Thursday, 26 July 2018

St Martin’s, Canterbury: The oldest church in continuous use in the English-speaking world


Along with Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine’s Abbey, the church of St Martin’s is recognised as part of a World Heritage Site. Parts of its fabric date back to the Roman occupation of Britain, and yet weekly services are still held there making it the oldest church in continuous use - in the English-speaking world, at least. Situated just to the east of the old city walls, it sits on a hill overlooking both the Abbey and the Cathedral.


Although the original date of its construction is unknown, it will have been at some point during the fourth century, after the Emperor, Constantine the Great, had legalised Christianity at the Edict of Milan in 313CE, and before the legions abandoned Britannia to its fate c.410CE. Certainly, it is still possible to see roman bricks within the south wall of the Chancel.

It is not known what happened to the church after the Romans left Britannia, but it is reasonable to assume that it remained in use, at least for some time. The populace did not stop being Christian and nor were they wiped out by the incoming Jutes from the mid to late fifth century onward. I think there is every chance that the local Romano-British population continued to worship there, assuming their new overlords allowed them their freedom of religion, which I think is reasonable based on later events.

What we do know, is that the building still stood at the time of arrival of St Augustine from Rome in 597CE. In fact, it was already in use. King Aethelberht, the ruler of the Kingdom of Kent at that time had, some years previously (at some point prior to 581CE when the fact is first recorded) married a Christian princess, Bertha, who hailed from Frankia (roughly modern-day France). As part of the marriage arrangement, Aethelberht had promised to allow his new wife to continue to practise her faith, for which purpose she was accompanied by her own personal chaplain, a Bishop by the name of Luidhard.

What better building to provide her and Luidhard as a place of worship, then, than an old Roman church just to the east of his capital city of Cantwarabyrig? As Bede notes in Book 1, chapter 26 of his History of the English Church and People:

‘On the east side of the city stood an old church, built in honour of St Martin during the Roman occupation of Britain, where the Christian Queen of whom I have spoken [Bertha] went to pray. Here they [Augustine and the rest of the Roman monks] assembled to sing the psalms, to pray, to say Mass, to preach and to baptise…’

There is some evidence that the building was in need of repair by this time, or else, perhaps, Aethelberht recognised a need to rebuild and expand to accommodate the increased demand as he and many thousands of his people began to convert to the faith from the end of 597 onward. The nave, for example, which seems to survive to its full original height appears to date from the early 7th century.

Finally, there are a couple of quick footnotes worth noting around this time and location. Firstly, in a rare but wonderful confluence between archaeology and the written record, a gold coin or small medal was found sometime before 1844 as part of a burial near to St Martin’s. The coin is set in a mount so that it could be worn as jewellery (most likely a necklace). On the front is depicted a robed figure with the inscription: LEV.DAR.~VS.EPS (which effectively translates to: Luidhard, Episcopus (or Bishop)). On the reverse is a cross design. Clear evidence for the presence of an otherwise shadowy figure in the late 6th century court of the King of Kent.



The other fact that I find fascinating is that it was only after the arrival of Augustine in 597 that King Aethelberht finally converted to Christianity. And yet he had been married to a Christian for the best part of twenty years and no doubt had regular contact with her Bishop during that time. Why is it that he only converts once the monks arrive from Rome? How had he managed to ignore his wife for so long (assuming she was constantly on at him to do away with Woden, Thor and the like). It is a feat that few men past or present have ever managed. And when he did finally convert at the behest of Augustine, Bertha must have been, like, “Hello? Can anyone see me?”  (nod to The Fast Show sketch).
The reasons behind this mystery form a significant element of my new novel, James the Deacon, which I hope to publish before the end of the year.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Brunanburh - the earliest Battle of Britain?

Brunanburh: it's one of the most important battles to take place in this little island and yet few may have heard of it. It has also been the subject of much debate over the last couple of hundred years as to where it took place, with most scholars plumping for a site on the Wirral in Cheshire due, mainly, to a place name that is quite similar. However, a theory put forward by Michael Wood has opened up the possibility of a new location that - to my mind - is very persuasive.

So, what do we know about the battle and it's historical context? It took place in 937 AD between the forces of King Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, and those of an alliance of Britons and Vikings from various areas across the North, Ireland and Scotland. It is interesting that Alfred is the only king to be named "Great" in the whole of English history and yet there is a strong case to be made to say the achievements of his grandson were at least as impressive, if not more so.

True, Alfred had held back the Great Heathen Army, preventing it from conquering his kingdom of Wessex and - in so doing - fighting back from a low point in 878 when all appeared lost (you know - the story of him burning the cakes when he was supposedly hiding an a farmer's house in the marshlands around Athelney while the Vikings ran riot across his kingdom?). But the fact remains, by the time of his death, he was really only the ruler of Wessex.

His grandson, however, came to the throne in 924 and managed to consolidate the gains made by Alfred and also those of his father, Edward the Elder and then build on them still further such that by 927 he was king of all of what can be called England following his invasion of Northumbria and the capture of the the Danish capital at York. From this point he began styling himself (as seen from his coinage) 'Rex Totius Britanniae' (King of all Britain) and he also forced the various other Kings of Britons to submit to him in grand ceremonies.

Following a further invasion into Scotland in 934 - in which he forayed as far north as Caithness - he was effectively the most powerful ruler Britain had seen since the Roman Empire. Understandably, it was all too much for his enemies to bear and so, in the summer of 937, a great alliance under Constantine, King of Alba, and Anlaf Guthfirthson, King of Ireland and erstwhile ruler of the northern kingdom of York invaded, bent on bringing the upstart West Saxon down a peg or too.

But Aethelstan was not simply all mouth and no trousers. Whilst there was great slaughter on both sides, his forces were victorious, killing hundreds of men including five kings, seven Viking earls and the son of King Constantine. So where did such a momentous and crucial event in the history of Britain, take place?

Over the years, more than thirty sites have been suggested but most recently, consensus has generally formed around the Wirral and, specifically, a place called Bromborough - on the basis that its name can be traced back to Bruna's fort (i.e. burh). But, beyond the name itself, there is little or no evidence to back it up. Indeed there is quite a bit of evidence that actively casts doubt on it. For example, in the early 1100s, the chronicler, John of Worcester, stated that Anlaf's fleet landed in the Humber. Given that his family used to rule the kingdom of York, it is not a huge leap of faith to accept that Anlaf may have sailed around Scotland to pitch up on the east coast of England given that it is possible to sail up the Humber to within a few miles of York (much as Harald Hardrada did in 1066 (see other blog on this)).

If Anlaf's main objective was to restore his Kingdom of York, what was he doing in the Wirral? And why would a Scottish invading army end up there as well? As Michael Wood puts it, we should really focus on looking for the battle site somewhere to the east, on the route from York down through the Danelaw (where the Danes had held sway for some decades).

In the search for that alternative location, Michael points out that another name - Wendun - exists for the battle, one that was captured in the  Historia Regum, a set of short annals written at Chester-le-Street at around the time of the battle. Whilst Wendun has also never been identified, Michael makes a plausible case for it being rendered as Went Hill (dun meaning hill), a striking landmark that rises 150 feet above the valley of the river Went, one of the tributaries of the Humber. Positioned as it is on the traditional border between Northumbria and Mercia (a place often used to muster the armies of the northern kingdom in Anglo-Saxon times) it makes an ideal candidate for the battle-site.

Added to this is the spelling of Brunanburh itself. Different spellings occur in the various editions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The 'A' edition spells it Brunanburh (which has been the traditionally accepted version - giving rise to Bruna's Burh), but the 'B' and 'C' versions spell it with two 'n's : Brunnanburh. Even the original copy of the A version has a second 'n' hand-written above the word as if correcting a typo.

So what does another 'n' matter? Someone just spelled the poor guy's name wrong, right?  Maybe, but Brunnanburh also carries the meaning of Fort of the Spring. Just south of the river Went is an old Roman Fort inside which is a famous spring that today goes by the name, Robin Hood's well. It remains circumstantial, of course, but Wendun and Brunnan Burh both fit well into the context of this fort on the southern border of Northumbria. It also makes sense in an historical context in terms of the struggle for power in the North of Britain. The southern border of Northumbria makes for a far more logical location to stand and fight the all-powerful Aethelstan for control of the kingdom of York than a remote site stuck out on the Wirral.

It may yet never be proven beyond doubt, but I would place a sizeable wager on Michael Wood being right.






Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Women in the man's world of early Anglo-Saxon England Part 2: Abbess Hild

Following on from part one in which I discussed the role of an early 7th century, unnamed Queen of East Anglia, here's a look at another royal woman from the same era, but this time from further north in the kingdom of Northumbria. At least, on this occasion, we know her name: Hild.

Hild was born around the year 614 into the Deiran royal family (Northumbria, at that time, was made up 2 provinces, Bernicia and Deira with the latter being the southern half centred on the old Roman city of York). She was the second daughter of Hereric who was the nephew of Edwin and the grandson of King Aelle who had ruled Deira in the late 6th century.

Little is known of her immediate childhood, but at the time of her birth, much of the royal family was in exile as a result of incursions and eventual take over by the northern neighbours from Bernicia. Edwin, who would eventually become the king who would unify the two parts in 616 was in exile at this point in either Mercia or East Anglia (the latter being where he came into contact with the aforementioned unnamed queen who effectively saved his life, convincing her husband, Raedwald, not to turn Edwin over to his Bernician enemies).

Hild's father - Hereric - meanwhile, was in exile in the British kingdom of Elmet (based around the Leeds area) and it may have been here where she was born and spent her early years. While she was still a toddler, and before Edwin became king in 616, Hereric was poisoned at the royal court, probably at the behest of King Aethelfrith of Bernicia who - as well as pursuing Edwin - was apparently on a mission to wipe out the entire Deiran royal family to prevent any future threat to his rule.

With Aethelfrith's death at the battle of the River Idle in 616, however, Edwin was able to become king of Northumbria. Though it's not mentioned explicitly, he must have called for the return of Hereric's family from exile in Elmet. We are told that one of Edwin's first actions as king was to annex Elmet and banish its king in recompense for the murder of his nephew. It is most likely as a result of this event that Hild and her mother (Breguswith) and sister (Hereswith) returned to Edwin's court.

The only other event we know from Hild's childhood came in c.627 when her great uncle, Edwin, converted to Christianity. We are told in Bede's Ecclesiastical History that Edwin was baptised in York on Easter Day along with his whole court in a small wooden church which had been hastily built for the occasion. Included amongst those baptised on the day were Breguswith and her two daughters; Hild would have been around 13 or 14 at the time.

Sometime soon after this, Hild's sister, Hereswith, was sent to East Anglia to marry Aethelric, brother of King Anna. During this period the common fate of the sisters, daughters, nieces, etc. of kings was to be used as pawns in sealing alliances with other kingdoms and that was very much the case here. How Hild avoided a similar fate is not known, but the next time we meet her is when she also travelled to East Anglia with the intention of joining her sister in becoming a nun (which seems to be the other main pastime for royal womenfolk). The assumption is that Hereswith's husband had died and, rather than be remarried, she had decided to enter a convent. The only problem, however, was that there were no nunneries in East Anglia (being very early in that kingdom's christian development). Hereswith therefore made her way to Chelles Abbey in France, again presumably making use of familial connections (Edwin's wife, Aethelburh, had been a Frankish princess).

Instead of completing the journey to France, however, Hild was called back to Northumbria by Bishop Aidan who gave her a small grant of land on the north bank of the River Wear to 'live as a nun'. She stayed here for a year, learning the ropes of Celtic monasticism, before being appointed Abbess of Hartlepool only a year later. Being a part of the royal family clearly had its benefits, either that or she had been involved in the church for some years already, without it being recorded. Perhaps both are true.



Her reputation as a woman of wisdom, energy and leadership grew during this time to such an extent that she was rewarded, in 657, with the offer to found her own abbey at Whitby (then known as Streonashalch) and she would remain there until her death in 680. It was a double-foundation in that it housed both men and women in separate houses, who then came together to worship in a single church.


Bede tells us that such was her wisdom she was often consulted by various kings and princes hoping to gain her advice on various weighty matters. She was known by all as 'mother' due to her outstanding grace and devotion. It was no doubt due to this stellar reputation that King Oswiu of Northumbria chose her Abbey as the location of his hugely important Synod of Whitby in 664. Churchmen and officials from as far away as Wessex came to debate the big issue of the day which was the correct calculation of the date of Easter. Sounds fascinating, right? The tickets to that one must have sold out in minutes.

Whatever we might think now, however, this was a big deal at the time. Due to the different traditions of the Roman and Ionan (i.e. from the Isle of Iona in Scotland) churches, Easter had been known to be celebrated on two separate weekends. This was because Oswiu had grown up in exile in Iona and had thus adopted the christian teachings of the monks there, whereas his queen, Eanfled, was from Edwin's side of the kingdom who had been converted by the Roman missionaries sent to England by Pope Gregory in 597. It was an intolerable situation to have the King and Queen observing Easter on different days. Behind the scenes, no doubt, a big political move was playing out here as the two sides manoeuvred for control over the church in what was the most powerful kingdom in England at the time, with its over-lordship of most of the rest of the kingdoms.

To boil the long and tedious arguments down to something that is palatable for this blog, the Ionans argued that they were right because they followed the teachings of the most holy Columba who had himself followed those of St John the apostle. The Romans, in the shape of Wilfrid (who is a very interesting character in his own right - I must cover him in a future blog), argued that everyone else in the Christian world followed the Roman practice favoured by the apostles Peter and Paul, and that Peter - as the original Bishop of Rome and keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven - trumped everyone else.

At this point, Oswiu showed his penchant for pragmatism in bringing matters to a close. It was late and he was no doubt gagging for a pint to clear his head. It had been a long day full of detailed and complex arguments, much of which he might have struggled to understand, but he had heard of St Peter and this gave him his opportunity to make a ruling. On hearing confirmation from both sides that St Peter did indeed hold the keys to heaven, he must have pushed his chair back and standing, declared "That's the very fellow for me - if he's the man that decides whether I can get into heaven, I for one will not be pissing him off." (Ok - I paraphrase what he may have actually said but I'm sure it was along these lines). And so the decision was made to adopt the Roman tradition.

The decision put some of the Ionan adherents' noses out of joint and they left Northumbria for Iona in a bit of a huff. Hild, however, despite having followed Ionan tradition up until then demonstrated yet again her leadership quality by going with the flow, falling in line with the king's decision. She was therefore to remain Abbess of Whitby for a further 16 years until her death. Whereas a number of men took their ball home, unable to compromise, Hild recognised that there were bigger battles to fight in the continuing development of the nascent christian religion in the English kingdoms of the 7th century. Deciding on the date of Easter and how monks were to cut their hair (yes - that was another issue on the agenda) were not that big a deal for her.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Women - breaking into the man's world of Anglo-Saxon England - Part 1

Much of the post-Roman, pre-Conquest history of England is written, rather unsurprisingly, from the perspective of men. It is written by men, for men and mostly about men - and usually the most prominent of men: the kings and bishops of the day. Women are largely incidental, coming into the story mainly when they form part of the above narrative rather than as characters of interest in their own right.

One such character is the wife of King Raedwald, the king of the East Angles who ruled from c.599 to c.624 and who, for many, may well be the king who was buried under Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, where one of the most significant archaeological finds in this country occurred back in 1939.

We know about Raedwald's wife from the monk, Bede, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the first half of the eighth century. So incidental was she, that he didn't even see fit to name her; though perhaps, through no fault of his own, he didn't even know her name. But the details he did provide about her, as part of the wider story of his hero, Edwin, first Christian King of his own land of Northumbria, offer a fascinating insight into the role of the royal spouse and give an indication of the power she may have wielded - albeit in the shadow of her husband.

The first time she appears in the historical record relates to the early days of the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by the monks sent from Rome by Pope Gregory at the beginning of the seventh century. During the early days of the mission, it was touch and go whether they would succeed. They were wholly dependent on the king for hospitality and freedom to worship/preach, but if they could convert the king then there was a fair chance the rest of the kingdom would follow suit as the ruler was pivotal in deciding the direction for their kingdom in all things. Equally, however, if the king could not be persuaded to abandon the Gods of their forefathers, so too might the monks have to abandon their work.

The first monks came to Kent in 597. Why Kent? Perhaps they thought that they would be well received as the King's (Aethelberht) wife was a Frankish princess called Bertha who was already a Christian. Straight away we see the monks hoping to use the wife's influence over her husband to help their cause. Her influence may well have been enough to persuade Aethelberht to allow the monks to stay and even to allocate them some land in Canterbury on which to found their first church. Even so it was not all plain sailing; when the king first met the monks on the Isle of Thanet, he insisted on meeting them outdoors, for fear he might succumb to the monks' magic indoors.

Kent was also a good choice because Aethelberht was, at that time, the most powerful ruler in the Anglo-Saxon domains; Bretwalda (or Britain-ruler) as the title was styled. Without the king's support and influence, the fledgling religion could well have floundered and died. But with him on board, so the new church had the necessary support to grown and succeed. Indeed, not long after his own conversion, Aethelberht stood as sponsor (and Godfather) in the conversion of his neighbouring king, Raedwald of East Anglia. Whether Raedwald was a willing convert is the stuff of conjecture; most likely it was a matter of political expediency as it didn't pay to snub the wishes of your overlord.

However, once back in his native East Anglia, we are told that all did not go smoothly when it came to trying to sell the new religion to his nobles, key advisers and, indeed, to his wife. Bede tells us that, ' on his return, he was led astray by his wife and by certain wrong-headed teachers who undermined his faith, so that his last state was worse than his first'.

To me this feels a little unfair; who's to say that Raedwald needed much persuading? For him to abandon his faith and that of his people cannot have been an easy decision. Away from Aethelberht's court, perhaps he did waver and, being reminded of his duty as king to his people, perhaps he did succumb to the entreaties of his wife and his council of nobles. The position of the king and his wife in pagan lands was all important; their fertility in producing children to take the dynasty forward was linked to the fertility of the land in providing succour to the people who depended on it for survival as well as their livelihood. Doubtless the queen was unable to reconcile herself with the thought of breaking with tradition and putting at risk the fertility of the land.

However, rather than completely turn his back on this new God, Raedwald chose a compromise. In the pagan temple near to the royal hall at Rendlesham, he established an altar to the Christian God next to the existing altar to the old Gods. To Bede, the monk, this was a reprehensible act, but to the king it probably represented the best of both worlds. He could be true to his promise to Aethelberht and at the same time keep faith with his people. What, after all, was one more God to worship amongst the many he already had?

The next time Raedwald's queen comes to our attention is with the story of how Edwin came to the throne of Northumbria. As a young man, Edwin had to flee from his homeland to avoid being killed - as his father had been - by Aethelfrith, the warlike king from the northern half of the land, Bernicia. His exile had taken him from North Wales to Mercia and finally to East Anglia, pursued by war and diplomacy all the time.

When Aethelfrith discovered that Edwin had taken refuge at Raedwald's court, he sent emissaries with offers of riches to bribe the king to give up or to kill his guest. Raedwald refused at first, which resulted in further, improved bribes accompanied by threats of war if he refused. Although Raedwald had succeeded Aethelberht as Bretwalda, on the latter's death in 616, he was still wary of the reputation of the northern warlord, fearsome as it was. So it was that the king finally yielded to pressure and promised to kill Edwin or to hand him over to Aethelfrith.

Before this could happen, however, in steps the queen once more to play a key role. The predicament for Bede, however, is that this time the part she plays is - to his mind - honourable and effectively saves the life of his Christian hero-king, Edwin. And yet the reason that she takes this path is deeply ingrained in her pagan upbringing, a fact which Bede chooses to brush over, somewhat conveniently.

When Raedwald confided in his wife what he planned to do to Edwin she must have really laid into him. How could he, as so great a king, exploit the misfortune of his friend and sell him for gold? How could he so readily lose his honour for the love of money? The promise of hospitality was of huge importance and so to willingly hand Edwin over to his enemies would have destroyed the king's reputation for ever. Better to die in battle defending his guest, she must have said, rather than be callow and surrender him for a purse of gold coins.

Raedwald did what many of us would have done; he saw that his wife was right and changed his mind. He assembled his army and advanced against Aethelfrith, killing him at the battle on the River Idle (in c.616), taking him by surprise before he was able to assemble his whole host. Edwin was duly crowned king of Northumbria and eventually succeeded Raedwald as Bretwalda on his death in c.626.

As an interesting footnote, there is a theory put forward by Norman Scarfe, that the 37 gold coins found in the purse in the Sutton Hoo ship burial might just be part of the bribe that Raedwald received from Aethelfrith. In one final act to keep her husband's honour, it is not inconceivable that the queen buried the money with him to show the gods that the bribe had not been spent. His reputation was intact.

Alongside the gold, the various christian artefacts (the silver bowls and the twin Saul/Paul inscribed spoons for example) may well, by the same token, be the baptismal gifts from Aethelberht. As Raedwald died, so the kingdom reverted to paganism for a number of years and so, perhaps his queen sought to bury all signs of the new faith with her husband too.


Though we can only see a whisper of her, what evidence there is marks her out as a formidable woman, almost, if not actually, the equal of her husband and able to exert significant influence over his actions and his beliefs.


Monday, 5 June 2017

King Cwichelm of Wessex and his part in the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria

The first thing that should be said is that the primary sources for the kings of the West Saxons in the first half of the seventh century are at best sketchy. Cwichelm may not even have been the king of the West Saxons but it is probably safe to say that he was at least 'a' king of the West Saxons - and specifically those that were located around the Upper Thames valley.

At the time that Cwichelm features in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of Britain, in the year 626, the West Saxon regnal list - such as it is - shows Cynegils as King of Wessex, but then also shows that a son of his was called Cwichelm and that he was supposed to have died in around 636.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a number of references for Cwichelm, which serve only to complicate things further:
593 - Here Ceawlin and Cwichelm and Crida perished.
611 - Here Cynegils succeeded to the kingdom in Wessex and held it 31 years
614 - Here Cynegils and Cwichelm fought on Bea's Mount and killed 2,065 Welsh
626 - Eomer came from Cwichelm, king of the West Saxons  (more of this later)
628 - Here Cynegils and Cwichelm fought against Penda at Cirencester and came to an agreement
636 - Here Cwichelm was baptised in Dorchester and passed away the same year.

I tend to favour the view of DP Kirby that names such as Cynegils and Cwichelm were relatively common and thus it may be the fault of later historians who have tried to conflate several references over a wide period of time to the same person.

Anyway, back to the story of 'King' Cwichelm's unwitting part in Edwin's conversion to Christianity. At this time, Edwin was the most powerful ruler in the Heptarchy, described by Bede as the fifth Bretwalda "who ruled all the peoples of Britain, both Angles and Britons with the exception of the Kentish folk." It was this dominance that most probably resulted in Cwichelm's decision to send an assassin to Edwin's court in 626. Edwin had no doubt been looking to extend his influence to the south where he must have come up against Cwichelm's land. The West Saxon ruler was not about to give in easily to this foreign upstart.

That said, he knew that Edwin was the most powerful king in the island and that direct confrontation would most likely not result in a favourable outcome for him. Therefore he chose a more refined, but thoroughly underhand method of being rid of the Northumbrian king. As Bede says "an assassin named Eumer was sent into the province by Cwichelm, king of the West Saxons, in order to rob Edwin both of his kingdom and his life." [HE II 9]

And he nearly succeeded. Eumer presented himself at Edwin's court - which at that time was at the royal residence by the River Derwent. He gained an audience with the king on the pretext of having an important message from his king. Who knows why Edwin allowed him in - perhaps he needed a distraction; his wife was to give birth the same day to his first daughter, Eanfled, and he must have been in some stress, fearing for the safety of his wife and possible heir.

Whatever the reason, midway through delivering his pretend message, Eumer drew a knife from under his cloak and made a lunge for the king. The knife was said to be both doubled edged and dipped in poison so that if the blade did not kill him, then the poison would. Fortunately for Edwin, he had with him the most loyal of companions, one of whom - Lilla - having neither sword or shield to hand, nevertheless threw himself between the assassin and his king, paying the ultimate sacrifice for his bravery. Apparently the blow was so hard that the knife went all the way through Lilla and still wounded the king. One assumes the wound was superficial though as he made a full recovery. Eumer was then killed but not before he managed to take another thegn, Fordhere, with him.

So, how did this event bring about the eventual conversion of the first Anglo-Saxon king outside of Kent? Well, on its own, it did not but it can be said to have certainly played a part. Edwin had recently married a daughter of the Christian king of Kent, one Aethelberga. As part of the marriage agreement, Aethelberga had been promised the right to continue to practise her faith in Northumbria and had taken a priest called Paulinus with her for this purpose. Being one of the early Christian missionaries to England from Rome, Paulinus was not going to miss the opportunity to work on Edwin to try and convert him from his pagan idolatry. The fact that Edwin had allowed Paulinus to preach and had given him land in York on which to found his church shows that the king was open to new ideas but did not mean he was going to change his ways quickly and easily.

It took Paulinus a number of years and several artifices before he secured Edwin's baptism. One such opportunity was the failed assassination attempt. In response to the  birth of his daughter, later that same day, Edwin gave thanks to the Gods for the fact that both the child and mother had come through the ordeal safely (never a guaranteed outcome in those times). Paulinus however claimed that it was because of his prayers to Christ that the birth had gone so well.  In response, Edwin promised to give up his pagan ways and also to dedicate his new daughter to Christ if he would be granted victory against those that had sent the assassin.

Edwin then embarked on a punitive expedition into Wessex where we are told that slew or forced to surrender all those who had been involved in the plot, including the killing (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us) of 5 kings (more evidence to support the view that Wessex was a network of tribes and sub kings, possibly under the aegis of a single overlord). Returning to Northumbria with the spoils of war, Edwin made good on his promise and gave Eanfled to Paulinus where she - and 12 members of her household - became the first Northumbrians to be baptised on the eve of the feast of Pentecost (6th June).

Edwin himself held on for a while longer, but it is safe to surmise that his resistance was crumbling because of events such as these. It cannot, however, have been an easy decision to give up the Gods of his ancestors not least because the king's religion would have also dictated the religion of his people in effect. Such a decision could not be taken lightly.

Friday, 2 June 2017

1217: The Battle of Lincoln - a big reason why we don't all speak French today

The Battle of Lincoln recently celebrated its 800th anniversary but, unlike some other major battles such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Hastings, The Somme, I'd wager that very few people outside the eclectic world of the history nerd are even aware of it. And yet, for all that, it had the potential to be a massive game-changer in the history of this island.

Perhaps it is overshadowed by the event that most school children know which took place two years earlier close to the banks of the Thames and not far from Windsor, namely the signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede. It is from here, and the earlier events of John's reign, that we can see the causes of the battle that came a year after John's death in 1216.

As an aside, to continue what seems to be a fairly common theme of this blog, John died a horrible, bottom-related death. He contracted dysentery whilst on campaign and suffered what must have been a humiliating and painful demise by, quite literally, shitting himself to death at Newark Castle in October 1216. However bad a king he may have been, you wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy.

Anyway, back to the story. What had once been a vast domain stretching across England and France under his predecessors, had - as a result of John's mismanagement and ill-advised policies - dwindled to control over largely just England. Almost the last overseas possessions, Normandy - the original ducal lands from which our Norman dynasty had hailed - had been lost in 1204. Understandably many of John's barons were particularly dischuffed by this turn of events, not least because they had held considerable estates on both sides of the channel and had thus lost significant income and wealth, not to mention the loss of prestige, which resulted in King John acquiring the nickname, Lackland (those medieval comedians at it again there).

Due to this and John's own cruel and vindictive personality, a good two-thirds of the barons had turned against their King. Matters were temporarily patched up by the issuing of the Magna Carta in 1215. (In this context I always tend to see this great bastion of English civil law as actually being for the barons in the first instance rather than being an early Bill of Rights for the common man. That there were clauses in there which protected Johnny Farmer is all well and good, but the fact is - for me - protecting the people who made money for the Barons was also going to benefit them. That you could not take away a man's plough or convict him without trial meant that the workers were safe from false accusations and could carry on working for their lord until proven guilty in a court of law. A huge simplification - but you get the point).

Oops - I have digressed again. So Magna Carta gets issued and is rescinded soon after (something else that might not be widely known). Indeed one of the main reasons the Carta is so well known today is largely due to it being re-issued several times, firstly by John's son - Henry III - in 1217. Anyway, John' reneging on the deal tips the Barons over the edge and so we have civil war.

Into this mess steps Louis, the heir to the French throne. The Capetian dynasty of France was the arch-rival of the Angevin (i.e. from Anjou) rulers of England. However, alliances sealed by marriages in the 12th century had resulted in Louis having a claim (albeit a weak one) to the English throne. The disaffection of a sizeable proportion of the English barons gave him the opportunity to cause mischief; an opportunity that he was not going to pass up. So it was that Louis landed in Kent in May 1216 at the head of a significant French invasion force.

Things went well for Louis and, by the time of John's death five months later, it looked as if there was a very good chance that England could fall to him. John's successor, Henry, was only 9 years old when he became king which made him extremely vulnerable and almost wholly dependent on the men that were charged with his care by his father. It was here, however, that John did something right for once. The men he set around his son were both capable and effective, and it is largely down to them that Henry not only survived, but went on to rule for over 50 years.

Key among these men was William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, often described, with some justification, as the greatest knight who ever lived. Alongside him were Peter des Roches, the bishop of Winchester who was not scared of a good dust-up and Faulkes de Breaute who - as one of John's cronies - had a reputation for brutality but who was, nonetheless, a capable military commander. In addition, Henry had the backing of the Pope as he was seen to be the legitimate ruler of England and because John - in another all-to-rare sensible move - had submitted to the Pope's authority in 1213.

The new government began to take steps to establish its presence: a new centre of government was established in Bristol (much of the east and north of the country, including London, was lost to the crown at this time) and the Magna Carta (revised in places) was reissued. On its own, however, his was not enough. a quick and decisive victory was needed against Louis and his rebel supporters. The crown did not have the finances or manpower to wage a protracted campaign. The opportunity for such a victory came in May 1217 at Lincoln.

The city stood as one of the few royalist strongholds to resist the invader in the east of the country. A force comprising French troops and northern rebels had been besieging it for some time but had only managed to breach the outer city walls; the castle itself stood firm under the control of Lady Nicholaa de la Haye. Louis then decided to make a bold move to sweep up any remaining resistance in the eastern half of England before pushing west to take the rest of the country. To achieve this he divided his force in two, sending half to take Dover and the other half to Lincoln.

Whilst this was a grave threat to the royalist cause, William Marshal also saw it as a great opportunity to land a significant blow for Henry against a weakened rebel force. The knight - who was around 70 years old - used all of his knowledge and experience to good effect. Rather than take the direct route from Newark to Lincoln, he looped around from the west to approach the city from the north. This was key as the main southern approach to the city would have resulted in the royal forces having to fight their way across a defended bridge and then up a steep hill to the castle. If you have been to Lincoln you will be aware of this hill that divides the upper and lower town; I think the road that leads up to the castle is even called 'Steep Hill Road' - short and to the point.

Coming from the north, however, meant that Marshal's forces were able to fight on level ground. Nevertheless, there still remained the challenge of finding a way into the city. A scouting party, commanded by Peter des Roches, found a  gate that was undefended as it was blocked with rubble. Setting off two diversionary attacks to distract attention from the gate, William cleared the rubble and launched his assault. The old knight led the charge himself, his white hair flowing behind him as he went.

Whilst the surprise appearance of the royalist knights was a huge blow for the rebels, they did not immediately crack. A vicious melee broke out in front of the cathedral in which men of both sides were slaughtered without mercy.


However the turning point seems to have been the death of the French leader - Count Thomnas of Perche - from a sword thrust through the visor of his helmet that pierced his eye and skewered his brain, The sight of their leader being killed got the better of the rebels, and they began a panicked retreat through the city and across the river Witham, during which many more were butchered. The royalists, under the world's greatest knight, had their stunning victory.

The defeat at Lincoln was the beginning of the end for Louis's attempt to take the English throne. Many of the remaining rebel barons began to come over to the royalist side and Louis's last throw of the dice - a fleet of reinforcements - was beaten off in a naval engagement just off the port of Sandwich in Kent. Whilst England had stood on the brink of a new French rule, the reality was that the outcome of the war saw England actually began to find a new identity - one that was far more English than French. Who knows how things might have turned out were it not for a 70 year old knight who decided to put his remaining energies into protecting the birth right of a 9 year old boy, rather than putting his feet up and letting them all get on with it.

Finally, one should spare a thought for poor Nicholaa de la Haye. Her reward for her staunch resistance and loyalty to the crown was to be removed from her position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire four days later and replaced by Henry III's uncle the earl of Salisbury. Yeah - thanks for that!



Sunday, 14 May 2017

Edmund Ironside: the best king we nearly had?

To many, Edmund Ironside is but a footnote in the history of England prior to the Norman Conquest. Other than having a pretty cool nickname (awarded for his valour in fighting the Danes, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), this man who ruled for little more than seven months had the makings of a king who could have rivalled Alfred's achievements and might also have earned the epithet 'the Great' had he survived.

Edmund was born somewhere around 988-990, the third son of Aethelred II, one of the other few well known late Anglo-Saxon kings due to his even cooler nickname, 'the Unready'. Rather than meaning he was forever popping to the shops without his wallet, or was always last to be ready to leave the house on family days out, the name is actually a passable attempt at late Saxon humour. The name Aethelred meant 'Noble Counsel' and so Unraed was a play on words as it suggested he was poorly counselled or unwise. The chronicler who came up with that one must have been extremely pleased with himself and, no doubt, never let anyone forget it.

Poorly advised or not, he was certainly prolific in the bedroom department. Through he first wife, Aelfgifu, he was father to six boys and four girls and then, when she died, he married Emma of Normandy and had two further boys, Alfred and Edward (later to become Edward the Confessor) and a daughter.

Aethelred's nickname was well earned though. It was during his reign that the Danish incursions began again. The king's response, however, consisted largely of paying huge sums of money, known as the Danegeld, in order to secure peace and freedom from his lands being ravaged. Whilst it may have worked in the short term, it had the effect of encouraging more raids as they came with the expectation of booty with little danger to life or limb. No doubt at the time it was felt to be the best way to spare his people and their lands and - to be fair - it had been a tactic in use for some while; even Alfred the Great had bought off the Danes at times.

Matters came to a head, however, on St Brice's day (13 Nov) 1002 when Aethelred ordered the massacre of all Danes living under English rule. On its own this was inflammatory enough but one of the victims on that day was the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark and Norway. This led to years of Danish invasions and raids, culminating with the whole country submitting to Sweyn at the end of 1013 and Aethelred forced to flee to Normandy with Emma and their two children, Alfred and Edward. No mention is made of Edmund and it is thought that he stayed in England, presumably somewhere out of the way of Sweyn.

Sweyn was therefore, effectively, king of all England, though his reign lasted no more than a few weeks as he died in February 1014. At this point the Danes declared Sweyn's son, Cnut (yes him that tried to stop the tide) king, whereas the Witan (a kind of precursor of Parliament) declared for Aethelred and beseeched him to return from Normandy.

For once in his life, Aethelred showed decisiveness and energy, so much so that Cnut was forced to return to Denmark. He returned a year later, however, and proceeded to ravage most of England. By this time Aethelred was very sick and was unable to lead the army himself, eventually dying on 23 April 1016 in London. Most of the country was under the control of Cnut by now and the Witan proclaimed him king. London, however, resisted and elected Edmund king.

Now began seven months of almost continual struggle, with Edmund time and again raising troops to fight the Danish invader. In total, Edmund fought five battles against Cnut, most of which were inconclusive, until the battle of Assandun in Essex in October. In order to raise enough men to fight the Danes, Edmund had allied with the earl of Mercia; a man called Eadric Streona who had a reputation for changing sides. It proved to be a disastrous move as, at the crucial moment,  Eadric deserted Edmund and turned his men against the king. The outcome was a catastrophic defeat for Edmund in which many of the nobles of the land and their sons were killed.

Even then, Edmund refused to capitulate. As his ancestor, Alfred, had before him, he went west once more into the heartlands of Wessex to raise a new army. Cnut caught up with Edmund in Gloucestershire where, rather than fight another battle, a deal was struck such that the kingdom was split between the two of them, with the agreement that on the death of the first, the survivor would assume the whole kingdom.

It is a matter of conjecture what would have happened next as, before anything could happen, Edmund died - only a month after the treaty had been signed. The cause of death has never been fully established, with many pointing to assassination on Cnut's or Eadric's orders. A couple of chronicles even carry a gruesome tale of an assassin hiding in the khazi and killing the king by stabbing him up through his guts as he went about his business. There can't be many worse ways to go, and it could not have been too pleasant for the assassin either. However, it is just as likely that he died of wounds he received at Assandun.

Edmund's death settled matters as Cnut assumed the kingship of the whole of England, ruling until 1035 when he was succeeded by his son. All was not yet lost for the House of Wessex, however, as Edmund's step brother, Edward (the Confessor), was to return to England to take the throne in 1042.