Looking Back – A review of 2017

So much has happened this year. I started with one book written and a second started. I ended the year awaiting the publication of the first book, Bright Sword, in four weeks time. The second, Bright Axe (probably) is with beta readers and a third, yet to be named in progress. How did all this happen?

By January, I had received my first feedback for Bright Sword. The book was OK but contained lots of errors. I knew it needed a professional edit and made arrangements.

This was also when I decided to become more organised. I worked out how many words I needed to write – I settled on a thousand a day, which worked out at 7K a week. I announced it on this blog. Although I haven’t often reached the target, it encouraged me to sit down regularly, whether I wanted to write or not. I have created a routine: after lunch I go upstairs to the old computer in the spare room, and write, sometimes an hour, sometimes I continue into the evening (with breaks for tea.)

In February, I seem to have done nothing much except write, and start to think about publication. I was planning on self publishing – When? How could I do it? There was one landmark this month, another author asked me to write a preview of his book, before publication. This was Kin of Cain, a short book (100 pages) by Matthew Harffy. This was an easy job, it was so good; better, if that is possible, than his other books in the Bernicia Chronicles series. Read my preview here.

March was spent worrying about how many corrections I would receive from my editor.

At the beginning of April I got the manuscript back. Not too bad, but my punctuation appeared to be even worse than I thought. There was a bit of discussion about one of the characters and in the end I added a couple more scenes – only about a hundred words or so. At the end of that month, I attended the Self Publishing Conference, to make  a final decision about which avenue to take. There are so many different options nowadays, that I ended up more confused than ever. Someone suggested The Book Guild. You don’t need an agent, or to prepare a synopsis (although I had one). Just send your complete manuscript and they might offer one of several options. I had nothing to lose.

In May, as I struggled with the ending of book two, a bombshell struck. A (very) famous author, Conn Iggulden had published a book set in exactly the same period I was writing (mid tenth century). It was about Dunstan, who appears, briefly, in my book. What could I do? I read the book and wrote a review. I didn’t think much of it, although other people raved over it. Was I jealous? Perhaps, but I’ve put it behind me now.

At the start of June I heard back from the publisher. They wanted to publish my book. They offered me a partnership deal, which I accepted. I was on my way!

It was in June that I finished the first draft of book two (104,542 words) and started editing. I also went on holiday – an archaeological tour of Orkney and Shetland. It was somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time, and since it was our 40th wedding anniversary this year, I managed to persuade my husband that he would survive the ferry journey. Luckily the sea was calm and the weather beautiful. I learned a lot about pre-history and Vikings, but there was not much about Anglo-Saxons. I took lots of photos which can be found on a series of posts, starting here.

Coppergate Helmet, modelled by the author.

One the way back we stopped for a couple of days in Yorkshire. A bit of research and a trip to the Jorvik exhibition in York. More Vikings, but at least I got to try on an Anglo-Saxon helmet. It was a bit too big for me! Another day, on a walk near Wharrem Percy deserted village I was inspired by wind blowing across a field of grain. By the time we  returned to our hotel I had the plot for book three. (And that is all I’m going to say about it!)

In July, we headed north again. This time to Lindisfarne. We had booked a day’s archaeology at the Digventures site, searching for the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery. Unfortunately it was very wet. We only got an hour in the trench and an afternoon cleaning pieces of bone, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. There was also a little time to explore the area for book two research (and perhaps book four!!)

At the end of August, proofs arrived. A whole new experience. It was at this, rather late, point that I discovered that I had been let down by my editor. All those punctuation mistakes that had been pointed out, were not mine. Most of them had been OK and I had “corrected” them to something wrong. Details here. It was nearly a disaster. It was a big job to rewrite the book and search for other errors at the same time. There were several runs though and gradually I signed off on the final half dozen errors. I never wanted to see that book again!

September was busy, writing reviews of books, finding people to review mine. I volunteered to review Viking Fire by Justin Hill. A great book  reminiscent of Dorothy Dunnett.  I had reviewed her book, King Hereafter, in July but in September was noticed by the fanatics (in the nicest possible way) of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, making it my most popular post this year, at 168 views.

It was also September when I found Bright Sword was listed on Amazon. I thinks it was at that point that I knew it was really happening.

In October, author G K Holloway approached me out of the blue to review his book, 1066 , What Fates Impose He has since reviewed mine and beta read book two – it’s better than Bright Sword apparently.

It was in November, with Bright Sword on track and book two on pause, I started book three. It is causing a few problems, which I’ll talk about another time, but I have written just over 30k words.

With preparing for Christmas, setting up launch events, etc and writing; book and blog posts, I have been busy.

I have taken a week off for Christmas, read a few books, and now stand on the edge of a new year. Where will I be this time next year? I’ll write a few thoughts about that tomorrow – if I am in a fit state.

Writing update for the year: I have written about 118K words of historical fiction. Words deleted and edited – unknown, but a lot.

I have written 53 blog posts – more than one per week. Say an average of one thousand (this is 1166) makes 53K.

Total 171K. No wonder I’m feeling tired!

Thank you to everyone who has helped/supported/encouraged me during this amazing year.

In 2018, may you finish/publish/sell your own books – and if you don’t write; read and add a review to someone else’s.

Just so long as it’s called Bright Sword!

FAREWELL 2017 – HERE I COME 2018!

 

 

 

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Some Thoughts about Christmas

Well, we’ve made it to Boxing Day; survived another Christmas. How was it for you?

As we settle down to read our books, play with our presents and think up ever more imaginative recipes for left overs, here are some thoughts about the real meaning of Christmas.

What comes into your mind when you imagine Christmas? Peace and Goodwill to all Mankind? Food and Drink? Family gathered round a roaring fire? Snow?

Lighting the Pudding – Symbol of Midwinter?

No, the real meaning of Christmas is Fear. Fear of the dark. Fear of starvation. Fear that this year the sun will not return and the world will end.

This is the reason that men hauled rocks half way across the country, to measure the midwinter sun at Stonehenge and passages in cold barrows were carefully aligned to mark the moment. Why calendars were developed, to calculate the day; the day when the sun turned and all mankind rejoiced that life would continue.

At a time when life depended on a good harvest and food was short in winter, it was a vital time; more so the further north you lived. Cold as well as the absence of light could be deadly, which is why most of the winter traditions originated there. Do people who live close to the equator and have no experience of short freezing days have any winter celebrations?

Winter comes and times are hard. Food must be hoarded, eked out to last the winter. Fuel collected to keep warm and the darkness at bay. How do you know when the worst is over? When the days lengthen again. What can you do to help it happen? Mankind has always invented rituals to control their lives; gods to pray to or bargain with; someone to thank when things go right – or make sacrifices to, when times are bad.

That is why we have Christmas and all the other winter festivals. I am not going into details. I’m sure most of us are sick of the discussions as to whether Christianity took over the Roman festival of Saturnalia or arguments about who invented Father Christmas or Santa Claus and whether his reindeer sleigh developed from Odin’s cart pulled by goats. Common to all of them is the moment when darkness was conquered and we could celebrate.

However, nowadays we seem to have lost the reason and celebration is everything. The early Christians turned necessity into religion, with Advent. A time of prayer and fasting, before the celebration of the Birth of Christ. The date was set as 25th December, disconnected from the actual shortest day and it lasted twelve days.

In the present era of plenty, people forgot the time of starvation and advent has become part of the preparation. Every year the period becomes longer, it now starts with Black Friday, in November and the shops start to fill with Christmas goods even earlier. Everyone complains it comes too early. There is the putting up of trees, sending of cards, the office parties and other premature celebrations. By the time Christmas Day arrives, everyone is sick of it, and so we sit here thinking “Was that it?” and start taking down the decorations.

Knowing there should be more, there is a final burst of fireworks and drinking. New Years Eve, when everything stops and we watch the clocks count down – to what? A moment accurately calculated by scientists to mark – an event nearly two weeks past.

This change is not recent. It happened long ago, when we lost our connection with the land, and time. Is it a coincidence that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and in the process “invented” the modern Christmas, at just the tipping point that more people lived in towns than in the country? When the agricultural cycle was forgotten by most. In cities, with industry and commerce, there was no winter starvation. If you were poor you could starve at any time of year, for everyone else food was plentiful all the time. But the mid-winter celebration was remembered.

Religion declined, and advent became a tinsel covered coat hanger on Blue Peter. People still go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, not even knowing why.

And we are discontented with Christmas. We feel guilty because, deep in our ancient brain we know it is wrong. Wrong to celebrate when we have not performed the penance, placated the gods.

Is that why, when it is all over, when the New Year has been rung in, then we make our promises? To give up alcohol, to get fit, to become a better person, to finish writing that book.

Wouldn’t we enjoy Christmas more, if we had done that first?

Is that why I read, and write, historical fiction? Because they knew how to do it right?

Happy New Year.

Prize Winning Author

Have you noticed? You look at the website or blog of a well known author, and some not so well known authors, and are faced with a sidebar full of awards. Their biography includes every single literary prize they have one from the year dot and the cover of their latest book proclaims it to be “prize winning” – occasionally it actually states which prize! Has anyone ever bought a book because the author has won a prize?

Do I sound jealous? I shouldn’t. I too have won a writing prize.

Last Monday evening, it was the Rugby Family History Group AGM and Christmas Social. As a member of the committee I was armed with my report – how far we had got with the transcription of a local Parish Register; how our First World War Project was going (300 men researched, 100+ to go) more volunteers wanted, and what was happening on the website (not a lot). We dozed through the financial report and looked elsewhere when asked if there were any volunteers to replace the secretary, who was retiring at that meeting. Another report concerned the Magazine. As always the editor complained of lack of copy, please could someone write something for the next issue. Because I’m a helpful type, I can usually manage to produce something when she gets desperate

Some years ago, to encourage submissions, we set up The Harry Batchelor Prize for the best article in the previous years magazines (three issues). This is to commemorate our first Chairman, and is presented at the end of the AGM – before we let the hordes loose on the food – provided, of course, by the committee. The prize is judged by someone from the local library, a local writer and last years winner. I got out my camera to take photographs, to add to the website. The envelope was opened, imaginary drums rolled, the commended and highly commended articles were announced. I lined up my camera. The winner was an article entitled “But what was he doing in  Ireland?”.  Must be that chap with the Irish ancestors.

It wasn’t. It was me! I had forgotten all about that one.

I stood up to receive my prize. Cameras flashed,  well, one did and someone had the foresight to pick up mine, and take a picture. Champagne flowed – someone later opened the wine box!

And I became a prize winning author.

Shall I add it to the side bar? Winner of the Harry Batchelor Prize, 2017

And 2013, 2011 and 2009 – did I mention I’ve won before? I try not to do it too often – it means I have to act as judge next year!

I have the Power

Today, for a few hours, we have had no power. Not an unexpected power cut, this was planned. We were sent a letter weeks before – a temporary interruption for regular maintenance. It was to last from 12.00 to 3.00 pm.

I wouldn’t say this caused panic, but we filled vacuum flasks with boiling water for hot drinks and charged our mobile phones. We tried to think of something to do that didn’t involve using the computer. We even considered going out for the duration.

Then it struck me, this is a modern problem. Only a few years ago we would have taken it in our stride – I remember the seventies, with regular power cuts, the Three-Day Week.  But look further back, before the age of reliable electricity, to how life was lived by most people throughout history.

Saxon Hearth – West Stow

There was The Hearth. I mention it all the time in my books. People huddle round it on winter nights, they cook food on it, they use it to dry clothes when they come in from the rain. Why else are a warrior’s friends called his hearth companions. But a fire (usually) means wood. Someone had to collect small twigs for kindling, chop logs. Probably a large part of the population spent most of their time at this job. Of course it was not the rich men who did this. It would have been the servants, the slaves.

Consider the slaves. How had they become slaves? Most people imagine someone beaten in battle, or captured in some raid, sold in some foreign market. Or perhaps you were the child of a slave and therefore a slave yourself. Surely no-one would willing become a slave? What about a poor man in a hut? He has a family, he works hard, growing crops, perhaps he has an animal or two, he collects wood for a fire, because without it he would die. He has an accident, or suffers some illness. What can his family do but ask their lord for help? They become slaves.

Gradually, land was enclosed. The old system of open fields, common land for grazing and woods where fuel could be collected. Of course, this was organised by the rich men of the village. They had their farms or large estates, but it left the poorest without the means of survival. They had a choice – they could work, for wages, on the farms, or in the big house, or they could leave. This was the time when towns began to grow. If you couldn’t find a job, you might turn to crime. If unsuccessful at that, you were caught, and your troubles were over. You would be executed or transported – somewhere warm!

Throughout history there have been Power-Full men (and they were usually men). The rest, the women, the children and the poor were Power-Less. Not because of money, land or status, but for what it provided; the life-giving access to a hearth or its equivalent.

We should be grateful that today, we have heat and light available at the flick of a switch. Without power I could not type out this post and send it to you, across the wires and through the air. In the past, if had wanted to tell this to anyone, I would have gone out and spoken to someone or sent a letter – if I could write. I probably wouldn’t bother. I’d be too busy – collecting wood.

And after all the preparation, the power was only off for half an hour – while we were eating our lunch!

We would have died that night, if it hadn’t been for the dog.

I’ve come the end of the first phase of editing. Reduced the manuscript from 104,381 to 93,924 losing over 10k words.

Not bad – unfortunately I celebrated by putting some words back. I had removed a scene which I didn’t think mattered. I decided it did matter, so back it went, suitably edited. I then had to get rid of the rubbish I had written to plug the gap. I now have a spare 746 words floating around looking for a home – I wonder if anyone would notice if I deleted them?

I didn’t much like the final chapter. I tried rewriting using a different Point of View, but it was worse.

I’m still not happy with the first chapter, even after the edit, but the first line isn’t bad. That’s it at the top of this post. Do you like it? Does it drag you in? Do you want to read the rest of the book? Don’t worry, it will probably change!

I have put it aside for a while, am having a rest, discovering that another life is happening out there. After several beautiful summer days of refusing to stir from the computer because “I just want to finish this edit.” I was lured out with the promise of a garden visit. A nice drive in the sun down the Fosse Way to Hidcote Manor Gardens. There was no way I would be tempted to think about anything Anglo-Saxon. Would Byrhtnoth have strolled round, inspecting the herbaceous borders or admiring the subtle blends of colour?

Hidcote Gardens, The Red Border

Hidcote Gardens, Fuchsia Garden

Which got me thinking – if he was alive today, what would my protagonist be doing? Probably not a gardener. A soldier seems the obvious choice, but I don’t know. Our heroes nowadays tend to be actors, singers, sportsmen. Some writers have a certain actor in mind – the person to play the character in the film. Chris Hemsworth as Thor has the right look for Byrhtnoth, but I wasn’t sure. Anyway, he’s not tall enough.

Then one day, when I watching some Rugby, I saw him. Richie Gray plays for Scotland (but I won’t hold that against him). He’s the right height 6ft 9in, blond hair, and a Rugby scrum is probably the closest you can come to a shield wall.

One of the known facts about the real Byrhtnoth is that he married a relative of the king. Wasn’t there a Rugby player who married a member of the royal family? And no, my Byrhtnoth doesn’t look like Mike Tindall!

I think I will end the comparison there, because I don’t like to think what the modern equivalent of the Battle of Maldon might be!

Brexit?

(Isn’t it amazing the number of different subjects you can cram in when you’ve got a blog post to fill?)

Elegy for a Dead Warrior – 10th August 991

On this day, in 991, Byrhtnoth died at the Battle of Maldon.

In his memory I give you a piece of writing. A version of it acted as a prologue to my book, but was discarded in the editing.

I hope you enjoy it.

Elegy for a Dead Warrior 

It has come. The day I never thought to see. My friend is dead.

We were of an age, but I thought I would be the first to go. Not him, so strong and vital.

We talked briefly when he passed through Ely, a few brief days ago. We spoke of old times, a little about the battle to come, but nothing of the future. We both knew the truth; that he would die. It was his time.

I followed behind the battle host. They moved fast, eager for the fight. I brought a slow cart, with which to carry his body home.

Now it is finished. The sea wolves have gone, their boats sliding away, back to the sea. Triumphant but sorely depleted. They will not be back again this year. Perhaps next, but who will there be to send them home then, now he is dead?

He did his duty, now I must do mine. The field is wide. The earth cut and bloodied from the fight. The smell of blood and death overwhelms me. There are others, searching for friends and relatives, hoping against hope that they will find a living body and not a corpse. Some perhaps look for plunder. They will look in vain; the victors will have taken everything of value.

It is difficult to walk. I slip and fall to my knees. As I struggle to stand the body beside me moves. Is he alive still? No. Just the tug on his scattered guts that gave him the semblance of life and like a child’s toy he drops back to his everlasting sleep. I sketch a cross above his body and move on. The course wool of my cassock feels damp against my legs. At least the blood, and worse, will not show against the black Benedictine cloth.

As I try to identify the lines of battle, the world turns red. The sky reflects the blood spilled on the ground below. The sun sinks towards the nearby town, set upon its hill. Flat land and water surrounds it. Ahead the island floats; separate, for now, from the land. That must be where the bridge joined it to this land, for there is the greatest spread of bodies.

As I approach, I recognise some faces, or if they have no faces, the colour of some clothing or a pair of shoes. There is old Edward, my lord’s steward. What is he doing here? He should be at home, preparing for the harvest or sitting, watching his grandchildren play. Why did he come? To serve his lord, of course. It was his duty. But who is left to harvest the crops now?

I move on, the bodies thick on the ground now, the wounds greater. He must be here, in the heart of the battle dead. Ah, there is Wulfmaer, cheeks rosy in the dying light, but beneath the lying glow, cold and bloodless. His eyes stare into mine, surprised in death. I close them and remember. He was son of my lord’s sister, brought up by him, who had no sons to call his own. So many men’s sons came to him, when he was great in fame, to be trained in weapons, to learn to become great men, but none as great as him.

Close by is Aelfwine, another kinsman of my lord. I knew his father, his grandfather as well. His uncle was an Ealdorman of Mercia for many years. Young Aelfwine will never attain such high rank now.

A flash of colour holds my eye. This was my lord’s banner, sewn by his wife. She will mourn his loss, perhaps. She has long wanted to embroider a cloth to celebrate his great deeds. A modest man, he always forbade it. Now she will have her way. Perhaps she will hang it in the Abbey, above his grave, for men to remember him, evermore. I smooth the cool silk. I need no reminder.

He must be somewhere near. I search the gloom. The light is fading. There! A hand. I crawl closer. Yes, that is his. Long fingers relaxed that should be clasped around his sword’s hilt. I trace the scars that map the surface. Some old wounds, barely visible, others new, red raw, unhealed.

It is hard to see now. Either the fall of night or tears dim my eyes, I know not which. I run my hand up the arm. It is starting to grow stiff. I must straighten it before the immobility of death falls upon his body. A wound near separates limb from body, nothing else could have caused him to drop his sword. This is what caused his death. Without his golden hilted sword he could not fight, and so he died. What other wounds will I find upon his body?

I reach the shoulder, still broad and strongly muscled, even after all these years. He may have been a venerable adviser to the king, but he never let himself grow soft. I hesitate. Something is not right. I stretch my hand to touch his face and encounter… nothing. I hold my breath and feel the blood, still sticky, that covers the knob of bone that is all that remains. Was he dead when it happened, or did that noble blood spurt like a fountain to mark his murderers?

Once he stood tall, towering above others. Now he is diminished, reduced to the stature of an ordinary man. The enemy knew his worth. They have taken the head of this famous warrior, to prove their own prowess in battle. Thieves steal honour that they cannot achieve themselves.

I arrange the body. Straighten the long legs and place his arms at his side. I tumble other bodies away. I would know who they are, but I do not care, they are mere lumps of meat, I feel around the blood sodden ground for his sword. It is not there. Did one of his companions scoop it up to continue the fight, or was that taken as well by the invaders?

It is quiet now. I hear the distant sound of celebration from the town. Why do they celebrate when my lord is dead? Because they are safe; safe to eat and drink, then go to their beds without fear. While he lies here, on the old ground, his duty done. They think the raiders have gone forever. They have not. They will be back, but who will defend this land then? The councillors who advise the king say that our land is rich. We can afford to pay them to go away. It will fail. They will always come back, greedy for our gold. Then when we have no more to give them, they will come and take our land as well, and make us slaves.

A mournful note echoes across the field of dead. A pale shape floats on silent wings. Another soul ascending to heaven? Or just an owl hunting for a meal? Other animals will be searching for food. I must remain and defend his body until the day returns. It will not be hard; the nights are short this time of year. I will sit here beside him and pray for his soul. And remember. So much to remember.

Days were warmer then and winters colder. The sun always shone. We would ride all day, racing on the hills or hunting in the forest. Our horses were strong and our dogs were swift. I remember hunting wolves in the north. He still possessed the skin of one. Whose body will it warm now? I remember fishing in the rivers, the fish were shinier and their flesh more tender than those I find on my plate nowadays.

At night we would eat and drink. Many times the mead horn would circulate and we would drink deep of it. We would listen to the scop, telling tales of heroes long ago. Later we would boast of our own deeds; our battles always ended in victory. Then there were the women… but monks are not supposed to think of that.

Life was so much simpler then. A man knew what he should do and did it. Not like now, when everything is politics and rich men strive for more riches, even the churchmen. Especially the churchmen. Have times changed or is it we who have grown old?

They say the world will end soon; a thousand years after the birth of Our Saviour. I will see my friend again, if not before. I do not think I will long outlive him. But I have work to do.

Does the sky brighten? Nearby, the dark treacherous river laps against a muddy shore. Is the bridge covered now, or open to the island? Yesterday it was important but now it no longer matters. A gentle breeze stirs the battle stink. Somewhere a bird begins to sing. Soon the cart will come. I stretch my legs, stiff from the night watch.

I find the piece of silk and before it light enough to see the damage, I place it over the area of his missing head. Despite the desecration, I am glad I do not have to look into his dead eyes. That I could not have borne. I puzzle at the white feathers that move in the wind. No, not feathers; wisps of hair, white as swan’s down. Shorn from his beard when his head was roughly hacked off. I carefully collect them and save them between the pages of my prayer book. I will place them in the coffin, most of them. Perhaps one small tuft I will keep, for remembrance.

People return, some with pallets or carts to carry away their friends. Others bring spades to bury the unknown dead. Soon the grass will grow again, thicker than before, fed by the blood spilt here. Eventually they will forget that anything important ever happened, in this field beside the cold dark Panta river.

It must not be forgotten. That will be my final work.

We will take his broken body to Ely. I will wash it in and anoint it with precious oils. I will wrap it with costly cloths and place it in the coffin. A ball of scented beeswax, studded with his hair, to replace his head.

Then, when all is over.

When I have spoken to those few men that survived or witnessed from afar.

Then I will select the palest, smoothest parchment. I will grind the finest colours to make the ink. I will find the best of geese, select the straightest of their feathers and cut them to the perfect point.

Then I will write. I will tell the story of this battle on the field near Maldon.

I will tell of the words they spoke and the weapons they used.

And I will tell of the death of the great Lord Byrhtnoth, son of Byrhthelm, Ealdorman of Essex, leader of the army of Aethelraed, King of England.

My friend.

© Christine Hancock 2017

Sutton Hoo through time

If you mention Anglo-Saxons, the first thing most people think about is Sutton Hoo – the famous helmet and shield, the beautiful jewellery and the mounds that stand on a hill near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In recent years the Staffordshire Hoard has become famous, but it was probably made by the same artists, and in the same place as the Sutton Hoo treasure.

Since I am writing about the Anglo-Saxon period, I must take my characters to Sutton Hoo. After all, Byrhtnoth was Ealdorman of Essex, not far away. But what was the site like when he visited? The Anglo-Saxon period lasted a long time – over four hundred years from the 7th century to 1066. Byrhtnoth died in 991. I wanted his sword to have a beautiful gold and garnet hilt, but he lived too late. King Rædwald, probable owner of the treasure died about 624. It would be like a modern soldier using a flintlock pistol. I don’t suppose swords changed that much, but how they were decorated would. A warrior would be ashamed to wear “last season’s” sword. And Byrhtnoth was a Christian, no one was buried in burial mounds with treasure any more. You gave it to the church to pray for your soul

Sutton Hoo has meant many things to many different people. As you will see, I am one of them.

There were prehistoric farmers on the site, the woodland was cleared in the neolithic period, they placed pots in pits there. There were bronze age roundhouses but the land became infertile and farming was abandoned, used for sheep and cattle. Farming returned in the Romano-British period, perhaps growing grape vines. Then came the Anglo-Saxons.

A little while ago I read Monsters by C R May the third of his Sword of Woden series about Beowulf, which includes a scene where Beowulf himself visits Sutton Hoo and buries a body there.  It’s fiction, but a nice idea,  someone must have made the first burial there. It was followed by others.

There are about 17 burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, dating to the sixth and early seventh centuries. King Rædwald ruled from 599 to around 624. He was the greatest of the East Anglian kings. He defeated Northumbria, installing Edwin as king. He was called Bretwalda, chief of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Therefore we assume he was the king buried with the great treasure, but we cannot truly know. Who was buried in the other mounds? His relatives and family? Possessions of both men and women have been found; one boy was buried with his horse. On this hilltop, the clan of the Wuffingas demonstrated their power.

By Byrhtnoth’s time there was no longer a king of East Anglia. King Alfred’s Wessex had expanded to form a single country, England. Danes had invaded the eastern part of the country. Æthelstan was Ealdorman of East Anglia. He was called half-king because of his power. In later life he became a monk at Glastonbury and presumably buried there, his sons were buried at Ramsey Abbey. Sutton Hoo had been abandoned, at least by royalty. Archaeologists have discovered graves from the later Anglo-Saxon period. There was a gallows on one of the mounds and criminals were buried there.

So it stayed, seemingly forgotten, until the 20th century, but not untouched. A boundary ditch was dug, destroying part of the largest mound, so looters in the 16th century missed the burial. although other mounds had been robbed.

Now, a slight diversion. Before I became a writer, I was a genealogist, in fact that was what started me writing. I gradually became interested in one unusual name, Madder. The family came from Norfolk and I got stuck in the mid 18th century. In my efforts to break this brick wall I extended my search. I came across a family of that name in Suffolk. They lived in Sutton. I didn’t realise the significance of this until I was transcribing the will of Robert Mather (both names appear in records for this family) in 1639. He leaves the property etc “in which I dwell called the Howe”.

Line from will of Robert Mather 1639 (Suffolk Record Office ref:
IC/AA1/77/74

Old map (date unknown) from website of The Sutton Hoo Society

Robert is referred to as “gentleman”. There are twelve wills of the Madder/Mather family dating back to 1474, early members were “yeoman”. They owned the site of Sutton Hoo, they became richer over the years – Robert’s son, Henry moved away and I lost track of them. Are they related to my family? Did they dig up some of the Anglo-Saxon treasure?

I will leave it there for now.

There were a few digs in the 19th century, but it was not until 1939 that the then landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, employed Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, to dig the largest mound.

When he found the burial chamber the dig was taken over by “professionals”. It was the eve of WW2 and the objects were whisked away to the British Museum. A later coroners inquest awarded everything to Mrs Pretty, who eventually donated the collection to the BM. There is an interesting book, The Dig by John Preston which tells the story of the 1939 events. Fiction, but it gives a good description of the atmosphere and the characters involved.

This should be the end of the story, but there is one more event in the history of this place.

In July 2002, it was my birthday. I was visiting my parents in Essex and decided what we would do. We had visited Sutton Hoo before, but the National Trust had recently opened in new visitor centre, the British Museum had loaned objects. We would go there, have lunch, visit the display and walk around the site.

At this time my father (centre in the above picture) had health problems; he had trouble gripping things with his hands and sometimes swallowing, but he walked round the site (We told him that although he had problems with his hands, his legs were OK.) and enjoyed the day out. Three weeks later he went into hospital, for tests. Motor Neurone Disease was diagnosed, I visited him (he was in a London Hospital.) and we talked about how he would cope, make alterations to their house. He died, peacefully, three days later, on 4th August 2002. Exactly fifteen years ago last Friday.

I don’t know why; perhaps I had a premonition, but I took a photograph of him at Sutton Hoo, standing outside the exhibition, beneath a representation of the Sutton Hoo helmet. It is the last picture I took of him.

Sutton Hoo has a long and interesting history, that is why have included it in my book (you will have to wait to see how). It is also a special place for me.

RIP Kenneth Bernard Madder-Smith (1926-2002)