Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria

Today is a bank holiday (in some places) so I thought I would talk about a recent holiday, or research trip as writers call them.

When I first started writing I made up the places where events took place, I knew exactly what they looked like. Unfortunately I then tried to find the location “in real life”. It made for some interesting holidays and was surprisingly successful. However I am growing up and have started to become more organised. I am visiting before I write – but how useful is it?

I have set part of my second book in Northumberland, at Bebbenburh (Bamburgh). The first problem was that I wanted to visit in autumn, but my husband insisted we go in August. Actually August is autumn according to the Anglo-Saxon calendar, but I was thinking howling winds and lashing rain. Perhaps I would be lucky with the weather – I wasn’t. We had the most pleasant weather imaginable; warm and sunny.

We had booked four nights at the Blue Bell Hotel in Belford. It was very comfortable and the food was good. We didn’t even need a clock as the village church was next door and struck the hour, every hour, even though the night.

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

View from our room.

View from our room.

We had planned a walk for the next day, but it was a bit cloudy. Since the forecast was for sun later, we decided to postpone the walk and drove the few miles to Bamburgh. We parked in the (free) car park and walked up to the entrance. We had explored the castle some years ago, so we intended an external circuit, for me to soak up the atmosphere. We were early and I don’t think it had opened anyway. We peered through gates until we came to a dead-end. We found a path down to the beach and the tide was out. I had a nice paddle and took lots of photos of the castle silhouetted against the dramatic sky. I started planning a scene of my hero galloping along the wide sands, with his dog. First mistake – it seems that the wide sandy beach wasn’t there at the time – scratch that scene!

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Lindesfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Lindisfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Of course I already knew that the castle would not have looked like it does now. It would have been smaller with a wooden Hall and other buildings surrounded by a wooden palisade. At least that is how it was originally built, but might the walls have been replaced by stone by Byrhtnoth’s time (the tenth century)? More research needed! I was sure where the entrance had been. Anyone who has read Matthew Harffy’s book The Serpent Sword (and if you haven’t, why not? Buy it here for only 99p) will remember the opening scene of Beobrand’s arrival by ship (somewhere near the bouncy castle) and entry up the narrow steps – in wind and rain, of course! Interestingly, when I re-read that piece, I noticed that neither the width of the beach nor the composition of the walls is mentioned. A good lesson. If you don’t know the answer, leave it to your readers to imagine it – if they get it wrong it is their fault, not yours!

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

After a coffee and a toasted teacake at the Copper Kettle Tearoom in the village, we visited the local church, originally founded by St Aiden in 635, the first church to be built in Northumbria. The reredos, which dates from the end of the 19th century contains images of many Northumbrian saints.

St Aiden's Church, Bamburgh

St Aiden’s Church, Bamburgh

Reredos in St Aidens Church

Reredos in St Aiden’s Church

As we left Bamburgh the sun came out. We headed inland to start our planned walk. We had found a suitable walk online to St Cuthbert’s Cave and round the surrounding area. It included part of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance footpath from Melrose to Lindisfarne marking events in the life of St Cuthbert.

The cave is supposed to be the place where monks carrying the body of the saint rested on their journey from Lindisfarne Abbey after it was raided by Vikings in 875. The bones eventually arrived in Durham several years later.

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthberts Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthbert’s Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

St Cuthbert's Cave

St Cuthbert’s Cave

Owned by the National Trust - spot the error!

Owned by the National Trust – spot the error!

"Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left" Would you? We did - quickly.

“Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left” Would you? We did – quickly.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The views were worth it. Linisfarne in the distance

The views were worth it, though. Lindisfarne in the distance

After the walk, we returned to our hotel. It had been a long day and there would be another tomorrow.

To be continued

Advertisements

Thegn in a reasonably priced car.

I recently read an interesting article about Anglo-Saxon swords by Matthew (get your seax out) Harffy. You can read it here.

A patten-welded sword?

A pattern-welded sword?

One of the points made was that a sword could be compared with a modern man (It’s always a man) boasting about his car. I noticed a similar analogy on a recent TV programme about Versailles. I can’t remember what was compared with an expensive sports car – it might have been a piece of lace. This is one of those common comparisons; the size of Wales, a football pitch or a double-decker bus.

It got me thinking. If an expensive, pattern-welded can be compared to a posh car, what about the man who owned it? What is the modern equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon warrior?

I decided that it must be a professional football player. Both have to be young and fit. They have little in the way of brains and their working life is short. I know little about cars (or footballers) but the top flight international/premier league players with the exotic cars (see here for examples) are the top Ealdormen. Their weapon/car is impractical for daily use but stands out from the crowd and costs a lot to buy. Further down the league, those with a modest, but still decent car, would have had an ordinary, cheaper sword or seax. Your ordinary, amateur or local league player would be a spear carrier and drive a second-hand hatchback. I see the men whose chosen weapon was the axe as Rugby players, perhaps driving something off-road. After all, weren’t Land Rover sponsors of the recent Rugby World Cup.

Before I go further down the sporting road (Tennis players as archers?) let’s think about the women (or WAGS). Things haven’t changed much there over the years, they have always been judged by the money their partner earns. This usually means cloths and jewellery. The more riches won by your warrior, the better quality gown you wore. Silk was the ultimate achievement and equates to designer dresses. I’m not sure that high heeled shoes were important to the Anglo-Saxon woman though. Or handbags?

Finally, who held the power in Anglo-Saxon England? The king of course and his relatives. They demonstrate their status by property. An impressive hall/castle to house their retinue, a feast/garden party to feed them. Mead v A cup of tea and cake?

And then there was the church. At that time, usually the only people able to read and write. The great bishops and abbots, building churches and monasteries and advising the king. The ordinary priest or monk would be the equivalent of teachers, writers, artists, vowed to poverty. Their superiors, surely, must be the modern businessmen and politicians.  Ostensibly subject to the same vow of poverty, but dealing in power and large sums of money. The ones not caught fiddling their expenses were turned into saints.

I think I have followed this tread almost to breaking point, but if you have any suggestions, let me know. I might mention the best in a future post.

Book Review – The Cross and the Curse

Last Thursday I gave a talk to a local WI group. I told them much more than they probably wanted to know about the history of the area – I probably mentioned the Anglo Saxons, once or twice. The next day I had a slight sore throat. I had obviously talked too much. By Saturday morning I knew – I had caught the virus/whatever that seemed to have had infected so many since Christmas. I lost my appetite (a real sign of illness) and hunkered down for the duration.

I didn’t feel so bad that I needed to spend all day in bed. What could I do? Read and write, of course.

I had homework to do for my writing group and plenty of time to get on with my book. 5000 words in four days may not sound much, but for me it’s a lot. An additional bonus, my protagonist was wounded and with a fever – we suffered together. Whether it will be readable when I come to check it is another matter.

The book I read was The Cross and The Curse, Book 2 of the Bernicia Chronicles by Matthew Harffy. I have promised a review. Here it is.

When I read the first book in the series, The Serpent Sword, last year, I was very impressed. So much so that I immediately looked for a sequel – there wasn’t one, at least not then. The next book came out last week on 22nd January. It arrived on my Kindle that morning. I was excited. I had read some of the previews, but I was also apprehensive. Would it be as good as I hoped? I can tell you now – It is better.

Perhaps it was just me, but the book seemed to start slowly. If you can call a battle between thousands of men, in the dark, in a torrential thunder storm, slow. And a marathon gallop on a powerful black stallion. I know that stallion well – I spent many hours on his back when I was young (in my mind!) I now know his name, Sceadugenga.

In the first book we got to know Beobrand as he tried to find his way in a strange land, far from his home. In this book, as a reward for his part in the battle he becomes a thegn of Bernicia and is given a home (as well as the horse.) He soon finds that with power comes responsibility. Arriving in his new home, blood is spilt causing a feud with his new neighbours. The story appears to pause as he explores his new position, but underneath, the tension rises. Even the annual Blotmonath sacrifice is fraught – will the gods accept the sacrifice or is Beobrand’s family doomed? Just as he is needed at home, he is called by the King. However much he wants to stay, he must obey. A warrior must always serve his Lord.

I must admit that I find Sunniva, by now Beoband’s wife, a bit annoying, always hanging round his neck in tears when he has to leave. I feel like giving her a good shake, he has enough to deal with without all that. I was near tears myself though, later in the book. Beoband has always felt cursed. On the long journey across the winter mountains, he meets a witch, who knows more about him than he expects, and curses him properly. If you want to find out how to rack up the tension, just read the journey to the witch’s cave.

By this point I was caught. I had to read on. Through the blood and fire, death and betrayals. At one point I had to unpeel my fingers from my Kindle, I was gripping it so hard my knuckles were white. By the end Beobrand must make a decision. Does he kill the man he has vowed to kill or does he hold back to preserve the peace? Is he a mindless killing machine or can he become a proper lord to his own men?

This is not just Beobrand’s story, but that of other men, character’s as vividly realised as him. It is the story of the battle between the old gods and the new Christ God. Of the new king, Oswald trying to control the mixed population of his kingdom. It is also the story of the ordinary man and woman, trying to survive in this violent time.

Now. How long do I have to wait for the next book?