AJ's Teon is top of my summer reading list and I'm thrilled the blog is being sent spinning back to the ancient heartland of Mercia today. Over to AJ...
Something amazing happened two years after I abandoned my friends and family in Liverpool. A load of gold and treasure was found in a field not that far from my new home.
It changed everything.
My spouse had landed a new job in Burton-upon-Trent, a market town in the Staffordshire, and we left our old life behind. As an historian, the first thing I did was investigate the area and its legacy. I knew all about the beer – that’s what brought us here – but why were there so many symbols and statues of swans? Granted they are magnificent creatures, but still.
It didn’t take me long to find out that the swans represented Saint Modwen (or Modwenna, two people often confused) who brought Christianity to the town in the seventh century. Our parish church of Saint Peter’s still holds the foundation stones that Modwen laid down, so the story goes. When she died at age 130, she was carried to heaven by two swans. Love that tale. So I decided to write her story as I couldn’t find a modern one and perhaps I would include some of the wonderful miracles she performed, such as resurrecting a half-eaten swan.
|St Modwen, the Washlands, Burton-on-Trent|
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The king at the time was Penda of Mercia, the last pagan king of mainland England. That would make an interesting contrast with Modwen, I decided, as there were sources that linked Modwen with some of Penda’s daughters and nieces. I set about researching all the Mercian battles he was involved in, particularly relishing the long-running feud with Northumbria. With all my research collated, I began writing a novel about Modwen and Penda.
Then it happened. The local news said something of great interest had been dug up in a field that could change our view of the Dark Ages. It was the Staffordshire Hoard. From the collection of military and religious treasure we could see the intricate craftsmanship and delicate artistry that these unsophisticated Anglo-Saxons produced. Proving, without a doubt, that we had them all wrong.
As for me, my novel was redesigned. I would tell the story of the Staffordshire Hoard; I was going to create someone who buried that treasure intending to come back for it years later, someone who was not a simple warrior, or even a royal one, but someone who was as special as the Staffordshire Hoard itself. His name was Gulfyrian, also the name of my first Anglo-Saxon novel.
The Mercian capital was Tamworth, which is half an hour away from me, and around the area of the castle was Penda’s palace, the castle being built by one of his descendants, Offa. Yes, Offa of Offa’s Dyke fame, who built a boundary between England and Wales. Ten minutes away is Repton, the ancient religious centre that still has a royal crypt, empty now of course, but anyone can visit it and go inside. I like to suck up those Mercian vibes and walk away feeling like a warrior. The old public school next door looks a lot like Hogwarts and must have some medieval magic thing going on, too. Humour me with this.
It all feels like Early Medieval Mercia to me, from the view I see from my window of the old Mount Calvus with the ancient woodland going through the seasons, to the River Trent and its tributaries, the place of many decisive battles. On the Trent Washlands is a mound of stones that once belonged to the Medieval bridge, replaced now of course. But these stones stand slightly back from the river, close to a cave and remain unlabelled, secrets therefore untapped. Watch this space.
Ten miles south is the cathedral city of Lichfield surrounded by monuments and churches dedicated to Saint Chad (he’s in a couple of my novels, too). The cathedral itself is beautiful in its own right, and if you haven’t seen it already you must sort that out straight away. It is the only cathedral (or any building as far as I’m aware) that has statues of the old Mercian kings. Penda is not included, with him being pagan and all that, but his sons Paeda, Wulfhere and Aethelred are there as well as other Mercian kings of note, including Offa. I must confess that I use these images to conjure up the faces of the men. I love how all of them have lovely wavy hair and beards.
My book Teon is based around a myth involving Penda’s son Wulfhere. There is a well in Tamworth with a label telling the story of how Wulfhere murdered his two small sons because they were converted to Christianity by Saint Chad. Their little bodies were buried under a load of stones and gave the name to the Staffordshire town of Stone. There is no evidence to support this, so I made up my own version.
As a secondary school history teacher, the role of Burton-upon-Trent serves to demonstrate the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the development of the beer industry, railways, canals and globalisation. The Staffordshire Hoard has finally allowed us to really look into the local history in the Migration period as well, where children can discover the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. The Staffordshire Hoard also gave me a whole new vocation. Thank you that man with the metal detector.