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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Bretwaldas and Alex Woolf

This post continues my musings on the volume: Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain.

Chapter 5 is an essay by Alex Woolf entitled ‘Community, Identity and Kingship in Early England.’ The first half of the chapter is devoted to ideas about the latin word ‘rex’, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon term, and he begins by contextualising Augustine’s mission to Kent. The ruler there was described as ‘Rex Anglorum.’

Rex Anglorum: Aethelberht of Kent from his statue in Rochester Cathedral via wikipedia


Yup, that’s right, before 600. Never having paid much attention to the Augustinian mission myself (one of the bits to fast read/skip in Bede), this was news to me, but it seems that the Italians did think that the ruler of Kent was the ruler of all the Angles (even though he was not an Angle, so far as we know, and whatever that meant, one of the central topics of the entire volume.)

Woolf’s explanation is that Pope Gregory and his missionaries were very familiar with barbarian invaders in Italy, Langobards, who established their rule with a number of duces and a single rex. Hence, they envisaged that the Anglo-Saxons in Britain ruled through a number of provincial duces and a single overall rex. This mindset then prevailed whilst the missionaries to Britain were mainly from the continent, but after about the 630s, the missionaries were mainly from Ireland. There, as Woolf points out, the Latin word rex was applied to their very much more localised rulers, so that in Latin Britain was conceptualised as ruled by multiple kings, each in their own province.

Brilliant, I say, because this explains what I had never quite understood in Bede – his obsession with Bretwaldas, or rather one king having ‘imperium’ over the others. For him, there always had to be some sort of top king/over-king. Does periodic raiding and demanding tribute by force count as being an over-king? Hmm. I have never been really convinced. It always seemed to me much more like pretty continuous pushing and shoving and my god is better than yours/ my war band is bigger than yours sort of posturing. But acknowledged over-king?

Anyway, the point is that Bede’s mind set was deeply influenced by Rome and hence by the idea that a ‘real’ rex had to rule over something rather larger than Deira, or East Anglia. Just another instance of why we should read Bede with the same critical appraisal as any other text.

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Mentalite and Writing About Early Modern Britain

I have just discovered a fascinating book: Social Identity in Early Modern Britain, (William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrrell, eds, Leicester University Press, 2000). This is a collection of essays by some of my favourite scholars in the field (including Alex Woolf) and it has helped to bump my thinking out of a rut. I had come to the conclusion that getting inside the mentalites of the period was impossible – but maybe something can be achieved.

The first chapter is an essay by John Moreland which addresses the hoary old problem of ethnic identity (or lack thereof) in the context of the aftermath of the adventus Saxonum. His conclusion (and here I oversimplify), is that ethnic identity was socially constructed in Britain over the next couple of hundred years, rather than imported from NW Europe, and that further, the concepts were really only applied to elites.

For example, identifiers such as Saxon, Anglian or even Mercian, Deiran, were only ever applied to kings or other members of the elite, and then generally only in the context of battles. The rest of the population – well, did they care? Bede, for instance, hardly mentions them. They were literally beneath notice. Subsequent historians, archaeologists and, indeed, politicians, may have asked questions about the ethnic identity of the general population, but did anybody care at the time?

So, I am changing my own view, always the sign of a good article. Specifically, I am moving away from the belief that fifth and sixth century Britain was subjected to some version of ethnic cleansing/ mass outmigration to Brittany and Wales/ death from plague. I am not quite sure what my thinking has moved to, yet, but as always, I come to the great stumbling block of language. For instance: why am I not writing this in Welsh and why have so few British words found their way into English? (cf Viking words).

Anyway, notes on chapter 2 tomorrow. Oh, the delights of intellectual excitement!

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Penda’s Sisters; Cynegils’ Daughters


I am currently writing about what must surely have been a very interesting meeting in the year 635.

This was the year when Bishop Birinus baptised King Cynegils of Wessex/ the Gewisse in the River Thames near what is now the little village of Dorchester. His sponsor/godfather at the baptism was none other than King Oswald of Bernicia, probably Bede’s favourite king, and at this point Oswald also married one of Cynegils’ daughters.

The standard explanation for this north/south alliance was that Cynegils and Oswald were both worried about the rising power of King Penda of Mercia. But as an historical novelist, I am left with rather a lot of questions for which I have little option but to make up the answers.

A venerable-looking King Penda, his death imagined in stained glass and brought to us via his wikipedia page

A venerable-looking King Penda, his death imagined in stained glass and brought to us via his wikipedia page

For instance: how did Oswald get from Bernicia in the north all the way south to Wessex when Mercia was in the way? The obvious answer is by sea and given that the Thames was almost certainly navigable for long boats until well upstream of Dorchester, that is a sensible answer. But via East Anglia is also an option: another Christian kingdom and one that Oswald (who had only very recently become king) would wish to have in his orbit.

But also, what about Penda’s sister and, for that matter, Cynegils’ daughters? At some point before 635 (probably 628), there had been a sister swap between Penda and one of Cynegils’ sons, Cenwealh. So all of this left one of Cynegils’ daughters married to Penda and another married to (arguably his greatest enemy) Oswald. I know royal women often, if not always, ended up married to, and living among, their father’s enemies, but really! And it did matter, because we are told that when Cenwealh repudiated the wife who was Penda’s sister, Penda chased him out of his kingdom and into exile in East Anglia.

BUT WHAT WAS SHE CALLED? Generally speaking, we do not know the names of these women, although subsequent detective work/ speculation offers us suggestions for both Penda’s and Oswald’s wives. (Cynewise may well have been the name of Penda’s wife and Cyneburga was almost certainly the name of Oswald’s wife.)

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Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire

I have just returned from a trip to England, checking out locations for Book 2 of the Kith and Kin trilogy.
Part of the action takes place in Dorchester on Thames in 635, when King Cynegils of the West Saxons, King Oswald of Northumbria and the missionary Bishop Birinus were all in the area.
Cynegils agreed to be baptised by Birinus at least partly because he wanted an alliance with the Christian King Oswald against Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. The alliance was further sealed when Oswald married Cynegils’ daughter.

Bede, as always the standard text on the subject, states that ‘the two kings gave Bishop Birinus the city of Dorcic (Dorchester) for his episcopal see,’ although how Oswald had any control over land so far from Northumbria has never been clear to me. Was Bede exaggerating Oswald’s influence? Oswald was, after all, one of Bede’s great heroes.

Birinus’ cathedral no longer exists, but the rather small village of Dorchester (which is on the River Thame, not the River Thames half a mile away) does have a rather large church – Dorchester Abbey. This survived Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries by being given as a parish church to the locals, although they only used a part of the cathedral-sized edifice. According to information supplied in the Abbey, it was built on the site of Birinus’ cathedral, but we should perhaps not envisage the full hustle and bustle of a Saxon cathedral town. Dorchester was not in a stable part of Wessex and passed under Mercian control later in the 7th century. It was for a while the seat of Bishops of Wessex, but under the control of Mercian bishops, the centre of the diocese was moved all the way north-east to Lincoln. When Lincoln fell under Danish control, Dorchester once more became the seat of a bishop and the town may well have enjoyed some prosperity and growth in the late saxon era. But it was always a small town and never a fortified Saxon burgh. Wallingford, a few miles down the Thames, was more important.

The current church building dates from the 12th century when the church was re-founded at the centre of an Augustinian Abbey and significant parts of the nave date from that period.

Wall Painting in the 14th Century People's Chapel, Dorchester Abbey

Wall Painting in the 14th Century People’s Chapel, Dorchester Abbey

After the dissolution in 1536, the church passed into private hands and according to a leaflet in the Abbey, it was given to the locals as a parish church by Richard Beauforest in 1554.

Since the mid-19th century, Dorchester has also had a delightful little catholic church, dedicated to St Birinus, a Victorian re-imagining of a medieval gem, complete with painted ceiling.

For a detailed discussion of the history and archaeology of Dorchester and its abbey see: Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire by Warwick Rodwell, Oxbow Books, 2009.

The River Thame at Dorchester, Oxfordshire, May 2016

The River Thame at Dorchester, Oxfordshire, May 2016

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