Does Size Matter? How Tall was Byrhtnoth?

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!

Anyone got a crowbar?

The Battle of Maldon, 11th August 991 AD

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.

Memorial for ancient burials at Ely Cathedral – Byrhtnoth is in the right hand niche

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.

Causeway to Northey Island. Picture taken exactly 1,000 years after the battle.

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.”

Modern statue of Byrhtnoth at Maldon. He faces towards Northey Island, still defending England from invasion.

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”

Interviewing my Character – Wulfstan

Today I am interviewing Wulfstan. He is a very important character, Byrhtnoth’s friend. I thought I had invented him, every hero needs a friend; a contrast, someone to talk to, to give advice, even to argue with. Byrhtnoth is tall, fair and a warrior. Wulfstan is small, dark and… what?

Preparing this I had one of those strange coincidences that I have encountered while writing the book. I knew that there were many people about in this period named Wulfstan  (It means wolf stone – a good solid name for a boy.) I knew that there was someone of the name, an Archbishop of York, who is buried near the remains of Byrhtnoth in Ely Cathedral. I looked him up.

This Wulfstan was consecrated Bishop of London in AD996. He became Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York – at the same time! He was famous for his writing and died in 1023. Nothing is known about his youth or his life before 996 – five years after Byrhtnoth’s death!  So did I invent him? Let’s see what MY Wulfstan has to say.

 

Q : Would you like to introduce yourself – who you are, what you do?

A : My name is Wulfstan, failed warrior, nearly monk. But more important, friend of Byrhtnoth

 

Q : Where and when are you? Are you a real historical person or did your author create you?

A : I live in the Monastery at Ely, where my friend was buried after the Battle of Maldon in AD991. My author thinks she created me – someone to tell the tale of Byrhtnoth. I have written two introductions for her, but I suspect she will discard them.

However she has allowed me access to the teachings of your time, a document written by scholars that she calls “wikipedia”. There is a Wulfstan listed there amongst the Bishops of London and Worcester and Archbishops of York. It is said that he was consecrated Bishop of London in AD996, so it seems I might have more work to do. That Wulfstan is buried at Ely. His bones lie close to those of Byrhtnoth, so perhaps…

 

Q : In a few brief sentences: what is the novel you feature in about?

A : If you have read the previous interviews, you will know our book is about Byrhtnoth. We meet, as children, on the very first page. He is bigger and braver than me and we become friends for life.

 

Q : How did your author meet up with you?

A : As I have said, she needed me. Every hero must have a friend, a sidekick, it is sometimes called.

 

Q : Tell me about one or two of the other characters who feature with you – husband, wife, family? Who are some of the nice characters and who is the nastiest one?

A : Like others I have no family. I had a sister once, when I was young, but she died. It was my fault she died. They say I could not be blamed but it haunts me still.

I have met many nasty people, but the first was a man called Egbert. He was there at the first; one of the group of boys. Later I beat him in a competition. I humiliated him, for which I am sorry, but it was fun at the time. He took revenge, I nearly died and things changed forever.

 

Q : What is your favourite scene in the book?

A : I suppose that must be the competition with Egbert. It was on horseback. I rode Sleipnir – and before you ask, he doesn’t have eight legs! Sleipnir is not a pretty horse, but very clever. We ran rings around that Egbert, and when his horse..     but I mustn’t say too much.

 

Q : What is your least favourite? Maybe a frightening or sad moment that your author wrote.

A : When I nearly died. I don’t remember much and I don’t want to.

 

Q : What are you most proud of about your author?

A : She has stuck with us. We have all encouraged her to keep at it. I keep remembering events for her to write about. If there are any mistakes you can blame my erratic memory.

 

Q : Has your author written other books about you? If not, about other characters?
How do you feel about your author going off with someone else!

A : I have started feeding her new ideas, so I hope there will be more books. After all, we have only got to AD 946 or is it 947? So long ago! Forty years or more until he dies.

 

Q : As a character if you could travel to a time and place different to your own fictional setting where and when would you go?

A : Such a difficult question. Byrhtnoth is happy in his own time, but I have always questioned thing, wanted to know more, about the past and the future, and foreign lands. Your time appears interesting – so much information, so much ease of travel. Perhaps my author will let me tag along with her occasionally, in exchange for my knowledge about my time, about my adventures with Byrhtnoth.

 

 

Remains interned in the 10th century Saxon church, reburied in the present Cathedraland moved several times. Byrhtnoth is on the far right and Wulfstan on the left.

Remains interned in the 10th century Saxon church at Ely, reburied in the present Cathedral and moved several times. Byrhtnoth is on the far right and Archbishop Wulfstan on the left.

How do you pronounce that?

My lack of planning has caused me a lot of problems during the writing of my book. One of the most difficult has been the name of my protagonist, which is also the name of this blog, and my Twitter  and Facebook names. It was to be the name of the book – until I discovered a problem.

Nobody knows how to pronounce it – and that includes me!

Why did I pick on Byrhtnoth? Why not any of the other versions of his name? To be honest, I don’t really remember. Perhaps I thought it more “authentic” than the more common Britnoth. More likely, it was easier to grab a unique name for the blog etc.

ANNAL 991 IN MS D OF THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE. © THE BRITISH LIBRARY, COTTON TIBERIUS B.IV, FOL. 33V

There are several different ways of writing the name – here is how it was written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The crossed d is an Old English letter called Eth and is the equivalent of th. Don’t ask me about the other letters!

Byrhtnoth’s Memorial in Ely Chathedral.

 

 

 

In Latin, inscribed on his memorial in Ely Cathedral it is Brithnothus.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a play called The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, describing the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon, so we know that he thought it should be written Beorhtnoth.

Britnoth, Byrhtnoth, Beorhtnoth and probably several others. Really, it doesn’t matter how you write it, as long as you know how to pronounce it. That is the problem. Since Britnoth seems to be the usual “modern” spelling, I assumed that was how it should be pronounced. So when anyone looked at my version, tried to read it and ask “How do you pronounce it?” I tell them Brit-noth.

The name itself Byrhtnoth means something like bright courage, so should it be Brite-noth? At least this gave me a new name for the book – Bright something, and since it is about a search for a sword, it became Bright Sword (after checking that there wasn’t another book of that name – surprisingly there wasn’t.) As the book became a series, I can use it for Bright Axe, Bright anything!

While we’re here, have a look at that word “Bright”. If you hadn’t come across it before, probably at school singing “All things Bright and Beautiful” wouldn’t you stumble over how to pronounce it?

Returning to my problem. My book is nearly published – less than a week to go!

Sooner or later, I will be asked to read something from it. Can I get away with a piece that doesn’t mention my protagonist’s name? After all it is written in the first person. No, sooner or later I am going to have to face up to it, I will have to stand up and say “His name is – What?

I have asked people I would have expected to know, they declined to commit. I can find nothing on the internet to tell me.

But wait. The Battle of Maldon is a poem – a famous poem. There must be a recording of someone reading it. There are several.

See here for a reading of Byrhtnoth’s speech. You can compare the Old English words with the modern version and hear the words. “Byrhtnoth” is the first word spoken , so you may have to replay it several times to hear how it is pronounced.

Here, is another, more dramatic rendition, with subtitles so you can follow the words. I find it fascinating that in places the words are so similar, you can almost understand it, the next sentence is incomprehensible.

What conclusion have I come to? I think the correct pronunciation should be something like Birrt-noth. This fits the old versions, but not the modern Britnoth. Why? Is it something to do with the Great Vowell Shift, when there were big changes in the pronunciation of the English language between 1350 and the 1600s and 1700s. See here for more information – I don’t know enough to explain it!

What do I do now? Change my version of his name? Could you, having known someone intimately for five years, suddenly call them something different? Or do I stick with what I know and risk being told I’m wrong?

Please, if anyone knows the correct version, tell me, before it’s too late!

In other news, the cold I started last week didn’t develop into anything serious, but at least it gave me a bit of spare time to write. I managed 5,429 words last week.

I will be blogging more this week, every day, up to publication day – 28th January.

I will start later today with an interview with Byrhtnoth – however you pronounce it!