Competition is now closed and the draw has been made. The winner is… Lisa Graham. Thank you so much to everyone for taking part – there were over 300 entries! And thank you for the many wonderful birthday wishes. Apparently a ‘big’ birthday doesn’t feel as overwhelming when you have so many wonderful friends. THANK YOU!!!!
It’s my birthday!
Today is my birthday, and its one of those big ones with a ‘0’ on the end. I’m not going to say exactly, but here’s a few clues:
I’m not 40 or 60;
My son keeps telling me that I’m now a part of history;
and he keeps making sly remarks about half centuries.
So, you work it out…
Anyway, seeing as its such a big birthday, I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a giveaway, seeing as I haven’t done one in a while.
The competition is open to everyone, wherever you are in the world. To win a signed and dedicated copy of one of my books, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.
Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.
Over to you Annie….
All the Ælfgifus
I was recently interviewed on BBC Radio Northampton where we chatted about a lady known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. During the pre-recording chat, it became clear that there was some confusion over the name. I told the presenter that I wasn’t the least surprised, as there are no fewer than eight ladies with that name featured in my new book. I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce them. (The name, incidentally, translates as Elf-gift, which I think is rather beautiful.)
Ælfgifu, daughter of Edward the Elder
We don’t know a great deal about her but I do feel rather sorry for her. She and her sister, Eadgyth, were, apparently, both sent to Germany so that the future emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his bride. He married Eadgyth – it was, apparently, ‘love at first sight’ – and Ælfgifu married another prince. What Ælfgifu felt about being rejected by Otto, we can only surmise. Of course, Otto might not have been every young girl’s dream, in which case Ælfgifu might have considered that she’d had a lucky escape. It must have rankled though, being declared less attractive than her sister.
Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury
King Edmund was the son of Edward the Elder and a half-brother of the Ælfgifu mentioned above. He became king at around the age of eighteen and his first wife, Ælfgifu, bore him two sons, both future kings. Her identity is debateable and her background unknown. She wasn’t married for long. Her son Eadwig (I’ll come back to him) was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and it would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury Abbey in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely a benefactor.
Ælfgifu the Harlot
In 955 Edmund’s brother, who’d succeeded him, died and was in turn succeeded by Edmund’s son, Eadwig (see, I told you I’d come back to him). Life at court got rather interesting when Eadwig, still only a teenager, married a young woman named Ælfgifu. Many of you will know the story of how he was found in bed on his coronation day with his wife, and her mother. Depending on which version one reads, the mother was banished and/or hamstrung in punishment, or she threatened the abbot who found them, and who was himself subsequently banished, that she would have his eyes put out if he ever returned. The young couple’s marriage was annulled two years later, on the grounds that they were too closely related. However, Ælfgifu is presumed to be the same woman who left a will, in which she’s identified as being descended from the brother of Alfred the Great. This being so, she was descended from the branch of the royal family that had risen up in rebellion. Ælfgifu’s marrying the king might have been seen as an attempt to strengthen those claims. It’s not a theory which I whole-heartedly embrace but it does seem that there was a lot of political manoeuvring at court and I suspect Ælfgifu was an innocent caught up in the turmoil. She was certainly welcomed back to court by Eadwig’s brother when he became king.
Ælfgifu of York – Possibly
That brother of Eadwig’s had a son, known to history as Æthelred the Unready. His first wife’s identity is a bit of a mystery. The chronicler John of Worcester said that she was called Ælfgifu, and that she was the daughter of an ealdorman called Æthelberht. But there is no evidence of this woman’s father; no ealdorman named Æthelberht is recorded elsewhere. Roger of Wendover said that she was a ‘woman of low birth’, while Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the mid-twelfth century, said that she was the daughter of a man named Thored, but he didn’t name her. It is possible that Æthelred was married first to a woman named Ælfgifu and then to the daughter of Thored, but it is generally accepted that this was one woman and, combining the two versions, that she was Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored.
We don’t hear much from her as she didn’t witness any charters and is otherwise unnamed in the sources. What she did do, though, is have at least nine children, (one of whom was also called Ælfgifu, whose husband was murdered by her sister’s husband, which must have made for awkward family Christmases)! She must have lived until the eleventh century, for her youngest son, Edgar, did not appear on charter witness lists until 1001. We do not know exactly how old the royal children would typically have been when they first appeared on the witness lists, but we do know that they were sometimes still babes in arms. It is not known what happened to Ælfgifu and it is possible that she died at around the same time, for King Æthelred got married again in 1002…
…To a woman named Emma, but who was given the English name of Ælfgifu. As if this wasn’t confusing enough! And after Æthelred the Unready died, Emma married again. Her husband was King Cnut, who already had a wife/concubine:
Ælfgifu of Northampton
This Ælfgifu came from a powerful Mercian family. Her father was ealdorman of Northumbria, her uncle founded Burton Abbey and her grandmother founded Wolverhampton. Ælfgifu’s father was murdered and her brothers were blinded and generally Æthelred the Unready mistrusted the family, as well he might. For at some point, possibly around 1013, Ælfgifu married Cnut, the son of the invader, Swein Forkbeard. She had two sons by Cnut, and they were given Danish names – Swein and Harold – as if recognised as potential heirs, but when Cnut became king, he married Emma and also had a son with her, who was named Harthacnut.
Emma, with her credentials as an English queen, was no doubt important to Cnut, but so too was Ælfgifu of Northampton, and Cnut had a task for her to perform. Cnut had an empire to rule, and Harthacnut was sent to Denmark while in 1030, Ælfgifu and her son Swein were sent to Norway, there to rule for Cnut. The regency in Norway may have been hugely symbolic, and it is telling that the period was remembered in Scandinavian history as ‘Ælfgifu’s time’, but for various reasons it wasn’t hugely successful. Swein died in 1035, but so too did Cnut.
Now a (rather unseemly at times) battle began as Emma and Ælfgifu fought for their sons to succeed. You can read all about these fraught years in my new book but the upshot was that Ælfgifu was successful in the short term and Harold ‘Harefoot’ became king. Sadly though he died in 1040. We don’t know what happened to Ælfgifu after this, but there is a French twelfth-century story which speaks of a woman named Alveva and it’s possible that she lived out her years as an exile in southern France.
By 1066, another Harold was on the throne. He had a wife/concubine who’s known to history as Edith Swanneck, and one of her children was a daughter named Ælfgifu.
Ælfgifu the Unlucky
But the last Ælfgifu I want to talk about is one I’ve nicknamed ‘unlucky’. You’ll recall that Ælfgifu of Northampton’s brothers were blinded. They weren’t the only ones and in 993 a man named Ælfgar suffered the same fate. His wife was another woman named Ælfgifu. When Ælfgifu of Northampton’s father was killed and her brothers blinded, another man was named as being deprived of all his property. With a little bit of detective work I was able to say with some degree of certainty that this man was the second husband of our last Ælfgifu, which means that her first husband was blinded and the second was deprived of all his property. Given that it’s clear the name Ælfgifu seems to have been given only to noblewomen, I think this one must have expected a slightly more comfortable and uneventful life!
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Annie’s book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020. It can be purchased from Pen & Sword and online.
About the Author:
Annie is an author and historian and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and has won awards and prizes for her fiction and nonfiction.
Bellicus the Druid and his friend Duro, a former Roman centurion, have already suffered a great deal in recent years but, for them, things are about to get even worse. Britain is changing. The Romans have gone and warriors from many different places seek to fill the void the legions left behind. In the south, the Saxons’ expansion seems unstoppable despite the efforts of the warlord Arthur, while north of Hadrian’s Wall various kings and chieftains are always looking to extend their borders.
In Dun Breatann, Bellicus believes the disparate northern tribes must put aside their differences, become allies, and face the Saxon threat together, under one High King.
Or High Queen…
Small-minded men don’t always look at the bigger picture though, and, when Bellicus and Duro seek to form a pact with an old enemy, events take a shocking and terrible turn that will leave the companions changed forever.
This third volume in the Warrior Druid of Britain Chronicles is packed with adventure, battles, triumph, and tears, and at the end of it a new course will be set for Bellicus.
But at what cost?
One of the highlights of my reading year is when Steven A. McKay publishes a book, This year I have had the pleasure to read two! Steven has a book, Lucia: A Roman Slave’s Tale, coming out in October, which is incredibly thought-provoking – but more of that one nearer the time…
This summer the 3rd book in the Warrior Druid of Britain series was finally published. It seems like it has been a long wait since book 2, Song of the Centurion came out, but it has been well worth it! Steven A. McKay takes us on another, suspense-filled adventure with Bellicus the Druid and his Roman friend, Duro.
Bellicus’ story started with The Druid and a rescue mission into the heart of Anglo-Saxon England to recover young princess Catia. It continued in Song of the Centurion where Bellicus and his friend Duro, the former Roman centurion, fought to save Alt Clota from the machinations of its enemies and the growing paranoia of its king, Coroticus. Each story has led us to The Northern Throne, an adventure that proves more perilous and personal for Bellicus and Duro.
Set in the time of King Arthur and the Saxon invasion of Britain, the story takes us north of Hadrian’s Wall and into the lands of the Scots and Picts. As with the previous novels, Arthur is a supporting character, making a handful of cameo appearances, though I suspect his time will come, when he and Bellicus team up to fight the Saxon threat.
“Nicely done, lads,” Gerallt said approvingly. “With the Votadini taken care of, and the Dalriadans in disarray, all we have left to deal with are the Picts.”
Bellicus bodded. If they could defeat Drest it would put Narina in a very strong position. Ultimately, the druid would like to see her crowned High Queen of all the northern lands, and it seemed that day might be close. A Damnonii High Queen would nullify the growing threat the Christians’ posed to the old ways, while allowing the united tribes to face the Saxon threat at the side of Arthur and Merlin. The druid just had to find a way to steer events towards such a favourable outcome.
“How long have we got before Drest arrives in Alt Clota?” Gerallt asked the messenger, disturbing Bellicus from his reverie.
“At the speed they were marching when I observed them,” the messenger reported, “I’d say about 3 or 4 days, my lord.” “That should be more than enough,” Duro said, resting his left hand on the pommel of his spatha. “If we leave here tomorrow at sun-up, we’ll be able to head them off on the road before they get anywhere hear Dun Breatann.”
“And we’re thirty men stronger now, too,” Gerallt said, smiling grimly. “We’ll be able top ambush the Pictish bastards just like we did the Votadini.”
“Hopefully you’re right, and we do surprise them,” Bellicus muttered, gazing hopefully into his half-empty cup. “Because if Cefin’s numbers are accurate, Drest’s army still outnumbers us.”
The triumph of these books is in Steven A. McKay’s portrayal of Bellicus the Druid. An author could easily fall into the realm of fantasy and explain the druidic rituals as magic. That is not the case with the Warrior Druid of Britain books. Bellicus is a clever, educated man who has studied the nature of humanity. Insightful and intelligent, he knows how to read people, their actions and expressions, and how to interpret their intentions.
His years of training have made him a well-respected, authoritative character and he uses his skills to great advantage. There is an air of mystery about him, but he is also portrayed as a man who is all-too-human, and whose flaws and pride can sometimes lead him into trouble of his own making.
And that is what makes these books so special!
The characters in The Northern Throne are wonderful creations, each one vivid and individual, from the heroes such as Duro and Bellicus, to the villains such as Drest and down to little Catia, the princess who is growing up and trying to find her role in the world, who is learning to fight, to command and to judge people for herself.
Steven A. McKay skillfully recreates the landscape, people and legends of 5th century Scotland. His knowledge of the area, and its traditions, shines through on every page, transporting the reader to the stark fortresses, wooded valleys and fast-flowing rivers; taking you on an astonishing adventure without leaving your seat. He brings all this together in a rich tapestry that forms the backdrop of these incredible stories.
The tension is high throughout The Northern Throne. One crisis leads to another, loyalties and friendships pushed are to the limits; and love and betrayal are two very fine lines. This combination makes for a thoroughly absorbing tale which entwines history, legend and myth and takes the reader along on Bellicus’ heroic journey.
In short, The Northern Throne is a wonderful, engaging adventure that, once again, leaves the reader desperate for the next instalment.
The Northern Throne is available now from Amazon UK.
About the Author:
Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.
He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.
Today it is a distinct pleasure, at History … the Interesting Bits, welcome Matthew Harffy, best-selling author of the Bernicia Chronicles. Matthew’s latest book, Fortress of Fury has just hit the shops. Book no. 7 in the series, Fortress of Fury is that rare book that is – literally – impossible to put down. It is spellbinding!
I last chatted to Matthew about his writing 3 years ago, after the release of Killer of Kings, book no. 4 in the series. In that time, an awful lot has happened. So, without further ado…
Hi Matthew, thanks for agreeing to do an interview. And congratulations on the release of Fortress of Fury, book no. 7 in the Bernicia Chronicles. And you’re currently writing book no.8, I believe (thankfully, because I really need the next book, now!)
1. So, first question, have you always wanted to be a writer?
Not at all. I have always wanted to do something creative. When I left school I auditioned for drama school and wanted to be an actor. My acting never really amounted to anything, so, after getting a real job I pursued my second creative passion, which is music. I sang in bands on and off until my mid-forties when the writing had started to take off and I was running out of hours in the day to have a full-time job, sing with the band, write and promote my novels, and find any time to spend with my family!
2. Who are your writing influences?
When I was a teenager I read a huge amount of fantasy and my writing is heavily influenced by writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, David Gemmell, Robert Holdstock and Stephen Donaldson.
Later I became slightly obsessed with Westerns and read every Louis l’Amour book I could find. I later discovered that Gemmell was also huge l’Amour fan, so that makes sense! Another Western writer I love and one that veers into the literary genre is Larry McMurtry. His Pulitzer prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favourite books.
And then, of course, you have the influence of historical fiction giants such as Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden (another fan of Gemmell).
3. What do you love about writing?
I love the freedom of being able to tell a story that I would like to read. I love the moments when a story takes a turn I hadn’t expected and a character makes a decision that sends the plot in a different direction than my original plan. These are often the moments that bring something truly special to a story.
4. What do you hate about writing?
Hate is a very strong word, but I dislike the feeling of pressure that I have to always be working on the next story. Someone once said (Lawrence Kasdan, I think) that being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life! That is so true.
5. What advice would you give to someone starting out on their writing career?
The most important difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer is that the professional finishes what they start. So my advice to anyone wanting a career in writing would be to finish every project and then move onto the next.
6. Social media – do you love it or hate it?
Both! I love the fact that I can connect with other writers and readers from all over the world. It is a real leveller and helps to alleviate the loneliness inherent in the job of being a writer.
However, I also hate the shallowness of social media. With the ability to reach out to the world there should also be a responsibility. It is all too easy for people to spread rumours and lies, which by virtue of a huge platform can take on a life of their own and manipulate public discourse in a way that has never been possible before. This has been clearly evidenced in recent elections and referendum results with devastating effects.
7. What attracted you to setting your stories in the 7th century?
I saw a documentary about Bamburgh Castle and the Anglo-Saxon graves that were being excavated there. I knew the castle and the area, as I had lived near there as a child for a few years. But I knew nothing of Northumberland’s rich past and the fact that in the seventh century it had been probably the most powerful kingdom in Britain. When I started to research the period I quickly saw that the amount of conflict between the small kingdoms of the island, the different people and tribes, and the rise of Christianity, all provided the conflict that is necessary for good storytelling.
8. Did you ever expect to be still writing about Beobrand 8 books later?
Not really! When I first started the Serpent Sword nearly 20 years ago I naïvely thought I would tell Beobrand’s story in one novel! I believed that I would be able to cover his life from the age of seventeen until he was an old man in a single book. When The Serpent Sword reached novel length, I had only covered
about six months! At that point I knew I had a series on my hands, but I never really anticipated I would write anything longer than a trilogy. Now I can imagine there might be 12 books in the finished series, perhaps more!
9. I’ve just this weekend seen The Serpent Sword proof of concept trailer; what was it like, seeing your imagination brought to life on camera?
It is a truly amazing experience. I was on set for most of the filming and there were several moments when I had to pinch myself. These were characters I had dreamt up!
I am extremely proud of what the team has put together. We have worked for about a year behind the scenes to get to this point, so it is difficult to see the final product with “fresh eyes”. You get so into the details, and see each part of the creative process from so many angles, that in the end you can’t really see the wood for the trees. In many ways that’s the same as writing a book. By the end of the writing process you have been over and over it so many times that you cannot tell whether it’s actually any good or not and it’s only through other people’s response to it that you receive validation.
Luckily, the vast majority of the people (over 70,000 at the time of writing) who have seen the trailer have loved it, which makes it all worthwhile and makes us realise that we have produced something quite special. I hope we get funding for a full series. I think the results would be incredible and I think there is a real appetite for this type of series. To watch THE SERPENT SWORD TRAILER: and With Audio Description.
10. What comes first, the research or the story?
The research comes first for the main historical thread of the story. I choose one or two historical events to act as the tent poles of the plot and then create the individual characters’ stories around those main points.
11. How do you decide where Beobrand goes next?
To some extent the history guides me. As Beobrand tends to follow historical events, where they happen, you can usually find him nearby.
12. There seems to be a lot more at stake for Beobrand in Fortress of Fury, than in previous books. Without giving too much away, there’s forbidden love, tests of his loyalty and that of his men, and a momentous decision – or maybe a realisation – at the end of the book. It really does seem like it’s a pivotal point in Beobrand’s story, was that deliberate with this book, or am I reading too much into it?
I don’t think it was a deliberate decision on my part, more a logical progression of Beobrand getting older and his relationships becoming more complex. As he grows closer to the power of the throne, so the intrigues around him become deadlier and more momentous. Beobrand also has a lot more enemies by this point in his life and so danger lurks wherever he turns. And as any loyal reader of the series will know, he’s often his own worst enemy and in Fortress of Fury that is no different, so it will come as no surprise that Beobrand himself has created some of the difficulties he faces by the end of the novel.
13. With Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series we’ve known, almost from the beginning, that the books will end at the famous Battle of Brunanburh, does Beobrand similarly have a final battle that will be his swansong?
From the very beginning, I thought I knew how Beobrand would end his days (as I said, I thought the first book would include his whole life story). However, I am not so sure now that I do know how the series will end. And if I did, I certainly wouldn’t tell you!
14. You have also written a standalone novel, Wolf of Wessex, with an aged warrior named Dunston as the lead character. He became quite a hit. Are we going to see more of Dunston, or was it really a one-off?
I loved writing about Dunston and I can certainly imagine returning to his character in the future for a sequel or even a prequel to Wolf of Wessex. But at this moment I am focusing on book 8 of the Bernicia Chronicles and the first in a new series, A Time For Swords.
15. Was it hard to create a whole new range of characters for Wolf of Wessex? Were you conscious of differentiating the story from that of Beobrand?
It was no more difficult than writing a new Beobrand story really. In each new story I tend to create new characters, and in some ways having a completely blank canvas to start with made it easier, rather than more difficult. When writing a Bernicia Chronicles novel I have to maintain the storylines of many characters who have appeared in past stories. Their motivations need to make sense and I need to remember all of their previous interactions. In Wolf of Wessex I was able to create whatever back story I needed for the characters to help the plot.
Fabulous talking to you, Matthew. Thank you so much for being so candid.
Thank you for having me on your blog, Sharon. It has been a pleasure as always!
Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first of them is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, THE SERPENT SWORD.
Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.
Growing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, I did not know much about its history. It was rather underrated. We always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills and playing hide and seek in the inner bailey. However, being so far from London, the centre of power, it didn’t seem to have much history or national importance. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
The castle’s early history
English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s there was no roof, it was open to the elements, with green moss on the walls and erosion caused by acid rain. And there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. It was just a shell. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting, information videos on each floor and a fantastic little visitor centre with a small museum. It looks so much better (although I still wouldn’t want to stand on the battlements on a windy day like today).
When I joined the castle team as a volunteer tour guide, I started looking into the actual history of the Castle, seeing it more for what it has been, than for the visitor attraction it is now. Instead of being a forgotten, unimportant little castle in the middle of nowhere, Conisbrough Castle comes to life through the history it has been a part of, and the people who have called it home.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Conisbrough was founded as ‘Conan’s Burg’ by a British leader called Conan. It was said to have later belonged to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a candidate for the legendary King Arthur. As Geoffrey of Monmouth says, Ambrosius captured the Saxon leader Hengist, once a mercenary for Vortigern, at the battle of ‘Maisbeli.’ And brought him to his stronghold at Conisbrough. Hengist was then beheaded on Ambrosius’ orders and buried at the entrance to the castle of ‘Cunengeburg’, that is Conisbrough. A small hill, locally called Hengist’s Mound, is in the grounds of the outer bailey.
What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later King Harold II of England, though there is no evidence that he ever visited. On a prominent, steep hill, the castle guards the main road between Sheffield and Doncaster to the east, and the navigable River Don to the north.
Following Harold’s defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, and shortly after the Harrying of the North of 1068 Conisbrough was given to one of William the Conqueror’s greatest supporters, William de Warenne. Warenne was a cousin of Duke William of Normandy and fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was given land in various counties, including Lewes in Sussex and Conisbrough in Yorkshire; and although he developed his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk, little was done at Conisbrough. In those days the castle itself was little more than a wooden motte and bailey construction, surrounded by wooden palisades and earthworks.
A thoroughly modern Castle
It was not until the reign of Henry II that the Castle began to take on the majestic appearance we know today. Conisbrough came into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; Hamelin had married the de Warenne heiress, Isabel, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 4th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.
It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep that we can see today. The stairs to the keep were originally accessed across a drawbridge, which could be raised in times of attack. The ground floor was used for storage, with a basement storeroom below, housing the keep’s well, and accessed by ladder.
The first floor holds the great chamber, or solar, with a magnificent fireplace and seating in the glass-less window. This is where the Lord would have conducted business, or entertained important guests. Henry II, King John and King Edward II are known to have visited Conisbrough: King John even issued a charter from Conisbrough Castle in March 1201.
The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.
On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.
There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.
The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.
Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?
None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone foundations in the ground. Along one wall there were kitchens and service rooms leading into a great hall, with a raised dais at the far end, and a solar and living quarters above. Another range of buildings attached to the western wall also held living quarters, possibly for the garrison and any guests. There’s even a small jail cell just to the side of the barbican.
Although Conisbrough is not a large castle, the extensive range of buildings, the magnificent decorations of the fireplaces and chapel, suggest it would have been impressive in its day; and reflects the importance of the castle’s owners and occupants.
The Castle’s Residents
The Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for the best part 3 centuries. The daughter of the 2nd Earl, Ada, had married the heir to the Scots throne and was mother to 2 Scottish kings; Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lion.
Hamelin’s son and heir, William, 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s infancy. A cousin of King John, William was deeply involved in the Magna Carta crisis, though not always in support of his cousin. Their son John, the 6th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, though he had been defeated by William Wallace at Stirling Bridge the following year. John’s daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king. John’s sister, Isabel, married Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel, and is remembered as the countess who stood up to Henry III, invoking Magna Carta, when he appropriated land that was rightfully hers.
The 7th – and last – Warenne earl, John, was a colourful character who lived through some of the most dramatic events of English history; the reign of Edweard II. John was the grandson of the 6th earl; his father, William de Warenne, had diedbeen killed in a tournament at Croydon, in December 1286, when John was just 6 months old. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, John lived openly with his mistress and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a divorce from his wife. A private feud with Thomas Earl of Lancaster saw John arrange the kidnapping of Earl Tomas’ wife, Alice de Lacey, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster standing in the way of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle.
Lancaster sent forces to seize the Warenne castles at Sandal and Conisbrough. His men found the gates of Conisbrough closed to them. The castle was defended by only six men, including the town miller and three brothers, Thomas, Henry and William Greathead, who were men-at-arms. The siege lasted less than two hours and the defenders appear to have relinquished the castle after apparently putting up a token resistance; the three brothers were fined for drawing blood. The chapel in the castle’s inner bailey may have been damaged in the brief altercation, as the following year, Lancaster sent orders to his castellan at Conisbrough, John de Lassell, to ‘repailler la couverture de la chapele de Conynggesburgh.’1
The last Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 and Conisbrough passed to John de Warenne’s godson, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III. Edmund’s wife Isabella of Castile gave birth to her 3rd child, Richard Earl of Cambridge (also known as Richard of Conisbrough) at Conisbrough, possibly in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl and was executed following his involvement in the Southampton plot against Henry V; however, he is remembered to history as the grandfather of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III.
Following Cambridge’s execution for treason in 1415 his 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, made Conisbrough her principal residence until her death in 1446. Maud entertained her Clifford family here and her great-nephew and godson John Clifford, known to Yorkists as the Butcher of Skipton was born there in 1435. In a strange twist of fate, John Clifford is the one accused of murdering the Earl of Cambridge’s 17-year-old grandson Edmund, Earl of Rutland, following the Lancastrian’s defeat of the Yorksists at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Maud died at the castle in August 1446 and is buried in Roche Abbey, about 10 miles from her home.
The castle underwent repairs during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, in 1482-3, but by 1538 a survey revealed the it had fallen into neglect and decay, with parts of the curtain wall having slipped down the embankment.
From then on, although it has had successive owners until it came under the protection of English Heritage, Conisbrough Castle has been a picturesque ruin, a wonderful venue for picnics and exploring its many hidden treasures.
All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.
1 Hunter’s South Yorkshire ii; Deanery of Doncaster ii quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, p. 213
Further reading: East Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, edited by William Farrer & Charles Travis Clay; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; English Tourist Board’s English Castles Almanac; http://www.kristiedean.com/butcher-skipton; On the Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean; F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.
Beobrand is besieged in the action-packed instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles set in AD 647 Anglo-Saxon Britain.
War hangs heavy in the hot summer air as Penda of Mercia and his allies march into the north. Caught unawares, the Bernician forces are besieged within the great fortress of Bebbanburg.
It falls to Beobrand to mount the defence of the stronghold, but even while the battle rages, old and powerful enemies have mobilised against him, seeking vengeance for past events.
As the Mercian forces tighten their grip and unknown killers close in, Beobrand finds himself in a struggle with conflicting oaths and the dreadful pull of a forbidden love that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.
With the future of Northumbria in jeopardy, will Beobrand be able to withstand the powers that beset him and find a path to victory against all the odds?
In recent years, the Matthew Harffy new book release has become one of the highlights of my year, and 2020 is no exception. Fortress of Fury is the 7th book in his wonderful series, The Bernicia Chronicles. And it is probably the best so far! Beobrand has returned home after his recent journey to France in Storm of Steel, and now must defend the kingdom of Bernicia (now known as Northumbria) – and Bebbanburgh itself – from Welsh and Mercian invaders.
Fast paced, full of suspense and action, it is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and emotion for the reader. Matthew Harffy expertly combines the story with the known history and recreates 7th century Northumbria perfectly, giving the reader vivid descriptions of the landscape, the harsh reality of life in a kingdom suffering from invasion and fight scenes to die for – literally!
The fears of the characters are palpable.
Matthew Harffy’s storytelling abilities are second-to-none, he pulls you into the story from the very first, action-packed pages, and keeps you constantly gripped to the very last. And he always leaves you wanting more. Fortress of Fury is no exception! Waiting for book no. 8 is going to really test my patience!
They chased the raiders westward as the sun slid down through a crimson sky towards the desolate hills and moors of western Bernicia. Far beyond the horizon, before the land dipped into the sea that separated Albion from Hibernnia, Beobrand knew there rose great snowcapped mountains. But that land was days’s ride away and they would run their quarry to ground long before they saw the craggy bluffs and peaks of Rheged. He glanced over his shoulder at the score of warriors that rode hard behind him. Given their pace and the freshness of their steeds, they might well catch the men they pursued before sunset. He hoped so. He did not wish to lose them in the night. They had burnt a steading, killing folk whom Beobrand had sword to defend. And they had injured one of Beobrand’s gesithas. These Mercians must pay.
Beobrand squinted into the lowering sun. He could make out no details in the glare. A prickle of unease scratched the nape of his neck. Could they be riding into an ambush? With a twitch of the reins, he slowed his black stallion, Sceadugenga, almost imperceptibly. Beside him, Cynan shot him a glance and guided his mount closer.
“What is it?” asked the Waelisc warrior. He rode his bay mare effortlessly, and as always, when Beobrand watched the man ride, he marvelled at how one who had been so unsuited to horseback at first had gone on to become the nest horseman of his warband, and arguably in the kingdom.
Beobrand was no great rider, but he had the finest of horses. Sceadugenga was no longer young, but the horse was still hale and strong and there was a deep understanding between horse and rider. Beobrand knew it was foolish to care for a beast, but the bond he shared with Sceadugenga was unlike anything he had felt with other animals. The stallion and he had been through much together and it often seemed to him that the animal knew what he was going to command before he even knew himself.
“Something is not right,” Beobrand said, raising his voice over the thunder of the horses’ hooves on the summer-dry ground.
“You think it a trap?” said Cynan
There is not just one aspect of this book you can look at and point to and say ‘that’s what makes this a good book’; it is the combination of history, atmosphere, action, characters and storytelling that makes Fortress of Fury the perfect novel. Matthew Harffy uses the background of real events behind the invasion of Bernicia, and weaves it seamlessly into the lives of his characters. Beobrand, now the most feared and renowned warrior in Bernicia, is tasked with defending the great fortress of Bebbanburgh.
Fortress of Fury feels like it is a seminal book in the series, a turning point for Beobrand, as he matures into a great leader of men, whose own men are now becoming leaders. The decision he takes in this book will decide his future. I have yet to see if I’m right – I will have to wait for book no. 8 – but this feels like a momentous book for its hero. The events of Fortress of Fury will have a major influence on where Beobrand goes next – I can feel it!
I still haven’t worked out if ‘unputdownable’ is a word, but it is the best way to describe Fortress of Fury. I lost two afternoons of work because I couldn’t leave the book at crucial moments in the story, then stayed up til midnight, just so I could finish the last 50 pages.
I have long thought that the books of the Bernicia Chronicles are addictive and Fortress of Fury is no exception.
Simply put, Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy is a fabulous feat of storytelling.
454 AD. Even after years of Roman rule, Britannia is a conflicted and largely untamed land. Disgraced Imperial Officer, Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus, flees to its shores seeking sanctuary in the land of his deceased mother. His years of loyal service to the emperor count for nothing now. He must carve out a new life beyond the empire. Accompanying Ambrosius is a disparate group of fellow refugees: Inga, a freed Saxon slave, his bucellarii – warriors sworn to him – and the surviving members of his estranged family. The burden of command weighs heavy on his shoulders, for when he lands in the country, winter is fast approaching. But the weather is not the only thing inhospitable towards the newcomers. Plagued by troubles, Ambrosius faces opponents among both the native Britons and Saxon settlers. He discovers that no-one in Britannia – least of all, the High King, Vortigern – still fears the soldiers of the decaying empire. When those he loves are savagely abducted and betrayal divides his company, Ambrosius is left with only a handful of his bucellarii. Though heavily outnumbered and unfamiliar with the land, Ambrosius remains undaunted. Pitted against powerful opponents, the Roman will need new allies if he is to free the hostages and make Britannia his home. There will be blood.
Derek Birkshas fast become one of my favourite authors. His first novel, Feud, is still one of my personal favourites. He has a knack for fast-paced action woven into a wonderful story that keeps the reader hooked from the first page to the last. This latest offering is no different. Trouble arrives almost at the very first page and leaves the reader on the edge of their seat to the very end. Survival is far from certain and each character has their own battle to fight – and their own demons to face – within the larger story.
Britannia: World’s End is the second book in Derek Birks’ new series based in the twilight of the Roman era, which follows the exploits of Ambrosius Aurelianus and his small band of loyal warriors, and a disparate group of waifs and strays that he has picked up since being chased out of the Roman Empire. Ambrosius leads his people to the island of Britain, in the hope of finding a new home, but only finds more problems and more enemies to fight.
Set in the age of King Arthur, there are suggestions of the famous Arthurian legends, and the links to Ambrosius Aurelianus, though the story is firmly set in the history and reality of Britain at the waning of the Roman Empire, where land and people were open to exploitation and manipulation.
With a final scowl at Remigius, Ambrosius leapt from the boat onto the stony shore where dog-tired men were cheering and clapping each other on the back. They deserved to celebrate, he thought, for though they were some yards east of the camp now, at least they had salvaged the boat. By the time he heard the hooves, it was too late and he could only stare, helpless, as a dozen horsemen cantered through his camp.
By the time he roared: “To arms!”, women were already scattering in fear. Obliged to retrieve their scattered weapons from all along the beach, Ambrosius and his bucellarii were slow to return to the camp. Ambrosius was still trying to disentangle his spatha from his belt when he heard Inga’s voice, heaping Saxon abuse at her assailants.
“I’m here, Inga!” he cried, as he watched her trying to fend off one of the riders with her knife. “Run – this way! Run to us!”
Defiant as ever, she retorted: “I have Ferox with me!”
Thank God for Ferox, thought Ambrosius, as he stumbled towards her. Of course, the damned dog had not been warning him about the boat at all, for how would a dog know the boat was drifting out to sea? No, Ferox had caught the scent of strangers and their horses, but Ambrosius, like some green recruit, had ignored the animal’s alert and allowed himself to be drawn away from camp.
Though he had told Inga to run, of course, she had not. Armed only with her long blade, she stood her ground, flailing at her mounted assailants. Ambrosius cursed under his breath as he ran, for had he not told her how brave she was – as brave as any one of his bucellarii? And because he encouraged her, she fought, when she should have run. One moment Ambrosius glimpsed her, slashing out in vain, the next she was grappling with her captor. Racing to her side, spatha in hand and ready to dispense death to the villains who had dared to assault his camp, he was relieved to see that she had broken free.
“Stay behind me!” he ordered, but Inga’s blood was up and she took a snarling pace towards one of the horsemen. Thrusting out an arm to pull her back, Ambrosius’ fingertips scarcely brushed hers, as she was lifted clean off her feet and borne away.
Derek Birks has several great strengths as a writer. He is a natural storyteller and has a knack for knowing how to draw a reader in and holding their attention, so that you’re always promising yourself ‘just one more page’ or ‘just one more chapter’. His actions scenes are second-to-none and help to keep the tension high throughout the book.
His greatest skill, however, is in his characters. Despite a large number of supporting characters, Derek Birks has the ability to make each and everyone of them an individual. Not just in their appearance, but in their actions and in their individual stories. Each character has a legend that is his or her own; this means that each character has their own motivations and their own set of rules.
The author is also known for creating strong, independent female characters, such as the great Eleanor Elder in his two series set in the Wars of the Roses. In The Last of the Romans, it is Inga, a former sex slave, who steals the show with her strength and quiet determination. And then there is the dog, Ferox, a ferocious war dog with a soft spot for Inga, and a scene stealer in every chapter in which he appears. He is such a unique character!
There is one other thing Derek Birks has become renowned for in his books;; no character is so precious that he cannot be killed off, if the story asks for it. Not even the hero of the book is safe. And this brings an added tension to the book; the reader does not know who will make it out alive!
These 3 great strengths in the author are a fantastic combination that leads to another amazing novel. I have never had any qualms about recommending Derek Birks’ books to any fan of action-packed historical fiction, and Britannia: World’s End is no exception.
It is an awesome book!
About the author:
Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.
On his return to England, he read history at Reading University and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Whilst he enjoyed his teaching career and it paid the bills, he found a creative outlet in theatrical activities, stage-managing many plays and outdoor Shakespeare performances.
Derek always wanted to write and began, aged 17, writing stories, songs and poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, work and family life took precedence for a long period of time but in 2010 Derek took early retirement to indulge his passion for history and concentrate on his writing. He is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period.
Derek writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. He also produces podcasts on the Wars of the Roses for those interested in the real historical background to his books. Check them out on his website at: https://www.derekbirks.com/history-podcasts/
His historical fiction works include: Rebels & Brothers – a 4-book series set during the fifteenth century, which follows a fictional family, the Elders, through their struggle to survive the Wars of the Roses up to 1471. The Craft of Kings – a sequel series which finds the Elder family ten years later in 1481. The latest book in this series is book 3, Echoes of Treason, which is set during the short and turbulent reign of Richard III.
Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – sometimes, but not always, to carry out research for his books. He also spends his time walking, swimming and taking part in archaeological digs.
He was a regular presence at the Harrogate History Festival, is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and you will also find him each summer signing books – and selling them – at the Chalke Valley History Festival outside Salisbury in Wiltshire.
Malcolm IV (the Maiden), King of Scots, was the son of Prince Henry of Scotland and Ada de Warenne. He was the grandson of David I, King of Scots and great-grandson of Malcolm III, King of Scots and second his wife St Margaret, herself a descendant of Alfred the great. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of William de Warenne, second Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and his queen, Anna of Kiev.
The younger Malcolm was born between born between 23 April and 24 May 1141. He earned the soubriquet ‘the Maiden’ due to his youth, religious devotion and the fact he remained unmarried. Malcolm had become his grandfather’s heir following his father’s death in 1152, at which time he had been placed into the custody of Duncan, Earl of Fife, and taken on a progress around Scotland north of the Forth, following the old Celtic tradition of showing the heir to the kingdom. When King David I died less than twelve months after his son, Henry, on 24 May 1153, he was succeeded by his grandson, Malcolm. The new king succeeded to the crown at the age of twelve – possibly even on his twelfth birthday – as Malcolm IV.
The accession of Malcolm surpassed all the ambitions of his Warenne grandfather. William de Warenne, the second earl, had sought a royal bride for himself. He had not lived to see his daughter marry the heir to the Scottish throne not to see his grandson’s accession and coronation, which surpassed all of his aspirations and ambitions.
The chronicles make no mention of Malcolm’s mother, Ada, playing a part in the politics of Scotland during her eldest son’s kingship. She did appear at court often and was present for many of the important occasions; she was also a witness to no less than sixteen of Malcolm’s charters. Ada did, moreover, take great interest in the futures of her children, arranging the marriages of her two surviving daughters and employing any means possible to persuade her son to marry. The chronicler, William of Newburgh, relates a story of the lengths Ada had to go to in order to get her reluctant son to choose a bride. Ada went so far as to present her son with a young woman of noble birth, in his bed. Not wishing to cause an argument with his mother, Malcolm did not send her away and allowed the lady to spend the night in his royal bed; while he slept on the floor, wrapped in his cloak. Ada, it seems, was relentless in her attempts to persuade Malcolm to marry, until the young king tired of her constant nagging and begged her to hold her peace.
While William of Newburgh makes it sound as if Ada was pushing for grandchildren, or tempting her son to lose his innocence, Ada’s constant attempts to discuss marriage with Malcolm had a political motive as much as a personal one. She was well aware of the importance of royal marriage, not just for the continuation of a dynasty and political alliance, but also for the strength and stability of the monarchy itself. Ada, moreover, was not the only one eager to see the young king settle down with a wife.
The Scottish curia regis (royal council) continued to pressure Malcolm to find a bride, even after his mother had given up. Arnold, Bishop of St Andrews encouraged Malcolm to follow the example of his recently married sisters. The king, however, was no more persuaded by the archbishop and his royal council than he was by his mother. He was eager to hold onto to the highest ideals of Christian knighthood and remain chaste. Malcolm’s relative youth may also have led him to believe that he had many years ahead of him and plenty of time before he needed to settle down and raise a family.
Malcolm’s kingship faced several challenges during his all-too-short reign. In November 1154, the young king was faced with a revolt from Somerled, Earl of Argyll. The unrest was to continue for several years, with Somerled only suing for peace in 1159 having been deprived of his chief supporters, the MacHeths, father and sons, who had been reconciled with the king in 1157.
Malcolm’s greatest challenge, however, was with his larger neighbour, England. While David I had taken advantage of the civil war in England during Stephen’s turbulent reign – known to history as the Anarchy – the accession of Henry II in 1154 changed the political landscape entirely. In 1157 the two kings met at Chester, where Malcolm performed homage ‘in the manner in which his grandfather had been the man of old King Henry’. 1 This homage suggests that Malcolm was accepting that he was a vassal of King Henry, as David I had done with King Henry I. He was also forced to resign his lordship of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland, although the honour of Huntingdon was returned to the Scots king and his brother and heir, William, was given the lordship of Tynedale.
In 1159 Malcolm, his brother and others joined Henry II and the English army on an expedition to Toulouse; William of Blois, son of King Stephen and husband of Malcolm’s cousin, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey, was also part of the expedition. The military enterprise gave Malcolm the chance to be knighted honourably in the field. The Scots contingent joined Henry II at Poitiers on 24 June and Henry knighted Malcolm at Périgueux a few days later. The expedition met with initial success and the army overran the county of Toulouse before laying siege to the city itself. However, the siege had to be abandoned when King Louis VII of France, another kinsman of Malcolm’s, intervened.
By the end of the year, Henry and Malcolm were back in Limoges, crossing to England shortly afterwards. Malcolm returned to Scotland in 1160 and to a revolt of six earls led by Feterth, Earl of Strathearn, angry at his expedition with the English army. Mediation by the clergy led to an uneasy peace and their abandoning of their besieging Malcolm at Perth. Unrest then arose in Galloway and Malcolm made several forays into the region before the end of the year, when Fergus, lord of Galloway, submitted to the king. It was the last major unrest by any Scottish earls for not only Malcolm’s reign, but for also for that of his brother, William I.
Malcolm was again summoned to meet Henry II in 1163. Despite falling ill at Doncaster, he was still expected to complete the journey to Henry’s court and arrived at Woodstock at the end of June. It seems Henry wanted to assert his supremacy over Britain, as a group of Welsh rulers had also been called to attend the English king. On 1 July, Malcolm renewed his oath to Henry and handed over hostages, the most senior of whom was his own youngest brother, David, soon to be made earl of Huntingdon. Homage given, Malcolm returned to Scotland, where he faced a revolt led by Somerled, Lord of the Isles, who was later killed in an attempted raid on Glasgow in 1164.
Malcolm appears to have never fully recovered from the illness he suffered in Doncaster in 1163 and frequently complained of pains in his head and feet. He planned a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, to pray for healing, but was too ill to undertake it. He died at Jedburgh on Thursday 9 December 1165, aged only 24: he had reigned for 12 years and 6 months and was buried among his ancestors at Dunfermline Abbey. We do not have his mother’s response to the death of her first-born son, but it cannot have been easy for her, only in her forties herself and already a widow of thirteen years. Malcolm was succeeded by his brother William, later known as William the Lion.
Footnote: 1 The Melrose Chronicle quoted in W.W. Scott, Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165)
Scott, W.W., Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) Oxforddnb.com; Mackay, A.J.G. (ed.), The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland … by Robert Lindesay of Pitscottie; Ross, David, Scotland: History of a Nation; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; fmg.ac; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler.
Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.
Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.
Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.
From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.
I was very lucky to receive an advance copy of Annie Whitehead’s wonderful new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, this book brings to life the women on England from before the Norman Conquest.
Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is a wonderful study of the influential royal and noble women of pre-Conquest England, whether they were queens, princesses, abbesses or countesses. Annie Whitehead tells their stories in wonderful, vivid detail, beautifully weaving the historical implications off their lives with their larger-than-life stories.
Though they have been dead a thousand years and more, and while written evidence on these women may be scarce, the author has managed to squeeze every bit of information from the available chronicles, charters and saints’ lives. She has given the reader every possible snippet of information on their lives, presenting and analysing the sources in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
The stories of these women is told with a passion and eloquence which makes every chapter a pleasure to read. The more familiar stories of Æthelflæd, Lady Godiva and St Hilda of Whitby are given excellent new interpretations, while the reader may be meeting the less familiar women, such as Æthelfrith of Bernicia, Eadburh and Alfred the Great’s sister, Æthelswith, for the first time.
Ælfgifu appears not to have been married for long. Her son Eadwig was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. The younger of the royal orphans, Edgar, was fostered by a noblewoman, the wife of the ealdorman of East Anglia, whom we shall meet in Part VI.
Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and William of Malmesbury in particular had a lot to say about her. He said that it was she who built the nunnery there and that her bodily remains were placed there. She was ‘so pious and loving that she would even secretly release criminals who had been openly condemned by the gloomy verdict of a jury.’ She would also give away her expensive clothes to the needy and she was a beautiful woman who was remembered for the miracles associated with her; the blind, the deaf and the lame were cured after visiting Shaftesbury.
It would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely its benefactress.
of these women were not easy to find, and the detective work involved in researching Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is both entertaining and fascinating. In recreating and retelling the lives of these remarkable women, Annie Whitehead has given us a window into a distant past. We have the chance to observe the lives, loves, hopes and dreams of these remarkable women; women who helped shape their present and futures, and thus the world in which we now live.
The author also helps to dispel some of the myths that have arisen about these women, whether by historical fiction writers or the over-active imaginations of the chroniclers of the past. The true stories of Æthelflæd and Godiva, and others, are revealed, the myths surrounding them examined and explained. This is a wonderful book, filled with stories of love, intrigue and murder, of the power struggles and betrayals of Anglo-Saxon England, of strong and influential women who made an impression, not only on their own times, but on the generations who came after.
Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England brings to life the women of the Anglo-Saxon period with vivid clarity. It is a remarkable study of the lives of women of the period – known and unknown – and their impact on history. Saints, princesses and queens; wives, daughters and mothers, Annie Whitehead demonstrates the strengths, weaknesses and challenges these incredible women faced in order to exert their influence on their corner of the world. The author’s meticulous research, beautiful writing and natural storytelling ability make this book a pleasure to read from beginning to end.
Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Her latest nonfiction, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.
Today it is a pleasure to welcome Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s latest book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was also released yesterday.
Our books are twins!
Both books were commissioned, written and submitted at within days of each other. It has been a bit of a roller coaster experience, with the advent of the Corona virus. In order to get the books published on time, it was decided that they would be released in paperback first. But at the last minute, Pen & Sword changed their minds and went for the hardback release. As a result, the books look fabulous!
For me, it has been that bit more special, having Annie and her book taking the journey with us – having someone to talk to, who was going through the same experience – has made all the difference.
Annie and I have done an interview swap where we each answer the same questions, just to give you an idea of who we are and what we write.
I’d already written about a few of these women both in fiction and nonfiction. My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the life story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and my second, Alvar the Kingmaker, features Queen Ælfthryth, said to be the first crowned consort of an English king, and Queen Ælfgifu, who was accused of getting into bed, quite literally, with her husband and her mother. My third novel, Cometh the Hour, also has some strong, influential women in it, from King Penda’s wife, who was left in charge of a kingdom, to various queens and abbesses who made important policy decisions and had direct influence on the men in charge; women like St Hild, for example, founder of Whitby Abbey. My first nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, featured some equally powerful and notorious women, so I suppose this new book was inevitable.
The idea was to tell the stories of these women, with minimal reference to the men, and discover all I could about them. There are over 130 named women in the book, most of them royal wives, sisters and daughters, and some of them women who are familiar to us – Lady Godiva, for example – who weren’t royal but still left their mark on history.
What were the research challenges?
Tracking them down! The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes mentions them but, up to the arrival on the shores of Emma of Normandy in the 11th Century, there are fewer than 20 instances in that chronicle where the women are named. However, a lot can sometimes be deduced: Wulfrun is named as a hostage taken by the ‘Vikings’ and from this it’s clear that she was high status. Luckily we don’t have to rely on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and through other sources we discover that she was the lady after whom Wolverhampton was named and that her son was known as Wulfrun’s son, rather than his father’s. So there’s a whole other story; was his father somehow disgraced? Of lesser status than Wulfrun? When doing this kind of research it’s as well to be prepared to drop down plenty of ‘rabbit holes’!
The other challenge is keeping pace with the archaeological discoveries, of which there were more than a few while I was writing the book. Often I had to add details to footnotes, because the editing process was too far advanced to allow me to alter the main text. All were truly exciting discoveries, including the siting of the original Anglo-Saxon abbeys at Coldingham, and at Lyminge in Kent, the possible identification of Queen Emma’s bones in Winchester and the fascinating tale of the blue-toothed nun, who, it’s believed, stained her teeth by licking her paintbrush whilst working on illuminated manuscripts. Here was yet more evidence that women worked as scribes.
Do you have a particular favourite amongst the women you’ve written about?
Too many to choose, really. Because I’ve written so much about her already, I suppose most people might expect me to say Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, but there are some others whom I grew to like and/or admire. Among them would be Eanflæd, Queen of Northumbria, for sheer determination and overcoming personal loss. She travelled north from Kent, no small undertaking, to marry a man who murdered one of her kinsman. She demanded, and received, recompense for that. She outlived most of her children, which must have been heart-breaking (although mercifully she had died by the time her adult daughter was murdered) and most likely had to tolerate her husband’s infidelity and fathering of at least one illegitimate child. She sponsored the career of St Wilfrid and it’s clear that she ran her own, separate, and highly influential household.
Other women brought a wry smile to my face, such as Queen Æthelburh who arranged for her servants deliberately to trash the royal residence while she and the king were out one day, so that she could demonstrate to him the transience of earthly pleasures. She gets the briefest of mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but what a mention – she razed a town to the ground. We’re not told the circumstances, but I think it’s fair to assume she was a woman with a lot of personality and fortitude!
Another lady who intrigued me was Siflæd. We know about some noblewomen because their wills are extant. Siflæd is unusual because she left not one, but two wills. It seems as if one was made before she went off on her travels ‘across the sea’. I’d love to know where she went, and what sort of adventures she had. I think of her as the original ‘merry widow’, setting her affairs in order at home before going off gallivanting.
Can you tell us briefly about your other books?
As well as the novels and the nonfiction book I mentioned earlier, I contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagined the events of 1066. Lady Godiva featured in my story, as the elderly matriarch of a powerful Mercian family. She’s often thought of as a young woman – erroneously in my view – riding naked through Coventry but she lived to a ripe old age and was a witness to many extraordinary events.
I’ve just finished a collection of short stories about women in history, and am part of the Historical Fictioneers Co-operative who will be producing an anthology of stories centred on the theme of betrayal, for which I’m contributing a tale of scandal from the tenth century. I’ll also be writing the follow-up to Cometh the Hour, which will feature the sons and daughters of King Penda of Mercia and his nemesis, King Oswiu of Northumbria.
Finally, where can people find you on Social Media and where can they buy your books?
I would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Annie for taking the time to give such wonderful answers and wish her every success with Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Look for my review of this wonderful book, coming in the next few days.