Delving into Anglo-Saxon Charters

Historians of the Anglo-Saxon period can extract a huge amount of information from sources that look as though they’re not going to be of any value. Sometimes, however, historians can get a little carried away and can, unfortunately, gleam too much information from sources that might not be quite as genuine as first thought.

As I finally get my nose down and do the research for my dissertation my primary concern is looking at the Anglo Saxon Charters from 994-1016. These are few in number and they have been utilised to show anything and everything from the King’s favourite ealdormen, to the existence of a royal scriptorium churning out charters for the King, to defining the boundary of lands mentioned within them, and these endeavours are all to be applauded, but it is necessary to take a moment and think about the implications of the work being done.

The charters survive very often as later copies. Historians will do all they can to determine if the copy is based on an original – checking witness lists, cross checking to see if people mentioned were alive or dead at the time of the charters composition and trying to find independent information that verifies the authenticity of the charter, or not as the case may be. But ultimately any charter that has survived has done so because it had some intrinsic value to a monastery or a person interested in the contents of that charter for a reason other than historians are now using it for. As such the survival of any charters from this period can perhaps be more of an indication of events occurring in the thirteenth century, when monasteries and their lands were coming under attack and the truth of their claims was being very closely examined, than what was really happening in the time period when the charter purports to have been written. And, even then the Charter may only survive in one copy.

It feels to me sometimes as though historians build fantastical arguments that are coherent and make perfect sense, until the foundation for the claims are more closely examined. Should huge sweeping statements be made about the career of one man based on only 41 references to them in Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Perhaps not, but if we don’t use the information available, then those awful words, ‘The Dark Ages’ will make a reappearance and no one will be prepared to comment or speculate on anything. So with all that being said, being a historian of one time period (Anglo-Saxon, Tudor, War of the Roses etc) often actually involves being an expert on a different era as well, as well as knowing Latin, Anglo Saxon, Old English, Old Norse, Irish and all the other languages that have dominated the writing of history for the last 1500 years.

It’s an unenviable task, and I wouldn’t be able to do my research if I wasn’t standing on the shoulders of giants and evaluating their arguments and accepting, or disagreeing with what they say. One thing I’ve found to be helpful, is to examine the source closest in time to the period under investigation. As such for 994-1016, I can use the Anglo-Saxon Charter, provided I accept that the source is later and biased in favour of certain people and places. But I can use the overwhelming feeling at that time, say ten to twenty years after events (which is still a long time – think of how we now view the 1980’s or the 1990’s) and try to determine a ‘platform’ on which other information can be built or tested against it. Admittedly that means that I need to understand events taking place during the reign of Cnut (and beyond) in order to understand events being recorded in the reign of Aethelred II.

But I started this with a discussion about sources, and have wondered at a wonderful 21st century tangent for some time. I’ll try to drag myself back to 1000 years ago, but first I must say that there is also the bias of the current historian to take into account. We are a suspicious lot, not happy to accept anything at face value, and always looking for the crux of any information provided by our ancestors. It can only be assumed that they were just as devious and untrusting as we are, and so back to the sources. Can we use them? Should we trust them? To me it looks like there’s not actually much choice but to mine them for every available facet of information. And so I shall! With my devious little mind, and my belief that nothing may be as it seems!!

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.

Going backwards, not forwards. What’s that all about!

So many of you might be wondering just what exactly I’m playing at with my insistence on going backwards in time as opposed to forwards. With the Earls of Mercia series I started covering the time period at the end of the tenth century and intended (and will do) to go to 1066 and slightly beyond. But then, well, a friend mentioned the time period after Alfred the Great and so Brunanburh (Chronicles of the English Book 1) was born and then because I enjoyed that project so much I back-tracked to the beginning of Aethelred II’s reign as well in Wulfstan, And now, well now, it’s just become silly and I find myself back in 632. So, what’s it all about!?

Well to be honest, it’s just pure happenstance. I began writing Ealdorman in 2010 because I was researching the time period for my MA and also because I was a little fed up with my fantasy novels not being overly popular. I started it, I tried to get an agent, and then I stopped it, and only returned to the delightful thing in 2013 after a trip to the Orkney Islands inspired me to finish the story (and I FINALLY worked out which set of islands was Shetland and which Orkney). When it became successful, I immediately started Ealdormen and from there it has all become quite crazy and because I always intended to write about the end of Anglo-Saxon (or Anglo-Danish) England, I’ve had no choice but to go backwards. And it needs to be remembered, the Anglo-Saxon age covers over 600 years. That’s a lot of different characters to become embroiled with and there are many excellent stories to tell which only need a quirk here and there from my imagination to make them into interesting books. There’s also characters who dip in and out of Anglo-Saxon England who have great back stories in the rest of the Viking world at that time, but I don’t want to give too much away about my current project.

I feel as though I’ve been gifted with an arena filled with stories for me to pick and choose. It’s exciting and daunting all at the same time. After all, it’s the way I view the time period that I’m portraying, and not necessarily the accepted ‘norm’. I also (and this is the nerdy bit) love all the research. I enjoy nothing more than spending hours sifting through information on the internet, or through old notes from Uni so that I can find the information I need to write my books.

So, all the backwards, forwards and occasionally side by side stuff isn’t about to stop anytime soon.

I’d apologise but I think everyone who reads it enjoys it as much as I do!

So now, from 632, I find myself in 999 although I really should be in 942. But that’s beside the point.

Why do I do this to myself!!! It’s, like, a 300 year gap!!!

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.

And so tomorrow it’s back to the world of historical fiction…..

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.

Brunanburh.

The name fills me with pride and disquiet in equal measure.

Brunanburh.

I know it will be remembered for a thousand years to come.

Northman Part 2 – The Earls of Mercia Book 4

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.

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.

The Liberties of Historical Fiction and What makes a perfect work of historical fiction

Non-fiction is a wonderful genre when the author has an engaging writing style; but historical fiction can really bring an historical event to life – so that we can visualise it and, if we’re really lucky, put ourselves in that time and place with the characters.

But with that said, historical fiction is responsible for reenforcing outdated ideas about the past, and when it becomes popular (or rather if) does it do more harm than good?

As a self-confessed history nerd, I know that if a work of fiction captures my imagination, I will nine times out of ten, research the time period myself and see how realistic the portrayal was. It doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the fiction if I find huge errors, but it might make me a little wary when reading future books by the same author. 

Often the worse thing, in my opinion, that an historical fiction author can do is weave a fictional character into a sea of ‘real’ historical characters and present them as just as real. Not that I don’t appreciate that many ‘bit parts’ will be fictional, but surely, not the main character in a story of King’s and Princes. (I was once traumatised after reading a trilogy of books of over 500 pages each when this first happened to me – and I’m naming no names!)

But there are also far worse things – they can use glaringly modern terms, or misinterpret the events, or put a rosy ‘romantic’ glow over it all (as happens in much historical fiction about women!) or present their heroine as rising about the societal norms whilst inflicting those norms on other characters.

Don’t get me wrong here, I strongly believe that humankind has not suddenly undergone some strange enlightenment in the past century. I believe romantic love must have existed for far longer than some historians would have us believe. Today’s population can’t wholly be the result of non-consensual sex and rape, for if it us, what does that really say about men and women as two separate genders. I think some commons sense must be applied. Men and women have been in relationships since they first walked on Earth. And in Anglo-Saxon and Viking times (before the Christianisation took place) men relied on their wives or common law wives to run their homes in their absence. If not love, then at least trust must have existed.

But I digress, so far my pet hates are too much romance, too much ‘bad’ history, and too much ‘one rule for everyone else and a different one for the authors hero or heroine’. To that I must add historical fiction that’s exclusively ‘man’ orientated – battles, blood and gore (yawn!).

So what makes my perfect word of historical fiction;

1) a good storyline that’s more truth than fantasy

2) a firm grounding in the time period

3) characters who are people

4) to be taught something

5) a series of books – I don’t like stand alone novels as a reader, I’ve not yet decided as an author.

6) something different – not the same people told from a different point of view i.e. the Tudor women.

If I think of anything else, I’ll add it on. Let me know what you think.

 

Anglo Saxon or more correctly, Anglo-Danish England and the Norman Conquest

I’m an Anglo-Saxonist at heart (or indeed any ‘British’ kingdom from about the year 500-1000). I don’t know why, but I love everything about this time period. Although my first passion was Elizabeth I and some of the Tudors, II read mostly about the years 500 until the Stuarts but get a little ‘bored’ when it becomes more modern (I know why but I’m not confessing to that here). 

Yet, many people seem to think that British history starts with ‘1066 and all that’ and having been doing some research of late, I think I just might have devised a reason for this.

The Anglo-Saxons, or the Anglo-Danish, or the early ‘English’ kingdom(s) if you prefer, arise out of the mists of the past (don’t use that naughty phrase about the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon England) as shadowy characters that can never be quite fully glimpsed. They didn’t live in ‘castles’ as we know them, they didn’t fight on horseback with shiny armour and swords and triangular shields, they actually liked their women (go Anglo-Saxons) and they seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, quite welcoming to any who came to their shores (in general), or maybe I should say that they were quite good at co-habiting with different nationalities. They used funny words, like witan and aetheling. They had funny names like Aethelred and Aethelflaed and their houses were built from wood.

Now the Normans, they’re a whole different society. They just about did all those things above, and had good proper names like William and Henry and Matilda. They’re familiar to us and even though they changed the national language from Old English with a bit of Latin, to mostly French and a bit more Latin, those words became a part of our society and we accept them as normal. The Norman Conquest was no steady infiltration, as it appears the original Anglo-Saxon settlers initiated, and then the Vikings, and then the Danish. No, the Norman Conquest swept the board clean, and into the void, they poured all aspects of their society and it was very different to anything that had gone before.

The onset of feudalism, the highly stratified society that formed all combined with the other changes to make what had gone before even more alien. And of course, the chroniclers of that period helped to disperse those ideas down to today’s historians.

Effectively, some sort of jarring rift occurred with the Norman Conquest. 1065 became the last year of one ideal that had governed Anglo-Saxon England for nearly 600 years, and 1067 became the first year of an ideal that would govern from then on, and in doing so, made everything that had gone on before seem too strange for modern audiences to even comprehend, or want to comprehend. And it’s a shame because the Anglo-Saxons had a rich culture and a fascinating history, that was so much more than having a fight with France, or trying to ‘nick’ the throne from your father, or your brother, or your uncle, or trying to take over the Welsh, the Scottish or the Irish.

The entire outlook of Anglo-Saxon England was different to the Normans and that’s why I think many people don’t bond with the Anglo-Saxon age. The lack of familiarity makes it too hard, too uncomfortable and maybe, too much work! So, hats off to all my fellow Anglo-Saxonists. Enjoy untangling the web of unfamiliarity and remember, when it all gets a bit too much, you can always take a ‘breather’ in the post Conquest period!

 

Academic or ‘commercial’ history?

I’ve been reading a number of books of late, and the dazzling difference between academic and commercial history has made itself frightfully clear on a number of occasions. I’m not going to name any names but in the last week alone, I’ve read an account of the fifteen year run up to the Norman Conquest that shocked me (in fact I’ve read two), and likewise, I’ve read about four different interpretations of events at Eamont in 927 (I’m working on a novel about the battle of Brunanburh in 937 which can be found on wattpad).

There seem to be a number of reasons for such vast differences of opinion and I think much of it has to come down to the ‘sources’ that historians use, and how sceptical they are, or not, about those sources. In recent years (to clarify, in academia recent years i.e. the last fifty), there have been many new critical interpretations of the early sources available for the pre Norman Conquest period, and clearly, this has a ‘knock-on’ effect to any past interpretations. Those who work in academia work to the latest interpretations, but the more general readership doesn’t move with any changes to academia and that means that outdated ideas are still current and accepted by many.

Of course, another problem for commercial history is that it needs a tag-line to sell. And these claims are often a little outrageous and wholly incorrect. I doubt it’s the author’s fault although maybe it is. If they’ve managed to ‘hook’ an agent and a publisher they’ve made their way through a huge slush pile of query letters and opening chapters. And that can only be because someone thinks it’ll sell. Maybe there’s an anniversary coming up, or a resurgence in interest in that time period (need I say the Tudors!) or a TV and film that touches on the issue. For whatever reason, the author has managed to get their work published, and then the publisher needs to sell it. But, can it really be classified as ‘history’ when it’s riddled with mistakes and errors? Who checks all the facts and makes sure that they’re credible? I haven’t yet found the answer to that.

In the meantime, I’ll have to retreat to the word of academia and the Library, because academic history books are somewhat on the expensive side. (I suppose it’s similar to my aversion to ‘history’ documentaries on the TV. I don’t watch them. They make me cross!)