equal anything of later periods: the mighty Godwin family, the frankly feckless Aethelred the Unready and his struggles against the vastly superior Cnut. What about Alfred the Great, and his children, Edward the Elder and my favourite, his daughter, Aethelflaed, subject of my novel To Be A Queen? She ruled a kingdom and fought against the Vikings.

Did she not have a pretty enough dress?

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_Abbey

Is it just a case of bad press? Ultimately, the English lost out to the Normans. Does history favour the victor? In which case, why does the story of Arthur still resonate, with fiction and non-fiction books published year upon year; is that down to the seemingly unsolvable riddle of whether or not he existed?

800px-Holy-grail-round-table-bnf-ms_fr-116F-f610v-15th-detail

And why, if we don’t care too much about losers, has such a cult grown up around William Wallace? Wasn’t he just a defeated nationalist, like Harold Godwinson? Maybe being hung drawn and quartered is a more interesting way to be the ultimate loser than just attempting to get too close a look at the quality of workmanship that went into the making of a Norman arrow?

800px-Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_death

The Chalke Valley competition is a good thing – anything which promotes history must be welcomed. Faulks said that “History needs to regain its central place in schools.”

I remember when my own children were choosing their GCSE options, that the school produced a list of subjects, and gave the teachers the chance to ‘sell’ their subject. Each was entitled “What can this subject give me?” Other subjects talked specifics, but history “Gives you everything you need for future study: analysis, argument, memory, understanding.” I can’t argue with that, but within the discipline itself, why are some periods deemed more important, or interesting, than others?

So, why do the poor old Anglo-Saxons not come through history to us as sexy and interesting? As it says in 1066 And All That (W.C Sellar and R.J. Yeatman) the period suffered from a “Wave of Egg-Kings – Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth etc. None of them, however succeeded in becoming memorable, except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish etc.”

Diploma of King Eadred showing some fairly tricky names!

Diploma of King Eadred showing some fairly tricky names!

As I found when writing To Be a Queen, the names are tricky – to spell, pronounce, and identify. Those that survived became old-fashioned, for example, Ethel, Edith, Alfred, Edmund, Mildred, Audrey. They were not associated with the upper echelons of society, and that’s also true of a lot of Old English words. Many of the words for everyday objects came to signify lowly things: a stool became something less than a chair. This idea of being the down-trodden vanquished persists so that today the period remains somewhat drear, uninteresting.

But it is precisely because of that we need to look back and find out what was lost.

The Norman language, despite the lordly overtones, did not take hold; we do not speak a version of French. Nor, according to recent BBC research, did the Norman bloodline. Is is important to know about the Government of the Anglo-Saxons, their administrative systems, their laws and justice? I think so. When university undergraduates debate whether or not the Normans introduced the Feudal system at all, then there is an argument for saying that we should understand what it was that they were trying to replace, subdue, change. It’s worth noting that whilst many people accept the ‘truth’ that in the middle ages, wives were legally beaten by their husbands and treated as his property, the Anglo-Saxon women were not.

So why don’t we know more? Why aren’t we taught more about it? Is it all just too far in the past?

But if that’s true, why is the Roman period so popular?

320px-Antoninus_Pius_Hermitage

Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s popular in the sense that there are many books, fiction and non-fiction, and telly programmes (Thanks, Professor Mary Beard!) But it’s still not routinely taught in schools. The Tudors and the Egyptians are. So is the second World War. Diverse topics, spanning great distances in terms of years.

So maybe it really does, as Fay Weldon said, come down to the costumes. In my Ladybird book, The Story of Clothes and Costume, the illustrations lump the Saxons and Normans together. There are no illustrations between  500BC and the Anglo-Norman period, apart from the Romans.  And on the cover? Yes, you guessed it – those wonderfully ‘gussied up’ Tudors …

800px-Catherine_Parr_from_NPG

Maybe those Anglo-Saxons should have designed the bodice – then they could have them ripped!!

[all the images used here are in the Public Domain]

The Attack on Llangorse 19th June AD916

It is not often that the early medieval chroniclers provide us with specific dates. And of a period about which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is almost silent – Aethelflaed’s ‘reign’ – we are incredibly lucky to have not one date, but two, while the second date enables us to identify a third. The Chronicle tells us that she died on June 12th, 918. But the third, implied, date is the one that interests me today: June 19th, two years before her death, and exactly 1100 years tomorrow.

The ‘C’ Chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, incorporating the annals known as The Mercian Register, tells us:

“In this year before midsummer, on 16th June, the day of the festival of St Quiricus the Martyr, abbot Ecgberht, who had done nothing to deserve it, was slain together with his companions. Three days later Aethelflaed sent an army into Wales and stormed Brecenanmere [at Llangorse lake near Brecon] and there captured the wife of the king and thirty-three other persons.”

We cannot know much about the unfortunate abbot, (a search of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England [PASE] reveals only that single mention of him) save that he was sufficiently dear to Aethelflaed that she was prepared to avenge his life in such a forceful manner.

So what can we discover about Brecenanmere, and the unnamed king, whose wife was captured?

In his book, The Making of Mercia, Ian Walker says that the Mercian Register “… records the destruction of the royal crannog of Tewdr, king of Brycheiniog, on Llangorse lake in Brecon and the capture of his queen.”

PASE lists two kings named Tewdwr. One of them is the father of Elise and both of these men are mentioned in Asser’s Life of Alfred [1] as having submitted to Alfred. Alfred died in 899 so either of these men could, in theory, have still been alive and militarily active in 916.

The other Tewdwr is listed as Tewdwr ap Griffi ab Elise, who, as Teowdor, Subregulus, witnessed a charter of King Athelstan in 934. [2] The Welsh system of patronymics suggests that he must have been the grandson of Elise, although Kari Maund names him as Tewdwr ab Elise, suggesting a closer consanguineal relationship [3]

We cannot know why this abbot was killed, or why a king who had submitted to Alfred the Great chose to anger Alfred’s daughter in this way. Perhaps he fancied his chances against a weak female ruler. At this time, the king of Wessex was Alfred’s son, Aethelflaed’s brother, Edward the Elder. He and his sister were engaged in an active campaign of building fortified towns, such as the fortress at Chirbury (on the Welsh/English border, in 915) and perhaps there were hostilities between the English and the Welsh which have gone unrecorded.

In 916 Edward is recorded as being engaged in Essex, building a fortress at Maldon. Is it possible that this King Tewdwr thought that Aethelflaed, a mere woman, would do little in retribution while her brother was busy elsewhere? We cannot know, because as previously mentioned, we have few specific dates and only know that Edward was in Essex in ‘the summer.’ Tempting as it is to join these two facts together, we cannot be certain.

There can be no doubt, though, that Edward was busy, and that he trusted his sister with power and authority. Her husband, Ethelred of Mercia, had died in 911 but had, for some years before that, been incapacitated in some form. Edward, whilst minting Mercian coins in his name, had allowed Aethelflaed to lead Mercia during her husband’s prolonged illness and in 911, although Edward took control of London and Oxford, previously handed to Mercia by Alfred, he left his sister as nominal head of Mercia.

Brother and sister worked as a team in 917: while Edward built fortresses at Towcester and Wigingamere (unidentified), and received the submission of ‘Viking’ armies of Northampton, East Anglia, and Cambridge, Aethelflaed took the borough of Derby, one of the prized ‘five boroughs’ which Edward had vowed to prise back out of the invaders’ hands. [4] In 907, Chester had been ‘restored’ [5] although no mention is made of the person who led the army which starved the occupying Vikings out. Professor Simon Keynes confirmed my suspicion that it is safe to assume that Ethelred was, by this point, unwell, and that in all likelihood it was Aetheflaed who took the fight to the walls of Chester.

We have therefore, enough evidence, however scant in detail, from 907 and 917, to be comfortable with the notion that she led an army into Wales. What would she have found there?

The ‘crannog’ mentioned above probably looked something like this:

Credit – Garnet Davies (Llangorselake.co.uk – Lakeside Bar/Caravan Park)

It seems likely that this was the only crannog in Wales and the museumwales website [6] has this to say:

“The crannog was carefully constructed of brushwood and sandstone boulders, reinforced and surrounded by several lines of oak plank palisade. Tree-ring dating of the well-preserved timbers has established that they were felled between AD889 and AD893. The site seems to have been influenced by Irish building techniques, and was possibly constructed with the assistance of an Irish master craftsman.

The kings of Brycheiniog claimed to be descended from a part-Irish dynasty, and their use of such an unusual and impressive construction may have enhanced their political standing and strengthened their claims to Irish ancestry.”

Of Aethelflaed’s attack, the site says: “This record of an attack probably refers to the crannog, and the capture of the wife of king Tewdwr ap Elisedd. During excavation, a charred, burnt layer was uncovered – probably representing this attack.”

If this was indeed the structure which Aethelflaed attacked, and where she took a queen prisoner, then this place was being used at a royal ‘llys’, a high status secular site. Tewdwr himself obviously survived this battle, but of course we cannot be sure if he was even in residence on the day in question. The only information we have is that his wife and thirty three other persons were captured. Conjecture is the preserve of the novelist, and I had a lot of fun filling in the gaps of this particular incident, but the historian cannot afford such luxuries.

Map of medieval Wales showing Brycheiniog

What we can infer, though, is that retribution was swift but relatively merciful. The Chronicle mentions the killing of the abbot, but no revenge killings of any high-status Welsh. Aethelflaed had no further trouble from beyond the border. As we have seen, she went on to retake Derby (although the chronicle laments the loss of “four of her thanes, who were dear to her.”)

Early in 918, she obtained control of Leicester (another of the five boroughs and, later in the year, the second battle of Corbridge, involving Ragnall against the Scots with the English Northumbrians, seems to have brought the people of York, wishing for a strong southern ally against Ragnall and his Norse Vikings, to Aethelflaed’s court, seeking her assistance.

What at first glance seems an unlikely entry in an 1100-year old chronicle, that a woman marched into another country to avenge a death of a friend, seems more plausible when we piece together all we know of Aetheflaed’s life. However few those facts are, they add up to one – that she was indeed, a remarkable woman.

[1] Asser Vit.Alfredi 80
[2] Charter S425 King Athelstan to Ælfwald, minister; grant of 12 hides (cassatae) at Derantune. (probably Durrington, Sussex)
[3] The Welsh Kings – Kari Maund (Tempus)
[4] the five boroughs: Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford.
[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
[6] http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/
(all images in the public domain, unless credited)

This article first appeared in the EHFA Blog on June 18th 2016

Mrs Gaskell’s Tower – Historical Trails & Serendipity

I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world which gives me easy access to many areas of outstanding natural beauty. And I tend to veer away from the obvious spots in the English Lake District to see what else is on my doorstep.

On the northern edge of Morecambe Bay lies a little place called Silverdale, and it was here, at Lindeth Tower, that Elizabeth Gaskell, novelist and biographer of Charlotte Bronte, used to come for her holidays.

As an historian and an author, I love to go wandering along a trail, be it metaphorical or geographical. Mrs Gaskell’s Tower had given me a starting point, but she is a literary, rather than historical figure. Little did I know that what started as a ‘Victorian’ day, would become a day when I got tantalisingly close to the Anglo-Saxons …

A pleasant walk down a lane strewn with autumn colours took me down to Jenny Brown’s point, where a chimney stands as a reminder of this area’s industrial past:

Walking back from the point, I found an old lime kiln which has been reconstructed, fenced off, and given a little placard explaining the history and uses of lime-burning. I also discovered that there was a shipwreck in the area in 1894, when a pleasure yacht, The Matchless, foundered off Jenny Brown’s point with the loss of 25 souls.

The English poet Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948) lived in the village and was visited often by his friend, the artist Paul Nash.
Silverdale is noted for its wells, which used to serve the village, and Woodwell is situated, as one might guess, in an area of peaceful woodland.

photograph – Zephyrine Barbarachild

It was a wonderful walk, despite the typical northern weather that day, but I left feeling that I hadn’t uncovered everything that Silverdale knew …

And then I remembered that a while ago I’d read in the local paper about the Silverdale Hoard. Now, I’m an Anglo-Saxon-ist, rather than a Viking-ist, so the Silverdale Hoard didn’t initially get my pulse racing in the way that the Staffordshire Hoard is apt to do. And yet, and yet … something drew me to investigate.

2oo pieces of Viking silver were found by a detectorist in 2011 and have been dated to around the year 900. Of the 27 coins, some are coins of Alfred the Great and some of the Danish king of Northumbria. As with the Staffordshire Hoard, it is assumed that whoever buried this stash was unable, due to the turbulent nature of the times and probably due to loss of limb, or life, or both, to come back and retrieve their retirement fund.

It’s no thing of beauty compared with the ornate goldwork of the other afore-mentioned hoard, but this cache contained a silver bracelet with an unusual combination of Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian style decoration. Other pieces of jewellery were found as fragments, having been cut up to be used as ‘hacksilver’, an alternative form of coinage.

One coin in particular was considered note-worthy, inscribed as it was with the name AIRDECONUT, which has been translated as Harthacnut. Since the coin also bears the inscriptions DNS and REX, it has been suggested that this might identify a hitherto unnamed Danish king of Northumbria. The historian in me was interested.

Another coin, a silver penny, was inscribed ALVVADVS, translated as Aethelwold. The author in me was excited …

Aethelwold was the son of Alfred the Great’s elder brother, King Aethelred. When Alfred died in 899 Aethelwold made a bid for the throne, taking a nun hostage (why? Don’t ask me) and holing up in Wimborne, Dorset, where his father was buried, as if to establish that he, and not Alfred’s son Edward, had the stronger link to the West-Saxon line of kings. From Wimborne he went to ally himself with the Northumbrian Danes, who acknowledged his claim to the kingship of Wessex. Confident of eventual victory, he must have proceeded to order coins minted in his name. He eventually met his cousin Edward in a remote part of of East-Anglia in 902, at the Battle of the Holme. The rarity of the coin bearing Aethelwold’s name perhaps tells you what you need to know about the outcome.

So, from a tower favoured by a Victorian writer, via industry and shipwreck, and an interesting but not initially fascinating buried treasure, I had come, unplanned and unconsciously, to a person whom I feel I ‘know’ rather well. For you see, a year before this hoard was discovered, I had written a story. It’s called To Be a Queen, and it features Alfred the Great, his daughter, her brother, Edward, and their cousin, one Aethelwold, or as I call him, Thelwold.

Those among you who write, and have a penchant for digging, either literally or figuratively, will understand how satisfying it was for me to find out about that tiny little silver penny.

This article first appeared on English Historical Fiction Authors blog on Friday 27th November, 2015