St. Wilfrid of Ripon, pt. 2

When we left Wilfrid at the end of the first post about him here on the blog, he had successfully argued in favour of the Roman Church practices in front of an important synod (meeting) of English church leaders. King Oswy had ruled in favour of the Roman ways, leaving the Irish Celtic Church without their most important champion.

It surely was a highlight of Wilfrid’s life. He had triumphed; the English Church would now follow the Roman ways and leave the Irish practices behind. And although this is how it eventually worked out, in practice the imposition of the Roman Church practices and structure upon England’s church would take many years, even decades, to be complete. It was a disaster for the Irish Church, and the ramifications would continue to ripple outward for a long time.

Flush with success, King Oswy’s son, Aldfrith, ruler of Deira, urged his father to appoint Wilfrid as Bishop of Northumbria. Oswy agreed, which was a bit odd. Alhfrith was a sub-king under his father Oswy’s overlordship. But having made the decision that the Northumbrian church had to follow the Roman ways, Oswy’s hands were tied, I think. Several of the most prominent Irish churchmen left Northumbria in protest of the Whitby decision and went back to Iona. There were few senior Irish candidates left, and someone had to fill the role. Plus, I spoke of simmering tensions between father and son in the last post, and this is just another example of Alhfrith trying to exert dominance over his father.

Wilfrid gladly accepted the post, of course, but decided that he would not be consecrated in England, because in his mind, the senior churchmen there, all who followed the Celtic Church customs, would not be suitable. He decided to go back to Gaul and be consecrated there, by a “proper” superior, one who had no taint of the Celtic practices. Plus, he got a grand ceremony, with all the pomp and circumstance he would have remembered from his time in Rome.

In the end, though, this may not have been his best idea. In his absence, the tensions between Ahlfrith and Oswy broke out into open revolt. Father and son clashed. There is no historical records of exactly what happened, but we do know that after this point Alhfrith disappears from the record, and Oswy appoints another son, Ecgfrith, as ruler of Deira, instead. It is likely that there was some kind of armed conflict where Alhfrith died.

In Wilfrid’s absence (he was gone for about two years), Oswy appoints another as Bishop of Northumbria: Cædda (also known as Chad). When Wilfrid returns, newly consecrated as Bishop, he finds the job already taken by Cædda and is forced to  retreat back to Ripon and contemplate his next move. He acts as  Bishop in Mercia and Kent and makes friends in all the right places, including that of Theodore, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. In AD 668 the Archbishop deposes Cædda and reinstates Wilfrid as Bishop of Northumbria. Round 1 to Oswy, Round 2 to Wilfrid.

For the next nine years, all was well in Wilfrid’s world. When he was first appointed Bishop of Northumbria, he moved the see (seat of power) to York, and now at last he had the chance to rebuild the cathedral that had orginally been built by Paulinus, during the first missionary journey of Roman priests to England back in AD 601. He built up many monasteries, notably the one in Ripon as well as the newly established one in Hexham, endowed on him by the Northumbrian Queen, Æthelthryth (wife of Ecgfrith, who was now King after Oswy’s death in AD 670).*

Wilfrid began to do his part to overhaul the Northumbrian church to reflect the Roman ways. He introduced relics from Rome into the churches along with some bling: beautiful gospel books, vestments, shrines and ornaments. He also established elaborate liturgical observances and Roman style church music. He claimed to have brought the Rule of St. Benedict to Northumbria, although this is uncertain. Wilfrid himself, according to his biographer Stephen, lived a fairly lavish lifestyle, including a large retinue of armed followers.

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Part of the original 7th century crypt at Hexham Cathedral. Wilfrid used stones from nearby Roman ruins to build his cathedral, and some of the stones still have Roman inscriptions on them. It is said he stored some of the relics brought back from Rome in the crypt. Wilfrid himself stood and looked at these walls. Amazing! Image from Wikipedia.

Truth be told, he likely needed those armed men, as he had made some enemies. For one thing, his King, Ecgfrith, was none too happy with him because of the part the Bishop had played in encouraging and allowing his wife to become a nun (see note, below). Also, the Abbess Hild, who was in charge of the large double monastery at Whitby, had opposed Wilfrid in quest to subjugate the Celtic Church under Rome’s thumb, and continued to make life difficult for him, by seeking to take over the see of York.

As it happens, Wilfrid’s erstwhile benefactor, the Archbishop Theodore, was a close relation of Hild’s, which didn’t bode well for Wilfrid. Theodore perhaps was also uneasy with continuing to allow Wilfrid to have control over such a large of diocese as Northumbria. He wanted to subdivide it into smaller areas; possibly he recognized that it was not a good idea for his ambitious Bishop to have control over so large an area.  So, when Ecgfrith asked Theodore to dispose Wilfrid in AD 678, Theodore agreed and Wilfrid was driven from his position. Other bishops were appointed in Ripon, Hexham, and in York. These included Eata, who had been ejected by Wilfrid from Ripon all those many years ago. All of the new bishops, in fact, had either practiced the Celtic ways or were sympathetic to them.

Wilfrid appealed to the Pope in Rome, with limited results. The pope said Wilfrid should be restored and the other bishops expelled (poor Eata, out the door again!), but he was to choose new bishops whom Theodore would consecrate (and who would presumably be ones that Theodore would agree to). Wilfrid’s monasteries were to be directly controlled by the Holy See in Rome. This would prevent any other non-Roman bishops being appointed in those monasteries again.

It was only a partial victory, but even that was not to be. Ecgfrith was unmoved by the ruling from Rome. In fact he imprisoned Wilfrid on his return from Rome and then forced the erstwhile Bishop into exile.

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The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of late 7th century England. Wilfrid was certainly well-travelled for his time. Besides his trips to Rome, he spent time in Northumbria, Mercia, and in the kingdom of the South Saxons. It’s possible he also spent visited some of the other kingdoms as well as part of the diplomatic work he did as Bishop. Image from Wikipedia.


*Æthelthryth is another one of the powerful women that were part of Wilfrid’s story.  Ecgfrith was her second husband. Her first was an ealdorman, Tondberht of South Gyrwas (Jarrow). She was wed to him for three years, and five years after he died, she wed Ecgfrith, who at the time was only fifteen. Apparently Æthelthryth remained a virgin throughout both her marriages. When Ecgfrith became king and gaining an heir became vastly more important, he insisted she consummate their union. In response she left the marriage with the blessing of Bishop Wilfrid and he allowed her to become a nun. She eventually founded a double monastery of her own at Ely. You can’t help but feel sorry for Ecgfrith in this scenario, no? No doubt the prestige of being married to a high-born and well-placed older woman soon wore off. Certainly Wilfrid’s part in this saga soured the King on his Bishop.

There’s still more to come in the life of Wilfrid! But I don’t want to overwhelm you. Part 3 will be coming up next month!


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St. Wilfrid of Ripon, Part 1

One of the really interesting people in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England is Wilfrid (AD 633 – AD 709/10), abbot of the monastery of Ripon, and Bishop of Northumbria. Wilfrid has been on my list of people to write about from the very beginning of this blog, but I haven’t had the gumption to tackle him until now.

Wilfrid is a very complicated figure. He has a huge part to play in the story of Anglo-Saxon England, and there is quite a lot written about him. But his story is interwoven with the political and ecclesiastical landscape of Northumbria, and there are a lot of details to get straight. I was never sure if I could do his story justice in the limited space I have here. But I just couldn’t avoid him any longer! However, to avoid swamping you with too many details all at once, I have broken it down into two posts. Part II coming in the New Year, so watch this space!

One of the things that is rather unusual about Wilfrid is that both of the main sources of information about him were written by people who actually knew him. The first was a hagiography written by a monk named Stephen, who lived at the Ripon monastery founded by Wilfrid. He wrote his Vita Sancti Wilfrithi  (Life of Saint Wilfrid) shortly after Wilfrid died. It was a promo piece, to bolster Wilfrid’s reputation as a saint and attract attention to the monastery he founded. This is typical of the usual hagiographies (biographies of saints), but most of those are written many years, sometimes even centuries, after the person had died.* The second account of Wilfrid’s life comes from Bede, who includes a lot of information about Wilfrid in his Ecclesiastical History of Britain. Bede, of course, was a contemporary of Wilfrid and knew him personally.

Bede’s account drew on Stephen’s, but it has a different tone than the first one, much less rah-rah Wilfrid. In fact, some scholars suggest that Bede disliked Wilfrid, and that his negative feelings about him come through in his account. I will come back to that speculation in the second part of this account of Wilfrid, once we have delved a little deeper into who Wilfrid was and his impact on the 7th century Northumbrian landscape, both political and ecclesiastical.

Wilfrid was the son of a Northumbrian nobleman, and as a youth went to the royal court at Bamburgh to be noticed and to make a mark for himself. Luckily he found a patron in Queen Eanflead, Oswy’s wife, and she sent him to be trained under Aidan in the religious life at Lindisfarne, and from there to the court of her kinsman, King Earconberht, in Kent.*

Somewhere in the 650s, when he was a young man, Wilfrid went to Rome. He went with Benedict Biscop, another of Eanflead’s charges, who also was studying at Lindisfarne.** This was the first recorded English pilgrimage to Rome, but it certainly wasn’t the last. After Wilfrid, many of the subsequent ecclesiastics and even Anglo-Saxon royalty would try make this journey at least once. To visit the places so intertwined with the Christian faith, the touchstone of the church, was highly desired, leaving great impressions on those who went there. And so it was for Wilfrid, but in his case even more so. The time in Rome left an indelible impression on Wilfrid, and set in motion a chain of events that led to the church in England taking a final decision on the conflicts that had arisen between the Irish monks and the church of Rome.

Biscop and Wilfrid parted ways in Lyon, then a part of Gaul. Wilfrid stayed behind, while his companion continued to Rome. Wilfrid  stayed as the guest of the archbishop of Lyon, Annemund, and it seems that they developed quite a friendship. He eventually went on to Rome, where he stayed for a time, did some studying, and had an audience with the pope. He then went back to Lyon, staying there for a few years. Tragically, Annemund was beheaded by the King as part of a treacherous plot against him. Wilfrid offered to be killed alongside his bishop and friend, but the king refused and sent him back to England.

It is quite clear, from both Bede’s account as well as Stephen’s, that Wilfrid was an ambitious man. It seems as if the pomp and circumstance of Rome appealed to him. Seeing as his patron, Queen Eanflead, followed the Roman Christian practices as opposed to the Irish Church practices of Lindisfarne (and of Eanflead’s husband, King Oswy), it is perhaps not surprising that Wilfrid was predisposed to be open to the Roman methods for dating Easter, and the Roman tonsure. But the differences were deeper than that. The organization of the church of Rome was a much more hierarchal one, and more organized, than the Irish church had evolved to be during the years after Rome’s legions withdrew from Britain and contact from mother church was diminished.

Stephen tells us that Wilfrid was tonsured during his time away, which would normally mean that he became a monk. However the tonsure could also signify that he merely entered the clergy, but didn’t join the monks. Bede does not say that Wilfrid was ever a monk. So it is not certain if Wilfrid ever took this step. I could believe that the asceticism and humility required of the monks was not something that suited Wilfrid’s nature.

When Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, somewhere around AD 658, he joined the court of Ahlfrith, who was the son of King Oswy of Bernicia, and sub-king of Deira under the direction of his father.  There was some resistance to Oswy’s overlordship in Deira, and Ahlfrith may have played on this to gain some independence of his own. Certainly, once Wilfrid arrived, he began to rebel against his father and to champion the Roman ways of the church over the Irish Celtic practices that his father preferred. One can only assume that Wilfrid had a great part in this, for by this time he was certainly convinced that the Celtic Church practices were bordering on the heretical, especially as it concerned the dating of Easter. He was convinced that the English church needed to cast them aside and join in with the Roman ways.

Ahfrith had given land near Ripon, North Yorkshire to a group of Irish monks from Melrose Abbey. The monks, headed by their abbot, Eata, established a monastery there. But sometime before AD 664 Eata, along with Cuthbert (who would become a great saint in his own right) were bustled out of Ripon so that Ahlfrith could install his protege, Wilfrid, as abbot instead. Bede says, tactfully,

…when given the choice, they preferred to leave the place rather than change their practices.

I can just imagine that this one little sentence covered a lot of conflict!

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Statue of Wilfrid in Ripon Cathedral. Photo by Lawrence OP, on Flickr

This conflict was about to spill over into the wider church. In AD 663, Wilfrid was ordained as a priest. Soon after, in AD 664, Ahlfrith persuaded his father, Oswy, to host a synod of church leaders, where they would settle on the matter of the Roman vs Irish practices one way or another. The Synod was held at the double-monastery of Whitby, presided over by the Abbess Hild.

The English Church had come to a crossroads, and Wilfrid was poised to make his mark. The Frankish Bishop Agilbert had been appointed as the spokesperson for the Roman side but he  deferred that task to Wilfrid, whom he had recently ordained as a priest. He explained to the King that Wilfrid was better suited to it, as Wilfrid spoke English fluently, whereas he, Agilbert, would have to work through a translator.

There is much to say about the Synod of Whitby, and it warrants a separate post. For now I will just say that Wilfrid’s arguments won the day, and King Oswy decided to abandon the Irish Church methods and to adopt the practices of the Roman Church, both personally and in Northumbria.

Wilfrid had won, but in doing so, he made enemies. The echoes of this conflict would haunt him for the rest of his life.

To be continued in Part 2, coming in the New Year!


*One of the side-trails in searching out information on Wilfrid is discovering his close association with many women in Anglo-Saxon England. For more info on this, see this fascinating blog post by Michelle Ziegler

**Interesting note – Stephen’s Life of Saint Wilfrid is one of the earliest hagiographies we have. Stephen’s Life was used by Bede as one of his sources when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History.

*** Biscop later became the founder of the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where Bede lived. Bede studied under Biscop and would have had lots of first-hand information about Wilfrid from him, as well. It is speculated that Biscop and Wilfrid parted in Lyon due to a conflict of some sort. It is odd that they didn’t go on to Rome together.

Featured image is an icon of St. Wilfrid, by Aidan Hart. I’m sure that Wilfrid would be pleased to be depicted with his Roman tonsure firmly in place! 

Yeavering: A Royal Villa

About twenty miles almost straight west of Bamburgh, on the edge of the Cheviot Hills,  lies a small hamlet called Yeavering. Very few people live there now, it is mainly a scattering of farms in the area. But don’t be fooled by this sleepy bit of English countryside.  This obscure little place has a history of great importance and was a significant place indeed in 7th century England.

Truth be told, it was a significant place long before the Anglo-Saxons even arrived, and so there is where our story of Yeavering must begin.

The name Yeavering comes from the Celtic name of Gefrin, which means “hill of the goats”. This name survives as our modern name of Yeavering.  It lies at the end of a valley at the edge of the Cheviots. The most prominent feature of the area is the twin peaked hill known as Yeavering Bell. At the top of this hill is the remains of an ancient Iron Age hill fort, but there is evidence that there has been human activity in the area from at least 15,000 years ago, in the Mesolithic Age.

The hill fort was an extremely important one before the Romans arrived in the first century AD. It was the largest of its kind in Northumbria, and had stone walls constructed around both of the peaks of the Bell. Over a hundred Iron Age roundhouses had been constructed on the hill within the walls, which is evidence of a large population. There is archeological evidence of Romano-British occupation of the site in the 1st-5th centuries AD. So by the time the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, this area had been an important settlement for a long time.

North of Yeavering Bell the land drops off into a “terrace”, about 72 meters above sea level. It is on this terrace, known as the “whaleback”, that our interest is focussed, as this is where an Anglo-Saxon settlement was situated in the 7th century AD.

There is a theory that the Anglo-Saxon kings had two distinct populations to govern: the immigrant settlers from the Continent who had mainly settled along the coasts, and the native British population who were the descendants of the Romano-British, who lived inland.* So it is speculated that the Bernician kings set up two seats of royal power, one in Bamburgh to govern the Anglo-Saxons, and one in Yeavering, to address the native British population.

 

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Here you can see Yeavering Bell, with the Cheviots behind. In the foreground is the whaleback, where the Anglo-Saxon settlement was situated. Image from Durham University. 

This theory of two distinct populations has some merit, but I’m not sure they were as clearly separated as that theory might imply, especially by the 7th century, when the Anglo-Saxons had been in England for a couple of hundred years. However, we do know that Yeavering was an important site for the Bernician kings. How do we know this? Because Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the British People, tells us so. He records that King Edwin of Bernicia, shortly after his conversion to Christianity in AD 627, brought the priest Paulinus to his “royal seat” at Yeavering, where he preached to the local population with the result of many conversions and subsequent baptisms in the nearby River Glen.

In 1949, following an unusually dry summer, some aerial photographs were taken of the area which gave some hints that this might be the location of the Anglo-Saxon settlement mentioned by Bede. The surrounding landscape fit perfectly with Bede’s account as well. So in 1952 archeological work began on the site, with a rich result.

Foundations of numerous buildings were excavated (ie post holes showing where the buildings were built and how large they were) as well as evidence of a large enclosure (presumably for cattle or livestock), a possible pagan temple, and a couple of burial sites.

There are two structures in particular that are very interesting. One is the Great Hall. This was a massive building, about 80 feet long and 40 feet wide. It also must have been very tall, as the posts were set into the ground eight feet deep. Possibly a second floor? We can’t say for sure. It had partitions at both ends of the building, giving two ante-chambers within.

Clearly this was a mead hall as described in Beowulf, the place for feasting and the giving and receiving of tribute, where the ale would flow and alliances made and broken. Here the kings would stay with their retinue for some time out of the year, doing the work of kingship.

The other interesting structure found at Yeavering is unique, in that a similar structure has never been found in any other Anglo-Saxon sites (yet!). It was a small amphitheatre of sorts, made out of wood, which could accommodate up to three hundred people. It faces a small stage area which had a curved wall built behind it, presumably to focus the sound from the speaker upwards to the seated audience. There is some speculation that this was built for Paulinus in his initial work of conversions, and later used by kings as a place to meet and discuss with the nobles the business of the kingdom. Historians are not exactly sure, but it is an amazing structure all the same, don’t you think?

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An artist’s rendering of the amphitheatre, from pastperfect.org

The kings of Bernicia, like all Anglo-Saxon kings, would have spent much time throughout the year going on tours of their kingdoms, gathering tribute from the people and acting as judges over disputes. It is clear, both from Bede’s comment and from the archeological evidence, that Yeavering, along with Bamburgh, was one of the places that kings would live for part of the year, a major seat of kingly power, where the ale flowed liberally in the mead hall and the people could meet with their king.

Today the area where the settlement stood is a plowed field, a humble strip of land for hiding such a storied piece of history.


*Of course there were also the Celts, who more or less did their own thing on the furthest west and north of the island

Featured image is of the Great Hall and the grand enclosure at Yeavering, from pastperfect.org

Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Weapons and Armour

Before I get too far into this series on the Battles of Anglo-Saxon England here on The Traveller’s Path, I thought I should give you all a bit of an understanding of how, exactly, the Anglo-Saxons conducted their wars, and what weapons they would have used. Of course, like with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is not a lot of information about all this, and so historians differ on how exactly warfare was conducted in this era, and by whom. So, as always, keep that in mind as you read!

There was no such thing as a standing army in Anglo-Saxon England. Each king would have his war-band, made up of loyal followers and nobles, along with a regular supply of landowners who looked to the king as their personal lord. It is likely these would serve in the king’s war-band on a rotational basis, for no one could afford to be gone for long stretches of time from their crops and holdings. The main work of everyone in the Early Middle Ages, kings and commoners alike, was providing food and shelter for themselves and their families. So even military service would have to take second place to that. While they took their turn serving the king in this way, it is likely they would do some military training if there were no raids or skirmishes during that time.

Aside from the king’s war-band, a similar arrangement would be the case for every wealthy nobleman. They would all have a war-band, which could be called into service when needed. All of these smaller groups of fighting men could be called to fight for the king if a larger group of fighting men were needed to defend the kingdom. However, communication was difficult, and so it was not exactly easy to coordinate this type of defence, as the lightning-fast Viking raids showed.

These groups of fighting men were called the fyrd. They would consist of a few trained soldiers, supplemented by men from the surrounding area who could be called on for defence of their lands or for fighting in the king’s battles.  They would be expected to provide their own weapons and armour (and possibly food), and they didn’t have a choice in whether they participated or not. If they refused military service, they could be fined, with differing fines for the differing class levels.

The fighting seemed to be mainly on foot; historians disagree whether or not mounted warriors were part of the fyrd. There is mention in one of the accounts of a battle of mounted warriors going to the battle on horseback, but then dismounting and leading their horses away from the battle area. But that’s just one account, so it’s hard to say it was the normal practice. The terrain of that battle might not have been optimal for horses, for example.

It is also unclear exactly what role archers might play. Certainly the bow and arrow were common in hunting, so it’s very likely it was a weapon used in warfare as well. At the very least, archers were part of the initial stage of the fighting as the two combating forces lined up, each behind a shield wall. Arrows and other missiles (aces, javelins, rocks) would be thrown to inflict as much damage as possible before the hand-to-hand combat began.

Surviving helmets from the Anglo-Saxon era are very rare; in fact, only a handful exist. These are all high-status objects which may have only been ceremonial in nature, not actually used during in battle. It’s highly doubtful that the average warrior would have worn an iron helmet, although some might have worn headgear made of boiled leather.

Likewise, mail body-armour is not likely to have been common in this time. There is some mention of it in a couple of literary texts such as Beowulf, and only a couple examples from this era survive, including one found at Sutton Hoo.

The main weapons of the fighting man were the sword, spear, axe, and knife (saex); and for defence they would use the shield. Here’s a little information about all of these:

Sword – the double-edged long sword was a luxury item. Only the wealthiest and highest class man would have one of these weapons. These swords were objects of beauty as well as practical weapons. They were around 90 cm long, or longer,  and often had gold, silver and jewels on the hilts and scabbards. The blades were made using an elaborate “pattern-welding” technique, which consisted of the metalsmith folding alternate layers of molten steel over and over, resulting in a distinct pattern on the blade.  Different types of metal could be used, with iron in the middle to provide flexibility and springiness, with steel edges. These swords were highly desired objects; passed along in wills, valued trophies of war,  and prized possessions of whomever was lucky enough to have one.

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A beautiful gold and garnet hilt and pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard, with a replica of how it might look on an actual sword. Add a scabbard with similar bling, and you can see why these weapons were so prized. Image from the Birmingham Museum. 

Spears/Javelins – the spear was by far the most common weapon of the fighting man. They outnumber swords found as grave goods by more than 20:1. Owning a spear and a shield was a sign of free status. The spear tips were iron, and varied in size and form. The long poles were made of ash. Mainly the spear was used to keep the enemy at a distance, enabling the bearer to be out of range of a man with a sword. Of course they were also used as a throwing weapon (javelin), and even as a grappling weapon if the spear had hooks in the tip.

Axes – another common weapon, for axes were common in everyday life, for use at the holdings for chopping wood or other tasks. Axes could be used single-handed or double-handed, and could also be thrown.

Knife – the Saxon saexes was a single-edged dagger, with blades up to around 80 cm. The word saex means knife, and it is also the word that the name “Saxon” derives from, hinting at its popularity. These weapons varied considerably in size and shape.

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The remains of a saex, with a reconstructed replica. The tang in the blade was a typical feature of this weapon. Image from Wikipedia

Shields – round, and made of wood, with a hand hold in the middle and an iron boss on the other to protect the hand. These could be elaborately decorated, depending on the wealth and status of the warrior.

The Anglo-Saxons would fight using the “shield-wall” formation – a line of men, protected by their shields in front, and, when necessary,  on top, to protect them from flying missiles. The two lines would advance, and the first engagement would be precisely that, a volley of airborne missiles such as arrows, javelins, or even rocks. Eventually one side would close the gap, and they would fight shield to shield, seeking advantage. If one side did not prevail, they would retreat to rest and then try again. Eventually one side would break through, and the finale would be the rout and pursuit, where the vanquished would flee and the victors would pursue, cutting down men as they found them. Some of the losing side might make a stand, especially the kings or leaders, and their men were expected to fight with them to the death, if needs be. It was a shameful thing to leave the field of battle alive, if your lord had perished.

During the time when they were fighting shield to shield, the spears would help to keep the enemy at bay. But of course men would inevitably get injured or killed, leaving the wounded or dying man lying where he fell. This is where a brave man could leave the protection of the shield wall to grab the booty of the fallen man’s weapons, especially if a sword was in the offing. But of course this left the man exposed to death or injury himself, so those who attempted it would be lauded for their courage once the battle was over. Often those who threw the javelin would be the ones to grab the booty, as they had to run forward to get velocity for the throw, leaving the shield wall and exposing themselves, in turn, to injury or death. It was a high risk/high reward scenario, that’s for sure.

I don’t know how long the typical battle would last. I would guess that it wouldn’t be all that long, especially once the fighting started in earnest. Hand-to-hand combat, with the added weight of shield, spear, or sword, would get exhausting after too long.

But in this warrior society, it was a necessary part of life. To die in battle was far preferable than dying of disease or old age. And without the battles, what would there be to talk and sing about on the long winter nights in the mead hall?


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The Venerable Bede, Part 2

I have written before about Bede, the 7th century Northumbrian monk who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In that work Bede gives us a rare glimpse of the history and times in which he lived.

Bede is sometimes called the Venerable Bede, which is a title given to those a little lower than full Sainthood in the Catholic Church.* His work on the Ecclesiastical History would alone be enough to ensure his fame, but the wonderful thing about Bede is that he is the author of many, many books and letters on a wide-ranging scope of topics, including biblical commentaries, science, mathematics, geography, hymns, poetry, and school textbooks. In fact, when you add up all that he wrote, the total number is over forty.

You may wonder how we know that all the books purported to be by him are, in fact, actually written by him. This is a good question. But in fact we can state exactly what books he wrote with complete accuracy, as at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, he included a list of the other books he had written. For a handful of these we have no extant copies available, unfortunately. There are also a few manuscripts that are attributed to Bede that are not listed in the Ecclesiastical History, because they were written after that work was completed. Some of these are disputed, but others are confirmed as Bede’s work after careful analysis of the works and comparisons to his other writings.

Besides the Ecclesiastical History, the works of Bede that really fascinate me are his scientific treatises, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things) and De Temporum (On Time). “Scientific” is not exactly the right term for these books, as of course “science” as we understand it was not something that Bede would have been familiar with (ie the scientific method comes much later, in the 19th century). But at any rate these works are attempts to understand and explain the natural world and how to calculate and understand the passage of time, and as such, they are extremely valuable windows into the mind of a 8th century Christian monastic scholar.

De Natura

Part of a 10th century copy of De Natura Rerum. Image from British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog

These books were written in AD 703**, early in Bede’s career as a monk. He would have been around thirty years old, teaching in the monastery of Monkwearmoth-Jarrow, and he had just been ordained as a priest. These books are a distillation of all that he knew about these subjects at the time. In AD 725 he expanded On Time  and wrote another book, named De Temporum Ratione, or On the Reckoning of Time. The best guess is that De Natura Rerum and De Temporum are likely his first literary works.

Bede was not writing about these things in isolation, of course. His books rely heavily on a previous work that was much admired at the time, also called On the Nature of Things, by Isidore of Seville (AD 560-636). He also compiles and draws upon the Classical understandings of these topics from works of Pliny and Augustine, among others.  But there is also original thinking in these books. They are not merely a regurgitation of what had come before.***

The books present a thoroughly Christian view of cosmology, of course. Part of the reason for Isidore’s book was to combat the superstitious practices and beliefs brought about by the solar and lunar eclipses in AD 611 and 612. Isidore, and Bede after him, sought to bring an understanding of the order and rationality of the Creation, and that things such as eclipses or other phenomenon such as volcanoes or earthquakes were part of this natural order, ordained by God, not the works of demons.

The other reason for Bede’s books were to explain how to calculate time, and most importantly, how to calculate the date of  Easter. Easter is a movable date based on the cycles of the moon. It was vitally important in the Christian church to be able to calculate when this most important day would be recognized, and so a complicated method of doing so, named computus, was developed. Bede’s influence, through these books, on the development of these mathematical and scientific calculations cannot be understated.

The first book, On the Nature of Things, includes fifty-one short chapters, starting with the fourfold work of God (Chapter One), the formation of the earth (Chapter Two), what the world is (Chapter Three), and the elements (Chapter Four). He goes on from there to cover a wide range of topics, in which he starts from the heavens and works his way downwards. He has chapters on the stars, the planets, the moon, eclipses, comets, rainbows, lightning,  hail, snow, the sea, the tides, the earth, earthquakes, and many, many more.

I wish I had a copy of these books, but I am forced to rely on a few quotes and snippets here and there that I have found on the web, as well as studying some of the commentaries that explain what is in the books. One of these days I will have to order a translation of my own. But one thing is abundantly clear. The depth of Bede’s intellect and his understanding of the natural world is truly astounding, especially when we consider the times in which he wrote.

I have written before that too often our perception of the so-called “Dark Ages” is skewed. The people then (at least the educated people) understood a lot more than we give them credit for. For example, Chapter 46 of On the Nature of Things is titled, Why the Earth is Like a Globe.” Yup. Even in back-water Northumbria at the beginning of the 8th century, Bede knew the Earth was round. Fascinating, hey? He also discusses the effect of the moon on the tides

I found a quote from Chapter Three, “What the World Is”. Bede states,

The world is the whole of everything, which is constituted by the sky and the land, the four elements in the form of a completely rounded sphere: fire, by which the stars shine; air, which all living things breathe; waters, which surround the land, encircling and penetrating; and the land itself, which is the middle and core of the world, hanging unmoving, with everything turning in equilibrium around it.

Again, note the “rounded sphere”.

On Time/The Reckoning of Time are Bede’s explanation of the calculation of time, and include a fascinating descriptions of the ancient calendars of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Anglo-Saxons. They also include detailed overviews of the seven days of Creation, lunar cycles, Paschal calendars (Bede explains the different ways to calculate the date of Easter and presents his reasoning for the method he prefers), and the Six Ages of the World (based on Biblical narrative; the First Age being from Adam to Noah, the Second Age from Noah to Abraham, the Third Age from Abraham to David, etc).

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A beautifully illustrated 13th century copy of De Temporum, showing zodiac symbols. In this book Bede goes into detail about how to calculate the course of the sun and moon through the zodiac. Image from Medieval Manuscripts Blog .

When you consider Bede’s historical treatise and all his other works, including these wonderful books on the natural world and time, it’s no wonder that he became one of the Early Medieval period’s most famed and studied scholars. It is precisely because his books were so popular that we have so many of his works available today. Many copies of the books were made and they circulated widely over not only England, but the Continent as well.  Because so many were made, it increased the opportunity for them to survive.

These books point to a truly remarkable and fascinating man. I’m so glad my research on Wilding, my historical fantasy book, brought me to his doorstep, so to speak, and that I can now share him with you!


*Those given the title “venerable” in the Catholic Church are deemed “heroic in virtue”, but in order to be declared “saints”, they must also either be a martyr, or have been proven to have miracles associated with them.

**We know this because at the end of On Time, Bede included a world chronicle from the beginning of time at Creation to his present, where he states “At this time Tiberius is in the fifth year of his rule…” This refers to Tiberius III Apsimar, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from AD 698-705.

***In fact, Bede is accused of heresy in later years because of some of the content of On the Reckoning of Time. Perhaps the subject of a future blog post…who knows?

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Penda: King of Mercia

 

Note: I am currently on vacation in the sunny south, but I spent some time writing up a new post all about Penda of Mercia. I was just about done when I realized that I had already written a post about him. Oops. So, while I was prepared to take some hours out of my vacation time to write one post for the blog, I just couldn’t face writing another one. Seeing as even I had forgotten I had written this post, I figured you might have, too. And you may be a new reader, who hasn’t seen this yet. With my apologies for recycled content, here is my original post on Penda, King of Mercia, which first appeared on the blog in the summer of 2017. Hope you enjoy! 


One of the joys of writing about any period of history is discovering some of the fascinating people who lived at that time, at least some of the ones whose stories have come to us through the long years that separate us. Of course, they are usually kings or high churchmen, or upper class nobles, or the like. The regular people, although no doubt fascinating in and of themselves, don’t get any ink.

I have highlighted a couple of the people who lived during the time that my books are set, that being Britain in the 7th century A.D., including Oswald, King of Bernicia, and the Venerable Bede.

Penda, the wily king of Mercia, the powerful pagan king of the Midlands who was a thorn in the side of Oswald and his brother Oswy in their rule of Northumbria, is another figure who looms large over the 7th century landscape, and he is a fascinating man. Although there is quite a lot we know about him, relative to others in that time period, there is also quite  a lot we do not know.

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Mercia was located on the south west of Deira, surrounding the river Trent.  It’s capital was Tamworth, which is located in present-day Staffordshire. The marvellous Staffordshire Hoard was found close to Tamworth – it could have come from a Mercian warlord hastily burying his treasure as he escaped from a battle. Maybe it belonged to Penda himself…?

First of all, his origins are rather murky. The name, Penda, could be of British (Welsh) origin, which might help to explain the various alliances this pagan Saxon king had with some the Christian kings of Wales. Conversely, the name might also have Germanic origins. We don’t know for certain. We do know that he was the son of Pybba, possibly one of twelve sons, but some of the names listed as sons of Pybba could have been added to his line after the fact by other kings purporting to be descended of Pybba as well.

Why would other kings do this? Well, Pybba was an Iclingas, from the House of Icel, a legendary (or perhaps semi-legendary) figure from the time when the Anglo-Saxons were first migrating to Britain after the Roman legions left.  And Icel’s lineage went right back to Woden, one of the Saxon gods. Having Woden in your lineage was an important thing for the Saxon kings. So if your own family history couldn’t be traced that far back, it would be in your advantage to claim that you were related somehow to someone who certainly could, and in that way gain legitimacy for your kingship. And after a few generations had passed, who was going to dispute the claim?

Penda, being a legitimate son of Pybba, definitely had the credentials, then, to be king, but interestingly enough there is some doubt about how and when he actually gained the throne. The king just before Penda, Cearl, is another murky figure, who might have been a dynastic rival of Penda’s, but at any rate he seems to be off the scene by 626 A.D..

You will note that I haven’t given the date for Penda’s birth. That’s because we don’t know what it was. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he became king in 626 A.D. and ruled for thirty years, and was fifty at the time he became king. However these dates need to be taken with a grain of salt, because that would make him in his eighties when some of his children were still quite young, so that’s not really likely. Most historians prefer Bede’s dates in the Ecclesiastical History of Britainwhich states that Penda became king in 633 A.D., after he and Cadwallon of Gwynedd combined forces to defeat Edwin of Northumbria in  the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

Murky, like I said. It seems to me more likely that he was a younger man in 633 A.D. rather than an older one. Some suggest that perhaps the Chronicle meant that he was actually fifty when he died in 655 A.D., not when he gained the throne. And as for what happened between 626 and 633 in Mercia in terms of who was the ruler, well, it’s unknown. Penda could have been one of multiple rulers of Mercia, each being overlord of a small portion of it.

It is also possible that Penda was a landless noble of the royal Mercian house, a mercenary of sorts, who, with his loyal war band, managed to fight his way onto the throne, basically. There is no doubt he was a powerful king. Once crowned he managed to hold onto his throne for twenty-two years (if you agree with Bede), and that is a long time by the standards of the day.

He is also a pivotal figure in British history as he is the last pagan king of Mercia. It is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say that when he died, the pagan Saxon religion died with him, but certainly by the time of his death Christianity was well-established in the island and the writing was certainly on the wall.

Throughout his reign he did what successful Saxon kings did best: made war on his neighbours in order to expand his kingdom and have more tribute to distribute to his loyal retainers. There is a suggestion that he could have been a co-ruler with his brother Eowa for the early part of his reign, who may or may not have been a puppet of Oswald of Northumbria (the mind boggles at all the scheming and plotting that must have occupied their days).

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Replica of the beautiful reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet, done by the Royal Armouries for the British Museum. This helmet is from East Anglia, not Mercia, but it is contemporary to Penda’s time and he might have worn a helmet quite like it. Photo from Wikicommons

At any rate he quickly became a force to be reckoned with, and some suggest that it was his burgeoning power that prompted Oswald to take him out, so to speak. Which didn’t turn out so well for Oswald, for Penda (and his Welsh allies) killed the powerful bretwalda (High King) at the battle of Maserfield and, adding insult to injury, cut up his body and impaled his head, arms and hands on spears.

This was certainly insulting, but it is possible that it also was a sacrificial offering to the pagan Saxon gods. Eventually one of Oswald’s arms and his head managed to get back to Bernicia, where they became powerful relics of the Church, but that is another story!

Although the Northumbrians had lost Oswald, their powerful king, they were not out of the picture by any means. Certainly the united kingdom of Northumbria broke back down into its two sub-kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and Oswy, Oswald’s brother who gained the Bernician throne, had to start the work of trying to gain the thegns and aethelings trust and respect in order for him to reach the same heights of power his brother had achieved.

Penda would not make it easy for him, of course. The prize of overlordship of all of Mercia and Northumbria was an irresistible one for Penda and Oswy both, and these two kings tangled frequently over the next decade. There were some periods of calm, and even an alliance or two involving their children, and once Penda had Oswy on the ropes, laying siege to Bamburgh itself.

But in the end, Oswy had the upper hand, defeating and killing Penda in 655 when  Penda invaded Bernicia, even though Penda’s army was much larger than his own.

Penda was a quintessetial Saxon warrior-king, who managed to carve out a stable kingdom in the chaos of 7th century Britain. He must have had some charisma and some leadership skills, plus his skill as a warrior,  in order for him to stay on the throne that long.

And even though the uncertain details of his origins and his rule are frustrating for historians, I don’t mind it much as a novelist. It gives me freedom to spin my own story of this Dark Ages king who was a worthy adversary to Oswy, the king who features in my books.


Featured image:  Stained glass window in the cloister of Worcester Cathedral representing the death of Penda of Mercia. From Wikicommons.

The Celtic Cross: A History

What with book launch and all the assorted tasks that has come with it, my blog has been sadly neglected. I have some great ideas for new content, and you will be seeing that over the next couple months. But for this week I’ve reached back into the archives from last year to bring you this post that I really liked, about the Celtic cross. It didn’t get too many views the first time around, as it was posted in the dog days of August, so I’m hoping more people get to see it this time. Hope you enjoy! 


 

I’ve been spending a lot of time here on the blog giving you a detailed look at life in England in the 7th century, from the various classes that make up that society, to the literature they produced, and to important places such as Bamburgh.

Lately I’ve been focussing mainly on one section of that society, that being the Anglo-Saxons. But of course there were other groups of people living on the British Isles at that time, one of the biggest being the Celts.

I’ve touched on their society here and there, mainly in explaining how the Celtic Christianity of the native Britons differed from the Roman Christianity brought to England by Augustine in 597 AD. But I thought I should spend some time here delving into their culture a little bit more deeply.

Much of it is similar to the Anglo-Saxons. Both were warrior cultures, for example. But just as there are some significant differences in how they practiced their religion, there were significant differences in other aspects of their culture as well.

I will explore some of those societal differences in future posts. But to start with,  I wanted to look a little more closely at one of the symbols of the Celtic Church. The Celtic Cross, with its distinctive circle encompassing the cross-beams, has become an iconic representation of Celtic Christianity, and as such, I wanted to give you some background on how this cross became to be used by the Celtic Christians.

Deep breath. There are a whole lot of rabbit trails that one can go merrily along when studying this subject. I am going to give you just a brief overview, but if you are interested I encourage you to do some research yourself.

One of the legends about this unique style of cross was that Saint Patrick combined the Christian cross with the sun cross, a pagan symbol, in order to make Christianity more appealing to the pagan Britons. This theory also surmises that putting the cross on top of the symbol was a way for Patrick to show the superiority of Christ over the pagan sun-god.

The sun cross is a circle divided into four quadrants, and this symbol has been found in religious objects from Bronze Age Europe (and in many other times and cultures as well). In the European context, it is speculated that this symbol represents the wheel of the chariot of the sun god.

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The Fahan Mura Slab is an early form of Irish Celtic Cross. Initially they were merely incised upon a stone slab, and then they got a little more intricate. You can see how the carving here is more bas-relief. This eventually resulted in the free-standing stone crosses that became so prolific across Ireland. Even now, after many centuries of wear and sometimes deliberate destruction, there are at least a couple hundred crosses in various states of repair still standing across Ireland, and there are more in Scotland, Wales and Northumbria.

 

I think this explanation of the origin of the Celtic cross might be stretching things a bit. First of all, it seems to be a little too speculative. There is a lot of uncertainty about what that “sun cross” really represents, so right there we are treading in murky waters.  I do believe that St. Patrick  presented the new faith using language and symbols (and places) that were familiar to the pagan Celts of Ireland, but to definitively say that he “invented” the Celtic cross in order to aid him in this seems a bit of a stretch.

But I don’t discount that theory completely. I’m not a historian, so there may be compelling evidence out there that I don’t know about which would show me wrong. But until I know of it, I’ll stick with my gut feeling on that.

What I think might be more plausible are a couple of other theories I’ve come across. One being that the circle on the Celtic cross originated from an even earlier symbol of Christianity, the chi-ro. 

Let’s back up a bit. The cross was not the preferred symbol of the early Christians. To them, who lived in the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death. They used other symbols, which are another very fascinating rabbit trail to go down, but I’ll stick to the main point here.

One of those early symbols was the Chi-Ro, which was a stylized combination of the first two Greek letters of the word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ  – Christos, or “Christ”.

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The Chi-Ro

The Emperor Constantine, after his conversion to Christianity, made his new faith the official state religion in the fourth century, and he was the one who popularized the chi-ro. Christians began to show this symbol with a laurel wreath superimposed on top, to symbolize the resurrection of Christ as the victory over death (the laurel wreath being worn by Emperors and awarded to victors in the Games).

 

So you can see how this idea of having a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro) with a circle on top could explain a Celtic Cross, once the cross became a popular symbol of the faith (which happened after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the end of public crucifixions).

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A chi-ro carved into the rock in the  catacombs at San Callisto, Rome. One of my favourite memories of Rome is going into the catacombs and seeing the evidence of the early Christians there. They used the catacombs as hiding places from the Roman authorities during the time of persecution in the early years after Christ. Image by Dnalor_1 on Wikicommons

Another theory is a much more practical one. It postulates that the stone crosses were modelled after the earlier, wooden ones, which may have had cross beams supporting the horizontal beams of the cross for strength and stability. The stone carvers wanted to have the same support when making the heavy stone crosses, and so used the stone circle for that end.

It’s impossible to know for sure. Likely there is some truth to all of these theories. But no matter the origins of this unique style of cross, by the seventh century large, intricately carved stone crosses began to become a regular feature of the landscape in Anglo-Saxon England and across what later became known and Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Irish monks who established monasteries began to erect them both at their monasteries and churches but also in public squares. They became teaching tools, with the elaborate carvings a visual representation of important Biblical characters and events.

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This close up shows another feature of many of the Celtic Crosses – that of the notched arms where the two beams meet. Some speculate that this also hearkens back to the original, wooden crosses, which could have been notched right there to allow for the two pieces to be lashed together with a rope. Image from pxhere

 

They are beautiful to look at now, but would have been even more spectacular to see then, because they originally were painted in bright colours, to draw the eye and attract those who saw them. In a future post I want to examine one of these crosses in more detail, to give you an idea of the intricate work with profound theological significance that adorn them.

The faithful Christians who built them made them to last, and they have certainly done that. But I’m sure even they would be astonished to know that some two thousand years later their work is still on display for all to see and admire, in many cases in the very spots, or very close to it, that they themselves erected them.


Don’t forget….WILDING:BOOK ONE OF THE TRAVELLER’S PATH, is NOW available. A historical fantasy set in 7th century England, WILDING introduces a long-ago world, and a young man whose choices could have disastrous ramifications for it—and ours.

Here’s the links for all the places WILDING is available. PLEASE NOTE: Outside of Amazon, there is only the ebook format available. Apparently it takes a little while (up to a month) for the paperback to be available on the rest of the retailers sites. So if you are wanting to get a paperback immediately, Amazon is the only place it is available for now. By the end of the month you should be able to get the paperback through all the channels. It will also be available for libraries and bookstores to purchase at that time. 

amazon.ca

amazon.com

chapters/indigo

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