Monday, 23 May 2022

Dial M for... Merewalh of the Magonsæte and all his little Ms...

 A family featuring prominently in my writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is that of seventh-century Merewalh of the Magonsæte, all of whom had names beginning with M, which perhaps displays either a lack of imagination, or a strong sense of kin!

The alliterative nature of the names is interesting, as it has often been cited as a reason to dismiss the idea that Merewalh was a son of Penda, the seventh-century pagan king of Mercia. But of Penda's numerous children only one, in fact, had a name beginning with P, so this is not a strong enough reason to say that Merewalh was not one of Penda's sons. The last part of his name causes more debate, because it suggests to some that he was either a slave (Old English wealh) or, perhaps more probably, a Welshman. Penda had strong friendships and alliances with the British living in what we now call Wales, and there was also likely to have been a lot of intermarriage between Mercians and 'Welsh'. There were kings/subkings/noblemen with this name element - Cenwalh, Æthelwalh, and Penwalh, for example - and I don't think it should tax us unduly, other than to note that it, along with others, might indicate a degree of intermarriage. Merewalh, it is assumed, was given the rule of the area where the people known as the Magonsætan by Penda, so perhaps it was either because he was Penda's son, or foster son, or because he was a Welsh ally rewarded for help/service.

Penda of Mercia

The Magonsæte was a subkingdom of Mercia, centred around Hereford, though the name itself is not recorded earlier than 811 and it may have been home to a culturally and ethnically diverse population. Merewalh, despite having at least three sons, didn't establish a ruling dynasty, and the area was later absorbed into greater Mercia.

It seems that Merewalh was married twice, and his first marriage produced sons Merchelm and Mildfrith. His second marriage resulted in yet more little Ms: daughters Mildburg, Mildthryth and Mildgyth, along with another son, Merefin, who did not survive infancy. 

We have very little information about Merewalh's sons; however, material does survive which tells us about his daughters. But first, mention must be made of his second wife who, you'll be pleased to hear, did not have a name beginning with M, though her name has caused plenty of confusion! She is sometimes mistakenly called Eormenburg, has been sometimes called Æbbe, but she was actually Eafe, or Domne Eafe (Domneva), daughter of a Kentish king.

Domne Eafe had two brothers who were killed by their cousin. A famous story concerns how she demanded compensation from their killer, and duped him into giving her more land than he'd anticipated. On this land she founded an abbey, Minster-in-Thanet, and it is still home to a community of nuns to this day, and part of the original building survives.

Minster Abbey, showing Saxon stonework
(photo by kind permission of the community there)

Of her daughters, Mildgyth remains a shadowy figure, about whom we have no information beyond that she was buried somewhere in Northumbria; some have questioned whether she even existed.

We are on surer ground with the other two daughters. Mildrith, we are told, was sent abroad, to receive her education at the monastery at Chelles, in Frankia. The abbess attempted to force her into marriage with one of her kinsmen and, when Mildrith refused to acquiesce, she was put in a hot oven, but miraculously managed to escape. The abbess then beat her so viciously that her hair was torn out. Mildrith sent some of this hair to her mother as an SOS signal. Domne Eafe sent a rescue party, although Mildrith refused to leave until she had collected some holy relics from her room. The delay meant that they were pursued and were only successful in escaping because the tide turned. No doubt her mother was pleased to see her again; Mildrith entered Domne Eafe’s house at Minster-in-Thanet and eventually succeeded her as abbess. 

Tapestry owned by Minster Abbey, depicting the first three
abbesses, including Domneva and Mildrith

The remaining sister, Mildburg, became the second abbess of Wenlock, and many miracles were associated with her. 

An important document, the Testament of St Mildburg, speaks of land and gifts granted to her by her brothers, Merchelm and Mildfrith, although the language used suggests that they were her half-siblings (thus the assertion above that Merewalh married twice). In the Testament, Merchelm is styled rex but if he did, indeed, succeed his father as king of the Magonsæte the line stopped with him. Mildfrith was named regulus in a monumental inscription set up by Cuthbert, bishop of Hereford in the eighth century. Perhaps the brothers ruled jointly? The only other information we have of Mildfrith is a story concerning the murder of Æthelberht of East Anglia by Offa, king of Mercia. Apparently, upon hearing reports of miracles associated with the victim, Mildfrith founded a minster at Hereford. But Mildfrith must have been long dead by the time of this murder, which occurred in 794.The Testament does tell us though that his sister, or half-sister Mildburg, was still alive in 727, and possibly even in 736.

Plan of the later medieval buildings at Wenlock

Before she became abbess at Wenlock it had been under the auspices of the abbot of an East Anglian abbey and an abbess who came there from Chelles. As already mentioned, we know that Mildrith was educated at Chelles, and it is possible that Mildburg also spent some time there. A curious mix, then, produced a religious house in Mercia, on the Welsh border, founded initially by East Anglians and styled on Frankish models. 

It seems that Mildburg also had connections with Llanfillo, near Brecon; during the seventh century relations between the Mercians and the Welsh had been good – her grandfather Penda and Cadwallon of Gwynedd had fought as allies against the Northumbrians – so perhaps there is a possibility that Mildburg’s father Merewalh was indeed a Welshman, given land for service by Penda, or that perhaps he was Penda’s Welsh son-in-law, by dint of his first marriage, rather than his son. 

We don't know when, where or how Merewalh died (a date of around 680 has been suggested), and we have scanty information about his family, but his wife and daughters seem to have led eventful lives!

The name Magonsætan was mentioned as late at 1041, so it seems that some 'tribal' memory/identity remained centuries later.

You can read more about Merewalh and his family in my nonfiction books, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. They also appear in my novel about Penda, Cometh the Hour, and feature prominently in the follow-up, The Sins of the Father.

Monday, 7 March 2022

Great Escapes

 It's Women's History Month so it seemed appropriate to put together some stories about courageous women who most certainly did not submit quietly to a fate dictated for them by others:

Let’s turn first to seventh-century Queen Æthelthryth, a member of the East Anglian royal family but married to Ecgfrith of Northumbria. He was perhaps ten years her junior and, famously, she was said to have been encouraged by Bishop, later Saint, Wilfrid to remain celibate. Bede said he heard the details of the story from Wilfrid himself, and explained how Æthelthryth gained her husband’s permission to enter a monastery, staying first with Abbess Æbbe at Coldingham Abbey and then becoming abbess of Ely.

Image of Æthelthryth - with kind permission
 of the rector of Hexham Abbey

The Liber Eliensis (a history of Ely Abbey compiled in the 12th century) tells a dramatic tale in which Ecgfrith, having initially agreed to the divorce, tried to remove her forcibly from the convent. Æbbe advised Æthelthryth that her only option was to escape. The king set off in pursuit, but Æthelthryth and her two lady companions climbed to the top of a steep hill where divine intervention caused the water levels to rise, cutting off the hill and keeping the holy virgins hidden for seven days. The king could not get near, and eventually returned to York. Unfortunately the nuns on the rock began to suffer from extreme thirst. The abbess prayed for them and in answer to her prayers, a spring of water gushed forth and provided the nuns the means with which to slake their thirst. The Liber Eliensis states that this story was not based on the writings of Bede but came from those who knew the area of Coldingham and were witness to the events. Well, whether the story is true or not, she got to Ely safely and became abbess, being succeeded there by her sister.

A contemporary of Æthelthryth, Mildrith was the daughter of Merewalh (a sub-king of Mercia and possible son of King Penda), and Domneva (Domme Eafe) a Kentish princess. Mildrith was sent abroad, to be educated at the abbey at Chelles. Goscelin of St Bertin said that while she was there, the abbess attempted to force her into marriage with one of the abbess’s kinsmen. When Mildrith refused to comply, she was put in a hot oven, but miraculously managed to escape. The abbess then beat her so viciously that her hair was torn out. Mildrith sent some of this hair to her mother as an SOS signal. Domneva sent a rescue party, although Mildrith refused to leave until she had collected some holy relics from her room.

 The delay meant that they were pursued and were only successful in escaping because the tide turned. When she at last returned to Kent and set foot on land, Mildrith left the imprint of her shoe on the rock at Ebbsfleet and transferred to it healing powers. Mildrith entered Domneva’s house at Minster-in-Thanet and eventually succeeded her mother as abbess. This family was quite a force to be reckoned with. Though not involved in any dramatic escapes of her own, Domneva tricked a king, her cousin, who had ordered the murder of her brothers, into giving her the land where she built the abbey at Minster-in-Thanet. Incidentally, Minster Abbey is still home to a community of nuns. 

Tapestry showing the first three abbesses at Minster - with kind
permission from the community there

Osith,(alternatively Osgyth or even Osyth) was a relative of Mildrith’s, if she’s correctly identified as the the daughter of a sub-king of Surrey, Frithuwald, and his wife Wilburh, sister of King Wulfhere of Mercia (possibly Merewalh’s brother). According to later, twelfth-century, stories she was brought up in Aylesbury in the nunnery of her aunt St Eadgyth. On a journey to meet another aunt, St Eadburh, she drowned in the River Cherwell but was revived by the prayers of her aunts. She wanted to remain a virgin but was married off by her parents to King Sigehere of the East Saxons, but she avoided consummating the marriage, putting herself under the protection of a bishop named Beaduwine. (There are echoes here of the story of Æthelthryth, of course, who similarly was under the protection of a bishop). 

Sigehere seems to have accepted the situation and given her land at Chich, where she built her abbey. She thus escaped marriage, but perhaps not with her life, for she was apparently kidnapped by pirates and beheaded after refusing to renounce her faith. In one version of her story, she was buried at Aylesbury, while in another she was buried at Chich, taken to Aylesbury for nearly fifty years, and then returned. If Osith was indeed the daughter of Wilburh, wife of Frithuwald, then a connection with Aylesbury, a probable royal minster, makes sense. Her story might have been confused with that of another lady of the same name, because there were two feast days and one explanation is that the temporary relocation of the relics from Chich to Aylesbury was an attempt to reconcile two separate cults. 

Illuminated capital depicting Saint Osith

Let’s fast-forward now to the tenth century where we find a woman, sometimes a nun, sometimes not, sometimes a royal wife, sometimes not, but who, in one version of her story, also had a dramatic escape.

Wulfthryth was the mother of King Edgar’s daughter St Edith of Wilton, and possibly his son, Edward the Martyr. She became abbess of Wilton and was later venerated as a saint, but before that was the subject of much gossip. It is not known precisely when she took up the religious life. Some sources state that she was a nun when Edgar met and seduced her.

According to Osbern of Canterbury, writing in the latter part of the eleventh century, Edgar seduced a nun of Wilton who gave birth to a son, Edward. But another source, a young contemporary of Osbern’s named Eadmer, said that Edward was the son of Æthelflæd Eneda (Edgar’s supposed first wife). Eadmer decided therefore that Edgar, a married man, sinfully seduced a laywoman who wore a veil in an attempt to avoid the king’s attentions. He said that the king went to Wilton and, “captivated by the beauty of a certain young girl” ordered her to be brought to him while she, out of fear for her chastity, “placed a veil snatched from one of the nuns on her own head.” Edgar though, was not fooled and, saying, “How suddenly you have become a nun,” dragged the veil from her head.  

Goscelin of St Bertin said it was St Wulfhild, abbess of Barking, who was in fact the object of Edgar’s attentions. She evaded him by escaping naked down a sewer, and so the king took her kinswoman, Wulfthryth, a laywoman being educated by the nuns, instead. Goscelin was however adamant that Wulfthryth became Edgar’s lawful wife and that they were bound by ‘indissoluble vows’.    

Veils and sewers notwithstanding, Wulfthryth seems to have been a canny administrator of Wilton. She purchased a collection of relics, and lands which had been granted to her by Edgar were conferred to the nunnery, presumably so that the abbey would retain the lands after her death. She was influential too: Goscelin related how she brought pressure to bear on King Æthelred when his officers tried to remove a thief who had claimed sanctuary in the church and the royal servants were blinded as punishment, and how she interceded on behalf of two priests imprisoned by the reeve of Wilton.

St Mary (Old Church) Wilton - attribution LINK

One of the escape stories has a less happier ending, though it’s not wholly one of despair. A woman named Cyneburh is named in the Gloucester Cartulary. According to legend, she was a Saxon princess who fled to Gloucester in order to avoid an arranged marriage. She took service with a baker, who was so impressed by her work that he adopted her as his daughter. This aroused the jealousy of the baker’s wife, who murdered Cyneburh. She then disposed of the body by throwing it into a well. When the baker returned home and couldn’t find Cyneburh, he began calling her name and she, though dead, answered him, thus revealing where her body was hidden. She was buried near the well, and a church was then built on the site. Thereafter miracles were recorded, with one woman being cured having lost the use of her muscles down one side of her body, another’s withered hand was restored, while someone else was cured of dropsy.

Sadly, it’s impossible to identify this lady. She is not Cyneburh daughter of Penda, for she married Alhfrith, son of Oswiu of Northumbria, nor is she Cyneburh of the West Saxons, wife of Oswald of Northumbria, who is generally assumed to have taken the veil at Gloucester and become abbess there. This lady of the well must either be a figment of the Gloucester chronicler’s imagination, or she is yet another woman whose full story might never come to light. 

I mentioned St Edith of Wilton briefly, and she has an escape story, or rather her leather and purple garments do (!) while Balthild the slave escaped servitude, and Judith of Flanders, having caused a scandal with her first two marriages, was locked up for her own good by her father and made her escape before marrying a third time. For more about those three indomitable women, see HERE

All these women’s stories are included in Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, and almost all of them feature in my novels, too.

Thursday, 30 December 2021

2021 Round-up (and Æthelflæd’s Daughter) plus News!

We once again spent much of the year in lockdown but writerly things were still able to happen and, indeed, are planned (find out more at the end of this post). Highlights of my year were:

Being shortlisted for the prestigious Exeter Story Prize and Trisha Ashley Award with my story The Borrowed Days.

The publication of the second and last in my Tales of the Iclingas series. Book One, Cometh the Hour, told the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, his feud with the Northumbrian kings and his quest to avenge his womenfolk. Now The Sins of the Father continues the tale by focusing on the next generation. All are scarred in one way or another by the continuing feud, but does any of them have the strength to end it? The reviews have been lovely, with one reader saying:

 "Annie Whitehead’s writing is an absolute joy to read. Her prose is lyrical, her research is meticulous, and she recreates the Anglo-Saxon world so faithfully that it’s easy to lose yourself in the pages of the story. Whenever I read any of her stories, I can’t help but feel that I’m sitting in a mead hall, being entertained by the scop while I dine on fresh cheese and honey. The Sins of the Father, the sequel to Cometh the Hour, delivers everything I’ve come to love from one of Annie’s novels and more. She can’t produce a time travel machine, but she’s given us the next best thing. From the opening scene until the last, I was hooked. "

2021 also saw the publication of the paperback edition of my second nonfiction book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, of which Imogen Robertson, author and chair of the Historical Writers' Association, said: 

"Absolutely fascinating - Annie Whitehead pieces together the evidence with meticulous care, then tells the stories of an exciting variety of remarkable women in fluid, crystal-clear prose. It is a pleasure to read her thoughtful and nuanced portraits of peace-weavers, queens and saints and have my eyes opened to the complex histories of these forgotten Anglo-Saxon leaders."

And the publication of the paperback version of 1066 Turned Upside Down, our collaborative re-imagining of the events of 1066.

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, my first nonfiction book, continued to occupy a place in the top five of books on Anglo-Saxon history on Amazon and found its way onto several bookshop tables, including the huge five-storey branch of Waterstones in Birmingham just before Christmas.

In the autumn, I took part in the Ask Historians Digital Conference, where I discussed the misrepresentation of Anglo-Saxon Women by the later chroniclers, and you can see our roundtable discussion HERE

I was interviewed by Seb Whitehouse for his Youtube channel, where we chatted about social history as well as kings and queens and, of course, Mercia. You can catch the interview HERE

I had a lovely chat with the Tudors Dynasty podcast, too. Now, you might be wondering, what on earth does Anglo-Saxon history have to do with the Tudors? But, there is a link, and here's a little bit more information about that connection:

I'd been talking to a friend not so long beforehand, about the enduring popularity of the Tudors and why it should be so. I think the fascination is partly to do with two things: a king executing his queens is unique in English history, and women succeeding women to the throne is something which had never happened before and has not happened since, unless you count Anne’s succeeding William and Mary.

Well, I say it hadn’t happened before. It did, once, albeit briefly.

I’ve written a great deal about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, in my novel To Be A Queen, and both my nonfiction books, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and she was born at a time when ‘Viking’ incursions were not only a major nuisance, but had already seen two kingdoms - East Anglia and Northumbria - fall pretty much permanently under Danish (and Norse) control. Only the very top part of Northumbria, some of Mercia and the whole of Wessex were still under English rule. Alfred, and later his son, Edward, began working alongside Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and, when a concerted joint effort pushed the invaders out of London, the alliance was sealed by the marriage of Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. 

We don’t have much information for the early years of their marriage, except the details of the continuing campaign against the 'Vikings'. Around the year 902, however, the chronicles stop mentioning Æthelred’s name and the Irish annals make it clear that he was suffering from some kind of illness, which prevented him from fighting but did not stop him giving strategic advice to his wife. This gives me the impression that by this stage, this was one amazing power couple, happy to support and protect each other - she looking after him while he was ill and he being happy to delegate to a ‘mere’ woman.

History records - and yes, it’s a bit of a spoiler - that after this protracted illness she ended up ruling alone. That’s also worth a moment’s pause. Only once before had a woman ruled an English kingdom, and it didn’t end well. Seaxburh, queen of Wessex, was the only Anglo-Saxon woman to be included on a regnal list. She ruled for somewhere between one and two years in the seventh century but as a later chronicler said, the men of the kingdom would not go to war under the leadership of a woman. I think ‘war’ is the clue here. It’s likely that she was actually ruling as regent for her son during a time of conflict over the succession. At any rate, her rule was not long, and was not successful.

Æthelflæd, on the other hand, ruled Mercia for seven years on her own and in that time she worked in partnership with her brother Edward to wrest occupied Mercia out of 'Viking' hands, building defensive towns called burhs, and famously taking Derby with her troops and losing in the fighting ‘four thegns who were dear to her.’ Derby was one of the strategically important ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw (the other four being Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham and Leicester). By the time she died at Tamworth, their work was almost done.

From beyond the grave though, she pulled off another remarkable feat: her daughter Ælfwynn succeeded her. 

We know virtually nothing of Ælfwynn’s life, not even her year of birth, but we do know that she witnessed a charter of her mother’s, issued at Weardbyrig (unidentified but possibly in Shropshire) in 915, when Æthelflæd was in the midst of her intense burh-building programme. Even if Ælfwynn had been born late in the marriage – and it seems unlikely that she would have been conceived after her father fell ill in around 902 – she probably wouldn’t have been on campaign with her mother if she was still tiny. Most likely she was a young adult at the very least. Given that it would have been far safer for her to remain in the Mercian heartland, there could well have been a specific reason for her presence at Weardbyrig, that of watching and learning from her mother, with the intention that one day she would take over.

But if she was already a young woman, why had she remained unmarried? Again, I think it might be because she was being groomed to take over the country and keep it in Mercian hands. It’s said that her mother raised the future King Athelstan in Mercia but she clearly didn’t consider him her heir and, when she died, the Mercian council declared for Ælfwynn. We know this because, like Seaxburh all those years ago, her tenure was short-lived. Her uncle Edward, who’d been happy for his sister to rule, wasn’t so accommodating when it came to her daughter and according to the annal known as the Mercian Register, she was ‘deprived of all authority’. Thus they clearly believed that she was rightful ruler.

We don’t know what happened to her after that, other than that she was probably taken into Wessex. A later charter speaks of a holy woman called Ælfwynn, but there is no proof at all that this was the same woman. Like so many before and after, she simply disappeared off the pages of history.

But we should not overlook that very important point. In Mercia in 918 a remarkable thing happened: a woman ruler was succeeded by a woman ruler. This would not happen again until the time of the Tudors.

And finally... a version of the above mini-article first appeared on author Samantha Wilcoxson's blog and might give a slight hint of the direction my next novel will take me. But first, I have a talk to prepare for the re-enactment group, Swords of Penda, and I will be contributing a chapter for a new book about English kings and queens which will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2023. That should all keep me busy for a while!

Thank you for reading my blog articles - I have many more planned for the coming year so do please keep popping by.

Monday, 13 December 2021

Finding Stories in Legends: The Anglo-Saxon World

A royal son, in defiance of his frail and useless father, released the king’s prisoner from jail and married her, before leading the kingdom in an heroic fight against the invaders. A king went to war because his sister had been mistreated. A princess was accused of killing her little brother and her punishment was that her eyeballs fell out. A teenaged king was found in bed on his wedding night with his wife and her mother…

These are all tales worthy of books. Even Films maybe. But they’re tales of Anglo-Saxons, so you might not have heard of them. 

It’s less true now, thanks to The Vikings TV series and The Last Kingdom – TV series and books - but the Anglo-Saxon period has at times suffered from a lack of interest. 

But why? A bit of shameless name-dropping here: over lunch one day, Fay Weldon told me that she thought it had a fair bit to do with the costumes. The Tudors, for example, had exquisite clothing and accurate paintings which can be used to reproduce the garments for telly shows. The Anglo-Saxons left only drawings which lacked perspective and detail and yes, it’s fair to say that in comparison, their clothes were a shade less flamboyant.

There’s a big line, too, drawn across history and making a cultural and documentary barrier: 1066. For a long time, the Anglo-Saxons were separated from us by that line, seen as a people from a far-off, almost mythical world. The ‘Dark Ages’ is now termed the ‘Early Medieval’ period but that tends to mean that the Anglo-Saxons are presumed to have had the same medieval ideas as the Normans, when in fact their laws, particularly relating to women, were a lot more enlightened.

I’m a historian, so I like to sift and sieve, trying to tease the facts from a jumble of chronicles written by people who had a political agenda and told the stories from their own point of view. But I’m an author, too – so I like to get behind the facts and envisage the real people.

Athelstan, from St Bede's Life of 
St Cuthbert

Scenarios described in the opening paragraph have already formed the basis of two of my novels. 

Penda was a pagan warlord who fought against the Northumbrian kings. Bede, a Northumbrian, naturally enough didn’t have much in the way of pleasant things to say about him. But tucked away in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People are a couple of nuggets about Penda: he was tolerant of Christians and he went to war because a neighbouring king repudiated his wife, who happened to be Penda’s sister. Two short sentences allowed me to build up a picture of a man whose motives for war were much less clear-cut and not necessarily driven by bigotry. A man loyal, above all else, to his family. This man intrigued me.

The Venerable Bede

To miss out on Anglo-Saxon history is to miss out on a treat. Such a wealth of stories, such an array of characters…

That three-in-a-bed romp? Well, it may or may not be completely true, but as an opening chapter it served me well. The alleged incident caused widespread fall-out and shaped the politics of tenth-century England. And the novel it inspired also includes the next king’s wife who just happened to be accused of murdering an abbot, colluding with the king in the killing of her first husband, oh, and that of her stepson too. Those women made rather sumptuous ‘bookends’! Behind the fruity gossip though, were a young woman whose reputation was besmirched, and a queen who had to give up two of her children when she married the king, and then lost another when he was still an infant.

King Edgar, from the New Minster
Charter, 966

Another woman whose life story packs a metaphorical punch is Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. She ruled a country in all but name and was instrumental in holding back the Viking onslaught. She probably never wielded a sword yet her story is fascinating none the less. How did she, who was only half-Mercian and a woman, manage to command the loyalty of the Mercian troops? I’ve pondered the paradox of her status many times, in fiction, nonfiction, and even on the ‘stage’.

I still have questions. Why was this remarkable woman so little remarked upon? Her leadership of a kingdom, whether as a politician or a sword-swinging warrior-woman, was unprecedented. Yet the chroniclers either took this completely in their stride, or, with a couple of exceptions, ignored it all together. I couldn’t not write her story.

Æthelflæd, from a 14thC
Genealogical Chronicle

All of my fiction happens to be set in Mercia, the ancient kingdom of the Midlands. So, having written three novels, I realised that I had enough material, along with my original undergrad notes and research books, to undertake the telling of the story of Mercia itself. Here I was able to search for the truth behind such legends as:

Offa – not just a dyke-builder but a major player on the international stage, getting himself involved in a trade war with the emperor, Charlemagne. (Okay, there was a little bit of murder, too…)

Also from Mercia were Lady Godiva - did she really ride naked through the streets of Coventry? – and Eadric Streona, whose name means ‘The Grasper’ and who turned round and changed sides so often during the wars with Cnut that he must have got positively dizzy. In the end, Cnut ordered that Eadric should be paid what was owed him, and one can imagine how he then drew his finger across his throat as he gave the command.

My photo of the Godiva Statue in Coventry

Exciting as these tales are, the Anglo-Saxons were so much more than this. Their world was not one of ‘sword and sorcery.’ They weren’t illiterate heathens (well, Penda was, but this didn’t make him bad); they were real people, whose laws were sophisticated and whose metal-working skills were exquisite. (Think Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo treasures.) Their love of tales and drama means that there is a wealth of material from which to draw. Some of those tales are indeed lurid, but it doesn’t take much scratching to reveal the human stories underneath. 

So many of the stories seemed to concern women that I soon had enough to write another nonfiction book, this time concentrating on those women and trying to separate the facts from the fiction of the later chroniclers.

Sometimes it is merely a footnote: the main character of one of my novels had no recorded wife. But a woman is mentioned as having been deprived of property by his successor. Was she his widow? If they weren’t married, did they have a relationship? Writing historical fiction means being guided by the facts, but sometimes it requires reading between the lines, too. Look closely and there you’ll find the stories.

You can find all my books and stories HERE

[A version of this article first appeared on the blog of Mary Anne Yarde  in 2019]

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Adding some Atmosphere

I've had some lovely compliments recently about the world-building in my novels, so I thought I'd share some aspects of 'Anglo-Saxon' life here with you today.

In my novel Cometh the Hour, I imagined the Sutton Hoo burial and mentioned the lyre that was included in the grave goods. But in all my novels, I've written scenes set in the mead hall during a feast, where invariably there is a scop telling tales, riddles, and playing music.

My photo of the reconstructed lyre at Sutton Hoo

Here's a link (the image of the inside of the mead hall is not strictly accurate) to a piece from Grendelcynn on Youtube, played on a similar instrument. It will give a flavour of the kinds of sound one might have heard at the time:

Of course, lyres weren't the only musical instruments. There were also wooden and even bone whistles, or flutes. The Malham Pipe was originally thought to have been Bronze Age, but is now thought to be post-Roman, and it might have sounded something like this:

I'm very lucky in that the Thegns of Mercia specialise in reconstructing the earlier 'Anglo-Saxon period'. They are constantly inspiring me, and if you've read Cometh the Hour and/or the follow-up, The Sins of the Father, and want an idea of the wrap-over coats that my characters wear, well, here's an image, with kind permission from Æd Thompson and with credit to Jon Wylie of the Thegns:

Please do visit their site or catch them on Twitter and Facebook for more wonderful photos and reconstructions.

Of course, we all know that people at this time loved their 'bling'. Those who've read 'Sins' might recall that a Kentish bride was wearing a rather lovely, and rather large, brooch. My inspiration for this piece was the Kingston Brooch which, I think you'll agree, is also rather lovely:

Image via Wiki Commons: Link

This has been dated to the seventh century and was found near Kingston in Kent, so I'd say it's a pretty perfect fit for my seventh-century royal Kentish bride to wear on her wedding day!

Sadly, there are no surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon wooden buildings, but to get a sense of what they looked like, you could do worse than visiting West Stow Anglo-Saxon Settlement, where they have examples of various styles of buildings:

Via Wiki Commons - Link

There are a few surviving stone churches, however, and whilst it's fair to say that in the early conversion period the churches were also built of wood, there is a remarkable stone built church which has been dated to around the time that my main character in The Sins of the Father, Ethelred, became king of Mercia. This one is in Northumbria, land of his enemies, but let's not hold that against this beautiful building, which I was lucky enough to visit in the spring when the blossom was out:

My photo of Escomb Church, Bishop Aukland, Co Durham

So these are some of the sights, but what about the sounds? The characters in my books would all have spoken local dialect versions of Old English, which sounds like a language far removed from our own, but there are lots of recognisable words, if you look closely.

I wrote a post a little while ago, looking at the words of the Lord's Prayer, and how we can decipher some of the Old English words. 

The Lord's Prayer in Old English - written 
for me by calligrapher, reenactor, and friend,
Dawn Burgoyne

However, perhaps to get a flavour of the seventh-century mead hall we'd be better off listening to a lovely reading of the epic poem Beowulf - which might have originated in Mercia! - by Heiðniborg:

A page from a copy of Beowulf

Outside the mead hall you'd hear various sounds, none louder than thunder. Animals, the clanging from the forge, and conversation (in Old English, of course). Whilst putting together this little blog post I came across this fun website. It's a bit too 'modern' for our purposes, but I reckon if you set the sounds to this pattern, you'll get an idea:

Click HERE to visit the site

Of course, one thing I can't do is bring you the smells of Anglo-Saxon life. In my books, I try to focus on the more pleasant aromas - cooked food, flower blossom, herbs - but I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that some other smells might have been distinctly unpleasant, so perhaps we should be grateful that blog posts can't yet bring Smell-0-Vision to the world!

My two-book series, Tales of the Iclingas, is complete and available now:

Cometh the Hour:

The Sins of the Father:

And you can find my other novels, stories, and my nonfiction books HERE

Monday, 29 November 2021

Tamworth - Ancient Mercian Royal Residence

Last time, I wrote about the site of Bamburgh Castle,  which features in both of my Tales of the Iclingas novels. This time I thought I’d explain some of the background to my choice of the main Mercian setting in both books: Tamworth. This is where Penda, the last pagan Mercian king, and his family, whose stories are told in the books, had their main residence.

There’s some debate about whether Tamworth can truly be described as the ancient capital of the midland kingdom of Mercia, because Repton also claims that title. On a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, Gareth Williams, the British Museum's Curator of Medieval Coinage, said that the notion of ancient capitals is "a product of nineteenth-century antiquarianism." If we think in terms of 'royal centres' though, I think both places have a claim, up to a point, and I’ll explain why.

Though the kings at this time were itinerant, moving from royal vill to royal vill, it seems clear that they had their favourite, or main, residences and these changed according to which family was ruling. 

Mercia, more so than the other kingdoms, grew from, and to an extent remained, a federation of smaller kingdoms and tribes which gradually became part of Greater Mercia, and it suffered from dynastic disputes which played a significant part in its eventual demise. Even in the later part of the period, its administrative system differed from that of its neighbour, Wessex, in that the leading men of the Witan and those charged with the business of local government, tended to be leaders of those tribes and smaller kingdoms, rather than being appointed centrally by the king.

And so, we find that a later king, Cenwulf (depicted left), seemed to favour Winchcombe in modern-day Gloucestershire and used the abbey there as a repository for royal documents. Meanwhile the mausoleum at Repton housed the remains of King Wiglaf and his family, as well as being the base for King Burgred, who was ousted when the Great Viking army made camp there.

The crypt at Repton

Offa, in the eighth century, seems to have favoured Tamworth, building a ‘palace’ there. So I think it’s fair to say that at different times, different places were the ‘capital’ of Mercia, but all were situated  within the core area of the original ‘kingdom’. I chose to make my character King Penda part of the Iclingas, Icel being the supposed founder of the royal house of Mercia. In one genealogy, he appears five generations above Penda (Anglian Collection).

Repton and Tamworth both fell within the territory of a people called the Tomsæte, ‘the dwellers by the River Tame’ and the Iclingas perhaps began as the leaders of these people, who established themselves in "an open meadow by the Tame" which they called "Tomworðig (Tomworthy). The settlement straddled the River Anker (which flows into the Tame). Bede described the Mercians as being the people who lived north and south of the River Trent, and it should be noted of course that the Tame flows into the Trent at Alrewas in Staffordshire, so to talk of the Tame Valley Mercians and the Trent Valley Mercians is to refer to a small enough area. In fact, Tamworth to Repton is a distance of only just under 23 miles. 

However, since we don’t know where Penda came from, for my novels I opted for Tamworth as his base which, of course, is not far away (11 miles or so) from where the Staffordshire Hoard was found - a crucial element of my tale. If we assume that Penda was one of the Iclingas, and that the Iclingas absorbed or were part of the Tomsæte, then Tamworth seems a fitting main residence. 

From the roof of the castle, the view of
St Editha's Church

The current castle sits high on a mound but dates back no earlier than the 12th century, while the original motte was built in the eleventh. The picture below shows the beautiful Norman herringbone brickwork. The location of Offa's palace has never been identified, although excavations north of Bolebridge Street in 1968 revealed what appeared to be the outline of a large Saxon building.

In the 1970s excavation work, also in the Bolebridge Street area, uncovered a water mill, dating from the 9th century or perhaps earlier. Remains of a second mill were also found. “Among the finds were the sole-tree of the mill, with its steel bearing; one of the wheel-paddles; many fragments of millstones, of local stone and imported lava; fragments of the clay bed in which the lower millstone was set; and the residues of lead window-cames. Grain and grain impressions include oats and possibly barley. The second mill was destroyed by fire.” [Archaeology Data Service

A few generations after Penda’s rule and that of his immediate family, the succession switched to another branch of the royal house. Then, in the eighth century, Offa appears to have favoured Tamworth while later kings based themselves elsewhere as I’ve mentioned. There was a period where no Mercian rulers were able to base themselves there, for Tamworth was occupied by the ‘Vikings’ in the ninth and early tenth century.

Which is why (and if you’ve read my novel about her life you'll know), Æthelflæd seems to have lived in the southwest - and thus the free area - of Mercia, with strong links to Gloucester and Worcester. However, in 913 her forces liberated Tamworth and it was here that she died in 918, still on campaign. The statue of her just outside the castle was erected in 1913 to mark the centenary of her victory over the Vikings. 

In 2018 there was a conference and a literary festival held at Tamworth to mark the 1100th anniversary of Æthelflæd’s death. I was there, giving a talk about the Lady, and even met her myself.

There was much talk about her, quite rightly, and mention of Offa, of course. But I also spent the weekend wandering around looking for the site of the excavated water mill, and imagining Penda and his family living in the town which would, of course, be unrecognisable to them now. But there is something there which just might catch their eye: Tamworth Castle now houses the largest collection of pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard outside Birmingham. And, as I said, the hoard plays a crucial part in my tale… 

Cometh the Hour

The Sins of the Father 

[All photographs taken by/copyright of the author. Promo Graphics by Avalon Graphics]

You can find all my books, fiction and nonfiction, at

Monday, 22 November 2021

The Early Fortress of Bamburgh

The ancient fortress at Bamburgh has featured heavily in my two-book Tales of the Iclingas series, because it’s where all the baddies live!

Actually, that’s not completely true, but Northumbria was certainly no friend to Mercia during this period.

'Modern Day' Bamburgh Castle - photo courtesy of 
David Satterthwaite

I thought I’d talk a little today about the history of Bamburgh itself. It’s famous, and has been used as a backdrop in many film and TV dramas, but what were its origins?

The first warlord of Bamburgh about whom we have any detailed information was Æthelfrith, and the Britons called him Flesaur, or "the twister.” What came to be known as Northumbria was initially two separate kingdoms: Bernicia in the north, centred around Bamburgh, and Deira in the south, centred around York.

Æthelfrith seemingly had designs on Deira, and launched an attack during which the king of Deira was killed, Edwin (possibly the king’s brother) was driven into exile and Acha, his sister, willingly or not - I suspect not - was then married to Æthelfrith. In time, their progeny would bring the two Northumbrian kingdoms together, but it was a long road, one that began with Edwin taking a circuitous route out of exile and seeking revenge…

Via Wiki Commons - Attribution Link

According to Bede, Bamburgh (Bebbanburh) was named after Bebba, first wife of Æthelfrith. Who was Bebba? No one knows. That’s the only mention of her. Whether she was still alive when Æthelfrith popped home with new wife Acha in tow, we don’t know. 

She might not even have been ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ How these people, specifically the Angles, came to be ruling this area isn’t clear, but it seems that it had previously formed part of the kingdom of the Gododdin, a Brittonic people of the Hen ogledd (old North).

The island of Lindisfarne is just off the coast of Bamburgh and when Oswald, son of Æthelfrith, came to power, he sent for Aidan from Iona to found the monastery there.

(It was here that the exquisite Lindisfarne Gospels were produced in around AD700. You can read more about them HERE. Sadly, Lindisfarne was of course, also the victim of a devastating Viking raid in 793.)   

In my novel Cometh the Hour we see various Northumbrian kings in residence at Bamburgh and in The Sins of the Father it is once again the central location in the north. However, kings at this time were wont to move around, visiting their estates. For ease, and to prevent scene after scene of royal courts on the road, I kept the scenes in the north almost exclusively set at Bamburgh. Although, in Cometh the Hour, Yeavering is shown being built, and you can check out a blog post about Yeavering HERE 

It’s not hard to see, when you look at photos of Bamburgh, or when you’re there in person, why this site lends itself so well to a royal fortification. Sea for protection? Check. Rocky outcrop? Check. Commanding view of the area? Check.

"Bamborough Castle from the Northeast, with Holy Island in the Distance,
Northumberland" by John Varley (1827; Metropolitan Museum of Art

The site is 150ft above sea level. Recent excavation has revealed that in pre-Conquest times, there was a timber hall on the edge of the site near steps which came up through the cleft in the rock. The Bamburgh Research project has details of St Oswald’s Gate, which formed the entrance to the fortress from at least the latter part of the eighth century and probably gave the only access to the fortress at that time. It would have given access from the stronghold to the settlement that lay to the west - probably where St Aidan’s church now stands, and perhaps also provided access to the sea via the beach, where there might also have been a harbour. 

Not surprisingly, this royal vill would have been quite the centre of industry. Archaeologists have also found evidence of an ‘industrial mortar mixer’ indicating the presence of a major stone-built building. 

Stunning archaeological finds have included two pattern-welded swords, one a two-strand, and one a six-strand. Pattern-welding is a method of making sword blades by twisting strands of metal together. This process produces blades with shimmering patterns. The six-stranded weapon was probably wielded by someone of very high status; perhaps the king himself. In the photos below you can see one of the swords and what it would have looked like when it was new (images from Janina Ramirez on Twitter)

Another find was the famous Bamburgh Beast, a small zoological design in gold. It seems there was a stone carved chair, which would have served as a gift-stool (a throne, essentially). 

Excavation has not just revealed artefacts though and the area is now well-known for its bodies.

First revealed by a violent storm in the 19th century, the Bowl Hole graveyard is hidden within the sand dunes a few hundred meters south of Bamburgh Castle. Dozens of individuals were uncovered during excavations between 1998 and 2007. These remains have been analysed and you can find out more HERE 

One skeleton found at Bamburgh was that of a young man, whose left shoulder was sliced away and his pelvis had been sliced all the way down to his left knee. It is possible to envisage how he was standing, with his left arm slightly forwards, in a defensive pose. Another skeleton was of a youth who was seriously disabled, with a malformed right knee which would have inhibited walking. He was buried though in a high status cemetery, a mark of how much he was cared for during life.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the castle has been used many times as a filming location. I was aware of some, but here’s a link to a list - and it’s a longer one that I imagined!

Cometh the Hour:

The Sins of the Father:

You can find all my books, fiction and nonfiction, at