Did Breguswith Kill Hereric?

The story that I am writing concerns a real murder, which took place in the early 7th century in the British kingdom of Elmet. This murder is unusual (the whole genre of crime fiction notwithstanding) because we don’t know who was responsible. Anglo-Saxon (and ancient Welsh: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/laws_hywel_dda.html) law assumed that responsibility for crimes (including murder) lay with the kin of the murderer. (In 602 or 603, Æthelberht of Kent’s laws were written down in Anglo-Saxon, the earliest law code in that language and quite possibly the earliest writing of any kind in Anglo-Saxon to have survived. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/560-975dooms.asp). The issue of guilt is not discussed in the early law codes. Instead, they concern themselves with who should pay and how much they should pay to the family of the victim, the king and the church. The blood price for the nobly born (like Hereric) was far greater than for ordinary mortals, but we have no record that in the case of Hereric it was ever paid.

According to the Venerable Bede, Hereric was poisoned. Now, poison is a weapon that is equally available to men and women, so there is no technical reason why Hereric might not have been murdered by a woman. It is also the case that most murders are domestic affairs. Indeed, within the police forces of many parts of the English-speaking world, the murder squad is known as the ‘domestic squad’, or something similar. So inherently, it would seem quite likely that Hereric was murdered by his wife. Shock, horror, I hear you say. But why not?

Most historians have assumed that because Hereric was a politically important person (heir-in-exile to the throne of Deira), his murder must have been a political matter. The two most popular scenarios seem to be that:

a) he was murdered (probably by King Ceretic of Elmet) on the orders of the ruling king of Deira and Bernicia, who is documented as having tried to pay to have another claimant to the throne (Edwin) murdered whilst in exile or

b) he was murdered (probably by King Ceretic of Elmet) on the orders of a rival claimant-to-the-throne in exile (Edwin).

Both scenarios are perfectly possible, although we have no direct evidence for either. Both assume (simplistically?) that if the murder took place while Hereric was in exile in Elmet, then the king of Elmet must have been complicit in the act. But political murder is, actually, not that common. Hereric’s death was not mentioned by Bede because of its political significance, but in the context of the early life of Hereric’s second daughter, Hild – known to most of us as St Hilda of Whitby.

So could Breguswith have done it? I think she could, but I won’t be giving away any significant part of the plot of the novel when I say that I haven’t written her into the book as a murderer. This is not because I don’t think she could have/might have been the murderer. It is rather because I was not happy to portray the mother of a saint as capable of murder. Why not? I hear you ask. Well, I’m not sure. I have portrayed Hilda’s father as a less than admirable character. He is violent and exploitative towards women, so a reluctance to show the parents of saints in a bad light is not the explanation. Don’t know. Don’t understand myself, but I do think that most murders were family affairs in the 7th century, just as most murders are family affairs now.

Of course, in the seventh century, blood feud was another reason for murder. If the murderer and/or the murderer’s family did not pay the blood price, then they might well be subject to the customary practice of revenge killing. Such blood feuds could run for a long time. But Bede tells us nothing of any such feud involving Hereric or his family. That does not mean there was no such feud, of course, negative evidence being a troubling matter. However, I digress.

So do I portray the murder of Hereric as a family affair, with some other member of the family as the guilty party? Ah, well, I’m not telling. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

This entry was posted in Ancient Welsh Law, Anglo-Saxon History, Anglo-Saxon Law, Elmet, Historical characters, Murder, Original sources and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Did Breguswith Kill Hereric?

  1. rc carver says:

    Very interesting idea, and I hope you have made progress with your story. I had one question, though: do you have any idea as to what it is likely that Hereric was poisoned with? From the little I know of the time, most “poisons” were more dramatic-sounding than actually effective. Good luck in any case, rcc.

    • Sally wilde says:

      thank you for that. No, Bede gives us no indication as to what was used to poison Hereric and so far as I am aware, he is our only source for the murder. In the novel, I have gone with hemlock – true hemlock, not water hemlock. It looks very like cow parsley. The plant grows widely in ditches and hedgerows in Britain (as elsewhere in Europe), but I have absolutely no idea how easy it is to administer in lethal form!
      As to the book, well it is now books, plural. I am well over half way through what will be a trilogy.

  2. Sally says:

    There are a range of plant-based poisons which are very effective and were readily available to those who knew where to look. Administering them so that the victim would not taste something ‘bad’ was the difficult bit. Not many of us will willingly swallow foul-tasting toadstools, for instance. Bede gives us no clue as to how Hereric was poisoned, so I have used my imagination and come up with something that is widely available, even today, in British hedgerows. I won’t give away too much of the plot by being more specific, but it doesn’t spoil the story to know that I have moved away from the idea of Breguswith as the murderer!
    Meanwhile, I have finished that story (Book 1 of a proposed trilogy entitled Kith and Kin) and am about one third of the way through book 1.
    Are you a fellow historical novelist?

  3. David R. Henderson says:

    Hi Sally
    Has your book been published, and if so where can I obtain a copy?
    Best wishes

    • Sally says:

      Hi David
      Not yet. I am half way through book 2 of the trilogy and I have no plans to publish until that is complete.
      Kind regards

  4. David R. Henderson says:

    Hi Sally
    I hope book two is progressing well.
    Have you read The Bone Thief by V.M. Whitworth?
    Kind regards

  5. David R. Henderson says:

    Hi Sally
    I hope book two is progressing well.
    Have you read The Bone Thief by V.M. Whitworth?
    Kind regards

  6. David R. Henderson says:

    Hi Sally
    Do you have access to Bede’s EH in Latin?
    Kind regards

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