Monday, 25 June 2018

Shining a Light - Authors of Dark Ages Novels: John Broughton

In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This month, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to guest John Broughton, who will introduce himself and then interview one of his characters:

Hi there, I’m John Broughton, my first historical novel The Purple Thread is available as e-book and paperback from Amazon and was published in 2017 by Endeavour Press. 

As with all my historical novels it is set in the Anglo-Saxon period. My second novel, Wyrd of the Wolf is set mainly in seventh-century Sussex and the Isle of Wight. It contains my own convincing theory as to why Caedwalla’s wound never healed. I would like to interview one of the main characters in this novel – the beautiful, beguiling Cynethryth – Caedwalla’s wife. My next venture after Wyrd of the Wolf was meant at the outset to be a trilogy dealing with the long reign of Aethelbald of Mercia but it transformed into a duology to be published in the summer and the autumn of 2018. 

The first book is entitled Saints and Sinners and deals with the contrasting lives of the young Aethelbald and his best friend Guthlac, who gives up his martial lifestyle to become a hermit and a saint. The sequel, Mixed Blessings follows Aethelbald from his coronation to his murder at the end of his triumphant reign. Finally, I have just completed my fifth novel, Perfecta Saxonia set in the ninth/tenth century. This, as the title implies, deals with the formation of a whole unified Saxon England under the remarkable king, Aethelstan, who fulfills the dream of his grandfather, the great Alfred, who laid the foundations of modern England. Anyone wishing to find out more about our Anglo-Saxon heritage or about the author is welcome to visit my website   or visit my Facebook page devoted to my writing: 


The Interview

J. Hello Cynethryth, nice to have a chat with you: I hope you appreciate how I portrayed you in my novel.
C. I think you tried your best to put me over as a strong and fascinating girl but if I had written my own tale, I would have made it clearer how much my apparent betrayal of my dear father hurt me.

J. But by agreeing to marry Caedwalla, you betrayed not only your father but also your betrothed, the aetheling of Kent.
C. What choice did I have? I thought my father was dead and I realised when I met Caedwalla that I could love no other man. anyway, he wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

J. Do you think the book could have worked with you as a minor character?
C. How could it? Isn’t the main theme about betrayal and forgiveness. In the end, love triumphs even if you snatched Caedwalla away from me.

J. Me? No, I just related the facts. He was doomed from the moment his wound was infected. Give me credit, Cynethryth. Some people have portrayed Caedwalla as a blood-thirsty monster. I think I’ve shown the better side of his character – courageous, coherent, intelligent and loving.
C. There’s truth in that but there's one thing I’d criticise you for.

J. What’s that? 
C.You reconcile me with my father and take me home from Rome to the Isle of Wight but leave me at that point. Remember, I was carrying Caedwalla’s child and you don’t bother with the rest of my life or the child’s.

J. It’s hardly my fault if you didn’t remarry with someone important and get mixed up again in the major events of the period.
C. Aren’t you interested in the ordinary life of men and women?

J. Of course, and to be fair, those things appear in my novels but I’m not the type of writer who can make a book out of historical romance – I really feel, with the utmost respect, it is best left to a lady writer.
C. Mmm. Maybe but you certainly knew how to make me fall in love with Caedwalla – you did quite well for a man!

J. You know what, Cynethryth? I fell more than a little in love with you myself.

Wyrd of the Wolf

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The Attack on Llangorse 19th June AD916

It is not often that the early medieval chroniclers provide us with specific dates. And of a period about which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is almost silent - Æthelflæd's 'reign’ - we are incredibly lucky to have not one date, but two, while the second date enables us to identify a third. The Chronicle tells us that she died on June 12th, 918. But the third, implied, date is the one that interests me today: June 19th.

The 'C' version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, incorporating the annals known as The Mercian Register, tells us:
"In this year before midsummer, on 16th June, the day of the festival of St Quiricus the Martyr, abbot Ecgberht, who had done nothing to deserve it, was slain together with his companions. Three days later Æthelflæd sent an army into Wales and stormed Brecenanmere [at Llangorse lake near Brecon] and there captured the wife of the king and thirty-three other persons."
We cannot know much about the unfortunate abbot, (a search of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England [PASE] reveals only that single mention of him) save that he was sufficiently dear to Æthelflæd that she was prepared to avenge his life in such a forceful manner. 

So what can we discover about Brecenanmere, and the unnamed king, whose wife was captured?

In his book, The Making of Mercia, Ian Walker says that the Mercian Register "... records the destruction of the royal crannog of Tewdwr, king of Brycheiniog, on Llangorse lake in Brecon and the capture of his queen."

PASE lists two kings named Tewdwr. One of them is the father of Elise and both of these men are mentioned in Asser's Life of Alfred [1] as having submitted to Alfred. Alfred died in 899 so either of these men could, in theory, have still been alive and militarily active in 916.

The other Tewdwr is listed as Tewdwr ap Griffi ab Elise, who, as Teowdor, Subregulus, witnessed a charter of King Athelstan in 934. [2] The Welsh system of patronymics suggests that he must have been the grandson of Elise, although Kari Maund names him as Tewdwr ab Elise, suggesting a closer consanguineal relationship [3]

We cannot know why this abbot was killed, or why a king who had submitted to Alfred the Great chose to anger Alfred’s daughter in this way. Perhaps he fancied his chances against a weak female ruler. At this time, the king of Wessex was Alfred’s son, Æthelflæd’s brother, Edward the Elder. He and his sister were engaged in an active campaign of building fortified towns, such as the fortress at Chirbury (on the Welsh/English border, in 915) and perhaps there were hostilities between the English and the Welsh which have gone unrecorded.

In 916 Edward is recorded as being engaged in Essex, building a fortress at Maldon. Is it possible that this King Tewdwr thought that Æthelflæd, a mere woman, would do little in retribution while her brother was busy elsewhere? We cannot know, because as previously mentioned, we have few specific dates and only know that Edward was in Essex in ‘the summer.’ Tempting as it is to join these two facts together, we cannot be certain.

There can be no doubt, though, that Edward was busy, and that he trusted his sister with power and authority. Her husband, Æthelred of Mercia, had died in 911 but had, for some years before that, been incapacitated in some form. Edward, whilst minting Mercian coins in his name, had allowed Æthelflæd to lead Mercia during her husband’s prolonged illness and in 911, although Edward took control of London and Oxford, previously handed to Mercia by Alfred, he left his sister as nominal head of Mercia.

Brother and sister worked as a team in 917: while Edward built fortresses at Towcester and Wigingamere (unidentified), and received the submission of ‘Viking’ armies of Northampton, East Anglia, and Cambridge, Æthelflæd took the borough of Derby, one of the prized ‘five boroughs’ which Edward had vowed to prise back out of the invaders’ hands. [4] In 907, Chester had been ‘restored’ [5] although no mention is made of the person who led the army which starved the occupying Vikings out. Professor Simon Keynes confirmed my suspicion that it is safe to assume that Ethelred was, by this point, unwell, and that in all likelihood it was Æthelflæd who took the fight to the walls of Chester.

We have therefore, enough evidence, however scant in detail, from 907 and 917, to be comfortable with the notion that it was she who took the decision to send an army into Wales. What would they have found there?

The ‘crannog’ mentioned above probably looked something like this:

Credit: Garnet Davies Lakeside Bar/Caravan Park

It seems likely that this was the only crannog in Wales and the Museum Wales website [6] has this to say:
The crannog was carefully constructed of brushwood and sandstone boulders, reinforced and surrounded by several lines of oak plank palisade. Tree-ring dating of the well-preserved timbers has established that they were felled between AD889 and AD893. The site seems to have been influenced by Irish building techniques, and was possibly constructed with the assistance of an Irish master craftsman.
The kings of Brycheiniog claimed to be descended from a part-Irish dynasty, and their use of such an unusual and impressive construction may have enhanced their political standing and strengthened their claims to Irish ancestry.

Of Æthelflæd’s army's attack, the site says: “This record of an attack probably refers to the crannog, and the capture of the wife of king Tewdwr ap Elisedd. During excavation, a charred, burnt layer was uncovered - probably representing this attack.”

If this was indeed the structure which the Mercians attacked, and where they took a queen prisoner, then this place was being used at a royal ‘llys’, a high status secular site. Tewdwr himself obviously survived this battle, but of course we cannot be sure if he was even in residence on the day in question. The only information we have is that his wife and thirty-three other persons were captured. Conjecture is the preserve of the novelist, and I had a lot of fun filling in the gaps of this particular incident, but the historian cannot afford such luxuries.

Medieval Wales showing Brycheiniog

What we can infer, though, is that retribution was swift but relatively merciful. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the killing of the abbot, but no revenge killings of any high-status Welsh. Æthelflæd had no further trouble from beyond the border. As we have seen, she went on to retake Derby (although the chronicle laments the loss of “four of her thegns, who were dear to her.”)

Early in 918, she obtained control of Leicester (another of the five boroughs) and, later in the year, the second battle of Corbridge, involving Ragnall against the Scots with the English Northumbrians, seems to have brought the people of York, wishing for a strong southern ally against Ragnall and his Norse Vikings, to Æthelflæd’s court, seeking her assistance.

We must be careful how we interpret the events at Llangorse. In my novel, I had Æthelflæd personally leading the army into Wales but the Mercian Register says only that she 'sent' the army and we cannot be sure whether she was in direct command. Even so, that she either sent, or led, an army into another country to avenge a death of a friend, seems remarkable yet plausible when we piece together all we know of Æthelflæd’s life. However few those facts are, they add up to one - that she was indeed, a remarkable woman.

[1] Asser Vit.Alfredi 80
[2] Charter S425 King Athelstan to Ælfwald, minister; grant of 12 hides (cassatae) at Derantune (probably Durrington, Sussex).
[3] The Welsh Kings - Kari Maund (Tempus)
[4] the five boroughs: Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford.
[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
(all images in the public domain, unless credited)

Read more about her life: HERE

A version of this post originally appeared on the EHFA Blog

The life story of the Lady of the Mercians is told my novel To Be A Queen and the life and careers of her and her husband are included in my new history Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom available for pre-order at Amazon and Amberley

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Research Trip - Finding Æthelflæd

My history of the ancient kingdom of Mercia inches ever nearer to its publication date and I needed some additional pictures for the photo plates in the middle section of the book. This requirement found me in a special place at a very special time.

I'd traipsed all around the north midlands, and the east of England, and now I needed to head off to the western part of Mercia, specifically, Gloucestershire, the ancient homeland of the Hwicce Tribe.

Those who know me and/or regularly read this blog, will know that my daughter summed up my research trips by saying that I 'stand around in fields getting emotional.'

The Anglo-Saxonist has little choice but to do so, because quite often all that's left of an original Anglo-Saxon site is an empty field.

This trip was different though. This time I was visiting places which could be photographed, places with links to Mercian history, places which were much more than mere fields.

My first port of call was Deerhurst where, unusually, you can find not one, but two Anglo-Saxon buildings. I went first to St Mary's. The outside of the building gives little away with regard to its Anglo-Saxon origins:

But pause a moment in the porch, look up, and you'll see the most exquisite Anglo-Saxon carving of the Madonna, with the child Jesus in her womb (I described this carving in To Be A Queen, along with the 'Angel' high up on one of the outside walls).

Inside this chapel there is a wealth of original Anglo-Saxon stonework, from the font, to the walls and doorways, to the windows:

What struck me most about this beautiful building was the sense of calm. Its crisp white walls are plain, there are no fancy adornments (unless you count the lovely carved animal heads). This is a place used for worship over many centuries. I felt a deep connection to those who'd been in this place before me.

On the way out, I paused to photograph the carved animal head

and the 'Angel'

before walking a few hundred yards to Odda's Chapel. Odda of Deerhurst was an ealdorman in the eleventh century. Some thought that he was related to Ælfhere (Alvar in my novel) but it seems unlikely, and the connection seems to have been assumed simply because both held jurisdiction over the west midlands. The chapel was discovered by chance, in the nineteenth century. It had been incorporated into a farmhouse, hidden under the plaster. It's no more than an empty shell, but it's a gem of a find, and gives one a good idea of the typical proportions of such a building.

My next port of call was Winchcombe, site of a long-since disappeared abbey, and a royal Mercian centre. It's said that some of the stones from the abbey were incorporated into other buildings, like this pub:

How I wished I could have seen the abbey itself, where one intriguing woman was abbess for a while there (she was Cwoenthryth, daughter of King Cenwulf, and I wrote about her in this blog post). There are some of the original abbey stones at nearby Sudeley Castle, but not enough to give any impression of the original building:

A relatively short walk away from Sudeley castle is the site of St Kenelm's well. This is reputed to be the site where the funeral procession rested, on its way to burying Kenelm (brother and supposed murder victim of the afore-mentioned Cwoenthryth) at Winchcombe. The path leading to the well is overgrown with nettles, but I'm nothing if not intrepid!

I was having a great time, visiting sites where we can say with near enough certainty that my 'characters' had been present.

Not so in Gloucester cathedral, which is a much later building. Here, there is an effigy of the sub-king of the Hwicce, Osric, who is reputed to have founded the original abbey which stood at this site.

Gloucester Cathedral is a magnificent building, and you can read more about it in an upcoming post of mine on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog on June 15th. But this was not the main draw, for me. As I said, I was thoroughly enjoying visiting all these sites, taking photos for the book, and really feeling a connection with the past. But just a short walk away from the cathedral was a really rather special site.

Originally dedicated to St Peter, St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, was renamed when the bones of St Oswald (former king of Northumbria, nemesis of Penda) were translated there from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire. It is also the final resting place of both  Æthelred, lord of the Mercians and his wife, Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.

I've written about this lady, both in my novel, and in the upcoming history of Mercia. I'm revisiting all my notes about her in preparation for a talk in Tamworth in July. To stand here, at the spot where she's believed to have been buried, was a truly emotional experience for me. Last Sunday, there was a procession from here to the cathedral; just one of the many celebrations of her life on this, the 110oth anniversary of her death.

My trip to Gloucestershire was timely. It was a research trip, of sorts, since I needed the photos. But it also became something of a writer's pilgrimage, and it took 'standing around in fields getting emotional' to a whole new level.


[all photos by and copyright of the author]

You may be interested to learn that there is a possibility of a tower having been discovered on the priory site. Read more about it here: BBC News Gloucestershire

My novel, To Be A Queen, is available in kindle, paperback and hardback versions - and the kindle version is on offer all this week. Here's a link

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is available now:

Amberley Books

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A New Look for To Be A Queen!

A very short post today, just to announce that there's a special anniversary coming up...

June 18 2018 marks 1100 years since the death of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, subject of my novel, To Be A Queen

There's lots going on to celebrate this anniversary, not least a talk at the Tamworth Literary Festival.

But really, I just wanted to share the beautiful new book cover, designed by the very talented Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics

I also have a revamped website, which you can find here:

But mostly I just wanted to share this beautiful cover. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Monday, 4 June 2018

Anglo-Saxon Gossip

The word 'gossip' is derived from the Old English godsibb and didn't mean then what it means now. 

Originally it meant something more akin to sponsor. Perhaps its modern meaning came about from the women who lived together, and especially those women who assisted in the birthing chamber, who may have then played a similar role to that of godmother; although the word often used is gefædere. godsibb had much the same meaning and might have denoted a relationship (sibb = sibling).

However, read the contents of the chronicles and there is plenty of modern-day gossip.

As regular readers of this blog will know, it pleases me enormously when those who were writing centuries ago, about even earlier times, let their feelings show on the page and remind us that even historical figures were human, as were the scribes who recorded their lives.

One of the main targets for gossip was Æthelred the 'Unready' who came in for a fair amount of abuse. William of Malmesbury said that he occupied, rather than governed the kingdom, and his assessment of the reign was that it was said to be [my italics] cruel in the beginning, wretched in the middle and disgraceful in the end. William is often careful to say that he has 'heard' the stories he writes about, and this to me is what gives the sense of him passing on gossip. He says of Æthelred: 
'I have read, that when he was ten years of age, hearing it noised abroad that his brother was killed, he so irritated his furious mother by his weeping that, not having a whip at hand, she beat the little innocent with some candle she had snatched up.'
Apparently, he was so traumatised by this incident that he dreaded candles thereafter and would not 'suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence.'

Henry of Huntingdon was not above passing on embarrassing stories. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, and he would have known about the Viking onslaught which took place during the reign: 
'An evil omen ... had happened to him in his infancy. For at his baptism he made water in the font; whence [it was] predicted the slaughter of the English people that would take place in his time.'
William of Malmesbury was rather keen to pass on stories about the king's mother, too, and, indeed, his father. But once again, he was careful to state that he was only repeating what others had said. Before he tells his tale of Æthelred's father, he says: 'There are some persons, indeed, who endeavour to dim his exceeding glory by saying that he was ... libidinous in respect of virgins.'

He then goes on to report a story about how Æthelred's parents met. The short version is that King Edgar had sent one of his ealdormen, who was also his foster-brother, to 'check out' a young woman. This the ealdorman did, but he deceived the king regarding her beauty and married her himself. The king then met the woman, was bewitched by her, slew the ealdorman and married her. She was Ælfthryth, who was to be accused of witchcraft, the murder of a bishop, and the murder of her stepson.

Ælfthryth greeting her stepson Edward, just before his murder

The stories are not all so scandalous though. Sometimes the gossip is little more than small talk, as in the case of a letter sent by (Saint)Boniface to an abbess. In the letter, he is responding to a request for advice, regarding whether or not the abbess should undertake a pilgrimage. Boniface answers her concerns, but then turns to other matters.

He apologises for not having yet copied some passages for her, 'owing to pressing labours and continual journeys', but he promises that he shall have the copies for her as soon as he has finished. He then asks her to pray for him, because of his weariness, and the fact that he is disturbed by anxiety of mind more than bodily affliction.

It's almost modern in its tone: 'Sorry I haven't got round to doing that job for you, but life has been mad. To be honest, I'm busy but I'm not sleeping that well; my mind keeps whirring.'

Not all letters were so friendly. King Burgred of Mercia must have blushed a bit when he received a letter from Pope John VIII which begins:
Since, as we have heard, the sin of fornication is especially rife among you...
Bad enough when your neighbours gossip about you, but when news reaches the ears of the pope in Rome, it's a slightly bigger problem.

Ælfheah was bishop of Winchester from 984-1005 and later archbishop of Canterbury, and is famous for his martyrdom, having been stoned to death by Cnut's forces (some sources say he was killed by the blow from an ox bone.) But earlier in his career, which began at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire and continued at Bath, he was concerned with more prosaic matters.

We find the details among the writings of that incorrigible story-teller, William of Malmesbury. 

One of the monks at Bath was in the habit of keeping up his 'carousing all night long and be still at his drinking at daybreak.'  God sent two huge demons who battered the life out of the drunkard, who begged for help but was told, 'You did not listen to God, and we shall not listen to you.'

Bishop Ælfheah witnessed this attack and, according to William, when he told the other monks about the incident in the morning, 'it is not surprising that his drinking companions turned teetotal.'

From Harvey the Giant Rabbit to pink elephants and any 21st-century hangover,  the declaration that 'I'm never drinking again' is an oft-chanted mantra.


Most of these stories, and many more besides, feature in my new history book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order now.
Amberley Books

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