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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Did Bede Get it Wrong?

I am currently trying to write a chapter set in East Anglia in the year 635 and this has set me musing on what happened next. The big picture is that East Anglia was under repeated attack from the Mercians led by Penda until his death in 655. During this period, at least two kings of East Anglia were killed in battle against Penda and a third died, possibly fighting with him. They were all brothers, sons of Eni. This was not, it would seem, a very safe time to be anywhere near the East Anglian court.

However, for a about a decade, this was the home of Hereswith, daughter of Hereric of Deira and sister to the sainted Hilda of Whitby. She was married to Ethelric of East Anglia some time between her baptism in Northumbria in 627 and the death in battle (against Penda and Cadwallon) of Edwin of Northumbria in 633. Ethelric, in turn, was killed in battle against Penda, possibly in 636, although there is another view that the battle did not take place until the early 640s.

During what must have been a fairly brief marriage, Hereswith and Ethelric produced a son, Ealdwulf. Unlike his father and uncles, Ealdwulf had an astonishingly long reign, from 664 to 713.

This brings me to Bede. In 647, he tells us, Hilda travelled to East Anglia to join her sister Hereswith, but Hereswith was not there. ‘For her sister Hereswith … was already living [in the Monastery of Cale] as a professed nun…’ (Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics,  1955, iv.23, p.246).

Cale is normally understood to be the Monastery of Chelles, not far from Paris, which was founded by Balthild, the Anglo-Saxon widow of Clovis II. However, she did not found it until after Clovis died in 657/8.

So was Bede a decade out in his dates? Most unlikely; or did Hereswith go somewhere else? Or is Cale not Chelles?

In 647, Ealdwulf may well have reached about the age when his mother considered it reasonable to leave him. He could well have been in his mid-teens. But where were Hereswith and her son between Ethelric’s death and Hereswith’s departure overseas to a monastery? Ethelric was succeeded as King of the East Angles by his brother Anna who was, if Bede is to be believed, something approaching a saintly king. But surely, however saintly he may have been, Ealdwulf would have been seen as a threat to Jurmin, Anna’s son, not to mention to Anna’s two surviving brothers, each of whom became king in turn after him.

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Crowns and Helmets

I am currently writing about the transfer of power in East Anglia in the years 634/5, when Sigeberht retired into his monastery at Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds) and Ethelric became sole king of the East Angles.

Now, I have been unable to find out when Anglo-Saxon kings were first ‘crowned’ and I had been mulling over the idea of giving Ethelric some sort of ceremonial wreath – of oak leaves, perhaps. But this does not really ring true to me.

However, last night I was reading Bernard Cornwell’s new book, The Empty Throne, and he has a Mercian ceremony involving a helmet. Does this make more sense? Helmets are certainly rare objects archaeologically, and those that have been uncovered do seem to be invested with symbols of status and power.

So were Anglo-saxon rulers helmeted rather than crowned?

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St Guthlac and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This is not the sort of thing that I normally write about. Indeed, I am about to wax rather ahistorical; not me at all. However, three things came together last night and the thought that they fired off in my brain amused me. So perhaps it will amuse someone else out there.

1: Last week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a number of programmes designed to raise awareness about mental health issues. One of the programmes was a three-part documentary filmed in the mental health unit of a major Sydney Hospital. In many ways, it was positive because all the patients featured on screen got better. We know this because it was an integral part of the show. They had to give consent for the footage to be shown whilst mentally well, in addition to giving consent to be filmed whilst unwell and in hospital.

All the same, it was a sobering documentary and taught me a great deal about mental illness.

2: yesterday, as a part of research for my novel, set in seventh century Britain, I re-read Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, written c. 730-740. Guhlac lived c. 673-714. Now Guthlac was a member of the Mercian nobility and grew up with a privileged background, before putting together a band of warlike friends and fighting somewhere on Mercia’s borders, almost certainly against the Welsh.

Opening page of Felix's Life of Guthlac, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening page of Felix’s Life of Guthlac, via Wikimedia Commons

According to his hagiographer, he lay waste to towns, villages and fortresses with fire and sword, collected booty and engaged in plunder and slaughter until the enemy was exhausted. But then he had a change of heart, became a monk, and eventually a hermit on an island in the Fens. There, he battled all manner of demons, possibly encouraged by the fact that he set up house inside a robbed out burial mound.

Image from the Guthlac Roll, c. 1210, a visual history of his life in the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Image from the Guthlac Roll, c. 1210, a visual history of his life in the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons

3: Yesterday evening, I watched another television program, this time about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Australian soldiers who have returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Well, I thought – well I never I thought – it is almost as if Guthlac was suffering from PTSD

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Layered Lives, or thoughts from Hong Kong

Sarah Woodbury, the author of the Gareth and Gwen series of detective novels set in medieval Wales, has chosen for Gareth to be given land on Anglesey in exactly the site where I open the first book of my trilogy. The photograph above that heads this blog was taken there. I give the land to Heled the Tall, daughter of a king of Gwynedd, sister to King Cadfan of Gwynedd and widow of the last king of Elmet.

When I visit sites like that, I am made powerfully aware of the sense of other lives lived there in the past, layer upon layer of people looking at the same sea and walking on the same sand. The people come and go; the trees and flower and shrubs come and go; but the landscape endures, season by season, and some landscapes are more evocative than others. Ruined buildings, of course, testify to past lives in a way that well-maintained buildings do not.

Sitting in a hotel in Kowloon, looking out over Hong Kong harbour, traces of the past are all around me, just as they are in Anglesey, Los Angeles, Lake Titicaca. But here, as in any other thrusting, thriving city, they are hard for me to read. The present is as unavoidable as the humidity, demanding of all the senses.

Partly this is about education, of course. In a city that I know well, like Nottingham, I can read the built environment and make sense of how and why it has come to look the way it does. I can see ghosts of the nineteenth-century manufacturing city, the medieval market town and the early medieval river crossing behind the twenty-first century shopping centres and ring roads.

Writing this makes me realise something about myself, though, that I did not really know before. I grew up in rural England and Wales, life a sequence of farm cottages and tiny village primary schools as my father changed jobs. I should therefore not be surprised if my ability to read the landscape is always greater in the countryside than in urban areas.

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More on Rushlights

Thinking about the rushlight story, these would only have been readily available to the poor where there was easy access to animal fat. This could have been a problem when only the elites ate meat on a regular basis. Perhaps we can envisage a scenario where rushes were collected and stripped and the pith ‘wicks’ dipped in melted fat in the autumn, when animals that could not be fed over the winter were slaughtered?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a range of devices were made for holding rushlights. Unlike wax candles, they don’t drip, so carrying them around was not a problem, but they don’t stand up on their own. The Victorian Web has an interesting little piece by Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English gardener, written in 1904 and it includes some helpful photographs.

See also:

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Flora Britannica

On a recent trip to England, I discovered a marvellous book: Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica (Chatto & Windus, London, 1996).

This is not a dry encyclopaedia of plant descriptions but rather a wonderful social history of human relationships with the plant world and of the changing symbolic and utilitarian meanings of plants. Most of the stories relate to living memory, but there is also a great deal of plant lore that hints at earlier understandings. There is also an enormous body of very useful information on when particular species were introduced to the British Isles.

Mabey makes use of contributions from many thousands of members of the public, as well as his own research. Among other concepts, this book documents how intensely local, personal and important plants are as a part of the autobiographies of modern Britons. Plant lore is not a thing of the past, as the following example demonstrates.

Concerning Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Mabey provides us with the sort of information that we might expect: that it was ‘once planted by houses as a protection against witches…’ (p. 203), but he also provides us with rather more surprising modern detail. In the Isle of Man, it would seem, crosses made from rowan twigs and bound with wool ‘taken from the hedge. If the wool is from the native Loaghtyn sheep, so much the better.’ are still put up above the lintels of houses on May Eve, when it is also considered a good thing to have primroses in the house. (pp 203-4).

But this book also contains many little gems relevant to early medieval Britain. Dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria), despite the name, produces a yellow dye, not green. Mabey explains that in the area around Kendal, the wool was first dyed yellow with dyers greenweed, then mordanted with alum, before being dipped in a vat of woad to produce ‘Kendal Green’. Now alum does not occur naturally in Britain and in medieval times it was imported from Italy. However, Mabey tells us of an early medieval alternative. Remains of dyers greenweed were found in the Viking levels in York together with residues of clubmoss (Diphasium complanatum). The moss is native to Scandinavia, not Britain, and can be used as a mordant in place of alum.

To take another example, field maple (Acer campestre), not to be confused with the introduced sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), is an ancient native British tree. The wood was much favoured by medieval wood-carvers and both the harp found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the harp excavated from the Saxon barrow at Taplow were made of maple (p. 264).

But the story that really set me thinking was about rush lights. These were made from the soft rush (Juncus effusus) and feature in many a nineteenth-century novel as the light source of the poor. Mabey reminds us that Gilbert White wrote about rush lights in his Natural History of Selborne (1789) and so did William Cobbett in his Cottage Economy (1822). But how far back in time were rush lights used? 17th century? 16th century? Does anybody out there know? Was this an early medieval light source as an alternative to the (always expensive) wax candle?

As might be expected, this book is full of information on traditional herbal remedies, but I was interested to see that Mabey conducts his own assessment of the efficacy of herbal remedies, based partly on the number of his contributors who vouch for the cures. Four plants, he found, stand out as being particularly efficacious: Celandine, Comfrey, Dandelion and Feverfew.

In a way, these are just ‘the usual suspects’, but I note that only dandelion is cited as effective for its traditional use as a diuretic (common names revolve around the wet-the-bed, piss-the-bed theme). Feverfew, it would appear, is effective in helping to reduce the frequency of migraines, rather than in reducing fever. Comfrey poultices are good for bruises and sprains, despite the common names revolving around the theme of ‘bone-knit’. While celandine is definitely not good for eye problems, whatever the Romans and subsequent Anglo-Saxon herbals may have said, but the juice is widely claimed to be efficacious in removing warts.

All in all, this book provides a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in conjuring up the feel of the natural world in the past and I would highly recommend it to all historical novelists, as well as to social and environmental historians.

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History, Landscape, Seventh-Century medicine and health beliefs | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments