Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think historical fiction writers have a duty to portray history as accurately as possible and I think this should be the most up to date interpretations of the past, and not what people were taught in the classroom at school, often quite some time ago, or what’s to be found in popular ‘history’ books often written by presenters from the TV who simply regurgitate the same old supposed facts.
History, contrary to popular opinion, is not an old, dead, subject. In fact it can be very current (I’m just reading about a new copy of the Magna Carta that’s been found abandoned in an old scrapbook) and it changes as more and more information is unearthed or rethought.
Now, this problem doesn’t only affect historical fiction authors, but often those who are eminent scholars in other fields who want to cross-reference with history. Archaeology is only the most obvious of these. Archaeologists aren’t historians, and vice-versa, and as close as the two subjects are, their cross over points can be poles apart. Archaeologists and historians both use each others research to ‘prove’ their arguments but they often rely on outdated interpretations and aren’t always aware of the most up to date research. This can cause huge problems, and I think that all scholars have a duty to seek out experts who can provide the correct current thinking, even if they ultimately question it and offer an alternative.
So what of historical fiction writers? Too often I see old stereotypes being portrayed and no efforts being made to write something that’s factually accurate but different to the accepted norm and this means that time and time again, outdated ideas and even completely incorrect stories are being written about historical figures and being accepted by a huge majority of people because it says it in a book. Not only does it stifle historical research because it means that readers don’t question the story, it also means that incorrect historical ideas are constantly being reinforced. As an historian, I’ve been taught never to really accept what’s written, to look for the bias, look for who gains from a certain take on events, to look at why things are written just as much as what’s actually written. I take this as normal behaviour, but I’m starting to think I might be wrong and that worries me. What if people really think that Elizabeth I did have an affair with Dudley? What if people really do think that Henry VIII was just a dirty old man who went through six wives in seemingly rapid succession (forgetting all together that he was ‘happily’ married for nearly 20 years before all that kicked off)?
If you’re a historical fiction writer, think about why you use the information that you do, and more importantly, if you’re a reader, please think about how the characters are used and why and if you can, dig a little deeper, look for the ‘truth’ because it’s more than likely very, very different from what’s being portrayed. Even seemingly small touches can damn an entire book or TV show. Find the reason, and then, hopefully, the ‘facts’ might make themselves a little clearer.
Sometimes, sometimes, I wonder why I make my life so difficult!
Let me explain.
So, for my dissertation, I was going to study the early years of Iceland and compare them with the developments in the Danelaw, only then I got sidetracked by Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce, and from him grew both my dissertation and The Earls of Mercia series following the Ealdorman through the years from 994-1067 (eventually). And I should have been happy. Only, someone mentioned that they really wanted to know what happened between Alfred and Aethelred II and so Brunanburh (937) was born, and Of Kings and Half Kings (939-942).
Now, I have no one to blame for my next project, Haedfeld, because it was my idea but, but, well the battle of Haedfeld (excuse my lack of Anglo-Saxon characters but it doesn’t always work on my laptop) was entirely my own idea but it takes place in 632/3 and that brings a whole load of new problems. I know the time period, vaguely, and I’ve studied the old Northumbrian Supremacy, Mercian Supremacy and finally the Wessex Supremacy, but I feel as though I’ve wondered into an entirely different minefield of pseudo facts and facts. I know I only have myself to blame, but it’s made me realise how easy it is to forget the great span of time that the Anglo-Saxon period covers. Starting somewhere in the fifth century and running all the way to the eleventh, that’s nearly 600 years.
Now put it into context, if I was trying to do that with this year, I’d be going all the way back to the 1400’s and the War of the Roses and the end of the Hundred Years War. That’s a huge time period! Think of all the facts and pseudo facts we know about that huge chunk of time. So, that done, I’m trying to give myself a breather, think about what I’m doing and not stress too much about the whole thing. Haedfeld and all those other events I want to write about will happen, but I need my research to be firmer before I make a fool of myself.
Still I got deny that I’m very excited about bringing the rascally Penda to life and maybe one day I’ll turn my attention on that Offa as well. Time will tell.
Historical fiction has a lot to live up to – namely, making sure it corresponds with the way you personally view history. If you study a period as an academic, you get a ‘feel’ for the way history should be written, you relate to your characters and imagine them being a certain way. When historical fiction authors get their greasy paws on them, this can all go hideously wrong. And not just academic history, the repeating of outdated and outmoded historical facts can also cause the same problem. Many don’t realise that academic historical fiction evolves every generation or so, and prevailing thoughts and ideas get changed.
As a writer and reader I experience this problem quite a bit. As I’ve said before, I discovered my love of history by studying the Elizabethan period. Historical fiction, and especially historical romantic history, has flourished since I first studied Elizabeth I, and whilst to start with I found it quite enjoyable, the more and more that’s written, with the need for the author to get a different ‘edge’ I’ve found myself falling out of love with a lot of my favourite authors and now I actually physically groan every time I see a new title about the Elizabethan Court (and it’s not just historical fiction that has me groaning – historical non-fiction does as well). Neither is it just Elizabeth, but actually many of the Tudors and sometimes its because it’s many different authors rehashing the same story about the same characters. There are so many fascinating people during the Tudor age that I feel someone should get a look in sometimes.
Now, this isn’t necessarily the author’s fault. I have a real feel for who Elizabeth I was, and the older I get, the more I can relate to her and her inability to make a decision which drove men such as Cecil and Leicester to distraction. If an author goes against my ‘gut’ feelings, I simply can’t read their books. It doesn’t mean their stories are no good, just that they’re not quite my cup of tea anymore.
I think that fantasy is far more freeing when I write. No one can tell me what happens on Unison because, hey, I made it up in my head and I can do what I want with my characters provided it’s ‘believable’ in the fictitious world I’ve created (even if it is based on Viking Age Iceland).
Authors write for a purpose and it might be for the thrill of it, or it might be to educate, or it might just be because they’ve got an agenda in mind. I write historical fiction because I want the people from the Anglo-Saxon period to be seen as men and women who could as easily live today as they did then. I want them to seem personable and realistic and not stereotyped. I want people to stop thinking all Vikings had helmets with horns and did nothing but scream blue murder all their lives. Times might have been bloody, but as I’ve mentioned before, Anglo-Saxon England wasn’t the Middle Ages. The men and women were intelligent and didn’t live in squalor. Women were valued (because the Church hadn’t yet relegated them to mens playthings) but it was a time of strong men, Kings and Warriors, priests and archbishops and they are the people who shine through the sources available to us.
The governance was strong, the economy rich and sophisticated (why else did the Vikings want to conquer England?), the King’s ruled with the help of their ealdormen and reeves, archbishops and bishops and women held their own power, in their nunneries or within the King’s Witan or their own households.
The idea that the Anglo-Saxons lived in squalid little wooden huts, in the ruins of the mighty Roman Empire, has long been disproved. The Grubenhaus was for storage, with a raised wooden floor, not so the people could live with the rats and the mud. The land was good and harvested well, the people grew hedges (many of which can be dated to very ancient times) and wicker fences demarcated land.
The Anglo-Saxons were people like you and me, with a horse instead of a car, and a stout wooden hall instead of a brick built house, and yes, they might not have had potatoes but hey, there are meals that can be cooked without the good old tatie!
That said, my vision of Anglo-Saxon England will still grate and cause offence. I’d apologise but, I’m writing fiction interspersed with as many facts as possible. That’s a lot more than some people write!
So please, enjoy my writing but know that it is my writing!
I worked like crazy before Christmas to get a couple of projects finished, including a return to my fantasy word of Unison which is based on Viking Age Iceland, but tomorrow I must immerse myself back into writing historical fiction. I’m really excited about it but as always a little worried. I try to make my historical fiction as realistic as possible and abide by the known facts but sometimes I find it a challenge to know what must happen as sometimes it goes against the natural character progression.
With Brunanburh I knew who would live and who would die at the battle, and with the Earls of Mercia I know when people die far more often than I know when they’re born and sometimes that makes the stories quite sad for me to write, especially when I really connect with my characters. And tomorrow is one of those days when I’ll have to embrace the reality that some of the characters from Brunanburh won’t make it into Of Kings and Half Kings, and almost worse, some of them won’t make it through the entire sequel. I don’t relish killing off characters if only because I remember the trauma of my favourite characters dying in books I’ve read (I still HATE the end to Tess of the D’Urbervilles – I had to reread it at the time and can’t even consider reading it again).
Yet I do relish a return to the world of Brunanburh – I have the novel in my head and now I need to get it out and onto paper with all the little quirks and side stories that end up in it.
But enough of that. I can’t give a sneak peek of Of Kings and Half Kings because it will spoil the surprise so instead I’m going to share the last chapter of Brunanburh, which I love (even though I wrote it!) Enjoy.
(This may contain spoilers – read on with care if you’ve not yet read Brunanburh)
Brunanburh – Athelstan – 937
Exhausted, bloodied and broken, I watch with pride as my men continue to chase the enemy from our land. There are few enough of them left and fewer yet will reach their ships.
The field is a sea of broken and bloodied bodies, horrifying in its contrasts of bright red, dead white and dying grey, but a necessary evil. As soon as the enemy are confirmed as gone, I will allow my priests to walk amongst the dead men and offer prayers for their souls.
Edmund is gone, chasing the enemy. My ealdormen are gone, chasing the enemy but I remain looking at the triumph we’ve earned today. If I wasn’t so convinced that I laboured with God on my side I’d be in peril for my soul. The destruction of so many men in one place has placed a heavy burden on me. When I return to my Court I will arrange for grants of land to my favourite monasteries and I’ll amend my will. More men will be needed to pray for my soul when I’m gone and I must ensure they have funds enough to continually do so. Without their intervention I may not make it into God’s Heaven. Not now.
The day has become quiet and calm, the gentle breeze caressing my skin as the sunlight slowly begins to bleed from the sky. At my side young Alfred is handing me a horn of mead and a lump of bread and cheese. I swallow hastily and eat as quickly as possible. I am starving and thirsty in equal measure. War mongering is a hungry profession.
In the distance I discern the noise of a troop of men advancing and I look frantically around me, pulled abruptly from my reverie. My men are all dispersed either back to their tents to tend to their own injuries, or gone to ensure no more of the enemy reach their ships. I stand alone ruminating on my victory, all apart from young Alfred leaving me to my thoughts.
For a long moment, fear stills my heart. I’d thought my enemy run away back towards their ships. Only then I discern the man at the front of the rapidly approaching force and my body relaxes, all tension draining instantly away. I’ll not have to fight for my survival again today, thank goodness. My arms ache and my head is ringing with the cries of dying men.
Before me sits Hywel on a magnificent horse, deepest black with no hint of another colour, a smirk across his uncovered face, lined and coloured by the sun as his gaze takes in the same scene I’ve been considering.
“I see I come too late, my Lord Athelstan,” he calls jauntily as soon as he’s within earshot.
“Yes you do, the enemy are vanquished. Hundreds, if not thousands lie dead before us. See.”
I hide my surprise at seeing Hywel come to fight for me and point towards the field of death. I watch with some satisfaction as he gulps around the all too visible scene of my greatest success.
“Athelstan, this is a great victory for you, and now I’m even more aggrieved that I didn’t arrive sooner,” he says with all seriousness.
“Is that why you’re here? To join the battle?” I ask with interest, but hopefully, not too keenly. It would be wonderful to know that he’d changed his mind about supporting me before the victory was won.
“Yes my Lord, of course,” he quickly assures me, his voice still serious. “I realized the error of my judgement. Our island has grown quiet under your guardianship and I shouldn’t have turned ambivalent at the thought of proving my loyalty to you.”
I’m too tired to mask my surprise at the words and Hywel starts to laugh quietly, his serious expression evaporating in the face of my obvious joy at his words.
“I mean no disrespect my Lord, but it’s the first time I’ve ever truly seen you speechless.”
“I won’t deny that you’ve surprised me, in a good way. And you have my thanks for making the journey.”
Hywel sobers at that, looking out at the field carpeted in bodies.
“You had an overwhelming victory?” he queries, more statement than actual question.
“It was a hard won victory. We must count the total number of dead and reckon up those we’ve lost on our own side.”
“I imagine that will take some time,” Hywel mutters cynically and I smile a small sad smile that spreads across my face, turning it from winter’s day to summer’s at the thought of those I’ve lost on the battlefield. They all died for me, but they wanted to, and they had good deaths. All of them.
“It will, and there will of course be many graves to dig.” The reminder of that unhappy task turns me even more somber.
“My men are good at digging graves, and looting a little as they go, I can’t deny that and so I won’t. If you’ll allow us, my Lord, we’ll still set up camp and help with the cleanup operation.”
“That would be most welcome. I imagine my own men will not look with joy upon the task of preparing the dead for burial, not when they might fear who they’ll discover next and whether they’re kin or enemy.”
Hywel bows low at the acceptance of his request.
“You have my thanks my Lord.”
“And you have mine. I’ve missed your company.”
A commotion behind him and Hywel’s impetuous grin is back on his face.
“I almost forgot,” he says, his head turning to where a ragged man is being lead forward between two of his men. He is a little beaten, although not too much, dried blood streaks his nose and his clothes are muddy from where he’s been forced to march whilst Hywel and his men have ridden, but his eyes are clear and his face clean other than for the blood.
“I found something for you,” he says, and I narrow my eyes and look at the man a little more closely. I’m wondering if my guess as to who he is will prove to be correct.
“This, my Lord Athelstan is your little skald, the source of much of the discontent within the Welsh lands. And we were right, he’s told me everything. His most famous poem was constructed on the orders of Constantin, a little something to worm it’s way into the minds of all those clever enough to interpret it.”
I was right, and I’m overjoyed that Hywel has gone to all the trouble of finding the source of much of the discontent that has erupted from the Welsh lands, that, when combined with the honeyed words of Olaf of Dublin has forced all my allies to remain at home during this fight for York. I am equally relieved to know that my assumptions have proven to be correct, and ecstatic that Hywel has returned to me. Hopefully the other men of the Welsh kingdoms will follow suit in the coming months.
Hywel reaches out then and grasps my arm firmly. I return the greeting wholeheartedly. After the day I’ve had, it feels good to have this further evidence of the righteousness of my Kingship and overlordship.
“Come my Lord, I’ll get my men to set their camp and then we’ll begin our grisly work.”
I look bleakly out at the field of destruction and death, the blood churned bodies, the early evening sun dully shining on discarded swords and shields, the scraps of bright clothes that catch my eye, the occasional glimpse of a pale upturned face, eyes now forever staring, and I notice for the first time the black crowd of birds who’ve come to feast, their harsh ca-caring to each other belatedly penetrating my hearing.
“Tomorrow will be soon enough. There’s no need to rush.”
And with that, I resolutely turn my back on the battle site.
The name fills me with pride and disquiet in equal measure.
I know it will be remembered for a thousand years to come.
Oh, yeah, merely days until release now. I’ve typed my fingers a few millimetres shorter than they should be, and I’ve edited until I can’t remember where ‘ ” , . and ; should all actually be placed, but hopefully … yes hopefully, it’s not got any glaring plot holes or annoying bits where I’ve gone over past events and put a different sheen on them.
I feel pleased and relieved in equal measure to have finished the book because it takes me past the point that I’ve most heavily researched so far which means that I know get to do some more research and fill in all the gaping holes on my ‘time line charts’ that I use when I’m constructing a plot. The thing with historical fiction is you have to research past the time limit you want to write about, as well as before, so that you get the context for events correct.
But enough of me, here’s another little glimpse into the world of Northman Part 2. Enjoy.
Chapter 11 – 1014 – Leofric – London
He barely knew where to look and who to make eye contact with. Not that he was an untried youth at the Witan, but right now, there was such a swirl of alliances and counter-alliances that it was almost safer to speak to no one.
That said, his father had instructed him to speak with whom he could and learn what he could, but he felt a little tongue tied, a little unsure of himself. He was, after all, clearly marked as Ealdorman Leofwine’s son, the good one, the one who didn’t contravene every action his father made. It was almost as much of a burden as the one his older brother carried. For some reason, because he was the good son, men and women of the royal Witan felt as though they could ask him anything, allude to all sorts of rumours that they’d heard about Northman, and generally make him feel uncomfortable. It was difficult to keep up the pretence of outrage sometimes, and they’d been more than one occasion where he’d had to bite his lip to stop himself from saying something that would put a lie to what was really happening.
As his brother walked past him, he blankly looked through him, but all the time, he was communicating as best he could with the older brother he felt he’d barely begun to know. He’d enjoyed their time together when they’d been trapped inside London, and then had stayed there to welcome their new King. This lightening fast change back to the rift that ran through their family was unwelcome and distressing. He missed his brother already and it had only been a handful of days. They’d been close as small children, very close and he’d always been a little in awe of him and keen to be just like him. He still held to that belief now, but he knew in his heart that he’d never be able to endure what his brother had. He simply wasn’t strong enough to turn his back on his family. He needed them.
He felt a cold nudge on his hand, and tweaked the ear of his faithful hound. Unlike his brother and his father, his original hound had died three years ago, and now he had a new one, a well-trained female but a magnet for the male dogs anywhere he took her. He’d wanted to name her Hunter after his father’s old dog, but his mother had asked him not to, saying that his father still thought of his old dog too often. Instead he’d named her Beauty, his mother having told him that Killer was perhaps inappropriate, although she’d said it with a wry smile. She was a good hound, and faithful to the end. In this room of people and animals, she was happier than him, but pleased to keep him comfortable as he brooded on the events that had befallen his family since Swein claimed the throne.
He’d heard far more of the debates of the ealdormen than they thought, and he’d decided that all of them were fools for not gifting the throne to Cnut. He thought Cnut was the sort of dynamic King that his country needed. He knew how to use his sword and shield, and he also seemed to know when it was better to use the power of his tongue and thoughts. Leofric could admit that he was under the spell of the older youth. He didn’t begrudge him his new wife, but he would have quite liked his ships and the respect he’d earned from his men and his father’s men.
He’d not voiced his opinions to his father because he knew he already half shared them, and that was enough for Leofric. His father was a man of deep thoughts and careful actions. Leofric knew he was rash and more personable and he also knew that if he didn’t watch what he said and did, he’d land himself in trouble, and not with his father, but with his father’s enemies. As such, being at the Witan was difficult for him. He had to watch his every word and his every action.
It was quite simply easier for him to sit with his hound than with anyone else.
Not that there weren’t other youths at the Witan that he could have spoken to. It was just that they were all someone else’s sons, or someone else’s nephews and they were all as constrained as he was.
And there weren’t many young lady’s either. They were all at their respective homes, locked up tight against the ravages of either Cnut or the uncouth young men of the Witan. His own sister was in the same predicament, and he knew she loathed it. He almost pitied his mother for having to listen to her near constant grumbling about how unfair it all was. Almost. He couldn’t deny that he was pleased she wasn’t there bending his ear.
His father walked towards them, a faint smile on his tired face.
“Have they all gone to plot?” he asked, turning so that he stood beside his son and looked out at the other people walking through the hall, conversing as they went, or just intent on their next errand.
“Yes, Northman called on Uhtred, Olaf and Thorkell.”
His father nodded as though he’d expected it.
“Well, I didn’t expect him to include me,” he chuckled darkly. “His hatred for me, whilst still uncalled for, has never faltered in the last ten years.”
Leofric wasn’t used to his father speaking to him quite so openly, and he struggled for a moment to think of a reply.
“If you’re to serve me in any capacity at the Witan, you’ll have to get used to hearing my thoughts, and responding as you think yourself,” his father said, his words surprising Leofric. “I don’t surround myself with men who only tell me what I want to hear,” his father continued, “and don’t forget that. But don’t make up opinions just to be difficult either. Horic and Wulfstan always told me everything they thought, whether I wanted to hear it or not. Oscetel is a little more circumspect, he thinks before he speaks, but I need to hear everything all the same. So what do you think about today’s events.”
Leofric gave the question the attention it deserved before he spoke.
“It’s just like it always was,” he finally said, his eyes taking in the expansive room and the people pressed within it. The din of conversation
was almost deafening in the confined space and he’d have liked nothing more than to escape.
“It is, you’re right, and that’s what we have to be aware of. It’s as it always has been. It’s as if the winter months never happened, and I don’t think that Aethelred will take kindly to anyone who reminds him of his temporary banishment. Once Eadric has chased Cnut from our land, the King will expect everything to fall into place as it used to do. I hear he’s sending messengers and men to bring Emma and the children home.”
Leofric knew that his father wasn’t saying something with his words, for all that they appeared open and honest enough, and then he grasped it.
“You don’t think it’ll be like it was before?”
“No, I don’t, and good lad. The King is a fool if he doesn’t realise how much has changed. Not with the way that the land is governed, taxes collected and the men and women provisioned and fed, but within the circles of the Witan everyone has realised just how vulnerable the King is, and how reliant he is on Eadric, who’s a conniving little bastard at the best of times.”
“What will you do?” Leofric asked, intrigued by his father’s reasoning.
“What all good ealdormen should do. Govern my lands for the King, collect his taxes and see to the roads and the bridges. But no, I won’t be going into battle against Cnut, and neither will I be warning him of what might be about to happen. For all that I respect him, I need to protect my own family first.”
“So we’ll be going home?” he asked, amazed that his father would leave London at such a time.
“Yes, when the King announces the attack, and the men of the fyrd are gathered, we’ll be leaving London and returning to Deerhurst. The King will not want me here, not until some other catastrophe occurs.”
“And you think it will?”
“Oh it’s bound to lad. Aethelred holds onto the throne by a hair’s breadth and by the good wishes of the other ealdormen and churchmen, and because he thinks he has Eadric’s resources at his fingertips. But when his older sons realise that they’re once more being excluded there will be rumblings of discontent, and this time they know that they can dislodge their father with the right support.”
Leofric was shocked by his father’s words and felt his mouth dropping open.
“You think they’ll be a power struggle?”
“I think there will be. Yes. Now, go and see how Athelstan is for me. He likes you, and your brother but make no mention of him. See if you can gleam his thoughts.”
Leofric felt a little worried by the task assigned to him, and also quite honoured. His father hadn’t yet trusted him with any delicate matter.
“Take the dog with you,” his father said, “Athelstan likes the hounds we breed.”
Calling to Beauty, the hound lurched to her feet and walked with far more confidence than
Leofric felt towards the tables that Athelstan and his brother and their men had occupied. They were a slightly rowdy lot, but nothing that drew attention to them.
Athelstan was bent over the table, a drinking cup before him, as well as a trencher containing the carcass of a pig. He wasn’t alone, his brother sat beside him talking quietly. When he saw Leofric approach he smiled in welcome and gestured that he should sit. His glance shot over Leofric’s head, and although he wanted to turn and see if it was his father that Athelstan had made eye contact with, he refrained. Athelstan and his father had once had a close relationship, and Leofric assumed his father was hoping to rekindle that.
“It pains me to hear of the rift with your brother,” Athelstan said, his voice quiet so that no one else could hear them for all that they sat opposite each other on wooden stalls.
“He’s always been a stubborn fool,” Leofric offered with what he hoped was the expression of a martyr.
“Too much time with Eadric will do that to a man,” Edmund joked wryly, and Leofric managed to laugh with the two brothers.
“Your father is once more beset on all sides,” Athelstan continued, but Leofric only nodded. It was an obvious statement.
“And you, how do you think you fit into the King’s new plans.” Athelstan’s eyes hardened at the question but he didn’t become angry, more resigned than anything.
“We don’t, as usual. Once, when we were boys we were the most important thing to him in the world, but now, well, he has new sons and younger son’s that he can control. We’re just an annoyance, nothing more.”
“So will you stand with him against Cnut.” At that Edmund sucked in a breath and Leofric feared he’d said something he shouldn’t.
Athelstan cautioned his brother with his eyes and spoke forcefully.
“It’s one thing to have our own father withhold any hope of succeeding him from us, but it’s quite another for a total stranger to lay claim to the throne. We’ll fight to protect it, whether it’s for my brother, my half-brothers, or myself. The English throne belongs to the family of Wessex.”
“So you’ll go to war against Cnut then?” he pressed.
“We’ll do as we’re instructed,” Athelstan said, his tone still dark. “For now,” he qualified and Leofric took the time to think how he’d feel if his father placed so little trust and support in him. He knew he wouldn’t like it, not one bit.
“Are you going to war?” Edmund queried a little defiantly.
“If we’re asked, but Lord Leofwine thinks we won’t be.”
“I’m inclined to agree.”
“And if we don’t we’re going home.”
At that Athelstan fixed him with his calm eyes, and Leofric watched emotion flash across his face.
“Leofric, your father is a man who reads the politics of this Witan better than anyone. Learn from him. Absorb all you can from him. I wish I’d been lucky enough to have him as a role model.”
As the two brother’s exchanged a knowing look, Northman wracked his memory trying to work out, once more, what his father was saying but not saying all at the same time. The word ‘failure’ swept through his mind, and he relaxed then. It would be good if his father distanced himself from whatever failure in battle Eadric was brewing up.
I’ve officially reached the end of all the research I’ve done for my dissertation, which means that the next Earls of Mercia book is going to take A LOT more research. But, I’m not dissuaded by it, oh no, and I am going to take the time to celebrate. And neither should there be any fear that the full story won’t be written. I know what happens and I plan on sharing it with everyone. But here’s a bit of Northman Part 2 for you to enjoy (along with me)!
Northman Part 2
The room was uncomfortably warm, but still the King shivered in his oversized bed that so recently had belonged to another King, Aethelred. Leofwine, Uhtred, Ulfcytel, Aelfric, the new ealdormen Godric and a brooding Eadric had been summoned before King Swein, first of that name, by his son Cnut. Cnut’s face was hooded, his expression difficult to interpret in the light of what was about to happen. He was a youth and yet he covered his own thoughts well.
Archbishop Wulfstan was at the King’s side, talking softly to him and when speech became too much for the mortally ill man, Wulfstan uttered prayers instead, Swein’s eyes closing either in pain or in joy at the words he heard. It was difficult to tell.
Uhtred and Ulfcytel were clearly alarmed by what they saw. They’d had no inkling that the King had been wounded in battle as he successfully usurped the crown of England. But then, Leofwine had only been aware because he’d seen the tell tale signs at the coronation feast a few weeks ago. He’d hoped the King would recover but he hadn’t and now the events of the last six months were going to culminate in the waste of a good man’s life for a crown he’d never really needed. Not when he already had one.
Eadric’s feelings were difficult to interpret. Swein had made no pretence of his distaste for the man and had not allowed him to leave his sight in
London. Yet Eadric seemed as disturbed as Uhtred and Ulfcytel. Clearly he’d been too caught up in his own concerns to pay any close attention to the King. He’d spent his time reconciling himself to the reality of what had happened. Aethelred, his little puppet King, was gone and he no longer had control over the King of England.
Swein had brought his own commanders with him when he’d set out to take the English throne and they stood within the room as well. Erik, Olaf, Ragnor, Harold, Sigurd and Halfdan. Leofwine had spoken with the six men often in the last few weeks, although Swein had made it clear that they were the commanders of his ship-army, not men he planned on rewarding with land in England. No, those men would come soon from Denmark as soon as word reached Harald of his father’s triumph, or rather, they would have done. Leofwine hoped news would reach them soon of their King’s death so that any unfortunate altercations could be avoided.
It made for a strange scene. The men of Denmark, grim faced and subconsciously standing close to Cnut. Leofwine was unsure if they meant to protect him, or if they were protecting themselves.
And then there were the English men. All had now bowed their knee to Swein. All apart from Eadric had become his commended men and yet other than the name of their King little had changed for them. Leofwine was unsure what tomorrow would bring.
Wulfstan’s eyes met Leofwine’s one good one and he beckoned him forwards. Bending to speak to
the man who knelt before the King, Wulfstan spoke,
“The King wishes to speak to you but I’m not sure if he’s capable. You’ll stay in case he regains his senses?”
Nodding to show he would Leofwine stood silently behind Wulfstan, mouthing the prayers along with the priest. He’d not often stood a death vigil and sought comfort in the familiarities of the prayers his own Abbot intoned in their family church.
There was silence apart from the rasping of the King’s breath through his tired lungs.
A bead of sweat formed on the tip of Leofwine’s nose and he angrily brushed it aside. Time passed slowly, the noise of the royal hall continuing beyond the thin wooden walls as normal, the yelps of trodden on dogs and the crackle of the larger cooking fire coming through the thin screens, but no one in that small space dared move, not even Eadric.
Leofwine glanced at the man and noted a faint smile gracing his face and that he stood more proudly than he had done since Christmas Day. Eadric was clearly already plotting, but who would he chose as his next King? Would he recall Aethelred back from his temporary exile, or would he look to Swein’s son, Cnut? To Thorkell or even to the atheling Athelstan?
Leofwine pondered the same. He’d made his promise to Aethelred that should Swein die he’d work for his reinstatement. But now he quaked a
little at that promise. Whilst it might be the right
thing to do, the honourable way to act, he couldn’t deny that the prospect of peace under a strong King was far more appealing. With Cnut set above them as their King, young as he was, it had to be hoped that he and his brother back in Denmark would work to deflect any more raiders. Cnut as their King could be their salvation, provided the brothers stayed firm allies.
But then, he’d made a promise to Aethelred, sworn an oath as his commended man and he should follow through with that promise. After all, he’d given his word and his honour depended upon it.
There was also Athelstan or even Edmund, both strong warriors, good at commanding their men and far more in tune with the needs of the people and the country than their father had ever been. Neither of them had fled England, preferring instead to hold their own lands and see what Swein had planned for them. It now appeared that they’d face no retribution for being the sons of the old King, none at all, unless Cnut took the throne. Then they could still lose all.
Uhtred shuffled in the quiet, his eyes glancing at Leofwine. He too was thinking of the future. Uhtred had quickly succumbed to Swein’s devastating attack. Quickly he’d bent his knee to save his people from the terrible violence that Swein
had promised. Would Aethelred even want him to remain as his ealdorman if he came back? Would it not be safer to turn to Cnut? Cnut had hinted that,
like his father, he’d keep the English men, even with
their ties to the old King through their marriages and children. He’d not made the same promise for the King’s own sons.
Ulfcytel had not been as quick to accept Swein. He’d held out longer in the face of the attack, even when Swein had established his own counter-kingdom at Gainsborough, almost in Ulfcytel’s lands. He might have turned his allegiance in the end, but he’d not been as happy to do so as Uhtred and that could cause him problems with Cnut. Yet he had swung his allegiance away from Aethelred, and if Aethelred came back he would more than likely punish the man.
And then there was the gloating Eadric. He’d been miserable for weeks, a quiet menace at the back of every meeting, too stupid or too clever to not present himself for the King’s meetings of the Witan even though he was not the Ealdorman for Mercia anymore.
No, Cnut had allied himself firmly with another strong Mercian family, and had made a good marriage there. That it seemed to have been done for love was not lost on Leofwine. Just like his own oldest son, Cnut was headstrong and guided by his feelings. Not the best quality to find in a King but also not the worst.
If Cnut were King then Eadric would never regain his position as Ealdorman of Mercia. Of them all, Eadric would want Aethelred back as King. He’d think no further than that. If Aethelred was
King he would once more be the King’s son by marriage, his power would be returned to him and
he’d be a powerful influence on the King. Eadric’s allegiance to Aethelred was a certainty.
Swein’s eyes fluttered open then, glazed with pain but bright with intelligence. He wasn’t allowing himself an easy death. He looked blearily around and met Leofwine’s eye with a rye smirk on his pain-lined face.
Leofwine stepped closer, and knelt at his King’s side, Wulfstan shuffling un-elegantly out of their way.
“Leofwine,” Swein rasped through his dry lips, spittle on his bearded chin.
“My King,” Leofwine replied, as Swein smiled more widely, his teeth flashing yellow.
“My friend,” Swein continued, his voice a little stronger, his hand moving to grasp Leofwine’s. “My apologies for the ills I ever did you and for my misjudged efforts to kill you.”
Leofwine shrugged the apology aside, it wasn’t the first time he’d heard it and now wasn’t the time to dwell on it.
“And now as friends, I beg you, do what you can for my son. Make him King in my stead for if you do not, he’ll let the men run riot, and the devastation will be vast and sweeping. He doesn’t have my power of restraint.” Swein smirked at the irony of his words for what Englishman could think him capable of restraint after his conquest?
“Swein, you ask much for a youth who has no experience of ruling men and land,” Leofwine said. He’d been expecting something like this from the
King but his blunt words still caught him off guard and he said what he was thinking as opposed to the politic thing.
Swein’s eyes hardened at the words,
“I know the importance of what I ask, and I demand it from you. Make my son King.” The grip on Leofwine’s hand was increasing and Leofwine was shocked that so much strength yet remained in the dying man.
“Swein, you ask much,” he attempted to side step the issue.
“I know what I ask, my friend, and I would have your word that you will do it, and if not tomorrow, then in the next year or two. I can’t think what will immediately happen on my death, but as you say, Cnut may not be everyone’s first choice, but promise me, in fact swear to me, that you will work to restore my family line to this throne. Only then will England ever be free from attack from the men of the north. She is a shining jewel in a generous sea and too many of my countrymen point their ship’s bows towards her.”
Leofwine dipped his head at the words. Swein was no fool. He knew the likely outcomes should Cnut sit upon the throne, and Leofwine could clearly see the logic. It made sense, if only he hadn’t already committed to Aethelred.
“Swein, my friend,” he replied, raising his head and watching the eyes of Swein lighten at the warmer tone he used, “I swear that I will do as much as I can to make Cnut King of England.”
Swein smiled at the words, grasping his hand once more in thanks, and then his eyes closed in pain and they never opened again.
Brunanburh – Athelstan – 937
I rise from my knees before my portable altar, the noises of the busy camp flooding back into my consciousness. Grimacing, I wonder how I’ve managed to ignore it for so long. Men shout to each other, dog’s bark and horses shuffle in their temporary paddocks. The press of men and animals can be felt even within my own personal tent.
My personal priest, Beornstan, watches me. He’s not alone. My ealdormen and my commanders have spent much of the last week watching me surreptitiously, thinking I’m not aware of their scrutiny. I don’t think they expect me to crumble with the stress and the knowledge of the battle that must come, but they are looking for something. I hazard its my confidence. And so I must hold myself firm and let not one flicker of doubt of the victory to come show in my face or in my actions. That is why I seek the comfort of my Lord. Only to him can I profess my anxieties. But never out loud. Only when I speak to him with my mind can I ask the question that taunts me, ‘am I doing the right thing?’
Not that I can act any differently, not now. Those who should have sought my protection and my overlordship have tested my patience. They have gone against me, as I somehow knew they always would. Not all of them, but even those who were my close allies have become distant of late, avoiding my messengers and sending responses that reach me too late to be of any use.
I would blame myself but none of this is of my making. They gave their word. They broke their pledge. They must be punished. They must know that the English are not to be ridiculed and ignored. The English are a truly powerful race and we must be respected as such. We’ve grown since our near annihilation at the hands of the Vikings during my grandfather’s tenure of this land and we will not retreat or run from any who attempts to encroach on our land.
I would blame the arrogant Norse King of Dublin for all my ills but he’s not so persuasive that he could have made men act against their nature. He’s just the excuse they needed for their current actions.
I’ve not been ignorant of the man’s increasing success in his native land, and I’d been warned that once he felt secure there he would attempt to claim back the land that he feels is his birth -right, the Viking Kingdom of York. I can admire his misguided hopes whilst acting violently to repel him. There is no irony there. He’ll not have back what is mine and my people’s. York is a part of the ancient Saxon kingdom of Deira. It belonged to my ancestors, the Saxons, and we will keep it or die trying to protect it.
My ealdormen and holy men agree with my. Most are here with me now, even the more militant of the holy men have come and will fight alongside the men of the fyrd and the men of the household troops that guard my own person, or their own Lords, my ealdormen.
The only aspect of the entire coming battle that surprises me even a little is its position. I would have expected the battle to occur near York, close to the heartlands of the kingdom that he wishes to claim. Instead, we’ll meet in battle between the source of his power across the sea, Dublin, and the Kingdom he wants, the old kingdom of York. It’s a strange place to make battle, and I smirk a little. As Edmund advised, it’s proven to be to our advantage to hem them in a little and make them take a stand in an area that I can’t imagine is to their choosing.
Sadly, it’s close enough to the sea that Olaf might either send for reinforcements or retreat that way, but my men will be deployed in such a fashion that they might be cut off.
It’s a fine day. A good day for a battle, if such could exist. I pray the Lord is showing his support for my actions in everything from the blue sky dotted with sporadic clouds high in the air, to the gentle breeze rustling the ripening crops, to the light and welcome heat coming from the sun. We’ll be cool when we attack our enemies. Sweat will not easily bead our faces unless the fighting becomes fierce.
I’m fitted out for battle, ready and willing for it to start. My coat with its closing woven together metal rings fits me closely, pulled close together by my decorated belt, complete with pouches and hooks from which my weapons hang. A small, richly decorated bone handled knife, a sword made for my own hand and height, a carefully constructed piece of workmanship made by the finest metal worker in the land. I even watched him make it, bending the molten metal and hammering it into place, allowing it to cool and then repeating the procedure, time and time again until the sword was complete. And then to top it, he added a handle made of bone and wound a coil of metal tightly around it so that the blade stays true to its handle.
If I must make war, then I will do it with the best weapons possible.
On the small wooden stool, sits my shield, polished, sanded and repainted, the colours are bright and gaudy, the reds and oranges and blacks of my wyvern standard easy to differentiate. Any who I meet will know that they fight a man of the ancient Wessex line.
My clothing reflects the same colours as my shield. A little less bright, they still mark me as a man of Wessex, a man of England, and many of my warriors likewise dress the same. My gloved, now safely stowed inside one of my waist pouches, are deepest black, better to hide the bloody and gore that will cover me before the day is done.
My hair is neatly tied back, secured with bands of twisted rope, and for the occasion I have shorted my blonde beard a little. In battle its important to deny the enemy even the smallest means of them killing a man. Without being able to gain a fist hold on my beard they’ll not be able to grab tightly and hold on.
These men who swore their oaths to me ten years ago, and who tested me three years ago, shall not defeat me here. They swore a holy oath, they were guests at my Witan, honoured guests no less and yet they turned against my gentle imperium and sided once more with the Dublin Norse.
But I’ll not upset myself further now. We’ve arrived at this moment and honeyed words or overtures of friendship will not sway me – not again and not when they dare to enter my lands in hostility.
We’ve been marching for the last two days, my troops and the members of the fyrd arranging themselves in a position where we can clearly watch for the enemy, as I must now call them.
We know where they are, the forward scouts have seen to that, and so with the help of my ealdormen and leader of my household troops, and my warrior half-brother, we’ve argued back and forth calling for a number of local guides to explain the lay of the land and finally I’ve had my way.
This spot, high on a steep hill, overlooking the lush countryside around is a place my Aunt once exclaimed with delight at seeing, musing that it would make both a fine muster point and a wonderfully defensive position. This will be where I defeat the pretentions of Constantin; the old grizzled warrior, the upstart from Dublin and any others who feel that my sway is too great over their lands and that mine are for the taking.
Beside me, Edmund is being fitted with his war gear, his brynie, and his sword holster and heavy gloves. He wears the same colours as me, his own belt as encumbered with pouches and hooks as my own. Many may think that to fight with a sword is all that is needed, but my brother and I have small knives, a war axe, a sword, and also matching shields. He looks a little grim but his actions are decisive. He’s as committed to this battle as I am.
I watch my men with pride. There is a purposefulness in them all. They share my desires here, more so than when I attacked Constantin’s lands three years ago. Many didn’t appreciate my taking the ship and land army away from our own lands. I can understand their reluctance. They didn’t want their own land undefended, not when so many enemies surround us. They also didn’t want a greater area of land to defend and they didn’t want people who didn’t want to be ruled by me under my command for they could only cause trouble.
I understand. I don’t agree. And I will, god willing, prove to be correct.