Thursday 9 May 2019

Huscarls – 11th Century Special Forces?

The term Huscarl (or Housecarl) derives from two old Norse words meaning house (unsurprisingly) and man or servant. The term could therefore literally be taken to mean household man – i.e. one who was in the service of a King, Earl or other great Lord but, beyond that, how much is really known about what that title entailed?

I think it is true to say that – and my own novel ‘Thurkill’s Revenge: Part 1 of the Huscarl Chronicles’ is very much guilty of this – there is a tendency, if not a desire, to romanticise the term to imply that they be some kind of elite warriors dedicated to the service of the King or other great nobles of the land; almost a professional standing army of sorts. Whether it be the SAS, the Marines, the German storm troopers of World War One or right back to the Immortals of the Persian Army at the battle of Thermopylae, I think there has always been a desire to see certain troops as special, capable of extraordinary feats of courage or skill. But – in the case of the huscarls – what evidence do we have of their right to be included in this exalted group?

The term only really starts to appear after 1016, following the first (and less well known) successful invasion of England that took during the eleventh century: that of King Cnut the Great of Denmark. And even then, there is little in any primary English sources to help us understand the significance (or otherwise) of the term.

Previous historians have therefore, understandably, turned to Scandinavian sources for answers. And there they have found accounts written perhaps over 200 years later which describe the huscarls as some kind of professional, military guild with all sorts of rules governing expected behaviour which make them sound like some kind of touring rugby club. By way of example, the Lex Castrensis Sive Curie speaks of the fact that when the huscarls sat down to dine in the King’s hall, their position at the table was determined by their respective rank and status. Furthermore, minor misdemeanours would be punished by demotion down the pecking order, much like drinking out of turn on tour or having a half instead of a pint. Commit three petty crimes in a row and you would be demoted to the foot of the table and none would be allowed to communicate with you. To add insult to injury, the other huscarls would be encouraged to pelt you with gnawed bones. All of which you could imagine going on at the annual gathering of the Old Gitonians Rugby Club.

This, along with other related evidence, led to the belief that the pre-conquest English Kings had at their disposal a sizeable force of paid, professional warriors, almost mercenaries in fact, who had little role other than to be ready to fight for the King whenever called upon to do so. They were supposedly part of a well-ordered guild-type structure with a defined set of rules to maintain rigid discipline.

But when you start to look at the evidence more closely, questions can start to be raised. And here I should point out I am indebted to Nicholas Hooper who has done just that in his essay: ‘The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century’ (produced in the book: Anglo-Norman Warfare, published by Boydell and Brewer).

Hooper argues very robustly and eloquently that when you look at the contemporary written sources (especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Domesday Book) you can see that there is little in the way of consistency in the usage of the term, huscarl, giving rise to an alternative theory that there was no such professional warriors’ guild bound by this complex set of rules of conduct (however attractive a thought that may be). Rather, what we seem to have is a continuation of what went before. The King had a number thegns in his service whom he could call upon to fight along with any number of other services that he might need of them, like tax collection, messenger, steward of royal estates etc. This had long been the case and the nothing had changed other than the name.

For me, therefore, the argument that is most striking is to say that these huscarls were simply the household men of the Danish King Cnut, no different to the household men that earlier English Kings had to call upon, of which an example can be seen as far back as King Edwin of Northumbria when – in 627, as Bede tells us – two of “the king’s men” (Lilla and Fordhere) gave their lives in defence of the King when he was attacked by the West Saxon assassin, Eumer.

The fact that these men were given a Danish title perhaps simply reflects the fact that so many of these men were now of Danish origin, being in the service of Cnut and his sons. They might just as easily have been called by the existing Saxon term, thegn, just as their behaviour would have been governed by existing Saxon laws that are in evidence back to the time of King Alfred and probably earlier. (King Alfred had laws that forbade fighting in the King’s Hall – and we can imagine that such laws came about in response to the very thing they sought to outlaw).

As retainers of a Lord or King they were certainly distinct from the fyrd (the levy of men which the King summoned in times of war from the towns and villages of his kingdom to form the massed ranks of his army) and it is most likely that they had access to superior armour, weaponry and training but this does not, of itself, equate to a standing army of paid professional elite warriors. Yes, they formed the core of King Harold’s army at Hastings, having endured a long round-trip march to Yorkshire to fight the Vikings at Stamford Bridge only a couple of weeks before. But their presence alone was not going to be enough to turn the battle in Harold’s favour. Indeed, the realisation that they were not ‘special forces’ perhaps goes some way to contextualising the defeat. We have no right to expect more from them than from any other paid retainer in any battle of the era.

All that being said, none of it will, of course, stop me from bigging up my hero, Thurkill, giving him a level of martial skill that exceeds all those against whom he finds himself pitted in the name of honour and glory. What's more, he has a massive two-handed axe and he's not afraid to use it. 

Friday 14 December 2018

William the Bastard became King William at the Battle of Hastings, right?

Er... actually... no.

As any school child will tell you (actually - this seems to be no longer the case, judging by a quick survey I conducted with the two apprentices that joined our team this month), the Battle of Hastings occurred on October 14th 1066. Those that were really paying attention might also be able to tell you that William was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.

Two and a half months may not seem like a huge time to us from this far distant, but I think it fair to say that, whilst likely, it was by no means inevitable that William would make the transition from battle-winner to King of England. Ten weeks is a long time in politics - as true then as it is now.

To understand what happened during those weeks after the battle, we need to cycle back a little, back to the death of King Edward the Confessor at the start of January 1066. At that time, it was no secret that William coveted the English throne. Indeed, he claimed to have had it offered to him by Edward back in the 1050s, when it was clear that Edward would have no son of his own to whom to pass the crown. There was also the much debated and oft-disputed story - seen in the Bayeux Tapestry - of how Harold (then Earl of Wessex) had sworn on holy relics to support William's claim when the time came during a trip to the continent some time around 1064.

At the start of 1066 then, the matter of the succession was by no means clear. At this time, English kingship, while it usually passed from father to son, relied on a principle of acclamation. The matter was put before a council of lords and prelates to decide who was most suited. If there was an eldest son of a suitable age then the decision was usually quite simple. But in January 1066, that luxury did not exist.

Instead, there was, at best, a choice between two candidates; a choice that was to be taken in the knowledge that the storm clouds of war were gathering. Not only was it to be expected that William would want to press his claim to the throne, there was also the small matter of the Norwegian King being rumoured to fancy his chances too. Everyone knew that England was going to be facing a turbulent year and this - plus some fancy footwork on the part of the richest, most powerful family in the land - saw the decision swing in favour of Harold Godwineson; a man who bore no relation to the royal family other than by the fact that his sister, Edith, had married King Edward. That would be like Kate Middleton's brother becoming the next King of England now.

Whilst we can assume that much political chicanery took place to ensure the vote went the right way (something else that seemingly has not changed over the years (oooh controversial view that history teaches us about the present, there!)), Harold may well have won the vote anyway due to the impending military crisis that threatened the nation. Harold was 44 years old and a proven war leader - he was exactly the kind of man you would want to be in charge in such difficult times. The other contender probably never stood a chance, realistically.

But who was he up against? In short, a lad of about 14 years who had not even started to grow a beard yet. A boy who had not even been born in England (he had, rather, been born in exile in Hungary) and who had few friends at court. It was almost inevitable that he would lose the contest to Harold. But the one thing that he did have in his favour was that he was of the royal line. He was the grandson of Edmund Ironside, who had been king for a brief period in 1016 (see another entry in my blog for an article on him) until his death in the midst of the fighting against Cnut's Danish invasion. Ironside's young son, Edward (known as The Exile) had been sent overseas ostensibly to be killed but ultimately being shipped off to deepest, darkest Europe where he had married a noble woman and had a number of children, of which Edgar was the eldest son.

So Edgar was directly related to Edward the Confessor - being his great nephew (Ironside was the Confessor's half brother). In happier times, it might well be assumed that Edgar would have become king. His age was no barrier - there are plenty of cases of predecessors taking the throne at similar or even younger ages. But the mix of political machination and military expediency meant that Harold was always the one who would be acclaimed king of England.

Now this is an important point. In Saxon times, once you were acclaimed that was it - you were King. True there would be a nice coronation and slap up feed to put the icing on the cake at some point later, but the cake was baked on the day you were acclaimed. The Normans did things differently, however. For them it was the act of coronation - the anointing with holy oil by a bishop or three that made you King. And this helps explain what happened after Hastings.

So we fast forward nine months. Harold lies dead on the ridge at Senlac Hill (most probably hacked to pieces by vengeful Norman knights rather than having an arrow stuck in his eyeball - see another blog entry for that particular tale). So what happened next?

From William's perspective, he stayed in the region of the battle for several days, burying his dead and otherwise allowing his exhausted men to recover. But if he had hoped that the country would immediately submit to his authority, he was to be sadly mistaken. Not one notable came to swear fealty. In essence then, all that he had managed to do was to win a battle in the south east corner of the country. Yes, in doing so he had killed the King, two of his brothers and many hundreds, if not thousands of their best warriors, but the country was still resolutely defiant.

London was now the centre of this defiance, for it was here where Edgar was to be found. With Harold and his brothers dead, Edgar was now the most natural candidate for the Saxons to rally behind. And this is what had happened. Edgar was acclaimed king with the support of Archbishop Ealdred of York and the Earls Morcar and Edwin of Northumbria and Mercia respectively (the two most powerful nobles left in England).

By way of temporary segue, it should be noted that this is a great way to start a fight at your local pub quiz should you ever be asked how many kings ruled England in 1066. The traditional answer - according to the history written by the winning Normans - is 3 (Edward, Harold and William) but there is a very fair argument to claim it is 4 by including Edgar. There are charters and documents that show him exercising royal authority e.g. confirming the appointment of an abbot in Peterborough for example. Should you choose to die on this particularly hill, I wish you luck. Don't blame me if you get barred though.

Whilst the Earls had been involved in the two battles against the Viking Harald Hardrada near York back in September, they had not fought at the Battle of Hastings, arriving too late to take part. Much has been made of their personal motivation both before and after the death of Harold, but it is reasonable to suggest that they needed more time to recover from the losses they sustained at Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge and could not really have been expected to make it down to the south coast in time. Had Harold waited in London for another week - as many had advised him to do - perhaps they might have joined their King and - who knows - their forces might have tipped what was, in the event, a very evenly matched fight in favour of the English.

Now, however, they stood by Edgar in London no doubt planning the defence of the realm. But what, in the meantime, was William up to? Having realised that the crown was not going to come to him, he resolved to go get it himself. Gathering his forces, apparently reinforced with new men from across the channel, he marched to the east where Dover was ransacked, despite having surrendered. Canterbury then followed suit and submitted at the Normans approached.

But not so London. At the time, the city was well defended by walls that had existed since Roman times and which had been repaired and improved by King Alfred almost two hundred years earlier. There was also only a single bridge across the Thames which ran from Southwark to the city walls. And it was here that the Saxons stood their ground. The Normans decided to test the defences by sending a detachment of around 500 or so cavalry to attack the bridge, but they were beaten back and had to settle for burning the settlement instead.

William now had a quandary. He risked significant losses if he tried to fight his way across the bridge and he did not have the boats available to ferry his army across the river. He chose the only option that was really available: he struck west, following the river until he came to Wallingford, the first available crossing that was not defended. In fact he was actually invited to cross freely by the Lord of the town who could, perhaps, see which way the wind was blowing.

All along the route, William unleashed his men to pillage and burn. In doing so, he was sending a clear message to Edgar. Resistance comes at a price. Give up now or face the consequences. It was at Wallingford, also, that Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury came to swear fealty to William, a sure sign that things were beginning to fall apart.

After a few days rest, William began his march on London, possibly along the route of the Icknield way. As he continued, so too did the harrying. It was also around now that the two brother Earls floated away back to their lands in the north. Again, it is not known why they chose that course of action - perhaps they could see the writing on the wall, perhaps they were craven, as was claimed by many observers at the time - but either way, it left Edgar with no effective support.

Bowing to the inevitable, Edgar - and those lords and bishops who remained in his camp - then rode the 30 miles north-west from London to Berkhamsted (where William soon built a castle) where he finally bent the knee to the conqueror. Edgar's short reign was over before it had begun. Contrary to what you might think, though, he did not find himself forgotten in some dungeon or put to death to avoid becoming a future focus of rebellion. Rather the young lad was to outlive his nemesis by a good 30-40 years, not dying until the 1120s when he would have been in his 70s.

My Thurkill novels will see the hero's story intertwined with that of Edgar from time to time, including the current work in progress - Thurkill's Rebellion - which is set in the months after the Battle of Hastings.

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.