I meant to write this post earlier, but preparation for the publication of Bright Helm has occupied most of my time – did I say I had a new book out?
In a previous post I mentioned that Byrhtnoth’s body was taken to Ely to be buried. Much later, in 1769, the bones were moved and a group of gentlemen attended and measured the bones and his height was calculated as 6ft 9in (2.0574m) and this is how I imagined him, although in the books I never specified exactly how tall he was – just taller than most people.
How was this figure calculated? Was there any record of the measurements? In May 2019 I was at the National Archives at Kew. I had some time to spare, Could I find anything there? There was nothing in the index, but the building also houses an extensive library; books on a whole range of historical subjects, complete runs of magazines and journals, directories etc. Many of the books are arranged in geographical sections so I search through those for Cambridgeshire. There were a lot about Ely Cathedral and finally I struck gold.
Historical Memorials Of Ely Cathedral: In Two Lectures Delivered In Cambridge In The Summer Of 1896, was written by Charles William Stubbs. Now I know what the book is, I could have ordered it on Amazon; there is even an online copy here. However I photographed the relevant pages and carried on with researching the documents I had come to see. Stubbs quotes an extract of a letter written by Mr Bentham (James Bentham (1709? – 1794) was an English clergyman, antiquarian and historian of Ely Cathedral) to the Dean of Exeter, and read to the Society of Antiquaries, Fen. 6, 1772, describing “the discovery of the bones of these old Saxon worthies immured in the North Choir wall.”
“When it became necessary, on account of removing the choir to the east end of the Church, to take down that wall, I thought it proper to attend, and also give notice of it to several gentlemen, who were desirous of being present when the wall was demolished. There were the traces of their several effigies on the wall and over each of them an inscription of their names. Whether their relics were still to be found was uncertain; but I apprised those who attended on that occasion, May 18, 1769, that if my surmises were well founded no head would be found in the cell which contained the Bones of Brithnoth, Duke of Northumberland… The event corresponded to my expectation. The bones were found inclosed, in seven distinct cells or cavities, each twenty-two inches in length, seven broad, and eighteen deep, made within the wall under their painted effigies; but under Duke Brithnoth there were no remains of the head, though we searched diligently, and found most, if not all his other bones almost entire, and those remarkable for their length, and proportionally strong; which also agrees with what is recorded by that same historian in regard to the Duke’s person, viz., that he was ‘viribus Robustus, corpore maximus.’ This will more clearly appear by an exact measurement I have taken, and annexed thereto, of so many of the principal bones of those persons as are remaining entire. From these measurements, os femoris 20½ inches, tibia 16¾, os humeri 14¼, ulna 11 4/6, clavicula 6½, it was estimated by Dr Hunter that the Duke must have been 6 foot 9 inches in stature. It was observed that the collar bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle axe or two-handed sword.”
So, it was Dr Hunter who calculated Byrhtnoth’s height. This must have been Dr John Hunter (1728 – 1793) the eminent Scottish surgeon, fellow of the Royal Society etc. But were his calculations correct? Time passes, knowledge increases, would a modern scientist agree? We’ve all watched TV programmes where archaeologists take a few bones and produce an accurate version of the original person. If only I knew someone like that!
Then I remembered. The Rugby Archaeological Society had had a talk by Dr Anna Williams, a Forensic Anthropologist. The talk had been about setting up a British “Body Farm” – very interesting. We had even had a brief conversation about my books (I must have been promoting one of them at the time!). I took a deep breath and contacted her. She was happy to help, and, after converting inches to centimeters then back to feet, soon produced a result for me.
All the measurements suggested a stature of between 5’9″ and 6’2″, not 6’9″. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed. My hero had shrunk. But then I realised, “My” Byrhtnoth is a character in my books – his real height probably made him taller than a lot of men at the time anyway, and I don’t suppose he had blond hair and blue eyes either. Although they are doing clever things with DNA nowadays.
I wonder if Ely Cathedral would consider digging him up again? Although I don’t think a facial reconstruction is possible – unless anyone has found a skull without a body, somewhere in Norway, or Denmark – depending on who it was who chopped it off!
Today is the one thousand and twenty ninth anniversary of the Battle of Maldon – or was it yesterday? Or two years later, or three years earlier; the sources differ. One thing is certain, we know where it took place. Or do we?
Everyone knows that the Vikings landed at Northey Island, not far from the town of Maldon, and the Battle was fought at the landward end of the causeway, when Ealdorman Byrhtnoth foolishly allowed the enemy to cross and was killed in the ensuing battle.
I wrote about the battle a month ago as part of the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop and it was as a result of that post that I received an enigmatic tweet that led me to a completely different theory.
Surely it is obvious, the Northey Island location fits the facts – if the Battle of Maldon poem can be called fact. But does it? I was shocked to learn that it was only in 1925 that this site was decided upon. Is it coincidence that the site identified was open, visible and easy to view. The National Trust put up a sign and the site was protected. It even appears on maps.
Northey Island Plaque (from National Trust website)
What is the evidence? Archaeological field walks have taken place on and around Northey Island. Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval material has been found but nothing Saxon, and definitely no signs of Vikings. Did ninety three Viking ships arrive, full of warriors, hang around for a few days then fight a major battle – all without leaving a single coin or belt end, or trace of a hearth?
Also, when you think about it, the site doesn’t make sense. Vikings are known for sailing up rivers, as close to their destination, then hitting hard and fast before leaving. Why hang around in the middle of the river, giving time for defenders to arrive, then fighting their way ashore, still some distance from their objective; the mint located in the Burh at Maldon, built by King Edward the Elder in 912?
Even before the 1925 decision, historians had offered different locations, why were they never considered? In this situation local knowledge is helpful and knowledge that included research into the topography of the area at the time of the battle is vital.
The river has changed a lot over time, sea levels were lower and at one time the River Blackwater was navigable as far as Heybridge, where an old church, probably Saxon in origin overlooked a marsh. The road that runs from Heybridge to Maldon through this marsh has long been known as “The Causeway” and regularly flooded. There is also a bridge, which is mentioned in the poem. Wouldn’t this have been the logical place for the Viking to land? It fits the details given in the poem better than Northey
The clinching point for me is the archaeological evidence, sadly lacking at Northey. In the 1960s, work in the vicinity of The Causeway brought to light a collection of swords and what might have been shield bosses. Unwilling to experience delays, the objects were reburied, except for one sword.
When asked to write a post for the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop on Momentous Events, the obvious subject for me was the Battle of Maldon. It was certainly momentous for my character, Byrhtnoth. It was the day he died, or to put it bluntly, the day he was killed. It was not a gentle end, but I like to think, the kind of death he would have wanted.
He would have been in his sixties. He was an Ealdorman, ruling Essex for his king; several kings in fact, for 35 years. The fact that one of these kings, Edgar was known as “The Peaceable” gives some idea of the state of England at that time. By 991 though, Edgar’s son Ethelred, (better known as Ethelred the Unready) was on the throne and the Vikings were getting restless.
After the earlier invasions by the Great Heathen Army in the ninth century, things had calmed down. The invaders had settled in the Eastern part of the country, the Danelaw. In fact Essex lay within that area, but by then most of the population probably thought of themselves as English.
In 980 new attacks started. Perhaps the Scandinavians sensed the country was weak, Ethelred, only two years on the throne, was only twelve. The raids must have been successful and in summer 991 a fleet of over ninety ships raided Folkestone. They were probably led by Olaf Trygvasson, who a few years later became King of Norway. The fleet moved on to raid Sandwich and then up the East coast, where Ipswich was overrun. Finally they arrived at Maldon.
Maldon was an important place, a royal burgh with it’s own mint. It was also in the county of Essex and therefore Byrhtnoth’s responsibility. The Liber Eliensis suggests that the Ealdorman was in the the north at the time, mistakenly naming him as Duke of Northumberland. Nevertheless Byrhtnoth rushed south, like King Harold was to do in 1066, nearly one hundred years later. He spent the night at Ely Abbey, an event that they were to use to demonstrate their generosity long afterwards. Originally he sought hospitality at Ramsey Abbey, but they only offered enough for him and seven of his men. He rejected the offer saying “Let the lord Abbot know that I will not dine alone without the men you refer to, because I cannot fight alone without them” and continued to Ely, which fed the whole army and received his grateful thanks.
On or around 10th August 991, Byrhtnoth arrived in Maldon. The Viking ships were beached at Northey Island, just downriver from Maldon. Protected by mudflats and salt marshes and with the island connected to land by a causeway accessible only at low tide, they were safe from attack, but also unable to escape, except by ship when the causeway was blocked. Byrhtnoth sent away his horses, formed a shieldwall and waited.
Threats were exchanged; the invaders demanded money to go away. Byrhtnoth rejected the suggestion saying: “Hearest ‘ou, seaman, what this folk sayeth? Spears shall be all the tribute they send you, viper-stained spears and the swords of forebears, such a haul of harness as shall hardly profit you. Spokesman for scavengers, go speak this back again, bear your tribe a bitterer tale: that there stands here ‘mid his men not the meanest of Earls, pledged to fight in this land’s defence, the land of Æthelred, my liege lord, its soil, its folk.“
When the causeway opened the Vikings tried to attack. Brave men from the English Army went forward to defend the crossing. The invaders could not cross. Stalemate. What happened next has been argued about by historians for hundreds of years. Why did Byrhtnoth then allow them to cross? Why not let them sail away on their ships?
Was it because he was proud and thought he could defeat them face to face? Some form of British fair play? Or was because he knew he had to destroy them there, or they would move elsewhere, causing more death and destruction?
Whatever the reason, the enemy were allowed to cross and battle was joined. Many men died and eventually Byrhtnoth was killed, but was that the end? No, the fight continued, as Byrhtnoth’s men laid down their lives to avenge their lord, as all great warriors must do.
The Vikings won the fight, but then they left, so I suppose, in the end the victory was Byrhtnoth’s; although he was hacked to death and his head chopped off, taken by the enemy. I wonder what happened to it?
Why is this small indecisive battle, such a momentous event? Because later someone wrote a famous poem about it, The Battle of Maldon. Only 327 lines of the poem survived; the beginning and end are missing. In 1731 the only known manuscript was destroyed by fire, but luckily a transcription had been made a few years earlier.
I don’t suppose the words quoted above were really what Byrhtnoth said at the time (it’s a modern translation anyway). We will never know that, but the poet brings the event to life. Byrhtnoth has time for a lengthy death speech before his head is hacked off. Each of his supporters is named and his lineage given, before making an inspiring speech , then dying; the best know is this:
“Then Byrhtwold spoke, shook ash-spear, raised shield-board. In the bravest words this hoar companion handed on the charge: ‘Courage shall grow keener, clearer the will, The heart fiercer, as our force faileth. Here our lord lies, levelled in the dust, The man all marred: he shall mourn to the end who thinks to wend off from this war-play now. Though I am white with winters I will not away, For I think to lodge me alongside my dear one, Lay me down by my lord’s right hand.’”
When was the poem written? The most likely opinion is that it was written not long after the battle, perhaps commissioned by Byrhtnoth’s wife Aelfflaed. The careful naming and identification of the men involved indicates that it would be heard by their relatives, or friends.
And why was it written? Well, even the payment of ten thousand pounds by King Ethelred; the first time Danegeld was paid since King Alfred’s time (but not the last), was not enough to stop them returning, and later Swegn, King of Denmark invaded. He was killed before he became king, but his son Cnut did, in 1016 Was the poem written to encourage the English defenders, or was it intended to demonstrate to Cnut, how a great leader, and his supporters, should behave?
After the battle Byrhtnoth’s body was taken to Ely Abbey. It is still there, having been moved several times as the building was rebuilt and became a Cathedral. In 1769, during one of these moves, his bones were inspected, and measured. It was calculated that they belonged to a man of 6ft 9in. There was no skull found and “It was observed that the collar-bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle-axe, or two handed sword.”
If you have enjoyed this post, you can find more by other members of the group on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop page here It has been running during June and July 2020, so why not check out some more “Momentous Events”
Once again it has been a long time since my last post. My excuse is that I have been writing, but now I have stopped, for a while. My next book, the fourth in the Byrhtnoth series, is with my editor, which has enabled me to pause, have a look around at what has been happening in the world – and quickly return to the tenth century!
I have been planning where to go next, a sequel, or what about a prequel; or something completely different. But I have also been looking back at the book I have just written and spotted a particularly good example of how inspiration works – at least for me.
It all started two years ago at the HNS conference in Scotland. Not actually at the conference – you can read all about that here – but afterwards. It seems like a lot of effort to travel all the way up to near Glasgow, and back, just for a weekend, so we had booked a few extra days to explore the area. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t terribly good, but we managed to explore the odd ruin. One thing that frustrated me was that having spotted the magnetic attraction of a rash of red names on the map indicating historic sites. I was told that it was too far for a day trip from where we were staying – there were several large lochs in the way! It would have to wait for another time.
The place I had spotted was Kilmartin and the area was chock full of stone circles, cairns and cup and ring marks. Several months later and we were discussing holiday plans and I suggested Kilmartin. We found what looked like a nice hotel not far away and booked. It was during that interesting process of finding out what else was in the area, that I read a blog post.
I tend to follow other authors on twitter, read their blogs and quite often learn something interesting. In this case it was a blog post by Steven A. McKay, an author who I had discovered from his “Forest Lord” series about Robin Hood and continued with “Warrior Druid of Britain” set in post Roman Britain – I am eagerly awaiting book three “The Northern Throne” of this series which is published in August.
The post was about Dunadd Fort, you can read it here, and I noticed it was one of those red place names close to Kilmartin. Inspired by that blog, it went on the list and last year, in May 2019 we visited Dunadd. From a distance the place looks nothing special, a lump rising from an expanse of flat land, but closer it is recognisable for its strong defensive position. It was originally fortified more than 2000 years ago but it became famous as the centre of the ancient Kingdom of Dal Riata, between 500 and 800 AD.
The month before our trip, I had published the second of The Byrhtnoth Chronicles, Bright Axe and the third book, Bright Blade would be published that October. I was in the middle of planning book four, so I was primed for inspiration. Walking around this atmospheric site, it struck!
In an earlier book I had introduced a character, rather mysterious with an unknown past; they didn’t even have a name (Mainly because at that point I couldn’t find the right one.) Now I knew where they had come from – Dunadd. Everything fell into place. I had added an interesting plot line to my story, as well as tying up several loose ends.
Perhaps it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time – I had several other ideas that holiday, some I used, others fell by the wayside, perhaps to be used somewhere else. If you want to find out what happened at Dunadd, I’m afraid you will have to read the book, Bright Helm. It will be published later this year, fingers crossed.
I hope you enjoy the pictures. I’m afraid the weather wasn’t brilliant, but later as we searched for cup and ring marks, the sun came out and when we arrived at Crinan for a cream tea, it was perfect. Then we had a walk along the canal (for the driver – he likes canals.) A day well spent.
In the year AD 865 The Great Heathen Army arrived in England. The invasion lasted several years, changed the country for ever and led to the legend of King Alfred’s stand against the Vikings. It is also a popular subject for Anglo-Saxon fiction, such as the books by Bernard Cornwell and the subsequent TV series, The Last Kingdom; as well as The Vikings, from the other point of view. Is there room for yet another book about the period? I think there is, and this exciting book from M J Porter may be it.
So, who is the The Last King? Alfred? No, because when the Great Heathen Army arrived, England consisted of several kingdoms. East Anglia fell first and then Northumbria. Next was Mercia, and it is the fight for Mercia that is told here; the fight by Coelwulf, the Last King of Mercia.
Who was this king and why is he not as famous at King Alfred? Because he failed? And Alfred, in the end, won? In a way. It is because it is the winners of any battle that write the history and it was not in Alfred’s interest to share the glory with anyone – his is the legend, standing alone against the pagan invaders.
The main source of information for the Anglo-Saxon period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and it was written in Wessex, by Alfred. What does it say about King Coelwulf? Very little. It refers to him as “a foolish king’s thegn”, and that he acted as steward for the Vikings, holding the land “ready for them on whatever day they wished to have it”. And for a long time that was how he was known – A nobody.
Until recently. In 2015 a hoard was found at Watlington in Oxfordshire. It contained silver: 15 ingots and 7 pieces of jewellery, including arm-rings, and 186 coins. It dates to AD 878, just after Alfred’s final defeat of the Vikings at the at the Battle of Edington. It is the coins that are interesting, as some show Alfred, others Coelwulf. There even some that show both kings, of equal status, sitting side by side, in a style known as the “Two Emperors”, after Roman coins of the 4th century. Not just a “Foolish King’s Thegn.” The objects are now at the Ashmolean Museum
The author has taken this little known king and produced a charismatic leader, fighting desperately for his country. At the start Coelwulf is not king; Mercia already has a king, Burgred, controlled by the Vikings but they have decided to dispose of him. Coelwulf hears rumours of this and must discover the truth. He is the descendant of earlier king’s of Mercia, but doesn’t want to be King, all he wants is to free his country from the foreign invader.
He hears that men have been sent to kill him, he knows he is a danger to the Vikings. Or do they want to capture him, to force him to become their king, to keep the Mercian people quiet?
The Great Heathen Army is camped at Repton, the royal heart of Mercia. Coelwulf must travel from his home in Western Mercia, to Repton, and on the way, find the bands of men sent to kill him, and destroy them.
The pace is unrelenting and the violence graphic; I wouldn’t recommend this book if blood and guts upset you. There is a lot of swearing, as well, but these are men at war, they have no other life. Along the way you learn something of this leader; his care for his men, the rules, hard at time, that ensures that they do not sink into the barbarity brought to the land by the heathens.
I enjoyed the small details of what has been lost, and gradually, with Coelwulf, I begin to wonder if the fight is worthwhile. Can the enemy be beaten, and if it is, what will remain of Mercia? Is it worth all the blood and death or should he give up, surrender to the inevitable? Is his country worth fighting for?
Coelwulf arrives at Repton, a prisoner. Will he live or die? Will he be the Last King of Mercia?
The Last King is the first book in a series; Book 2 of England: The First Viking Age: The Last Warrior, is published in June. I look forward to riding with Coelwulf again.
I hadn’t noticed that it was the start of a new decade until social media filled with comments and blogs – and the usual arguments as to whether it should be celebrated this year or next. As someone who experienced the Great Millennium Anticlimax, it was not such a big deal.
Then I thought about it. About what I was doing ten years ago and where I am now, and I realised how much my life had changed. Now I am a writer, ten years ago… I wasn’t. So I am joining in the fun.
Ten years ago, at the start of 2010, I would have called myself a Genealogist, or Family Historian. It was something that I had been interested in for most of my life and by this time it had become an obsession; I was subscribed to all the websites, I read all the magazines and joined all the societies. I was even running a one-name-study, where I researched all occurances of a certain name (Madder), not just those related to me – real hard-core genealogy!
I was a member of the Rugby Family History Group, had become a member of the committee and was in charge of the transcribing projects and ran the website. The only writing I did was articles for the magazine. Perhaps, exactly ten years ago, came the first signal that something was about to change.
To encourage people to write for the magazine, we set up a prize, The Harry Batchelor Award, named after the recently deceased former Chairman of the Society. In December 2009, I won the award. I have won it again a couple of times.
I was also a member of the Rugby Local History Research Group. I have no ancestors in the area where I live and sometimes did local research for Family Historians who lived elsewhere, and became interested in the history of Rugby. This is a small group and we produce books at irregular intervals. In 2005 I had written my first article in one of these books and by 2009 I was editing the edition (on WW2) published that year. Editing included organising and formatting the book, and designing the cover; an experience that would come in useful in the future.
The last decade has been a time where Social Media came of age, at least as far as I was concerned. Exactly ten years ago, in January 2010, I joined Facebook and in June 2011, Twitter, both to advertise my Family History research. Eight years ago, on 2nd January 2012, I set up a blog, Maddergenealogist. It is still there, but sadly unused in recent years.
It was on that blog that I gained experience in writing; posts about my latest discovery or how to use some new database. They were all strictly fact, until one fateful day, just before Christmas 2012. I had been doing a lot of research on John Madder. He’s not a relative of my Madders, but someone who had a minor impact on history. John was first mate on a ship called The Worcester and in April 1705 he was hanged as a pirate. He was innocent but it was part of the rivalry between England and Scotland that led to the Union two years later.
I had found out a lot about John and in 2011 actually started to write a book about his life; non fiction of course and I managed one chapter before giving up – I am an expert on genealogy, not ships! While casting about for something to write on my blog, I imagined a meeting with John Madder on Christmas Eve – a sort of “Christmas Carol for genealogists.” I found it difficult. Why? I had no problem in knocking off a few lines on finding the burial entry for Nell Gwyn on the same register page as one of John Madder’s possible relatives. What was so different about fiction?
A few days later I was flicking through the PGH brochure. The Percival Guildhouse is an adult education centre in Rugby. It is where the RFHG and RLHRG meet and where I have attended other courses over the years, including art classes. It also runs several writing courses and one caught my eye; Writing Fiction – it was held on Thursday mornings when I didn’t have anything else on. Why not have a go? It was only for one term.
This is the class listed the following year. I wonder what would have happened if the Creative Writing class had run in Spring 2013? That was what I should have joined, but I picked Writing Fiction. The class is still advertised and starts again this Thursday – I am signed up for it, as I have been since January 2013.
It is a great class and the Tutor, Gill Vickery is an inspiring tutor. She encourages everyone to start writing a novel, so we can use the exercises to explore our characters, develop plot and everything else a novel writer needs to know. It was on 30th January 2013 that I write my first piece about Byrhtnoth. It was an exercise in description: imagine an object that you know well, describe it from a distance, then closer, then the object itself. I picked a statue on the promenade at Maldon, in Essex. This is what I wrote.
The river wound slowly through the countryside. It was not a big river and at that moment not very wide. The tide had retreated into the nearby sea and it would be some time before it returned. All that was left was a wide expanse of mud with a narrow vein of water through the middle. Small boats, which had recently been afloat, were stranded at crazy angles on the glistening mud. The remains of older ships could occasionally be seen, dark ribs emerging from the enveloping mud. The surrounding land was not much higher than the mud; a wet, marshy land only distinguished from the riverbed by drab grey green vegetation. The whole flat landscape like a camouflage cloak spread out towards the sea. The town stood on the higher land further inland: a church, a pub and many masts, some pleasure yachts and the tall masts with red furled sails of the sailing barges; once working boats, trading with London, but now used for pleasure as well. All marooned by the mud. The promenade extended from the town, like a finger pointing the way towards the sea, which had stolen its river. A promenade for promenading – it had no other use. Walk to the end, stare at the river and walk back again. Used by dog walkers and grandparents with pushchairs, passing time. At the end was a statue; it had not been there long. A modern statue, erected by the town, as towns do, to commemorate any halfway famous local celebrity. This was no modern celebrity though but Brithnoth – ancient Saxon warrior, ancient in time and years. His ancestors had been brought across the sea by the Romans to defend this Saxon shore. He had defended it too, a thousand years ago, when Vikings had tried to take his land; He died fighting, not far from here, but had done enough to send them back beyond the river and the sea. Now he stood again, sword raised, to defend this muddy land from further invasion. The sea? The cold east wind that cut like a Viking sword? Whatever invader came he was ready, ready with his army of dog walkers and pushchairs to defend the river.
The next week I wrote more, a description of Byrhtnoth on the eve of the Battle of Maldon. Then there came the exercise on describing a door, then take the character through the door. I described a small boy and a large door. The door lead to a feast. It became the first scene of my book, Bright Sword. The rest, as they say, is history.
After much writing and rewriting, moments of despair and crises of editing, the book was published almost exactly five years later, on 28th January 2018. Two more followed, self published last year. I am in the middle of book four, hopefully to be publish in summer 2020, and I already have a rough draft of the next book, thanks to NaNoWriMo last November.
And what about poor neglected John Madder, I hear you ask? I wrote the Genealogist’s Christmas Carol the next year (December 2014). You can read it here. Then for my first attempt at NaNoWriMo in November 2018, I expanded the story. It is sitting there, waiting to be read, just a rough draft at the moment. Perhaps one day, in the next decade, it will be published.
The Kingdom of Wessex, in the year of our Lord Nine Hundred and Thirty Eight.
The boy was cold. He flexed his hands, but his fingers were numb. He had lost all feeling in his toes long ago. He was high in a tree, lying flat along a thick branch. The fresh smell of the prickly pine needles surrounded him. Far below, the ground was covered with thick snow. Snow also lay on the exposed branches of the surrounding trees and a little had even settled on the boy’s back. Everything was still. Everything was silent.
There had been plenty of noise earlier, when the crowds had ventured out into the forest. A tree had been carefully selected by the foresters and chopped down. Many people were needed to pull it back to the hall, a Yule log to burn for the twelve days, and nights, of Christmas. The children tried to help but only got in the way, climbing and jumping over the great trunk, dodging in and out of the ropes. Someone suggested a game of hide and seek. No one had found the boy in the tree. He thought he must have won the game.
It had been dull all day, heavy grey clouds hung full bellied, low in the sky. But now it was getting darker, a dull red glow showed where the winter sun was giving up its fight against the night. Soft white flakes fell. It was time to go.
As the boy debated how to get back down the tree, he heard something. He froze. It was the sound of horses, tramping slowly through the snow. The occasional crack as a hoof broke through the frozen surface, the crunch as the snow compacted underfoot. As they came nearer, he heard the quiet jingle of harness. Who rode through the forest in the darkness?
There were three men, one in front and two following. Tired, they huddled on the slow-moving horses. The first horse was white, seemingly carved out of the snow itself. The rider was swathed in black. The following horsemen were just dark shapes moving though the swirling snowflakes. Suddenly, the sun discovered a chink in the armour of the clouds and sent a final triumphant dart of light through the trees. The leading rider looked up, and his head glowed with a golden light. The boy gasped. The sun set and darkness returned.
What had he seen? For a moment, the man on the horse had looked like the pictures painted on the walls of the church. Was he a saint? If he was, which one? The riders were beneath the tree, and the boy craned down for a better look. He lost his balance, his numb hands unable to maintain their grip in the frozen branch. He struggled and then, in a cloud of snow and pine needles he plummeted to the ground.
He landed in a drift of snow that had collected at the side of the path. Winded, he lay for a moment, and then struggled to his feet. The following riders were no longer muffled shapes but armed men, moving towards him.
“Stop!” shouted the man on the white horse. “It’s just a boy.” The men stopped but did not sheath their swords. The boy stared at them, then looked up at the man beside him.
“I’m not a boy. I’m one of the king’s warriors.”
“Oh, you are, are you?” The rider inspected the skinny boy standing before him, buried up to his knees in snow. “Where did you come from?”
The boy extricated himself from the snowdrift and brushed the snow from his clothes. “I fell out of that tree.”
“I didn’t think you floated down on a snowflake. Why were you up a tree?”
“We were training; practicing how to hide in the snow.”
“Very successfully.” The man looked around at the empty landscape. “I can’t see anyone.”
“They’ve all gone home,” muttered the boy. He hugged his arms round his body, trying to get warm.
“You look cold.”
“I’m all right.” The boy stood up straight.
The man nodded. “Are we close to Winchester?”
“It’s not far. Just carry on along this road.”
“Can you show us the way?” He leaned down and held out a hand.
The boy stared at up the man. His hair wasn’t fiery gold, just fair, with a few threads of silver running through it. It was cut short, as was his beard. His face was tanned, and his pale blue eyes were surrounded by the wrinkles of someone who had spent much of his life staring into the sun. He smiled showing strong white teeth. He didn’t look dangerous, so the boy grasped the offered hand. He was pulled upwards and settled on the horse’s back. The man was stronger than his slender frame suggested. The man tucked his thick black fur cloak around his passenger and urged the horse into motion again.
“How long have you been the king’s warrior?”
“A whole year. Well, nearly.”
“Nearly a year. That’s a long time.” The boy nodded. “Are you any good?”
“I beat most of the other boys, most of the time.”
“Only most of the time?”
“All right, all of the time, but I don’t want to boast.”
“Of course not,” laughed the rider. “Perhaps you can come and fight with me, in a year or so.” The boy thought about it.
“I’ve only used a wooden sword. They won’t let me fight with a proper sword.” He glanced longingly at the sword that hung from the saddle.
“You can do a lot of damage with a wooden sword. If you know how to use it properly.”
“I know.” The boy looked up and grinned. “You can’t kill anyone, though.”
“Do you want to kill somebody?”
“Sometimes. When they call me names.”
“Why do they call you names?” The man glanced down at the boy. “Because you are better than them?”
“No.” The boy pulled the cloak tighter around his body. “It’s because I don’t have a father.”
“I’m sorry about that. Did he die?” The boy just buried his head deeper in the dark fur.
The man stared into the whiteness ahead and lowered his voice. “Sometimes it’s better to have no father at all, than one that hates you.” They rode on in silence.
“What about your mother?” asked the man gently.
“She died, the summer before last.”
“But you remember her?”
“Of course.” The boy thought for a moment. “I think I do.”
“You have that, then. I don’t remember mine at all.”
“It was a long time ago. I’m over it now.”
“Are you?” The boy twisted to look up at the face above him. The man looked down and smiled.
“Of course I am.” He dug his heels into the horse’s flanks, but it refused to move faster, just plodded on. “So you became a warrior?”
“Yes. Now I have friends, the other boys.”
“Apart from the ones you want to kill?”
“You must be good at killing your enemies,” said the boy.
“Some people say I am. I’m still alive anyway.”
“Did you fight at Brunanburh? With the king?”
“I did fight there, yes.”
“It must have been exciting. I want to know what happened, but no one will tell me about it.”
“A lot of people died. Perhaps in the future, when the friends of the men who died have gone, people will talk about it. When you are older, you will understand. I see lights ahead. Is that Winchester?”
The boy stared into the darkness. “Yes, that’s it.” He looked round. “I’d better go. They’ll be wondering where I am.” He unwrapped himself reluctantly from the cloak. “Thank you for the ride.” Before the horse had stopped, the boy had jumped, landing lightly on his feet. He looked up at the man on the white horse.
“Perhaps you can tell me about other fights. An old man like you must have fought in many battles.”
“Not so much of the old.” The man grinned down at the boy. “I’ll be busy while I’m here, but I’ll see what I can do.”
The boy was already moving away when he turned and shouted back, “There will be plenty of time. It’s Christmas.” The sound echoed through the trees, and the boy ran on, faster. He leaped over an obstacle, landing in a pile of snow. He shook himself like a dog and ran on. He dodged through the trees and disappeared. Only the sound of his voice lingered. “It’s Christmas!”
The man on the white horse watched him go. “Perhaps I am getting old.” He sighed. “Come on, let’s get a move on, it’s nearly dark.”
“He was very disrespectful, my lord.” One of the attendants grumbled.
“He was young. We were all young once. Even you.” The man grunted.
The other man removed something from a soft leather bag “Do you want to wear the crown for your entrance into the city?” He held it out.
“I suppose I must.” He took the gold circlet and carefully placed it on his head.
Then King Æthelstan of Wessex, King of all England rode on to attend his Christmas Court at Winchester.
Historical note: The boy is, of course, Byrhtnoth. When he died at the Battle of Maldon in 991, it is thought that he was in his sixties. For the purposes of my books, I have taken his year of birth to be 930. Æthelstan, grandson of King Alfred died on 27th October 939. He was in his early forties. He had become the first King of England and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. It is not known where he spent Christmas 938. Perhaps at Winchester?
This post is part of the Historical Writers Forum December Blog Hop. Tomorrow it is Paula Lofting’s turn and the Blog Hop finishes on Christmas Day with a post from Alex Marchant. If you missed any posts you can find the links here:
As the year ends, we look back to what has happened during the last twelve months; what we have done, and what we haven’t done. One of those undone things is to update this blog, so now is the time to catch up on those posts I meant to write – and then got distracted.
Back in August we spent a few days in Suffolk. The object was to visit the new exhibition at Sutton Hoo, but more about that another time. On the journey to Woodbridge, we stopped at a place I had wanted to visit for some time: The Devil’s Dyke.
There are several places in the British landscape that have been given the name of Devil’s Dyke, the most well known is a valley in the South Downs, near Brighton. The Devil’s Dyke is not a natural feature, it was built by man, and Anglo-Saxon men at that. It runs across the Cambridgeshire countryside from one unimportant place to another. Why was it there?
Everyone has heard of Offa’s Dyke; a bank and ditch that separates England and Wales, or at the time that it was supposed to have been built, by King Offa in the eighth century, to keep the Welsh out of Mercia.
The Devil’s Dyke was built, probably in the 6th or 7th century, to keep the Mercians out of East Anglia. East Anglia has always been difficult to reach from the west, even in recent times. It was not until the A14 was built that it became easier (although for travellers stuck in hold-ups on that road, that is a debatable point.)
To the north the Wash and the Fens reach deep into the land and to the south, there was thick forest. There was only one easy route, a strip of chalk grassland through which ran the Icknield Way. This ancient trackway, perhaps named after the Iceni tribe, ran from Wiltshire to Norfolk. Later, the Romans used it. In the nineteenth century a railway, now dismantled, was built that way. And where people travelled, whether traders or armies, control was needed.
The Anglo-Saxons built several dykes across the route: Bran Ditch, Brent Ditch, Fleam Dyke and the longest and best preserved Devils Dyke.
For such a large and prominent landmark, it was remarkably difficult to find. We had found maps and walks online and decided to start at the northernmost end, a village called Reach. We would walk along the dyke as far as we had time for and return to our car to continue our journey.
The drive to Reach was an adventure in itself. Small winding lanes among fenland drains, with road signs that disappeared at the most inconvenient moment, but eventually we arrived and parked close to the Dykes End pub. A good place to start – we thought.
We now encountered an excess of signs. Apart from the road signs there were a multitude of walk directions at the entrance to a footpath just behind where this photo was taken. That must be the way. We walked up it (in my experience, the correct route is always up a hill!), round corners, through a few fields, ate a few blackberries. Where was the dyke? We consulted the compass, compared it with the maps, had a heated argument and ended up back in the village – all without finding anything that resembled a dyke.
Had we misread the map? Had we gone in the wrong direction? Look at that picture (above). See that clump of trees at the end of the green? That is the dyke! In fact, once we found the cunningly hidden explanation board, we discovered that the green was originally part of the dyke, flattened.
Hoping no one had noticed our mistake, we fought our way through the undergrowth to find ourselves in what we thought was the dyke ditch. Of course, as we were walking south with the bank on our right, we were, in fact, on the defended, East Anglian side of the dyke.
It was a warm muggy day and we tramped through the long grass disturbing butterflies and other insects. It was very peaceful. Eventually we found a steep path up onto the top of the dyke. We could see for miles.
It was a pleasant walk. We met the occasional dog walker. If we had carried on we would have eventually reached Newmarket; the southern end of the dyke forms part of the racecourse there. The dyke is seven miles long and in places the bank measures 9 metres (30 ft) high and 36.5 metres (120 ft) across.
We stopped when we got to the dismantled railway, with its own earthworks (Interesting if you like railways) about a mile from Reach. According to the map there is a Roman Villa in the area, but we didn’t spot it.
We walked along the railway to the road and them back to the village along field edges. The dyke was in view most of the way back but almost impossible to see. The green slopes and trees which grew along the top camouflaged it against the flat countryside.
Originally, having been built of chalk, it must have stood out against the green land proclaiming the power of King Rædwald and East Anglia. How many men died on its slopes, defending their kingdom? They are long gone and now all is peaceful.
I wonder what it was like when Byrhtnoth was alive? Both Mercia and East Anglia had been subsumed in the country that had become England. But the Great Heathen Army arrived and eventually what had been East Anglia and the eastern part of Mercia were part of the Danelaw.
The Devil’s Dyke was no longer needed. It is an indication of its size and bulk that, after more than a thousand years so much of it still survives. Perhaps because it is so well hidden!
What is Historical Detective Fiction and why would I want to write it? A good question and difficult to answer.
The short answer is that I was coming to the end of The Byrhtnoth Chronicles (at least for the time being) but wanted to continue to inhabit the same “Universe”. Byrhtnoth deserved a rest, so why not take one of the other characters and tell their story?
The character was obvious, but what story did they have to tell? Among the many historical fiction books that I have read, I have especially enjoyed series with a detective character, solving a crime, usually a murder. The first I read must have been Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael, the first “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” was published in 1977. I must have read most of the series before it was televised, which I felt was a disaster – the casting of Derek Jacobi was completely wrong.
After that I looked for other series, covering many different periods. From the Roman era there is Lindsey Davis’ Falco. Susanna Gregory writes about Brother Bartholomew, a 14th Century monk and also Thomas Chaloner a Civil War spy trying to survive after the Restoration. Then, of course, there is Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII written by C. J. Sansom.
In the Victorian period there is Anne Perry with both William Monk (1850-60s) and Thomas Pitt (1880-1890s) and bringing us into the (early) 20th century, Amelia Peabody, an Egyptian archaeologist, written by Elizabeth Peters.
Then there are the one-offs: Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, although in that case the detective is modern, only the crime is historical; and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. This is on television at the moment and the plot is made more impenetrable by the bad sound quality.
I could go on, there are many more. Find your favourites here. I notice there is nothing set in the 10th Century. Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne detects in 7th Century Ireland then there is nothing until after the Norman conquest.
Can I fill that gap? That is where NaNoWriMo comes in. I posted about how I was doing at the halfway point. Now it has finished, and I am pleased to say that I reached 50,341 words on 27th November – three days early!
Is it a Historical Detective Novel? Well, it has a murder and several suspects, It has a detective and several red herrings. I have not managed to get to the traditional “gather everyone in the library and reveal the murderer” moment, but I know who “did it”. Whether it is any good will take a lot more work – I haven’t even read it through yet.
I found it easy to write, but I encountered several problems. In particular, names. I have mentioned this subject before here. Anglo-Saxon names can be difficult – they all had the same , or similar, and most of them are unfamiliar to the general reader. There were no surnames. I think I have managed OK in my previous books, with a small group of people continuing through 3/4 books with only the occasional new addition. Detective fiction is a whole different ball game.
I knew before I started that there would be a problem. I needed a victim and suspects, so I had already found names for them. Where? What is the biggest collection of Anglo-Saxon names ever collected? The Doomsday Book! There are a lot of Norman names as well, but most places had an A-S owner in the time of King Edward.
I went about it logically. I had already found a location for my crime, so I looked it up in Doomsday, together with a few of the surrounding villages, and produced a list so that I could pick a name when I needed it. I know that the names in 1066 are not the same people who were living there over a hundred years before, but I assumed that if there were any regional variations in name usage, they would be reasonably genuine.
And I did need a lot of names! Think about a detective story. There are not just the obvious suspects; there are other witnesses. There is the local policeman, who has arrested an innocent man. There is the character with local knowledge to befriend the detective, plus his wife. There is the young boy/servant who can mix with the lower classes, run errands and take messages. This is all apart from working out what the local Anglo-Saxon equivalent is. As I said, there is a lot of work to do!
Then there is also the problem with how to address people. I was used to using either proper name or “my lord”. Just how did an Anglo-Saxon address a suspect without a Mr This or Mrs That. Did they use Sir and Madam? It doesn’t sound right.
Another difficulty I encountered was how to deal with those little phrases that crop up in an interview/ conversation. “Tell me more” “What did you do next” “Where were you that day” “Did you batter XXXX to death with a candlestick?”. So much easier to have a fight and chop someone’s head off.
Perhaps I’m not cut out to be a detective novelist. I’m sure everyone will be able to work out the guilty party long before the end. At least I have had a go, and that is what NaNoWriMo is all about. I will finish the story, leave it alone for a bit, then give it a read. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised. If not, at least I have learned a lot about historical detective fiction.
Meanwhile I must get back to Byrhtnoth and solve his problems. Perhaps he will have to carry on with his adventures after all.
Today I welcome a fellow writer of Historical Fiction. Jen Black’s books cover different periods, but all, I think take place in Scotland or involve Scottish history. This week her new book, Viking Bride, is published. It is set in the eleventh century, in the time of Macbeth, and is about Vikings – but we won’t hold that against her. Welcome Jen.
Hello – I’m Jen Black and I’m stealing space on Christine’s blog today to announce my latest publication ~ VIKING BRIDE. Briefly, it is a historical romance, but with lots of action and excitement as well for those who like a little more adventure.
set in the isle of Lewis around AD1040 when MacBeth was High King of Alba and
the Vikings were settling down as neighbours and farmers rather than rampaging
warriors anxious to lop off heads. They remained a dominant force in any area
they chose to settle and dangerous to those who dared to argue with them. Among
themselves, I am sure they were as happy, miserable, compassionate, cruel,
cynical, greedy, envious and bloody-minded as people everywhere can be today.
They had many stories to tell around the fireside. Most people associate Vikings with swords and axes, shields and spears. Maybe a bow and arrow. But the predominant weapon of myth and fable was the sword, often very old and with a personal name.
They were expensive; a hand-made pattern-welded blade could be worth as much as £250,000 in our terms if the hilt furniture was jewelled or finished in precious metal. Mystical powers were attributed to them and Skofnung is a good example.
Not only a very special sword, Skofnung had a
life stone which offered healing powers to those it had injured. Skofnung’s
first owner was King Hrolf Kraki of Denmark and Skofnung was buried with
him inside the mound at Roskilde.
Two hundred years later, Skeggi of Vlidfirtlz in
Iceland broke into the mound and removed a good deal of treasure, including Skofnung.
In the dry and air-tight burial chamber, Skofnung was clean, bright and covered
in dried lanolin. With that cleaned off, it was as good as the day it was made.
A warrior called Kormac faced a duel with Bersi, a
professional duellist, and decided his sword wasn’t up to the mark. Bersi had a
sword called Hviting, which had its own life-stone and Kormac’s did not;
also, his blade bent after a few hard strokes. Kormac’s mother suggested he’d
better see if he could borrow Skofnung from Skeggi. Kormac did so, and
Skeggi refused to lend his sword.
On his mother’s insistence he tried again, and this
time Skeggi agreed, but gave Kormac lots of instructions about using the sword.
No woman could look upon it, the sun should not be allowed to shine on it for
too long and he must breathe on the blade as he withdraw the sword from the bag
which protected it. Breathing on the blade would allow the luck of the sword to
swim out into the pattern and if luck was with him Kormac would see the snake
moving in the fuller.
Kormac wasn’t impressed and laughed. When he took
Skofnung home he wanted to show it to his mother but could not remove the protective
bag. When Kormac tore off the bag, Skofnung howled and refused to leave
the bag and howled even louder when Kormac put his foot on the bag and dragged
out the sword. The snake vanished into the hilt.
At this Skeggi reclaimed his sword and in time handed
it on to his son Eid, who then loaned it to a man called Thekrell and to his
son Gellir, who died at Roskilde. No doubt Skofnung was buried with him,
very close to the mound from which it had originally been plundered, for no
more was ever heard of Skofnung.
Lesser known weapons, but probably more likely to be
owned and used every day, were the various shapes and sizes of saex common
to the Viking age. A langsaex, as the name suggests, had a blade a good
deal longer that the shorter and more common scramsaex which came in all
shapes and sizes from a common eating knifr to a blade inscribed with
runes and inserted into a patterned hilt. Such weapons have their own history,
and Skofnung even has an island, Skofnungsey, named after it. I almost
used the masculine pronoun for him in that last sentence…
And now back to my new book! Here’s the blurb:
It was a marriage no one wanted.
Least of all the Borgunna and Asgeir.
When chieftain Ragnar and his friend Grettir force the marriage on their offspring they had no idea of the powerful feelings they would unleash, nor the dreadful consequences that would follow. Set in the Hebrides in the eleventh century, when Christianity was taking hold in Viking communities settling down as farmers and neighbours, the old familiar gods had not quite been forgotten.
If any of you read Far After Gold then you will recognise Flane ~ he re-appears in this story as wedding guest and distant cousin of chieftain Ragnar. Find it here: https://tinyurl.com/wras6vg
I have a degree in English and worked in academic libraries in the north east of England until retirement a few years ago. That’s when I began writing seriously and there are now twelve novels with my name on them – all historicals bar one.