Monday, 10 August 2015

Why Not the Anglo-Saxons?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did she not have a pretty enough dress? 

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

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


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

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

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

At least he had a pronounceable name!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So maybe it really does, as Fay Weldon said, come down to the costumes. In my Ladybird book, The Story of Clothes and Costume, the illustrations lump the Saxons and Normans together. There is nothing between this: (500BC)

and this:
apart from the Romans!

And the cover picture (of later editions) ? Yes, you guessed it - those wonderfully 'gussied up' Tudors ...

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


  1. Thank you for giving the Saxons a voice, in particular the dark ages. There is no need for it to be so dark and I feel there were many more interesting times before 1066. Finding out how and why England became English, and likewise what Britain was prior to the Normans should be important. There were many pivotal battles that shaped our future. Who many of us are and how we speak is inherently Saxon! I hope it can once again find a voice.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article - and you are so right; it IS important - and it's still a mystery to me why it takes such an inferior place on the list of periods 'worth studying'. Stephen Pollington had some very interesting theories when I interviewed him. Meanwhile, we must do what we can to get it 'out there' !

  2. Hwaet!

    Tell Bernard Cornwell that it isn't a popular period! ;-) I don't think it has anything to do with the clothes. I think it is because the history is so scarce and distant to us. Wooden buildings left little to be seen nowadays. But, we need to look at the period as ripe with stories to be told. The Tudors and Romans have all been done to death.

    Bring on the Anglo-Saxons. To the shieldwall!

    1. Matthew - there's a timeline which runs round walls of the hall in the school where I teach - it has nothing between the Romans leaving and the Vikings invading! It just isn't being taught in schools (although I did try to put this right by staging an Anglo-Saxon day for them). Even in my day, I had to wait until I was an undergrad before I was able formally to study the period. We need to put this right. Yes, to the shieldwall!!!

  3. It's worse in German schools. We get the French revolution (like we didn't have some of our own), and then we are told that we're basically bad people because of Hitler, who is done to beyond death. I still don't watch any film or documentary set in that time, and I've read one book (the autobiography of a famous Jewish book reviewer) during the last thirty years; I'm so fed up with Hitler and WW2.

    The time from the Romans to the Thirty Years War is covered in some ten hours.

    1. Gabriele,
      I was told recently that in English schools it has been possible to study history for seven years through secondary school learning only about the Second World War! As you say, it's such a shame that this period is concentrated upon so much, at the expense of other areas which are of at least equal merit. Again, how can anyone understand WWII without studying the periods and circumstances that led up to it?