Just before Christmas, I did something very bold. I gave the text to somebody to read. Their verdict was, on the whole, not too bad, although they were confused by the Anglo-Saxon and Brythonic names ( I hope I am fixing this) and they wanted the text expanding in places. (I am fixing this too and it helps with my ‘this book is too short’ problem). But the most important problem, apparently, is the prologue. My reader was totally unfamiliar with both the period and the genre and wanted some sort of brief introduction that helped orientate them to what the hell was going on. So the prologue has got the axe. Instead I have written a brief Preface of the historical kind, and here it is:
This story is about the consequences of a real murder that took place in about the year 615. The victim was a man called Hereric. We know about his death partly because he was of royal blood but mainly because he was father to the woman known to history as Saint Hilda of Whitby.
Hereric died, so the monk Bede tells us, of poison ‘while he was living in banishment under the protection of the British King Cerdic’ (King Ceretic of Elmet, a small kingdom in the area of what is now Leeds in West Yorkshire).*
Hereric, his wife Breguswith, and their daughters Hilda and Hereswith, were all Anglo-Saxons or, more strictly, Angles. Their kinsmen ruled in the kingdom of Deira in what is now Yorkshire. They lived in turbulent times, when Angles and Saxons and Jutes (Germanic tribes from what are now Denmark, the Netherlands and western Germany), were still in the process of conquering the native British kingdoms. They lived, in other words, during the prolonged and difficult birth of England.
This story begins 18 years after Hereric’s death as the Britons under King Cadwallon of Gwynedd are preparing to fight back against the Angles under the command of Hereric’s uncle, King Edwin of Deira and Bernicia.
The Angles and Saxons called their western neighbours Welisc, foreigners (a word that has come down to us in modern English as ‘Welsh’), as they fought to take over more and more of their land. But those neighbours called themselves Brythons (Britons) or Cymry (the people) and they called the invaders Saesnegs. The names that each had for the other were terms of abuse. But they did not just fight each other. Often, Angle fought Saxon and Cymry fought Cymry, and sometimes Angles and Cymry joined forces against a common enemy. Each had very different versions of the same history, the same struggle for rule over the most fertile and productive parts of the Islands of Britain.
Hereric’s death is a real murder mystery. There has been much speculation over the years but there is still no consensus as to who killed him or why. What we do know is that it was a significant death with significant consequences. What follows suggests what might have happened, and offers one possible explanation for the poisoning of Saint Hilda’s father.
So are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin the (hi)story of Murder in Elmet.
*Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, 1968, p.248).
This story is written in modern English but half the protagonists would have spoken Anglo-Saxon, from which modern English has evolved. The other half, however, would have spoken a Brythonic language, an ancient precursor to modern Welsh. The main way that I have indicated these linguistic differences is in the words that the characters use for themselves and each other. This gives us a range of paired terms that I hope will not be too confusing to the reader.
For simplicity, all pre-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of what is now Wales, the midlands of England and Cumbria are referred to as Cymry/Welisc rather than Brythons. They share an ancient cultural heritage, although the people of the ‘Old North’ or ‘Hen Ogledd’ (including Rheged – see map), were strictly speaking Brythons, not Cymry. Their language I call Cymraeg/Welisc and they call the people on the other side of the frontier Saesnegs. The kingdoms of the Cymry include Gwynedd, Powys and Rheged and they have recently lost the kingdoms of Elmet, Dunaut and Craven to the Saesnegs. They call the whole area of what is now the midlands of England ‘Lloegyr’.
The Angles/Saesnegs speak Anglisc/Saesneg and their kingdoms include Deira, Bernicia, Mercia, Lindsey and East Anglia (see map).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gildas; for a free ebook of an old English translation of his principle work, see: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=3R1mCE7p44MC&printsec=titlepage&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false; for more information on Taliesin and Aneirin see the 26 August 2012 post on this site; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_Triads; for a fabulous edition of the Triads see: Rachel Bromwich, editor and translator. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, Second Edition 1978.