Monday, 26 February 2018

Shining a Light - Authors of Anglo-Saxon Novels: Theresa Tomlinson

In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This time it's the turn of Theresa Tomlinson, whose two books, A Swarming of Bees and Queen of a Distant Hive are set in seventh-century Northumbria, specifically at the abbey at Whitby, run by Abbess Hild.

They concern a herbwife, by the name of Fridgyth, who discovers that she is quite the detective when she sets out to find out the truth about a series of murders, for, as she says, 'a herbwife on a mule may go where warriors cannot – she may see what warriors cannot see and hear what warriors cannot hear.'

In the first of these books, what begins as a seemingly straightforward, but nevertheless devastating plague is revealed to be something much more sinister. The Synod of Whitby is in full swing, and two mysterious 'scholars' have arrived. Are all these events linked?

In the second, a widowed Mercian queen arrives at the abbey, and almost immediately a young tanner, who'd been having an illicit affair, is found dead. While royalty and nobility busy themselves securing peace between kingdoms, Fridgyth sets out to investigate what is happening among the people.

A Swarming of Bees is an enjoyable and easy read. The author's research sits lightly in the background and only explains what we need to know. There is just enough description to give a sense of time and place. She is not telling a story about history but telling a story set in history. And what a fine story it is. It sits perfectly within its time frame, it's plausible and in Fridgyth we have a believable sleuth. This is no standard whodunnit; Fridgyth doesn't have all the answers. There are some lovely touches - the different age groups are portrayed well, and backstories are given where needed and in a readable way.

In Queen of a Distant Hive, we meet the widow of a certain King Penda, sworn enemy of the Northumbrians. This was interesting for me, because obviously some characters are the same as mine in Cometh the Hour (and its as yet unfinished sequel) and the big difference is that our sympathies lie in different areas, and I wondered how these characters, who I feel that I have moulded, would be presented. And it's lovely to report that even though they were in places I hadn't put them, I never felt that I didn't know them - I wasn't screaming at unjust portrayals. Again it was a great mystery story and not obvious. Perfectly in keeping with its setting and its history again, and very plausible. 

Fridgyth is no Miss Marple or Hetty Wainthrop. She becomes detective because she's there, in her community, she's not shoe-horned in or brought in from outside. In this respect she is more like Brother Cadfael. Everything fits, everything works, and nothing is forced. We are reminded how the ordinary folk are affected by wars, and how the consequences linger long after the fighting ceases.

After I'd read the books, I asked Theresa a few questions.

AW: I presume that the setting for these two novels has a great deal to do with your knowledge of the local area. But what, in particular, drew you to write about this period?

TT: My fascination with Anglo-Saxon Whitby goes back a long way. As a young child I lived near Whitby and was sent to a convent boarding school in the town, where we had views of the famous abbey from our classroom windows. The nuns who taught us were great fans of Abbess Hild and stories attached to her were part of the curriculum. What really caught my imagination was not the religious aspect, but the image of an extraordinarily powerful woman who was a princess in her own right and set to rule over both men and women in her monastery. At a time when most disputes were settled by battle, Hild was determined to promote peace. Later as a younger writer I saw the exciting potential for basing a series of historical novels on Hild and her monastery (perhaps in the Cadfael style) but felt that the use of such an iconic setting must deserve a trained historian for the research and a more experienced writer, so I held back from the task. 

Years went by and I successfully produced many children’s and Young Adult novels, while my interest in the 7th Century was fuelled by the thrilling discovery of an Anglo-Saxon Royal cemetery at Street House to the north of Whitby, followed by the opening of the exciting Saxon Princess Exhibition at Kirkleatham Museum, where the artefacts are still displayed. At last with a sense of increasing age and improving confidence, I decided to try using a local 7th century theme as the setting for a Young Adult mystery/adventure entitled Wolf Girl.  I loved writing it and enjoyed the research too, but the book didn’t sell widely and the publishers rejected the idea of more Anglo-Saxon settings. However, by then I was deeply into research for the period and felt that I couldn’t allow my ideas to simply melt away, so set about adjusting my plans towards a murder/mystery aimed at adults. Since then many more writers have also taken up similar themes, including Annie Whitehead - and I am delighted that this fascinating period is now coming much more to the fore and readers do seem to be really interested in it.

AW: Many of the characters in the novels are based on real historical figures. But Fridgyth herself is fictional. Where did she come from?

TT: My version of Fridgyth is entirely fictional, but the name Fridgyth does appear in Bede’s History of the English Church and People, as a woman associated with Hild, usually assumed to be a nun. (See Begu’s dream at the time of Hild’s death - Chapter XXIII) I enjoyed using a real 7th Century name, but created my own version of Fridgyth. She first appeared in Wolf Girl as a useful secondary character, who had an important role to play when I needed someone who could give wise advice and move freely around the community. Making her the resident healer or herb-wife seemed to fit the bill and being half-pagan meant that she could reflect the older beliefs alongside the new Christian teachings, which I think must have been how it was at that time. When I planned to aim A Swarming of Bees at a more adult market, there was Fridgyth all ready and waiting to be my protagonist. I also felt the need to create an older central character, so that I could reflect my own experiences of ageing and feel comfortable in her skin.

AW: Before writing these books you wrote children's books. Did you find the transition relatively easy?

TT: I thought at first that I could move into an older market fairly smoothly as I’d been writing some fairly chunky Young Adult novels, in which I’d tackled themes of birth, death, sex, disease and had even a few critical reviews suggesting that my themes were too adult and at times too depressing. However, in reality I didn’t find the move to be as easy as I’d hoped. Although most of the reviews for A Swarming of Bees were positive, a few suggested that I hadn’t made the transition totally successfully. I think I’m still progressing in this direction as some comments on Queen of a Distant Hive have suggested that it has a more mature feel about it.

AW: Can you tell us about your latest project? Are you staying in the 'Dark Ages'?

TT: At the moment I’m working on a Young Adult novel, which is set in Whitby in 1861/2. The theme relates to the time when Prince Albert died and Queen Victoria went into mourning, setting off an astonishing boom period for the local jet industry. I’ve got a full draft finished, but realise that I need to do more research in order to get a correct and vivid picture of the busy, thriving town at that time.

I’ve also got new ideas forming for another Fridgyth investigation, perhaps moving on towards the time when King Oswy died – which might take Fridgyth to Bamburgh and should provide some very enjoyable and pleasant research in Northumberland over the summer months.

Find Theresa on the links below:




Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Yeavering – Anglo-Saxon Royal Palace

“So great is said to have been the fervour of the faith of the Northumbrians and their longing for the washing of salvation, that once when Paulinus came to the king and queen in their royal palace at Yeavering, he spent thirty-six days there occupied in the task of catechizing and baptising.” (HE II 14*)
The king in question is Edwin, seventh-century king of Northumbria, and the queen is his second wife, Æthelburg of Kent, known, according to Bede, by the nickname ‘Tate’.

Paulinus is said to have baptised people in the river Glen, which runs alongside the site of the palace. Visitors to the site will still be able to see the river, but of the palace, there is not a trace.

The view across the site towards the river

Archaeology has revealed that Yeavering at the time of Edwin’s reign was a magnificent royal vill. But Edwin didn’t build it. Rather, he rebuilt it.

What were Edwin, his wife, and the holy man Paulinus doing there? After all, it’s a forbidding place, surrounded by the towering Cheviot hills, windswept and desolate.

Edwin was technically the brother-in-law of the previous king of Northumbria, Æthelfrith, whose son, Oswald, was born to him by Edwin’s sister. Although in those days Northumbria was two distinct kingdoms, Deira (centred around York) and Bernicia (centred around Bamburgh), dynastic squabbles and bloody feuds meant that, periodically, one man ruled over both kingdoms.

The English kingdoms c. 600 (public domain image)

In the seventh century, kings were gradually converting to Christianity.  It was no quick decision, and usually had some political element to it. Edwin was not about to make a spur of the moment conversion. The site of Yeavering was significant because it was in an area previously ruled over by Edwin's nemesis, Æthelfrith. Would conversion bring more power?

Edwin procrastinated, so much so that Pope Boniface wrote to him, and also to Edwin’s wife. Æthelburg was the daughter of Æthelberht, the Kentish king whom Augustine had converted, and a sister of Eadbald, the reigning king of Kent. When he wrote to her, Boniface urged her to bear in mind her Christian duty to evangelise, and included with his letter a gift of a silver mirror and a gold and ivory comb. To Edwin, he hinted that he would, by converting, put himself on an equal footing with the powerful king of Kent. This must have been quite an inducement.

Edwin evidently grasped what was expected of him, and offered a compromise – he expressed his willingness to convert if his advisers agreed, and undertook to place no obstacles in the way of missionary endeavour. He also offered a promise that took account of the position of Æthelburg, for he gave assurance that she and her retinue would be free to practice their own religion.

Paulinus, who travelled with ‘Tate’ from Kent, ‘bagged’ Edwin’s all-important royal soul, thus, according to Bede: when Edwin had been in exile in the court of Rædwald of East Anglia, an apparition came to him, promising him a kingdom, and salvation, if he would but remember by whose word this promise would be fulfilled. Paulinus now revealed himself now as the apparition by whose power Edwin had gained his kingdom. (HE II 12)

When the king and queen had produced a daughter, Eanflæd, Edwin was persuaded to allow Paulinus to baptise her in thanksgiving for his wife’s safe delivery.

Yeavering lies in what was the kingdom of Bernicia, forty miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, and about twenty miles inland from the great fortress of Bamburgh. It is a desolate and often a very cold place. Bede describes it as a royal vill, (town) and talks about the work of Paulinus there, but he also tells us that at some time later it was abandoned. Perhaps the archaeology and the history can be linked?

The site, showing the modern wall at the roadside

In 1949 an aerial photograph showed the marks of extensive buildings there, and the site was then excavated by Dr Hope Taylor.

He found that as a place of burial, Yeavering had a long prehistoric past. A big and seemingly elaborately defended cattle corral is likely to have gone back to the days when the area was ruled by British, not English, kings. Hope Taylor also discovered a series of buildings dating from the end of the sixth century to somewhat later than the middle of the seventh, corresponding to the reigns of Æthelfrith, Edwin, and Oswald.

Among the most important were a succession of halls. The largest, which he concluded was probably Edwin’s, was over 80 feet long and nearly 40 feet wide. Its walls were likely made of planks, 5 ½ inches thick. The fact that the post holes showed that timber were set up to eight feet into the ground, suggests that the walls must have been very high. There may have been a clerestory (a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level, with the purpose of letting in light, and/or fresh air). Its successor, probably dating to the reign of Oswald, Edwin’s nephew and successor, was equally grand.

Yeavering - digital 'fair use' image. (Attribution)

More remarkable still was a kind of grandstand, (top left of above image) shaped like a segment of a Roman amphitheatre, which stood facing a platform. When first built, possibly under Æthelfrith, it had accommodated about 150 people; later, perhaps under Edwin, it was enlarged to hold about 320.

It has been agreed that its only purpose can have been for meetings; and of a kind where one man on the platform, presumably the king, faced many. Perhaps it was here that Edwin consulted his amici, principes and consiliarii on the adoption of Christianity (though this debate more probably took place in York, where Edwin finally received his baptism.)

Yeavering in its heyday would have stood as a symbol of the might and power of Edwin, who, as one of the named ‘bretwaldas’ (overkings) in Bede’s list, wielded considerable power. A prince of Deira, he would have known the importance of establishing his authority across Bernicia, and building over the remnants of his predecessor’s hall.

And yet, the royal buildings at Yeavering were not fortified. Perhaps they should have been; there is evidence that the palace was destroyed by fire, not once, but twice, and the dates coincide with Bede’s records of Mercian incursions into Northumbria.

Additional finds included what may have been a pagan temple later converted to Christian use, and a building which might have been a small Christian church.

Yeavering, though a major centre for Bernicia, was by no means the only such centre these kings possessed. There was another, much more important, at Bamburgh, and other royal vills scattered through their kingdom, many of which may have had halls as grand. But the wonderful thing, for historians, is that we have the evidence for this one, even though there is now no trace of these once impressive and imposing buildings. To stand in this enormous field, (and it is a huge site) gazing out over the waters of the river Glen, and know that here stood the people whose lives I have studied, and written about, for years was, even on that very cold and blustery day, really quite moving. So little of Anglo-Saxon architecture remains, but thanks to Dr Hope Taylor, and to Bede, at least we know what once was here.

As to why it was, as Bede tells us, abandoned, well that remains a mystery, and one which neither the archaeology (which suggests 655, a time of Northumbrian supremacy) nor the history seem able to solve.

[*Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People]
{This post originally appeared on the EHFA Blog on 22/9/17}
(All photographs taken by and copyright of the author)

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Repton - Royal Mausoleum and Viking Stronghold
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Anglo-Saxon Childhood
Reaching Across the Centuries

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Shining a Light: Authors of 'Dark Ages' Novels - Mary Anne Yarde

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

This month I'm delighted to welcome to the blog Mary Anne Yarde, whose award-winning Du Lac Chronicles imagine a world a generation after Arthur Pendragon ruled, when Briton lies fragmented into warring kingdoms and principalities.

AW: Welcome!  Can you tell us a little about the Du Lac Chronicles? Do the same characters feature in each book, and can the books be read as stand-alones?

MAY: For well over a thousand years we have been enchanted with the tales of King Arthur and his Knights. Arthur’s story has everything – loyalty, betrayal, love, hate, war and peace, and like all good stories, there isn’t a happy ending for our hero. Arthur is betrayed by his best friend, Lancelot, and then he is betrayed once again by his nephew, Mordred. Arthur’s reign comes to a dramatic and tragic end on the battlefield at Camlann.

When Arthur died, the Knights died with him. Without their leader they were nothing, and they disappeared from history. No more is said of them, and I always wondered why not. Just because Arthur is dead, that doesn’t mean that his Knights didn’t carry on living. Their story must continue — if only someone would tell it!

The Du Lac Chronicles is a sweeping saga that follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Lancelot du Lac’s sons as they try to forge a life for themselves in an ever-changing Saxon world. In each book, you will meet the same characters, whom hopefully readers have come to love. I made sure that each book stands alone, but as with all series, it is best to start at the beginning.

AW: Indeed it is. And thinking about 'beginnings', where did the idea for the novels come from?

MAY: I grew up surrounded by the rolling Mendip Hills in Somerset — the famous town of Glastonbury was a mere 15 minutes from my childhood home. Glastonbury is a little bit unique in the sense that it screams Arthurian Legend. Even the road sign that welcomes you into Glastonbury says...

"Welcome to Glastonbury. The Ancient Isle of Avalon."

How could I grow up in such a place and not be influenced by King Arthur?

I loved the stories of King Arthur and his Knights as a child, but I always felt let down by the ending. For those not familiar, there is a big battle at a place called Camlann. Arthur is fatally wounded. He is taken to Avalon. His famous sword is thrown back into the lake. Arthur dies. His Knights, if they are not already dead, become hermits. The end.

What an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending to such a wonderful story. I did not buy that ending. So my series came about not only because of my love for everything Arthurian, but also because I wanted to write an alternative ending. I wanted to explore what happened after Arthur's death.

AW: I can understand that. As writers, we are always thinking 'What If?' But we also need authentic backgrounds for our stories. What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history?

MAY: Researching the life and times of King Arthur is incredibly challenging. Trying to find the historical Arthur is like looking for a needle in a haystack. An impossible task. But one thing where Arthur is prevalent, and you are sure to find him, is in folklore.

Folklore isn’t an exact science. It evolves. It is constantly changing. It is added to. Digging up folklore, I found, is not the same as excavating relics! However, I think that is why I find it so appealing.

The Du Lac Chronicles is set in Dark Age, Britain, Brittany and France, so I really needed to understand as much as I could about the era that my books are set in. Researching such a time brings about its own set of challenges. There is a lack of reliable primary written sources. Of course, there are the works of Gildas, Nennuis and Bede as well as The Annals of Wales, which we can turn to, but again, they are not what I would consider reliable sources. Even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which was compiled in the late 9th Century, has to be treated with caution. So it is down to archaeologists to fill in the missing blanks, but they can only do so much. Which means in some instances, particularly with regards to the history of Brittany during this time, I have no choice but to take an educated guess as to what it was like.

AW: I agree. Primary sources must be treated with care. How conscious were you of the existing Arthurian tales and legends - did they have any bearing on your stories and which, if any, are you most drawn to?

MAY: I grew up with the stories of Monmouth and Tennyson, and they have influenced me to an extent. However, my books are based after the fall of Arthur, which makes them a little different.

AW: It certainly does. Thank you so much for chatting to me about your books. I have to ask - What next? 

MAY: I am currently working on Book 4 of The Du Lac Chronicles.


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Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Reaching Across the Centuries

The Anglo-Saxons are remote. They were folk who left comparatively little behind, certainly in terms of where they lived and how they dressed. Scraps, fragments, post-holes; sometimes a massive hoard of jewellery and weapon adornments, but even these finds leave more questions than answers.

They remain behind a line, drawn across history by the Norman Conquest. They stayed in pre-1066 England, with their unpronounceable names, and their wooden halls buried beneath the stone-built Norman keeps.

So how do we find them, get to know them? Well, through the written evidence: the chronicles, charters, law codes, saints' lives and other documents, such as the Regularis Concordia, drawn up as a sort of template for monastic life.

We even learn a little about the chroniclers themselves. William of Malmesbury, writing in the eleventh century, fretted that his readers would find him boring, and complained about the English climate:
It has also been a terrible year for weather. Every month has had thunder and lightning. It has rained almost every day without stopping. Even the summer months were wet and muddy. (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum)
William continues with a partisan appraisal of the good folks of the UK, when he states that the speech of the Northumbrians grates harshly upon the ear of southerners, and that the reason the northerners are unintelligible is because of their proximity to barbaric tribes.

William tells us about the career of seventh-century Bishop, later Saint, Wilfrid, and adds colour to his story by telling us that when he was fourteen,
he left his father's home out of hate for his haughty stepmother, his own mother having died (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum)
In amongst the details of the careers of bishops and saints, dealings with the Church and with the pope, it is interesting to find nuggets such as this one, which could be speaking of any boy, at any time of history. The dynamics of step-families always have the potential for conflict.

The will of Wulfric Spott, a wealthy thegn who died probably sometime between 1002 and 1004, is a significant document. It gives scholars information about the extent to which wealthy men held land and it provides insights into the loyalties of the great families during the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut, but there is also a poignant detail, in the inclusion of one simple word. 

Wulfric's will lays out various bequests, but he leaves estates at Elford and Oakley to his poor daughter * and asks that his brother be protector of her and of the land. We can only surmise that his daughter was either unmarried, or a widow, but the inclusion of that simple word brings this family off the pages of history and makes it easy to relate to them.

There may be unfamiliar terms in this document - gold mancuses, for example - and obscure place-names such as Snodeswic and Waddune, but there is also the simple yearning for a father to ensure his daughter's well-being and security in the event of his death.

Charter confirming Wulfric's foundation of Burton Abbey

The compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes leave us scratching our heads when contemplating the choices they made about what to put in the annals, and what to leave out. They don't tell us who won the battle of Otford in the year 776, for example, but they do tell us that in that same year, marvellous adders were seen in Sussex.

They tell us very little about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ** but we do know that when she retook Derby from the Danes, she lost four of her thegns who were dear to her.

There may be significance in the word used here: besorge. Besorge is not a common word and it carries connotations of anxiety as well as love. It has been argued that its use, instead of the more usual leof, may have been specifically to denote a woman's care and authority (Thompson - Death and Dying in Later Anglo-Saxon England.)  Warrior leader she may have been, but this suggestion adds a depth of emotion that allows us to glimpse the woman.

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Roger of Wendover, writing in the thirteenth century, tells a story of St Swithun in 862. As Roger says, this holy man, bishop of Winchester, had many miraculous powers but Roger says he was equally eminent for his compassion and humility, demonstrated in this incident where he feels sorry for an egg-seller whose eggs had all been broken. Making the sign of the cross, the bishop effected a miraculous repair of the eggs. 

But this story appeals to me because it speaks down the ages of a scene that seems universal. For the beginning of the tale says that the reason the eggs were broken was because workmen, with saucy insolence, flocked around her and broke every egg. The episode doesn't seem so very far removed from the modern equivalent, that of 'wolf-whistling'.

Roger is scathing of these men, and no doubt we would expect nothing else from a monk. Monks were serious, pious people, weren't they?

The Regularis Concordia could be described as a handbook for monastic life, and yes, there is much in it concerning prayer and contemplation, when the brethren should put on their day shoes, and when they should read. 

But arrangements for their physical comfort are not overlooked, and in winter, 
when the storms are harsh and bitter, a suitable room shall be set aside for the brethren wherein, by the fireside, they may take refuge from the cold and bad weather.
Not quite a Health and Safety in the Workplace manual, but it is a consideration as welcome today as it would have been then.

Though there would surely be no fear of death, even so, the brothers are enjoined to visit their sick brethren and to be solicitous in rendering aid to [the sick man.]

Caring, cared for, and perhaps sometimes just a little bit like the rest of us:
The auditorium is excepted from the rule of silence; indeed, it is called by that name chiefly because it is there that whatever is commanded by the master be heard; neither is it right that tales of gossip should go on there or anywhere else.
A letter tucked away at the back of a huge collection of documents is of interest to historians because it ignores the fact that Cnut was king of England at the time of writing, and addresses him only as most noble king of Denmark. But what I like most about this letter is the tone, which seeks to damn with faint praise. I imagine Fulbert, bishop of Chartres, wondering if he should have it reworded, or whether he could get away with it. He starts off by acknowledging receipt, but not giving thanks for, the gift conferred by Cnut and says he was amazed at Cnut's wisdom and piety:
wisdom, indeed, that you, a man ignorant of our language... piety, truly, when we perceive that you, whom I had heard to be a ruler of pagans... (EHD Vol I 233)
Hardly an unqualified endorsement of Cnut's qualities!


Even in Asser's Life of King Alfred, so invaluable to historians studying the period, there are details so mundane one wonders why he included them. But I am so very grateful that he did, for such details paint a picture of two recognisable figures, simply filled with enthusiasm for the project at hand. And no, it's not war, or royal alliances, but the copying out of a passage of Holy Scripture.
When he urged me to copy the passage as quickly as possible, I said to him: "Would it meet with your approval if I were to copy out the passage separately on another sheet of parchment? For we don't know whether we might at some point find one or more similar passages which you would like; and if this were to happen unexpectedly, we'd be glad to have kept it separate." (Asser Ch 88)

Yes, these people lived many centuries ago, and much of what they built and wrote was destroyed, either by 'Vikings' or Normans. Much of what is left was written with religious motive, and whilst useful to the historian, is peppered with miracles, and discoveries of un-corrupted saintly bodies, but search around, and there are also many glimpses or ordinary people, doing very ordinary things. 

* I'm grateful to Christopher Monk for his insights into the translation here
** The 'Mercian Register' being the exception

Recent Posts: ~
The 'Evil' Women of Mercia
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Anglo-Saxon Childhood