Book Review – Oswald: Return of the Kingby Edoardo Albert (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb:

“The exiled family of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria arrive, after much hardship, on the island of Iona, where the monastery founded by St Columba has become a centre of worship and learning. Young Oswald becomes firm friends with a novice, Aidan. When Aidan professes his final vows, Oswald and his little brother Oswy are received into the church. As befits a young prince, Oswald learns to fight. However, Aidan’s example attacts him and he is on the point of deciding to become a monk when news reaches Iona that his half brother, Eanfrith, has been killed by Cadwallon, the king who defeated Edwin. Oswald sails back to Northumbria and meets Cadwallon in battle, defeating and killing him. Oswald, now undisputed king of Northumbria, gives Aidan the island of Lindisfarne as his base. But Penda, the last great pagan king in England, is raising troops against him.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

Oswald, Return of the King is the first book I’ve read by the author.

Oswald is, unfortunately, a dense read that suffers with some pacing issues, but more than anything, is plagued by unnecessary and near constant Bible quotations. It would perhaps, have been better if the novel had been named after the monks of Lindisfarne or Iona, because the focus of the novel is not actually Oswald. The author has made great use of the work of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (as must everyone who writes and studies about this time period), and I couldn’t help thinking that Bede would have been overjoyed by the author’s firm adherence to his ideas – to write a history of the Church – and not a history of the people throughout this period, but for myself, I felt that this detracted from what should have been an exiting read and instead descended into a long and tedious story about a highly fictionalised accounting of how Christianity was introduced to the Saxons of England. Christianity was a weapon, just like a warrior’s sword, shield and spear, but the author, writing for a Christian Press, makes no reference to the political nature of the imposition of Christianity.

As to the story itself, Oswald does not become King of Bernicia until 48% of the book has passed, and then there is some definite fudging of events and dates which takes the reader to the final battle – or should I say ‘finally a battle’. Until this point much has been made of the amassing of troops – but the Battle of Heavenfield, where Oswald gains his kingdom, is a disappointing fight between two men in a quarry, an amassing of troops at York slithers away as a truce is called, and Maserfield is the only battle that gets any ink – even the supposed overthrow of the Gododdin earns no more than the recall of a messenger reporting to his king.

This period of history is defined by its battles and its warriors, but this is a novel of saints and Christianity, and needs to be read with a clear understanding of what it is, and not what it could have been, or what a reader might well expect it to be.

The cover is, however, stunning!

And you can buy it here:

Northumberlandia – a short story

I couldn’t resist entering the competition to devise a new legend for the Northumberlandia structure when someone pointed it out to me, and now I’m able to share it with you. Enjoy and let me know what you think. And if you don’t know what Northumberlandia is, I’ve added a link to the bottom.

I am a thing of stillness, silence, peace. Above my eyes clouds scud by and I wish I could turn my head and see them when they dissipate over the coast, fade into nothingness, a little like myself.

But as I say, I am thing of motionlessness, muteness, carved into this landscape. I’m a part of it now, nothing more with no power to sway what happens to my land, to my people, to my animals.

I wasn’t always like this. Once I was a giant of this land, it’s protector and also on occasion, its enemy. I can admit that. In my anger I did some terrible things.

But then from the land in the south came a beast of fire and light, smoke and death and I thought to turn it to my will. I little guessed it’s true intentions, to sneak it’s way across my own land and trap me here, not dead as I’m immortal and immortal things can not die, but neither alive. Not now.

I once walked across my land in steps that numbered only in the hundreds, east to west and south to north, not even mountains or rivers standing in my way but now I can do nothing but call to the small animals of my land, ensure it’s safety through their deeds and actions.

That dragon. I thought it was my inferior, all fragile wings and gleaming teeth; a thing that looked deadly but nothing more.

I summoned it to me, in my palace of nature amongst the hills, from where I could keep my eyes firmly fixed on all four borders of my land; keep the enemy from breaching the defenses. It came, deferentially and with honeyed words that slipped from it’s forked tongue and made me feel as though I was a being of beauty and light, love and desire.

It charmed me with stories of my renown, undermined my resolve to possess it and then, when I was at my weakest, it opened it’s mouth and let loose steam so hot it aburnt my hands, my face and my feet, caused me to depart from my palace with all haste to get away from the stinging agony of its touch.

Not even the frigid sea off my coast line could deaden the pain and my fury grew to be something magnificent to see and I vowed my revenge on the creature, making myself small and invisible whilst I plotted my revenge.

I turned my back on my land and my people, tending only to my burning anger and slowly but surely, the enemy over ran my land, their ships descending on my shores as the people forgot who I was and worshipped another instead.

I could feel the rumbling laughter of the dragon from my old lair in the mountains and with each rumble my fury grew and grew, and only the dragon’s inability to find me resolved me to stay small and alone.

One day I knew I’d have the opportunity to have my revenge, but I never guessed how my land suffered. I didn’t see the burning fields, or smell the flesh of my people. I was blinded by my fury and my grief.

Then one day, the depravations that the dragon allowed to happen became so severe that even I knew of them, my loyal animals and birds rushing to me to tell me of men in shining metal, on horses not from my land, who planned great destruction on us all.

My rage knew no bounds, and I called on all the power I’d hoarded to myself over the long centuries of my hiding and I stepped from my sanctuary, massive once more, and with only a few steps I was once more at my palace in the mountains, and the dragon, grown massive and bloated in my absence, cackled to see me in my fury, my face marked by his flames, my hands covered in bloody welts that had never healed. I screamed at him, called on my animals and my birds, and even tried to call on those few people who remembered me from half a millennia before, but we were too few.

The creature took to the air. It’s massive wings spanning the whole land, from the east to the west, the south to the north and I knew fear as I never had before and my fear made me foolish.

I lashed out with my secret weapon, a massive sword forged from the heat of the earth and the chill of the sea, tempered with salt, and bloated with precious gems from the soil and the unimaginable happened.

I missed.

The dragon roared with delight and it slowly settled over me, it’s great weight forcing me first to bow low, and then to my knees and finally, to prostrate myself backwards on the ground before it.

It’s joy at my capture rippled through me and I screamed and fought with all I had but it was to no avail, none at all. It let forth a below of smoke and fire and it burnt my entire body, melding me to the ground, my hands outstretched before me, my feet dangling uselessly below me, a captive to the earth and the soil.

I wanted to beg, plead for my life, but the beast’s eyes flashed red and hollow and I knew then that it was more terrifying that I, more malignant and far more devious.

Around me the ground shook and slowly, my eyes wide open in disbelief, the only part of me that could still move, the earth around me tumbled to cover me from head to foot, nothing but my eyes still visible and my body weighed down by the very power of the earth I had once controlled.

I was nothing.

I was but eyes to watch my land crumble and recover, atrophy and renew.

Until now.

Now I am uncovered and I will win my freedom.

Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North.

The death of King Aethelred II – on this day in history 999 years ago

It’s been pointed out to me via another blog post that today is the 999th anniversary of King Aethelred II of England’s death, which means that really something big should be planned for next year when it’s a 1000 years, but poor old Aethelred II, like the much maligned Richard III, is very short of supporters. And here the similarities will, for the time being remain.

Richard III, like Aethelred II, was the last King in a royal line (let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Aethelred’s children did eventually succeed him after the death of Cnut and his own sons) and he was the victim of many scurrilous rumours and of course, the quill of Shakespeare didn’t help him out at all. Whilst I’m not a great fan of Richard III I want to at least do him the courtesy of considering what we KNOW about his and what we SUSPECT about him and make my own decision. The power of negative publicity is far greater than good publicity.

Yet, the same rules have never been applied to Aethelred II. He’s been derided by many, earned himself the epitaph of ‘The Unready’ and few seem to want to look behind the fiction to see the facts. It’s also worth remembering that not only did Aethelred II’s death allow (alright, maybe allow isn’t the right word there but I think you know what I mean) Cnut of Denmark to claim the throne, the later death of his son, Edward the Confessor, allowed William the Bastard to ‘steal’ the throne of England. Effectively the history of Aethelred II had been rewritten TWICE within the space of fifty years and that’s before anyone else turned their attention to him.

This is an important fact to remember. Almost all that is known about Aethelred II is retrospective, and sadly, historians and fiction writer alike, tend to forget this and rely on any snippet of information they can find out about him in order to build their story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, the attitudes of people who lived close to the men and women in history I strive to research are an excellent source of information, but often it’s what they DON’T tell us that’s important, and often it’s what they DO tell us within the context of events affecting them that’s important. ‘Histories’ and Saints Lives that have survived nearly a millennia often reveal more about the society that created them than it does about the people they purport to be about.

So, what’s the main issue with Aethelred?
1) he murdered his brother to become King
(um – he was only ten or twelve at the time of his brother’s death and he was never implicated in his own life time, and nor, more interestingly, was his mother who also takes the blame for this. His brother, a youth of only 18 at the time of his death, was a political pawn in a game between the great ealdormen of England at the time. Who knows what really happened.)
2)He never went to war and he let the Vikings rape England and then paid them to leave and crippled his people with heavy taxation!
No, no and yes. He did go to war – in the year 1000 there was the Battle of Strathclyde and it was a victory (I think – the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) is very anti-Aethelred and can’t seem to record anything worthwhile about him without a big BUT at the end of it.)
As to the Vikings, yes, they attacked England A LOT during his reign, but even according to the ASC it wasn’t Aethelred’s decision to pay them off – no that was taken by his church men and his councillors. Let’s not forget – England was a rich society – it had a sophisticated system of recalling and recasting money – Aethelred did this about every six-eight years throughout his reign. There were moneyers all over the place and the design of the coins was changed each time the money was recast. It was, on occasion, a way to make money by changing the weight of the coins, but it was also a system that was unheard of amongst the Vikings. I believe that England could well afford the money she paid to try and tempt the Vikings away. It’s simply unfortunate that in doing so, she roused the greed of the Vikings and they just kept coming back. A final point – if England hadn’t been so well endowed, why would Cnut, once he was King, have paid his men so much money? He wouldn’t have wanted to impoverish his new kingdom. He’d fought for maybe as long as a decade to claim the throne of England, I imagine he probably wanted to enjoy it when he finally got it. He could have rewarded his men with land or riches back in Denmark, or like William the Bastard, have doled out England’s land to those who were his favoured followers. He didn’t do this. Some of his followers became Earls (the name now changing from Ealdormen) but he kept much of the governing structure and its people in place.
3)He ordered the massacre of the Danes on St Brice’s Day and earned himself Swein of Denmark as an enemy (Cnut’s father).
Certainly the ASC mentions this – “all the Danish men among the English race were to be killed on St Brice’s Day because it was made known to the King that they wanted to ensnare his life,” but little is known about how many were killed on the King’s orders, and who exactly was meant by ‘all the Danish men,’ and neither can it be said with any certainty that this involved the killing of Swein of Denmark’s sister who was then living in England. This entire scenario is difficult to understand or explain, or offer any explanation to, but it could simply be a turn of phrase used by the scribe of the ASC AFTER Aethelred’s death to describe something far less catastrophic than the hastily flung words imply, when it just so happened that England had a Danish King, a very strong Danish King who understood the importance of the written word, as can be evidenced by his letters back to the English when he was overseas during his reign. Once more, it’s vital to look BEHIND the supposed ‘fact’ that is known about Aethelred.

Aethelred II is very much maligned in almost every written source available to modern readers, but a very careful study of the independent sources, can present Aethelred in a wholly different light. For those who are really keen please try and track down a copy of Simon Keynes, ‘The Diplomas of King Aethelred II’, it is a hugely intelligent piece of work and whilst you might not want to pour through the charters, at least read the way that he believes Aethelred II governed throughout the changeable years of his reign. Don’t forget, whatever else can be said about Aethelred, England was whole when it was passed onto Cnut. During the first Viking Age, the kingdoms of England; Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, all fractured and fell apart under the onslaught of the Vikings. Aethelred, whatever his faults, (and he had many) had loyal men labouring to keep England safe and united. It would be interesting to know if Cnut ever realized that.

As a writer, my concern was actually with Ealdorman Leofwine, one of Aethelred’s longest serving supporters. He, like Aethelred, falls foul of the scribes of the ASC because he’s not mentioned, not once, even though he held his position throughout the Viking raids (from 994 – 1023). The reasons he wasn’t included are intriguing (and not for today) but he serves as a wonderful example of the hit and miss nature of historical knowledge and that might just be because his sons and grandsons were the arch rivals of the House of Godwins. But again, that’s not for today, and is just another angle to be factored in when talking about Aethelred II and Leofwine of the Hwicce.

I almost pity them their anonymity and their notoriety.

History, is not, and contrary to what people believe, a study of facts. It’s a study of the tantalizing glimpses of information that have miraculously survived, and the greatest skill is in appreciating this and applying sound reasoning to what might have happened. It’s not, unfortunately, an excuse to decide who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’. History can teach many valuable lessons, but the first one, the most important one, is that no one writes down a piece of information without some bias. Find the bias – discover the ‘fact’.

Enjoy.

A discussion of early Anglo-Saxon sources

To what extent can we – or should we – select one date or event as ‘the end of Roman Britain’?

In order to locate the end of Roman Britain it is necessary to conduct a detailed and systematic critique of the available sources from the period that the end of Roman Britain is purported to have come about. This is not such an onerous task as might be expected as sources for the period are scant and offer piecemeal information. After this has been attempted it should be possible to determine if a date or event can be said to mark the end of Roman Britain. At the present time there is a wealth of theories given as to when Roman Britain ended. Dark in his ‘Civitas to Kingdom’ published in 1994 argues that ‘…. Eastern England passed out of Roman political domination in the course of the first decade of the fifth century and was re-defended by sub-Roman authorities in the early to mid fifth century. By the late fifth century, most of it was controlled by Anglo-Saxons,’[1] whilst Higham in his 1994 book argues that ‘it is accepted by all sides that the year 441 represents the date at which Saxon rule within a large part of Britannia became known to a southern Gaulish chronicler,’[2] and as such Roman Britain must have ended by that date at the latest. As these differing interpretations all rely wholly on the same written sources and so it is necessary to have a deep understanding of these sources before reaching any conclusions or agreeing with other historians interpretations of events.

Sources for the end of Roman Britain, which is taken to have occurred from the 5th century onwards, with a readily given date of 410 as the official date for the end of Roman Britain taking after Zosimus who stated that they ‘expelled their Roman rulers and set up their own governments as far as lay within their power’[3], are few and nearly all continental. It must here be noted that even Zosimus is a later commentator so had the advantage of hindsight when writing his work. The only native source is that of Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae (DEB). This source is extremely problematic and needs to be considered with care and attention. For the purpose of this essay the problems of ancient document transition to our own times will be only lightly touched on, yet it is essential to understand that only the information available to us can be interpreted and if this can be shown to be incorrectly transcribed then the reliance on the source is extremely problematic.

There is still no consensus amongst historians as to when the DEB was actually written. Convincing arguments have been postulated by Higham for a date in 480,

‘he was apparently writing in or about AD480 from the comparative safety (in this context) of a British community between the Thames and the Channel which was under indigenous rule but subject to the ultimate protection of the Saxons.’

Gildas himself comments that the siege of Badon Hill ‘was the year of my birth: as I know one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed,’[5] but gives no further details about the year of Badon Hill. This has led to a debate about when Badon Hill took place. This must be seen to be a worthwhile debate as it does mark the only datable event in the entire DEB. Lapidge has further argued for an early sixth century date for Gildas’s writing, whilst admitting that

‘to think in such terms is to imply that much more of the fabric of Roman civilisation was still visible in sixth-century Britain than has hitherto been assumed.’[6]

Coupled with the problems in dating the DEB there is also the difficulty of placing where the DEB was written. Whilst Higham above postulates that it was written in the south of the country, there have been equally convincing arguments that he was writing in the north of the country (Miller) and also that he may have been writing in Wales. The only compelling reason to discredit the northern association with Gildas comes from his confusion over the purpose and building of Hadrian’s Wall which has been taken to show that he was not a native northerner, as does his confusion about the home of the Picts. The geographical location of Gildas has also been assumed to lie outside that of the five tyrants he berated,

‘…. the assumption that he necessarily lived and worked outside their orbit merely because he attacked them so openly is far from conclusive.’[7]

This carries with it the assumption that we can correctly place the five tyrants and this is not always the case. Surely for an assumption to be based on the available information, that information must be seen to be above reinterpretation!

It is also important to understand the motives behind Gildas’s DEB. Certainly it is no dry chronicle with a list of consular dates and appropriate happenings. Gildas was writing at a time when he feared for the spiritual welfare of the people of Britain. His intention was not to provide as concise and accurate history of Britain as he could write. Instead it was to highlight the plight he felt the Britons to be in. As such his emphasis was not on the facts that historians would find most useful in determining the end of Roman Britain but in finding facts that fit his intended template – that Britons could find respite from the evils that had befallen them by seeing to their own spiritual welfare. As Higham states,

‘Gildas was not writing an objective, historical account of British history but a piece of dialectic which utilised the past to establish a system of causality appropriate to the present.’[8] ‘Gildas’s business was with examples and anecdotes, not the continuous warp of history and his case might well have been weakened by reference to more than a single exemplar of each sort.’[9]

So what does Gildas actually tell the reader about the state of Britain at this time? Again, this is not a simple question to answer. Regardless of where Gildas wrote his work his view of Britain at that time was differentiated by the Roman view of Britain,

‘his Britannia was … close kin to the Britanniae – the provinces of the late Roman British diocese. He may even have been ignorant of the survival of free indigenous communities in the far north throughout the Roman period, if he ever considered the question.’[10]

This means that his work informs about the areas of Britain which were Romanised – that is the lowland areas of Britain, namely the south of Britain, whilst his tyrants are thought to have lived in what is now Cornwall and Wales (Higham). The content of his work also informs that,

‘the most frightening feature …. is not the destruction of city life in Britain, or the breakup of the imperial system with its guarantee of peaceful life, but rather the destruction of knowledge itself – knowledge of the outside world and knowledge of the past had been wiped out of men’s minds.’[11]

With specific reference to events in Britain at this time Gildas informs of the career of the usurper Maximus; of him taking troops away from Britain when he left ; of the invasions of Scots and Picts at this time and the request that was sent to Rome to ask for aid. He tells how they did receive some aid but that the troops quickly returned home and that the Scots and Picts quickly reasserted themselves, and that when Rome was again appealed to for help, Britain was told to defend itself although Rome did offer advice on how this should be done. However the Scots and Picts again returned and the people of Britain sent a letter to Aetius asking for assistance but received none. In the meantime Britain was devastated by famine, and attacks from the Irish, whilst the Picts stayed home for once. During this time the people recovered and the island became wealthy and turned away from their Christianity. Then the ‘old enemy’

Gildas then goes on to detail some of the kings who have ruled in Britain, naming five of them and giving them all various crimes against God. Those listed are Constantine, Aurelius Caninus, Vortipor, Cuneglasus and Maglocunus, with the implication that there was a further sixth Saxon king,

‘Gildas offers a vision of a contemporary Britain which was unevenly divided between the five British tyrants in the west and a powerful, but shadowy, Saxon king ruling the remainder.’

Thus, Gildas is actually incredibly informed about events in Britain at this time, or at least what was the Roman province of The impression given is of an island in constant flux and constant danger of invasion, which is ultimately abandoned by its Roman overseers. However, the lack of dates makes the whole narrative extremely difficult to piece together with any amount of precision. From Gildas it is fair to say that he presents a picture of the province of Britanniae which is constantly changing, and of course for Gildas, in mortal peril of losing its place under the watchful eye of God.

So what else can be implied about Britain at this time from the words of Gildas? Britain was by this time, obviously, open to the ideas of Christianity. It has been argued persuasively by both Dark and Thompson that Britain at the end of the Roman age was becoming increasingly Christian – either from the bottom up – that is from the lower classes (Dark) or from the top down – that is from the upper classes(Thompson). Whichever viewpoint is taken it is important to remember that the Roman Empire had only relatively recently adopted Christianity as its main religion, displacing the pagan gods. As such Britain had been influenced enough by the time of Gildas’s writing that he could safely assume that his intended audience would understand his biblical references and his desire for spiritual reform.

It could be said that the person of Gildas himself is more important than his writing. The fact that he wrote in Latin, the language of the Roman aristocracy and administration points to an education received in Latin; the fact that he wrote about Britain in mainly biblical terms which he believed his audience would understand; the fact that he used as his base earlier Latin texts; and the fact that it can be argued that his writing was actually intended as a sermon points very much to the culture of Rome still being current and immediate when he produced his DEB. This could be said to show a continuing Roman culture when the Romans should have already left British shores, and so perhaps pushing the end of Roman Britain further back than the year 410. As Higham argues,

‘Gildas’s own education in grammar and rhetoric may imply that the law courts and magistracies, which had provided the normal career path of the aristocracy in the Roman provinces, were still functioning, or at least expected to resume functioning, when his parents were considering his educational needs, some thirty years before the date of composition.’[15]

He also asserts that ‘perhaps it was his own (Gildas’s) generation which was the first to witness the final separation of civil government and jurisdiction from its traditional urban setting.’[16] Gildas offers something more than a narrative of the end of Roman Britain as he in a sense embodies the end of Roman Britain. If it can be said with confidence that Gildas was a product of the last generation of Romanised gentry in Britain then he presided over the final severance of Britain from Rome, whenever that happened.

The writings contained in the other sources purporting to date from the fifth century are less detailed and yet the work of disentangling the author from his background is just as relevant if the work is to be correctly interpreted. The work of Constantius of Lyon on St Germanus of Auxerre was written circa 480-490 and before 494, according to Thompson, and so could be said to have been written at the same that Gildas was writing, if we accept Higham’s view on dating. It is a work of hagiography and as such does not have as its basis a historically accurate account of St Germanus, and indeed contains no dates. It was written up to 60 years after events which are mentioned in it, and it is important to bear in mind this time discrepancy between its characters and its author. The only datable moment stems from a notice in Prosper’s Chronicle which dates Germanus’ visit to Britain to 429. However, is it prudent to rely on another ancient text to verify an entry in an equally ancient text? The purpose of the work is always to show St Germanus in as good a light as possible, possibly to the detriment of then known facts, which can now no longer be independently verified. As Thompson argues, ‘we must not be over-optimistic about our chances of learning much about the history of fifth century Britain from his pages.’[17] However, it behoves the historian to try for the simple reason that it is a contemporary source, ‘we cannot afford to ignore any ancient author who speaks at some length about Britain.’[18] This work can be placed geographically and the author is well known, an advantage over the work of Gildas. With this work it is possible to interpret the authors’ bias and also account for information contained or omitted within its text.

Constantius’ text relating to Britain concerns the visit of St Germanus to Britain to counter the Pelagian threat. There is much debate as to whether or not he visited Britain once, or twice and when these visits took place. As mentioned above, the first visit has been dated to 429 through correlation with Prosper’s Chronicles. Whether it is a correct assumption to marry the two sources together or not, is certainly open to debate and needs to be borne in mind when discussing the validity of either text to the debate on the state of Britain in the fifth century. However the text is relevant and informative about certain aspects of Britain at this time, and must be explored in depth for this information. Thompson has written at great length on this work and has made a number of valuable comments about what the Pelagian controversy in Britain means about the state of Romanisation in Britain at this time. The fact that the controversy spread so quickly and was so popular has lead Thompson to argue that this ‘was perhaps only possible in a land where the Emperor’s power could no longer be felt’.[19] When on his second visit to Britain Constantius informs that the Pelagians were sent into exile by the Church congregation Thompson argues,

‘where else in the Roman world, or in what had until recently been the Roman world, could a preacher’s congregation send men into exile?’[20]

Following this argument forward, Thompson wonders if this action could have been taken as a result of knowledge of the law enacted by Honorius on 30/4/418 which decreed that anyone found discussing Pelagianism were liable to be arrested by anyone and condemned to inexorable exile. If this were the case then it would show that Roman law still had some validity in Britain in the 430’s onwards. However this argument is slightly laboured and Thompson is quick to comment that ‘it would be a bold man who would assert that Roman legislation of 418 could have been enforced in Britain in the 430s or 440s’.[21] Again this may simply be a matter of Constantius being aware of this legislation when he wrote in the 480s and using it to make Germanus appear in as Christian light as possible. Indeed the very incident has doubt cast on it by a source written by Prosper which states that the Pope was responsible for removing the Pelagians from Britain.

‘All in all, these events suggest that Britain was still subject to the Roman Church if not to the Emperor and that papal policy was being pursued with confidence on the fringes of the world’. [22]

What does the fact that Constantius allows the congregation to remove the threat of heresy from Britain say about those who were in power at this time? Constantius has very sparse detail about Britain and mentions only one British name and gives no indication of political authority at the time.

‘What the Vita describes seems to be a land from which the Roman administration has wholly disappeared and in which, apart from the indifferent man of tribunician power, nothing very obvious has taken its place’.[23]

This cannot be taken to mean that there was none. Constantius is ill informed about Britain. In contrasting his work with Proper’s he also states that,

‘Prosper gives us in five lines of the printed text more ‘hard’ information about the ecclesiastical position in Britain than Constantius is able to convey, or choose to convey, in many pages’.[24]

Perhaps in view of all these difficulties it would be better to disregard anything that Constantius writes about Britain at this time as many of his comments simply invite more questions than they answer? Perhaps as with Gildas, it would be better to look at the person of Constantius himself and make comments based on what he himself embodies? In which case it would be that those on the Continent, even those within the church hierarchy, were ill informed about events in Britain at this time.

Yet there are other sources which show that this may not have been the case. Prosper of Aquitaine and the anonymous author of the chronicle of 452 were also working on the continent and whilst constrained by the style they wrote in, that of continuators of Jerome’s Chronicles, they do make some mention of Britain during the fifth century. Prosper first added to Jerome’s Chronicles in 433 and then according to Muhlberger, returned to the Chronicles again on numerous occasions between 433 and 455. He produced at least 4 versions of his text and the best informed versions are those of 445 and 455 – there are no complete copies of the 451 edition and that of 433 can only be detected by a close examination of the later editions. This is important to note. Prosper had 22 years to think about events he transcribes and it is possible that his viewpoints may have changed during this time and revisions might have been made dependent on later consequences of the actions commented upon. Prosper seems to have come from Aquitaine and then moved to Provence and finally onto Rome and seems to have been born around 390. His chronicle was ‘immediately popular, finding readers during his lifetime not only in Rome but also in Africa’.

Prosper records the first expedition of Germanus to Britain in Chapter 1301, which has been used to collaborate the work of Constantius. ‘It is one of the few notices of British affairs after 410 by any fifth century author’ [26] but as Muhlberger comments,

‘he had no more intrinsic interest in Britain than the majority of his contemporaries … the story was included to commemorate another victory for the orthodox over the Pelagians, and even more to demonstrate the leading part taken by the Roman church in the fight for the true faith, even in remote corners of the world’.[27]

As such, once again, the information available now is tempered with the bias of the author and his overwhelming concern with glorifying the Christian church.

A further source is that of the anonymous Chronicler of 452. This source has recently undergone a revival and historians are now more readily accepting of the information contained within it. However, the fact that it is anonymous presents problems akin to the work of Gildas. It is not possible to determine who the author was and what his bias was. It is necessary to allude this information from that given in the text and also from the manuscript tradition. What can be said with some certainty is that,

‘he was, like Prosper, a devout Christian of an ascetic bent, he even seems to have lived in Marseille, where Prosper resided in the 420s and 430s’.[28]

Yet Muhlberger makes the point that ‘the two men were not in sympathy’[29]. Whilst it can be argued that both men were writing at a similar time they both have completely different outlooks on events at this time and the anonymous author of 452 ‘saw decline and defeat affecting both church and state.’[30] So what does the author inform of events in Britain at this time. In Chapter 62 he stated, ‘The British provinces were laid waste by an invasion of Saxons’ and in chapter 126 ‘The British provinces, which up to this time had suffered various defeats and catastrophes, were reduced to Saxon rule’. This entry has been dated to 440-441. Yet, ‘he had no profound interest in Britain and possessed few details about conditions there. He simply invoked the name of Britain to supplement his pictures of a defeated empire in the process of disintegration.’[31] Still, he provides information that no other sources does – the victories that Magnus Maximus won over the Picts and Scots before he went to Gaul. Muhlberger has compared the works of the Chronicler of 452 with the work of Narration De Imperatorbis Domnus Valentinianae et Theodosianae and has concluded from this work that the Chronicler of 452 viewed events differently in Britain and that ‘something occurred about a decade before the Chronicler wrote that appeared to mark the transition between a Britain harassed by enemies and suffering from disaster, and a Britain finally subjugated by the Saxons.’[32] His source viewed this as happening under the reign of Honorius when ‘Britain was forever removed from the Roman name’[33] whereas the 452 Chronicler viewed this as happening in 440-441, thirty years later. It must be borne in mind that the Chronicler ‘was preoccupied with events that might seem unimportant to us … but which to him were near and threatening.’

An examination of the main ‘historical’ sources for the fifth century in Britain leaves a gaping hole where knowledge has been forever lost. However it would be wrong to discredit all these sources on the grounds mentioned above – be they bias or inability to place adequately in time and place,

As Muhlberger comments,

‘the words of the fifth century chronicles have been preserved for us not because of their individual brilliance, but because they took part in a collective enterprise … they were contributing to the continuing history of the church, in the hope that their part in it would be useful and instructive for those who followed them.’[36]

This can also be applied to Gildas, although Muhlberger was mainly writing with the continental fifth century chronicles of Prosper, 452 and Hydatius in mind. As such what is left to the historian is the preoccupation of Christian men to a world that appeared to be fracturing and for which the only salvation that could be found was in the words of God and works to the glory of God. Any other information provided is purely secondary to the primary purpose.

It would be wrong to pick and choose which information was most relevant from these sources and this is something that historians needs to desist from doing. The work of the chroniclers was relevant and immediate to the time they were written. It was history in the making and needs to be considered as a whole, whilst understanding its limitations. All sources agree that at some point in the fifth century the idea of a Roman Britain came to an end – that is the physical presence of Romans in Britain appeared to come to an end. That’s not the same thing as saying that Roman Britain ended. The administration and physical structure of Britain remained to a greater or lesser degree for much of this time, and depending on when Gildas’s work is dated to, can be seen to be embodied in the very presence of Gildas himself. It would also be incorrect to assume that just because generals and troops failed to come to Britain during this time that Roman involvement ended. Certainly, the church was involved in Britain as the works of Constantinus, Prosper and the anonymous work of 452 are at pains to show. The Saxons may have arrived, and they may have taken over the government of much of the old Britannia. How they did so is open to debate, but it would be safe to assume that after the rape and pillaging had taken place, they took advantage of the superstructure already in place and more than likely, benefited from it.

The year 2010 will give historians and archaeologists alike the opportunity to use the 1600 year anniversary of the supposed exit of the Romans from Britain to question accepted beliefs and to look a little further than the written sources available from the time that Roman Britain can be said to have ended. As archaeology is constantly finding new fifth centurysites, and especially coins, it has become understandable that the standardised interpretation of the beginning and end of Roman Britain can no longer be sustained. Archaeologists and historians need to work together, with other specialists, such as numismatics to clearly define when Roman Britain ended, if it did at all. Surely it would be far more helpful to see Roman Britain merging into sub-Roman Britain before again merging into Anglo-Saxon England. Perhaps it is the continuity which needs to be stressed instead of the break. Britain was not unified before the Romans came, during the Roman ‘occupation’ or after the Romans had left. As such the idea of a ‘Roman’ Britain is erroneous to start with. There are a number of problems the most fundamental is that there needs to be a coherent and agreed definition of what Roman Britain was, what came before it, and what came after. Only then can it be even remotely possible to determine if it ended and when that end came about. None of these concepts is easy to define, because when the available evidence for the entire 500 or so years which encompasses Britain before the Romans, after the Romans, and also during the Romans, is examined, the sources available are slight, and it is imperative that archaeology, linguistics and science are used to supplement the scanty sources available. These historical sources need to be examined within the context that they were written, and analysed for the information that they can provide not for the information that it is beyond their powers to supply. What can be said with certainty is that the answer cannot yet be definitively defined, as Sam Moorhead says in the March/April edition of British Archaeology when discussing the 1600 year anniversary of the ‘end of Roman Britain’, ‘by the end of 2010 …. we will know much more about the end of Roman Britain. But we will probably all still disagree when it ended!’

The historians of the fifth century all disagreed on when Roman Britain ended, and Wood gives a valuable argument as to why this was so,

‘there is nothing to suggest that the people of Britain were worried by these developments; already they had passed out of the Imperial orbit, but they had done so slowly and without any clear awareness of the significance of the changes taking place.’[38]

‘Ultimately the end of Roman Britain is the history of fifth and sixth century opinion and, because of the nature of our sources, Continental opinion at that,’[39] as such it is not our place to say when Roman Britain ended – we need to look back to the commentators of the day and accept their opinions and view on what was happening. Hindsight cannot play a part because it is too easy to adopt our own biases and inflict them on the past. As such all that can be said with confidence is that at some point in the fifth century, Romanised Britain ceased to be a part of the Roman Empire in the physical sense of belonging, and nothing further than that can be confidently asserted.

[1] K. R Dark, Civitas to Kingdom – British Political Continuity 300-800’(Leicester, 1994) Pg 54

[2] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 121

[3] S. Ireland Roman Britain, A Sourcebook (New York, 1986) pg 168-9

[4]N. Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994) Pg 176

[5] M. Winterbottom, (ed. And trans), Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents. Arthurian Periiod Sources Vol 7 (Chichester, 1978)Pg 28

[6] M. Lapidge., ‘Gildas’s Education and the Latin Culture of Sub Roman Britain’ in M.Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds), Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984), pp27-50 pg 50

[7] N. Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 97 ???

[8] N Higham ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (Manchester, 1994)Pg 21

[9] N Higham ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (Manchester, 1994)Pg 21

[10] N Higham ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (Manchester, 1994)Pg 90

[11] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) pg 115

[12] M. Winterbottom, (ed. And trans), Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents. Arthurian Period Sources Vol 7 (Chichester, 1978)Pg 25

[13] M. Winterbottom, (ed. And trans), Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents. Arthurian Period Sources Vol 7 (Chichester, 1978)Pg 27

[14] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 166

[15] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 158

[16] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 158

[17] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) pg 14

[18] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) pg ix

[19] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 22

[20] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 28

[21] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 29

[22] I Wood, ;The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels’ in M Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds) Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984) 1-25 Pg14

[23] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 32

[24] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 23

[25] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 55

[26] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 84

[27] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 85

[28]S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 136

[29] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 136

[30] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 136

[31] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 179

[32] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 179

[33] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990)Pg 179

[34] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 179

[35] E.A Thompson, Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain pg 6

[36] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 278

[37] Sam Moorhead, British Archaeology March/April 2010 pg 21

[38] I Wood, ;The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels’ in M Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds) Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984) 1-25 Pg1-2 Ian Wood Pg 25

[39] I Wood, ;The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels’ in M Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds) Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984) 1-25 Pg1-2 Ian Wood

Northman Part 2 is written … so what now?

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

Chapter 1

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.

Nationality before 1066

At the moment I’m writing about the battle of Brunanburh in 937, a battle between the English King, the Scottish King, the King of Strathclyde and the Dublin Vikings. It’s a great project and I’m really enjoying it, but it’s made me consider how I should be using my characters nationality, and more importantly, how I should be describing them.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/15294409-brunanburh

It all seems simple enough to use English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh but really, is that correct? The Welsh are perhaps giving me the most trouble because back in 937 the kingdoms weren’t amalgamated, instead being very much like the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Mercians and the Northumbrians. And even the term Welsh, which I seem to think is Anglo-Saxon for foreigner, may not be how these people thought of themselves.

In the end, I’ve chosen to call those living in what is now Wales the British because the thinking is that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons pushed the native Britons into the extremities of the UK, into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. I know it’s a slightly picky point, but when dealing with the time period in question, it’s important to get the little details correct.

More than anything I want to portray the men I’m writing about in a way that readers today can relate to them. Yes, they might have been a little more violent, but overall, they really can’t have been that different to us.

So, have a read of Brunanburh over on Wattpad and let me know how you think I’m doing!