Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – The Exhibition.

Apologies for the delay of this post. It was left unfinished when the publication of Bright Axe intervened.

Anyone who has the slightest interest in Anglo-Saxon history will have heard about the exhibition that has been running at the British Library, and those within reach of London will have been to see it. If you didn’t make it, you missed a treat; an event which, some say, will never occur again.

Why is it so important? Because it brought together what is probably every important Anglo-Saxon document, to tell the story of this important period, commonly referred to as the Dark Ages. One example is the Codex Amiatinus: one of three bibles made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the eighth century, it was taken to Rome in 716 – and has been there ever since. It had come home after 1300 years, and will probably never come again.

The exhibition starts at the beginning, with the arrival of the people who became the Anglo-Saxons. This is a time of few written records, we have only objects found in graves. I was intrigued by the mysterious figure: Spong Man, a 5th century urn lid, from a time when cremation was the favoured method of burial. It is reminiscent of the Egyptian ivory statuette of Khufu – perhaps it was just the strange hat.
(I should point out here that photography was forbidden in the British Library. I have added links to images on their website)

Other objects in this section were gold pendants from Binham and a brooch from Hartford Farm near Norwich. Then the St Augustine Gospels, sent by Pope Gregory himself, at the end of the sixth century, and the law-code of King Aethelberht of Kent. The latter a later copy, but showing the first example of English law.

Sutton Hoo belt buckle Image: Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The second section, Kingdoms and Conversion, or as I now call it Bling and Bibles, covered the creation of the familiar Kingdoms and the connections that developed with the outside world. The bling included a handful of well known treasures from Sutton Hoo (the sword belt and gold belt buckle) and the Staffordshire Hoard. In fact the slow moving queue to reach some of the exhibits reminded me of the line around Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, to see the Staffordshire Hoard for the first time, with the mud still on it. My favourite piece of jewelry, the Winfarthing Pendant was here and to illustrate the the richness of this exhibition, there is not even a picture of this object on the BL website. See here instead.

Initial from the Book of Darrow – Image Public Domain

If anything, the bibles part was even more beautiful. I could have spent hours studying the patterns of the Book of Darrow. Perhaps not actually Anglo-Saxon, it might have come from Ireland or Iona, but it bears a resemblance to the jewelry. There were other gospels, from Durham and the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. I marvelled at other, less spectacular documents: Wealdhere’s Letter, the oldest surviving letter written on parchment from the Christian West, the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict, and the small leather covered book that is the St Cuthbert Gospel. It is the earliest European book with an original, intact binding and was found beside St Cuthbert, when his coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. I hung over it, probably the closest I will ever come to a saint.

Mercia and its Neighbours, the next section, covered the 8th century, Aethelbald and Offa (no Penda?). More gospels and charters, and coins: one a (bad) copy of an Arabic dinar stamped with Offa’s name, which shows the importance of these coins in international trade. The other is a silver penny of Offa’s wife, Cynethryth, the only Anglo-Saxon queen to be so honoured. The highlight was The Lichfield Angel, a limestone fragment of a carving found in excavations at Lichfield Cathedral.

In The Rise of the West Saxons, more charters mark the change in the balance of power The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documents the reigns of Aethelberht and Aethelred and the accession of Alfred. One document (Manuscript A) was originally written during King Alfred’s reign. There were (later) copies of Asser’s Life of King Alfred and the Treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum that set up the Danelaw and the exact boundaries between England and the Danes. Another document, King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care, is attributed to the king himself.
I imagined it as one of those documents that Alfred was perusing when interrupted by Uhtred in The Last Kingdom. The highlight of this section was the Alfred Jewel itself. So many times I had seen it, in pictures or on TV programs, but this was the first time, in the flesh. Beautifully lit in its own separate case, I had time to really look at it. It looked different, I don’t know how, but it was worth the trip just to see this.

Image Public Domain

With The Emergence of England, I was entering “my” period and the excitement grew. I saw the famous picture of King Aethelstan presenting the Life of St Cuthbert, in the very book. There was a charter of the same king, in which it was possible to pick out the words “King of the English” and “King of Britain”

It was at this point that I originally abandoned this blog post. It was also around this point that the memories of my visit become a little blurred. I started to drift from one exhibit to another without really seeing them.
I turned away from yet another document to come face to face with Matthew Harffy, fellow Anglo-Saxon author of the Bernicia Chronicles. I had seen on Twitter that he was visiting the same day, but didn’t expect to meet him as his time slot was an hour after mine. That was when I realised how long I had been in there. We had a quick chat and then he headed for the exit. I decided to do the same.

But first there was one more manuscript I wanted to see. I had already accepted that I would find nothing to do with Byrhtnoth. After all, the original copy of the Battle of Maldon was destroyed in a fire many years ago. He might have been included in a list of names at the bottom of some document, but was I prepared to search every single one, just in case?
No, the document I was looking for concerned St Dunstan: an image from the Glastonbury Classbook. This was written by St Dunstan himself when he was at Glastonbury and the small figure of a monk kneeling at the feet of Christ is supposed to be a self portrait of the saint himself.

St Dunstan praying before Christ. Translated, the text reads Remember, I beg you, merciful Christ, to protect Dunstan, and do not permit the storms of the underworld to swallow me up. Image Public Domain

In the end I found the image. Dunstan was alive at the same time as Byrhtnoth. They would have probably have met, spoken together on many occasions. It is the nearest I will ever get to my character. Even this had added interest as displayed next to it was a very similar illustration from another book, demonstrating how books, or monks, must have travelled great distances to study, and copy, other works.

That was it. The exhibition seemed to break up a bit with no overall plan – or perhaps it was just me. I glanced at the occasional document and passed through a section on the Doomsday Book without stopping. Normans? Not interested.

I emerged into the bright light of the British Library, dazed and exhausted. I purchased a copy of the accompanying book, collected my coat and returned to Euston Station and the train home.

It was an experience that I will remember for a long time, and it also left me with an interesting thought.
At the start of the exhibition’s run, I saw a quote from someone who had been to see it. I can’t remember who it was or where I read it, but it was something along the lines of it being like visiting old friends. My reaction was that this must be some “expert” who had studied the period, had intimate knowledge of the documents.
But now I had a similar feeling. With the number of documents surviving from the so called Dark Ages so small, there were so many I had seen in books or online, even in television programmes, that they were, in effect, old friends.

It also made me realise that, as a non historian, I know more than I thought about the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

Review – The Briton and the Dane

“Gwyneth walked towards the formidable Keep, nodding to the guards patrolling the wall-walk once she reached the top of the tower. She breathed in the sea air, admiring the beauty of the land as the sun disappeared below the horizon, mesmerized by the rich and colorful hues of the darkening sky. She was comforted by the melodious sound of breaking waves crashing against the rocky cliffs, which was a calming respite from the throes of a violent world.”

This is the start of  “The Briton and the Dane” by Mary Ann Bernal. I downloaded this book some time ago (June 2015, Amazon tells me.) I got 18% into the book, before giving up – it was so bad. Looking for something to review this week, I decided to give it another try. After all, Amazon’s reviews for this book average 9.5 stars. The reviewers rave over it. Was I missing something?

I pressed on to about 50% – My opinion hasn’t changed.

Let’s return to Gwyneth in her castle. Not a bad start, a bit dramatic, but you need to hook the reader. She sees a wounded stranger, wandering the beach. She rescues him, patches him up and “the sight of his bulging muscles caused her heart to beat faster” and she instantly falls in love with him. A bit quick but this is Historical Romance. Actually I would have liked a picture of the bulging muscles on the cover – it would have helped to relieve the tedium!

We meet Gwyneth’s family: her father Lord Richard, her brothers David and Stephen. Gwyneth does not know that her father has arranged a marriage to another man, she runs away, etc. There are other characters all in love with or married to the wrong man. There are political complications. The language is a type of cod medieval that I last heard in (very) old films. A phrase picked at random, during a fight to the death:

“Lord, please spare David,” Gwyneth silently prayed, “and end this fight before blood is spent!” (In fact, typing it out, I’m not sure what this means!)

None of this would necessarily put me off, except for one thing – Remember? I am writing a series of posts on the subject of Anglo-Saxons and (in this case Romance). This book is set in the reign of King Alfred. The bulging muscles belong to a Dane called Eric, but you would never have guessed from the other names, that they are Anglo-Saxon. These Norman names would not appear in England for more than two hundred years.

It is set shortly after King Guthrum’s defeat by Alfred and his conversion to Christianity. Lord Richard is the Lord of Wareham. Now I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Wareham, I might well have passed through it on holidays in the area, but I am pretty sure there are was no Anglo-Saxon castle (with keep) on the cliffs there. In fact, there are no cliffs, rocky or otherwise. A quick check on Wikipedia would tell you that:

“The town is built on a strategic dry point between the River Frome and the River Piddle at the head of the Wareham Channel of Poole Harbour. The Frome Valley runs through an area of unresistant sand, clay and gravel rocks, and much of its valley has wide flood plains and marsh land. At its estuary the river has formed the wide shallow ria of Poole Harbour. Wareham is built on a low dry island between the marshy river plains.”

Yes, King Alfred built earth ramparts round the town and it was occupied by the Danes in 976. But sorry, no “formidable fortress sitting atop the rocky cliff”. There were no stone castles until the Normans built them 200 years later. Just a few ruined walls left by the Romans.

For me this book failed on every level. The plot is difficult to follow – people tell each other what is happening, repeatedly and there are unexpected flashbacks to explain what happened in the past. The setting was wrong and there was absolutely no sense that these characters were living in the ninth century.

As for Gwyneth and Eric, I have no wish to find out if they live happily ever after. I assume they do as the series continues for two more books, with what looks like a spin-off, plus a time slip novel. There are many, much better, books out there to read instead.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this, I wrote 6,541 words last week (with this post that means I’m over my weekly target of 7k!)


Weekend in Wessex – Part 1

If you are trying to write Historical Fiction (or, I suppose, proper history) you can’t beat a little hands-on experience. So when I heard about the Chalk Valley History Festival, I had to go. With re-enactors from many different periods and talks by famous historians – it seemed to be essential research. I booked a talk by Tom Holland on “Athelstan and the Battle for Britain: The Making of Britain Part 2”. This talk was at 5 o’clock on Sunday 3rd July and the price included entrance to the whole event for that day. On the programme was the Battle of Ethandun, when King Alfred defeated Guthrum in 878. Never mind anything else, that was enough for me!

We decided to make a weekend of it and booked a hotel in Shaftesbury for three nights (Friday to Monday). It was such a busy visit, I have divided it into two posts. Sunday at he Festival will be in Part 2.


Every adventure starts with a journey and as we planned our route, straight down the Fosse Way to Cirencester, then head south. I noticed that we would be passing close to Malmesbury.

Tomb of Athelstan

Tomb of Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey

What is so special about Malmesbury? Well, since we had tickets for a talk about Athelstan, we had to visit the site of his grave. Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great. He was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and King of the English from 927 to 939. He favoured the Abbey at Malmesbury and had buried relatives there who died at the Battle of Brunanburh (937).

The site of his grave is lost but he is commemorated by an empty fifteenth-century tomb.


Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey, Norman doorway

Malmesbury Abbey, Norman doorway


The Abbey is interesting in its own right, half ruin and half parish church. Very light inside and with some beautiful Norman carving.

Other Saxon connections with the Abbey are:

Aldhelm, the scholar and first Abbot (died 709).

In the early 11th century, the monk Eilmer built wings and tried to fly from a tower. He flew over 200 yards (200 m) before landing, breaking both legs. He was forbidden to try again but calculated that he would have succeeded if he had included a tail!

William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) was another monk at the Abbey. He has been described as “a gifted historical scholar and an omnivorous reader, impressively well versed in the literature of classical, patristic and earlier medieval times as well as in the writings of his own contemporaries. Indeed William may well have been the most learned man in twelfth-century Western Europe.”

Malmesbury Market Cross - with market

Malmesbury Market Cross – with market

Can you tell we went round the town museum as well? It’s called the Athelstan Museum. It also has displays of the later history of the town.

Just outside the Abbey is an ornate market cross. There was a market on while we were there – a handful of stalls including one selling some very nice fudge (not Anglo-Saxon, but I do have other interests!)



THE view of Shaftesbury

THE view of Shaftesbury

We continued our trip and arrived in Shaftesbury to time to have a short walk around the town to see the sights. We didn’t know when we booked, but there were a number of events on in the town that weekend:  The Shaftesbury Fringe and Gold Hill Fair.

When we stood at the top of Gold Hill that afternoon, music could be heard from nearby. It was The Wandering Winds on their World Tour of Dorset. We didn’t wait long enough for Dvorak’s New World Symphony, that would be too much of a cliché, but it added to the atmosphere.

We were booked into La Fleur de Lys (who let those Normans in?) which is described as a restaurant with rooms, so we enjoyed a delicious meal and a comfortable night, before waking to a new day.

La Fleur de Lys, Shaftesbury

La Fleur de Lys, Shaftesbury


We like to get to know a place where we stay and we had found a walk online,  so it was walking boots on.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. looking back up the hill

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. looking back up the hill

It started by going down Gold Hill, through lanes and across fields to the south of the town, returning to the town via Stoney Path (a narrower but no less steep alternative to Gold Hill) and finishing at Castle Hill View.

Distant view of Shaftesbury

Distant view of Shaftesbury

View from Castle Hill, Shaftesbury, towards King Alfred's Tower

View from Castle Hill, Shaftesbury, towards King Alfred’s Tower

This was the site of the original Saxon town, founded by King Alfred in AD880 and faced north.The walk was only four miles so we were back in the town in time for lunch

 Onion seller at French Market, Shaftesbury

Onion seller at French Market, Shaftesbury

Part of the Gold Hill Fair was a French (Boo!) Market on Park Walk, so we bought some french tarts and sat on a bench, contemplating the route of our morning’s walk.

What to do now? Visit the Abbey museum and garden (just behind us) or travel further afield.
From Castle Hill we had spotted King Alfred’s Tower.


The weather seemed set fair so we returned to the hotel to collect the car and headed for Stourhead.

Being members of the National Trust, we had to take advantage of free entry.

Clouds had gathered so we decided to go round the house first, luckily we missed a short downpour and by the time we emerged the sun had returned and we walked round the grounds – perhaps not a good idea after all the walking that morning. An ice cream was very welcome.

Stourhead House, after the rain

Stourhead House, after the rain

Stourhead, fifty shades of green

Stourhead, fifty shades of green

Stourhead bridge and monument

Stourhead bridge and monument

King Alfred’s Tower

King Alfred’s Tower is on the Stourhead estate and I think you can walk there, but we had had enough walking that day. It seemed a long way even in the car! We reached the car park about 4.15 and we were told that the tower had closed at 4.00.

Oh dear, we wouldn’t be able to climb up the 205 steps to see the view from the top.

The tower is surrounded by trees, so there is no view of anything at ground level but it is situated in a meadow studded with wildflowers, including orchids – common spotted, I think.

Of course the Tower was not built by King Alfred. Like the rest of the estate, built by the Hoare family, over 250 years ago, it is a folly, completed in 1772 at an estimated cost between £5,000 and £6,000. However, it is supposed to be the site of “Egbert’s Stone” where King Alfred rallied the Saxons in AD878 before the Battle against the Danish army of Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun.


Which we were to witness the next day!

To be continued