I have just finished reading Annie Whitehead’s historical novel: Cometh the Hour. This is not a long book but all the same, it has the scope of saga. It deals with the seventh-century life and death of King Penda of Mercia, his family feuds and his battles with surrounding kings. Whitehead makes women among the strongest characters in her story.
Many of the characters and incidents in this book will be familiar to those of you who have read the works of the Venerable Bede, although not the women. Bede was not good on women. Often, he does not even tell us their names, although he does praise them if they (were believed to have) remained virgins (!)
For those of you who have not read Bede I should explain that he lived around 1200 years ago in a monastery in the north-east of England in what was then the Kingdom of Bernicia. He was one of those astonishing scholars who pop up now and then, like Leonardo da Vinci or Einstein, and he wrote on a wide range of topics. But he is most famous for his history of the first century or so of the Roman version of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. (The British and Irish versions of Christianity were already well established.)
The setting for Bede’s work will be broadly familiar to those of you who are fans of R.R. Martin: an island longer than it is wide; cold in the north and warmer in the south with a wall from sea to sea somewhere up by the cold bits; divided into multiple little kingdoms with ruthless, not to say murderous, ruling families; and a large adjacent continent with an equally violent set of squabbling warlords (and ladies).
Martin Carver has described the people who emerge from the pages of Bede as ‘predatory, extravagant and fiercely opinionated.’ (‘Why that? Why there? Why then? The politics of early medieval monumentality’ in: Helena Hamerow and Arthur MacGregor, eds., Image and Power in the Archaeology of Early Medieval Britain. This volume reminds us, if we needed reminding, of the importance of archaeology to this story.)
Not surprisingly, Whitehead is not the only author to have drawn on this marvellous source for writing historical fiction. Trawling through books that I have read on Kindle in the last seven years, I came up with the following list of carefully-researched historical novels set in seventh-century Britain. Bede’s ‘predatory, extravagant and fiercely opinionated’ kings, priests, queens, saints and murder victims feature in them all.
Carla Nayland’s, Paths of Exile, is set in the early seventh century. Edwin is exiled from his kingdom of Deira because Aethelfrith of Bernicia has married his sister and taken the throne. There is some wonderfully evocative writing here, set in the wilds of the Pennines.
Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a fictionalised biography of the youth of the woman known to history as St Hilda of Whitby. Bede tells us quite a lot about St Hilda. She was one of his heroines, but he does not tell us that she was a virgin, so I strongly suspect that she was not. Griffith does not think Hilda was a virgin either. Griffith is a powerful story teller and I sincerely hope that she has not stopped writing.
Edoardo Albert wrote what are essentially fictionalised biographies of two of Bede’s favourite kings: Edwin, High King of Britain and Oswald, Return of the King. This is assured writing in the tradition of Bernard Cornwell, with plenty of battles.
Fighting also features strongly in Matthew Harffey’s first book in his Bernician Chronicles: The Serpent Sword. This is an engaging coming of age adventure within a historical framework provided by Bede.
And then there is my own Death in Elmet which is set in the months leading up to the battle of Haethfeld in 633. This is a sort of medieval ‘whodunnit’, which sets out to discover who poisoned St Hilda’s father when he was in exile in the kingdom of Elmet. (Yes, Bede tells us he was poisoned.)
All of these authors know their Bede and all take their history seriously, so it is perhaps surprising how much they differ in their interpretations. For instance, were King Edwin of Deira, King Ceretic of Elmet, King Penda of Mercia, King Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Oswald of Bernicia ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’?
Well, it seems that an author who knows her history and is careful with the facts can make a decision either way, in each case. After all, we are writing fiction. Even with Bede to guide us, we still have to make stuff up.