Delving into Anglo-Saxon Charters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.