With Aethelflaed in Tamworth

I have never been to Tamworth before. I don’t know why, it’s only about 30 miles away, straight up Watling Street. Perhaps because I’ve never had a reason to go. This weekend, there was a very good reason, it was Aethelfest. This was a celebration of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who died in the town 1100 years ago, in 918.

I’m not sure why a town would celebrate the death of a famous visitor – not exactly good publicity. Although it can happen (Maldon, 991?).

So who was Aethelflaed? For anyone who has missed all the publicity, she was the daughter (and eldest child) of Alfred the Great and like him, she fought the Danes, driving them out of Mercia. She was not a Queen, because her husband, Aethelred (no, not that one!) was not a King. Who he was is a mystery and one of the subjects that was covered at the event, organised by Tamworth Literary Festival – Aethelflaed and Women’s Worlds: Reconstructing Early Women’s Voices.

Statue of Aethelflaed and the young King Athelstan by Tamworth Castle

I had seen this advertised some time before and had been attracted by the fact that two very good authors were taking part, both of whom have written about “my” period. Since it was held only a few days after my birthday, I knew I had to go.

I allowed plenty of time for the journey, and arrived an hour early, finding a car park right next to the venue. Plenty of time to have a look round the town. There were plenty of boards so I learned something of the history of the town and ended up at the castle. unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit but wandered round the Castle Grounds where there was an Anglo-Saxon encampment and the display of a colourful Aetheflaed mosaic.

Aethelfest Mosaic

Entrance to Tamworth Castle and floral Anglo-Saxon warrior

The Castle was Norman but Tamworth was important long before, as the capital of Mercia, home of King Penda and King Offa. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and rebuilt  and fortified by Aethelflaed in 913. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I had to get back for the main attraction.

After an introduction by Dr Sara Read, the speaker was Annie Whitehead. Annie has written several books, one, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, actually includes a character I have written about – although from a vastly different viewpoint. Today she was talking about Aethelflaed, whose life she has written about in “To be a Queen”. She told us about Aethelflaed and how little information there is actually is about her. Was it because she was a successful woman in a man’s would, or was it for political reasons? The Kings of Wessex were eager to take over Mercia and when Aethelflaed died, leaving only a daughter to succeed her, she was quickly “rescued” by Aethflaed’s brother, King Edward and never seen again.

Annie has cleverly taken what is known and woven it into a plausible story, interpreting the facts to fit what might be what happened. I recommend her latest book “Cometh the Hour” about King Penda, an interesting view of a king who is usually the antagonist in other books set in this earlier, 7th century, period. It provides an explanation of the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard. Annie also has a non-fiction book coming out in September, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom“. I look forward to reading it.

The second speaker was treading on dangerous ground. Marianne Whiting is a Viking – or perhaps I should say a writer about Vikings. Born in Sweden, she was captured by a local while on a course at Birmingham University and has been held hostage ever since. She explained how the Vikings were not (just) the rapists and pillagers we know and love, but traders, merchants and innocent settlers. She described the difficulties of writing about writing in a time when beliefs and customs were very different from today. Should she leave out descriptions of animal sacrifice that might shock the modern reader? She doesn’t and her books, the Shieldmaiden Viking Trilogy are all the better for it. We are immersed in ordinary farming life of settlers in the English Lake District. Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter is a shieldmaiden. She fights for her land, her family and her honour. Politics intervene, her uncle is Eirik Haraldson (Bloodaxe) sometime King of Jorvik over the period of the books. I had read the first two, “Shieldmaiden” and “To Save a Kingdom” and was particularly interested to buy the third “Honour is All” as it deals with the same period, and some of the same characters, that I am struggling with. I have read and finished it (which is why I didn’t write this blog yesterday) and it was everything I wished for, with a wonderful ending.

The third and final speaker was Dr Jennifer Evans talking about medical treatment of medieval women.  Her speciality is the Early Modern Period but she spoke to us about a little known woman called Trotula said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, who wrote a textbook on women’s medicine. This was a very amusing talk about some of the “cures” for various ailments, mostly of women but sometimes men. The main method of administration was by fumigation, which meant that the doctor didn’t need to look at or touch the woman at all.

The speakers were followed by questions and then a buffet lunch. There was plenty of time to chat and buy books.

Viking and Saxon in harmony. Marianne Whiting and Annie Whitehead signing books.

It was an entertaining and educational  event. I wish I had made more of an effort to investigate more of the whole Aethelfest experience, but it was just too hot. I retired to my air conditioned car and returned home, to read my books in the garden. Thanks to the authors for giving up their time and the Tamworth Literary Festival for organising it and of course Tamworth Borough Council for organising Aethelfest

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The Signing of Books

After the excitement of Publication Day, I am into the world of promoting my book. How successful it has been is impossible to know. I try not to look at the graph on Amazon’s Author Central page too often. It’s a bit depressing as I have sunk from a peak of 39,496th out of the 6,000,000 books for sale, to 413,662nd today. The peak was 29th January, the day after publication, when all my friends and relatives bought it – thank you everyone! Apparently no-one has bought the Ebook version at all – yet.

Monday was a normal day. As if nothing had happened, I was back to writing – although this time it was an article for a local history book that will be published soon. I have also been proof reading and formatting that.

On Tuesday I was told by my publisher, that something I had written was published in a (online) magazine.  I had been asked to write, “10 Tips For Turning A Historical Figure Into Historical Fiction”, only the week before. You can read it here, if you can find it among the adverts. I suppose it is the sort of thing writers have to do.

Anglo-Saxon feast and books for signing

Nothing much on Wednesday, but on Thursday it was the writing class. When one of us publishes a book we usually have cake. Someone had said that it was too soon after Christmas for cake (is there really a time when people don’t want cake?), but I had already had another idea. My book is about Anglo-Saxons, I have mead! So at the break I brought out my mead and my horn, plus small plastic tasting cups, because passing round a mead horn for everyone to drink from is not very hygienic. How those Anglo-Saxons survived without modern Health and Safety rules is beyond me. I also had food: salted meat (beef and ham – left over from Christmas), cheese and bread. I explained how there would not be much food left at this time of year, most animals would have been killed in the autumn and salted. The bread didn’t contain salt, because butter and cheese would also be heavily salted to preserve it. I used the recipe on this website. It tasted better than it looked! I also signed my first book (apart from those I’d done for family). There would have been others, but Amazon had not delivered!

On Friday there was a meeting of Cafe Writers. I sold and signed another book – the first real money in my hand!

The main event was planned for Saturday – the official book signing at the local bookshop.

I had prepared. I got a piece published in the local newspaper – they got a detail wrong, but not about the book. I had put up posters, and talked about it on Facebook and Twitter. I mentioned it to everyone I knew, a lot said they would come.

I had even ordered warriors from re-enactment group Ardenweard, a Dark Ages re-enactment group affiliated with The Vikings.  I had one Anglo-Saxon and one Viking. I hoped they would have a fight, but apparently that’s against the rules. They were very friendly, talking to customers and offering samples of my mead – now officially approved by Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and the residents of Rugby.

Warriors guarding books.

There was just one thing that I couldn’t control – the weather! It was cold and windy, with showers of sleety rain. Rugby High Street was practically deserted. My warriors did their best, standing outside until their feet froze. Apparently genuine Anglo-Saxon shoes are not very warm – not new ones, anyway. A few people turned up and bought books, which I signed, but not as many as I expected. At least I had plenty of time to hold swords, try on helmets, and learn more about Anglo-Saxons (and Vikings).

I will be attending another event next Saturday, a meeting of the Rugby Archaeology Society. There will be a talk by author Richard Denning about Life in Anglo-Saxon England. Copies of his books, as well as mine will be available. At least it will be indoors!

No writing was done this week – well, not book-writing, but I have been thinking – more about that another time!

My thanks to Ardenweard for the warriors.

Memo: Remember to publish next book in summer.

 

A few more inches and I’ll have that Viking’s head off!

 

Christmas is coming – three times over.

Christmas is approaching rapidly, but I am unprepared. I am writing and find it difficult to stop.

But it is not going smoothly; those word updates do not measure an even progress from start to finish. I am darting about from place to place, never knowing where I am.

I never thought it would be easy. The approach of Book One to publication day. The pause with Book Two, awaiting feedback and more editing. The start of Book Three.

It is Book Three that is causing problems, perhaps because I started planning. Not major planning, just dividing the book into chunks – I have six, or maybe seven. See, I can’t do planning properly! A few weeks ago I wrote here about having found an antagonist. I wanted to give him a trial, so I wrote a scene, then another. This section of the book, for various reasons, I planned to write in the present tense. It would be interspersed with other POVs. So that I didn’t become confused, I decided to write the whole of this section, before moving back to past tense. It must have worked, because I then had difficulties shaking off the present tense. I had 9,000 words.

I knew what came next, I continued, another 9,000 words. The ideas were coming thick and fast, I wanted to carry on. Nothing wrong with this, you might say, in fact it’s great.

Except – I’ve got to stop. This section is towards the end of the book. I think I know where the end comes, but more and more words come spilling out and the end gets further away. What about what comes before? The main part of the book. Not only is it not yet written, I’m not even sure where it starts! With regret, I have forced myself to stop.

I have returned to the start. I have rewritten an abandoned ending to book two as the start of book three. I have written more, I think it is going OK.

But – As I write, the abandoned characters at the end keep calling to me, “Come back, we want to carry on.” While the same characters, at an earlier point in the story shout, “No, us first. We might change everything and you will never exist.” It is difficult enough, but the book covers a year in time, from winter to winter, Christmas to Christmas. Today, I had to stop and think – would he be wearing those clothes, or did he acquire them later. One Christmas is happy, the other not. There is snow one year and not the other.

And then there is real life, Christmas is coming. Will my mother end up with a sword. Will Byrhtnoth find a box set of Vikings DVDs under his tree?

Should I give up and spend the next month in bed?

No, because the voices are calling and I cannot silence them.

Box set for Byrhtnoth?

Review – Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?

Recently, in class, we have been learning about “Voice” and how different genres need to be written in a voice typical of that genre. I have had difficulty with this – I just write, without thinking about  how I do it. One of the genres we discussed was humour and Tom Holt’s book “Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?”. Someone lent me a copy. I loved it!

If you are the sort of reader that enjoys the idea of Vikings rampaging across Northern Scotland (or indeed, London) dressed in grey suits from Marks and Spencer – complete with swords and helmets, this is the book for you.

The story is simple. An ancient barrow is discovered, filled with a crew of sleeping Vikings. Clumsy archaeologist Hildy Frederiksen disturbs them, just in time to save the world from an evil Sorcerer-King. A standard fantasy  plot (I assume – I don’t read much fantasy.) that is high-jacked by the upending of expectations.

For example the Vikings, who talk and act as you would expect, are completely unfazed by the modern world. As people used to facing sorcerers and dragons, what is there to be feared in a double-decker bus? It’s just magic. They find there are places in Scotland that they say haven’t changed in 1200 years – alcohol can still be drunk on the same premises.

The Sorcerer-King is a rich businessman in a London tower block. He invented computers and controls newspapers. Extra enjoyment, for me, came from the fact that this book was published in 1988, when computer languages were FORTRAN and BASIC and radiophones in cars were a rich man’s toy.

There are wizards and elemental spirits that get drunk on electricity. There is a wolf who was transformed into a man so long ago, that when he returns to wolf shape, he cannot remember how to attack. And there is a BBC film maker obsessed with a conspiracy involving the Milk Marketing Board.

Mix all this together in a language that twists and turns, that caused me to laugh out loud. Not too loud, I hope. I read most of it on a coach to London and back. Other passengers must have wondered what was so funny about my family history research. I wanted to read out some of the cleverest lines. Instead I will mention some here:

The Sorcerer-King is in his office, feeling bored, so he gets out his sword: “With a grunt, he swung the sword round his head and brought it down accurately and with tremendous force on a dark green filing-cabinet, cleaving it from A to J.”

The wolf/business man is on his way to Scotland, to find out what is happening. “In the age of the supersonic airliner, a man can have breakfast in London and lunch in New York (if his digestion can stand it); but to get from Manchester to the north coast of Scotland between the waxing and the waning of the moon still requires not only dedication and cunning but also a modicum of good luck, just as it did in the Dark Ages.”

It is not just the evil characters (see last post) that provide the fun, it is also the Vikings. They all have their own characters, their own jokes; their disappointments when they discover the saga telling of their famous deeds has not survived the years, or has been twisted out of shape – like the Sutton Hoo helmet which they explain to the British Museum guide has been wrongly recreated.

In charge is King Hrolf, who experiences all the hidden doubts and loneliness of a leader. Like them all, he must fight or die and go to spend eternity in Valhalla, although apparently that is not what it was. “Nice enough place, I suppose, except that the food all comes out of a microwave these days and the wish-maidens are definitely past their prime. A bit like one of those run-down gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall, if you ask me.

They would have got nowhere, though, without Hildy. She joins the Vikings, driving them about in a variety of vehicles, selling Viking rings to dealers for cash, buying multiple servings of fish & chips to feed the King and his warriors and of course the M&S suit to disguise them. She does so well that the king give her a Name – Vel-Hilda. “The Nose word vel is short and means “well”. The same may be said of you.” A piece of wordplay worthy of the Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons).

Did I learn anything from this book? Something about building memorable characters and the use of the right word to define time and place. Also I will read more books by Tom Holt – why hadn’t come across him before?

I like to use a little humour in my writing, but I’m not sure I could manage something so accomplished – though it would be fun trying.

Writing update: 9,356 words in a week. Although not necessarily in the week in question. I was stopped in my tracks by the trip to the National Archives in London and distracted by a (possible) ancestor who left an estate worth one thousand pounds and upwards – in 1666!

Must go now – my publisher has sent the final proofs for the complete cover of Bright Sword and I must go and drool over it.

Weekend in Wessex – Part 2

I had been looking forward to the Chalke Valley History Festival for a long time. I had been following the lead up to the event on Twitter and noticed a comment that it was “Glastonbury for Historians” – I didn’t realise they were talking about the mud!

I already knew before we left home that Wellingtons would be needed. However there was not room in the car for them, but we had our walking boots. They would have to do.

We set off  from Shaftesbury on Sunday morning. The forecast was cloudy, but rain was not expected. We followed the signposts from the main road. We drove on, and on, down narrow country roads. We seemed to be driving in circles. Finally we reached the back of a queue of cars – nearly there.

End of the queue

End of the queue

It must have been getting on for an hour before we reached the entrance and discovered why the progress was so slow. The car park was a muddy field. Cars drove up the hill on a road of boards. At the top, marshals directed each car individually to a parking spot – a mad dash through the mud. I imagine they still wake in the night shouting “Keep going! Second gear!” Tractors were available for those who couldn’t make it.

Next came a logistics problem. Sitting in front of car in ordinary footwear. Walking boots in boot. In between, thick mud. Another pair of shoes to clean later.

After a muddy walk to the entrance we finally arrived. More mud. After locating the loos (plenty of them and no queues), we headed uphill to the Living History area. There was less mud here and we talked to Celts about the usefulness of lime for sun protection and their everlasting cauldron. We found out about  from Vikings about making chain mail and how often Anglo-Saxons washed. We heard from a Roman doctor about trepanning and a falconer about hunting with hawks. We watched  fights by Saxons and another between medieval knights. We saw men and women from different eras mingling and unusual juxtapositions.

Multi Era Team meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.

Multi Era Team Meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.

Celts

Celts…

and Romans.

…and Romans.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Warrior - not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Viking Warrior – not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.

Cafe

Cafe

By now we were getting tired and hungry. We found a cafe, but it was difficult to sit at a picnic table without getting mud all over the seat – the cakes were nice though.

We visited the book shop – another disconcerting experience. You appear to be browsing in an ordinary Waterstones, but the floor is covered in mud.

I was starting to get fed up. It was difficult to wander round some of the damper areas. You had to look where you were going, then stop to look around. Spend too much time in one place and it was difficult to move on. If we hadn’t booked for a late talk, we might have left – that and the thought of the long walk back to the car.

 

Saxon Settlement

Saxon Settlement

It was while we were searching for drier ground that we found the Anglo-Saxon Settlement. I had been looking for it, but it was hidden away in some trees.

This was run by The Ancient Technology Centre

We watched a smith working to make iron on a small fire and children having a go at turning wood.

We were taught (unsuccessfully) to make bird calls and I had a lesson in spinning wool using only a twig.

Smelting Iron

Smelting Iron

Bodging a chair leg

Bodging a chair leg

I become a spinster - How to spin wool

I become a spinster – How to spin wool

Clouds - can you spot the plane?

Clouds – can you spot the plane?

The sun had come out and things were starting to dry out a bit.

We heard that there was a display of weapons through the ages before the Saxon v Viking battle, so we made our way over to watch that.

Of course, throughout the day, heads turned to the sky to watch old planes pass over. The commentaries and announcements in general were very clear and easy to hear.

The demonstration of weapons through the ages was fascinating, from the earliest spears and bows, to “black powder” muskets and rifles. Larger weapons; a Roman trebuchet and ballista, cannon and field guns. The display finished with a Napoleonic battle between France and English, although the French refused to die.

 

The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

Roman Balista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Roman Ballista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Viking arrive in time to finish off the French.

The Saxons  arrive in time to finish off the French.

At last it was time for the Battle of Ethandun. Just when we needed it the commentary was intermittent and difficult to hear, but I managed to identify who was who – the Saxons had the blue flag. There was a bit of discussion and the armies lined up and then attacked. After some fighting, they separated and there was more parlaying. King Alfred and his Saxons eventually defeated Guthrum and his Viking Army. They ran away, back to their ships (presumably waiting over the hill!)

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Battle of Athendun

The Battle of Ethandun.

The beaten Vikings run away

The beaten Vikings run away.

Charge!

Charge!

The dead were re-animated and there were other fights  – a “Circle” – a knockout fight with one winner. It turns out that there are rules in these re-enactment encounters. You don’t get the full experience of a proper Anglo-Saxon battle, they aren’t actually trying to kill each other, after all. But it is the closest I will get and it’s quite scary when they charge you head on – I regretted having wormed my way to the front of the crowd! See the video here.

When the battle was over, we went and found an ice cream. While waiting at the van, the tanks nearby started up and moved away. Later we could hear their battle from our place in the queue for our booked talk.

At last, somewhere to sit down.

The talk by Tom Holland on Athelstan was interesting. He told us about the coins he has acquired that tell the story of how Athelstan became King of all England. English history does not start in 1066, but over a hundred years earlier with King Athelstan.

Tom has written a biography of Athelstan, published just before the Festival. I intended to buy a copy and get it signed, but by the time I reached the bookshop, I couldn’t get in the door. Time to leave.

The sun had dried some of the mud. It was surprising it cleared so quickly, but with the underlying chalk it had not been thick, just wet and slippy.

So, had I enjoyed my day at Chalke Valley History Festival? By the end of the day, yes. I might have enjoyed it more without the mud, but at least it didn’t rain as well – in fact I got sunburned!

I learned a lot, took loads of photographs to inspire my writing and gained an understanding of life in the past – how on earth did they manage without paved roads?

 

Boot Selfie

Muddy Boot Selfie