Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The 'Evil' Women of Mercia

Adultery, poison, witchcraft, murder, incitement to murder, and being murdered. Exciting times for the noblewomen of Mercia...

King Edward receives a drink before his stepmother kills him

In my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I wrote about two such women: one stood accused of romping three-in-a-bed with her husband (the king) and her own mother, and being too closely related to her husband. The other stood accused variously of being complicit in the murder of her first husband, of torturing and then murdering an abbot, of being in an adulterous relationship with her second husband, (king, and brother of the previously mentioned king) and finally of colluding in the murder of her stepson, who succeeded her husband as king.

King Edgar meets, and is enchanted by, Ælfthryth

One of these women had no connection with Mercia, but her husband did. One might almost say that he wouldn't have become king without Mercian help. The other lady may well have been related not only to Alfred the Great, but also to a great Mercian family too. I've examined the primary sources and come to my own conclusions about these stories. But they are by no means the only women to be afforded such notoriety.

Researching for my new book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom - to be published by Amberley later this year - I've been 'reacquainting' myself with a few other 'evil' women, and on the face of it, they are deserving of the epithet, and could all have been fitting subjects for the essay.

Allow me to introduce them:

Alhflæd was the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, nemesis of Penda of Mercia. The kings met on the battlefield in 655, and Oswiu was the victor. And yet, for all that these two kingdoms were bitter enemies during the seventh century, there was a lot of inter-marriage between the two royal houses. Penda's son married Oswiu's daughter, and Oswiu's daughter married Penda's son. This son was named Peada, and Bede remembered him for converting the peoples over whom he was made king, the Middle Angles, to Christianity. According to Bede:
He asked for the hand of [Oswiu's] daughter Alhflæd ... and gladly declared himself ready to become a Christian. He was earnestly persuaded to accept the faith by Alhfrith, son of King Oswiu, who was his brother-in-law and friend. (HE iii 21)
It might be nice to think of these young royals all getting on famously well, but only around three years later, Peada was dead, 'slain', according to one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and specifically by his wife according to Bede, who said that he was murdered:
by the treachery, or so it is said, of his wife during the very time of the Easter festival (HE iii 24)
Yet another marriage took place between the two families, this time between the last of Penda's sons to become a king in Mercia, Æthelred, and the daughter of Oswiu and his second wife. This daughter was called Osthryth. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was in 697 that 'the Southumbrians slew Osthryth, Ethelred's queen and Ecgfrith's [King of Northumbria] sister.'

No explanation is given for the murder. It is known that Osthryth oversaw the removal of the bones of St Oswald, her uncle, to the abbey at Bardney, in an area where he might not have been that fondly remembered. Oswald had been an enemy of Mercia, so perhaps they didn't like her highlighting his memory, but this seems a poor excuse for killing her. Was it retribution for her half-sister's murderous act? Again, it seems a bit of an over-reaction, especially given the amount of time which had elapsed.

Image of St Oswald in Durham Cathedral

It must, however, have been a tense situation, given that her husband had waged war on her brother, and in the ensuing battle, another brother of hers had been killed. Bede noted that this young man was about eighteen years of age, and beloved in both kingdoms.  

It's clear that even while these marriages were occurring, the two royal houses were still bitterly opposed to one another and that there were conflicting loyalties. It is perhaps in this context that the murder should be viewed, but whatever she had done, or been accused of, we shall never know.

Eadburh's crimes, on the other hand, were written down in great detail, and publicised. She was the daughter of King Offa, and she was married to Beorhtric, king of Kent, whom she accidentally poisoned. Asser, writing the Life of King Alfred, was scathing indeed of this woman, who had behaved 'like a tyrant after the manner of her father'. She loathed all of her husband's friends, and decided to kill them with poison:
This is known to have happened with a certain young man very dear to the king, whom she poisoned when she could not denounce him before the king. King Beorhtric himself is said to have taken some of that poison unawares: she had intended to give it not to him, but to the young man; but the king took it first and both of them died as a result. (Asser Ch 14)
The murderess then went to the court of Charlemagne, who established her as abbess of a large convent. But this irredeemable woman apparently lived even more recklessly than before, and was caught 'in debauchery' with a man of her own race, and having been ejected from the nunnery, died in poverty. Asser claimed to have heard this story from witnesses who saw her begging in the streets.

Eadburh's crimes though seem rather run-of-the-mill compared with the next 'evil' woman on this list.

After Offa's death, the Mercian throne passed briefly to his son, Ecgfrith, who reigned for only a few months. He was succeeded by Coenwulf, who reigned until 821.

After this, things get a little hazy. What we do know is that Coenwulf had a son, Cynehelm, and a daughter, Cwoenthryth. William of Malmesbury recorded that:
At Winchcombe rests Cenwulf [Coenwulf] with his son Kenelm [Cynehelm]. At the age of 7 the boy had been left by his father to be brought up by his sister. In her greed, she entertained the illusory hope of the throne, and assigned the job of eliminating her little brother to the retainer who looked after him. He took the innocent child off on the pretence of a hunt, killed him, and hid him in some bushes. (Gesta Pontificum iv 156 3) 
So far, so traditional. But this concealment was for naught, because a piece of parchment, carried by a dove, floated down onto the altar of St Peter in Rome, revealing the whereabouts of the body. Thus the body was carried to Winchcombe and when the murderess saw what was happening, she began chanting a psalm backwards as some kind of evil spell, but by God's power her eyes were torn from their sockets, with blood splattering to an extent that William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, proclaimed, 'the bloodstains are there to this day.'

Detail from a page of the Winchcombe Psalter

There is very little recorded evidence about Cynehelm, and all we really know is that he existed, and predeceased his father. His sister had been in dispute with the Church over monastic property. Unlikely, then, that she was to be remembered fondly in William's Gesta Pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops of England) but clearly the story, as presented by William, is nonsense. 

Even so, in comparison, the 'crimes' of the subjects of my novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, might seem mild. Ælfgifu, wife of King Eadwig, and Ælfthryth, first, second or possibly third wife of King Edgar, both had cause, like Cwoenthryth, to be reviled by the Church, but not necessarily for obvious reasons...

[all above images are in the Public Domain]
Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available for pre-order now.

To read more about Oswiu, Oswald, Penda et al, try my latest novel Cometh the Hour 

To read the fictionalised account of the two infamous queens who scandalised tenth-century England, read Alvar the Kingmaker

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Battle-site of 'Heavenfield'

Someone asked my - adult - daughter once if I travelled to many locations in the course of my research. Her answer was: 'She stands around in fields a lot and gets emotional, does that count?'

Well, it's largely true. There are a few buildings that can be dated to the Anglo-Saxon period (see my post here about Escomb Church) but when it comes to battle fields, many are still missing, presumed lost. 

While historians continue to argue about the exact location of Brunanburh, there are some sites which are less disputed, one of which is the site of the battle at Heavenfield, where St Oswald's Church stands close to Hadrian's Wall. So close, in fact, that there are bits missing from the wall at this point, and it's thought that stones from it were used to build the church.

What we know of the battle is this:~

Edwin, king of Northumbria, had been killed in battle in 633 by the combined forces of Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd. According to Bede, (HE ii 20) Cadwallon was in rebellion against Edwin, suggesting some sort of overlordship, evidently resented, and after the battle the land of the Northumbrians was ravaged and Edwin's wife and surviving children fled to Kent.

Edwin had been expanding his kingdom at the expense of the British kingdoms, and while there are some traditions which suggest that initially Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon had been enemies, they were at this point in alliance, although there is some debate over whether it was an enterprise of equals, or whether Cadwallon was the leader. 

Edwin had been in exile for many years before he became king, and one of his first acts upon gaining the throne had been to attack the British kingdom of Elmet (centred around modern-day Leeds) and in so doing, he removed a 'buffer' between his own lands and those of the Welsh.

After Edwin's death, the kingdom of Northumbria briefly split back into its two separate kingdoms, and Edwin's cousin came forward to claim Deira in the south, while an exiled member of the old ruling dynasty claimed Bernicia in the north.

Cadwallon, who clearly had a hefty axe to grind, killed the former, who had 'rashly' tried to besiege him, and a year later, also slew the latter, who had come to make peace with the Welsh king bringing 'only twelve chosen thegns' with him. Bede's verdict was that Cadwallon had executed a 'just vengeance on them, though with unrighteous violence'. They had, he said, reverted to the 'filth of their former idolatry'. (HE iii 1)

The latter's half-brother, Oswald, had also been in exile, and returned now to claim both the kingdoms of the north. Oswald was also the nephew of the previous king, Edwin, and having both Deiran and Bernician blood, was acceptable to both realms. There was just the small matter of the Welshman - a Christian whom Bede called 'a barbarian in heart and disposition' who spared neither women nor innocent children' - to deal with...

Oswald came, according to Bede, with an army, small in numbers but strengthened by faith, and I imagine that they might have followed the line of the wall as they travelled from what is now the west of Scotland. Before the battle, Oswald is said to have set up a holy cross, and it is on this site that the present church was built.

Excavation at this part of the wall has revealed fragments of human bone and weaponry, suggesting that this is indeed the site of a battle.

The church sits on top of the hill, and as I stood in the churchyard and looked down at the fields below, I couldn't help but picture the landscape as it might have looked then, with soldiers and equipment.

Cadwallon was slain. Possibly his forces were depleted, for it seems he had been campaigning in the north for a while. He is said to have been killed at a place called Deniseburn which has been identified with Rowley Burn*. If so, then he was chased for some miles before he was killed. I drove to Rowley Burn, and tried to envisage what it must have looked like in 634, when a mighty Welsh king drew his last breath, but the scene was a tranquil one.

Of the site of the church, Bede said that it was a place still 'held in great veneration' (HE iii 2) but no trace of the Anglo-Saxon church remains.  Inside the existing church, which dates from the nineteenth century, there is a Roman altar stone,

and the building is peaceful, simply presented, and so calm and quiet it's hard to imagine the clamour of battle which once rang out. 

Given the location and the archaeological evidence, I feel confident that I was in the right place. It's not often that I can stand somewhere and know that the people I write about once stood in the same spot. So yes, I do often stand in fields and get a bit emotional.

These characters all feature in my latest novel, Cometh the Hour

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

* Peter Marren, Battle of the Dark Ages, pp74-75

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Anglo-Saxon Childhood

It would be no surprise that childhood in centuries past was radically different from the experience of youngsters in the 20th and 21st centuries. But with so few written sources, can we glean anything at all about childhood in pre-Conquest England?

The laws of King Æthelberht of Kent give a few clues about the value of children in the seventh century. In them, we learn that if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him, there are various penalties, and 
If she bears a living child, she is to have half the goods, if the husband dies first.
If she wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods .*
It may not be much, and certainly not anything like our modern notion of 'child benefit' money, but at least there was a basic provision there.

The laws of King Ine, later on in the seventh century, at first seem to suggest that childhood was short:
A ten-year-old boy can be considered privy to a theft.
Except that even in 2018, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is still ten, albeit that the procedure for dealing with juvenile crime differs from that for adults. Later laws, of Athelstan in the tenth and Cnut in the eleventh centuries, set the age at twelve.

Elsewhere in Ine's laws there is provision for a widow if
the husband dies, the mother is to have her child and rear it; she is to be given six shillings for its maintenance, a cow in summer, an ox in winter; the kinsmen are to take charge of the paternal home, until the child is grown up.

Alfred the Great's laws in the ninth century specified that if a girl who was not of age was the victim of rape, then the compensation would be the same as for an adult.

So we can see that there were certain rights enshrined in the laws, regarding provision for widows with children, and for crimes perpetrated by and against minors. But what of attitudes towards children?

Asser, writing the life of King Alfred, does not at any point mention the name of the king's wife. But he mentions the children:
namely  Æthelflæd the first-born, and after her Edward, then Æthelgifu followed by Ælfthryth, and finally Æthelweard, (leaving aside those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death who numbered...)
How many? We don't know. As Simon Keynes points out in the notes to his translation, the numeral, if it was there, is unreadable. 

It has been suggested that child mortality was around thirty percent in Anglo-Saxon England (S Rubin, Medieval English Medicine.

Coupled with the information from Asser that Alfred had many more children than those who survived to adulthood, it seems to me that there is a very good reason why his eldest daughter had only one daughter, and it is not, as the chronicler William of Malmesbury suggested, that she 'chose' not to have any more and 
ever after refused the embraces of her husband.
I suspect that there were other pregnancies, maybe other births, and that her daughter Ælfwynn was the only one to survive, but that this was not seen as uncommon, and thus was hardly remarked upon. When writing Æthelflæd's story in my first novel To Be A Queen I decided to present this scenario. 

Though rare, Asser's is not the only remark on this subject, and it seems to me that even if still-births or infant deaths were common, there is no reason to think that they weren't distressing.

There is one mention in Bede, of seventh-century King Edwin of Northumbria's children by his second wife Æthelburh of Kent, two of whom
were snatched from this life while they were still wearing [their baptism gown] and are buried in the church at York. (HE ii 14)

but by and large these occurrences are left unrecorded.

It has been suggested that because of the number of adult skeletons found with evidence of cleft palate, that such people must have been exceptionally well cared for when they were children, for it would have been extremely difficult for them to feed (Victoria Thompson, Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, citing Crawford, Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England pp94-5)

A seventh-century grave in a cemetery at Barton-on-Humber, less than a metre in length, was found to contain a feeding bottle, hinting that either the baby had a cleft palate, or that the mother was unable to feed the child herself, or perhaps even that the mother had died in childbirth.

Baptism was obviously important in the Christian age, and when I was writing my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I was keen to find out what happened to children who died before they could be baptised. Information was scant. Compensation was due if a child died without having been baptised, but what happened to the body? 

John Blair (The Church in Anglo-Saxon England) observed that later infant burials at Raunds in Northamptonshire encroached on the reserved strip of land closest to the walls of the church, and in his note 201 p 471 he wrote:
This looks like a case of the widespread practice of burying infants under the eavesdrip.
He then refers to Stephen Wilson (in The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe) 
for the idea that water running off the church roof conveyed some kind of posthumous baptism **
There is one reference to a royal baptism, and a particular incident, which will not surprise any parent, but which was considered an evil omen. Æthelred II (the Unready), according to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, 'made water in the font' during his immersion, causing Archbishop Dunstan to predict the slaughter of the English people that would take place during his reign. 

Of course, Henry was writing in the twelfth century with the benefit of hindsight. It cannot have been unusual for infants to urinate in the font and indeed priests were advised that they only need change the water if the child had defecated. (Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood, citing Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children)

What of the children who did survive those first few months and years? Asser tells us that Alfred's youngest surviving child was 
given over to training in reading and writing under the attentive care of teachers, in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well.
Asser's  job was to portray his patron's credentials as the promoter of learning and culture, but it is interesting to note that he saw fit to add that children of less noble birth were also given access to the rudiments of education. 

Children are rarely mentioned in the chronicles, laws, and charters of the period. Those of low rank probably worked alongside their parents from a young age, but we can see from these few examples that they were valued, cared for, and that those who survived were protected by law, and that those who did not were mourned, and that their journey into the after-world was considered to be of the utmost importance.

* All law codes quoted from EHD (English Historical Documents) Vol I Ed. Whitelock
**I am indebted to Ann Williams for locating this information for me

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Shining a Light: Authors of Anglo-Saxon Novels - Paula Lofting

This year on the blog, I'll be featuring a number of other authors who also write books set in the 'Dark Ages'.

First to shine a light on proceedings is Paula Lofting, who writes books set in the eleventh century. Her stories revolve around Wulfhere, a Sussex thegn  who is a warrior, a husband, and a father. Warfare, family strife, and an enemy close to home - Wulfhere has to summon courage and wisdom if he is to win his battles.

The first in the series is called Sons of the Wolf 

The second book is called The Wolf Banner and I asked Paula to choose an excerpt from the book to share here. This is what she chose, and why:
Paula says, I love the air of mystique that seems to follow Alfgyva whenever she appears in the book, her persona seems to write the scene itself.
Also, it shows the turmoil that Tovi is suffering as keeper of his family's darkest secrets. Poor Tovi is trying to be useful so that his father will acknowledge him, so he runs off eagerly to get help with his father's favourite mare who is struggling to give birth and could lose its life, then he is confronted by the 'witch', his father's lover, whom he had once discovered in bed with his father. Being so young, he does not really know what her connections to his parent's discord is exactly, then when she turns up unexpectedly, demanding the child, he starts piecing things together in his mind and all he can think of is that his whole world is about to come crashing around their ears and he must prevent his mother from seeing her. What eventually happens is that both his aims in those moments are not achieved and although none of what happens is his fault, he feels as though the whole thing is his doing. A heavy thing for a boy of 12 to have to bear.

Excerpt from Chapter 9 of 
The Wolf Banner

Father shook his head. The mare’s front legs gave way and she sank slowly to her knees, despite their efforts to hold her. Father pulled his arm from her as she went. It was covered in blood. There was nothing any of them could do. The foal was stuck, probably dead, and all they could do was get it out to save the mother. 

Father sat near her head stroking her forelock with loving care, whispering endearments to her. Tovi felt his own eyes moisten at the sight of the tears pooling in his father’s eyes. 

“We will need help if we are going to do this,” Father said, his voice so choked with emotion that Tovi thought his father would break down any minute. But he did not. He carried on. 

“We will also need rope to harness the foal. Yrmenlaf, go and –”

“I will go, Father!” Tovi shouted. 

Father looked up at Tovi, his hair matted and stuck to his forehead, sweat running in rivulets down the side of his temples. He nodded to him and said, “Go then, Tovi, but be quick. She is losing blood, fast. Get the twins and Herewulf, and anyone else who might be able to make themselves useful. And rope! Don’t forget the rope!” 
Tovi’s heart lifted and he ran swiftly out of the stables.

Out in the courtyard, the morning sunshine was losing its glow. Instead, dark storm-filled clouds were gathering, moving swiftly in the wind, like a blanket of shadows, pulled across the greying sky. Tovi shivered as a great hand of wind forced him backwards. He put his head down, wrapped his arms around himself, and charged against the ethereal wind-giant, as it forbade him to go forward. He’d left his cloak in the stables and thought about running back to get it as an army of ice-cold showers began to slash down from the heavens. But his father’s voice echoed inside his head, and he thought better of it.

He struggled to open the gates against the unruly elements, then, as abruptly as the wind and rain had started, it subsided. The atmosphere brightened, and he glanced up as he trudged across the waterlogged ford. It was then he saw her, waiting, like a dark wælcyrie astride her black horse. He knew her immediately. Her stillness was haunting. In a moment, the shadows passed over the sun again, but the wind and the rain held off, keeping his vision clear. 

He noticed the others that were with her, three young men, all on foot. Another older, whom he recognised as the woodsman, Welan, holding her horse’s reins. For a moment Tovi’s eyes were fixed upon her and hers, in turn, were fixed upon his. Whisperings of her wiccecræeft were aplenty in these parts and as he felt his eyes drawn to her, he was convinced it must be true. He recalled her name and remembered how his mother had once uttered it with blistering contempt; Alfgyva. The woman in whose bed he had caught his father. The woman, who through guile and enchantment, had stolen Father’s heart, and had twice brought chaos into their lives. 

She looked at him from beneath the shadow of her hood; fiercely proud features, both beautiful and harsh. His heart, pounding in his chest as her demeanour spoke of trouble. 

“Boy!” she called to him, in a voice that was rich and throaty. “Tell your father, Wulfhere, that I would speak with him.”

“He-he is tending the birth of one of our foals. It is not g-g-going w-w-ell,” Tovi stammered, as he often did when nervous. Thoughts to run and complete his task had been thrown into a whirlwind of confusion. He knew what he must do, but he was transfixed by her presence, and her obstruction of his path. 

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Get him! It will not take long to say what I must say. I shall not go until he comes.”

Tovi stared at her, unable to move. 

“Well?” she glared.

“H-he c-c… cannot come. I was g-going to get help – f-for him...”

“Then fetch your mother.”

“M-my m-mother? N-no!”

She manoeuvred her mount closer to stand alongside him. He wanted to run, but his legs were quivering. He knew he had to get the help his father so badly needed, but his mind spun with a multitude of whispering thoughts. 

“Go and fetch her.” The huskiness in her voice was almost menacing. “If you don’t it will be you who must face the consequences.” 

Tovi was not sure if it was rain or sweat that clung to his skin. All sense of duty had been lost, as if a spell had been cast to stop him from fulfilling his mission. She’d appeared like a phantom in the mist, as had the great hand of wind and rain. 

“W-what do you w-w-want w-with my m-m-mother?” 

He recoiled as he saw her dark eyes narrow, like a cat’s. She was terrifyingly beautiful, her eyes pinning him to the spot.

“Tell her I want my child back,” she hissed and the corners of her mouth lifted slightly, as if to smile. When he hesitated, she said ominously, “Do you want me to come in there and rip the child from her arms, boy?”

 All he could think of then, was that this woman should not go anywhere near his mother. He took a few steps away from her, holding out his hands to pacify her. “Stay, m-my lady, I will get your child,” he said. And he thought it better that he did the deed, than his mother suffer the indignity of the woman’s confrontation.

Tovi would not remember later how it all happened, but he rushed through the rain into the hall, and with relief he noticed Godfrida lying unattended in her wicker basket, peacefully sleeping whilst life carried on around her. He picked her up out of her basket and stole her away out of the hall. As he ran across the courtyard, shielding the little bundle from the splattering rain, he heard his mother calling after him in a desperate voice. 

“Tovi!” He heard her gasping as the wind began to rage again.

He ignored her and hurried to the gate. He was just feet away from the opening when Ealdgytha caught him and wrestled the screaming child from his arms, causing him to slip over. Tovi, now perched on his heels, watched the woman enter the palisade. He was shaking with fear, knowing that it was all about to come to an explosive head. 

The two women faced each other. Mother shouted for her maid. “Take her, Sigfrith! Take her inside!” 

He needed to protect Mother. He leapt up, lunged toward her and grabbed her wrist, but she shook him off as if he were no more than a pup making a nuisance of itself. She looked at him with cold eyes, then looked back at the witch. The wind squalled in the air around them, and the sky threw down rain in short sharp rods.

“So, at last we meet again, Alfgyva,” Mother said. She was very calm.

“I’ve come for my daughter,” Alfgyva replied matter-of-factly.

“She belongs here now. You left her, and now you want her back?” Mother’s voice was steady and controlled.

“I was ill unto death and no one believed I would live, let alone myself. I wanted her to be with her father and the rest of her family, but now I am well again, she should be with me. I thank you for your care of her, Ealdgytha. I am truly grateful.” 

“I should have known...” His mother looked away from her adversary.

“So, he didn’t tell you?” Alfgyva tilted her head. 

Instantly, Ealdgytha swung her head back to look the other woman. “Do not mock me, for I know well how he has deceived me, you may rest assured, madam. You, on the other hand, are the biggest deceiver here.”

Back in 2015, Paula was one of my first ever guests on the blog, and you can read that interview HERE

Paula is currently working on the third in the series, which will be called Wolf's Bane.

Paula is writing a series of guest posts for us over on EHFA at the moment, where she's exploring the myths surrounding a mystery figure on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Read Part I HERE
Read Part II HERE
Read Part III HERE
Read Part IV HERE

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Repton - Royal Mausoleum and Viking Stronghold

Repton: the name has always been familiar to me. The first pages of To Be A Queen describe how the royal Mercian family is forced to flee because the Vikings have occupied Repton. The rival king, Ceolwulf II, has their support, and King Burgred and his wife must go overseas.
But Repton had been an important place long before the invasions of the ninth century.

And here I was, at last, standing outside the Church of St Wystan, about to see for myself the Anglo-Saxon crypt, and much more besides. Local historians, Andy and Margaret Austen, were my guides.

If you know me at all, through my novels or my blog posts, you'll know how exciting and emotional it all was. It's not often that one can stand in a place and know for certain that the Anglo-Saxons once stood in the same spot, even on the same stone floor.

Mercia – an ancient kingdom indeed. By the eighth century the Mercian kings were known as the Iclingas, and their dynastic centres lay at Lichfield, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Tamworth, and Repton.

The most famous early association with Repton is that of Saint Guthlac who was a warrior of noble, perhaps royal, Mercian stock, but who, according to his biographer, the monk Felix, entered the monastery at Repton when he was twenty-four years old. In around the year 669 he began a solitary life at Crowland Abbey, in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire.

Guthlac had a frequent visitor there, who at the time was in exile: subsequently one of the longest reigning kings of Mercia, Æthelbald, who was killed in 757 at Seckington (North Warwickshire) and buried at Repton. 

The ‘Repton Stone’, which is now housed in nearby Derby Museum, is thought to have been part of a great cross raised – possibly by King Offa – in memory of Æthelbald.

A later story about the Mercian kings is given to us by Roger of Wendover, writing in the thirteenth century. He tells us that at Pentecost, ‘Bertferth, son of Berthwulf, wickedly slew his kinsman St Wulstan [Wigstan], who was the grandson of two kings of the Mercians. The body of the deceased was carried to the monastery of Rependun [Repton], and is said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandsire Wilaf [Wiglaf].’ Roger then describes heavenly miracles, but gives no reason for the murder.

According to the earliest version of his Passio, Wigstan was indeed the grandson of two kings, his father Wigmund being the son of King Wiglaf, and his mother, Ælfflæd being the daughter of King Ceolwulf I. 

The story goes that upon the death of his father, Wigstan was offered the crown but wouldn’t take it, being then a young boy and with intentions to lead a religious life. His killer, Bertferth [Beorhtfrith] asked to marry Wigstan’s widowed mother (presumably with the intention of ruling as king) and Wigstan refused because of the kinship and the fact that Bertferth was his godfather. Thwarted, Bertferth slew Wigstan, whose body was taken to Repton, and buried in the tomb of his grandfather. 

So it seems conclusive that Æthelbald, Wiglaf and Wigstan were all buried at Repton, but these are not the only significant burials there.

As I said, the first few pages of To Be A Queen are concerned with the Viking occupation of Repton. They were working in alliance with a king from a rival family to that of the ousted Burgred, and who may have been related to Wigstan. 

Having arrived in 873 and overwintered at Repton, the Vikings left in 874/5. 

The site was excavated between 1974 and 1993, and archaeologists Martin Biddle and Berthe Kjølbye-Biddle discovered the grave of a Viking warrior on the site. He had died a brutal death, and a copy of his battered skull, complete with the most piercing blue eyes, is on display in Derby Museum, along with his sword. 

The Dig Site

The Biddles then uncovered the remains of at least 249 other people. Work on the site, which is now part of the rectory garden, is ongoing and Cat Jarman and Mark Horton have been digging recently, and I’m told they will return in 2018.

So, what of the building itself? The crypt was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. It’s thought that it might originally have been a baptistry, and that it was partially underground, built over a spring which was drained by a deep stone-built channel. Andy explained that when Martin Biddle was on site, he thought he might have found evidence of the channel, but as neither myself nor Andy are archaeologists, we found it difficult to see what Mr Biddle had seen!

Later, the crypt was converted into a mausoleum, possibly for Æthelbald and certainly for King Wiglaf, and for Wiglaf’s grandson, Wigstan/Wystan.

It’s thought that rather than the bodies, it was the bones which were housed here, as the recesses are quite small. Wiglaf is believed to have made changes to the crypt, adding the four central columns which support the ceiling. Intriguingly, there are traces of what look like paint on these pillars.

Having recently visited St Mary’s at Houghton on the Hill,  I couldn’t help wondering if, once upon a time, this church was similarly decorated.

Decorated plaster at Houghton on the Hill

Only the westernmost recess is in its original ninth-century condition, and, in later centuries, the crypt was hidden from view with the stairs being covered over and the windows blocked with outbuildings. Ironically, it is this very concealment which helped to preserve it. Exposure to the elements has meant that it has begun to suffer water and frost damage.

Writing as much as I do about the Mercian kings, I was naturally a little emotional to be standing on this spot, but Andy had something else to show me and I followed him and Margaret back up the stairs and into the church. High up in the wall there is an Anglo-Saxon doorway which gives a clue to the nature of the original Anglo-Saxon church building.

Whilst we have historical evidence for a monastery before 700, and that tantalising doorway, there is no other surviving Anglo-Saxon building apart from the crypt. (For more reading on the fabric of the church, see Dr HM Taylors booklet St Wystan’s Church, Repton.)

Standing in the churchyard that quiet autumn afternoon, staring into the vicarage garden, it was eerie to imagine the place as once having been a Danish encampment.

The Vikings did some damage to the church, destroying a stone cross and using its fragments to cover the graves of their warriors, and damaging the upper walls of the building.

Frequently during my research for my forthcoming book I’ve had cause to wonder how much more Mercian historical evidence would be available to us had it not been for the Vikings. But I’ll be following developments with interest as the digs continue, and evidence comes to light about what those Vikings did while they were at Repton, how they lived, and how they died. 

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

My new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is available for pre-order on 
Amazon and from the publishers, Amberley Books