Society News: The Church

This post is part of an ongoing series, in which I look at various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon England society. For previous posts, click the links below. 

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust


I am working my way down through Anglo-Saxon society in these series of posts, and this week I will be discussing the church.  First, just to clarify terms, when I say “the church”, I’m not writing about the average everyday people who might attend a service on Sundays. In particular, I am writing about the men and women who made up the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the seventh century.

The men and women of the Christian church had a bit of a dual identity in terms of where they stood, society-wise. The church was made up of individuals who came from various classes of society, and so there you would find the sons and daughters of kings rubbing shoulders with those who were further down the social ladder. Monks and nuns could be just about anyone, and in theory, so could the abbots and bishops and abbesses, given that they were taken from the ranks of the regular clergy.

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The Anglo-Saxon church at Monkwearmouth, which, together with its “twin” at Jarrow, was one of the earliest monasteries in Britain. The bottom part of the tower and the west wall are from the original building, built in 674 AD. It is where the Venerable Bede lived and worked.

However, it is true to say that many of the higher-ranking clergy also came from the higher ranks of society. Both St. Aidan and St. Columba were from the Ui Neill clan of Ireland, a very powerful and influential clan, and it is likely that both of these men were high-ranking men in their clans, perhaps even of royal blood.  There were exceptions, of course. St. Patrick of Ireland started off as an English slave in Ireland, you don’t get much lower class than that! Depending on which story you believe, St. David may have been the result of a rape, and grew up in a nunnery. Both these men became the most-respected clergymen in their countries, and so you can see that in the church hierarchy a person’s worth was not necessarily tied to their original status in society.

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Beautiful stained glass commemorating Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, found at St. Michael Church, Workington. Cuthbert is one of those whose original status in society is disputed. Some scholars suggest he came from noble birth, others that he came from a poor family. Either way, he became of one England’s greatest saints. Photo from Wikicommons. 

As the Christian church began to get established in Northumbria, it began to amass land, through gifts from kings who wanted to see the church succeed. Most notably, we can see that the monastery Lindisfarne was begun by the Irish bishop/abbot Aidan, who was granted land by the Bernician King Oswald in 634 AD  to start a monastery close to his royal seat at Bebbanburg. Oswald had converted to Christianity while in exile in Dàl Raida, and when God granted him victory over King Edwin in 633 AD, restoring his family’s claim to the Bernician throne, he wanted to make sure his fellow Angles in Bernicia were converted to the new faith as well. As Aidan and his monks spread out through Northumbria in their missionary journeys and people began to accept Christianity, more monasteries were established along with more gifts of land.

The abbots and abbesses in charge of the monasteries (the Celtic Church allowed for double monasteries, housing both monksand nuns in separate buildings, often presided over by women) became local agents of the king, in many cases, although in theory, their ultimate obedience was always to God. The monasteries were centres of learning, operating schools for the sons and daughters of the local nobility as well as for the novices who joined the monastery, looking to one day become monks and nuns themselves. They also were orphanages and hospitals, taking in the sick or homeless. And so the local people had a certain amount of respect for the clergy which was tied to what they did as well as who they were socially, in terms of what family they originated from.

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St. Hilda (Hild) of Whitby, the important double-monastery of which she was Abbess. Hild’s father was the nephew of King Edwin, so she certainly came from an upper class Northumbrian family.

The locals gave tithes to the monasteries in terms of food, services, land rent, etc, just as they gave tribute to the kings each year (the concept of taxes goes a long ways back!). A priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an eoldorman.

Although the life of a monk or nun was not an easy one, they certainly were able to have a fairly secure life, and had a mainly respected role in society. This may help to explain why the monasteries grew so rapidly in the Early Medieval period, with some of the major ones boasting a population in the thousands. It was a fairly unusual place in that society, where someone from a very low class could end up being as highly respected as a king or queen. This opportunity for upward social mobility may have attracted some to the church. But bottom line, spiritual devotion was still very important. There may have been some of the excesses in the church that characterized the institution later in the Middle Ages and beyond, but at this time devotion to God and obedience to the monastic rule was still very much emphasized.

The next post in this series will not tackle a certain social class, but I will pause for a moment to explain something that was integral to this whole idea of societal ranking: the concept of weregild. 

That post will be coming up in the next month or so…I hope you join me!

 

 

Interview: Edoardo Albert

I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing author and historian Edoardo Albert’s book, Edwin: High King of Britain, a couple weeks back. Today I am very pleased to invite him to the blog, for a discussion of books, writing, and…pizza?

Hi Edorado, and welcome to The Traveller’s Path. Let’s start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey as a writer.

My name is Edoardo Albert and, yes, I am a writer. Words are my drug of choice. Those little packets of meaning – squiggles on a page or fleeting movements in the air – that put my mind in yours and yours in mine; that allow me to hear the dead and speak to the future; the everyday miracle that we ignore. It’s a dangerous business, opening up a book and reading the first line – there’s no knowing where you might end up: heaven, hell, a dull Thursday in Croydon or talking to a woman with a fish’s head. Dear reader, beware! You hold in your hands something more dangerous than an unexploded bomb, more skittish than a thoroughbred sea horse, more insidious than the Zika virus. Listen… Can you hear? I’m in your mind now.

Hello…

How did you get interested in writing about this time and place? And in particular, what was it about Edwin that prompted you to write about him? 

Taking the B1340 road north out of Seahouses. That’s what set me off, eventually, writing about 7th-century Northumbria. When you take this road, you see up ahead, squatting on a great upthrust of the Whin Sill where earth and sea and sky meet, this: Bamburgh Castle.

IMG_2465This I later learned to be the ancient seat of the Idings, the kings of Northumbria; the stronghold of the earls of Northumberland, who held off the Viking kingdom of Jorvik when it seemed all England must surely fall to the Norsemen; five thousand years before Christ, hunters sat atop this rock and looked east over what is now sea and saw there the richest hunting ground of Europe: the water meadows and marshes of Doggerland. All gone now, lost beneath the waves, when the Storegga Slide triggered the tsunami that cut Britain from Europe and started the island kingdom’s story. But, then, I knew nothing of this. All I knew was what I saw: the most magnificent castle I had ever seen – and I had never heard of it before.

However, I was in a good position to learn more, since my brother-in-law, Paul Gething, was one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, an ongoing archaeological investigation into the castle and its surroundings. Paul and the BRP were busy revolutionising our understanding of the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria and, to make their work better known, Paul and I jointly wrote a book about the history and archaeology of the realm, called Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom. In writing that book, I learned about the kings of Northumbria and, in particular, the kings of the conversion period, when the pagan Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, and the kingdom reached a zenith of power: Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu. Reading their history, and the extraordinary story arc of their reigns, I thought that someone must surely have written about them before. But no one had. So I decided to. Edwin: High King of Britain was the first volume of The Northumbrian Thrones; Oswald: Return of the King came out in May 2015 and the final volume, Oswiu: King of Kings, I’ve just finished writing and it will be published in the autumn (or fall, for my north American readers).

I love the portrayal of Edwin’s faith journey in your book, as he moved from paganism to Christianity. I noticed in your biography that you yourself have had a bit of a faith journey of your own. How did your own personal experiences help you to write Edwin’s story? 

I don’t think it did help. Admittedly, I’ve been a bit around the houses with respect to faith (born Catholic, turned atheist at six, dabbled in occultism in my teens, experimented with mysticism, turned Sufi Muslim, back to where I started: if you’re interested, I managed to sneak it into my latest book, London: A Spiritual History, under the guise of using my own life as an example of the myriad spiritual histories that make up the arc of the city’s encounter with God), but when it comes to characters, I attempt to enter imaginatively into their worlds and their personalities, not import my own. This is particularly important in historical fiction, where the world the characters inhabit is so very different from my own.

However, I do find this time (7th-century Britain) particularly fascinating because of the clash of worldviews that characterised it, as the pagan, Germanic, illiterate but strongly oral culture of the Anglo-Saxons, the successful invaders, clashed, melded and reformed under the influence of the Christian, Latin (and Celtic), and literate civilisation of Europe and Ireland. There are fascinating parallels to draw with our own day, as well as much that is unique to the time and place.

What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book? And is there anything you left out that you wish you could have included? 

Writing it as well as I could. No, nothing left out that I wanted to include.

You have written non-fiction and fiction. Do you enjoy writing one more than the other? 

Fiction.

Who is your favourite writer? (or writers, I know it can be hard to narrow it down!)

I’ll have to go for writers: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Evelyn Waugh.

Once you have finished this series, do you think you will write more stories about this era? Or do you have something completely different planned? 

I’ll be working on a non-fiction book next, so nothing definite yet. Lots of different ideas – some very different indeed! – but at the moment I’m not sure.

Tell us about what you are working on now.

A couple of book proposals for non-fiction work. I’m just firming up the ideas and then my agent is going to start touting them round to publishers (I have just recently signed up with an agent for my non-fiction work but I still represent myself for my fiction).

And now, just for fun:

If you were going to hire someone to write a soundtrack for your novel, who would that be, and why? 

Catherine Groom. Expert in early music, brilliant composer and teacher, funniest writer on Facebook I’ve ever read, and she’s already written the music we used for the intro to the audio extract from Edwin: High King of Britain that you can hear here on my website.

Who would you cast to play Edwin in a film adaptation of your book?

Russell Crowe. Definitely.

Pizza or burger? 

Pizza (the clue’s in my name!).

Tea or coffee? 

Tea (my father is from Sri Lanka, home of the best tea in the world, and his father worked on the tea plantations there).

Favourite TV series?

I barely ever watch television nowadays. But the best series I’ve ever seen is undoubtedly the production of Brideshead Revisited staring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.

One piece of advice for new writers?

Read. And, if you can, become famous by some other means – this will ensure a publisher’s contract and get your books into stores throughout the land.

Thanks so much to Edoardo, for stopping by the blog today! I am so looking forward to delving into some of his other works – definitely I will be checking out his book on Northumbria. I’m eager to read the other books in his Northumbrian Throne series as well, but I will have to wait until my own are published. Somehow it’s tricky to read about a character you are trying to create in your own mind – too much second-guessing going on. 

I hope you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did! 

 

 

 

 

 

Bamburgh: Seat of Kings

Last year on the blog I  highlighted one of the major settings for my novel, that being Lindisfarne, and I thought it was time to  give you a glimpse at another one.

Bamburgh (pronounced bam-brah, not bam-burg) is located on the north-east coast of Britain, about a half-hour drive south of Lindisfarne, and in fact you can see Holy Island from the upthrust rock formation which mirrors the one at Lindisfarne, and upon which Bamburgh Castle sits. In between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh there are some spectacular beaches and coastline!

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Can you find Bamburgh there, on the upper right? That little axe-shaped island to the north is Lindisfarne.

Bamburgh was originally called Din Guardi, and was the seat of the British kings of Byrneich, from which the latter-day Bernicians drew their name. The invading Angles, led by Ida, conquered the kingdom in 547 AD. His grandson Æthelfrith renamed the fortress Bebbanburgh, after his wife Bebba, and eventually that name morphed into the present-day name of Bamburgh.

Bebbanburgh in the 7th century in some ways would have looked very different than it does now, and in others it is exactly the same. The landscape hasn’t changed, featuring the rocky dolerite outcropping which commands the magnificent view of the country all around it, the churning North Sea lapping at the sweeping beaches below the outcrop, the sandy dunes that line the beach.  The major difference, of course, would be the castle. Present-day Bamburgh has a castle on top of the rocky promontory that is the major feature of the area. The core of this castle was built during Norman times and expanded throughout the following centuries to become the fortress you see today.

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A good look at the rocky outcrop that Bamburgh sits upon. Photo by Glen Bowman, on WikiCommons

 

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Some of that spectacular coastline and beach around Bamburgh. Photo on WikiCommons.

But in the 7th century the building on top of the outcrop would have been an Anglo-Saxon hall, the seat of the king. We can have a good idea of what that hall would have looked like, as it would have been the typical “mead hall” of Anglo-Saxon literature such as Beowulf.

These structures were long, narrow buildings built of wood, with thatched roofs (or wood), two doors (one on either end) and perhaps some shuttered windows. The interior would have been dark, and smoky, with the hearth fire in the middle and perhaps a couple smaller fires inside. There were no chimneys, the smoke would filter out through the thatching, cough cough! There might have been a raised platform at one end, where the king and his family and retainers would sit separately from the rest, which might also included the king’s throne. There also might have been a separate room in the hall used as the king’s residence. You  note all the “mights” in my description – unfortunately since these halls were made of wood, not much archeological evidence survives to give historians really clear pictures of what they were like. But there are some hints in Beowulf and other places that give us a bit of an idea.

Bamburgh Castle today has a replica of an Anglo-Saxon stone chair, based on a 9th century carved stone fragment found on the grounds in the 19th century. This “chair” could be a throne, of a “gift-stool” where the king would sit to be presented with tribute, and it features the typical Anglo-Saxon design work of the times.

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Bamburgh’s stone chair. Thanks to author Matthew Harffy, who graciously shared his pictures of his trip to Bamburgh with me, including this one! 

Long benches lined the walls of the hall, where the king’s thegns and retainers would feast and drink, and even sleep at times!  Ale would be plentiful, and the more high-class mead (honeyed wine). It was a gathering place for the king and his people where battles and strategy would be discussed, victories would be celebrated, and tribute would be both given to the king and shared by him.

There is some discussion in historical circles about the presence or absence of a town or village at Bamburgh during Anglo Saxon times.  In my books I have placed a village there, at the foot of the outcrop, because Bede mentions the “town” being threatened by fire during an attack against it by Penda in 651 AD, saved by miraculous intervention by Aidan. So I feel justified in my imaginary village!

After the Viking invasions the Northumbrian kingdom was destroyed in 867 AD, but the Northumbrian kings still held this fortress as sub-rulers under them, until 993 AD, when the Vikings destroyed it, exactly 200 years after their first invasion at Lindisfarne.

All in all Bamburgh is a fascinating place, with a long and important history. I will definitely be visiting here the next time I go to Britain!


 

Feature photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons