Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Yeavering – Anglo-Saxon Royal Palace

“So great is said to have been the fervour of the faith of the Northumbrians and their longing for the washing of salvation, that once when Paulinus came to the king and queen in their royal palace at Yeavering, he spent thirty-six days there occupied in the task of catechizing and baptising.” (HE II 14*)
The king in question is Edwin, seventh-century king of Northumbria, and the queen is his second wife, Æthelburg of Kent, known, according to Bede, by the nickname ‘Tate’.

Paulinus is said to have baptised people in the river Glen, which runs alongside the site of the palace. Visitors to the site will still be able to see the river, but of the palace, there is not a trace.

The view across the site towards the river

Archaeology has revealed that Yeavering at the time of Edwin’s reign was a magnificent royal vill. But Edwin didn’t build it. Rather, he rebuilt it.

What were Edwin, his wife, and the holy man Paulinus doing there? After all, it’s a forbidding place, surrounded by the towering Cheviot hills, windswept and desolate.

Edwin was technically the brother-in-law of the previous king of Northumbria, Æthelfrith, whose son, Oswald, was born to him by Edwin’s sister. Although in those days Northumbria was two distinct kingdoms, Deira (centred around York) and Bernicia (centred around Bamburgh), dynastic squabbles and bloody feuds meant that, periodically, one man ruled over both kingdoms.

The English kingdoms c. 600 (public domain image)

In the seventh century, kings were gradually converting to Christianity.  It was no quick decision, and usually had some political element to it. Edwin was not about to make a spur of the moment conversion. The site of Yeavering was significant because it was in an area previously ruled over by Edwin's nemesis, Æthelfrith. Would conversion bring more power?

Edwin procrastinated, so much so that Pope Boniface wrote to him, and also to Edwin’s wife. Æthelburg was the daughter of Æthelberht, the Kentish king whom Augustine had converted, and a sister of Eadbald, the reigning king of Kent. When he wrote to her, Boniface urged her to bear in mind her Christian duty to evangelise, and included with his letter a gift of a silver mirror and a gold and ivory comb. To Edwin, he hinted that he would, by converting, put himself on an equal footing with the powerful king of Kent. This must have been quite an inducement.

Edwin evidently grasped what was expected of him, and offered a compromise – he expressed his willingness to convert if his advisers agreed, and undertook to place no obstacles in the way of missionary endeavour. He also offered a promise that took account of the position of Æthelburg, for he gave assurance that she and her retinue would be free to practice their own religion.

Paulinus, who travelled with ‘Tate’ from Kent, ‘bagged’ Edwin’s all-important royal soul, thus, according to Bede: when Edwin had been in exile in the court of Rædwald of East Anglia, an apparition came to him, promising him a kingdom, and salvation, if he would but remember by whose word this promise would be fulfilled. Paulinus now revealed himself now as the apparition by whose power Edwin had gained his kingdom. (HE II 12)

When the king and queen had produced a daughter, Eanflæd, Edwin was persuaded to allow Paulinus to baptise her in thanksgiving for his wife’s safe delivery.

Yeavering lies in what was the kingdom of Bernicia, forty miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, and about twenty miles inland from the great fortress of Bamburgh. It is a desolate and often a very cold place. Bede describes it as a royal vill, (town) and talks about the work of Paulinus there, but he also tells us that at some time later it was abandoned. Perhaps the archaeology and the history can be linked?

The site, showing the modern wall at the roadside

In 1949 an aerial photograph showed the marks of extensive buildings there, and the site was then excavated by Dr Hope Taylor.

He found that as a place of burial, Yeavering had a long prehistoric past. A big and seemingly elaborately defended cattle corral is likely to have gone back to the days when the area was ruled by British, not English, kings. Hope Taylor also discovered a series of buildings dating from the end of the sixth century to somewhat later than the middle of the seventh, corresponding to the reigns of Æthelfrith, Edwin, and Oswald.

Among the most important were a succession of halls. The largest, which he concluded was probably Edwin’s, was over 80 feet long and nearly 40 feet wide. Its walls were likely made of planks, 5 ½ inches thick. The fact that the post holes showed that timber were set up to eight feet into the ground, suggests that the walls must have been very high. There may have been a clerestory (a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level, with the purpose of letting in light, and/or fresh air). Its successor, probably dating to the reign of Oswald, Edwin’s nephew and successor, was equally grand.

Yeavering - digital 'fair use' image. (Attribution)

More remarkable still was a kind of grandstand, (top left of above image) shaped like a segment of a Roman amphitheatre, which stood facing a platform. When first built, possibly under Æthelfrith, it had accommodated about 150 people; later, perhaps under Edwin, it was enlarged to hold about 320.

It has been agreed that its only purpose can have been for meetings; and of a kind where one man on the platform, presumably the king, faced many. Perhaps it was here that Edwin consulted his amici, principes and consiliarii on the adoption of Christianity (though this debate more probably took place in York, where Edwin finally received his baptism.)

Yeavering in its heyday would have stood as a symbol of the might and power of Edwin, who, as one of the named ‘bretwaldas’ (overkings) in Bede’s list, wielded considerable power. A prince of Deira, he would have known the importance of establishing his authority across Bernicia, and building over the remnants of his predecessor’s hall.

And yet, the royal buildings at Yeavering were not fortified. Perhaps they should have been; there is evidence that the palace was destroyed by fire, not once, but twice, and the dates coincide with Bede’s records of Mercian incursions into Northumbria.

Additional finds included what may have been a pagan temple later converted to Christian use, and a building which might have been a small Christian church.

Yeavering, though a major centre for Bernicia, was by no means the only such centre these kings possessed. There was another, much more important, at Bamburgh, and other royal vills scattered through their kingdom, many of which may have had halls as grand. But the wonderful thing, for historians, is that we have the evidence for this one, even though there is now no trace of these once impressive and imposing buildings. To stand in this enormous field, (and it is a huge site) gazing out over the waters of the river Glen, and know that here stood the people whose lives I have studied, and written about, for years was, even on that very cold and blustery day, really quite moving. So little of Anglo-Saxon architecture remains, but thanks to Dr Hope Taylor, and to Bede, at least we know what once was here.

As to why it was, as Bede tells us, abandoned, well that remains a mystery, and one which neither the archaeology (which suggests 655, a time of Northumbrian supremacy) nor the history seem able to solve.

[*Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People]
{This post originally appeared on the EHFA Blog on 22/9/17}
(All photographs taken by and copyright of the author)

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Recent Posts:
The Battle-site of 'Heavenfield'
Repton - Royal Mausoleum and Viking Stronghold
The 'Evil' Women of Mercia
Anglo-Saxon Childhood
Reaching Across the Centuries

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Shining a Light: Authors of 'Dark Ages' Novels - Mary Anne Yarde

This year on the blog, I'll be featuring a number of other authors who also write books set in the 'Dark Ages'.

This month I'm delighted to welcome to the blog Mary Anne Yarde, whose award-winning Du Lac Chronicles imagine a world a generation after Arthur Pendragon ruled, when Briton lies fragmented into warring kingdoms and principalities.

AW: Welcome!  Can you tell us a little about the Du Lac Chronicles? Do the same characters feature in each book, and can the books be read as stand-alones?

MAY: For well over a thousand years we have been enchanted with the tales of King Arthur and his Knights. Arthur’s story has everything – loyalty, betrayal, love, hate, war and peace, and like all good stories, there isn’t a happy ending for our hero. Arthur is betrayed by his best friend, Lancelot, and then he is betrayed once again by his nephew, Mordred. Arthur’s reign comes to a dramatic and tragic end on the battlefield at Camlann.

When Arthur died, the Knights died with him. Without their leader they were nothing, and they disappeared from history. No more is said of them, and I always wondered why not. Just because Arthur is dead, that doesn’t mean that his Knights didn’t carry on living. Their story must continue — if only someone would tell it!

The Du Lac Chronicles is a sweeping saga that follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Lancelot du Lac’s sons as they try to forge a life for themselves in an ever-changing Saxon world. In each book, you will meet the same characters, whom hopefully readers have come to love. I made sure that each book stands alone, but as with all series, it is best to start at the beginning.

AW: Indeed it is. And thinking about 'beginnings', where did the idea for the novels come from?

MAY: I grew up surrounded by the rolling Mendip Hills in Somerset — the famous town of Glastonbury was a mere 15 minutes from my childhood home. Glastonbury is a little bit unique in the sense that it screams Arthurian Legend. Even the road sign that welcomes you into Glastonbury says...

"Welcome to Glastonbury. The Ancient Isle of Avalon."

How could I grow up in such a place and not be influenced by King Arthur?

I loved the stories of King Arthur and his Knights as a child, but I always felt let down by the ending. For those not familiar, there is a big battle at a place called Camlann. Arthur is fatally wounded. He is taken to Avalon. His famous sword is thrown back into the lake. Arthur dies. His Knights, if they are not already dead, become hermits. The end.

What an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending to such a wonderful story. I did not buy that ending. So my series came about not only because of my love for everything Arthurian, but also because I wanted to write an alternative ending. I wanted to explore what happened after Arthur's death.

AW: I can understand that. As writers, we are always thinking 'What If?' But we also need authentic backgrounds for our stories. What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history?

MAY: Researching the life and times of King Arthur is incredibly challenging. Trying to find the historical Arthur is like looking for a needle in a haystack. An impossible task. But one thing where Arthur is prevalent, and you are sure to find him, is in folklore.

Folklore isn’t an exact science. It evolves. It is constantly changing. It is added to. Digging up folklore, I found, is not the same as excavating relics! However, I think that is why I find it so appealing.

The Du Lac Chronicles is set in Dark Age, Britain, Brittany and France, so I really needed to understand as much as I could about the era that my books are set in. Researching such a time brings about its own set of challenges. There is a lack of reliable primary written sources. Of course, there are the works of Gildas, Nennuis and Bede as well as The Annals of Wales, which we can turn to, but again, they are not what I would consider reliable sources. Even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which was compiled in the late 9th Century, has to be treated with caution. So it is down to archaeologists to fill in the missing blanks, but they can only do so much. Which means in some instances, particularly with regards to the history of Brittany during this time, I have no choice but to take an educated guess as to what it was like.

AW: I agree. Primary sources must be treated with care. How conscious were you of the existing Arthurian tales and legends - did they have any bearing on your stories and which, if any, are you most drawn to?

MAY: I grew up with the stories of Monmouth and Tennyson, and they have influenced me to an extent. However, my books are based after the fall of Arthur, which makes them a little different.

AW: It certainly does. Thank you so much for chatting to me about your books. I have to ask - What next? 

MAY: I am currently working on Book 4 of The Du Lac Chronicles.


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Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Reaching Across the Centuries

The Anglo-Saxons are remote. They were folk who left comparatively little behind, certainly in terms of where they lived and how they dressed. Scraps, fragments, post-holes; sometimes a massive hoard of jewellery and weapon adornments, but even these finds leave more questions than answers.

They remain behind a line, drawn across history by the Norman Conquest. They stayed in pre-1066 England, with their unpronounceable names, and their wooden halls buried beneath the stone-built Norman keeps.

So how do we find them, get to know them? Well, through the written evidence: the chronicles, charters, law codes, saints' lives and other documents, such as the Regularis Concordia, drawn up as a sort of template for monastic life.

We even learn a little about the chroniclers themselves. William of Malmesbury, writing in the eleventh century, fretted that his readers would find him boring, and complained about the English climate:
It has also been a terrible year for weather. Every month has had thunder and lightning. It has rained almost every day without stopping. Even the summer months were wet and muddy. (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum)
William continues with a partisan appraisal of the good folks of the UK, when he states that the speech of the Northumbrians grates harshly upon the ear of southerners, and that the reason the northerners are unintelligible is because of their proximity to barbaric tribes.

William tells us about the career of seventh-century Bishop, later Saint, Wilfrid, and adds colour to his story by telling us that when he was fourteen,
he left his father's home out of hate for his haughty stepmother, his own mother having died (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum)
In amongst the details of the careers of bishops and saints, dealings with the Church and with the pope, it is interesting to find nuggets such as this one, which could be speaking of any boy, at any time of history. The dynamics of step-families always have the potential for conflict.

The will of Wulfric Spott, a wealthy thegn who died probably sometime between 1002 and 1004, is a significant document. It gives scholars information about the extent to which wealthy men held land and it provides insights into the loyalties of the great families during the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut, but there is also a poignant detail, in the inclusion of one simple word. 

Wulfric's will lays out various bequests, but he leaves estates at Elford and Oakley to his poor daughter * and asks that his brother be protector of her and of the land. We can only surmise that his daughter was either unmarried, or a widow, but the inclusion of that simple word brings this family off the pages of history and makes it easy to relate to them.

There may be unfamiliar terms in this document - gold mancuses, for example - and obscure place-names such as Snodeswic and Waddune, but there is also the simple yearning for a father to ensure his daughter's well-being and security in the event of his death.

Charter confirming Wulfric's foundation of Burton Abbey

The compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes leave us scratching our heads when contemplating the choices they made about what to put in the annals, and what to leave out. They don't tell us who won the battle of Otford in the year 776, for example, but they do tell us that in that same year, marvellous adders were seen in Sussex.

They tell us very little about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ** but we do know that when she retook Derby from the Danes, she lost four of her thegns who were dear to her.

There may be significance in the word used here: besorge. Besorge is not a common word and it carries connotations of anxiety as well as love. It has been argued that its use, instead of the more usual leof, may have been specifically to denote a woman's care and authority (Thompson - Death and Dying in Later Anglo-Saxon England.)  Warrior leader she may have been, but this suggestion adds a depth of emotion that allows us to glimpse the woman.

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Roger of Wendover, writing in the thirteenth century, tells a story of St Swithun in 862. As Roger says, this holy man, bishop of Winchester, had many miraculous powers but Roger says he was equally eminent for his compassion and humility, demonstrated in this incident where he feels sorry for an egg-seller whose eggs had all been broken. Making the sign of the cross, the bishop effected a miraculous repair of the eggs. 

But this story appeals to me because it speaks down the ages of a scene that seems universal. For the beginning of the tale says that the reason the eggs were broken was because workmen, with saucy insolence, flocked around her and broke every egg. The episode doesn't seem so very far removed from the modern equivalent, that of 'wolf-whistling'.

Roger is scathing of these men, and no doubt we would expect nothing else from a monk. Monks were serious, pious people, weren't they?

The Regularis Concordia could be described as a handbook for monastic life, and yes, there is much in it concerning prayer and contemplation, when the brethren should put on their day shoes, and when they should read. 

But arrangements for their physical comfort are not overlooked, and in winter, 
when the storms are harsh and bitter, a suitable room shall be set aside for the brethren wherein, by the fireside, they may take refuge from the cold and bad weather.
Not quite a Health and Safety in the Workplace manual, but it is a consideration as welcome today as it would have been then.

Though there would surely be no fear of death, even so, the brothers are enjoined to visit their sick brethren and to be solicitous in rendering aid to [the sick man.]

Caring, cared for, and perhaps sometimes just a little bit like the rest of us:
The auditorium is excepted from the rule of silence; indeed, it is called by that name chiefly because it is there that whatever is commanded by the master be heard; neither is it right that tales of gossip should go on there or anywhere else.
A letter tucked away at the back of a huge collection of documents is of interest to historians because it ignores the fact that Cnut was king of England at the time of writing, and addresses him only as most noble king of Denmark. But what I like most about this letter is the tone, which seeks to damn with faint praise. I imagine Fulbert, bishop of Chartres, wondering if he should have it reworded, or whether he could get away with it. He starts off by acknowledging receipt, but not giving thanks for, the gift conferred by Cnut and says he was amazed at Cnut's wisdom and piety:
wisdom, indeed, that you, a man ignorant of our language... piety, truly, when we perceive that you, whom I had heard to be a ruler of pagans... (EHD Vol I 233)
Hardly an unqualified endorsement of Cnut's qualities!


Even in Asser's Life of King Alfred, so invaluable to historians studying the period, there are details so mundane one wonders why he included them. But I am so very grateful that he did, for such details paint a picture of two recognisable figures, simply filled with enthusiasm for the project at hand. And no, it's not war, or royal alliances, but the copying out of a passage of Holy Scripture.
When he urged me to copy the passage as quickly as possible, I said to him: "Would it meet with your approval if I were to copy out the passage separately on another sheet of parchment? For we don't know whether we might at some point find one or more similar passages which you would like; and if this were to happen unexpectedly, we'd be glad to have kept it separate." (Asser Ch 88)

Yes, these people lived many centuries ago, and much of what they built and wrote was destroyed, either by 'Vikings' or Normans. Much of what is left was written with religious motive, and whilst useful to the historian, is peppered with miracles, and discoveries of un-corrupted saintly bodies, but search around, and there are also many glimpses or ordinary people, doing very ordinary things. 

* I'm grateful to Christopher Monk for his insights into the translation here
** The 'Mercian Register' being the exception

Recent Posts: ~
The 'Evil' Women of Mercia
The Battle Site of 'Heavenfield'
Anglo-Saxon Childhood

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The 'Evil' Women of Mercia

Adultery, poison, witchcraft, murder, incitement to murder, and being murdered. Exciting times for the noblewomen of Anglo-Saxon England...
King Edward receives a drink before his stepmother kills him

In a forthcoming anthology I've written an essay about two such women: one stood accused of romping three-in-a-bed with her husband (the king) and her own mother, and being too closely related to her husband. The other stood accused variously of being complicit in the murder of her first husband, of torturing and then murdering an abbot, of being in an adulterous relationship with her second husband, (king, and brother of the previously mentioned king) and finally of colluding in the murder of her stepson, who succeeded her husband as king.
King Edgar meets, and is enchanted by, Ælfthryth

I've examined the primary sources and come to my own conclusions about these stories. But they are by no means the only women to be afforded such notoriety.

When I was approached to participate in this anthology, it was these two women who first came to mind, especially as they had already featured in one of my novels, Alvar the Kingmaker.

Researching for my new book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom - to be published by Amberley later this year - I've been 'reacquainting' myself with a few other 'evil' women, and on the face of it, they are deserving of the epithet, and could all have been fitting subjects for the essay.

Allow me to introduce them:

Alhflæd was the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, nemesis of Penda of Mercia. The kings met on the battlefield in 655, and Oswiu was the victor. And yet, for all that these two kingdoms were bitter enemies during the seventh century, there was a lot of inter-marriage between the two royal houses. Penda's son married Oswiu's daughter, and Oswiu's daughter married Penda's son. This son was named Peada, and Bede remembered him for converting the peoples over whom he was made king, the Middle Angles, to Christianity. According to Bede:
He asked for the hand of [Oswiu's] daughter Alhflæd ... and gladly declared himself ready to become a Christian. He was earnestly persuaded to accept the faith by Alhfrith, son of King Oswiu, who was his brother-in-law and friend. (HE iii 21)
It might be nice to think of these young royals all getting on famously well, but only around three years later, Peada was dead, 'slain', according to one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and specifically by his wife according to Bede, who said that he was murdered:
by the treachery, or so it is said, of his wife during the very time of the Easter festival (HE iii 24)
Yet another marriage took place between the two families, this time between the last of Penda's sons to become a king in Mercia, Æthelred, and the daughter of Oswiu and his second wife. This daughter was called Osthryth. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was in 697 that 'the Southumbrians slew Osthryth, Ethelred's queen and Ecgfrith's [King of Northumbria] sister.'

No explanation is given for the murder. It is known that Osthryth oversaw the removal of the bones of St Oswald, her uncle, to the abbey at Bardney, in an area where he might not have been that fondly remembered. Oswald had been an enemy of Mercia, so perhaps they didn't like her highlighting his memory, but this seems a poor excuse for killing her. Was it retribution for her half-sister's murderous act? Again, it seems a bit of an over-reaction, especially given the amount of time which had elapsed.

Image of St Oswald in Durham Cathedral

It must, however, have been a tense situation, given that her husband had waged war on her brother, and in the ensuing battle, another brother of hers had been killed. Bede noted that this young man was about eighteen years of age, and beloved in both kingdoms.  

It's clear that even while these marriages were occurring, the two royal houses were still bitterly opposed to one another and that there were conflicting loyalties. It is perhaps in this context that the murder should be viewed, but whatever she had done, or been accused of, we shall never know.

Eadburh's crimes, on the other hand, were written down in great detail, and publicised. She was the daughter of King Offa, and she was married to Beorhtric, king of Kent, whom she accidentally poisoned. Asser, writing the Life of King Alfred, was scathing indeed of this woman, who had behaved 'like a tyrant after the manner of her father'. She loathed all of her husband's friends, and decided to kill them with poison:
This is known to have happened with a certain young man very dear to the king, whom she poisoned when she could not denounce him before the king. King Beorhtric himself is said to have taken some of that poison unawares: she had intended to give it not to him, but to the young man; but the king took it first and both of them died as a result. (Asser Ch 14)
The murderess then went to the court of Charlemagne, who established her as abbess of a large convent. But this irredeemable woman apparently lived even more recklessly than before, and was caught 'in debauchery' with a man of her own race, and having been ejected from the nunnery, died in poverty. Asser claimed to have heard this story from witnesses who saw her begging in the streets.

Eadburh's crimes though seem rather run-of-the-mill compared with the next 'evil' woman on this list.

After Offa's death, the Mercian throne passed briefly to his son, Ecgfrith, who reigned for only a few months. He was succeeded by Coenwulf, who reigned until 821.

After this, things get a little hazy. What we do know is that Coenwulf had a son, Cynehelm, and a daughter, Cwoenthryth. William of Malmesbury recorded that:
At Winchcombe rests Cenwulf [Coenwulf] with his son Kenelm [Cynehelm]. At the age of 7 the boy had been left by his father to be brought up by his sister. In her greed, she entertained the illusory hope of the throne, and assigned the job of eliminating her little brother to the retainer who looked after him. He took the innocent child off on the pretence of a hunt, killed him, and hid him in some bushes. (Gesta Pontificum iv 156 3) 
So far, so traditional. But this concealment was for naught, because a piece of parchment, carried by a dove, floated down onto the altar of St Peter in Rome, revealing the whereabouts of the body. Thus the body was carried to Winchcombe and when the murderess saw what was happening, she began chanting a psalm backwards as some kind of evil spell, but by God's power her eyes were torn from their sockets, with blood splattering to an extent that William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, proclaimed, 'the bloodstains are there to this day.'

Detail from a page of the Winchcombe Psalter

There is very little recorded evidence about Cynehelm, and all we really know is that he existed, and predeceased his father. His sister had been in dispute with the Church over monastic property. Unlikely, then, that she was to be remembered fondly in William's Gesta Pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops of England) but clearly the story, as presented by William, is nonsense. 

Even so, in comparison, the 'crimes' of the subjects of my essay might seem mild. Ælfgifu, wife of King Eadwig, and Ælfthryth, first, second or possibly third wife of King Edgar, both had cause, like Cwoenthryth, to be reviled by the Church, but not necessarily for obvious reasons...

[all above images are in the Public Domain]

To read my essay, Rioting in the Harlot's Embrace: Matrimony and Sanctimony in Anglo-Saxon England, you can preorder HERE where you'll also find details of the other essays in the collection, which examine the literary traditions of the tale of Lady Godiva (another Mercian!!), question whether Anne Boleyn and Thomas Wyatt really 'did', explore the marriages of Mary Queen of Scots, and take us to the brothels of Victorian England.

To read more about Oswiu, Oswald, Penda et al, try my latest novel Cometh the Hour 

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Battle-site of 'Heavenfield'

Someone asked my - adult - daughter once if I travelled to many locations in the course of my research. Her answer was: 'She stands around in fields a lot and gets emotional, does that count?'

Well, it's largely true. There are a few buildings that can be dated to the Anglo-Saxon period (see my post here about Escomb Church) but when it comes to battle fields, many are still missing, presumed lost. 

While historians continue to argue about the exact location of Brunanburh, there are some sites which are less disputed, one of which is the site of the battle at Heavenfield, where St Oswald's Church stands close to Hadrian's Wall. So close, in fact, that there are bits missing from the wall at this point, and it's thought that stones from it were used to build the church.

What we know of the battle is this:~

Edwin, king of Northumbria, had been killed in battle in 633 by the combined forces of Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd. According to Bede, (HE ii 20) Cadwallon was in rebellion against Edwin, suggesting some sort of overlordship, evidently resented, and after the battle the land of the Northumbrians was ravaged and Edwin's wife and surviving children fled to Kent.

Edwin had been expanding his kingdom at the expense of the British kingdoms, and while there are some traditions which suggest that initially Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon had been enemies, they were at this point in alliance, although there is some debate over whether it was an enterprise of equals, or whether Cadwallon was the leader. 

Edwin had been in exile for many years before he became king, and one of his first acts upon gaining the throne had been to attack the British kingdom of Elmet (centred around modern-day Leeds) and in so doing, he removed a 'buffer' between his own lands and those of the Welsh.

After Edwin's death, the kingdom of Northumbria briefly split back into its two separate kingdoms, and Edwin's cousin came forward to claim Deira in the south, while an exiled member of the old ruling dynasty claimed Bernicia in the north.

Cadwallon, who clearly had a hefty axe to grind, killed the former, who had 'rashly' tried to besiege him, and a year later, also slew the latter, who had come to make peace with the Welsh king bringing 'only twelve chosen thegns' with him. Bede's verdict was that Cadwallon had executed a 'just vengeance on them, though with unrighteous violence'. They had, he said, reverted to the 'filth of their former idolatry'. (HE iii 1)

The latter's half-brother, Oswald, had also been in exile, and returned now to claim both the kingdoms of the north. Oswald was also the nephew of the previous king, Edwin, and having both Deiran and Bernician blood, was acceptable to both realms. There was just the small matter of the Welshman - a Christian whom Bede called 'a barbarian in heart and disposition' who spared neither women nor innocent children' - to deal with...

Oswald came, according to Bede, with an army, small in numbers but strengthened by faith, and I imagine that they might have followed the line of the wall as they travelled from what is now the west of Scotland. Before the battle, Oswald is said to have set up a holy cross, and it is on this site that the present church was built.

Excavation at this part of the wall has revealed fragments of human bone and weaponry, suggesting that this is indeed the site of a battle.

The church sits on top of the hill, and as I stood in the churchyard and looked down at the fields below, I couldn't help but picture the landscape as it might have looked then, with soldiers and equipment.

Cadwallon was slain. Possibly his forces were depleted, for it seems he had been campaigning in the north for a while. He is said to have been killed at a place called Deniseburn which has been identified with Rowley Burn*. If so, then he was chased for some miles before he was killed. I drove to Rowley Burn, and tried to envisage what it must have looked like in 634, when a mighty Welsh king drew his last breath, but the scene was a tranquil one.

Of the site of the church, Bede said that it was a place still 'held in great veneration' (HE iii 2) but no trace of the Anglo-Saxon church remains.  Inside the existing church, which dates from the nineteenth century, there is a Roman altar stone,

and the building is peaceful, simply presented, and so calm and quiet it's hard to imagine the clamour of battle which once rang out. 

Given the location and the archaeological evidence, I feel confident that I was in the right place. It's not often that I can stand somewhere and know that the people I write about once stood in the same spot. So yes, I do often stand in fields and get a bit emotional.

These characters all feature in my latest novel, Cometh the Hour

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

* Peter Marren, Battle of the Dark Ages, pp74-75

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Anglo-Saxon Childhood

It would be no surprise that childhood in centuries past was radically different from the experience of youngsters in the 20th and 21st centuries. But with so few written sources, can we glean anything at all about childhood in pre-Conquest England?

The laws of King Æthelberht of Kent give a few clues about the value of children in the seventh century. In them, we learn that if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him, there are various penalites, and 
If she bears a living child, she is to have half the goods, if the husband dies first.
If she wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods .*
It may not be much, and certainly not anything like our modern notion of 'child benefit' money, but at least there was a basic provision there.

The laws of King Ine, later on in the seventh century, at first seem to suggest that childhood was short:
A ten-year-old boy can be considered privy to a theft.
Except that even in 2018, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is still ten, albeit that the procedure for dealing with juvenile crime differs from that for adults. Later laws, of Athelstan in the tenth and Cnut in the eleventh centuries, set the age at twelve.

Elsewhere in Ine's laws there is provision for a widow if
the husband dies, the mother is to have her child and rear it; she is to be given six shillings for its maintenance, a cow in summer, an ox in winter; the kinsmen are to take charge of the paternal home, until the child is grown up.

Alfred the Great's laws in the ninth century specified that if a girl who was not of age was the victim of rape, then the compensation would be the same as for an adult.

So we can see that there were certain rights enshrined in the laws, regarding provision for widows with children, and for crimes perpetrated by and against minors. But what of attitudes towards children?

Asser, writing the life of King Alfred, does not at any point mention the name of the king's wife. But he mentions the children:
namely  Æthelflæd the first-born, and after her Edward, then Æthelgifu followed by Ælfthryth, and finally Æthelweard, (leaving aside those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death who numbered...)
How many? We don't know. As Simon Keynes points out in the notes to his translation, the numeral, if it was there, is unreadable. 

It has been suggested that child mortality was around thirty percent in Anglo-Saxon England (S Rubin, Medieval English Medicine.

Coupled with the information from Asser that Alfred had many more children than those who survived to adulthood, it seems to me that there is a very good reason why his eldest daughter had only one daughter, and it is not, as the chronicler William of Malmesbury suggested, that she 'chose' not to have any more and 
ever after refused the embraces of her husband.
I suspect that there were other pregnancies, maybe other births, and that her daughter Ælfwynn was the only one to survive, but that this was not seen as uncommon, and thus was hardly remarked upon. When writing Æthelflæd's story in my first novel To Be A Queen I decided to present this scenario. 

Though rare, Asser's is not the only remark on this subject, and it seems to me that even if still-births or infant deaths were common, there is no reason to think that they weren't distressing.

There is one mention in Bede, of seventh-century King Edwin of Northumbria's children by his second wife Æthelburh of Kent, two of whom
were snatched from this life while they were still wearing [their baptism gown] and are buried in the church at York. (HE ii 14)

but by and large these occurrences are left unrecorded.

It has been suggested that because of the number of adult skeletons found with evidence of cleft palate, that such people must have been exceptionally well cared for when they were children, for it would have been extremely difficult for them to feed (Victoria Thompson, Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, citing Crawford, Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England pp94-5)

A seventh-century grave in a cemetery at Barton-on-Humber, less than a metre in length, was found to contain a feeding bottle, hinting that either the baby had a cleft palate, or that the mother was unable to feed the child herself, or perhaps even that the mother had died in childbirth.

Baptism was obviously important in the Christian age, and when I was writing my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I was keen to find out what happened to children who died before they could be baptised. Information was scant. Compensation was due if a child died without having been baptised, but what happened to the body? 

John Blair (The Church in Anglo-Saxon England) observed that later infant burials at Raunds in Northamptonshire encroached on the reserved strip of land closest to the walls of the church, and in his note 201 p 471 he wrote:
This looks like a case of the widespread practice of burying infants under the eavesdrip.
He then refers to Stephen Wilson (in The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe) 
for the idea that water running off the church roof conveyed some kind of posthumous baptism **
There is one reference to a royal baptism, and a particular incident, which will not surprise any parent, but which was considered an evil omen. Æthelred II (the Unready), according to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, 'made water in the font' during his immersion, causing Archbishop Dunstan to predict the slaughter of the English people that would take place during his reign. 

Of course, Henry was writing in the twelfth century with the benefit of hindsight. It cannot have been unusual for infants to urinate in the font and indeed priests were advised that they only need change the water if the child had defecated. (Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood, citing Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children)

What of the children who did survive those first few months and years? Asser tells us that Alfred's youngest surviving child was 
given over to training in reading and writing under the attentive care of teachers, in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well.
Asser's  job was to portray his patron's credentials as the promoter of learning and culture, but it is interesting to note that he saw fit to add that children of less noble birth were also given access to the rudiments of education. 

Children are rarely mentioned in the chronicles, laws, and charters of the period. Those of low rank probably worked alongside their parents from a young age, but we can see from these few examples that they were valued, cared for, and that those who survived were protected by law, and that those who did not were mourned, and that their journey into the after-world was considered to be of the utmost importance.

* All law codes quoted from EHD (English Historical Documents) Vol I Ed. Whitelock
**I am indebted to Ann Williams for locating this information for me