Power in Medieval Gwynedd

I have just finished working my way through three books on medieval Wales, two of them about Gwynedd. The most general is Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales by Oliver Davies (University of Wales Press 1996). Essentially, if I understand him correctly, he links early medieval Christianity in Wales to the bardic traditions and even to the earlier Druidic practices.

Davies uses some of the early lives of the saints, among other sources, and I was particularly interested in his view of the life of Saint Beuno (who figures in Death in Elmet, the first book in my Kith and Kin Trilogy, available on Kindle). Beuno cursed to kill but also restored life to more than one person who was beheaded, including Gwenfrewy (Saint Winifred), a story that I incorporate into book two of my trilogy, Bloodprice. (Not yet available, but coming to Kindle early in the New Year.) Davies points out that the severed head tropes figure in pre-Christian Celtic beliefs.

Stone heads from Entremont. Source: Wikipedia

I have also just finished reading David Stephenson’s Political Power in Medieval Gwynedd (University of Wales Press). this was first published in 1984, but I got hold of the second edition from 2014. This is a dense and closely argued text and benefits from reading in conjunction with the essays in The Welsh King and his Court. (Thomas Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owen and Paul Russell, eds, University of Wales Press, 2000). Stephenson has combed through a huge range of medieval documents from both sides of the border to put together a picture of which royal servant was doing what in the last century before Wales succumbed to English/Norman conquest.

There is a wealth of biographical material here on numerous royal servants, but it all relates to a period more than 500 years after the setting for my books. I can, of course, use some of it as a bit of a guide as I research book three of my trilogy, but that is hardly best practice for an historian!

The third volume that I have just finished is Kate Waddington’s The Settlements of Northwest Wales. (University of Wales Press – again!- 2013). In contrast to the Stephenson, this is a bit early, going back to the Bronze Age, but it is an excellent reference for the hill forts and other early settlements in the area. Good to have all that information in one place, rather than looking places up one by one. Lots of nice little maps, too.

So all in all, do these help with my research for book three of the trilogy? Well yes, possibly the Davies most of all. My bard, Tegfan, is going to put some Christian tropes into his music for book three of my Kith and Kin Trilogy.

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Book 1 Published

Book 1 of the Kith and Kin Trilogy is now available to download from Amazon Kindle. It seems to be easier to find under the title:

Death in Elmet

than under my name

Sally Wilde

Kindle’s guide to self-publishing was straight forward to follow, although I missed the point that the cover had to be a tif or jpg file. Dominique originally sent it as a png file. Ho hum. Anyway, she sorted that in her normal efficient style – go Dominique.

All I am now waiting for is the book description (which I uploaded) to appear with the cover etc on the Kindle site. Soon, I hope!

Dominique Falla’s cover for Book 1 of the Kith and Kin trilogy

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Wales vs Scotland and the Games of Thrones

I have just returned home from a holiday in Europe which, among other things, included a few days in Scotland. The theme of the holiday was touring by train and, quite by accident, we began the Scottish phase of the journey with a night in Edinburgh in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival: pipers in kilts; milling hordes of visitors; and shops selling cashmere (half price if not made in Scotland), tweed, tartan and whiskey.

We went on by train to Inverness (more cashmere and tartan), the Kyle of Lochalsh, Skye (by road) and Fort William, before taking the Caledonian Sleeper to London.

It was a lovely trip. The local trains were especially good, the scenery was marvellous, even in the rain, the opera was fabulous (Don Giovanni in Edinburgh) and we ate in a couple of Michelin star-worthy restaurants. What’s not to like? Well…

I kept finding myself comparing all the tourist stuff to Wales and especially, I found myself comparing the high street book shop/gift shop history offerings to Wales.

When I travel to Britain, I collect books on history, the kind that are not available on the internet: local history; out of print dusty old tomes; obscure local journals; guide books to abbeys and castles etc. Whenever I visit Wales, the offerings seem to be thin. Indeed, in many a Welsh book shop it is impossible to find any books on Welsh history at all. But Scotland? Well, the tourist shops were full of them. Books on the clans; books on the highland clearances; books on Bonnie Prince Charlie…

So why, I ask myself, is there this imbalance?

I think that part of the problem is the way that Welsh history is often written. In particular, the standard trope of medieval political history seems to be a narrative of failure. As A.G. Little put it in his collected lectures on Medieval Wales, Wales failed to become a state.

Gruffudd ap Llewelyn notwithstanding, there never was a true kingdom of all Wales, but a series of small, warring kingdoms/principalities. (On Gruffudd see: Michael and Sean Davies, The Last King of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn c. 1013-1063; and for a fictional account: K.R. Hebdige, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, Son of Destiny, King of Wales.)

Partible inheritance between all acknowledged sons, whether ‘legitimate’ or not, ensured a depressingly long series of fratricidal conflicts. Rulers of Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth all fought each other and they showed no particular tendency to unite against the West Saxons or Mercians or their successors, the Norman marcher barons.

But why is this not interesting? Why is this not exciting fodder for film and fable? Let’s face it, in real life, the kings and princes of Wales got up to all manner of devious and bloody behaviour worthy of any episode of Game of Thrones.

May favourite pick for the first block-buster movie about a medieval Welsh hero would be Princess Nest, married to a Norman and abducted by a Welshman. Kari Maund has written a biography of her. (Kari Maund, Princess Nest of Wales, Seductress of the English.) If I remember correctly, she was Gerald of Wales’ grandmother. Now there’s another story worthy of a film.

Anyway, just grumbling. No offence meant to the Scots!

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Death in Elmet

Well, the trilogy (Kith and Kin) about the life and loves of Godgifu of Deira is moving along. Book 1 (Death in Elmet) has been finished for some time, but I was waiting until I had completed Book 2 before putting Book 1 up on Kindle. That is all now about to happen. Death in Elmet should be available on Kindle by the beginning of August and the sequel (title yet to be decided) will follow by the end of the year.

Dominique Falla’s cover for Book 1 of the Kith and Kin trilogy

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Geographical perspectives

I am in the middle of reading a biography of Oswald of Northumbria (otherwise known as St Oswald or Oswald Whiteblade): Max Adams, The King in the North, The life and times of Oswald of Northumbria, (Head of Zeus, 2013).

This has made me very much aware of the extent to which my perspective on Britain is limited by the places that I have lived. I was born in Kent and then spent time in South Wales, Sussex, Nottinghamshire and the Bedfordshire/Buckinghamshire borders, always on farms, before spending my secondary school years in Hertfordshire. Since then, I have lived in Sussex and Nottinghamshire (again) and my brother now lives very near where we went to secondary school, so that when I visit from Australia, I go to Hertfordshire (again).

Cholesbury Camp: view along one of the ditches

Throughout my childhood, as we moved from place to place, the constant homing point was my grandparents (and uncle and aunt and cousins) in South Wales, site of many family gatherings, especially at Christmas and during summer holidays. My cousins were learning Welsh, which I envied then and still envy now.

I realise that as I am writing these novels set in seventh-century Britain, I am forever steering the action towards these scenes of my childhood, landscapes that are more than loved; landscapes that are part of my mental framework.

The other book that is at the front of my mind at the moment is George Rebanks’ glorious memoir: The Shepherd’s Life, A Tale of the Lake District (Penguin, 2015). It is the work of a grounded man, someone with a lifetime relationship with a single area.

Envy strikes again, in a way. Well, perhaps not envy, but wistful ‘if only’s. In my peripatetic childhood, there were many fields and hedgerows and coppices; many farmyards and barns; memories of haymaking and blackberrying and collecting mushrooms with my father as he brought in the cows for morning milking. But there is no one place to which I belong. We were never anywhere long enough.

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More thoughts on Britons and Angles and Saxons in the 6th century

Two pieces of work have helped move my thoughts along on this. The first is Caitlin Green’s Oxford DPhil (2011) on Anglian/British interactions in the Lincoln region. (Find it under Thomas Green). Her 2012 book is called Britons and Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire AD 400-650. The second is Susan Oosthuizen’s work on the Cambridgeshire Fens. Her book is called The Anglo-Saxon Fenlands, but it seems to be a bit hard to get hold of. However, out there in internet land are various articles/summaries of her conclusions.

Both authors add to the picture drawn for the Chilterns in providing evidence of continuity of land use from post-Roman Britain through the sixth century. Indeed, Green goes so far as to suggest that Anglian elites more or less simply took over the British kingdom based around Lincoln.

The Chilterns: Tring Gap, looking north east from the Icknield Way

I am reminded of my own work – back in the dim and distant past of the 1970s – on the sixteenth-century demographic impact of the Spanish conquest on the indigenous inhabitants of the Andes. Despite catastrophic decline in the population, the imposition of overtly exploitative colonial elites, Christianity and forced labour, there was continuity in a surprising number of pre-conquest characteristics. In particular, social institutions for the collection of tribute, tribal identities and elites and traditional methods of land use survived, especially in poorer areas, for many decades. And, of course, demographic collapse notwithstanding, it was indigenous peoples who continued to work the land.

Conquistadores were not, as a whole, interested in a life of manual labour. This was what many had left behind in Spain. They wanted to live like lords. And the women? Some did come out from Spain, of course, especially after the initial phase of conquest. But many conquistadores took indigenous women to their beds and the higher the woman’s status the better. The daughters and widows of chiefs – or even better – members of the Inca ruling families – offered the kind of noble pedigrees that the earliest waves of conquerors pretty much universally lacked.

Did something of the kind happen in Wessex in the sixth century, where British-sounding names crop up among the king lists? Or was this the result of the rather different process of intermarriage between the ruling families of neighbouring kingdoms, British and Saxon?


There is another, but perhaps not entirely convincing, work that has recently contributed to changes in my own views on what seventh-century Britain may have been like. Andrew Breeze has joined the ranks of those arguing that Arthur was a real person and not just a legend and he goes on to argue that Arthur was a king or war leader of Strathclyde. Breeze maintains that all the battles attributed to Arthur, except Mount Badon, took place in southern Scotland or Northumbria and that the victor of Mount Badon was Ambrosius Aurelianus. (The historical Arthur and sixth-century Scotland, Northern History, September 2015)

So if true (and this is a controversial proposition), this requires another major shift in perception. Not that Arthur was a man of the north. This is not a new idea, but that he was a Briton fighting Britons from the adjacent kingdoms of Rheged and Gododdin, rather than Angles (let alone Saxons.)

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History, Anglo-Saxon Settlement, Ethnogenesis, Landscape, Seventh-century agriculture | 4 Comments

The Chilternsaete, Angles, Saxons and Britons

An ancient British kingdom in the Chilterns? Well, maybe.

I have just finished reading Rutherford-Davis’ 1982 study entitled Britons and Saxons, The Chiltern Region 400-700 (Phillimore and Co Ltd, Sussex).

I am not in a position to pass judgment on the place-name evidence that he uses, but the archaeology is clearly somewhat dated now. However… I am inclined to go along, at least provisionally, with his main conclusion, which is that there was a British kingdom in the Chilterns (rather like Elmet further north) that survived independent of Saxon control until about 571.

We have such a specific date because of an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year which states that Cuthwulf fought the Britons and defeated them at Biedcanford and captured the four tuns of Limbury, Aylesbury, Bensington and Eynsham. Rutherford-Davis wants Biedcanford to be Bedford; others disagree. Whatever. But there seems to be no doubt about the identity of the other four places, all along the vale below the western edge of the chiltern escarpment.

According to Rutherford-Davis, the British Chiltern kingdom was called Calchvynedd – a place of limestone/chalk hills. Others have located this ancient British name in the north-west somewhere, presumably on the grounds that most of our surviving ancient British literature locates events in the north and west.

But why is it so hard to believe that British elites might have continued to rule for some time in the Chilterns? Geography alone would make it highly improbable that invading Angle and Saxon elites took control of the countryside via a straight line north /south frontier moving steadily west. Just to state this makes the idea seem risible.

There used to be a view that the invaders marched into the area of the Chilterns and on to the Thames valley from East Anglia along the Icknield Way. But hang on a minute. East Anglia, the East Angles. People identified as Angles settled what is now Norfolk and Suffolk, whereas the people ruling along the upper Thames were called the Gewisse in the 7th century, and subsequently the area came to be called Wessex, the land of the West Saxons. Not Angles. Saxons.

So how different were they? We tend to conflate the two groups, but is this justified? The ancient Britons and Scots emphasised the Saxons/ Saesnegs. But the church in Rome emphasised the Angles and Bede took this up in his history of the English church. But Bede himself says that they had different homelands in NW Europe. How different were their dialects? Could they understand each other. And Bede, of course, was based in an area settled by Angles, not Saxons.

If there was a kingdom of the Calchvynedd/ Chilterns up to 571, it was not surrounded by either Angles or Saxons as rulers of neighbouring areas, but by both and, indeed, possibly Jutes, and they were not united against the Britons but fighting each other. Mercia (Angles) and Essex and Wessex, never mind Kent, were at each other’s throats on and off for rather a long time until the arrival of Vikings/Danes provided a common enemy. Further, the British/Welsh in the west were not universally the enemy and on the contrary the kingdom of Gwynedd was famously in alliance with Mercia in the 630s in battles against the Anglian elites north of the Humber.

Is the problem that my (our?) mindset has been too heavily influenced by the Arthurian paradigm, that the 5th and 6th centuries were all about a battle between Britons and Saxons? (and the more historically credible narrative from Gildas that has a similar paradigm, plus sin and religion). By the time we have some more concrete information (almost entirely written down by men in holy orders) the picture is clearly far more complex. There were many kingdoms, with leadership of multiple ethnicities, and they pretty much all fought each other at one time or another.

So why not a kingdom of Calchvynedd in the Chilterns until 571? The idea has changed my mind, because it adds plausibility to the view that the British population were there all the time, farming, getting on with life, and makes the alternate idea of ‘ethnic cleansing’ less likely.

I think the basic problem in all of this is that all of our historical (as opposed to archaeological) sources are blind to the women. Were there any, whether Angles, Saxons, or Jutes (to use Bede’s well-worn triumvirate of peoples)? We just don’t know. We have to guess. Fertile ground for fiction.


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The Fen Causeway

Part of the Fen causeway near Whittlesey. Photo Julian Dowse, Wikimedia commons.

I am currently considering the problem of the route taken by Penda of Mercia when he killed the kings of the East Angles in about 635.

So far as I can tell, the Icknield Way was well defended by a series of dykes and indeed, it is possible that at least some of the dykes were built to keep Penda out. Devil’s Dyke alone would have been a formidable obstacle, never mind the problems presented by Fleam Dyke and the others. The series of dykes are banks and ditches, the ditches on the west of the banks, running from the fens across the Icknield Way to the dense forest to the south east.

Of course, Penda might have travelled by sea and the shortest route from the heartland of Mercia would have been north up the Trent to the Humber and then out to sea to the east.

However, I am also speculating about the Fen Causeway. This was built by the Romans and ran from Ermine Street near what is now Peterborough east across the fens to Denver in Norfolk. The course is somewhat obscure, and seems to have been winding in places, following ‘roddons’, or the banks of old waterways, and possibly also adopting stretches of older causeway. Where it still exists, it seems to have been constructed of gravel to form the familiar wide Roman road bed. But I doubt that Penda was able to march his war band straight into the heart of East Anglia, because of the problem of bridges.

Whatever its route, the Fen Causeway must have run across a series of islands with open water in many places. It has been argued that the Romans built timber bridges in this area and they would certainly have struggled to find much stone for building in the fens. (M.C. Bishop, The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain, 2014). So would any timber bridges have survived for 200 years? Waterlogged piles, certainly, but the whole structure? And significant causeways?

My guess is that most bridges would have been in a state of decay and that Penda would have faced a fair bit of building work and/or getting wet. Horses swim quite well – better than armed men on the whole – and they may well have had carts that floated. But the logistics of getting hold of enough boats would have been a challenge.

I am reminded of the story of Hereward the Wake, resisting the Normans from the Isle of Ely in the 1070s. The Normans built a causeway, which sank under the combined weight of their horses and armour…


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Hunting Italian Uncial

I have reached the point where I am preparing book 1 of my trilogy (Kith and Kin) for publication on Kindle. (Book 1 is called Death in Elmet, A Medieval Murder Mystery) As a part of this, I have been working with my daughter on the design of the cover. The daughter in question is Dr Dominique Falla, and her principal academic field is typography. She has also designed a large number of book covers in her time, especially for Penguin books, so ideally qualified for the task!

Spurred on by Dominique, I have spent the last week or so trying to track down actual examples of the kind of hand writing that would have been in use in Mercia/Elmet/Deira in the 630s by any of the very, very few able to write. This turned out to be quite challenging.

Finding images of the Lindisfarne Gospels was easy enough but they have two drawbacks from the perspective of designing the cover of a book set in 633. Firstly, they are three quarters of a century too late and secondly they are written in insular half-uncials. This is a distinctive and very beautiful script developed in Ireland. Unfortunately, there was virtually no Irish influence on the church in Elmet/Deira by 633.

Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library

So, what about Welsh/Brythonic scripts? Well, I have not been able to find a single example. Not one. If anybody out there knows of any surviving manuscripts from seventh-century Wales, I would be delighted to hear from you. There are inscriptions on stone, of course, but I am not sure that is the look I want.

So what about the hand used by the various people who came over with Augustine from 597 onwards? More relevant, I feel, given that this was the group whose direct disciples went on to become missionaries to Edwin’s court, the Roman influence so strongly advocated by Bede, among others, despite his admiration for King Oswald.

This idea sent me off in search for images of the Gospels of St Augustine, an initially disappointing search. I could not find anything at all on line – plenty of images of the illustrations, but not of the text. Ho hum. But then, Eureka!

Last Wednesday I happened to be in an independent bookshop in Maleny in country Queensland and there I spied a marvellous book. The author is Christopher de Hamel and since 2000 he has been curator in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and one of the prized possessions of the Parker Library is …. yes, The Gospels of St Augustine.

Hamel’s book is called Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane 2016) and chapter 1 is a delicious essay on the St Augustine Gospels. It includes beautiful illustrations of the text as well as the pictures. But that was not the end to my delight. Other essays in this wonderful volume cover the Book of Kells, Carmina Burana, the Hengwrt Chaucer and the Spinola Hours. For page after page I have been finding out all manner of fascinating and thought-provoking new things, never mind the glorious illustrations.

The moral of this tale, I think, is don’t give up on book shops just yet guys! Every now and then they can still come up trumps with something you would never think to search for on Amazon.


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More Thoughts on Social Identity in Early Modern Britain

Overall, this is a very useful volume but as I continued reading, my enthusiasm did wane somewhat. I am not sure that the debate about identity was moved along very much, but what did emerge was the idea of individual economic self interest. This was especially true of Julia Crick’s chapter on ‘Posthumous Obligation and Family Identity,’ and Nerys Thomas Patterson’s chapter on ‘Self-worth and Property: Equipage and Early Modern Personhood.’

In some ways, this essay is the most original in the entire volume. Patterson sets out to seek ‘the elusive interior world of the early medieval self’ (p.54) through Irish and Welsh law texts. She does not get far, but it is definitely a beginning. Like a number of the essays, she bounces her ideas off concepts developed by Norbert Elias. I particularly enjoyed the way that she contrasted modern ‘coyness’ about the economic implications of marriage, death and inheritance with the explicit economic provisions in medieval Welsh law texts. We have been taught, at least since the nineteenth century, to regard overt economic calculation in these matters as the mark of a ‘baddy’ (a trope that Jane Austin plays with to such delightful effect in all her novels and that is at the core, for instance, of the TV series Dr Thorne, recently repeated on ABC TV in Australia.) But, according to Patterson, there was no such construction of economic calculation in early medieval Wales. Women, apparently, openly bargained with and sold their virginity, for instance. The very idea deeply offends our current sensibility! So, delightful, thought-provoking stuff.

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