Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Right to Reply - The 'Dark' Ages

Continuing my series where I ask three authors questions about their specialist period and invite them to reply, either agreeing or disagreeing. This month, authors Matthew Harffy, Justin Hill, and Glynn Holloway, who all write books set in the 'Dark'Ages, give me their opinions:~

Wes Hael (welcome), Gentlemen. Who is the mightiest warrior of the age, and why?

MH: Hwaet! Throw a log on the hearth and fill your horn with good mead, for I will tell you the tale of the greatest warrior king to walk this land of Albion in a time when middle earth was yet young.

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Stained Glass depicting Penda's death (Attribution)

Stepping from the mists of time comes Penda, son of Pybba, king of all of Mercia. He was a man hungry for battle fame and glory. He ruled for a score and ten years and in his long reign Penda slew five other great kings. 

Some say his power came from the old gods, for it is true that he eschewed the Christ, instead giving sacrifice to Woden, Thunor and Tiw. The priests say now that these pagan gods are nothing and cannot hold sway over men. But think you of the pallid, blood-spattered corpses of followers of the nailed-god that were strewn before Penda and his warband and ponder. Mayhap the old gods are all but forgotten now, perchance their power wanes, but Penda cut great swathes across Albion in their name. He gave them blood and they rewarded him with victory and a dragon’s hoard of gold.

JDH: Pah! Nonsense! Clearly the greatest warrior was Harald Hardrada –the superstar of his age. In fact, it’s only the fact that he is a Viking, that his achievements have been trivialised, overlooked, or ignored.

Harald is driven out of his homeland by Knut the Great, as a teenage boy on the threshold of manhood, and is driven into the East – modern Russia – but which was then the Mirkwood of the Germanic imagination. It was everything that Tolkien made it out to be in the Hobbit - dangerous, deadly, sinister – but the real-life Mirkwood came with terrifying Turkic horsemen named the Pechenegs, rather than spiders. 

Near-contemporary depiction of Byzantine Varangian Guardsmen

Harald learns the hard way. He fights and works his way south, ends up in the Varangian Guard, fighting and leading campaigns around the Mediterranean for the Byzantine Empire (ending up in the Emperor’s personal bodyguard) and being drawn into the Byzantine politics of the age, where he puts down a palace coup – personally blinding the Emperor of Byzantium. 

This is all before the age of thirty!

After that he has twenty-odd years of raiding around the Baltic, burning Hedeby, and crowning his achievement with a final victory on the fields outside York, at the Battle of Gate Fulford. 

GKH: Penda, stepping from the mists of time – followed by a resounding chorus of, ‘Who are yer?’
The answer is, ‘Penda  - just one of many warlords of my time.’

Harald Hardrada, the Thunderbolt of the North. He was the Thunder Box of the North by the time Harold Godwinson got through with him.
No, gentlemen, I’m afraid neither of these two candidates will do for the title, Mightiest Warrior of the Age. Undoubtedly, that honour should to the aforementioned, Harold Godwinson.

Harold Godwinson 02.jpg
Harold places the crown on his own head

Hardrada may have enjoyed great victories during his time with the Varangian guard but how much greater is Harold Godwinson in defeating such a formidable foe in one battle at Stamford Bridge? Harold achieved more in a single day than Alfred the Great did in his lifetime and all this after a legendary march north from London.

The next battle Harold fought was Hastings, here he might face some criticism because he lost but I’ll have none of it. 

Harold’s army consisted of around three thousand housecarls, the rest were made up from the fyrd, a sort of militia. All of William’s soldiers were professionals and most of them seasoned veterans. Add to this, William had cavalry, infantry and archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and you find yourself wondering what took William so long? The battle lasted all day – two to three hours was the usual time in this era – and this was against an army that had marched up to Yorkshire, fought a great battle, sustained a good deal of fatalities and casualties, marched south to Sussex, to do it all over again. Duke William won the by the skin of his teeth. I think you must agree, Harold is the greatest warrior of his time.         

Which is the best battle of the age, and why?

MH: Penda fought many battles, drenching the land with the slaughter-dew of his foes. But perhaps his greatest victory was at the battle of Maserfield. It was in the long warm days of Weod-mōnaþ, the time some call August, in the marches of Powys and Mercia where Penda, allying himself with the men of Powys, stood in the shieldwall before his greatest rival of the time, Oswald of Northumbria. King Oswald had returned from exile after Penda and Cadwallon of Gwynedd had slain the previous king of Northumbria, Edwin. 

Oswald had swept down from the north, defeating Cadwallon at Heavenfield and set about forming alliances with other kingdoms by marriage, religion or with the edge of a blade. By the year 642, he was the over-king of most of the realms of Albion. He was strong in his faith of Christ and led his men bravely, but his god seemed to abandon him as he marched into Mercia to his final battle.

alt text
St Oswald

Penda’s host destroyed the Northumbrians and Oswald was killed. His body was hacked into pieces, each part raised aloft on great stakes as an offering to Woden. Penda had broken the strangle hold of the Northumbrian kings and it would be weakened for many years.

JDH: I’d give the nod here to Edmund Ironside, who I think is really the man who deserves the title of the Last Anglo-Saxon King. 

Edmund has the misfortune of being the son of Ethelred the Unready, a king who lived too long, and largely squandered the work of Alfred the Great and the House of Wessex. Edmund is one of the most spectacular Anglo Saxon figures: his life brilliant, bright, as brief as a shooting star. 

Edmund Ironside - MS Royal 14 B VI.jpg
Edmund Ironside

While Ethelred’s reign is a list of defeats and disasters, Edmund ends up rebelling against his father, the Mercians and a large number of Wessex aristocracy – who are keen to accept Knut as their king – and in 1016, he leads a rag-tag of retainers in a summer of resistance, criss-crossing southern England and beating Knut’s larger Danish army five times, at Penselwood, Sherston, London, Brentford, and Sheppey. 

A brilliant campaign, and a testament to the charisma and character of the English king with the coolest nickname. 

GKH: The best battle of the era is without doubt, Stamford Bridge.

To qualify for the best battle there must be a fearsome adversary. I think you’ll agree, Vikings were fearsome. Your opponent must have a great leader and Hardrada easily qualifies here. His army had already won a victory at Fulford Gate against the Northern Earls. It was an easy victory for the Norwegians, so their capabilities were proved. 

Another ingredient is the ordeal that Harold’s army had to endure in marching two-hundred-and-twenty-five miles over six days, before engaging their enemy in battle. Add to this are the legendary Berserkers, Hardrada had with him. They stood like giants on the bridge across the River Derwent, between the English on one side and the Norwegians on the other. Only the quick thinking of a housecarl, jumping into a washtub, sailing under the wooden bridge and thrusting his spear into the Berserker where he least expected it, enabled Harold to cross the river and engage his enemy. 

So, there you have a recipe for a great battle, which ended in a resounding victory for the English. It was one of our finest days. Even to this day, the good people of Stamford Bridge celebrate Harold’s victory by eating Spear Pie.  

Which is the best weapon to use in battle, and why?

MH: Those who measure such things in the cold light of day would say that the spear, coupled with a wall of strong linden-boards, is the best weapon of war. But I am a scop, a spinner of yarns, and I say that it is the sword that is the greatest and noblest of all the weapons. Picture the blade, mottled and threaded with different patterns and hues. The iron could be the skin of a fish, or the ripples playing on water. And the hilt, the guard and pommel are also things of exquisite beauty. Golden rings and precious metals interlaced with garnets adorn the finest swords and such splendour marks them for what they are: a thegn’s weapon, a lord’s blade, a king’s sword.

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Pattern-welded blade (Attribution)

Swords are not borne by any fyrd-man. No ceorl will strap a tooled and bejewelled leathern scabbard to his side. No. The sword conveys to all that its owner is a man of worth. An oathsworn man. Mayhap a man to whom one should swear an oath.

A sword is the symbol and the soul of a true warrior.

JDH: Last week we had a couple of trees brought down, and rather than pay someone to split the logs, I bought a new Gränfors axe, which are hand crafted in Sweden, and stamped with the smith’s initials. 

So, I’ve been swinging and chopping, and each swing has allowed me to muse on the effect of an axe on the human body. Chroniclers talk of how the English bearded axe could cut through horse and rider in one swing, and I believe it. There’s something quite simple, and beautiful, about the axe. It has a minimalist quality to it, and I doubt there’s anything quite as effective and destructive. 

GKH: Best weapon must be the bow. You can use it on horseback or standing, you can even use it if you’re up a tree. Enemies can be dealt with from a distance as well as up close. Arrows can even penetrate armour and with the ability to shoot twenty arrows or more in a minute, you can do a fair amount of damage. Burning arrows can also be used to set fire to your enemy’s defences.

And finally, with a bow and arrow, you can hide behind a tree and from a safe distance, shoot someone in the back and then run off laughing into a forest to become a legend. Centuries later, people will still be telling stories and singing songs about you.

Better to fight on horseback, or on foot? Why?

MH: What foolishness is this? Are you moonstruck? Battles are not fought from the back of a mount. How would such a thing be possible? For surely any man attempting such a craven thing would be thrown from his saddle. I heard once in a great hall in Frankia that there are men far to the east who fight on horseback. That they have created some means to hold their feet fast whilst mounted. But I have never seen such a thing, nor do I believe it could be so.

Battles are fought face-to-face and toe-to-toe. Shieldwalls stand and clash like waves beating against a cliff. No beast would be brave enough to charge such a thicket of spears. It takes the bravery of men to heft their war-gear, don their helms, and approach their foes until they can smell their breath and sweat and fear.

Cavalry Vs Shield Wall

JDH: Yes, Matthew is spot on here. I’m all for planting my feet on the ground and standing in a phalanx of well-armoured warriors. 

GKH: I was tempted to say horseback because of the manoeuvrability – it’s much easier to outflank an enemy if you have speed but then on the other hand, if the infantry reforms there is not a lot you can do on horseback. So, why not do as the Saxons did; ride to battle on horseback, then dismount and form a shieldwall? Protected by their shields, the guys with their spears, axes and swords can take care of anyone the archers failed to hit.

Even these days, if you want total victory, you must have boots on the ground – that’s boots you notice, not hooves.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, was released on 1st December 2016.
The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse and Blood and Blade are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good online bookstores.
Killer of Kings and Kin of Cain are available for pre-order on Amazon and all good online bookstores. Kin of Cain is available tomorrow!

Contact links:
Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Justin Hill studied Medieval Literature at St Cuthbert's Society, Durham University. 
The Independent on Sunday listed him as one of the UK's Top Twenty Young British Writers in 2002. He has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and been shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Encore Award. 
He is currently writing the Conquest Series: which covers the events around the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Shieldwall, the first of these, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. 
Find Justin on Amazon
and on his Website
Connect with Justin on Facebook

G K Holloway left university in 1980 with a degree in history and politics. 
After reading a biography about Harold Godwinson, he became fascinated by the fall of Anglo Saxon England and spent several years researching events leading up to and beyond the Battle of Hastings. 
1066 is his debut novel. Currently he is working on a sequel. One day he hopes to write full time. 

Visit G K Holloway's website http://www.gkholloway.co.uk

I'm honoured to say that Glynn and I also collaborated on the #1 best-selling e-book of alternative history 1066 Turned Upside Down

1066 Turned Upside Down: Alternative fiction stories by nine authors by [Courtney, Joanna, Hollick,Helen, Whitehead,Annie, Belfrage,Anna, Morton,Alison, McGrath,Carol, Redgold,Eliza, Holloway,GK, Dee,Richard]

Thanks to Matthew, Justin and Glynn for this lively debate! Next month: The Twelfth Century.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Less Tudor, More Seymour, and a Queen on Twitter: Interview with Janet Wertman

Today I am delighted to welcome to the blog author Janet Wertman, author of Jane the Quene, the story of Jane Seymour. Janet spent fifteen years as a corporate lawyer in New York, she even got to do a little writing on the side (she co-authored The Executive Compensation Answer Book, which was published by Panel Publishers back in 1991). But when her first and second children were born, she decided to change her lifestyle. She and her husband transformed their lives in 1997, moving to Los Angeles and changing careers. Janet became a grantwriter (and will tell anyone who will listen that the grants she's written have resulted in more than $20 million for the amazing non-profits she is proud to represent) and took up writing fiction.

Welcome to the blog, Janet. May I begin by asking:~ the Tudors are enduringly popular for readers of both fiction and non-fiction. What was your reason for choosing to write about Jane Seymour, in particular?

JW: Twenty years ago, I started to write about Anne Boleyn. I imagined a secret diary as read by Elizabeth, its lessons applied in her own life. I actually wrote more than a hundred pages of that book before Robin Maxwell actually published it (what are the odds that the universe would send the same idea to two people!?). Switching to Jane was initially just a healthy alternative to wallowing in self-pity for the rest of my life….but then I got more and more excited about Jane as a worthy topic all her own. 

Indeed, I now see Jane as the most fascinating of Henry’s queens. Jane was the last to really fall in love with him – the last to experience the vestiges of the golden monarch who was even then showing signs of the paranoid old man lurking beneath. That was a remarkable opportunity for an author – one that I took full advantage of by writing half the book in Cromwell’s point of view. That allowed me to turn Henry into Shroedinger’s cat, both good and evil at the same time, and let the reader decide who he really was. 

You were lucky as a child to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library and look at some books and letters of Elizabeth I. But in general, how easy was it for you to research Jane the Quene? Did you have access to documentary evidence?

I did indeed – but no more than anyone else. British History Online - I can’t say enough about that resource! They put you just a few easy clicks away from page after page of original documents, including the full Letters and Papers archives. That alone provides enormous detail – specific things that happened, where the Court was on particular dates, behind-the-scenes ambassadorial instructions…That was really all I needed!

That said, I have been fascinated by the Tudor era for a long time, enough to have done extensive background research before getting to the point of needing such detail. I have read a ton of books over the years and assembled a decent library of sources (my biggest find came at a tag sale in 1976, when I snagged the entire sixteen-volume set of Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England). I’ve also been to England and visited many of the places that still exist (and I’m thrilled to be going back this Spring!). So I did have a bit of a leg up.

I think the thing that most helped my research was my timeline. I started it years ago as a way to amalgamate the important information from all the biographies I read. Historians tend to group events around themes and skip giving dates, so I needed to deconstruct and then reassemble the data. The resulting chronology was so helpful that it inspired the format I chose, where each scene opens with its date and even specific time. 

Jane Seymour - Holbein

The timeline will continue to be central to my writing – I’m expanding it right now in preparation for the next books. But I have learned to be more careful.  In the past, I just threw in every date I could find, with more or less detail depending on what I had or what I found interesting. I didn’t source anything, which means that when dates and facts conflicted (which happens all the time) I had no basis on which to judge accuracy (let’s just say that I know to significantly discount the Spanish Chronicle’s takes…). Now I am footnoting!

I don't think I'm revealing any spoilers to say that book 2 in the series will focus on events after Jane's death. As an author, how difficult was it for you to leave your heroine/protagonist behind and continue the series without her?

Surprisingly, not that hard. It’s all part of the territory – we Tudor fans accept that early/tragic/grisly deaths are part and parcel of Henry’s court.  What was harder for me was still having Thomas Cromwell in the new book but losing his thoughts (given that he dies a third of the way through, he was not a contender for one of the two voices I allow myself per story - another spoiler 😉 ).  

Edward Seymour

The good thing is, I knew it was coming. So I was careful to plan traits in Jane the Quene would make his downfall plausible. I’m doing the same thing now, knowing that I will lose Edward Seymour’s point of view in Book Three (I’m also setting up Tom Seymour to go crazy – I started to a small extent in Jane, making him vain and somewhat empty headed, I’m accelerating it now. I need him to get a whole lotta resentful before Book Three starts!) 

What do you think is the underlying reason for the continuing interest in all things Tudor?

These stories have it all: passion, power, betrayal – and for the ultimate stakes. Plus all the characters are archetypes. What a powerful combination!
It may also have something to do with the fact that the Tudor characters are a kind of a cultural litmus test. I recently saw a meme that remarked that you could tell al lot about a person based on what movie they know Tim Curry from. Well, you can also tell a lot about a person based on who their favorite Tudor character is…  

What will come next for you? Do you have anything planned for a new series of books?

I have three trilogies planned, two more after this one (!), that collectively will cover the entire Tudor era after Henry VII. The second trilogy will focus on Elizabeth, starting with Mary’s accession (the first trilogy ends on Edward VI’s death) and taking us through the Gloriana years. The last trilogy will circle back to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn – kind of like a Star Wars thing.  After that? I’m not quite sure. I do have some ideas for a few standalones…but I have plenty of time to figure that part out! 

Thanks so much to Janet for taking time to talk to me.
Find Janet on her Website on Facebook and on Twitter
also on Pinterest and Google +
Find Jane Seymour on Twitter (Yes, she does have her own account!)

Buy links: Amazon UK 

Since I spoke to Janet, her book has been reviewed by the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Congratulations Janet!

Monday, 13 February 2017

Writing to Music - HE Bulstrode

Throughout 2017, I'm inviting authors to talk about music, writing, and writing to music. This month I hand the page over to author HE Bulstrode:

Music and the Writing of Historical Fiction

When people write about the relationship between music and writing, much of the discussion tends to be concerned with the former’s impact upon productivity, but what I will focus upon here, will be something a little more nuanced: the manner in which music can help the writer reach back into another time.

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell (H.E. Bulstrode's West Country Tales Book 5) by [Bulstrode, H.E.]

Firstly, however, I would like to make a few observations regarding my own thoughts regarding music’s general usefulness to the process of writing itself. If I have slept well and am at my most alert, listening to music whilst writing can serve as an enjoyable stimulus, but when I am feeling tired, or as if my head were stuffed with little more than cotton wool, music becomes a positive hindrance to composition. Mental fatigue, more so than physical, renders music a distraction and an impediment to the marshalling of thought, and putting together words on paper, or on screen. If I am tired and wish to write, listening to music is therefore best avoided. Music may serve as either a stimulus, or an impediment, to composition, depending upon how alert I happen to be at the time. 

For the author of historical fiction, music presents another means of peering into the past, and attempting to more fully immerse ourselves in a lost world. However, as with our use of other sources in the form of the written word, buildings and monuments, the visual arts and the material culture of everyday life, the further back we go, the more difficult it is to reconstruct the auditory world of our forebears. Today, thanks to radio, television and, perhaps most importantly, the internet, we possess access to a hitherto unimaginable quantity and variety of music.

If we are writing a piece set during the period of directly recorded sound, which commenced with the invention of Edison’s phonograph in 1877, then it is relatively straightforward to identify and locate pieces online, although not a great deal is available from the age of the wax cylinder. From the 1910s onwards, the amount of material greatly expands. Before then, we have to rely on musical notation and more recent performances and recordings of this music, to capture what people of an earlier age heard. This allows us to access at least a sample of what was played and sung during the early modern period, but the music associated with Church and court is better represented in the record, particularly from early in this period, than what was heard in the taverns or at village gatherings.
Detail from Purcell's Chacony in G Minor for Strings c. 1680

Musical notation in its current form became common only in the latter part of the 17th  seventeenth century, and if we venture further back – before the 14th century – we find ourselves in a world in which fixed note lengths are not recorded. The earliest English secular song for which both music and lyrics survive is ‘Sumer is icumen in’ from the 1260s, which many of you may recognise as the tune used to memorable effect in cult horror film ‘The Wicker Man’ in 1973. 

Once we venture back into the early mediaeval period and beyond, matters musical grow very dark indeed, and as for the actual tunes and melodies that were heard in the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, or, indeed, in ancient Britain, we remain ignorant. That said, you can listen to a rather haunting recording of a melody deciphered from a cuneiform tablet found in the city of Ugarit, Syria, in the 1950s. This hymn to the Hurrian goddess of the orchards – Nikkal – was composed for the lyre over 3,400 years ago. 

With respect to the influence of music upon my own writing, I found it useful to listen to compilations of songs from the 1910s and the 1920s to prime my mood for the writing of the period ghost story, ‘Old Crotchet,’ set in 1920s Somerset. This, however, being upon the cusp of living memory hardly qualifies, in my opinion, as history. What has proved to be more challenging, and indeed, interesting, has been tracking down music that would have been familiar to folk of the middling sort, and lower, during the 17th century, as part of the research for my forthcoming novel ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return,’ and published novella ‘The Cleft Owl,’ which span the late 1670s to mid-1680s. 

Of particular use has been reference to the pieces contained in ‘Playford’s Dancing Master,’ originally published in 1651, and in a number of subsequent editions until around 1728. 

A YouTube search will find not only recordings of many of Playford’s tunes, but also accompanying videos of re-enactors performing historical dances. The Estonian early dance ensemble Saltatriculi include a number of these in their repertoire, such as ‘Moll Peatley (The New Way),’ and ‘Parson’s Farewell,’. Without seeing such dances, I would have had no idea as to how they would have been performed. 

The Bodleian Library’s outstanding collection of digitised broadside ballads, dating from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, is freely available online, and provides a wealth of information relating to popular preoccupations and attitudes over the centuries. The broadside ballad pictured here, dealing with the reuniting with his lover of a boatswain taken into slavery in Algiers, was published at some point between 1671 and 1704. As you can see from this example, these publications frequently featured only lyrics, and would refer to well-known tunes to which they could be set. 

In sum, seeking out and listening to the music associated with a particular period and section of society, as well as reading the lyrics of popular songs, helps to flesh out the writer’s picture of the past. We can never seek to recapture, and convey, the taste and texture of any part of history in a truly authentic form, as we lack direct experience of it, but in listening to the music and voices of the past, we can step a little closer to that goal. 


Find HE Bulstrode on his Blog
On Facebook
On His Amazon Author Page

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Anglo-Saxon Names

I wrote a blog some time ago about why I thought it was that the Anglo-Saxon era is one of the less popular. 

It's not often studied in schools - indeed, I had to wait until my degree course before I was offered the opportunity to study it - and it's a bit, well, far away. Not as far away as the Romans, though, or the Ancient Greeks.

What probably doesn't help is the names.

In an average day's writing, I can find myself with at least one Aethelwold, an Aelfhere, a couple of Aelfric's, an Aelfsige, an Aethelweard and several Aethelreds. Aelthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was far from being the only woman of this age who was given that name.

Of course, I know who they all are. Just as you might know one or more people named Michael; you will be able to distinguish them in your mind. So much so that you hardly notice that Michael from the office, who drives you mad with his habit of tapping his pen on the desk while he works, has the same name as your lovely Uncle Michael who always brings presents when he visits. So it is with me: I know that Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester, formerly abbot of Abingdon, is a completely different person from Ealdorman Aethelwold of East Anglia. And that neither of them has anything to do with Aethelwold, son of Aethelred, who fought at the battle of the Holme in 902 and held a nun hostage...

'Aethelwold' silver penny
To be fair, the Anglo-Saxons were no different from any other age in this regard. Pick up a book set in the later middle ages and you will find the pages littered with Williams, Richards and Edwards. Henry is quite popular too. I believe one or two kings even bore the name 😉

Later on, in the Tudor age, try getting away from folks named Thomas - Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Thomas Tallis...

Parents or teachers today will see the same trends in the classroom. When my children were little, it seemed like every other male child was named Matthew or Daniel, and common girls' names were Hannah and Bethany.

The main problem with Old English names is that they are Old English. They're not familiar, because they essentially come from another language. In written form, they look odd. I haven't used the diphthongs but if I did, they would look even more 'foreign.'

Æ and æ turn the name Aethelflaed into Æthelflæd, which looks better to me, but I imagine it's more difficult to read if one is not used to the OE alphabet characters. Turn it into Æðelflæd and it looks even worse!

Charter of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and Aethelred, her husband

So what do these names mean?

Most OE names of this period are composites. The Aethel, or Æthel prefix means 'noble'. 
We also have the prefix Ælf, which means 'Elf'.
Ead, as in Eadred or Eadgar, means 'blessed'. This prefix is very common, and is the original prefix of names such as Edward, Edwin and Edgar.

The endings of names have meaning, too.
Wine means 'friend', so Aethelwine translates as 'noble friend'.

Red, or more properly ræd, means 'counsel'. Thus we have the most famous of all puns on a king's name. Aethelred the Unready, whilst he might always have been caught a bit unawares by boatloads of Danes, was not actually named thus because of his inability to anticipate the Viking raids.

Originally his epithet was a play on words: His name, Æthelræd, means noble counsel. Unræd means badly or ill-counselled. So in OE, Æthelræd Unræd  was 'noble counsel, ill-counselled. He was, as in the title of Ann Williams' biography of him, Aethelred, the Ill-counselled king.

Charter of Aethelred the Unready (detail) note all the 'Æ' names

Stān, meaning 'stone', when added to Æthel, gives us the name Æthelstān, or Athelstan, a fitting name for a king: 'noble stone'.

Other name endings include 'thryth', or ðryth, which means 'strength'. 
Thus, Queen Ælfðryth, or Aelfthryth, has a name which means 'elf strength'.

Many noblewomen's names end in gifu, meaning gift, and pronounced 'yiva'. Perhaps the best known of these is Lady Godgifu - modernised to Godiva (from Godyiva)

These names, by and large, are reserved for the 'upper classes', and are prevalent in the later portion of the period. Go back to the seventh and eighth centuries and you find more variety in the personal names, partly as a result of there still being separate kingdoms, with family, tribal and linguistic traditions. Thus the royal house of Mercia had two branches, known as B and C, with names such as Burgred on one side, and Ceolwulf on the other. Going back further still, the names get even stranger, but even so, patterns are detectable. Penda, Peada and Pybba were all from the same family. (And all male, which might seem strange to us - as was King Anna of East Anglia.)

Other OE names have a similar composition to the later, noble names, but are easier on the eye: compound names beginning with Wulf, for example, such as Wulfstan, Wulfric, and Wulfnoth. 

Older compound names are less easy for our modern eyes to read: Cynewulf, Cynethryth, and Cynegils, for example.

Some are simply delightful because they incorporate what we would refer to as nicknames.
Eadulf Cudel was an eleventh century nobleman from the north east. Cudel means cuttlefish.

Eadwig Ceorlacyng's nickname translates as 'king of the peasants' although we don't know why he was known as such.
Athelstan Rota was so named because he was Athelstan the Red, and so, presumably, red-haired.
It's fairly safe to assume the reason why Æthelweard the Stammerer was so called. Or how about Godwine the Driveller?
Possibly the most infamous was Eadric Streona - whose name translates as Eadric the Grasping, but one of my favourites is Æthelmær se greata - Aethelmaer the Fat.

Ladies, too, had their nicknames, although goodness knows whether Æthelflæd Eneda's nickname 'the duck' was meant as a compliment or an insult.

Another Æthelflæd was known as 'The White' (se hwita), perhaps to describe the colour of her hair? We must assume that Eadgifu Pulchre was rather beautiful, since her by-name means The Fair. 

The name Eadgyth Swan-neck (swanneshals) conjures up images of a beautiful, long-necked woman, perhaps someone like Audrey Hepburn, but it's a shame that somewhere along the way, many of these OE names became modernised in real life and yet, at the same time, unfashionable - Eadgyth becomes Edith. 

Then there's Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Mildred, Audrey (yes, there she is again, although Aethelthryth Hepburn doesn't have the same ring to it), and even, though it was never an OE name in and by itself, Ethel. Some, however, retained their popularity and their noble bearing - Alfred, Edmund, Edward.

I like them all - although I stopped short of naming my children after any of them! And pronunication? Well, take your pick:
Many people call her Ethelfled, Lady of the Mercians. But I have also heard her referred to as Athelflat. I know which I prefer. 

The difficulties with these OE names, and the evidence for the use of by-names or nicknames, helped shape my decision to modernise some names in my novels, and to give several characters nicknames or pet names.

So I gave my Aethelflaed a nickname: Teasel. If you want to know why, pick up the book - the pet name leads to some confusion...

To Be A Queen - the Story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Review/Interview - In the Shadow of the Storm: Anna Belfrage

In the second of my monthly review/interviews, I'm going back to the reign of Edward II. February's featured novel is In the Shadow of the Storm.

Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog

It's a while since I read an historical novel in which the main characters are fictional. Some authors choose to work entirely with 'real' people, some don't. In this instance, I felt the fictional characters gave the author room to manoeuvre and gave me as the reader the added bonus of not having to try to understand and get to know a host of real 14th-century people. 

This is the first of Anna's books which I've read, and I don't know if this is typical of her style, but straight away we are thrown right into the story, much as the central female character, Kit, is literally thrown into it. Immediately, I wanted to know who this woman was, and how she came to be in such a predicament. I didn't have long to wait. What could have been a complicated exposition becomes a deftly drawn, fast-paced painting of the scene. We are off and running.

Characters are introduced quickly and efficiently, and there is no slowing of the pace, yet I still felt as if I was getting to know these people. For all that they are, in a way, fully formed when we meet them, they have some distance to go with their stories and I wanted to journey with them. Sibling rivalry is introduced with minimum back-story, and yet is believable, not only in its own context, but in a universal way too. Anyone with a brother - or sister - will empathise. 

The story of Kit and Adam would have worked very well as a stand-alone adventure, and yet it is weaved into the historical framework of the turbulent reign of Edward and the rebellion of Roger Mortimer. I knew the basics of this period of history, and having read the book I feel much better informed, but at no time did this feel like a history lesson; facts are given when needed, but never shoe-horned into the story.

I finished reading this, the first in a series, late at night, and next morning I found that the characters were still 'with' me. A true indicator that I'd spent the previous evening in another world, fully absorbed in it.

Be warned - there are some brutal, bloody scenes, but these are so realistically drawn that I felt I really was watching the horror unfolding. The brutality is powerful, shocking, and it works as truthful historical drama.

After reading the book, I put a few questions to Anna:

You've spent a long time in a world of time-slip and Scottish and American 17th-century history. Was it always your plan someday to visit the 14th century? 
AB: Yes. The medieval period is something of a first love for me, and the story of Roger Mortimer is particularly intriguing. I did consider writing it as a time-slip, but neither Adam nor Kit showed any inclination for being born in another time than their own, so I had to scrap that.

Once readers have enjoyed this book, what can they expect from the next in the series?
AB: That the story continues? Book one ends in 1323, and the next book, Days of Sun and Glory,  covers 1324 to 1326, with a lot of focus on Queen Isabella and the as yet very young heir to the throne, Edward of Windsor. The entire series is based on historical events, but I’ve also given Adam and Kit their own share of adventures.

Are you planning to write any more about Kit and Adam? And have readers of The Graham Saga heard the last of Matthew and Alex?
AB: The series featuring Kit and Adam consists of four books. The third will be published in April of 2017. And yes, as I have serious separation angst whenever I get to the end of a series, I am toying with a fifth book – but it would be totally stand-alone. That separation angst is also why there is an almost finished book nine in The Graham Saga. Thing is, is it good enough to be published or is it just me pandering to my sense of loss? Matthew is not entirely thrilled at the thought of yet again being paraded before my readers (or so he says: one never knows with him) and besides, the story is pretty sad, so he keeps on scowling at me and telling me it isn’t fair of me to put him and his Alex through all this. What can I say? Life is no walk in the park, is it?

Universal links: 
In the Shadow of the Storm
Days of Sun and Glory