What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?

As a historical fiction author, getting all the little details right about the era you are writing about can make you break out in a cold sweat. Unless, of course, you happen to be an expert in that era of history and can write all about it with ease. Most of us, however, rely on research to get the details needed to support the story we are trying to tell and make the era come alive.

Little details,  like what the people of the time wore, and, more importantly, what they ate. Why is food so important to a writer? Well, if you think about it, we humans spend quite a lot of time acquiring food, preparing food, and eating food, don’t we? Perhaps “acquiring” doesn’t take so long in our modern era, but in the Dark Ages they didn’t exactly have supermarkets to run to when they ran out of milk.

It’s not to say that your story has to have endless lists of what people are eating, but when you do have your characters sitting down for a meal, you had better know what’s on the menu, right? I suppose you could  avoid writing about eating at all. But doing so takes away from the writer an important setting in which people talk to one another. Having your characters sit down at a meal is a handy way to have them interact.

So, figuring out what they would be eating is important. It gets complicated, though.  First of all, forget the food for a moment. My books are set in Anglo-Saxon 7th century Britain. What about the plates? Utensils? They wouldn’t be dining on fine china and using the family silver, right?

There’s not a whole raft of information out there about the Dark Ages in general and the 7th century in particular, although there is more than you might think. However, little details like this are even more difficult to determine, just because we don’t have a lot of first-hand written information about the customs of the people, especially those of the everyday people.

But for a quick answer, no, more than likely people would not use plates, at least not china ones, but bowls or wooden (or bread) trenchers. Pottery dishes were used, and even glass ones, but those would have been for the upper class, only. Horns from cattle and oxen were also made into drinking vessels, decorated with bands of silver or brass. Utensils would consists of  spoons and knives, but no forks. Those came much later.

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Amazingly, this 7th century glass beaker was found intact (!) by a bulldozer operator in 1977, in Cambridgeshire. Note the narrow, rounded bottom. It was not meant to be set on the table, but held in the hand until the drink was finished. Bottoms up! Image from BBC History of the World.

So, back to the menu. What were the Anglo-Saxons eating, anyway?

Much less meat than we do, for a start, and a whole lot more grains, legumes, vegetables, and fish. Fruits, such as grapes, apples, and pears, were fairly common in Britain at the time, along with various nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts.

There was game to eat, certainly, such as hares (rabbits were imported by the Romans but didn’t get established in the wild until the twelfth century), deer, and the Saxon’s favourite, boars. Poaching (and the related land laws) was not as big a deal at this era as it would become later, so ordinary people could hunt for game. But hunting was not exactly easy, and it required specialized tools (bows, spears, or even falcons), and it came with a certain amount of danger as well as uncertainty.

In other words, if you didn’t have the time or means to hunt, you couldn’t rely on it for a steady source of meat. One alternative, which was much more popular (at least according to archeological digs, where they can see what kind of bones are left behind) was fish and seafood.

This makes sense, seeing as Britain is a relatively small island, with access to both the sea and lakes and rivers. And people made use of the bounty they found there. Fish, oysters, mussels, even porpoises show up in Anglo-Saxon garbage heaps. And don’t forget the lowly eel, which seems to have been very popular as a dish.

Other sources of protein were eggs, and milk. Milk was probably not drank much past childhood, but it certainly was made into cheese and butter. Cows as well as sheep and goats would be a source of milk. Also a source of meat, although it seems, from what archeologists can determine, that pigs were the domesticated animal most often eaten by the regular person. Which makes sense, I suppose. The other animals are useful for other things besides their meat, but what else can you do with a pig? Plus, although all of the domesticated animals then would have been smaller than today’s varieties, pigs can provide a fair amount of meat.

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In 2012, archeologists found the skeleton of a woman who had been buried with a cow in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating from the late 5th century. This is extremely unusual, only 31 animals have ever been found buried in England, all horses buried with men as part of their grave-goods.  A cow is a high-value item due to it’s meat, to bury it with the woman shows the respect others had for her. She also had jewelry and other objects indicating high status. Photo (and interesting article, click on link to read) from BBC.com

Cultivated grains and legumes were of course a large part of the menu. Barley was the most common cereal grain to be grown, but wheat started to make an inroad at this time, and other grains such as rye and oats were also eaten. Bread, using barley, and in the later years, wheat, was baked on hearth-stones, and would have been small, and round. It could be unleavened, or made with wild yeast (captured from the air) or even made using the sourdough method, by which you keep a continual source of fermenting dough on hand.

After the cereal grains, the most important part of the diet would have been pulses such as beans and peas. In fact, it seems likely that each household probably had a pot of briw  simmering over the fire all the time. This was a sort of pottage or stew in which broth, cereal grains, peas or beans, and whatever else was handy was thrown together. If you were lucky the day’s briw might even contain some meat.

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A typical Anglo-Saxon briw. Image (and pottage, with anachronistically orange carrots) by Abigail Young on PictureBritain

The leek was the vegetable of choice for the Anglo-Saxons, which was a catch-all word that covered not only what we think of leeks but also garlic and onion. They also grew cabbage, beets, turnips, and carrots (which were white, not orange). Potatoes were not introduced into Britain until much later, 1586 to be exact). Herbs were grown, too, although it seems that many of the herbs we would use for flavouring they used for medicinal purposes, and not for food.

People did drink water, if they could find a spring or other sources of fresh water. But just like us, they would prefer some kind of flavoured drink such as beer, ale, or cider over plain water. Ale (a type of beer made without hops) was a popular drink, but don’t think that everyone was drunk all the time because they drank a lot of alcohol. The alcohol content in their everyday ale would have been quite low, although I am sure that for special feasts they would make stronger drinks. Wine and mead (a type of honeyed beer) were mainly for the upper class.

Honey was used for a sweetener. Sugar, although being produced in Africa at the time, did not generally make it to Britain’s shores. There is some evidence of sweet treats being made for desserts but these were not on the menu regularly.

On the whole the Anglo-Saxons had a fairly healthy diet, especially in comparison to our own, with its over-indulgences in meat and sugar. Their main problem would have been getting enough to survive and on top of that, giving some to the king as food-rent for the privilege of being his subject (basically…although the king was supposed to provide things like roads and bridges and the upkeep of such, as well keep a secure and prosperous kingdom, etc).  But if the harvest was good and your animals free of disease (or attack by wolves) and the winter not too harsh and the kingdom (and therefore your holding) not in upheaval due to wars or raids, you had a good chance of sitting down to a fairly good meal every day.

Smoked eel, anyone?


Featured image by Mandy Barrow, from PrimaryHomeworkHelp

 

 

Hild of Whitby

There a few women whose stories are known from the Early Middle Ages – although, perhaps more than you think are mentioned in the scant sources of information that we have from this era. Most of those are Queens, but some are not. Hild of Whitby is one such woman, whose remarkable life ensured her story would remain to come down to us today.

Hild (sometimes called Hilda) was born to a Deiran noble family in 614 A.D.. Her father was the nephew of King Edwin, but Hild never knew him, for when she was an infant he was poisoned while they were in exile at the court of the  King of Elmet, now West Yorkshire. Edwin eventually avenged her father’s death by killing the King and annexing his territory, which I assume was not the result the Elmet King had in mind when he committed this murder.

Hild and her older sister (and mother, presumably) became part of the royal household, and was baptized along with the rest of the court when Edwin, influenced by his new wife Aethelburh of Kent, converted to Christianity in 627 A.D.

The curtain closes on Hild until 647 A.D., when she was 33. It’s likely she would have been married, as she was an eligible princess and thus useful for Edwin in making strategic alliances with his various neighbours and/or enemies. We don’t know. What we do know is that in 647 A.D. Hild is single, and heads to East Anglia to join her widowed older sister Hereswith who has become a nun in France (technically Gaul).

She spent a year in East Anglia preparing for the convent, but she never made it there. Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne asks her, instead, to come back to Northumbria. One assumes that Aidan knew her, or at least knew of her reputation of piety and intelligence. After another year, in which Bede says she “lived a monastic life, with few companions”, presumably being trained in the monastic life, Aidan appoints her as Abbess of Hereteu monastery.

Hereteu (now called Hartlepool, further south along the coast from Lindisfarne) had been founded by Heiu, the first Northumbrian woman to become a nun. But Heiu leaves soon after and Aidan fills the vacancy with Hild.

As Bede says,

Hilda, the handmaid of Christ, being set over that monastery, began immediately to order it in all things under a rule of life, according as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan, and others of the religious that knew her, frequently visited her and loved her heartily, and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and love of the service of God.

In other words, she was a smart cookie. After a few years, King Oswy gifted her some land, possibly as part of a vow he made in connection with his victory over Penda,  a little further south from Hartlepool. There Hild established a monastery in 657  A.D.. At the time it was called Streaneshalch, but now is known as Whitby.* Hild was now technically Abbess of both monasteries, but she lived at Streaneshalch.

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A detail from the monument of St. Hilda at Whitby. Note the five bishops peering over her shoulders! Also, she is not standing on waves, but snakes. According to legend she turned snakes into stone, and fossilized ammonites found on the shore at Whitby were proof of this. Image from Wikipedia.

Now if you know anything at all about monasteries, you should be thinking, “Wait. How can a woman become the head over a monastery?”

Ah. Good question! I have mentioned before that there were some differences between the Celtic “brand” of Christianity and that which was brought to the Island with Augustine in 597 AD from Rome when Pope Gregory sent him on a mission to convert the Angles. However, there were some of the native British (Celts) who didn’t need converting, as they had been happily practicing the faith on their own since the Romans left them to their own devices almost two hundred years before. When the Roman church finally caught up to them again, the Celtic church had developed a few inconsistencies from Rome. Not in doctrine, mainly, but in practice.

The big ones in the eyes of Rome seemed to be the tonsure and the dating of Lent, but another significant one was that it was quite common for the Celts to have double monasteries, containing both monks and nuns, living separately but with a common church in the middle at which they worshipped together.

Hartlepool was one such monastery. The fact that Hild was the Abbess over the monastery speaks both to her intelligence and her character, and it also gives us a little glimpse into the role of women in Celtic society.

The idea of double monasteries was not unknown at this time. There were some in Gaul, which was also populated by Celts, and it seems that Hild took her inspiration from both Aidan and the example of the monasteries in Gaul when she established Whitby.

The roles of  women  in Celtic societies were quite different from that of women in Greco-Romano culture. Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote of the Celts, “There is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne or the command of the armies.” The most famous example of that would be Boudicca, Queen of the Celtic tribe known as the Iceni,  who led an uprising against the Romans in Britain in 60 or 61 A.D.

In the pagan religion of the Irish Celts, women could become priests, and I suppose it is this cultural custom that allowed for women to be the head of a double monastery in the Celtic Christian church of the time.

At any rate, Hild did an exemplary job as Abbess, from all accounts. Well, at least from Bede’s account, which is pretty much everything that we know about her. He writes,

She taught [at Whitby] the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common, and none had any private property. [By primitive Church, he is referring to the first Christians in the book of Acts. See Acts 2:42].Her prudence was so great, that not only meaner men in their need, but sometimes even kings and princes, sought and received her counsel; she obliged those who were under her direction to give so much time to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might readily be found there fit for the priesthood and the service of the altar.

One has to keep in mind that Bede, being from the Roman Christian persuasion, does generally not look too fondly on those who followed the Celtic Christian ways. In his mind, they were skirting around the edges of heresy. Therefore it is all the more remarkable when you find him praising a monk or nun (or Abbess, as in this case) who was a Celtic Christian, as he does here.**

He certainly can’t deny her influence, because in the next paragraph he tells us that under her tutelage and example, five men from Whitby became bishops, including the darling of the Roman Christians, Wilfrid, who was another fascinating figure that I will be writing about on the blog some day.

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The dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey. This is the ruins of the 13th century Benedictine Abbey that was built on the same site as Hild’s Abbey. Her monastery would have been in the Celtic style: small wooden, thatched roof buildings that housed one of two monks/nuns each, with a larger church and other buildings such as a guesthouse, school, kitchen, etc. Unfortunately the original monastery was sacked by the Viking invaders in 867 A.D. 

Running a monastery (or two!) required more than just teaching skills, in fact, the bulk of the work would probably be more administrative. She had lands and people to manage as she kept the work of the monasteries going.  The monasteries had land on which they grew crops and raised animals, in order to feed the monks (and the poor who came to them for charity) but also for the production of vellum for the manuscripts they produced.

They would also have craftsmen who would make the liturgical vessels and the ordinary implements used by the monks in their herb gardens, kitchens, and ale or mead making endeavours.

She must have had quite the reputation at the time, for many nobles and kings came to her for advice, and would have also sent their children to her monasteries for schooling under the monks and nuns.

Ultimately it was at Whitby that King Oswy decided to hold his famous meeting with all the nobles and high-ranking churchmen of the day, in which they were going to decide once and for all whether to follow the Celtic or Roman customs of the faith.

That he would hold such an important meeting there shows the respect he had for Hild. He must have valued her advice a great deal.

She also had time for the common people, it seems, though. One of the charming stories Bede relates is that of Caedmon, the first English poet. He cared for the animals at Whitby, and through miraculous means God gave him the words of the first English Christian hymn, and it was through Hild’s encouragement that he developed his gift of song and poetry. A lover of the arts, then!

I am so grateful that Hild’s story survives. It gives us a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary woman living in difficult times, who made a substantial impact on her society.


*Fun fact about Whitby: Bram Stoker was holidaying in Whitby (the town that grew up around the Abbey) when he wandered into the library and discovered a book about Vlad the Impaler, which was his inspiration for Dracula. In the book Dracula (in the form of a large dog) comes to England after a shipwreck and bounds up the 199 steps to St. Mary’s Church, situated below the Abbey (which is on the headland looking out to sea).

**Bede does not call them Celtic Christians, he refers to them as the British, as opposed to the “English”. He is not necessarily defining them on tribal grounds but on religious. It is true that it  was mainly the Celts (the native British) who followed the Celtic Christian path, although, due to the influence of the Irish monks, the Christian Anglian kings of Northumbria practiced their faith in the Celtic style too. In order for clarity I refer to them by the term Celtic Christian rather than British.

Featured image from Wikicommons. She is portrayed in this icon as holding Whitby Abbey.

 

 

Oswald, King of Bernicia

There are so many fascinating people who lived in the 7th century. I have highlighted a couple of them on the blog. And it’s well past time to introduce you to one of the most important figures of the time: Oswald, King of Bernicia. He is relatively unknown now, but for centuries after his death in 642 AD he was famous throughout Europe, venerated as a Saint for his role in establishing the Christian church in England.

Oswald was the oldest son of the Anglian king Æthelfrith, who had a fierce reputation among the native Britons he fought against in his occupation of their ancient lands. They gave him the nick-name Flesaur, which means “twister”, which gives us sense of the perhaps begrudging respect his enemies gave to this most canny of warriors.

Æthelfrith is the first Bernician king of Britain that we really know much about with any accuracy, and that is probably because of his prowess as a warrior and a king.  He defeated Ælla of Deira, sending Ælla’s son Edwin into exile, and became the first king of both Bernicia and Deira (the area we know now as Northumbria). He eventually married Ælla’s daughter Acha, probably to legitimize his hold on the Deiran throne by marrying the former king’s daughter. Æthelfrith was a pagan, like the other Angles and Saxons of the time.

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Bamburgh, the seat of the Bernician kings, was known as Bebbanburg in ancient times. It was called by the Irish, Dún Guaire, but re-named Bebbanburg in honour of Bebba, Æthelfrith’s wife. And yes, he was also married to Acha. Perhaps he married Bebba later in his reign, after Acha died, or it is also possible he was polygamous, which was not unknown at the time among the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings. Photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons

Oswald was born in 604 AD, at the height of his father’s power. He was not the first son and heir, that honour went to his older brother Eanfrith. But when Oswald was twelve, his life as a privileged atheling (prince) of the ruling family came to an abrupt end. In 616 AD, Æthelfrith’s past came back to haunt him in the form of Edwin, who joined forces with Rædwald of Wessex to oust Æthelfrith from the throne, killing him in battle.

For their safety, Oswald and his siblings (there were actually eight of them altogether) fled  north, to the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, out of Edwin’s reach. And from all accounts, Oswald thrived there during the long years of exile. He quickly adapted to the Irish culture and became fluent in the language, and even fought on the side of his hosts. And, importantly, he was taught by the monks at the school at Hii (Iona), and through their influence converted to Christianity.

In 633 AD Edwin was killed by the combined forces of Cadwallon of Wales and Penda of Mercia, and Northumbria was divided into Bernicia and Deira once again. Perhaps because of a previous alliance of some sort with Cadwallon, Eanfrith returned from exile and was crowned king of Bernicia. He was, after all, the heir to the Bernician throne. But if there was an alliance, it quickly fell apart. Cadwallon slew Eanfrith the next year when Eanfrith went to him seeking peace, and Cadwallon took his place as king of Bernicia (Game of Thrones, anyone?).

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Although George R.R. Martin purportedly got his inspiration from The War of the Roses, he could have just as easily looked a few centuries back to Dark Ages Britain! There was a whole lot of throne-swapping, alliances, and treachery going on then, too. Photo credit: Flickr

Enter our hero, Oswald, the next in line to the throne. From the historian Bede’s account, Cadwallon was a vicious, tyrannical ruler – killing, raping, and pillaging the Angles and Saxons in his new kingdom with impunity. We can take this account with a grain of salt, perhaps, but safe to say something dire reached Oswald’s ears about the upheaval in Bernicia, and we can only imagine how he felt about it.

Regardless of how he felt, we do know what he did, which was to gather an army, most likely made of some of the retainers that had accompanied the royal children while in exile, some of his brothers, and  a contingent of Irish warriors, and return to Bernicia to attempt to wrest the throne from Cadwallon and restore his father’s legacy.

And what happens next is remarkable, and has implications that reverberate down to us, today. Bede tells us that,

After the murder of his brother Eanfrith, Oswald arrived with an army small in numbers but protected by their faith in Christ, and he slew the accursed leader of the Britons and all that vast army that he boasted none could resist…

That is the summarized version, but Bede goes on to tell us the details. He writes,

On approaching this battle Oswald set up the sign of the holy cross…it is said when the cross had been quickly made and a hole made ready for it to stand in, Oswald himself, fired by his faith, seized it and placed it in its hole and held it upright with both hands, until the soldiers heaped up the soil and made it fast in the ground. Thereupon he raised his voice and cried aloud to the whole army: “Let us all kneel, and together pray the almighty, everliving and true God to defend us by His mercy from a proud and cruel enemy; for He knows that the war we have engaged in for the deliverance of our people is a just war.” They all did as he had ordered and, advancing thus against the enemy as dawn appeared, won the victory as the reward for their faith. 

Perhaps Oswald was inspired by the story of Constantine, who conquered his enemies under the standard of the Cross. But be that as it may, the prayer and Oswald’s example certainly inspired his army, resulting in the route of Cadwallon’s larger army, the death of the usurper, and the restoration of a son of Æthelfrith to the throne of Bernicia.

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The cross at Heavenfield, commemorating Oswald’s victory over Cadwallon. Photo: David Dixon

But not just any son. A Christian, who had been educated in the Irish north, and who came to faith under the influence of the Celtic Irish monks of Iona. And a man who wanted to bring that faith to his people. One of his first acts as king was to send a message back to Iona, asking them to send someone to begin spreading the Gospel among the Bernicians. Which eventually resulted in the mission of Aidan, who resided at Lindisfarne in the monastery established at that rocky outcrop close to Bamburgh on land granted by Oswald.

Oswald and Aidan began the  work together, Bede tells us, with Oswald travelling along with Aidan in the early days, acting as his translator between the Irish bishop and the Anglian people. This mission was responsible for the conversion of the pagan Bernicians to Christianity, and was the first church-state alliance in England’s history.

Oswald himself became a king to be reckoned with. With perhaps a touch of his father’s wily intelligence, he negotiated and fought his way to becoming king of a once-more united Northumbria, and one of the most powerful kings of England. He is one of the  kings given the honorific, bretwalda, meaning a king holding more than one territory.

Oswald ruled over Northumbria for less than ten years, which although is a short period by our standards, by the standards of the day is actually quite a long reign, given the penchant of the early medieval kings to make war upon another. He brought relative peace and stability to Northumbria, and the beginnings of a Christian society.

Alas, all good things must eventually come to an end, and in August of 642 AD, Penda of Mercia killed Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield, subjecting poor Oswald to the fate of having his body chopped up into parts and displayed in pagan fashion upon spikes as a way of celebrating the victory. Which eventually leads to the daring recovery of his brother’s arm by his younger brother Oswy and the later cult of Oswald’s arm, which is a whole ‘nother story…..

But although an obscure king today, you can still find Oswald hinted at in one of the most famous works of literature in our day. As I explained here, J.R.R. Tolkien was himself a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history, and included in The Lord of the Rings many nods to Anglo-Saxon culture and history. In reading Max Adams’ fascinating book, King of the North: Oswald of Northumbria (recommended reading if you want to know more about Oswald and the times in which he lived), Adams hints that perhaps Tolkien’s character, Aragorn heir of Elisdur, could perhaps have been based on the story of Oswald.

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Aragorn = Oswald?

I think Adams has a solid idea here. Think of it. Aragorn is the exiled son of a king, waiting to take his place on the throne. And when his people are threatened by an evil ruler, he reappears, ready to fight and reclaim the throne. And what about the Battle of Helms Deep, when Aragorn and Gandalf appear at dawn to help route the much larger orc army? Oswald won his great victory at dawn, too!*

Anyhow that’s just a fun example of how the legacy of Oswald still echoes today. I suspect, however, that he would be more gratified that his legacy of faith begun so many years ago with his friend Aidan still continues in the wild northlands of Britain, the ancient home of the Bernician kings.


*For more on the link between Oswald and Aragorn, see this article. And for a fictional take on Oswald, check out Oswald: Return of the King, by Edoardo Albert, the second book in his Northumbrian Thrones series. I reviewed the first book, Edwin: High King of Britain, here on the blog and have Book 2 on my must-read list!

Featured image from The Diocese of Lancaster

 

 

 

Interview: Edoardo Albert

I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing author and historian Edoardo Albert’s book, Edwin: High King of Britain, a couple weeks back. Today I am very pleased to invite him to the blog, for a discussion of books, writing, and…pizza?

Hi Edorado, and welcome to The Traveller’s Path. Let’s start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey as a writer.

My name is Edoardo Albert and, yes, I am a writer. Words are my drug of choice. Those little packets of meaning – squiggles on a page or fleeting movements in the air – that put my mind in yours and yours in mine; that allow me to hear the dead and speak to the future; the everyday miracle that we ignore. It’s a dangerous business, opening up a book and reading the first line – there’s no knowing where you might end up: heaven, hell, a dull Thursday in Croydon or talking to a woman with a fish’s head. Dear reader, beware! You hold in your hands something more dangerous than an unexploded bomb, more skittish than a thoroughbred sea horse, more insidious than the Zika virus. Listen… Can you hear? I’m in your mind now.

Hello…

How did you get interested in writing about this time and place? And in particular, what was it about Edwin that prompted you to write about him? 

Taking the B1340 road north out of Seahouses. That’s what set me off, eventually, writing about 7th-century Northumbria. When you take this road, you see up ahead, squatting on a great upthrust of the Whin Sill where earth and sea and sky meet, this: Bamburgh Castle.

IMG_2465This I later learned to be the ancient seat of the Idings, the kings of Northumbria; the stronghold of the earls of Northumberland, who held off the Viking kingdom of Jorvik when it seemed all England must surely fall to the Norsemen; five thousand years before Christ, hunters sat atop this rock and looked east over what is now sea and saw there the richest hunting ground of Europe: the water meadows and marshes of Doggerland. All gone now, lost beneath the waves, when the Storegga Slide triggered the tsunami that cut Britain from Europe and started the island kingdom’s story. But, then, I knew nothing of this. All I knew was what I saw: the most magnificent castle I had ever seen – and I had never heard of it before.

However, I was in a good position to learn more, since my brother-in-law, Paul Gething, was one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, an ongoing archaeological investigation into the castle and its surroundings. Paul and the BRP were busy revolutionising our understanding of the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria and, to make their work better known, Paul and I jointly wrote a book about the history and archaeology of the realm, called Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom. In writing that book, I learned about the kings of Northumbria and, in particular, the kings of the conversion period, when the pagan Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, and the kingdom reached a zenith of power: Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu. Reading their history, and the extraordinary story arc of their reigns, I thought that someone must surely have written about them before. But no one had. So I decided to. Edwin: High King of Britain was the first volume of The Northumbrian Thrones; Oswald: Return of the King came out in May 2015 and the final volume, Oswiu: King of Kings, I’ve just finished writing and it will be published in the autumn (or fall, for my north American readers).

I love the portrayal of Edwin’s faith journey in your book, as he moved from paganism to Christianity. I noticed in your biography that you yourself have had a bit of a faith journey of your own. How did your own personal experiences help you to write Edwin’s story? 

I don’t think it did help. Admittedly, I’ve been a bit around the houses with respect to faith (born Catholic, turned atheist at six, dabbled in occultism in my teens, experimented with mysticism, turned Sufi Muslim, back to where I started: if you’re interested, I managed to sneak it into my latest book, London: A Spiritual History, under the guise of using my own life as an example of the myriad spiritual histories that make up the arc of the city’s encounter with God), but when it comes to characters, I attempt to enter imaginatively into their worlds and their personalities, not import my own. This is particularly important in historical fiction, where the world the characters inhabit is so very different from my own.

However, I do find this time (7th-century Britain) particularly fascinating because of the clash of worldviews that characterised it, as the pagan, Germanic, illiterate but strongly oral culture of the Anglo-Saxons, the successful invaders, clashed, melded and reformed under the influence of the Christian, Latin (and Celtic), and literate civilisation of Europe and Ireland. There are fascinating parallels to draw with our own day, as well as much that is unique to the time and place.

What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book? And is there anything you left out that you wish you could have included? 

Writing it as well as I could. No, nothing left out that I wanted to include.

You have written non-fiction and fiction. Do you enjoy writing one more than the other? 

Fiction.

Who is your favourite writer? (or writers, I know it can be hard to narrow it down!)

I’ll have to go for writers: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Evelyn Waugh.

Once you have finished this series, do you think you will write more stories about this era? Or do you have something completely different planned? 

I’ll be working on a non-fiction book next, so nothing definite yet. Lots of different ideas – some very different indeed! – but at the moment I’m not sure.

Tell us about what you are working on now.

A couple of book proposals for non-fiction work. I’m just firming up the ideas and then my agent is going to start touting them round to publishers (I have just recently signed up with an agent for my non-fiction work but I still represent myself for my fiction).

And now, just for fun:

If you were going to hire someone to write a soundtrack for your novel, who would that be, and why? 

Catherine Groom. Expert in early music, brilliant composer and teacher, funniest writer on Facebook I’ve ever read, and she’s already written the music we used for the intro to the audio extract from Edwin: High King of Britain that you can hear here on my website.

Who would you cast to play Edwin in a film adaptation of your book?

Russell Crowe. Definitely.

Pizza or burger? 

Pizza (the clue’s in my name!).

Tea or coffee? 

Tea (my father is from Sri Lanka, home of the best tea in the world, and his father worked on the tea plantations there).

Favourite TV series?

I barely ever watch television nowadays. But the best series I’ve ever seen is undoubtedly the production of Brideshead Revisited staring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.

One piece of advice for new writers?

Read. And, if you can, become famous by some other means – this will ensure a publisher’s contract and get your books into stores throughout the land.

Thanks so much to Edoardo, for stopping by the blog today! I am so looking forward to delving into some of his other works – definitely I will be checking out his book on Northumbria. I’m eager to read the other books in his Northumbrian Throne series as well, but I will have to wait until my own are published. Somehow it’s tricky to read about a character you are trying to create in your own mind – too much second-guessing going on. 

I hope you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did! 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Edwin: High King of Britain, by Edoardo Albert

Edoardo Albert is an historian and author, and this book (published in 2014) is the first one of a fiction series titled The Northumbrian Thrones. Other books in the series include Oswald: Return of the King, and Oswiu:King of Kings. Albert has also written other non-fiction history books, notably Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, co-written by one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project (the archeological dig that is ongoing at Bamburgh).

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The author, Edoardo Albert

In other words, this author is right up my alley, and I dug into this book with a great deal of relish. And he didn’t disappoint! Edwin: High King of Britain is a fascinating glimpse at this ancient king, written in an easily accessible and at times lyrical fashion, introducing us to a complex and interesting man and the times in which he lived.

Edwin’s reign fell a few decades before the events in my own trilogy. He was born in 616 AD and died in battle in 633 AD. He is an important king in Northumbria for many reasons, not the least of which being that he is the first Christian king of Northumbria. I will touch on this later.

The book begins with Edwin in exile. He was the son of Ælle, King of Deira (the southern part of Northumbria), and when Ælle dies, Æthelfrith, Edwin’s brother-in-law and King of Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) takes over as King of Deira as well, being the first to unite the two kingdoms into Northumbria as a whole. Naturally Edwin is a threat to his claim on Deira’s throne, and so Edwin has been fleeing for his life, finding refuge at various places and finally ending up at the court of Rædwald, king of the East Angles, south of Deira. But as the book opens word comes to Edwin that Æthelfrith, known by the nickname the Twister, has convinced Rædwald to kill Edwin in exchange for treasure and almost as importantly, an alliance with the powerful Æthelfrith.

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I love the cover art of the book. This stylized boar is done in the fashion of images typical of Anglo-Saxon art of the times. 

Albert pulls us into Edwin’s world right away. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is trying to drop readers into the setting and give enough of the backstory so that they can begin to have a sense of the world without being overwhelmed by dry facts and information. I like the way Albert handled this, it didn’t feel forced in an info-dump kind of way, and it got me immediately immersed into Edwin, his world, and the dilemmas he faced.

And there are plenty of dilemmas. Edwin is concerned not only for his own life, but also the lives of his sons, who as his heirs are in danger from Æthelfrith’s sword as well. He seeks a way to gain back the Deiran throne, and to remove the threat Æthelfrith poses. And once he succeeds and gains the title of High King of Northumbria himself, there is the challenge of keeping his throne safe from the threats of those who would claim it.

Edwin’s first wife, the mother of his sons, has long since died, and in appropriate kingly fashion he seeks an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Kent by marrying Æthelburh, sister of the King. And this introduces another challenge to Edwin – the introduction of Christianity into his kingdom, for Kent is a Christian kingdom, and his new bride a follower of Christ.

Accompanying Æthelburh on her journey north to her new home is Paulinus, a priest of the Roman Church and James, a deacon. They are determined to begin a missionary work among the pagan Northumbrians, starting with the King, for they know that if the King embraces Christ his people will likely follow.

This journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian is the heart of Albert’s book, I feel. Edwin understands the import of his decision, and he wavers for some time as he wrestles not only with his understanding of the new faith but the implications of casting aside the old gods. The story of Edwin’s conversion is chronicled in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and Albert dramatizes Bede’s account well. I enjoyed the way Edwin’s pagan priest, Coffi, was portrayed here. His disillusionment at the silence of his gods which led to his embrace of Christ fleshed out Bede’s story in a satisfactory way.

It is easy to look back at stories such as Bede’s in a cynical way. How much of what he said was truth, and how much was propaganda? When the King converts and his men convert with him, how much of that was real faith and how much political opportunism? By making Edwin, his wife and counsellors come alive in this story, Albert gives us a plausible and realistic picture of this most important moment of British history – when the Northumbrian kingdom began it’s first steps as a Christian one. I get tired of books that portray the introduction of Christianity as something negative, bringing  repression and disaster to a previously wonderful pagan world. Of course with change comes both the positive and negative, and I’m not interested in whitewashing history either. But surely the people that set aside their pagan faith did so for many reasons, and we can’t discount that for many, an important reason was their appreciation of that new faith itself and its message of love, grace, and forgiveness.

Albert is a good writer, and there is some lovely prose in this book, especially in some of the scenes where the experience of faith is brought alive, like this  account of Edwin’s baptism:

There, beneath the water, he had felt as if he were suddenly able to breathe again; as if a tight metal band that had been slowly constricting his chest as he grew older, tightening so slowly that he never even realized it was there, had been released. He had been a slave and he had never even known it. 

Besides this journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian, the other thing I really enjoyed in this book was the portrayal of Penda, introduced here as a warlord to King Cearl of Mercia. The early life of Penda is somewhat murky in historical accounts, and so I enjoyed this presentation of Penda’s life which gives a satisfying background to this most important King of 7th century Britain, a wily and powerful man  who is a worthy adversary to the Northumbrian kings.

If you are at all interested in a a well-written, entertaining and exciting history of an important king of Britain, Edwin: High King of Britain, will definitely satisfy.

 

 

Bamburgh: Seat of Kings

Last year on the blog I  highlighted one of the major settings for my novel, that being Lindisfarne, and I thought it was time to  give you a glimpse at another one.

Bamburgh (pronounced bam-brah, not bam-burg) is located on the north-east coast of Britain, about a half-hour drive south of Lindisfarne, and in fact you can see Holy Island from the upthrust rock formation which mirrors the one at Lindisfarne, and upon which Bamburgh Castle sits. In between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh there are some spectacular beaches and coastline!

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Can you find Bamburgh there, on the upper right? That little axe-shaped island to the north is Lindisfarne.

Bamburgh was originally called Din Guardi, and was the seat of the British kings of Byrneich, from which the latter-day Bernicians drew their name. The invading Angles, led by Ida, conquered the kingdom in 547 AD. His grandson Æthelfrith renamed the fortress Bebbanburgh, after his wife Bebba, and eventually that name morphed into the present-day name of Bamburgh.

Bebbanburgh in the 7th century in some ways would have looked very different than it does now, and in others it is exactly the same. The landscape hasn’t changed, featuring the rocky dolerite outcropping which commands the magnificent view of the country all around it, the churning North Sea lapping at the sweeping beaches below the outcrop, the sandy dunes that line the beach.  The major difference, of course, would be the castle. Present-day Bamburgh has a castle on top of the rocky promontory that is the major feature of the area. The core of this castle was built during Norman times and expanded throughout the following centuries to become the fortress you see today.

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A good look at the rocky outcrop that Bamburgh sits upon. Photo by Glen Bowman, on WikiCommons

 

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Some of that spectacular coastline and beach around Bamburgh. Photo on WikiCommons.

But in the 7th century the building on top of the outcrop would have been an Anglo-Saxon hall, the seat of the king. We can have a good idea of what that hall would have looked like, as it would have been the typical “mead hall” of Anglo-Saxon literature such as Beowulf.

These structures were long, narrow buildings built of wood, with thatched roofs (or wood), two doors (one on either end) and perhaps some shuttered windows. The interior would have been dark, and smoky, with the hearth fire in the middle and perhaps a couple smaller fires inside. There were no chimneys, the smoke would filter out through the thatching, cough cough! There might have been a raised platform at one end, where the king and his family and retainers would sit separately from the rest, which might also included the king’s throne. There also might have been a separate room in the hall used as the king’s residence. You  note all the “mights” in my description – unfortunately since these halls were made of wood, not much archeological evidence survives to give historians really clear pictures of what they were like. But there are some hints in Beowulf and other places that give us a bit of an idea.

Bamburgh Castle today has a replica of an Anglo-Saxon stone chair, based on a 9th century carved stone fragment found on the grounds in the 19th century. This “chair” could be a throne, of a “gift-stool” where the king would sit to be presented with tribute, and it features the typical Anglo-Saxon design work of the times.

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Bamburgh’s stone chair. Thanks to author Matthew Harffy, who graciously shared his pictures of his trip to Bamburgh with me, including this one! 

Long benches lined the walls of the hall, where the king’s thegns and retainers would feast and drink, and even sleep at times!  Ale would be plentiful, and the more high-class mead (honeyed wine). It was a gathering place for the king and his people where battles and strategy would be discussed, victories would be celebrated, and tribute would be both given to the king and shared by him.

There is some discussion in historical circles about the presence or absence of a town or village at Bamburgh during Anglo Saxon times.  In my books I have placed a village there, at the foot of the outcrop, because Bede mentions the “town” being threatened by fire during an attack against it by Penda in 651 AD, saved by miraculous intervention by Aidan. So I feel justified in my imaginary village!

After the Viking invasions the Northumbrian kingdom was destroyed in 867 AD, but the Northumbrian kings still held this fortress as sub-rulers under them, until 993 AD, when the Vikings destroyed it, exactly 200 years after their first invasion at Lindisfarne.

All in all Bamburgh is a fascinating place, with a long and important history. I will definitely be visiting here the next time I go to Britain!


 

Feature photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons

 

 

The Not-So-Dark Ages

I’ve been wanting to clarify something for some time. I use the term “Dark Ages” to describe the era in which my historical fantasy trilogy is set, as it gives me a short-hand way of identifying the setting. It’s perhaps a little more understandable than “7th century Northumbria”….but perhaps not.

The problem lies with the term, “Dark Ages”, that period from the 5th to the 10th century, between the fall of Rome and the rise of medieval Europe.* For most people this conjures up a certain picture of a time when Rome’s mighty grip loosened as the Empire gradually collapsed, when there was lots of wars, when people scrabbled for existence in the dirt, when all the knowledge gained during the classical and Roman eras was wiped out, when education was non-existent and when people’s lives were described perhaps the best by Thomas Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.*

To be fair, I must confess this was close to how I thought of the Dark Ages as well when I started research for my book. However, the more I researched, the more I came to understand that life in the so-called Dark Ages wasn’t quite exactly as I had imagined it. I’ll give you some idea of what I mean, using Northumbria in the 7th century as an example, as that is the place I am most familiar with.

Wars – well, yes, there were violent skirmishes and conflicts, starting with the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon tribes after Rome’s armies pulled out (although technically they were first invited in, as a sort of mercenary army to keep the native Britons under control after the legions left) which resulted in wars between them and the native Britons (both the Romano-Britons that were left behind and the British tribes), innumerable cattle-thieving and skirmishes between the Celtic tribes as well as outright war between themselves and against the Picts. And the Anglic and Saxon kings (Angles in the north of Britain, Saxon in the south) fought against each other, to be sure, but really, these kings were just as much farmers as they were warriors. Yes, they would go on yearly rounds of their kingdoms exacting tribute from their people (early form of taxation!) and they could only hang on to their thrones through showing their prowess at warfare, which enabled them to lavish booty upon their thegns and eorldomen, but most of the time they were making sure the crops were planted, the roads kept safe, the bridges maintained, and that the kingdom was in order. The coerls would do most of the work, granted, but the kings had to spend a fair amount of time doing these mundane jobs too.

Helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century. Not the greatest picture, but this is a special one for me because it's one I actually took. Yes, I saw it in person at the British museum. Wow.

Warrior’s helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, early 7th century. Possibly belonging to Ræwald, King of East Anglia.Not the greatest picture, but this is a special one for me because it’s one I actually took. Yes, I saw it in person at the British museum. Wow.

2. Education – it would be wrong to think that the people of this era had no opportunities for education. In fact, Britain’s first schools were established during this period, at the monasteries. They were developed in order to train priests for the work of the church, but girls who were destined to be nuns and other children of some of the higher class families would have had opportunity to attend as well, and in some cases along with their parents. And you will probably be surprised at what was taught at these schools. The first order of business was to teach Latin, as the church liturgy was mainly in this language, but as the students gained competence in it, other subjects were added. Some of the poets of late Antiquity as well as some of the classical poets like Virgil were studied, and these works formed the basis of the trivium – grammar, rhetoric (the art of effective and persuasive speaking and writing), and dialectic (a method of examining and discussing opposing ideas in order to find the truth). Some scientific subjects, the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony/musical theory) were also studied. And don’t be fooled into thinking that what they were learning in the area of the sciences was wrong. For example, Bede was well aware that the earth was round, that the length of the solar year was not a whole number of days (in other words, not exactly 365 days every year, hence why we have a Leap Year, in order to catch up), and that one could predict things like eclipses, comets, solstices, and equinoxes. Could everyone read and write? No, which has been true for almost every era until our modern times (not even true everywhere around the world today). Did everyone have access to education? No, the schools were pretty sparsely populated, but they were there, and those that attended actually got a pretty good education, if you could make it through the floggings for not doing your work. Heh.

3. Arts and culture – any idea that the people of this era had no appreciation for, nor the skills to make, beautiful things is pretty easily dismissed. Just have a look at these:

Sword hilt fitting, from the Staffordshire Hoard, gold and garnet.

Sword hilt fitting, from the Staffordshire Hoard, gold and garnet.

Purse lid, from the Sutton Hoo treasure. Gold and garnet. Photo: KotomiCreations, on Flickr

Purse lid, from the Sutton Hoo treasure. Gold and garnet. Photo: KotomiCreations, on Flickr

The Battersea Shield, a Celtic shield that dates from 350 AD, so a little earlier than the Dark Ages era, but you get the point. It wasn't only the Saxons who made beautiful things! This was fished out of the Thames in

The Battersea Shield (bronze and enamel, a Celtic shield that dates from the early first century, so not exactly Dark Ages era, but you get the point. It wasn’t only the Saxons who made beautiful things! This was fished out of the Thames in 1857.

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew's Gospel.

The beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels, from approx. 760 AD. A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

4. Short, brutish lives – there is an idea that people during the Dark Ages pretty much died when they reached 40 years old or so. This is not technically true. It is true that the average life expectancy was around 35, but the key word there is average. The number is skewed lower than ours because of the very high rate of infant mortality – between one-third to one-half of children died as infants. But if you survived those first perilous years, you actually had a pretty good chance of leading a fairly long life, as long as you weren’t a warrior, which of course tended to cut your years short. There was medical knowledge available to deal with injuries and sickness, but of course some of that was a bit hit and miss. Infections were a huge problem after an injury, even a non-fatal wound would often end up killing the person. However, there is forensic evidence from skeletons of set bones and some crude but effective surgery being performed. It’s hard to believe, but there is even evidence that a form of brain surgery, called trepanning, was practiced. This involved drilling a hole into the skull and exposing the dura mater of the brain, to relieve pressure from swelling, release pooled blood, or clear our bone fragments after a skull fracture. Even more surprising is that the evidence from the skeletons shows that many survived this procedure.

I could go on about this, but I hope you get the point. This era was not a Black Hole into which all civility, culture, and learning fell, only to emerge again during the 11th century.

It was actually a really interesting time to write about, I hope that once my book is published (thinking positive here!) you will enjoy reading about it too!

If you want more information on this, check out this link (warning, the language is a little “salty” at times but they’ve done their research well): 5 Myths You Probably Believe About the Dark Ages


*And to be clear, this term Dark Ages really only refers to European history. The Arab world would see this time as one of their greatest eras.

** Hobbes actually wasn’t talking about life in the Dark Ages here. This is his idea of what life would be like without any political community or government.