Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Badon

I thought it might be fun to look at some of the battles of Anglo-Saxon England here on the blog. Seeing as warfare was something that certainly happened on a regular basis throughout the Anglo-Saxon era, it really is something I should talk about here, too.

Generally I focus on the 7th century, as that is the era in which Wilding,  my historical fantasy is set. But to give myself more scope to write about, I thought I would use this sub-series in my blog to look at some of the major battles of the Anglo-Saxon era throughout the time period, from the 5th to the 9th century. So strap on your armor and grab a sword, we’ve got some fighting to do!

I thought I should start with an early battle that occurs a few decades after the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon era, and one that results in a very important victory for the British.

This battle, which likely happened in the late 5th or early 6th century,  featured the Celtic and Romano-Britons fighting against the newcomers from the Continent. Such was the scale of the victory it resulted in a decades long peace between the native British and the Anglo-Saxons. And to a great extent, the victory is laid at the feet of the great hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-British warrior many associate today with King Arthur.

The historical veracity of any of the Arthur tales is difficult to pin down. I’m not even going to try to explain all the various theories of who he was, when he lived, and what exactly he accomplished. There’s a huge rabbit hole on the Internet named “King Arthur”, and if you are interested, I invite you to dive right in!

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will just say that I agree with those historians who theorize that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a warrior of Roman/British extraction, who made alliances with the native Britons (the Celts) and together with the remaining Roman/British people who lived in Britain after the Roman legions left, managed to create a resistance of sorts against the Germanic tribes that began to flood into Britain after the chaos of Rome’s defeat at the hands of the barbarians.

The involvement of Arthur at this battle is first mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, an account of the British people by the Welsh monk Nennius. However, there are accounts of the battle that come from much earlier, most notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written by St. Gildas in the 6th century.

Gildas, who wrote his account much closer to the time of the battle (in fact he states that the battle happened the year he was born), doesn’t mention Arthur at all, leaving some to assume that the later mention of him in Nennius’ work was an insertion of a legendary figure with no basis in fact. The fact that Gildas was actually alive during Arthur’s supposed lifetime does make it odd that Gildas does not mention him.

However, there are a couple of explanations for this. Firstly, some scholars argue that Arthur’s fame was such that the people of the time who read Gildas’ work would have known that Arthur was there, without the monk having to mention it. No one has to say that George Washington was at Valley Forge, for example, or Napoleon at Waterloo. Gildas’ work was not meant to be a detailed account of the battle, it just summarizes the result; that peace reigned over the land for many decades after.

Secondly, In the 12th century a hagiography of Saint Gildas states that indeed, Gildas had praised Arthur extensively in his account of the battle, but that after Arthur killed Gildas’ brother, Huil Mab Caw, a Pictish warrior and rival of King Arthur, Gildas excised all mention of Arthur from his historical account of Britain

After Gildas’ work, the next mention of the battle comes from the 8th century, from the hand of my favourite historian of the era, the Venerable Bede. Frustratingly, however, Bede only makes small mention of the battle. He states that 44 years after the “invaders” arrive on Britain’s shore (the date of which he gives as between AD 449-456), there was a “siege of Mount Badon, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders”. But then, he airly adds, “But more of this thereafter,” and then never mentions it again. Drat.

So what actually happened? Well, again, the details are murky, most especially the exact date and location of the battle.  There are many places around England that claim to be the spot, but we can’t say exactly which is the historically true one. Gildas puts the battle at the Roman town of Bath, but neither Nennius, Bede nor other early historians mention the location, other than to say it happened at Mount Badon. It seems like Bath could be a plausible location, however. It is in the centre of England, close to the Bristol Channel, which, if controlled by the Saxons, would have basically cut England in two, with the Saxons controlling the South. So this was a strategically important spot.

There was obviously a mountain or hill involved, as the early accounts all speak of “Mount Badon”, and as it happens, there is an ancient hill fort near Bath, on Little Solsbury Hill, over looking Bath. Archeological evidence gives proof that the British occupied that fort in the 5th century. Finally, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle* gives the name of Bath as Badanceaster, or “City of Badan.” All of these clues give scholars some confidence that the battle was in that location. But there are others who would argue!

Here’s a little video of Little Solsbury Hill from the air. It really is more a hill than a mountain, so seeing a still picture isn’t very dramatic.

 

It’s impossible to say what happened during the battle. And perhaps it was more than just a battle, as Bede and Gildas both speak of a “siege”, likely of the hill-fort. Whatever happened, it resulted in a major victory. Bede speaks of the British forces slaughtering “no small number of their foes”.

What we do know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is that all mentions of the Saxon kingdom of Sussex, begun in AD 477 by the warrior Ælle, cease after AD 491. It is not mentioned again in the Chronicle until it’s re-founding  over a century later. Archeological finds support the idea that something dramatic happened, as there have been no discoveries of Saxon burials in the area from the late 5th to the late 6th centuries, and there is also a break in the discovery of Saxon ceramics in this area during this time, suggesting they withdrew from the area. We don’t know why, but perhaps the victors were able to broker a truce, claiming that part of England for the British for a few more decades.

So it seems likely that early in the 5th century the Romano-British and Celtic British did engage the invading Saxons in a decisive battle, stopping their advance into England for decades after.

A most important battle, indeed, and one in which the legend of Arthur becomes intertwined. Nennius says Arthur slaughtered 960 men himself that day. Whether Arthur was involved or not, the battle gives us a fascinating glimpse into a time when England’s future hung in the balance.

*Funnily enough, the Chronicle itself does not mention this battle. 


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New Anglo-Saxon Era Discoveries

Over the summer I was alerted to two important discoveries from the Anglo-Saxon era in England, and I thought you might be interested in hearing about them, too. It’s so exciting that we are still discovering important artifacts from this long-ago time. Every discovery that is made adds tremendously to our knowledge. It’s tantalizing to wonder what is still out there, awaiting our discovery…

  1. “A British version of Tutankhamen’s Tomb” 

The Prittlewell Royal Burial Site, dubbed “a British version of Tutankhamen’s tomb” by researcher Sophie Jackson in the Independent (May 9, 2019),  is not exactly a “new” discovery. In fact, it was discovered way back in 2003, when archeologists did some investigations of a site in Essex, in the south of England, that was due to be part of a road improvement. Anglo-Saxon era graves (as well as other indications of Roman and even older human habitation) had been found in the area in the 1880s, 1920s, and 1930s, so they knew that some archeological investigation needed to be done before doing the road work. But they certainly did not expect to find what they did: an intact burial chamber which included objects of such quality and amount (over 110 objects!) that they knew it had to be a high-status, likely royal, personage who was buried there. In fact, it is only the second intact (i.e. undisturbed) royal burial chamber ever found in England, the first being Sutton Hoo. An amazing discovery, indeed.

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This was the mound, before excavation. It’s right in-between a busy road (the one they were going to widen) and a railway line. Somehow it survived intact, for over 1400 years. Image from independent.co.uk

You might wonder why this burial mound, discovered and excavated sixteen years ago, is making news now. It’s because it has taken that long for the archeologists, historians, and scientists to study the grave goods in order to figure out exactly what was in the grave, and to whom the grave belonged. That analysis is now complete enough that in May they were able to reveal what they have discovered so far, much of it new material that hadn’t been reported up to this point.

The chamber was originally a wooden chamber, but the walls and ceiling had gradually collapsed, filling the contents with decayed wood remains and soil. It’s about 13′ square, and is the largest chambered tomb ever found in England.

One of the new pieces of information was the educated guess as to who, exactly, was buried in the tomb. The acidic sandy soil had completely dissolved any remains such as bones, leaving only a few teeth, but even these were so degraded scientists could not find any DNA in them. Originally the dating of the tomb came from dating the gold Merovingian coins found in the tomb. But even that is not as easy as you might think, due to various complicated scientific reasons I won’t go into here. But based on the coins, scientists had thought the individual had been buried there in the early 7th century, and guessed that it could either be Sæberht of Essex, the first Christian king of Essex, or his grandson, Sigeberht II.

But in May, the museum announced that they had been able to do some carbon testing on the tomb, and discovered that it was built earlier that those dates, likely in the late 6th century, from AD 575-605, and they theorize that the occupant could have been Sæberht’s brother, Sæxa, who died before his brother.

Whoever he was, he truly deserved the title “King of Bling”, given to him at the time of the tomb’s discovery. The amount and quality of the grave goods are extraordinary.

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An artist’s rendering of the burial chamber, with the objects in the approximate place in which they were found. The body was in an ash coffin, which is shown open here, but would have been closed. Both body and coffin had been destroyed by the acidic soil, but the iron brackets that held the coffin together remained. Image from independent.co.uk

Here are a few of the objects found in the burial chamber:

A lyre – the instrument itself had completely decayed, but it left behind a stain on the soil, as well as some of the metal fittings. CT scans and other investigations revealed the form of an intact Anglo-Saxon lyre, the first time a complete form of one of these musical instruments from this era has been found.  It’s evident that the instrument had been snapped in two at one point and then repaired, showing its value to the owner. Either this man played a lyre or it, along with the drinking horns and flagons, were representative of the feasts at the mead hall he undoubtedly hosted.

A sword – the reason why we know the person buried there is a man is because of the sword (although, to be fair, we have also just recently discovered that a Viking burial long thought to be a man because of the armour and weaponry was actually a woman, so…). This iron blade of the sword has been degraded, but tests reveal it was a typical pattern-welded sword of the time, of the type that would only belong to the very wealthy. Unusually, it was placed outside the coffin, on the floor, in a leather/sheepskin holder and wrapped in cloth. This could demonstrate the clash of cultures/religion at the time. The man was a Christian, as indicated by the gold foil crosses placed over his eyes, but he was buried as a Saxon warrior, with grave goods and weaponry. Placing the sword outside of the coffin could indicate those who buried him were aware of the contradictions involved in this.

Glass goblets – four beautiful blue and green glass goblets.

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See what I mean? Beautiful! Image from Flickr

Copper flask – for holding water, this came from Syria, and was often brought back to Europe from Christian pilgrims. Other Mediterranean objects in the grave include a silver spoon and a copper basin. These objects, plus the Sri Lankan garnets on the lyre fittings, show just how cosmopolitan the “Dark Ages” could be.

Folding stool – stools of this type from this era have been found on the Continent, but this is the first one to be found in England. It was possibly a “gift seat” , where the lord would sit while dispensing gifts and/or judgement.

Gold coins – from Merovingian France.

Gold foil crosses – two small crosses, likely placed over the eyes of the deceased.

Painted wooden box – the only painted wood from Anglo-Saxon times found to this date. Only a fragment remains. Inside the box were some objects of special significance to the owner, including a silver spoon, a comb, an iron knife in a holder, fire steel, and some material which might have been undergarments! The featured image above is of the fragment of the box, from independent.co.uk

Shield and other weaponry, including what is thought to be a standard, for carrying heraldry to battle.

And much, much more.

It is truly amazing. If you want a more in-depth look at some of these objects, check out this fascinating link from the Museum of London Archeology. 

Or, if you are so lucky to be in England, you can see the objects yourself at the Southend Central Museum.

2. A hoard of Anglo-Saxon/Norma era coins, valued at over $6 million USD.  

Yes, you read that right. $6 million USD. Wow. It’s a smaller find in size than the Staffordshire Hoard, but worth more in value, because some of the coins are very rare and therefore very valuable.

Chew Valley Hoard

The find has been named the Chew Valley Hoard, after an area in North Somerset. These are just some of the coins found. Image by Pippa Pearce, on BBC.com

The hoard of silver coins was found in January 2019 by metal detectorists Adam Staples and Lisa Grace in a field in Somerset (exact location is being kept quiet, for obvious reasons). The find consisted of 2,571 late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman era coins. The really rare coins are the mint condition King Harold II coins. Harold II only reigned for eight months, and died at the Battle of Hastings when the Normans conquered England, so up until this point, few examples of his coins have been found. It is theorized that these coins were likely buried sometime after the battle, probably before 1072.

The detectorists were actually training some friends on how to use their machines that day, and it was one of the friends that found the first coin, one depicting William the Conqueror. The rest of them were found by Grace and Staples.

Not a bad haul for an afternoon’s work, I’d say! Work continues by researchers on analyzing and cataloging the coins. I’m sure we will be hearing more about this stunning find in the months and years to come.


*Fun fact: After the excavation and all the contents of the tomb were taken away by the museum for further study, protestors moved in at the site to prevent the original road-widening plan, as the proposed route would go over the burial site. Protestors camped there for five years (!) until 2009, when an alternate plan was decided. Phew!


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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 Wessex, 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.

Cynethryth, Queen of Mercia

It’s not very easy to find information about the women of Anglo-Saxon times. But there are a few women we know about, because their names or histories, or both, have been preserved in works such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But there is only one woman who had coins minted with her name and likeness, in fact she is unique in that aspect for all of Western Europe for that time. She is Queen Cynethryth of Mercia (dates uncertain, possibly died AD 798).

We don’t know a lot about Cynethryth that is certain. It is possible, due to the similarity of her name to the wife and daughters of King Penda of Mercia (Cynewise, Cyneburh, and Cyneswith) that she was Anglo-Saxon and descended from him. There is a 13th century account that she was Frankish, condemned for a crime and set adrift in a boat on the open sea. She landed in Wales and was taken to Offa, where she pleaded that she was of the Carolingian royal house and had been persecuted by Charlemagne. Offa fell in love with her and subsequently married her.

However, this seems a little fanciful, and seeing as it comes from centuries after her life, I’m not sure we can entirely believe it. I prefer the other explanation, myself. At any rate, we don’t have a date for their marriage, but she first shows up in history as being witness to her husband Offa’s charters (documents that set out rights or privileges) after the birth of their first child, Ecgfrith, in AD 770. By AD 780 she is listed on some of the charters as “Cynethryth, by the Grace of God, Queen of the Mercians.”

map-of-england-c-800She appears in some of the correspondence of Alcuin, a cleric who was also a scholar, poet and teacher. He was also somewhat of a diplomat, it seems, who had ties between Offa’s court and the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne. He almost certainly knew Offa and Cynethryth, and likely travelled between the two courts. In fact there are hints in his letters to others that he also had correspondence with Cynethryth, although no such letters have survived, unfortunately. He refers to her as the “controller of the household”, which echoes the role of the Carolingian queens, who were responsible for the management of the royal household.

This reference to the Carolingian Empire is interesting. Charlemagne (AD 768-AD 814) was certainly the  most powerful ruler in western Europe at the time. Offa was similarly one of the more powerful kings in Anglo-Saxon England, and the two kingdoms engaged in trade and other diplomacy together. In fact, in AD 789-90 Alcuin was involved in negotiations regarding the marriage of Offa’s son and heir, Ecgfrith, and Charlemagne’s daughter. There are no other kingdoms of the time that Charlemagne considered marriage alliances with, except for the Byzantine Empire, which shows the status of Offa at the Carolingian court.

However the marriage negotiations, almost certainly aided by Cynethryth, fell apart due to Offa’s insistence that they be tied to another marriage, that of one of Offa’s daughter to Charlemagne’s son. Kind of a package deal, so to speak. Perhaps Offa was getting too big for his britches on that one, however, and neither marriage alliance came to pass.

Alcuin also urges Ecgfrith, in a subsequent letter to the royal prince, to emulate the piety of his parents, Offa and Cynethryth, so it seems she must have had a good reputation. This was important to Offa, as he attempted to bring legitimacy to his reign and his heirs by contrasting it to that of his predecessor, Æthelbald, who was accused by church officials of stealing from the church and fornicating with nuns, among other things.

Cynethryth was also named as co-ruler with Offa by Pope Adrian I when he wrote to them regarding an ecclesiastical matter. So perhaps it is not surprising that Offa struck coins not only with his image, but with Cynethryth’s as well. However, it is also possible that Offa was styling himself as a Roman-type emperor, as the coins are similar in design to coins that Roman emperors had struck in the names of their wives. Whatever the reason, it still remains highly unusual that a queen consort (one who is queen by virtue of being married to the legal king, not because she is queen herself by birth) have a coin struck in her honour.

Coins themselves were not uncommon during Anglo-Saxon times. Mostly they were made of silver, such as the ones that bore Cynethryth’s image.  The coin depicts a bust of Cynethryth in profile, wearing a tunic with round fasteners at the shoulders. Her hair streams back from her head in stylized waves, and she wears a simple diadem on her head. On the front of the coin, beside her image, is the word EOBA, which was the name of the moneyer who struck the coin (typical of the time). On the back is CENEÐRYÐ REGINA (Queen Cynethryth), and there is a stylized M in the middle for Mercia.

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Cynethyrth’s coin. Image from Wikicommons

Offa died in AD 796 and Cynethryth, like many royal widows of the time, retired into religious life. She became abbess of a monastery of Cookham and also managed the church at nearby Bedford, where her husband was buried. She is still alive two years later, in AD 798, where she is mentioned in a dispute over church land with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a synod that year. But then she disappears from history, and we assume that she died that year, but of course we cannot know for certain.

In the 13th century Cynethryth’s reputation is sullied in a literary history called The Lives of the Two Offas, written by a cleric in the monastery of St. Albans, which had been founded by Offa. In this history, Cynethryth is described as being the evil power behind the throne, urging her husband to kill King Æthelbert of East Anglia, who was a suitor to their daughter. The story recounts that Offa refused to do the deed, so Cynethryth took it upon herself, luring the hapless king to her bedchamber where she and her handmaids suffocated him (or, in another version, thelbert was beheaded).

An entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does briefly mention the murder of King Æthelbert, saying the deed was done on the orders of King Offa in 794. It is possible that the revised history was written by the monks of St. Alban to polish their founder’s reputation and throw the blame on his wife, instead. Easy enough to do when everyone involved was long dead.

Legends aside, I hope you agree with me that Cynethryth was a fascinating figure.  Her coins point to her importance at the time, and give us a little more knowledge about the lives of royal women in Anglo-Saxon times.

Featured image from medievalists.net. Technically this is Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, but hey, I couldn’t find any images of Cynethryth…


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Iona: Cradle of Celtic Christianity

Hello, dear readers!

It has been quite awhile since I have written any new content for the blog, and I apologize for that. What with one thing and another, including and especially the book launch, I have had little time to devote to my regular posts here.

For new readers, thanks for coming aboard! This is my online home,  a place where I have a chance to share with you my fascination with 7th century England, as well as other topics that might hit my fancy.

I have several series going on here at The Traveller’s Path. I’ve done several posts on various aspects of life in 7th century England, including literature, Anglo-Saxon society, important people, special places, the Celts, and others. One of these days I will group them all under the various topics for easy access on the blog – when I get some time. Heh.

It’s been awhile since I have done a deep dive into one of the important places in 7th century England, so today I will rectify that by doing a deep dive into one of the most important places, that of the island of Iona, and more specifically, the Celtic Christian monastery located there.

Iona is a small island, found in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. This mainly treeless island is about 2 km wide and 6 km long, and is found about 2 km off the coast of Mull, one of the larger islands of the Inner Hebrides. It’s a tiny dot on the map, and it’s hard to imagine how such an inconsequential place could have had the impact on life in the 7th century that it did; an influence that lasts even today.

The reason why this tiny island had such a huge impact is because this is where the great Saint Columba founded his monastery in 563 AD after being exiled from Ireland*. He came there because at the time it was in the Irish Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, and its king, Conall, was a relative of Columba’s. Columba and his monks immediately set to work building the small wattle and daub buildings typical of the time. Eventually the monastery would include the church, a refectory (kitchen/dining hall), scriptorium (library), monks’ cells/dormatories, and a guesthouse. There is also indications today of what is called Columba’s day room, a small building where Columba, as the abbot, worked and wrote. A small ditch encircled the monastery proper, a physical reminder of the set-apartness of this sacred space from that of the world.

The name of the island at the time was Hii, the Latin form of the original Gaelic name that meant something like “yew-holder” or “yew-place”.  That sentence is deliberately vague, because the truth be told this little island had many names stretching back over a long time, and it’s very difficult for modern historians to determine exactly what the locals called it at any given point in time. After all, the Hebrides have been occupied by people who spoke many different languages, from British Gaelic to Irish Gaelic, Pictish, Latin, and many variations of all of those.

Adoman, Abbot of the abbey from  AD 679-704, wrote the first hagiography of Columba. His attempt at changing the Gaelic name of the island to Latin resulted in the name Ioua, which morphed into Iona in the 13th century due to a transcription mistake, as the “u” and “n” look very similar in the insular uncial writing used by Adoman in the 7th century. Hii comes from Bede’s Latin name for the island in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in AD 731. Hii was the Latin translation of the Gaelic word I (pronounced “ee”)which was one of the names for Iona at the time. Clear as mud, right?

Once Columba and the monks had the buildings they needed for the monastery, they wasted no time on their missionary pursuits. They were incredibly successful in sharing the Gospel with the Picts and the Gaels of Dál Riada, and spreading out from there into the territory of the Picts in northeast England and further south, into the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

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St. Martin’s Cross, which is the original cross still standing where it was installed, sometime between AD 750-800. The arms look short as they originally would have had wooden or metal extensions attached on the ends to make them longer. Amazing that this cross survives after all those years! It sits just outside the entrance of today’s Iona Abbey. Image from Seaview Bed & Breakfast

As the monks’ influence grew, and as the distances between Iona and the places where they worked grew ever more distant, the monks started setting up satellite monasteries in the territories where they ministered. Soon there was a growing network of these monasteries scattered all over the north, all looking to Iona as their spiritual “head”. Iona continued to grow in influence and prestige, and by the time the seventh century rolled around, it was an important centre of learning, with a highly esteemed school. The monks at Iona were kept busy in part with copying important manuscripts housed in their scriptorium, which would then be sent out to the satellite monasteries, which over time were found not only in England, but over on the Continent as well, in Gaul.

It is this process of the re-seeding of important works of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and teachers back into the Continent after the chaos and destruction of the fall of Rome that author Thomas Cahill describes in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Far-off Iona was sheltered from the storms of looting and destruction that occurred when the barbarian hordes finally conquered Rome and the Dark Ages descended upon the Continent. Cahill’s premise is that without these Irish monks, who valued learning and knowledge and preserved the ancient wisdom even though it clashed with their faith in some ways, all of that knowledge could easily have been lost. And where would we be today without it?

But the monks on Iona not only copied books such as the Bible, or Homer’s Iliad. They also created some beautiful illustrated manuscripts, the foremost of those being the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Gospel book, similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels, consisting of the four Gospels in Latin, and accompanied by marvellous illustrations. I am going to do a separate post about this stunning work of art at another time, but suffice it to say, it is one of the treasures of British art.

Of course, the monks at Iona were practitioners of the uniquely Celtic brand of Christianity that developed in Britain after the Roman legions left the island. Once the Roman Christians returned during the mission of Augustine in AD 596, these two “flavours” of Christianity began to clash, and kept an uneasy peace, until the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, when the tide definitely swung in favour of the Roman Christians (also an upcoming post, stay tuned!). Many of the Ionian monasteries accepted the decision of the Synod and began to follow the Roman ways. But a few monasteries held out, including Lindisfarne and the mother house, Iona. In fact Iona continued in the practice of Celtic Christianity until the eighth century, in AD 715, when it finally adopted the Roman practices.

Iona’s influence was further diminished with the arrival of the Vikings. The first attack on Iona happened in AD 795, and many other attacks occurred over the next 30 years, resulting in the death of many monks and the plundering of treasure. Somehow the monks managed to protect both their beautiful Gospel book and important relics, including Columba’s bones, throughout this time, but in AD 878 the remaining monks had had enough, and they left, taking the illuminated Gospels and Columba’s reliquary with them, ending up in Kells Abbey, in Ireland. Which is how the Book of Kells got its name.

Today Iona is home to around 120 people, but it is still a place of pilgrimage for people the world over. The original Early Middle Ages buildings are long gone, but in the 1920s the ruins of the old Benedictine monastery on the island were restored and the buildings are now used by the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community who are, according to their website, “a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.”

I think Columba would be pleased by that, and to know that even today, every year hundreds of pilgrims go to Iona for spiritual retreats, prayer, and worship, and to seek to encounter the living Christ whom Columba followed.


*If you want the whole story behind Columba’s exile, have a look at my previous post linked to above. It’s a fascinating tale.

Featured image from Wikipedia

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Star Wars and 7th Century Monks

If you start a conversation about the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you are likely going to get some conflicting opinions on whether or not it was a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. Or maybe you won’t. Does anyone think it was? Heh. I digress.

I will admit that I was less than impressed by the movie. Could they not show some originality in the screenplay? How many times must we see the same battle scenarios over and over again? And don’t get me started on Kylo Ren. Ugh.

But there was one part of the movie that had me absolutely giddy with delight. That was when Rey and Luke are together on the ancient Jedi temple on Ahch-To. We saw a glimpse of this at the end of the previous movie, The Force Awakens, but in The Last Jedi we are treated to more of the scenery and buildings that make up the old temple as Rey tries to convince Luke to join her in the fight against the First Order.

Trust me, it wasn’t because of the plot or acting that made me so happy at this part of the film, although both actors handed their scenes well enough. No, it was the setting that gave me such delight.

That is because this part of the movie was not made up of CGI enhanced buildings or scenery. This was filmed in a real place, the beautiful little island of Skellig Michael situated off the south-west tip of Ireland, and it has a place in the story of seventh century Ireland.

In real life, this wasn’t a temple, but it was a religious site, a monastery built in the Early Medieval period. The little “beehive” building that Luke lives in and the stone steps that Rey climbs are all real features, built by the monks themselves.

Skellig Michael is a small island (54 acres), consisting of two rugged vertical peaks, with a couple of flatter spots in-between peaks where the structures are located. There are three bays on the island where the monks could land, depending on the time of year and the weather, and there are stone stairs leading up to the buildings from each of them. Today only one of them is safe (ish) for use. The island is named after the archangel Michael. The word skellig comes from the Old Irish Gaelic word sceillec which means small or steep area of rock.

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This is a daunting place to live. Howling, near-hurricane force winds are common, and the seas around the island are often rough. Modern visitors are only allowed on this World Heritage Site in the summer. No children are allowed, as the stairs are too steep and dangerous for them. Visits are limited to six hours, and only 180 people are allowed at one time, to protect the structures.

The monastery itself consists of two oratories (places where the monks could pray) a cemetery, crosses, cross-slabs and six domed beehive cells, given that name because of their resemblance to beehives. There is also the remains of a later medieval church.The cells and oratories are all of dry-built construction and the church is of mortared stone. There is also a hermitage on another part of the island, possibly built in the 9th century. This would have been a  place for visitors to stay who might have come there for retreat, or for the abbot or another monk to withdraw even more from the world.

It is thought that there would have been maximum twelve monks and one abbot on the island at one time. The monks would likely have shared their beehive cells. The cells  vary in size, and some may have had an upper loft. It’s hard to know exactly when the first monks came there to establish the monastery, called St. Michael’s. The monastery could have been founded in the 5th century, as I mentioned earlier, but the first historically reliable reference to it comes from the 8th century, in the recording of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig”. I imagine he was likely a monk or an abbot of the monastery.

One wonders how the monks survived in this remote, wild, harsh environment. There is some evidence of gardens on the small areas that allowed for growing. Of course fish, birds, and eggs were plentiful. Making their way up and down those steps would have been a challenge, but it was a journey the monks would have to make any time they went on/off island or down to the spots where they could fish.

The cleverly constructed dry-stone cells are good shelter against the harsh winds and rain, but it must have been a cold, miserable place when the freezing winds howled and the sleety rain lashed against their walls. The monks were made of sterner stuff than I, but this place suited the aesthetic bent of these Celtic Christians very well. It was isolated, harsh, and difficult. A perfect place to stretch one’s dependence on God.

It’s not an easy place to visit, even now, but I sure would like to try. Another place to add to my places of pilgrimage for the next time I get to Great Britain.

I’ll leave you with a bonus clip of Mark Hamill discussing the filming of Star Wars on Skellig Michael.


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The Celts: 7th Century Ireland

I have several series going on here on The Traveller’s Path, in which I delve into one topic a little more deeply over many posts.

This post is the third one on the Celts. The first was an introduction to the series, and the second featured 7th century Wales.

Today I’m going to feature the Irish, who in the seventh century, were a force to be reckoned with, indeed. It seems appropriate, as next week is St. Patrick’s Day!

(Just as an aside, you might wonder why the narrow focus on the seventh century. It’s because that is the era I have researched most deeply for my novel, Wilding, and so I feel somewhat more comfortable writing about it. Plus, this is only a blog post. There’s only so much I can fit in!)

First of all, I’ve explained before that the Irish in seventh century England were not actually called “Irish”. The Romans had called them the Scotti, and that name still stuck here and there, but the Irish people themselves did not seem to have a name that they collectively called themselves, or at least not as far as I can see. I think they identified more closely with their clan groupings, such as the Ui Neill, rather than as a people group as a whole.  For clarity’s sake, however, I will refer to them as the Irish, and the island as Ireland, even though it was not called that then.

Ireland in the seventh century was distinctly rural. There were no cities, or towns. People lived dispersed among farms, in kinship groupings.  The society was very much a tribal one, with clans warring with one another for land and especially, cattle, which represented wealth. Individual families would live in circular dwellings, their land ringed by an earthen or even stone barrier to discourage raiders. These hillforts could be small or more elaborate, depending on who lived there.

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A typical Irish ringfort, showing the circular wattle and daub houses, plus the underground souterrain commonly found in structures from this time. Historians believe these were either used for storage or for hiding or escape during war or raids, as many of them were connected by tunnels as well. Image from The Áed. 

There were no roads to speak of. The Romans, with their impressive engineering and road-making skills, had never conquered this part of Britain. Which means Ireland was left without the benefits of their nice, straight roads. People would either walk or ride horses along the cow paths, or travel by boat to get where they wanted to go.

The main source of wealth was cattle, and cattle-raiding was a fierce contest between rival clans. There were some rules around it, such as no man could take more cattle on a raid than he could drive away successfully, and they were not allowed to take so many (or all!) of another’s cattle such that the person would be left destitute. Cattle were too valuable to be used as meat, however. They were a source of milk and dairy products. Other livestock, such as sheep or pigs would be used for meat. Game such as deer or wild boar could also supplement the diet, as well as fish or seafood, of course.

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The green, rugged beauty of Ireland. Image from Pixnio

The society was made up of the túath, a kinship group which lived in a defined area, about the size of a town. These túatha were ruled over by a petty king or chief, who in turn were ruled over by slightly more powerful overlords, who were in charge of their own túath, plus several neighbouring ones. Finally, at the top there were the five most powerful kings, who each ruled over one of the traditional five kingdoms of Ireland.

The practice of fosterage was very common in Ireland at this time. Children were often sent to other families (or monasteries/nunneries) to be raised and educated, only coming home when they had reached adolescence. It served to bind kinship groups or political allies closer together. But it could also have a detriment on the family of origin, as siblings could therefore be virtual strangers to each other, making it easier for rivalries to spill over into feuds and violence.

Irish society was organized similarly to that of the Anglo-Saxons, with the kings on top, followed by the nobles (professional warriors like the Anglo-Saxon thegns) on top, the various ranks of freemen made up of farmers of differing levels of wealth, churchmen and women, and slaves on the bottom. Slavery was big business in Ireland. Irish raiders frequently prowled the coasts of Britain and would swoop down and gather up slaves. St. Patrick was one such victim, a son of a wealthy Romano-British family who was taken by the Irish in a raid. Slaves could also be taken from a conquered enemy.

Additionally, there were a couple of important hereditary castes in Ireland at this time, the filid (poets) and the brehon (judges). Brehon law had been handed down over the centuries, a system of common law, and was learned and interpreted by the brehon. These laws covered all aspects of society, including inheritance or divorce, for example, as well as the more serious crimes such as theft or murder. There were no penal laws, however, in terms of capital punishment or imprisonment. People found guilty of a crime had to pay compensation to the victims in terms of land, or livestock. But not coins, as they were not used at this time in Ireland. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon kings at this time, the Iris kings had no part in making or interpreting laws. All of the legal aspects of Irish life were handled by the brehon, every king would rely on their judgements and interpretations of the brehon law. The brehon could be either male or female.

In the seventh century, Ireland was mainly a Christian society, although it is possible that there were still people who followed the old ways of the druids. But for the most part, the unique brand of Christianity we now call Celtic Christianity was reaching its zenith in the seventh century, responsible for establishing great centres of learning in the monastic schools and creating beautiful works of art, particularly in the form of illuminated manuscripts. The monks were also taking their culture and scholarly mindset with them on their missionary journeys into Anglo-Saxon England and the continent, where they were had a big part in re-converting Europe after the fall of Rome had decimated the Church and society there.

Abbey_on_the_Isle_of_Iona_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1459438

The Abbey of Iona today. These buildings were built in 1938, part of a general restoration of the fifteenth century monastery buildings. Of course, in the seventh century, the buildings would have been small, wattle and daub buildings, which have not survived. Image from Wikicommons 

 

In the seventh century the Irish were not just confined to Ireland. They held territory on the mainland as well, in the kingdom of Dál Riata. This kingdom seems to have been Irish on the east side of the mountains and Scottish on the west, but the lines are a little blurry from this far away in time. At any rate, there was a definite Irish part of Dál Riata, that much we know for sure, even if we don’t know exactly where the boundaries were and how long the kingdom itself lasted. The famous monastery of Hii, now called Iona, was part of Irish Dál Riata, and it was the heart of the Celtic Christian Church.

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This is a handy little map! It shows you the various kingdoms, languages, and people-groups in the British Isles at the beginning of the seventh century. Note Dál Riata, which encompasses part of Ireland and the mainland. 

The common practice of fosterage allowed the Anglo-Saxon æthelings, including four-year-old Oswy, to come to Dal Riata and be sheltered there after the death of their father, Æthelthrith. Æthelthrith had conquered part of Dál Riata during his time as king of Northumbria, and obviously had some ties in that kingdom, as his sons (and wife? I assume?) were sent there after his death, safely out of the clutches of Edwin, who had taken Æthelthrith’s throne. Therefore Oswy grew up in the Irish Christian culture, which he then brought back to Bernicia when he became king. He requested an Irish Christian monk from Iona to come and establish a monastery to begin the work of converting the Angles of his new kingdom. This resulted in the establishment of Lindisfarne, with St. Aidan at its head as abbot.

Ireland has a rich and fascinating history. The seventh century is but one small part of it, but it is an important part. At that time it was a small country with relatively few people situated on the far edge of the known world, but its influence loomed large, creating echoes that still resound today.


Note: If you want to know more about Ireland in the seventh century, check out this fascinating article by Eamon O’Kelly, on Quora. It’s a good summary which gave me quite a lot of information.


My historical fantasy novel, Wilding, set in seventh century Northumbria, will be published in spring of 2019 (hopefully May!). To keep up to date on publication news, and to learn more about my writing in general, subscribe to my monthly newsletter. As a thanks you will get the first chapter of Wilding for free!