Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: Vikings

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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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 …

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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]

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