East Anglia in Spring

I am currently visiting family in England and over the weekend, we drove to Suffolk and stayed in Woodbridge, just across the River Deben from Sutton Hoo. It was my first visit to the site and although I found the museum slightly disappointing, the burial mounds themselves are very atmospheric. The weather was cool and windy, but spring in England is just so extravagantly lush and shaggy compared to Brisbane that I found the whole experience quite delightful.

The River Deben is tidal and the tide was well and truly out whilst we were walking around on Friday afternoon, leaving all the boats high and dry on the mud. There is a tide mill in Woodbridge, restored to working order, which is fascinating. I have never seen one before.

On Saturday, we went to Orford, just a bit further up the coast and equally wet and windy. The River Ore has a long, southerly route out to the sea, leaving a long narrow island/spit of land accessible by ferry. There is a 12th century castle. The outer walls etc have long gone but the keep has been restored and you can climb rather a lot of spiral staircases to the roof and views out to sea.

All in all, the visit gave me a very useful glimpse of the whole ‘feel’ of that part of the Suffolk coast and a reminder of just how muddy life must have been in seventh-century Britain. I am reminded of a reality TV show, many years ago, where a group of people set out to live an iron-age life for several months. At the end, they said that the main thing they missed about modern life was gumboots!

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St Oswald’s Bones

I have just finished reading The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell. Among other things, the plot covers Cornwell’s version of the removal of St Oswald’s bones from a grave somewhere south of Lincoln, to form part of the Christian armamentarium of Aethelfled’s kingdom of Mercia, in her struggles against the pagan norsemen.

Some months ago, I read The Bone Thief by V.M Whitworth and her plot revolves centrally around the same move of St Oswald’s bones. So I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the two fictionalised versions of the same event.

St Oswald’s head is supposedly in Durham cathedral and one of his arms is reputed to have found its way from Bamburgh to Peterborough, but the rest of him was moved first to Bardsey Abbey in Lincolnshire and then, in about 910 some time after the abbey was burned by the Danes, to Gloucester, where they remain.

12th century portrait of St Oswald from Durham cathedral, where his head is buried. Photo Wikimedia Commons

12th century portrait of St Oswald from Durham cathedral, where his head is buried. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, although very different in style, these are both wonderful examples of the art of writing historical fiction. Cornwell’s hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, grabs the reader by the throat and hauls us bodily through his latest adventure. As in previous episodes of his marvellous saga, Uhtred is introduced slap bang in the middle of a difficult situation and we see him extricate himself with a mixture of quick-thinking and violence, tempered by great care for those he loves. As always, the battle scenes are the standard against which all other fictional medieval battle scenes must now be measured. And St Oswald’s bones? Well, I am not giving anything away when I say that with Cornwell/Uhtred’s typical cynicism, the bones that are recovered could belong to anybody and the hunt for them in the first place is the result of a Danish trick, designed to lure Mercian forces away from home. And as for Aethelfled, the Lady of Mercia (daughter of King Alfred), well she is as feisty and decisive as we might expect of a heroine beloved by Uhtred.

Whitworth, however, paints on a completely different canvas. We see the world from the perspective of Wulfgar, a cleric in Aethelfled’s service. This hero also loves the Lady of Mercia, but is certainly not her lover! Instead, he worships a delicate and distant being, struggling to escape from the machinations of the men who surround her. This is a far more historically probable Aethelfled, with extraordinary constraints on her freedom of action as a woman. Wulfgar is charged with the task of retrieving St Oswald’s bones from enemy territory and sets off with only minimal help. The contrast with Uhtred is extreme. Here we have a hero who struggles to ride a horse and has no military prowess, but he has enormous courage. Some of the strongest passages in the book are where Whitworth describes Wulfgar’s encounters with fearsome Danish chieftains. She conjures up the threat of bullies and gangs of ruffians just brilliantly.

I am not sure, but I think there are now four books in the Uhtred of Bebbanburg saga and Cornwell promises us another. Write on, I say, write on.

So far s I can tell, Whitworth has only written two stories about Wulfgar (The Traitors’ Pit is the second.) Please, please write another! The world needs more of your vision of the tenth century.

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The Limits of Wergeld

I am currently wrestling with a problem and I would very much value any advice as to where I might find the answer.

In theory, as I understand it, when someone was killed, there was a price on their life which varied with their social status. The killer and their kin were responsible for paying this to the kin of the victim. In the law codes, the amount is usually given in shillings (200 for a free ceorl, for instance). There was very little coin in early seventh-century Britain, so I assume that compensation was paid in kind, in cows for instance. So far so good.

But in working out how to incorporate this practice into my novel, I have encountered two problems.

1: what sort of killings could lead to compensation (or the alternative which compensation was designed to avoid: blood feud)? In particular, given the number of small kingdoms in early seventh-century Britain, when were the kin of anyone killed in battle entitled to any form of compensation? Presumably, during skirmishes between neighbouring lords, the answer was yes, whereas for skirmishes between ‘kings’ the answer was no. That seems to have been at least partly what the regulations concerning wergeld were about: enforcing ‘royal’ power and confining the right to kill to kings. But has anyone written about this? I would really value more information.

2: Who was entitled to receive the wergeld? Was it only male kin, or did female kin qualify? And to what degree? Father’s brothers yes? But what about mother’s brothers? Sons and brothers yes, but what about sisters and daughters? And if there were no surviving kin of the right degree, who got the wergeld? The king? A more local lord? Or were the killer and their kin home free?

Can anyone help with this? I have done my best, combing through various translations of the surviving seventh century law codes, but they don’t seem to hold the answers.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon Law | Tagged | 7 Comments

Women in the Seventh Century

In response to Michelle’s comment on my last post, I thought I would give special prominence to a link that she provided to a late seventh-century Irish law code.


Reading through this is a particularly powerful way of glimpsing the gulf between the way that I, a well educated, middle class, twenty-first century British/Australian woman, look at the world and the views of seventh-century Irish elite men. As an historian, I suppose that I have always seen it as being my business to try and elucidate the differences between thinking ‘then’ and thinking ‘now’. At least, that his been what I have tried to do since taking a course many years ago on writing history from diaries with the late lamented Professor Rhys Isaac. But the Law of Adamnan is simply astonishingly confronting, not least because although it purports to be about protecting women, it is actually mainly about protecting children (read boys) and clerics and about paying compensation to the church.

This is clause 3 from the Law as it appears in the above link to Fordham’s Medieval Sourcebook:

3. The work which the best women had to do, was to go to battle and battlefield, encounter and camping, fighting and hosting, wounding and slaying. On one side of her she would carry her bag of provisions, on the other her babe. Her wooden pole upon her back. Thirty feet long it was, and had on one end an iron hook, which she would thrust into the tress of some woman in the opposite battalion. Her husband behind her, carrying a fence-stake in his hand, and flogging her on to battle. For [2] at that time it was the head of a woman, or her two breasts, which were taken as trophies.

I know, I know, we recognise the world of the oldest sagas and of course the law is playing up the ‘bad old days’ for the sake of emphasising the good brought by Adomnan, but all I can say is, we’ve come a long way. Or have we only come a long way in some parts of some countries?

Incidentally, one of the commonest units of value in the Law of Adomnan, used as a reckoning for compensation for offences including rape and murder, is a ‘cumal’. A cumal was a female slave. This leads to clauses such as the following (again copied from the link above to Fordham’s Medieval Sourcebook site):

50. If it be rape of a maiden, seven half-cumals (is the fine) for it. If a hand (is put) upon her or in her girdle, ten ounces for it. If a hand (is put) under her dress to defile her, three ounces and seven cumals for it. If there be a blemish or her head or her eyes or in the face or in the ear or nose or tooth or tongue or foot or hand, seven cumals are (to be paid) for it. If it be a blemish on any other part of her body, seven half-cumals are (to be paid) for it. If it be tearing of her dress, seven ounces and one cumal for it.

Now presumably the woman could be compensated by the equivalent value in cows or in silver, etc., but on the face of it, the compensation for rape or assault resulting in permanent injury was payment in female slaves. What sort of implications can we draw, I wonder, about a society that uses female slaves as a unit of value?

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Sex, Violence and the Seventh Century – oh, and Slavery

Recently, I read a review of Slaves and Warriors in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800-1200 by David Wyatt (Leiben and Boston, Brill, 2009). The review was by Richard Marsden and published in issue five of the Kelvingrove Review.

I have not yet got hold of a copy of Wyatt’s book, so what follows is based entirely on Marsden’s review. However, the story seems to be very thought-provoking. If I understand it correctly, Wyatt is arguing that rape and enslavement following anything from a raid or skirmish to a full-scale battle was an institutionalised right of passage for members of the warrior elite.

The picture that this conjures up is quite startlingly awful – as if fit young men were not only encouraged to engage in violence and rape, but that the moral tone of society was set by this pattern of behaviour. Wyatt apparently goes on to argue that the Christian church was instrumental in modifying this pattern, at least partly by attempts to confine sex within the bounds of marriage. This puts a whole new (for me, at least) spin on the impact of the church.

So, this set me to thinking. Firstly, does my admittedly ‘cosy’ version of the seventh century do a grave injustice to seventh century women and also, incidentally, to the Christian church?

Secondly, how does this illuminate the legend of St Winifred?




Now Winifred was theWelsh saint beloved of Brother Cadfael in the murder mystery series written by Ellis Peters. Her name is associated with a well on the western bank of the estuary of the River Dee, which is still a popular site of pilgrimage. There are many versions of Winifred’s story, but the core component is attempted rape, followed by murder. The man in question, usually called Caradog or Caradoc, cut off her head with his sword. The head rolled down hill and a spring miraculously emerged, which has been there ever since. Beuno (later Saint Beuno) put her head back in place, covered her with his cloak and went away to pray. When he returned, she was alive and went on to be Abbess of two institutions, one near the site of her beheading and the other inland, in Snowdonia at Gwytherin. Caradog was either killed by demons or by Winifred’s brother, Owain.


Stained glass windows in Shrewsbury Abbey depicting the he martyrdom of St Winifred. Her body was moved to the abbey in the 12th century

Stained glass windows in Shrewsbury Abbey depicting the he martyrdom of St Winifred. Her body was moved to the abbey in the 12th century

There is no suggestion that Winifred was at risk of being enslaved after her rape. Caradog, it would seem, wanted to ‘marry’ her, but she had already decided to become a nun. However, this decision is given as the reason why she refused Caradog, not that she did not like him or that she wanted to marry someone else. And indeed, I am tempted to speculate that a decision to enter the church was the only viable option for seventh-century women who did not want to marry – whether a particular person, or in general.

Bede seemed to believe that only celibate women were truly virtuous. I do not recall anywhere that he celebrated motherhood, for instance. I also don’t recall that he has much to say about the virtues of celibacy for men, either, only for women, which is interesting in itself.

So is/was Winifred a touchstone for all those women ‘married’ against their will and/or raped and enslaved? Resistance was possible; it might even succeed; and it would be applauded by the church, if not by men in general? I wonder …

Posted in Early Christianity, Murder | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Beyond the Gododdin

I have just finished reading a rather thought-provoking collection of essays entitled: Beyond the Gododdin, Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales. (ed Alex Woolf, St Andrews 2013, proceedings of a day conference held on 19th February 2005).

The Gododdin is a series of stanzas in medieval Welsh, each about a warrior who came to a sticky end in battle. If taken at face value, the warriors in question were all from the area around what is now Edinburgh. Traditionally, the work is attributed to the poet Aneirin, who is an historical figure who supposedly lived in the late 6th/early 7th century. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y_Gododdin

Firstly, I have to say that the editing of the essays in this recent book about the poem is as slack as you might imagine from the fact that it took them 8 years between the conference and publication. Although as a past editor of conference proceedings myself, I do understand how it can take fooor eeever  to get those papers out of the participants.

A page from the Book of Aneirin, a 13th century manuscript of a much earlier text.

A page from the Book of Aneirin, a 13th century manuscript of a much earlier text.

The manuscript is in the National Library of Wales and the image above is from Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, this book is all about re-assessing the Gododdin in the light of recent scholarship. The basic points of disagreement revolve around:

1: is there any genuinely 6th/7th century basis to the composition of the poem(s)?

2: what can the work tell us (if anything) about the 6th/7th century?

If I understand the essays correctly (and some read rather more like jazz riffs on a theme of which I am unaware than straight forward academic argument), the linguists tend to doubt the antiquity of whatever lies behind the versions of the poem which have survived and argue for a 9th/10th century original. In contrast, the historians tend to think the subject matter is genuinely very early.

Reading through the essays I was struck by something I have noted about myself before: I tend to believe what I read first and then take up the attitude: ‘well go on, convince me’ about what I read next. So the order of the articles is critical.

Chapter 3, for instance, by Philip Dunshea (‘The meaning of Catraeth: a revised early context for y Gododdin’) argues for a 6th century original for the poem, while the next chapter by O.J. Padel argues on linguistic grounds that the poem cannot possibly have a 6th century original. (‘Aneirin and Taliesin: Sceptical Speculation’).

Well, of course, I believed Dunshea, partly because he reinforces what I want to believe and partly because I read that chapter first. His argument is interesting and (in my view) overcomes a number of problems with earlier interpretations. The warriors, who all die, appear on the face of it to be fighting a battle at Catraeth, generally identified with Catterick in Yorkshire – a rather long way south of Edinburgh. Dunshea argues that the poem is not about one battle but about generalised border skirmishes in a range of locations.

Another page from the  13th century Book of Aneirin held in the National Library of Wales. Image Wikimedia Commons

Another page from the 13th century Book of Aneirin held in the National Library of Wales. Image Wikimedia Commons

So why does this matter, I hear you ask? Well, two of my main characters are sons of Aneirin; the poems attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin wander in and out of the mouths of several of my characters; and the kind of world conjured up in the poems of Aneirn and Taliesin has had a huge impact on the kind of atmosphere I am trying to create in the books.

I would hate to think that I have been working so hard to conjure up something that was actually 300 or more years too late!

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Original sources | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Early Medieval Gwynedd

The next incident in my story is set in North Wales in the year 635 in the fortress of Deganwy. Consequently, I have been going through my files looking at all the background information that I have collected to help put together a picture of Deganwy in the early seventh century.

The site lies at the mouth of the River Conwy, adjacent to the modern town of Llandudno.  There is evidence of occupation since at least Roman times and although the main surviving ruins date from the 12th-13th centuries, it appears to have been a significant royal site from the 6th to 9th centuries.

Traditionally, the 6th century occupation phase is associated with Maelgwn Gwynedd, one of the tyrants attacked by Gildas in his: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Excidio_et_Conquestu_Britanniae

I thought that it was entirely reasonable to place the man who was king of Gwynedd in 635 (almost certainly Cadafael) in a stronghold on the twin hills of Deganwy. However, at least one of my sources has suggested that the River Conwy was the eastern border of Gwynedd in the early medieval period. (‘Degannwy Castle, Report on an Archaeological Assessment,’ GAT report no 2068, March 2009, section 4.2.3). http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95282/details/DEGANWY+CASTLE/

I have to say, I find this somewhat puzzling. If the sway of the early medieval kings of Gwynedd did not run east of the Conwy, what did? The cantref of Rhos appears as a part of Gwynedd on all the maps I have been able to find. The cantrefs of Tegeingl and Rhufoniog may have been semi-independent and may have come under the influence of Powys at various times, but surely Rhos was within the sphere of influence of Gwynedd?

If anybody can help with this, I would be very grateful!

Oh, and apropos of ‘words, words’, I have not managed 2,500 words a week over the Christmas/New Year period, but I have managed about 2,000. Perhaps 400 words per working day should be my new goal.

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Historical characters | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Words, Words

Well, writing is now underway on book 2 of the Kith and Kin series. I have worked out that I need to write 500 words per day, 5 days a week, if I want to have anything like a complete MS by this time next year. Book 1 took far too long and I do not wish to repeat that.


Five hundred words a day does not sound like very much and as an academic, I am sure that I averaged far more than that. But non-fiction words seem to flow onto the page so much more easily than fiction! Why is this? Does everybody have the same problem? Surely, inventing things ought to be easier than putting together a nuanced, fully referenced assessment of facts? Well, not for me, that’s for sure.

Ho hum.

Merry, merry everyone.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon History | 3 Comments

Anglo-Saxon Transportation Routes

My current writing problem is that I somehow need to transport a small group of major characters from West Wales to East Anglia in the year 635.

This throws up multiple logistical problems, not the least of which is that the network of Roman Roads radiated from London/Kent, with the exception of the major SW to NE route of the Fosse Way. Of course, the simplest route in many ways would have been by sea, except that my characters were not sufficiently important/wealthy to charter a sea-going vessel. This means that they would probably have had to make the journey in multiple stages, depending on which merchant vessel was going where. There is however, a bigger problem with sending my people by sea: I know very little about sea travel now, let alone then, so I would have to invent even more than usual(!)

So, given that the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd was allied with Mercia at the time, I propose to send my characters overland through Mercia, delivering a message to King Penda on the way. Watling Street conveniently runs from Chester SE through Mercia and as Penda could be anywhere in his kingdom, that part of the journey is fairly straightforward.

However, once we reach the Chilterns, things become more complicated. The Chilternsaete people were probably not incorporated into Mercia at that date (although they were later) and could have provided a moderately independent buffer between Mercia and its East Anglian enemies. But what about a road?

The obvious answer is the Icknield Way. This used to be considered Iron Age or even Bronze Age in origin, but doubts about the antiquity of parts of the route have now arisen. However, it would certainly have been there in the seventh century, and it runs roughly SW to NE, following the chalk ridges from the Chilterns up into Norfolk. Perfect. You can still walk it by the way, although I haven’t traversed the whole thing. But the sections NE and SW of Ivinghoe Beacon are very familiar. I lived nearby for many years and still have family in the area.

Inland Waterways

The alternative route into East Anglia would have been by water, down the River Ouse and that brings me to a very interesting PhD, which I encountered when trying to puzzle out seventh century geography: James Frederick Edwards, “The transport system of medieval England and Wales” University of Salford 1987.  There has been some criticism that Edwards overestimates the extent of navigable waterways in the later middle ages (Evan T. Jones, “River navigation in medieval England”, Journal of Historical Geography, 26, 1(2000), 60-82), but for the 12th century, there seems little doubt that the network was very considerable. It covered a wide range of natural waterways, plus the Roman canals (Foss Dyke and Car Dyke) and I assume ? that the network would have been just as extensive in the seventh century.

Sam Newton has some interesting stuff on his web site about seventh century East Anglia ( http://www.wuffings.co.uk ), including this map:

East Anglia in the 7th Century, including waterways, from Sam Newton's web site.

East Anglia in the 7th Century, including waterways, from Sam Newton’s web site.

For instance, Sigebert’s new monastery in the place now called Bury St Edmunds was on the River Lark and this was apparently navigable down through the Fens, via the Little Ouse and Great Ouse, and out into the Wash. Consequently, I have decided to send my characters back to Wales via inland waterways, at least as far as Nottingham (Snottor’s Ham). Once they reached the Wash, they could hug the coast until they reached the mouth of  the River Witham and then travel upstream to Lincoln, along the Foss Dyke to the River Trent and then up the Trent to Snottor’s Ham.

I have never sailed on the Fens, or travelled up the Witham, but I have sailed on the Norfolk Broads and rowed on the Trent and in fine weather, it is a very pleasant way to travel. Inland waterways are mainly renowned for transporting heavy goods – coal, grain etc – but if you had any significant amount of luggage it would have been preferable to land transport right up until the days of 19th century coaching roads and steam trains.

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History, Landscape | Tagged , | Leave a comment

East Anglia in the Seventh century

I am currently working on the plot for the second novel, Sacrifice, and my heroine travels to East Anglia for Pentecost (Whitsun), 635. Accordingly, I am trying to put together a picture of East Anglia at that time composed of what information has come down to us (as always for the 7th century, mainly from Bede) and what it is reasonable to guess/speculate/invent.

I begin with the assumption (shared by Nicola Griffith in her marvelous novel Hild) that the man that Hilda’s sister Hereswith married – Ethelric – is the same person as the man who was joint king of the East Angles c. 630-634 and sole king c.634-636, i.e. Ecgric. From about 630, Ecgric shared the rule with Sigeberht, a man much praised by Bede as a good Christian. Scholars are not entirely in agreement about his parentage, but he was probably the step-son of Raedwald, the first East Anglian king about whom we have any substantial information. Sigeberht spent time in Gaul and returned to take the throne, quite possibly by force as he had a later reputation as a warrior, from Ricberht. We have no idea about Ricberht’s parentage, but he apparently killed his predecessor, Eorpwald, who was a son of Raedwald. A violent sort of place, obviously, like most of Britain in the 7th century. So the story about the kings goes like this:

c.599-624: Raedwald, who was rich, powerful, Christian and alled with the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria (he put Edwin on the throne of Northumbria). He is probably the man buried in a ship big enough to have 40 oarsmen under mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. The treasure surrounding him still constitutes the single most impressive hoard ever unearthed from a grave in Britain. That wondrous institution, Wikipedia, currently offers an especially good article on Sutton Hoo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutton_Hoo

The famous helmet reconstructed from fragments in the ship burial under Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

The famous helmet reconstructed from fragments in the ship burial under Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

c.624-627: Eorpwald, son of Raedwald. Assassinated.

c.627-630: Ricberht, usually assumed to be the man who killed/arranged the killing of Eorpwald.

c.630-634: Sigberht (possibly Raedwald’s step-son) + as joint king or sub-king of the North Folk, Egric/Ethelric who was possibly the oldest of the sons of Eni. Eni was Raedwald’s brother.

c.634: Sigberht abdicates and enters the monastery that he founded at Beodericsworth. Egric/Ethelric becomes sole king and rules until the battle with Penda of Mercia, probably in about 636. For this battle, Sigberht is forced out of his monastery to help, but refuses to carry any weapon except a staff. He and Egric/Ethelric are both killed.

c.636-653/4: Anna, son of Eni. Killed by Penda at the battle of Bulcamp. Anna fathered a remarkable family of saintly daughters, including Saints Seaxburgh, Aethelthryth, Aethelburgh and possibly also Whitburh.

653/4-655: Aethelhere, son of Eni. Killed at the battle of Winwaed, 15 November, fighting with Penda against Oswiu of Northumbria.

655-663: Aethelwold, son of Eni.

663-713: Ealdwulf, son of Ethelric and Hereswith.

Ealdwulf was probably born around the time that Sigberht abdicated and retired into his monastery and so the scene that I am setting up for Pentecost 635 is that:

Ealdwulf is born late 634; Sigberht announces his abdication Christmas 634; he enters the monastery Easter 635; Ethelric (and Hereswith) celebrates his rise to sole power at Pentecost 635, surrounded by his brothers (the other sons of Eni), his infant son and one or more of his eventually saintly nieces.

If the pagan Penda was not already their sworn enemy, he would be very soon.  I postulate a border dispute over control of the lands to the west of the Devil’s Dyke and on the western half of the fens, including the iron-working areas around what is now Peterborough but was then Medeshamstede, near the Roman town of Durobrivae (the modern village of Water Newton). These were the lands of the Gyrwe (north and south) and the Wille (east and west), all of them listed in the Tribal Hidage and members of the group known broadly as the Middle Angles. By the late 7th century, they were all certainly a part of greater Mercia – yes, Penda’s expansionist policies were successful – but in the early 7th century, they were probably still under the control of independent tribal leaders, such as Tondbert. He was the chieftain of the South Gyrwe who married Aethelthryth, daughter of Anna, and gave her the Isle of Ely as her morgengifu/morning gift.


Map of East Anglia in the Seventh Century. Source: Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia.

If anybody has any suggestions/ideas/references about the battle with Penda during which Egric and Sigberht were killed, I would be very grateful.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon History | Tagged , | 4 Comments