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

The role of the historical fiction writer

Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think historical fiction writers have a duty to portray history as accurately as possible and I think this should be the most up to date interpretations of the past, and not what people were taught in the classroom at school, often quite some time ago, or what’s to be found in popular ‘history’ books often written by presenters from the TV who simply regurgitate the same old supposed facts.

History, contrary to popular opinion, is not an old, dead, subject. In fact it can be very current (I’m just reading about a new copy of the Magna Carta that’s been found abandoned in an old scrapbook) and it changes as more and more information is unearthed or rethought.

Now, this problem doesn’t only affect historical fiction authors, but often those who are eminent scholars in other fields who want to cross-reference with history. Archaeology is only the most obvious of these. Archaeologists aren’t historians, and vice-versa, and as close as the two subjects are, their cross over points can be poles apart. Archaeologists and historians both use each others research to ‘prove’ their arguments but they often rely on outdated interpretations and aren’t always aware of the most up to date research. This can cause huge problems, and I think that all scholars have a duty to seek out experts who can provide the correct current thinking, even if they ultimately question it and offer an alternative.

So what of historical fiction writers? Too often I see old stereotypes being portrayed and no efforts being made to write something that’s factually accurate but different to the accepted norm and this means that time and time again, outdated ideas and even completely incorrect stories are being written about historical figures and being accepted by a huge majority of people because it says it in a book. Not only does it stifle historical research because it means that readers don’t question the story, it also means that incorrect historical ideas are constantly being reinforced. As an historian, I’ve been taught never to really accept what’s written, to look for the bias, look for who gains from a certain take on events, to look at why things are written just as much as what’s actually written. I take this as normal behaviour, but I’m starting to think I might be wrong and that worries me. What if people really think that Elizabeth I did have an affair with Dudley? What if people really do think that Henry VIII was just a dirty old man who went through six wives in seemingly rapid succession (forgetting all together that he was ‘happily’ married for nearly 20 years before all that kicked off)?

If you’re a historical fiction writer, think about why you use the information that you do, and more importantly, if you’re a reader, please think about how the characters are used and why and if you can, dig a little deeper, look for the ‘truth’ because it’s more than likely very, very different from what’s being portrayed. Even seemingly small touches can damn an entire book or TV show. Find the reason, and then, hopefully, the ‘facts’ might make themselves a little clearer.

When historical fiction doesn’t portray a time period the way you think it should!

Historical fiction has a lot to live up to – namely, making sure it corresponds with the way you personally view history. If you study a period as an academic, you get a ‘feel’ for the way history should be written, you relate to your characters and imagine them being a certain way. When historical fiction authors get their greasy paws on them, this can all go hideously wrong. And not just academic history, the repeating of outdated and outmoded historical facts can also cause the same problem. Many don’t realise that academic historical fiction evolves every generation or so, and prevailing thoughts and ideas get changed.

As a writer and reader I experience this problem quite a bit. As I’ve said before, I discovered my love of history by studying the Elizabethan period. Historical fiction, and especially historical romantic history, has flourished since I first studied Elizabeth I, and whilst to start with I found it quite enjoyable, the more and more that’s written, with the need for the author to get a different ‘edge’ I’ve found myself falling out of love with a lot of my favourite authors and now I actually physically groan every time I see a new title about the Elizabethan Court (and it’s not just historical fiction that has me groaning – historical non-fiction does as well). Neither is it just Elizabeth, but actually many of the Tudors and sometimes its because it’s many different authors rehashing the same story about the same characters. There are so many fascinating people during the Tudor age that I feel someone should get a look in sometimes.

Now, this isn’t necessarily the author’s fault. I have a real feel for who Elizabeth I was, and the older I get, the more I can relate to her and her inability to make a decision which drove men such as Cecil and Leicester to distraction. If an author goes against my ‘gut’ feelings, I simply can’t read their books. It doesn’t mean their stories are no good, just that they’re not quite my cup of tea anymore.

I think that fantasy is far more freeing when I write. No one can tell me what happens on Unison because, hey, I made it up in my head and I can do what I want with my characters provided it’s ‘believable’ in the fictitious world I’ve created (even if it is based on Viking Age Iceland).

Authors write for a purpose and it might be for the thrill of it, or it might be to educate, or it might just be because they’ve got an agenda in mind. I write historical fiction because I want the people from the Anglo-Saxon period to be seen as men and women who could as easily live today as they did then. I want them to seem personable and realistic and not stereotyped. I want people to stop thinking all Vikings had helmets with horns and did nothing but scream blue murder all their lives. Times might have been bloody, but as I’ve mentioned before, Anglo-Saxon England wasn’t the Middle Ages. The men and women were intelligent and didn’t live in squalor. Women were valued (because the Church hadn’t yet relegated them to mens playthings) but it was a time of strong men, Kings and Warriors, priests and archbishops and they are the people who shine through the sources available to us.

The governance was strong, the economy rich and sophisticated (why else did the Vikings want to conquer England?), the King’s ruled with the help of their ealdormen and reeves, archbishops and bishops and women held their own power, in their nunneries or within the King’s Witan or their own households.

The idea that the Anglo-Saxons lived in squalid little wooden huts, in the ruins of the mighty Roman Empire, has long been disproved. The Grubenhaus was for storage, with a raised wooden floor, not so the people could live with the rats and the mud. The land was good and harvested well, the people grew hedges (many of which can be dated to very ancient times) and wicker fences demarcated land.

The Anglo-Saxons were people like you and me, with a horse instead of a car, and a stout wooden hall instead of a brick built house, and yes, they might not have had potatoes but hey, there are meals that can be cooked without the good old tatie!

That said, my vision of Anglo-Saxon England will still grate and cause offence. I’d apologise but, I’m writing fiction interspersed with as many facts as possible. That’s a lot more than some people write!

So please, enjoy my writing but know that it is my writing!

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.

Brunanburh – A Novel of 937 – Sneak Peek Part Two

Chapter 1 – 927 – Eamont – Constantin

It’s a sobering thought to realize my advanced age compared to this young King, who styles himself of the English. He is courteous and treats me with respect, as he does all the other Kings he’s called before him, at this meeting place, high in the north of his lands, but too close to my own for comfort. And yet, for me, his respect just reminds me of how very old I am compared to him and the other Kings. I will list them all, just to mark myself amongst them. Hywel of the southern ancient Britons, Owain from my puppet kingdom of Strathclyde and Ealdred of Bamburgh, the northern most tip of the once mighty land of the Northumbrians so called for they lived to the North of the mighty river Humber.

So many of us all together in one place at the behest of the young Lord. It’s an uncomfortable thought and a remarkable achievement for how little blood has been shed to bring it about. I wonder if our people are tired of bloodshed and distrust or whether he really is emboldened by the knowledge that his God blesses his every move and brings about its success.

His respect annoys me. My advanced age should mark me as wise and wily. I’ve been able to hold my own against my enemies for more than twenty years, yet I can’t help but think this young man thinks me too old, too weak and too easy to subdue. He, who has gained so precipitously from the deaths of his own half-brother, and his own brother-in-law so that he now stands as King over the old lands of Wessex, Mercia, and the Kingdom of York, looks at me a little too closely. I want to assure him that I will not be the next to give up my earthly crown for a more heavenly one, but, he might just have a valid argument, for of all of us here, I am most likely to die next.

As I said, it annoys me. As does having to be here at all. Why should I bow to this King of the English? I am King of the Scots, and have been for nearly thirty years. I’ve governed well and kept my people safe so why should I now submit to an ‘overlord’? I’ve never feared to fight in the past and don’t now, and yet I’m here, as are the other Kings. We’ve decreed that we’ll all reach an accord with each other, but I can tell from the shifting feet and sideways looks of my fellow attendees that this might all be a ruse.

Athelstan is not untried in battle. In the past I know he’s encountered the men of the Welsh King’s and those of the Dublin King’s as well. Alongside his aunt, Aethelflaed of Mercia, he’s done great deeds and secured more land for his kingdom. But she’s been dead for many long years now and he stands alone against us all.

I too came to terms with her once, over ten years ago. She was a wise woman, devout and assured in her powers and she trained her young nephew well. But, the accord did not last. They never did. The shifting sands of allegiance and counter-allegiance run contrary to any agreement lasting too long. Perhaps the shifting feet have the right of it after all.

I met the young King’s father once as well, Edward, King of Wessex and Mercia, seven years ago when bloody Ragnall and his Norsemen were causing havoc amongst our borderlands. Edward, Donald of Strathclyde and myself reached an agreement to curtail his raiding activities amongst any of our lands. If he attacked one of us, we would all respond. Or so we said.

The worked, in a fashion, for later the same year Ragnall came to an independent agreement with Edward. Again, it didn’t last long for Ragnall had the audacity to die the following year. Since then Sihtric has ruled the York kingdom, the land that was once the ancient kingdom of Deira. Coerced into Athelstan’s kingdom via marriage to his sister, his death was not long in coming, and his kingdom not long in joining Athelstan’s lands for all that he had repudiated both his wife and his new found religious fervour for my Christian God.

And my point in recounting all this? Athelstan’s aunt and his father were more my age, and their respect was genuine, one contemporary to another, not as a son to a doddering father. I have sons enough of my own to know the difference.

Still he is a finely wrought man; long blond hair graces his head, and he is tall and well built, clearly still training each day so that he can wield his sword and spear as and when they’re needed. For all that he wears fine clothing, I hear chosen and embellished by his second stepmother, the raw energy of his muscles can be seen flexing and stretching the fabric of his deeply dyed royal tunic. He almost compels me to train as often as he does, instead of passing the duty to my sons, who are more of an age with him. I wish I could feel fatherly towards him, but I don’t. I can respect him, providing he respects me.

And so this treaty. Why am I here? Is it because he swept into the old Danish kingdom of York after his brother-in-laws death and effectively annexed the land back to his kingdom, and I fear what he will gain if he pushes further north, or is it because he vows himself a Christian King, and I too am a Christian King, of the old Ionan school no less, and it would be a good and Christian thing to live in peace with my neighbours? I don’t yet know, but what I do know is that few have died an untimely death to bring about this understanding, and so, in the spirit in which it’s offered, and provided it does not become too onerous, I am prepared to accept the hand of friendship extended by Athelstan. It will be easily done, and can be just as easily un-done. I risk nothing by being here, and I may even grow in acclaim if this union is a success.

I will wait with baited breath.

Only three more weeks to go until the whole book is released! If you’re worried you might forget to get the book on 31st October, then hop off to your ebook retailer of choice, and pre-order it now!

Oh, and in the meantime, you can always reconcile yourself with the new Bernard Cornwell book set just a few years before Brunanburh. It’s due out the week before Brunanburh (23/10/14) so it might keep you going until then.

Charters and Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce

I always think that the characters of Anglo-Saxon England are a little too ethereal for people to really connect with. As I’ve said before, I think it’s difficult to visualise life before the Norman Conquest, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

My current obsession, and victim of my historical fiction endeavours is Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce during the reign of Aethelred, who I refuse to call ‘Unready’ because I just don’t think he was. I think, as many might say about todays economic situation, that he was a victim of his times, treated harshly by historians. (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/344194)

My research is going deeper, examining the evidence of the charter attestations that Leofwine made (where he signs, and therefore, it must be assumes, agrees to whatever the charter is concerned with). Charters from before the Norman Conquest are rare, and have only survived in copies because they benefitted someone in some way, normally the monastery or Church that the copy of the original charter has survived in.

This effectively means that in determining the validity of the Charter, historians need to know about what was happening in the world at large, when the COPY of the charter was made. Effectively, to study Anglo-Saxon history, you have to also study early Anglo-Norman history to work out just what’s going on and why the Charter is so important.

In the records of Sherborne, Leofwine’s name can be found attesting two charters. No original copies of the charters survive, and the record as we have it, is in a twelfth century hand. So, should it be trusted? Should it be used as an historical source? Or as with so much history, can it really only be used as a historical record of the time period that produced it? After all, at least a hundred years and probably more like 150 years, separate the copy of the charter and the date of its drafting and attestation.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one I don’t plan on solving today. Would I use it? Yes, I would but I’d be standing on the shoulders of those giants of academic history who have studied far more charters than me and who have decided that the copies are ‘probably’ genuine as they stand. 

And how relevant are they to Leofwine? I think very, because they appear to show his standing at the Royal Court. In S933 (AD1015) he signs as the third ‘dux’ (ealdorman) and on S910 from AD1005 he also signs as the third ‘dux’. So what does it all mean? Well, as with everything the picture is wider than just Sherborne. In total Leofwine attests 41 charters whilst an Ealdorman. So although I think its important to examine the validity of the Cartularies that the charters survive in, it’s a bit of a painstaking and picky business. But one I’m enjoying. For anyone really keen to look at Leofwine’s charters in more detail, you can start by having a look at http://www.kemble.asnc.cam.ac.uk.

Enjoy.

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.