Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours

Over the last few months, I've been asking a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time. 

To see where they all went, click on the LINK

But now, it's my turn!


I've only got 24 hours, so I'll make the most of it.  I might as well go where I have to be up at dawn, so let's head for my favourite period, Anglo-Saxon England. But let's make it the later part of that period, and I'd like to pick a section where the country isn't being ravaged by Danes. So I'll go for the mid-tenth century, and I'll pop to the court of King Edgar. 

I'd love to find out the truth about his women and wives - some think he had three wives, some think only two, but some suggest he carried away a nun and impregnated her. His brother was no better, being, according to many of the chroniclers, caught on his wedding night in bed with his wife, and her mother.

Still, much as I'd love to know the truth, I'm not hanging around for long. The food is not great, and unless I manage to find a seat at a nobleman's table, the bread will be so coarsely-ground that I'll lose my tooth enamel if I eat too much of it. Plus there's likely to be ergot* and other nasties lurking on the plates, so let's skedaddle to my next favourite era...

So, it's lunchtime now, and I reckon there'll be a feast in the court of King Charles II. While I'm enjoying the earliest form of Ice Cream, I'm going to take a good look at the king. His portraits don't suggest that he was especially good-looking, yet he had plenty of mistresses. Surely they can't all have been swayed by the power and wealth alone? Did he have some allure that simply isn't in the paintings?

Only trouble is I won't be able to get that close to him, as only his family, other royals and high-ranking officials were allowed to sit near him, apparently.

And, much as I'd love to stay, Charles enjoyed tucking into pineapple, and I hate the stuff, so I'd best move on.

But, I'm not going far, timewise, maybe just slipping into the early eighteenth century, because I fancy some Baroque dancing I'd like a stately Sarabande. (Remember, this is fantasy, so I'll already have mastered the stepsūüėČ)
Baroque Dance - Sarabande à deux (Youtube)
So, it's late in the day now, and I'm just going to swap gender, if it's okay. I'd like to be a monk, and sing in a medieval cathedral.  Singing is a passion of mine, and those cavernous buildings have wonderful acoustics.

Perhaps something like this: Testamentum Eternum (Youtube)
Now that it's dark, and I've managed to avoid doing any work all day, I'm heading back to where I started, to an Anglo-Saxon hall.

The food, as I've already mentioned, will not be especially appetising. Depending on the time of year, one might expect meat - beef, mutton, goose or pork in winter, and lamb or kid in spring and summer - and perhaps fresh fish if the settlement is close to a river or the sea. Fresh cheese would be served in spring and summer, and hard cheese available all year round. Fruits, nuts, and dried vegetables might also be on offer.

There'll be plenty of drink, of course: wine, mead and beer (probably in that order of desirability**)

Here, I'll find plenty of camaraderie, boasting, gaming, and maybe, if we're lucky, the scop will tale a tale like that of Beowulf. 
Short extract from Beowulf (Youtube)
There might be a riddle or two to solve, and it might be x-rated:
 A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man, under its master's cloak. It is pierced through in the front; it is stiff and hard and it has a good standing-place. When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee, he means to poke with the head of his hanging thing that familiar hole of matching length which he has often filled before.  
 Answer? A key! 

I'll settle in for the evening, enjoying the feeling of being part of a close-knit community. I promise I'll come home before daybreak...


In all of my novels, there are scenes set in the mead hall, where feasting, drinking and boasting take place. It was an intrinsic part of life in Anglo-Saxon times. Indeed, to be cast out from the hall was to be cast out of society. You can find my books on AMAZON
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Find me on my website at

*ergot - fungus that grows on cereal crops
** Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England - Debby Banham

Monday, 18 December 2017

Snakes, Scrolls & Anglo-Saxon Secrets

"Open weekend reveals secrets of historic church." The headline in the local paper was intriguing. Mum kept the cutting for me, and on my next visit to see her, on a sunny Norfolk autumn afternoon, we drove up a narrow, bumpy bridleway, just beyond the village of North Pickenham. 

The Church of St Mary's, at Houghton on the Hill, is hidden from view, and even when you arrive, it nestles shyly amid the trees.

Houghton on the Hill is mentioned in Domesday, and if the name Houghton has the same derivation as Houghton near West Rudham, then it means enclosure on the hill-spur [hoh (hill-spur) plus tun (enclosure, settlement or farm)].

The main reason for my visit was to see the murals, and they're hard to miss. As you walk through the door, you can see them, in all their - slightly faded - glory. These murals have not been precisely dated, but the general consensus is that they are pre-Conquest, and it's thought that they are the oldest of their type, certainly in England and possibly in Europe. There have been many scholarly articles published, examining the history and the symbolism of these paintings. This blog post is not about that, just about the experience of visiting this unique place and seeing these wonderful murals.

Alan, our guide, explained that they are what's known as a Doom Painting (depicting the Last Judgement.) He showed us the figures who are in Hell, looking up towards God, who has Jesus sitting on his knee. 

The notorious figures holding the serpents/scrolls have been the subject of much discussion. Alan says he is convinced that they are serpents, because of the shape of them. Comparison with the figure on the other side, who is in Hell, would seem to confirm this. The figure here is holding a plump, red, angry 'scroll', which does, admittedly, look very much like an untamed serpent.

My love of all aspects of Anglo-Saxon history has endured for nearly forty years. I studied it for my degree, I've continued to research it ever since, and this has resulted in the publication of three novels, contributions to two anthologies (one fiction, one non-fiction) and a commission to write a history of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. But never have I seen anything like these murals. To view them was a fabulous experience, and I marvelled at the fact that they have survived, and the circumstances which led to their discovery.

Bob Davey found the church back in the 1990s, derelict, and in need of restoration. In the course of that restoration, the murals were revealed.

The Anglo-Saxon images are the earliest paintings to have been revealed beneath the layers of plaster. But there is a fragment of a later painting, which contains words taken from Cranmer's Common Book of Prayer. This was produced during the reign of Edward VI, and demonstrates that for centuries, this was a working church. In all, there are five layers of paintings and the argument persists: should the later layers be completely erased in order to reveal the earlier ones?

On the north wall, the paintings depict the birth of Eve, and one can just make out the figure of Adam leaning against the tree of life.

Nearer the north door, (now blocked up) there was a depiction of Noah's Ark and apparently all around the lower portion of the walls, there was a strip of blue - a reference to the fact that the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Not everything inside the church was a joy to see. When Bob Davey stumbled across the ruined church, hidden by trees, covered with ivy and lacking its roof, he had to evict a group of Satanists before he could begin the restoration. No easy matter, when, as the local police told him, being a Satanist is not a crime. Alan showed us the damage done by this group (see the picture below.) There is also a swastika carved into the church wall, which must be left because, yes, it, too, is a part of the history of the building.

After years of painstaking restoration, the church is now safe, its future secured by the foundation of a trust. Various items have now been returned: a seventeenth-century chest, a prayer book, the font and the stoup bowl.

Alan took us outside for a tour round the building. There was once a round tower, and the existing porch was hit by a zeppelin bomb during WWI, resulting in a gaping hole which remained for eighty years. Lying in the shadow of the south wall is the spot where Robert de Neville's tomb was located. He was the lord of the manor in the thirteenth century, who apparently was executed for being found 'in criminal conversation' with a high-born lady.

Beyond the chancel, it was thought by some that the remains of a Roman baths were visible, but Alan thinks not. He showed us the extent of each generation of building, and the different roof lines.

The window on the north wall was purportedly stolen by GIs in WWII, and the replacement is a 'best guess', as no one knew what the original design looked like.

The replacement window -behind the grave stones
the window can also be seen in the top photo

Between the window and the now blocked up north door, there is a blocked up Anglo-Saxon window. 

Back inside, I photographed the Saxon window on the south wall, which has not been blocked up, but has been glazed. At the time, of course, it would not have had glass in it.

The church, which has never been de-consecrated, is Grade I listed. It is in the middle of nowhere now, but there was a village nearby. The church is close to Peddar's Way, the old Roman Road, and was on the pilgrimage route to Walsingham, (apparently Catherine of Aragon visited with her entourage.) Of the village, there is now no trace. Richard Muir's Lost Villages of Britain does not mention Houghton on the Hill, and there seems not to have been one specific reason for the disappearance of the village. I wondered about plague, or enclosure, but it seems as if the village simply shrank over time. 
"By 1603 the rector reported only fifteen communicants, that is, adults who took communion. In 1676 this had risen slightly to eighteen. In 1664 the hearth tax recorded seven individuals charged for fourteen hearths, seven of them in one household - presumably Houghton Farm, the only substantial dwelling in the village." (Friends of St Mary’s Trust pdf)
The church, still owned by the Church of England, is safe, but the trustees still work hard, and rely on donations to fund the ongoing restoration, plans for which include the uncovering of the paintings on the south wall. 

As we stood in that tranquil place on that quiet autumn afternoon, I contemplated how the church would have looked to its eleventh, maybe even tenth-century congregation. Paintings, in bright colours, covering all the interior walls, and depicting scenes from the Bible, must have been a truly awesome sight.

Links and further information: 

[All photographs by and copyright of the author]

Monday, 11 December 2017

Anglo-Saxon Music

Over the course of this year I've invited a number of authors to write about the music that inspires them, either to write, or while writing. I suppose it's now time for me to do the same!

Some of the authors chose music which came from the period in which their novels are set. It's not so easy for me to do this, as my writing is all set in the pre-Conquest period. I do have a CD, however, which attempts to give the flavour of the music of the time, and it can be quite useful for creating atmosphere.

Sanctus seeks to recreate the sounds with which Bede might have been familiar, taking traditional plainchant and adding harp and pipe.
Factor est cum Angelo
It's fair to say, though, that this is probably not a true representation of the music of the time. Few musical instruments have been unearthed from this period, possibly because they were mainly made from wood. Flutes made from applewood and hawthorn were unearthed from the Anglo-Scandinavian levels at York [1] but where the soil composition is not so conducive to the preservation of such items, they will have been lost. The sound would be more sonorous than those made of bone:
Sheep Bone Flutes (Youtube)
Some flutes were also made from the bones of swans' wings.

The other main musical instrument that we know about is the lyre, referred to in the sources as the harp. The most famous of all these finds is probably the Sutton Hoo lyre, but it is rather more ornate than those which would have belonged to a 'jobbing' musician, or scop. It was made from maplewood, and had six tuning pegs. The sound board was secured using pins cut from a strip of sheet copper alloy [2]
Anglo-Saxon Harp (Youtube)
The highest level of woodworking skills were required to make the instruments. A lyre has two main elements, the sound-box and the yoke into which the tuning pegs were seated. The lyre at Sutton Hoo had a 16mm deep soundbox carved from a single piece of maple. The soundboard, 3mm thick, was nailed over it, and the joints used to fix the yoke to the arms of the sound box were 'bridle joints', not 'mortise and tenon' [3]

Replica Lyre at Sutton Hoo - authors' own photo

Scops, the poets and singers, would have played the harp, but it seems that others were expected to have playing skills, too. Important occasions were marked by feasts, accompanied with music and entertainment. According to Bede, "When a cause for celebration had been determined ... they must all sing with a harp in turn."

However, stage fright appears not to be a modern phenomenon. "Whenever all those present at a feast took it in turns to sing and entertain the company, he would get up from the table and go home directly he saw the harp approaching him." [4]

Another instrument was the handbell, made from iron and primarily used for cows, but also used by Irish monks in the early Christian period. The figures below are depicted at Edward the Confessor's funeral (Bayeux Tapestry)

Much mention is made of the power of song. "That every day he heard the pleasure loud in the hall, the scop's clear song." (Beowulf 1.86-9)

It seems that there were different types of song: giedd (narrative and often sad), the leo√į (also narrative), folcr√¶den (tribal tradition) [5]

It's possible that as well as being played and sung in the hall in the evening, the scop's music was also used to rouse the slumbering warriors the morning after - a precursor to the alarm clock!

It's clear that music, and particularly song, was important. From Widsi√ĺ:
...and I with a bright voice, raised a song for our victorious lord. Loud with the harp the sound mellowed, when many men, proud with mead, spoke their words,who well knew, that they had never heard a better song."

 We can't be sure what any of this music sounded like, but we have a little information dating from the end of the period. The Winchester Troper dates from around AD1000 and includes possibly the oldest written music, designed to be performed in Winchester Cathedral. A sample can be heard on YouTube.

Winchester Troper

Here's a recreation of what multi-instrumental music might have sounded like:
Anglo-Saxon Folk Music - "Wælheall"

and a demonstration of music played on replicas of instruments found together as grave goods.
UR Pipes & Lyre

The theme of this series of blog posts has been Writing to Music. For all the reasons stated above, it's hard for me to do this in the way that some authors can. If music inspires me, it's usually the lyrics which spark my imagination. Lyrics, for me, are a bit like the poetry of Tennyson: an elegant yet simple summation of the things we all feel, but struggle sometimes to put into words. Songs often dig down and expose the centre of my characters' situations. If you've read my books, then you'll know who I'm talking about:

Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol: sums up how √Üthelred of Mercia feels when he's tired of the struggle and wants his wife to just be with him, supporting him. (To Be A Queen)

You're Beautiful - James Blunt: simply  a perfect way to describe how Alvar feels when he first meets K√°ta. (Alvar the Kingmaker)

Leaving the Land - Mary Black: a wonderful expression of K√°ta's belief that you can't go forwards in life if you're always looking behind you. (Alvar the Kingmaker)

I can't make you love me - Bonnie Raitt:  a pivotal moment in the lives of Edwin and Carinna. (Cometh the Hour)

Angel - Sarah McLachlan: this track happened to be playing while I was writing one of the saddest scenes of Cometh the Hour. If you've read it, you'll know.

None of these tracks is remotely medieval in sound. But emotions are timeless, aren't they? However, there is something which bridges the gap between authentic Old English music, and the atmosphere conjured up by those artists and writers attempting to recreate the past. So, fianlly, enjoy this video and the accompanying music.
Wedding (Wardruna)
Amazon Author Page

[1] Wilson, 1976, (Quoted in The Mead-Hall - S Pollington)
[2] [3] Anglo-Saxon Crafts - Kevin Leahy
[4] Cædmon's Vision, Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland
[5] Bloomfield & Dunn 1989

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours - Round-Up

I asked a few authors to imagine their Fantasy 24 Hours. The only restriction on their flight of fancy was that it had to transport them, somehow, to the past. The rest was up to them.

They didn't let me down! I received such a variety of posts, and here, in case you missed them, are the links to all these diverse pieces:~

Author Diana Wilder took us on a boat down the Nile

And next time, it's my turn!! Well, of course there'll be some Anglo-Saxons involved, but this is fantasy, right, so I could end up absolutely anywhere...