Thursday, 9 August 2018

Captive Nuns

Anglo-Saxon abbesses were often members of royal families. Penda, the famously pagan king of seventh-century Mercia, had at least two daughters who became abbesses and were subsequently created saints. Oswiu of Northumbria promised his infant daughter to the Church if God would grant him victory in battle. St Æthelthryth, despite being married twice - once to a king - managed, we're told, to preserve her chastity and founded the abbey at Ely. Her sister succeeded her there as abbess. Both were daughters of King Anna of East Anglia.


St Æthelthryth

A noble and pious occupation. These were wealthy women, and no doubt lived comfortably. But safely? Not always. These women belonged to prestigious royal houses, and there are a few instances which prove that being an abbess, or nun, or merely a noblewoman living in an abbey, was to be vulnerable. Yes, such places were raided by invaders, but sometimes the perpetrators came from a little closer...

I've been looking into this subject in preparation for my new book - details much later - so I'll save any analysis for that. But here, in case you don't know the stories, are three examples of high profile abduction of nuns:

The first of these cases involved the family of Alfred the Great. When Alfred succeeded his elder brother to the throne, that brother had left a - presumably very young - son, Æthelwold. With hindsight, it was probably a good job that Alfred took the throne, and even though the 'Viking' wars were still raging when Alfred died, he left the kingdom of Wessex in the very safe hands of his son, Edward the Elder.

By this stage, Æthelwold was a grown man, and decided to make his own bid for the throne, with the aid of the Northumbrian 'Vikings'.  Initially, though, Æthelwold took his forces to Wimborne, and holed up there with a nun whom he had kidnapped, stating that he would live there or die. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the woman had been taken 'without the king's permission and contrary to the bishops' orders - for she had been consecrated a nun.'


Wimborne Minster by Bellminsterboy via CC Commons

It may be that the lady was in fact a nun from Wimborne. It has been suggested that she was none other than Alfred's daughter, Æthelgifu. Some historians think that Æthelwold married the captive lady, while others are not convinced. Her identity is not proven, nor is it established that a marriage took place, but whatever the truth, it seems clear that Æthelwold's actions were driven by a desire to strengthen his claim to the throne. This woman, whatever her identity, was clearly of high status and politically important.

His threat, to live there or die, was not carried out. He escaped in the night and went to join the Viking army in Northumbria, who swore allegiance to him as their king. 

In 902 Æthelwold and his East Anglian Viking allies harried Mercia and went as far as Cricklade in Wiltshire. When he crossed the Thames into Wessex, Edward chased him, harrying in Essex and East Anglia, ‘all their lands between the Dykes and the Ouse, as far north as the fens.’ When Edward then ordered a withdrawal, he sent seven messengers to the men of Kent, who lingered behind, counter to his commands. The Danish army then overtook the men of Kent at the – unidentified - Holme. In the ensuing fighting, there were losses on both sides. Two are significant: one being the father of Edward’s future wife and the other being Æthelwold himself.

The second case concerns King Edgar, a little later in the tenth century. Edgar's marital history is a little hazy, with some people thinking he had children by three women, two of whom were his wives, while others - including me - are not so convinced that his first 'wife' even existed.


King Edgar

Edgar’s second ‘woman’ and possibly wife, was Wulfthryth, later Saint Wulfthryth, who might have been promised to the Church before Edgar impregnated her. William of Malmesbury said that she ‘initially was not fully professed as a nun of Wilton, but assumed the veil for fear of Edgar, but had it torn off before being forced into the king’s bed. Edgar was reproved by St Dunstan and served seven years of penance. As for her, once Eadgyth (Edith) was born, she returned to the nunnery.’ 

William (c. 1095- c. 1143) is not the only source of these stories, although none is contemporary. Osbern of Canterbury (c.1050-1090) said that the baby Edward was the son of a professed nun of Wilton, whose seduction earned Edgar a seven-year penance. 

Eadmer (c.1060-1126) believed his contemporary, Nicholas of Worcester, that Edward was the son of Æthelflæd Eneda, Edgar’s supposed first wife, and thus not born of a consecrated nun, and tells the story of the seduction of the young laywoman and says his offence was worse because he already had a lawful wife. ‘For on a certain occasion this same king came to a monastery of virgins, which is located at Wilton, and there, captivated by the beauty of a certain young girl, who took her lineage from the English nobility and was being raised and protected by the nuns though she had not taken the veil, he ordered her to be brought to him secretly to speak with him.

Edith of Wilton, Edgar's daughter
While she was being led to him out of fear for her chastity she placed a veil snatched from one of the nuns on her own head, hoping in this way to protect herself should the king by chance wish to demand anything dishonourable from her. When Edgar saw her wearing the veil he said, “How suddenly you have become a nun.” He grabbed and dragged the veil from her head while she resisted in vain with whatever strength she had.’ 



Goscelin of Saint-Bertin (born before the 1040s) wrote in his Life of St Wulfhild, that it was she (Wulfhild) who became the object of Edgar’s attentions, resisting by escaping naked down a sewer, and that he took Wulfthryth, a laywoman being educated by the nuns, instead. He presents her as Edgar’s wife.

Thus there seems to be some confusion, and Edgar was described by William of Malmesbury as being ‘libidinous in respect of virgins’. But if Edward was Wulfthryth’s son, he was certainly considered of high enough birth that the Witan had no qualms in electing him king upon his father’s death, even though his reign was short and unhappy. 

The third of these cases moves us into the eleventh century and into the reign of Edgar’s grandson, Edward the Confessor. During Edward’s reign, the Godwin family reached the peak of its political power. But 1046 saw the first acts of disobedience from within the family’s ranks, as Swein teamed up with Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, king of Gwynedd and Powys, and went into South Wales. On the way back, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he ‘ordered the abbess of Leominster to be brought to him, and he kept her as long as he pleased, and then let her go home.’ In revenge for being forced to give her up, he deprived the church of Worcester of a number of estates. 


Leominster Priory Church by Captain Jae
From John of Worcester: ‘Meanwhile, Earl Swein, son of Earl Godwine and Gytha who had left England earlier because he was not permitted to marry Eadgifu, abbess of the convent at Leominster, whom he had seduced, went to Denmark, and returned with eight ships, saying dishonestly that he would henceforth remain faithful to the king.’ 

What might we make of the statement that he ‘kept her as long as he pleased’? Was she kept against her will, or was she a willing concubine?

Eadgifu was, according to one source,  with Swein for about a year: ‘A tantalising note in 1086 Domesday Book says: "The Abbess holds Fencote. She held it herself before 1066." Fencote, in Docklow parish, had belonged to Leominster nunnery. Was Eadgifu given Fencote? Did she retire here and was she still living here in 1086 with her memories of Swein?' (Blanche Perry - Absolute Herefordshire)

It is thought that the abbey was suppressed after Eadgifu’s abduction (David Knowles - The Heads of Religious Houses: England and Wales 940-1216.)

So it does seem that even in times of relative peace (Edgar’s reign was known for its lack of ‘viking’ raiding) it does seem that to be an abbess, or even a nun, was still a hazardous occupation.

As I said at the beginning of the post, these stories have a little to do with my next writing project, but all are mentioned in my new history of Mercia, available for pre-order now.




It's also available to pre-order direct from Amberley Publishing




Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Shining a Light - Authors of Dark Ages Novels: Millie Thom

In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This month, I'm delighted to welcome author Millie Thom, whose third novel is out now. Millie writes books in which Mercia features quite prominently, so it was lovely to have the opportunity to talk to her about her work.

AW: Hi Millie, welcome to the blog, and congratulations on your recent Discovering Diamonds Award. 


MT: Thank you for inviting me to your blog. I’m delighted to be here and it’s a pleasure to be interviewed by you.   

AW: First of all, I must ask: where did the idea for this series come from? Have you always been interested in this period of history?

MT: I’ve always loved history in general, even though I chose geology to study for my degree, and geography as my main teaching subject! I confess to knowing little about the “Dark Ages” when I was at school myself in the 1950s and early 60s – other than stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, King Alfred burning the cakes and fierce Vikings raiding and pillaging. And most of those were based on folklore or legend. It wasn’t until I moved to Wantage in 1971 that my interest was sparked. King Alfred’s statue in the market place intrigued me and, even then, I considered writing his story. Then our six children came along, plus a teaching career to continue once they were all at school, and my hopes of writing were put on hold for a very long time.

The story in my series has evolved a lot since the 1970s. By the time I’d retired and had time to write, I had decided to include a second protagonist to the story. The fictional Eadwulf had become firmly lodged in my head, and I related him to the historical King Beorhtwulf of Mercia, whom the Danes “put to flight” in 851. That phrase opened all sorts of possibilities to me.




AW: It's interesting that you chose to 'send' Eadwulf abroad. Did you find the research for these scenes easier, or harder, in terms of available documentary evidence?

MT: Part of Eadwulf’s early story involves him becoming a thrall (slave) in the household of Ragnar Lothbrok – something I’d decided well before I started writing. We had a long summer holiday in Denmark so I could do some research by visiting Viking sites and museums and generally getting a ‘feel’ for the land itself. I came home with lots of background information on how the Danes lived during the Viking period as well as a better knowledge of the geography of Denmark. Since Eadwulf is actually fictional, I was careful to keep his story in line with events in Wessex at that time and to use the correct names for historical characters involved. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of King Alfred were basic aids to both. I also have several other texts, including those by Justin Pollard and Richard Abels, and an excellent book I bought in Denmark entitled Cultural Atlas of the Viking World, written by various experts on this subject from across Western Europe. Some of the more “colourful” scenes in my books, including the deaths of Ragnar Lothbrok and King Aelle of Northumbria, or Bjorn and Hastein’s “Mediterranean adventure”, tend to be based on Viking myth rather than actual history anyway, so the Denmark trip filled the gaps in nicely.

Visiting sites in which my story takes place has played a big part in my research for these books. For the beginning of Book 3, Wyvern of Wessex, we had a trip down to Andalucia/Andalusia in southern Spain. I found that very helpful when describing the summer heat, the Iberian landscape, and the architecture in Cordoba. I realise that such travel isn’t possible for every writer and that there are plenty of online sites where similar information can be found nowadays. I dipped into many of those, too.




AW: It's clear that you have a passion for this period, but that's not the only string to your bow. Can you tell us a little about your short fiction?

MT: I became involved in writing flash fiction when I started my blog a few years ago. There are many flash fiction challenges on WordPress to choose from and I joined in with several of them. All provide participants with a prompt, mostly pictorial but not always, and a word limit in which to tell a story (with a beginning, middle and end). Some challenges ask for only 30 words, or even as few as 6! I prefer those asking for 100 to 200 words. The longer ones do allow for some development, at least. 



For my book A Dash of Flash I also found picture prompts of my own and wrote a few longer stories between 500 and 1,000 words – the generally accepted upper limit for ‘flash’. Many of my stories have historical settings. It’s fun using modern photos/images and translating them into historical themes. One story I wrote was from a photo of a modern bike leaning against a wall. Set in Victorian times, my story, They’re All the Rage, refers to the penny farthing bicycle which was very popular in the 1870s and 80s. Another participant interpreted the bike as a horse, so a completely different story ensued there. The prompts can be interpreted any way people choose and participants are encouraged to write “outside the box”.  I also have stories with contemporary settings, as well as fantasies, fairy tales and ghost stories.  

AW: Do you find writing flash fiction stories a completely different process - do you have a different approach when planning them, than you do when plotting a novel?

MT: Writing flash fiction is completely different to novel writing. The incredibly short length leaves no room for either plot or character development and it’s generally accepted that one or two characters are the most that should be included, if any – depending on the word limit.  Writing these short pieces is excellent practice in being succinct – especially good for born ramblers, like me. A given word limit allows no room for flowery descriptions. A twist at the end can also add interest to a piece of flash. Some people hold that the twist is a vital part of the genre.

AW: Finally, can you tell us about the new book? 

MT: Wyvern of Wessex: Sons of Kings Book 3 was intended to be the final book of a trilogy. However, by the time I’d reached a word count of 100,000, I realised I was never going to finish either protagonists stories in that book. All three books are long as it is, simply because there are the two storylines to keep going, plus those of associated characters. So, a Book 4 is now my next writing task. 

As the title of Book 3 suggests, the main focus is Alfred’s desperate efforts to stop the Danes taking his beloved kingdom of Wessex. The title refers to two things: the flag/banner of Wessex and to Alfred himself. Carried into battle, just as the Danes carried their Raven banner, the white wyvern (not golden as on the modern flag of Wessex) on its red background would fill warriors with immense pride and determination – and blood lust – to fight for all they were worth. Alfred’s determination to keep Wessex free when all seemed lost, inspired his armies in the same way. So I see him as symbolic of the Wyvern – or perhaps, vice versa. 


Although Alfred’s story is the main theme of Book 3, the first five chapters continue where Book 2 left off. Eadwulf is back with Bjorn in his great dragonship, Sea Eagle, sailing down to al-Andalus on a quest to discover whether King Beorhtwulf is still alive. Needless to say, they get more than they’d bargained for and have to leave in a bit of a hurry. Events in Cordoba, however, determine certain events later in the story.

AW: Millie, thank you so much for dropping by to talk to me!

You can find more about Millie's books on her Amazon author page and you can connect with her on Twitter and on her Website


Monday, 23 July 2018

The Æthelflæd Paradox - My Tamworth Litfest Talk

On Saturday 14th July, I gave a talk about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, and how I gave her a 'voice' in fiction. I was invited to do this as part of the Tamworth Literary Festival. Here is a transcript of the talk I gave, as part of the celebrations to commemorate her 1100th anniversary.



During my introduction I thanked those involved for inviting me to talk about Ethelfled, Athelflatt, Ethelfleda… and said that the pronunciation of her name is just the smallest of the problems we have to deal with when piecing together her life...

"I could talk for hours about the Anglo-Saxons – don’t worry, I won’t! – because I spend my life reading and writing about them, especially the Mercians. But I want to talk today about what we know about her childhood, her husband’s presumed illness, and her ‘rule’, because they are central themes in the novel.
I couldn’t interview anyone who knew her, obviously, and I didn’t go digging about in archaeological trenches! So inevitably, I fell back on the primary sources but, whilst we think we know a lot about her, there is precious little in the way of documentary evidence.

I’d like to start though by talking about her husband, Æthelred. He was not a king, although he seems to have had high status – we just don’t know quite what it was, or where he came from. There’s no evidence that he was even a leading ealdorman prior to becoming leader of Mercia.

Background
Of the two kings before him, one was Burgred, who was married to Alfred the Great’s sister, and who fled when the Vikings occupied Repton, in the Mercian heartland, with the help and connivance of the next king, Ceolwulf II, who was described as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ but was very probably a member of a rival royal dynasty. 

Æthelred
And the next ruler of Mercia was Æthelred. We don’t know how he came to lead when there seems to have been no power struggle and he was not of royal stock, nor if he was ruling independently of Alfred at this stage. There were even members of the royal family still alive, but I’ll come back to them in a moment.

Joint Campaign
The campaign against the Viking invaders is quite long and complicated, but I just want to highlight a couple of incidents. One is when Alfred came to an agreement with a Viking named Hasteinn and where Hasteinn gave oaths and hostages, and his sons were baptized with the sponsorship of Alfred and the ealdorman Æthelred. 
   Another was when Alfred’s son, Edward, besieged the enemy and ‘Earl Æthelred lent his aid to the prince [Edward].’ 
   So the three leaders were clearly working together and are named as doing so in the annals. This is an important point.


Alfred's Will
In his will, Alfred left Æthelred a valuable sword but there is no mention in the document that Æthelred was his son-in-law. This omission could of course be accounted for if the will was drawn up before the marriage took place, but then it seems unlikely that he would have bequeathed anything at that stage to a man whom he hardly knew. This is interesting, because if we relied on this document and the ASC (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), we wouldn’t know that they were married at all. Only a later Anglo-Norman Chronicler tells us that they were "united in marriage." We don’t know exactly when the wedding took place, and it’s safe to assume that she was younger than him, by some margin. 

So...

Æthelflæd
There is very little mention of her in the chronicles. Asser (the Welsh monk who knew Alfred and wrote his Life) is clear that she was the first-born, and it is sometimes assumed that she was raised somewhere other than the court of Wessex, because Asser said that the two youngest children were at all times fostered at the royal court. But it is a large leap to assume that the other children were not brought up at the Wessex court, and nowhere does Asser specifically say that Æthelflæd was raised elsewhere. If she were, then Mercia would have been a possibility, since her mother was Mercian and her aunt was married to the king of Mercia. Presumably though, had she been sent there, she would have returned to Wessex when her uncle the king fled after the Vikings overran Repton.


Even the later chroniclers don’t have much to say about her. William of Malmesbury (12th century) has barely ten lines about her. He's the one who gives us the story that she refused sex after a difficult labour with her only child. Now, I don't know about you, but my view is that had this lady decided to cease all 'marital relations', it's unlikely that she would have told anyone, much less allow them to write it down...

Henry of Huntington (also 12th century) proclaimed that:
Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,

was
A queen by title, but in deeds a king.
Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail'd:
Caesar himself to win such glory fail'd.
Henry was clearly rather taken with her, but he got a bit muddled when talking about this family. He seems to think that Æthelred was Æthelflæd’s father and that Ælfwynn was her sister, when in fact they were her husband and her daughter respectively. It's possible that he knew Æthelflæd succeeded Æthelred, but that he didn't know why, so he assumed that she was his daughter.

Æthelweard the Chronicler - writing in the tenth century, so much nearer the events, and a member of the Wessex royal family - still only mentions her once, when he says that ‘the king’s sister’ departed this life. There is no suggestion that she was anyone’s wife, much less that she was at any time in charge of Mercia.
   
We only really know about her after his death. Not even during his presumed illness. So what can we deduce about that illness?

Well,

Early on in his reign, Edward, her brother, faced a rebellion from their cousin, who allied with the Vikings, but the interesting thing about this episode for me was that fighting alongside this rebellious cousin was the son of a man described as ‘the atheling Beornoth’, a Mercian. If this man was a relative of King Burgred, it suggests some simmering resentment at what might have been perceived as West Saxon influence in Mercia. 
   


But what of Æthelred? Despite the fact that these rebels harried Mercia, the ASC says that it was Edward who chased them and faced them down. Could this be the first indication that Æthelred had been taken ill?

In 906 Edward made peace with the Vikings ‘from necessity’. So in a few short years the English resistance had withered from a triumvirate to Edward working, seemingly, on his own. Gone are the comments along the lines of ‘with the aid of Æthelred, earl of the Mercians’ and in 907 an entry merely states that ‘Chester was restored.’

By whom? If it was Edward, or Æthelred, why not say so? It seems strange that at this pivotal time, a woman was allowed to lead, yet it’s hard not to conclude that she was in charge at this time. 
   
We have a couple of sources for Æthelred’s illness (as well as reading between the lines where he’s suddenly no longer mentioned,) although one is just a passing reference.

The other is a fragmentary annal which comes to us from Ireland and is known as the Three Fragments. It's not considered hugely reliable but it does tell us that when Chester was overrun, messengers were sent to the ‘King of the Saxons [Æthelred] who was in a disease and on the point of death.’ And it seems to suggest that she was acting on his advice.

Neither the ASC nor the Mercian Register records his illness, but when Edward gathered West Saxon and Mercian forces and went harrying into Northumbria, there is no mention of Æthelred. 

And when, presumably in retaliation, the Northumbrians broke peace, and ravaged Mercia, at the ensuing battle at Tettenhall, Æthelred is not mentioned. The year before this battle, it was his wife who was credited with building a fortress at a place called Bremesbyrig.

So it's probably fairly safe to conclude that he was indeed ill, and for some time.

Her Rule 
When Æthelred died, Edward took London and Oxford under his direct control. Why was he happy to leave Mercia ‘proper’ to his sister? 
   
Perhaps it was taking him some time to secure his reign. Viking activity was strong, and early on in his reign he had been forced to counter a rival bid for his throne. Perhaps there were other similar incidents. It is possible that by taking Mercia under his direct control he would have been spreading himself too thinly. But, if that were the rationale, why not appoint an ealdorman to rule the province for him in his name? To have a woman leader was not unprecedented but was still rare. He did not allow her daughter to succeed so maybe personal qualities came into play. Because, the question also needs to be asked: why were the Mercians happy to have her as a ruler?
      
We don’t know that Æthelflæd wielded a sword, or even led Mercian troops. The Mercian Register, even though it calls her Lady of the Mercians whereas the ASC only calls her Edward’s sister, focuses on her building programme, rather than the fighting.

So, what is the Mercian Register? It is, or rather they, are a series of entries contained within the ASC and it/they concentrate exclusively on Æthelflæd. It records her death with the words ‘the eighth year in which she had held power with right lordship’. There are only two mentions of Æthelred, once at his death in 911, and once as Ælfwynn’s father. There may have been a lost chronicle, one in which Æthelred played a much more prominent role, which would explain why the chroniclers got confused and also hints again that his status may have been higher than ‘mere’ ealdorman. Note that Ælfwynn is described as his daughter, rather than Æthelflæd's. But, if there were such a chronicle, it's lost to us now.

The focus as we have it now, is very much on Æthelflæd’s role as ruler. But, typed out, it still only covers one A4 sheet of paper. I know, because I've done it!

The years following Æthelred’s death saw his widow and her brother busy with the building programme, with Edward building five fortresses and Æthelflæd building nine and both had the enemy submitting to them. The campaigns appear to have been strategic & coordinated. 

In the middle of all this frenetic activity she sent an army into Brycheiniog (Llangorse Lake). The Mercian Register tells us that this was to avenge the death of an abbot.  



 The following year she took the borough of Derby and
   
in 918 The Three Fragments says that she directed a battle against the Dublin-Norse, ordering her troops to cut down the trees where the ‘pagans’ were hiding. Thus we are led to believe that as well as partnering her brother in an extensive and well-co-ordinated attack on the Danes, she was conducting her own campaign against the Norse.
   
Was she literally leading these armies; where did she learn to do this? It was unprecedented. We are told that an earlier queen of Wessex, who ruled for a year after her husband’s death, was expelled because ‘they would not go to war under the conduct of a woman,’ and notice that it’s only the Three Fragments which states that she was leading troops. 
   
On 12 June 918, as we know, Æthelflæd died here at Tamworth. Her body was taken to Gloucester for burial,  so probably quite a speedy funeral procession, given the time of year! 

The Annals of Ulster recorded the death of the ‘most famous queen of the Saxons’ and the Annales Cambriae recorded that ‘Queen Æthelflæd died’. Is it possible though that they afforded her the royal title because they simply didn’t know what else to call her? The only time they mention her is on the occasion of her death. 

In December 918, Æthelflæd’s daughter was taken into Wessex. The Mercian Register complains that she was ‘deprived of all authority’. Why was Edward content to let his sister govern Mercia, but not her daughter; was it a simple case that the daughter did not match the mother in terms of ability? Timing may be a factor here; it should maybe be noted that by this stage, Edward had adult sons, who needed more inheritance than could be provided by Wessex alone.
   
But that Edward left his sister in charge, firstly after her husband’s incapacitation, and then again after his death, when he could have marched in and brought Mercia under his direct control, surely tells us a lot about her and their relationship. Especially bearing in mind that he did exactly that once she’d died.  

It speaks to me of her personal strengths.

So, how did I go about giving her a voice, without straying from the documented history? 
   


Fictionalising
It's sometimes difficult to know where to begin a novel, but in this case I knew I had to start with her childhood, because here is where I think the relationships must have been forged, particularly her bond with her brother. 

So this family, which included a disaffected cousin, who in all likelihood grew up with the royal children, and a father who must of necessity have been a distant figure (and he's portrayed as such in the book) - how did the campaigns affect his wife who was waiting at home? That’s something I explore.

I did send her to her aunt’s court in Mercia early on. It was important for the novel’s story that she had vague memories of the place, and that she was surprised upon her return to find that she wasn’t welcome. I have no idea if this was true, but if, as we think, there was Mercian resentment to losing power and kingship, it makes sense that they might have been initially hostile to this princess of Wessex. And what the marriage signified for Mercian independence.

Æthelred’s illness was an interesting challenge. It had to be something which laid him low, but that allowed him to be compos mentis, to still be able to give strategic advice, if the Three Fragments is to be believed. It had to be something which allowed him to linger, for the best part of a decade, but that still eventually killed him. 

If I’d stuck to what we know about Æthelflæd, then ironically the book would have been very short. So I did send her to Wales, even though there’s no clear evidence that she went. She ‘sent’ an army into Wales, we're told, but drama is not much good if it’s all happening off-stage, so I let her go with them.

And remember those hostages of Hasteinn’s? I decided to send them to Æthelflæd in Mercia for safe-keeping. This was interesting, because a central theme of the book is that throughout her life, the enemy has been fearsome, destructive, but also unseen. Suddenly, she has to face her demons.

And I used the ‘myths’ that surround her life, but tried to ground them plausibly. The Three Fragments, as I said, not hugely reliable, gives us some juicy detail about the siege of Chester and in particular of certain things which were thrown over the walls at the enemy. So early on I gave her the trait of chucking things when she's in a bad mood, and the things that she throws are also introduced early on, so that when the idea comes to her it's a logical progression rather than appearing from nowhere.

She only had one child – that seems to have been established - but I weaved in a reason why that might have been. And it has little to do with William of Malmesbury's assessment!

People need to trust what they’re reading when it comes to historical fiction so it’s important that we don’t change the facts but we interpret how the characters react. Always asking the question: Why? And we must ground the story in reality:
A sentence in history becomes years of relationship. We can say simply that ‘In around 886 they were married and he was probably older than her by some years.’ But this short sentence becomes chapters and chapters of a novel, where we explore how the relationship developed, how each partner viewed it and what it represented.

I also needed to recreate the Anglo-Saxon world – the food, clothing, lifestyle, agriculture. This involved much reading, research, and I talked to a number of generous and gracious leading academics. I needed to know things such as whether we can say that the ages of puberty & menopause were similar to those of today. I also needed an explosion, set in a world which didn't have gunpowder or cannons. And I was delighted to discover the flammable properties of flour dust! 



Summing Up
She wasn’t a queen because he wasn’t a king. Simple. But why not? Other kings of Mercia had taken the title before, with no direct claim. So, was he Alfred’s vassal then? (Not that they would have used that word.) Their status as a couple is anomalous; unique.

I think that her whole life was lived under the threatening shadow of the Vikings. Her marriage was beyond her control and was only to seal a deal. What interested me was how she then might have dealt with that reality. How did she get the Mercians to accept her? 

I’m going to be a little controversial and say that I don’t actually buy the whole ‘warrior woman’ scenario. People often say that she had an agenda, that she was determined from the outset to make her mark, fight the Vikings, drive them away. I’m not convinced. 

I don’t think the fight would have been easy, or natural for her (Asser focuses on the royal children’s education, not sword practice.) My focus is on her continuing her husband’s fight, not her father’s, which gives a slightly different perspective.

I’ve portrayed her as a woman of her time – she had to fit into her historical setting – but within that, she was still extraordinary, and I wanted to explore how she became so.
I thought about how this woman in a man’s world might have felt when asked to lead a country in a time of war. There must have been a deal of soul-searching, of doubt over whether she could take on the role.

For me, she is a heroine, because of that: the woman I’ve portrayed is one who reacts to her circumstances, develops as she grows, and makes choices which she’s not always happy about. She is, above all, driven by duty – she’s the daughter of a king, after all – and this means personal sacrifice. How would her new life, in an unprecedented role, have affected the mother-daughter relationship?

I think she had to step up, despite her fear. By the time she goes to Wales, she’s exhausted, and battered by the losses she’s suffered. Remember, also, that by this stage, this woman was probably around 50 yrs old. Warrior woman or not, what she achieved was remarkable.

Remarkable, yet barely remarked upon. In this ‘year of women’ it’s a great boon to her reputation that it’s also her anniversary. People are talking about her, and yet we really can fit what we actually know about her into a few short pages. The paradox is that those few short pages can easily expand to fill an entire novel. And yet, hardly anyone has done so. For me, even after years of studying her and writing about her, in fiction and non-fiction, she remains an enigma. And a fascinating one."


To Be A Queen is my novel about The Lady of the Mercians, while she and her husband and daughter have a chapter to themselves in Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order now, to be released in September 2018 by Amberley Publishing

Monday, 9 July 2018

Odda of Deerhurst - Omitted from the Novel?

A very short walk from Deerhurst Church, in Gloucestershire, there is another Anglo-Saxon place built for worship. It’s known as Odda’s Chapel.



In 1675 a tree fell down in the orchard outside a half-timbered manor house and revealed an inscription stone embedded in its roots. The stone recorded - in Latin - the founding of a chapel by Odda in remembrance of his brother, Ælfric, who had died in 1053. Odda died in 1056, only a few months after the consecration of the chapel. It was originally thought that the stone referred to Deerhurst Church, but in the nineteenth century renovations to the house revealed the chapel, which had been incorporated into the later building.


Even today, repairs are ongoing

The dedication stone reads: Earl Odda ordered this royal hall to be built and dedicated in honour of the holy Trinity & for the soul of his brother Ælfric who died in this place. Bishop Ealdred dedicated it on 12 April. The fourteenth year of Edward, king of the English (1056)


A replica of the dedication stone

Odda and his brother both died at Deerhurst, but were buried at Pershore.


Pershore Abbey today (public domain image)

Talbot & Whiteman's book has this to say about Pershore: that the monks were ejected shortly after King Edgar's death in 975, probably by Ælfhere of Mercia. They were reinstated when Ælfhere died. His grandson was Earl Odda, who founded the Saxon chapel at Deerhurst in memory of his brother, and who was a benefactor of Pershore.


Wait, what? A grandson of Ælfhere? But I've written a whole novel about the grandfather without once mentioning the existence of this progeny. Had I made a terrible mistake?

John Leland (the 16th century antiquarian) suggested that Odda was ‘Elfer’s (Ælfhere) son’. Son? This was even worse!

So, grandson, or son? Well, as I'd always believed, neither.

Ælfhere, who was probably around twenty in 956, died at a date which makes it unlikely that he was Odda’s father. (Odda first appears in the records in 1013) So was he his grandfather?

The two men certainly had landholdings in the same area of Mercia, and both were seemingly connected to the West Saxon royal house.

There also seems to be some shared link to Pershore. Annals recorded by Leland seem to assume that because Odda restored lands which had been allegedly seized by Ælfhere that there must have been some family connection.

But Ann Williams has suggested that Odda was more likely to have been related to Æthelweard, ealdorman of the Western shires (also known as Æthelweard the Chronicler - and in this capacity he informed us that he was descended from King Æthelred I, Alfred the Great’s brother).

The presumed connection to Ælfhere seems to stem partly from the association with a man named Godwine, who appears on a charter from 1014, along with Odda. This Godwine may well have been a nephew of Ælfhere’s.

Does this confirm the idea that Odda was related to Ælfhere? Another charter attestation shows Odda preceded on the list by a man named Ælfgar mæw, a man associated with monasteries at Tewkesbury (nearby) and Cranborne (not so near, in Dorset). The Tewkesbury chronicle recorded that he, and his father, Æthelweard, were related to the royal house of Wessex. If this is the same Æthelweard as the man who was ealdorman of the Western shires, then some conclusion may be drawn from the fact that in 1051, after the ealdordom had passed through the hands of the powerful Godwin family, it was then given to Odda, as if there were some family connection.



Pershore, too, had associations with Ealdorman Æthelweard, where Odda was remembered as a benefactor, and where he and his brother were buried. 

The precise nature of their relationship to  Æthelweard is not clear, but the suggestion of kinship seems more plausible than that Odda was a son or grandson of Ælfhere’s.

Ælfhere was succeeded as ealdorman of Mercia by a man named Ælfric cild who was probably his brother-in-law, rather than a son. 

None of this is provable beyond all doubt, but it seems that I was right, after all, not to have a character named Odda in the novel.

Still, that’s not to say that the chapel is not of interest to me. Anglo-Saxon buildings are rare enough, and this one, though only a shell, is a site worth visiting.



According to John Blair, the precinct of the minster of Deerhurst was divided, with the northern half being retained by the monastic community and the southern half becoming the earl’s residence. The chapel was built a small distance from the church and, although it is unusual in that the dedication stone exists, the building is very typical of its age, showing similarities with many parish churches of that time with what Blair calls ‘overlap’ details.



Deerhurst Church contains many fine examples of Anglo-Saxon carvings, walls and windows, and the atmosphere inside it is calm, peaceful and conducive to contemplation, for this is a building which has been used continuously for worship for more than a millennium. Odda’s chapel is equally quiet, but in an almost eerie way, for it stands empty, showing not the same signs of continuous use, but as a stark and rare reminder of how these buildings looked, and it spoke in its own way of the passing of time.  If only more of these buildings had survived.



My novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of the life and career of Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia

Further reading:

Gloucestershire People and History - Richard Sale
The Heart of England - Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman
Land, power and politics: the family of Odda of Deerhurst - Ann Williams
The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society - John Blair
Princeps Merciorum gentis: The Family, Career and Connections of Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia, 956-83 - Ann Williams 
All photographs unless otherwise stated taken by and copyright of the author.

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What was I doing there? Well, I’d been up at the church, taking photos of the Anglo-Saxon architecture for my new book about the history of Mercia. Odda himself doesn’t feature in the book because, whilst he clearly had associations and lands within Mercia, his area of jurisdiction was in Wessex. And, for most of the book, Wessex is the ‘enemy’...

Available from Amazon and Amberley Publishing

Monday, 25 June 2018

Shining a Light - Authors of Dark Ages Novels: John Broughton

In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This month, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to guest John Broughton, who will introduce himself and then interview one of his characters:

Hi there, I’m John Broughton, my first historical novel The Purple Thread is available as e-book and paperback from Amazon and was published in 2017 by Endeavour Press. 



As with all my historical novels it is set in the Anglo-Saxon period. My second novel, Wyrd of the Wolf is set mainly in seventh-century Sussex and the Isle of Wight. It contains my own convincing theory as to why Caedwalla’s wound never healed. I would like to interview one of the main characters in this novel – the beautiful, beguiling Cynethryth – Caedwalla’s wife. My next venture after Wyrd of the Wolf was meant at the outset to be a trilogy dealing with the long reign of Aethelbald of Mercia but it transformed into a duology to be published in the summer and the autumn of 2018. 



The first book is entitled Saints and Sinners and deals with the contrasting lives of the young Aethelbald and his best friend Guthlac, who gives up his martial lifestyle to become a hermit and a saint. The sequel, Mixed Blessings follows Aethelbald from his coronation to his murder at the end of his triumphant reign. Finally, I have just completed my fifth novel, Perfecta Saxonia set in the ninth/tenth century. This, as the title implies, deals with the formation of a whole unified Saxon England under the remarkable king, Aethelstan, who fulfills the dream of his grandfather, the great Alfred, who laid the foundations of modern England. Anyone wishing to find out more about our Anglo-Saxon heritage or about the author is welcome to visit my website  https://www.saxonquill.com   or visit my Facebook page devoted to my writing: https://www.facebook.com/caedwalla/ 


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The Interview

J. Hello Cynethryth, nice to have a chat with you: I hope you appreciate how I portrayed you in my novel.
C. I think you tried your best to put me over as a strong and fascinating girl but if I had written my own tale, I would have made it clearer how much my apparent betrayal of my dear father hurt me.

J. But by agreeing to marry Caedwalla, you betrayed not only your father but also your betrothed, the aetheling of Kent.
C. What choice did I have? I thought my father was dead and I realised when I met Caedwalla that I could love no other man. anyway, he wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

J. Do you think the book could have worked with you as a minor character?
C. How could it? Isn’t the main theme about betrayal and forgiveness. In the end, love triumphs even if you snatched Caedwalla away from me.

J. Me? No, I just related the facts. He was doomed from the moment his wound was infected. Give me credit, Cynethryth. Some people have portrayed Caedwalla as a blood-thirsty monster. I think I’ve shown the better side of his character – courageous, coherent, intelligent and loving.
C. There’s truth in that but there's one thing I’d criticise you for.

J. What’s that? 
C.You reconcile me with my father and take me home from Rome to the Isle of Wight but leave me at that point. Remember, I was carrying Caedwalla’s child and you don’t bother with the rest of my life or the child’s.

J. It’s hardly my fault if you didn’t remarry with someone important and get mixed up again in the major events of the period.
C. Aren’t you interested in the ordinary life of men and women?

J. Of course, and to be fair, those things appear in my novels but I’m not the type of writer who can make a book out of historical romance – I really feel, with the utmost respect, it is best left to a lady writer.
C. Mmm. Maybe but you certainly knew how to make me fall in love with Caedwalla – you did quite well for a man!

J. You know what, Cynethryth? I fell more than a little in love with you myself.

Wyrd of the Wolf