Guest Post: King Cenwulf by Annie Whitehead

Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was released by Amberley on 15th September and traces the fortunes of the Anglo-Saxon Midlands kingdom of Mercia, from its origins in the 6th century to its absorption into Norman England in the 11th century. The book is a fabulous, enjoyable read and I can highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon England.

A huge thank you to Annie for this fabulous article.

King Who?

King Cenwulf, that’s who. He may not be all that well known, but he was one of the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings and was king for twenty-five years (796-821) during a period when most kings were lucky if they survived a year in the job.

So why don’t we know more about him? Probably because his reign was sandwiched between a lot of kings with odd names, and he was overshadowed by his more famous predecessor, Offa.

Cenwulf was supposedly descended from a brother of the infamous pagan king, Penda, but no one is entirely sure of the precise link (although my new book provides an intriguing theory…).

Statue/carving of King Cenwulf in St Peter’s Winchcomb

One thing is for sure, and that is that he had no direct connection with his immediate predecessor, Ecgfrith, who was Offa’s son. Offa had gone to great lengths to secure the succession of his son, even going so far as to have him anointed as his heir. But all his plans were for naught, because Ecgfrith survived only five months after being crowned.

Foul play? Maybe. There was no suggestion of it in the chronicles and many believed that he died for the sins of his father. It looks as if Cenwulf wasn’t around at court much during Offa’s reign, and may have been in exile. Perhaps he was the victim of the purges of which Offa had been accused, and for which the punishment was supposedly the untimely death of his son. No accusations of murder were ever levelled against Cenwulf.

Cenwulf’s reign was an impressive one of overlordship and conquest. We don’t know much about his marital history but it is possible that he was married twice, firstly to a lady named Cynegyth, although it’s by no means certain, as a charter naming her as queen has been declared unreliable. His – possibly second – wife was Ælfthryth.

Offa had controlled East Anglia (famously doing away with their king, whom he’d had beheaded) but after his death East Anglia seems to have regained its independence. That was short-lived, however, for while they had been minting their own coins, very soon after he came to power, the East Anglian moneyers were striking coins for Cenwulf.

Coffin believed by some to be that of Kenelm, Cwoenthryth’s murdered brother, but it actually dates from a later period.

East Saxon independence also appears to have been short-lived, with its last ever recorded king, Sigered, being reduced to the status of first sub-king, and then dux.

In 801, Cenwulf was attacked by King Eardwulf of the Northumbrians, ‘because of his harbouring of his enemies.’ A letter from Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in 808 mentions the nobleman, Wada, and seems to confirm the accusation that Cenwulf had indeed been harbouring Eardwulf’s enemies, because Wada was involved in a battle of 798 where he had fought against King Eardwulf. Eventually the two kings agreed to a truce.

Things were a little more violent when it came to Cenwulf’s dealings with Kent, however, and it was perhaps not Cenwulf’s finest hour.

In 798, the same year as the battle involving Wada, Cenwulf was busy ravaging Kent, and he captured the Kentish king, known as Eadberht Præn.

When Offa, who had been overlord of Kent, died, Kent had risen up in revolt against Mercia. Eadberht Præn had been in exile at the court of Charlemagne, and he returned after Offa’s death, forcing the archbishop of Canterbury – who was known to have Mercian sympathies – to flee.

Kenelm’s Well, supposedly where his funeral procession rested on its journey

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cenwulf ‘seized Præn and brought him in fetters into Mercia’ where his eyes were put out and his hands cut off. But while one later chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, refers to the capture, he makes no mention of the mutilations and another twelfth-century writer, William of Malmesbury, called Cenwulf a ‘truly great man’ who ‘surpassed his fame by his virtues, doing nothing that malice could justly find fault with.’ His praise seems motivated by the latter’s having restored Canterbury, and he goes on to say that Cenwulf released Eadberht Præn out of pity.

For a short while, Cenwulf put his brother into Kent to rule there as a puppet king, but after his brother died, he took direct control.

For all William of Malmesbury praised Cenwulf for restoring order at Canterbury (Offa had fought to have the archbishopric moved to London and when that failed, established one at Lichfield. Cenwulf reversed this decision), Cenwulf had a fractious relationship with the Church.

He became embroiled in an argument with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Wulfred. The dispute concerned the Kentish minsters and whether it was right that the state should have control over ecclesiastical lands. The argument raged from 816 and was not resolved when Cenwulf died in 821.

Drawing of Coenwulf Coin

The kings who followed him make up a list which looks a little like a cat has walked over the keyboard and show that the kingdom was troubled by a series of dynastic disputes between rival families. In amongst this, Cenwulf reigned successfully for a quarter of a century, and it seems as though he was on campaign against the Welsh when he died, but his reign is overshadowed by what (allegedly) happened to his children.

His daughter, Cwoenthryth, inherited not only her father’s lands but his dispute with the Church. Wulfred was accused of forging documents to support his case, but the Church Council found in his favour and whilst Cwoenthryth was allowed to keep the possession of Winchcombe she was forced to hand over the rights to the Kentish minsters. Winchcombe, where her father was buried and where she was abbess, became the centre of a scandal when she was accused of arranging for her little brother, Kenelm, to be murdered. Some of the stories say that her eyeballs dropped out as divine punishment, some that she was struck down dead. Reality was probably somewhat different, since it’s hard to prove that the young brother in question was even a small boy at the time of the alleged murder, and Cwoenthryth lived on as abbess of Winchcombe; some historians think she survived until the 840s.

Photo of the Cenwulf coin is a replica from my own collection

When the history of this period includes Offa the Great, a murder of a little boy, and dynastic struggle which also ended in murder, it’s hardly surprising that poor Cenwulf gets forgotten. But as one historian pointed out, his achievement was ‘scarcely less impressive’ than Offa’s.

He controlled the whole of the south east, and while his influence was not felt over Wessex, he at least kept the Northumbrians at bay, and he increased pressure on the Welsh, to the extent that his eventual successor, his brother, was able virtually to overrun Powys. Old-fashioned warlord he may have been, but he was the only English king before the tenth century to be styled ‘emperor’. If only he’d lived at another time, or gone up against more famous adversaries, perhaps he’d be better remembered today.

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Picture credits: ©Annie Whitehead except drawing of Cenwulf (public domain).

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About the Author:

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 and available from Amazon UK.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Annie Whitehead

 

Book Corner: Mercia, the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past.

Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands.

Historically, the records are in two halves, pre- and post-Viking, in the way they have been preserved. Pre-Viking, virtually all the source material was written by the victims, or perceived victims, of Mercian aggression and expansion. Post-Viking, the surviving documents tend to hail from places which were not sacked or burned by the Northmen, particularly from Wessex, the traditional enemy of Mercia. The inclusion of those records here allows for the exploration of Mercia post-924.

Mercia ceased to be a kingdom when Alfred the Great came to power, but its history did not end there. Examining the roles of the great ealdormen in the anti-monastic reaction of the tenth century, through the treachery of Eadric Streona in the eleventh, and the last, brave young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror, this book shows the important role the Mercians played in the forging of the English nation.

 

I have been waiting eagerly for Annie Whitehead’s Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom ever since I knew she was writing it. Luckily, I got an advanced copy from the publisher – but it was well worth the wait! In her introduction Annie Whitehead promises:

This is the story of the Mercians, the kings, the queens, saints, sinners, earls and warrior women who governed the kingdom and shaped its history.

 

And she does not disappoint!

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom covers the story of the English midlands kingdom from its pagan origins, in the 7th century, to its absorption into the kingdom of England; a process started in the reign of King Alfred but not completed until after the Norman Conquest. Annie Whitehead traced the fortunes of Mercia from Penda, a king we know little enough about – and that from his enemies. As the author tells us, the problems with knowing anything about early Mercian history spring from the fact Mercia was a pagan land; they therefore had no monastic tradition of writing everything down. In which case, their history is taken from such as the Venerable Bede, who lived in the land of Mercia’s enemies, Northumbria.

As a result, Annie Whitehead’s first task was to assess the bias of her sources, all of whom had their own hostile vision of Mercia. She uses sources from varied fields, including charter and archaeological evidence, in order to reconstruct early Mercian society and tell the story of the land itself, and its relations to its neighbours, such as Northumbria, Wessex and East Anglia. Using primary sources wherever possible, Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom brings the people of this ancient kingdom to vivid life. The author also uses alliterative analysis, to suggest familial links between such rulers as Coenred and Ceolred, for example. Although this is not an exact science, it does help to give the reader some perspective on the personal and familial relationships between the major players in the region.

Throughout the book, Annie Whitehead retells the story from the available sources, taking great care to avoid filling in the gaps with invention and clearly offering theories and analysis to explain the direction in which the narrative proceeded. She provides an ongoing assessment of sources, discussing their validity, honesty and integrity; clearly stating where charters are thought to be spurious or of dubious provenance.

The story portrayed is one of conflict, from within and without the region, marriage alliances, murder and betrayal and the shifting political tensions of the various kingdoms within England. The history, inevitably, draws on the history of Wessex, Northumbria, Kent and Wales. However, Annie Whitehead constantly retains the focus firmly on Mercia, while clearly demonstrating the shifting political alliances and the internal and external forces which decided the direction in which Mercian – and English history as a whole – would eventual be drawn.

It is difficult to piece together the circumstances of Æthelbald’s exile. It doesn’t appear that Ceolred was a strong enough king to stave off contenders, particularly ones of the calibre Æthelbald would prove to be. Perhaps, then, he had been in exile since the time of Æthelred, yet he did not emerge until after Ceolred’s death. Were there other contenders to the throne? Had he been chased out of Mercia because the kings there were strong, or because he was, and thus he was  a threat? Dynastic disputes would become a feature of Mercian politics, particularly in the next century.

There is, in fact, a hint that the takeover was not so peaceful, provided by a reference in one source to a Ceolwald reigning between Ceolred and Æthelbald. This man, briefly mentioned in Chapter Three, could, if he existed at all, have been the brother of Ceolred. If so, and if he became king, he did not reign for long, for Æthelbald became king in the same year in which Coelred died. Perhaps there was a coup? If only we knew; but as we have seen, particularly when it comes to Mercian history, absence of evidence is most assuredly not evidence of absence, and we can only speculate when we come across these tantalising nuggets of information.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Annie Whitehead provides a thorough and in-depth analysis of Mercia, its history and its people. Where there is uncertainty or conflicting evidence , she carefully sets out the opposing theories, providing her own thoughts and analysis, while making it clear what alternative reasoning there is available. The text is supplemented by some wonderful illustrations, colourful photographs of locations and buildings closely associated with Mercia’s history, from the well-known statue of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and Lady of Mercia, to Repton in Derbyshire, burial site of a number of Mercian kings.

On a personal level, it is fascinating to read another author’s interpretation of subjects I have researched myself. Annie Whitehead dedicates (and rightfully so) an entire chapter to the Lady Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred. And it is good to know that her version of Æthelflæd does not contradict the lady I found when researching Heroines of the Medieval World. The same also happened with her depiction of Lady Godiva. Godiva appears in my next book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest; she was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and grandmother of the last Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia, Edwin, who was killed in 1071 after fighting against the Normans.

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom  is written in an engaging and conversational manner, leaving the reader both entertained and informed. It is impossible to read this book without being made aware of the depth of research that has gone into producing such an authoritative depiction of Mercia. the

Rich in detail, this is a must-have book for anyone interested in the English midlands, and Anglo-Saxon history. Annie Whitehead delves into all the corners of Mercia, her history and conflicts and relates the story of not just the land, but of the generations of people who occupied it.

About the author:

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 and available from Amazon UK.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: After the Conquest by Teresa Cole

On his deathbed William the Conqueror divided his property between his three sons, Robert, William and Henry. One of them got England, one got Normandy and one £5,000 of silver. None of them was satisfied with what he received. It took much violence, treachery, sudden death and twenty years before one of them reigned supreme over all the Conqueror’s lands.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his ‘Prophecies of Merlin’, depicted them as two dragons and a lion with a mighty roar, but which would end up the winner, and what was the fate of the losers?

After the Conquest tells the story of the turbulent lives of the sons of the Conqueror.

Having read and enjoyed Teresa Cole’s book, The Norman Conquest, I was expecting a great deal from this book, and was not disappointed. After the Conquest takes up the story where the first book left off, giving an overview of the Conquest and the years which followed with the reign of William the Conqueror, before coming into its own with the stories of the Conqueror’s 3 surviving sons; Robert Curthose, William Rufus and Henry I. Taking the story from teh Conquest itself, to the death of Henry I and the succession squabble which followed, Teresa Cole provides and in-depth view of the post-Conquest years in England and Normandy.

Robert II Curthose, Duke of Normandy

After the Conquest provides a complete and detailed study of each of the 3 sons of William and Matilda; their family life and military and political careers. She is thorough and analytical in her approach, using primary sources to support her arguments and theories. The book provides a new and refreshing insight into the story of the struggles between the brothers is told in a balanced, thoughtful style, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each with equal vigour. She dissects the abilities and failings of each brother separately, and compares their successes and failures, providing a complete image of their changing relationships throughout the years.

There is a tendency to see Henry, especially at this time, as the innocent younger brother, tossed about and beset by the whims of hos elders. Clearly, though, there was a strong streak of his father’s ruthlessness in the young man’s make-up, and also a strong conviction as to what was due to people of his class and upbringing.

William II Rufus, King of England

 

Rather than an example of brotherly love, After the Conquest tells the story of one of the most significant examples of sibling rivalry in English royal history, rivalling that of King Richard the Lionheart and King John in its viciousness. However, although this theme runs throughout the book, the author also provides an in-depth study of the regimes of each of the brothers, separately, highlighting the successes and failures of their rule as kings of England and dukes of Normandy. While Henry I, the youngest brother, invariably comes out on top, it is fascinating to read of Henry’s abilities, as the baby of the family, to exploit his brothers’ weaknesses for his own benefit.

Teresa Cole not only analyses the relationship of the brothers, with each other, but also with those around them, including their siblings,  officials, servants and the church. She provides a wonderful overview of the period and the main actors involved the affairs of England and Normandy in the years immediately following the Conquest.

If Henry had thought his support for his brother might have secured his affection, or at least his approval, he was soon disillusioned. Instead, it appeared that Robert grudged him his success, particularly in view of his own perceived failure…

Teresa Cole’s writing style  is a pleasure to read. While authoritative and thorough, the book is an enjoyable, accessible read for all those interested in history in general, and the Norman Conquest in particular. She also provides a brief, comprehensive analysis of each of the primary sources used in her work. My only criticism, however, would be the lack of footnotes hampers the reader’s ability to investigate some of her arguments further.

Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy

After spending a year researching the women of the period for my new book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest, I was worried that, having read so much on the period recently, I would be too jaded with the 11th century to truly enjoy the book. However, in After the Conquest, Teresa Cole has taken a new approach, in focusing on the 3 sons of William the Conqueror, and has produced a thoroughly engaging book, providing a view of the Conquest and its aftermath from a new and intriguing angle. It would be a wonderful complement to anyone’s library of 11th century works.

After the Conquest by Teresa Cole is available from both Amazon and Amberley Publishing.

About the Author

Teresa Cole has been a teacher for thirty years. She has written several law books and a historical biography by Amberley, ‘Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415’ (‘Cole understands the importance of drama… a thorough account of Henry’s life’ HISTORY OF WAR MAGAZINE). She lives just outside Bath.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Ӕlfgifu of York

Æthelread II the Unready

The first wife of Ӕthelred II, Ӕlfgifu of York is a shadowy figure in history, with very little known about her. She was probably born sometime in the 960s. Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu were married around 985, when he was in his late teens or early twenties; Ӕlfgifu may have been a little younger.

The monk Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the 1150s, identified her as the daughter of, Thored. Ailred had served in the household of David I, King of Scotland, a great-great-grandson of Ӕthelred II and Ӕlfgifu through his mother, Queen Margaret and so Ailred was well place to learn the ancestry of King David with some accuracy. Thored was Earl of Northumbria between, about, 975 and 992 and regularly attested charters by King Ӕthelred II during the 980s.

Marriage to the daughter of the leading noble of Northumbria would have been a beneficial move for King Ӕthelred. It would have helped to expand strengthen his influence over the north of England, an area notoriously independent of the royal administration of the south, and bring him powerful friends and allies.

Ӕthelred was the youngest son of King Edgar the Peaceable and his last wife, Ælfthryth. The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar was king from 959 until his death in 975. His wife, Ælfthryth, was probably born around 945; she was the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon, her mother an unknown woman who is said to have been descended from the royal family. She was first married around the age of eleven to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King, ealdorman of East Anglia. However, Æthelwold died in 962, probably in a hunting accident, although there were rumours of murder on the orders of his wife’s supposed lover, King Edgar. Edgar’s marital history was already chequered. Ælfthryth could be Edgar’s second or third wife; she was certainly the third relationship by which children were born.

Ælfgifu’s son Edmund II Ironside

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of two sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who was treated as Edgar’s acknowledged heir; his name being above that of Edward’s in a charter of 966, witnessed by both boys, which founded the New Minster at Winchester. Poor Ælfthryth must have been distraught when, in 971 and still only a child of about seven, young Edmund died.

When King Edgar died suddenly in 975 it was Edward, at the age of  13, who was proclaimed king, despite Ælfthryth trying to claim the crown for her surviving son, Æthelred, who was aged between 7 and 10 years of age. Edward reigned for just 3 years before he met a violent and untimely death at Corfe Castle in Dorset.

It was on 18th March 978 that 16-year-old King Edward visited his step-mother and half-brother at Ælfthryth estate at Corfe. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his Ælfthryth and Æthelred seems to be uncertain. However, he did send a message that he would be calling on them and Ælfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate, when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle, he was handed a drink; and stabbed. It must have been a horrific sight, as the king’s horse panicked and bolted, racing off with Edward’s foot stuck in the stirrup and the dying king being dragged along behind. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint. ¹

With Edward’s death his surviving brother, Æthelred, possibly as young as 10 years old, and certainly no older than 13, was now king of England, with his mother and a council of prominent nobleman to guide him. He would rule over a tumultuous period in English history, when Saxon England was under frequent attacks from the Danes. His tendency to inaction, indecision, his ineffectual handling of the Danish incursions and the fact he lost the throne to Sweyn Forkbeard, have earned him a reputation as one of England’s worst rulers.

Edward the Exile, grandson of Ælfgifu and father of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

As his mother and adviser – and a force to be reckoned with – it may well have been Ælfthryth who chose Ӕlfgifu of York as a bride for Æthelred. It is also possible, even likely, that Ælfgifu was never crowned because her mother-in-law, the crowned and anointed queen, was still alive. Indeed,  Ælfgifu’s successor as Æthelred’s wife, Emma of Normandy, was given a coronation, but Ælfthryth was dead by then.

In the 15-or-so years of marriage to Ӕlfgifu of York, the couple had a large number of children, including at least 6 boys and 4 girls. It is even likely that Ӕlfgifu’s mother-in-law, Ælfthryth, raised a number of her children, including the royal couple’s first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Ӕthelstan, was born c.986 but would die before his father. He died in June 1014, either killed in battle or from wounds received during the wars against Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut. Their other sons included Ecgberht, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig and Edgar and all died young.

In April 1016 Edmund succeeded his father as King Edmund II Ironside but died in November of the same year, probably from wounds received in battle after a summer of constant fighting. His sole-surviving brother Eadwig was murdered in 1017, on the orders of the victorious King Cnut.

Of Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu’s daughters, three were married to prominent Saxon noblemen. Edith was married to the traitorous Ealdorman, Eadric Streona, who kept changing sides during the wars against the Danes and eventually met his death on the orders of the triumphant King Cnut. Ӕlfgifu married Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria, an ally of Edmund Ironside who had to submit to Cnut when his earldom was under threat of being overrun by the Danes. He and forty of his supporters were murdered on Cnut’s orders in 1016. A third daughter, Wulfhild, married Ulfcytel, Ealdorman of East Anglia, who was killed in the fighting of 1016. A possible fourth daughter, whose name is unknown, became the abbess at Wherwell, a prominent convent at the time, and died in the 1050s.

Other than the children she bore, however, Ӕlfgifu of York has left very little imprint on history.  She gets barely a mention in the chronicles of the time. Sulcard of Westminster, writing in the second half of the eleventh century, says that she was “of very noble English stock”, but fails to give her name, while William of Malmesbury ignores her altogether. John of Worcester makes mention of Ӕlfgifu, giving her name and listing her sons but states, probably erroneously, that she was the daughter of Ӕthelberht. Ailred of Rievaulx provides us with the details of Ӕlfgifu’s parentage but, again, fails to name her. The poor woman doesn’t even make it into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

There is no evidence that Ӕlfgifu was a crowned and anointed as queen, unlike her successor, Emma of Normandy. We know nothing of her, not her personality or her actions during her time as Ӕthelred’s wife. We don’t even know the date of her death, though it must have been before April 1002, when Ӕthelred married Emma of Normandy.

Ӕlfgifu of York’s story has been greatly overshadowed by her larger-than-life successor, Emma of Normandy, the twice-crowned Queen of England as the wife of both Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and King Cnut (the Great). However, although she may have had little impact on history during her lifetime, it is the blood of Ӕlfgifu of York that still runs in the veins of the British royal family today, through the descendants of her son, Edmund II Ironside and his granddaughter, St Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Margaret’s daughter, Edith, was married to King Henry I of England. Her name was changed to Matilda on her marriage and it is through this Matilda and her daughter and namesake, Matilda, the Lady of the English, that all English kings and queens are descended.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle edited by Michael Swaton.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

12th June 2018 marks the 1100th anniversary of one of England’s greatest ever women. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, led the resistance against Danish invasion, alongside her brother, Edward the Elder. And yet, she is virtually unknown to the people of today.

Æthelflæd was born about 870, the eldest child of King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says Ealhswith was a member of the Mercian royal house through her mother, Eadburh. Around 886 Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and a trusted lieutenant of her father. Æthelred ruled over the English half of the Mercian kingdom, which had been dissected by the Vikings, but submitted to King Alfred’s overlordship. The marriage was a political alliance, intended to strengthen Saxon resistance to the Danes, who were now occupying Northumbria, Yorkshire and East Anglia. The resulting close relationship of Mercia and Wessex was only further strengthened by the renewed Viking attacks of the 890s.

During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. The couple jointly presided over provincial courts. The ‘Mercian Register’, a fragment of a Mercian chronicle, included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that Æthelflæd was exercising regal powers in the region even before her husband’s death. In his final years Æthelred increasingly suffered from illness, during which time Æthelflæd assumed greater authority. The couple had only one child, a daughter, Ælfwynn. Writing 2 centuries later William of Malmesbury claimed the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of marital relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth. Malmesbury quotes her as saying it was ‘unbecoming a daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences’. Æthelred died in 911, though whether this was from wounds received in battle or from illness remains unclear. He was buried at Gloucester.

Charter S 221 dated 901 of Æthelred and Ætheflæd donating land and a golden chalice to Much Wenlock Church

Wessex had already adjusted to a change in ruler when Æthelflæd’s father had died in 899 and had been succeeded by her younger brother, Edward ‘the Elder’. When Æthelred died, Edward was happy to support his sister as sole ruler of Mercia, but he took personal control of the cities of London and Oxford, cities that could be used as bases from which Edward would be able to launch campaigns against the Danes of the Midlands. The siblings seem to have had a trusting relationship for many years; Edward had entrusted his son Æthelstan, often viewed as the first king of England, to Æthelflæd and her husband, to be educated at the Mercian court.

The first woman to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom  – albeit as a client of her brother’s more powerful kingdom of Wessex, Æthelflæd was accorded the title the Lady of the Mercians. She proved to be a vital ally to her brother and the siblings worked together to combat the threats of the Danes. In 909, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward sent an army, made up of West Saxons and Mercians, into Danish territory in the north. It was probably this army that brought back to Mercia the relics of St Oswald, the 7th century Northumbrian saint. They had been taken from Bardney in Lincolnshire and Æthelflæd had them translated to the new minster at Gloucester, which was renamed St Oswald in his honour.

Æthelflæd continued the policy, started by her father, of building burhs and established a ring of fortified centres around western Mercia. The burhs not only provided protection against the Danes, but served as bases from which to launch attacks on Danish occupied regions. Each burh could provide a refuge for all villagers within a 20-mile radius; it would have a large garrison, depot and its own water supply. During Æthelred’s lifetime, burhs had been established at ‘Bremesburh’, Worcester (between 887 and 899) and Chester (907). Later, on Æthelflæd’s orders, in 913, fortresses were built at several further sites, including Bridgnorth, Tamworth and Stafford, in response to Viking raids into Edward’s territories.

Edward built two further burhs at Buckingham in 914, plugging a defensive gap between Tamworth and Hertford. At the same time, Æthelflæd built one at Warwick and another at Eddisbury; this latter, with a new burh at Runcorn in 915, helped to strengthen her northern defences. While the Danes appeared to be the greatest risk, Æthelflæd did not neglect her defences along the Welsh border, building a burh at Chirbury and one at the now-lost location of ‘Wearburh’. In the same year, Edward fortified Bedford and in 916 he built a burh at Maldon to fortify Essex against seaborne raiding. While this building programme was going on, it also seems highly likely that Æthelflæd rebuilt and strengthened the defences of Gloucester and Hereford.

Statue of Æthelflæd and her nephew, Athelstan, Tamworth

Æthelflæd was no silent partner in Edward’s reconquest of England. Most remarkably, she personally led successful military campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes of York. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that on the feast of St Cyriac the Martyr, 16 June 916, the abbot Egbert and his retainers, were murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot had been travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog when he was attacked. Æthelflæd seems to have taken the murder as a personal affront; the abbot was, after all, under her protection. Three days later she invaded Wales; her army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom. Although King Tewdr escaped, Æthelflæd took his wife, Queen Angharad, as a hostage, with 33 others, many of whom were relatives of the Welsh king. Eventually, the king submitted to Æthelflæd, promising to serve her faithfully and to pay compensation. The incident not only demonstrates Æthelflæd’s commitment to her people, but also shows her strength and determination, attributes she was to put to good use against the Danes.

In 917 Æthelflæd turned her attention to those Danes. Danish forces had taken the offensive, raiding English territories. By the end of the year Edward had subdued East Anglia, with all the Scandinavian armies of the region submitting to him. While her brother was raiding in  the East Midlands, Æthelflæd led her forces across the West Midlands. She marched on the Viking stronghold of Derby, personally leading the army on campaign. It would be the first of the Danes’ ‘Five Boroughs’, which made up the Danelaw, to fall. Although she managed to successfully storm the fort, her army suffered heavy casualties, including four of her most trusted and senior thegns (thegns were the army’s commanders and officers). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported; ‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates’.¹

The Saxon victory was a great shock to the Danes. Their Viking myths told of an invincible woman who would appear at Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, and make brave warriors cower before her. Æthelflæd was relentless  – in early 918 she and her army moved on to Leicester, while Edward headed for Stamford. Leicester was the centre of a heavily settled Danish colony, and Æthelflæd ravaged the countryside around the settlement. The Danes had no choice but to surrender in the face of her indefatigable forces. However, she was magnanimous in victory, displaying mercy and charity by distributing alms as she progressed into town.

Æthelflæd in the thirteenth century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings

The inexorable advance of Æthelflæd’s army combined with her compassion for the defeated was to prove to be a clever strategy, demonstrating to those regions still controlled by the Danes that she was prepared to offer compromise if they would only submit to her. The Danes of York, the Viking capital, in particular, began to look at submitting to Æthelflæd as a serious option to avoid continued conflict. Their new king was Ragnall, a Viking pirate from Dublin, who had taken the throne by force; but the Danes knew that Edward and Æthelflæd would never make peace with him. In the summer of 918 the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her.

In May, King Edward had marched his army to Stamford, building a new fort south of the river and accepting the surrender of the local Danes, who submitted to him as their new ruler. It was while he was still at Stamford that Edward received word of his sister, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle made a cold, clinical report:

918 While he was there his sister Æthelflæd died at Tamworth two weeks before midsummer. The king took possession of Tamworth and the whole province of Mercia which she had governed.²

Æthelflæd died suddenly at Tamworth on 12 June 918. She was buried beside her husband, in the east chapel of the cathedral she had founded, St Oswald’s Minister, Gloucester. Although she did not live long enough to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had carried out, her achievements cannot be lightly brushed off. Between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered. Her nephew Athelstan consolidated the kingdom that had been created by the efforts of Edward and Æthelflæd. If Æthelflæd did not live to see the extent of her success, neither did she live to see her daughter, Ælfwynn, nearly thirty and still unmarried, briefly become the nominal ruler of Mercia; only to be ‘deprived of all authority’ six months later and taken to Wessex, from where nothing more is heard of her.

St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, where Æthelflæd and her husband are buried

The story of Æthelflæd mainly comes from the Mercian Register, embedded largely in the B, C and D texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She appears only rarely in the primary text, text A, which focuses on Edward and Wessex. Text A tries to minimise Æthelflæd’s significance, but could not wholly obscure her achievements. She was, after all, the daughter of Alfred the Great, the wife of the ealdorman of Mercia and a prominent woman in her own right, in an era when this was an incredible rarity. It is thought that it was Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who inspired the 10th century poem, ‘Judith’ who is ‘white and shining’, ‘noble and courageous’. In the poem, Æthelflæd is depicted as the ‘valorous virgin’ who struck off the head of the hostile foe with her gleaming sword and ‘ascribed the glory of all that to the Lord of Hosts’. Recognising her vital role in the creation of England, the 12th century Henry of Huntingdon declared Æthelflæd ‘to have been so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, but even king’. In a poem he described her as ‘worthy of a man’s name’ and ‘more illustrious than Caesar’, apparently high praise indeed – for a woman.

In the 21st century Æthelflæd’s story is becoming more widely known than it has ever been. She is one of the major influences of my book, Heroines of the Medieval World and appears, appropriately, in the chapter on Warrior Heroines. Joanna Arman’s non-fiction book The Warrior Queen: the Life and Legend of Æthelflæd, Daughter of Alfred the Great is well worth a perusalIn addition, with her appearance in Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful The Last Kingdom books and television series, and Annie Whitehead’s novel, To Be A Queen, Æthelflæd’s story is finally being brought into the light. On the 1100th anniversary of her death, her incredible achievements are being celebrated in the heart of Mercia, in Gloucester and Tamworth. And not before time; Æthelflæd should be the inspiration for future generations of strong, influential women and stand out as an example of what can be achieved if you are determined enough.

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Footnotes: ¹ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; ² ibid.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Further Reading: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson;  History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Warrior of Woden

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Matthew Harffy to History … the Interesting Bits as the latest stop on his Warrior of Woden Blog Tour.

Matthew has kindly given us an extract from this latest, fabulous book in his Bernicia Chronicles series, which follow the adventures and experiences of Beobrand HAlf-hand. Ocer to Matthew:

“The weather has been fine these past weeks, has it not?”

“Aye,” Acennan smiled, “better than riding through rain and mud, shivering without a fire at night.” They both recalled the misery of the year before when it had rained almost every day of their month of riding along this southern border of Northumbria. All of them had been ill by the end of it, and their clothes had rotted on their backs from being constantly sodden.

“You are not wrong there, my friend,” said Beobrand. “But do you remember last year, even when the sky was filled with rain and storms raged in the heavens day after day, even then, we caught some of the Mercian brigands raiding into the lands of our king? Remember, there was that fool we caught when he tried to ride Theomund’s stud stallion?”

Attor and Cynan, who were near to Beobrand and Acennan, laughed at the memory.

“We were hardly needed then,” said Acennan. “That Mercian boy was made to regret stealing a proud Northumbrian horse!”

More men laughed at the memory. One of the few moments of that rain-drenched month that they were happy to remember. The huge stallion had not been pleased to be ridden out of its warm stable and it had thrown the Mercian youth from its back and then, when the boy sought to drag him away by pulling on the horse’s reins, the beast had attacked him. The horse had trotted back to its master’s stable. The stallion had reminded him of Sceadugenga. Beobrand and his warband had found the Mercian lad trampled and bleeding in the mud.

The boy had still been dazed when they had hanged him.

“There was not much need of us then, you are right,” said Beobrand. “That horse was well able to look after itself, it seems. But even then, with the constant rain, men raided from Mercia, seeking to steal what they could. How many men have we seen raiding this past fortnight?”

“We have seen none,” replied Acennan, “but I for one am happy of the peace and the good weather. Perhaps I am getting old.”

“Perhaps you are at that,” laughed Beobrand. “Eadgyth has tamed you when you are at your hall, of that there is no doubt.”

Acennan blushed.

“Well, she has her ways of keeping me quiet.”

Beobrand smiled.

“I am sure she does.”

Acennan was happier than ever. His land prospered, as did his family. Eadgyth had borne him two fine children and Acennan doted on them all. But there was little that could be described as old or tame about him when he rode with Beobrand’s warband.

Beobrand stared at the smear of smoke in the pale sky over the southern hills.

“But does it not strike you as strange that this year, when the weather has been fair, and there has been a full moon and clear skies, we have neither seen nor heard of any bands of Mercians striking into Deira?”

Acennan frowned.

“Perhaps you are right, lord,” he said. “But what do you think is the cause of the calm over the land?”

“I do not know, my friend,” Beobrand answered, smiling to himself at Acennan’s use of the term “lord”. He only called him thus when he was angry or nervous. “But something is not right and south of here I would wager a hall is burning.”

He straightened his back and stretched his shoulders and arms in preparation for a hard ride.

“Attor and Cynan, you are to ride ahead as scouts. Gallop back to warn us if you smell a trap. This could be bait for an ambush.” Beobrand raised his voice so that all could hear. “The rest of you, prepare to ride. We will seek out what is the cause of this smoke and mayhap we will find what has kept the Mercians so quiet these past weeks.”

Cynan and Attor nodded and kicked their steeds into a canter that took them down the slope of the hill and quickly into the shade of a stand of elm.

Acennan frowned at Beobrand, but touched his spurs to his horse’s flanks, trotting forward with the remainder of Beobrand’s gesithas.

Beobrand understood his friend’s concern and he acknowledged that he was probably right in his appraisal of the situation. Surely no good could come of this.

For Beobrand led his warband into Mercia.

To read my review of Warrior of Woden click here.

Author bio

Matthew grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

 Book description

AD 642. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fifth instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Oswald has reigned over Northumbria for eight years and Beobrand has led the king to ever greater victories. Rewarded for his fealty and prowess in battle, Beobrand is now a wealthy warlord, with a sizable warband. Tales of Beobrand’s fearsome black-shielded warriors and the great treasure he has amassed are told throughout the halls of the land.

Many are the kings who bow to Oswald. And yet there are those who look upon his realm with a covetous eye. And there is one ruler who will never kneel before him.

When Penda of Mercia, the great killer of kings, invades Northumbria, Beobrand is once more called upon to stand in an epic battle where the blood of many will be shed in defence of the kingdom.

But in this climactic clash between the pagan Penda and the Christian Oswald there is much more at stake than sovereignty. This is a battle for the very souls of the people of Albion.

Links to buy

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 Website: http://www.matthewharffy.com/

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My book

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Mother’s Day Treat

Sunday 11th March 2018 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year

Mum is everyone’s favourite Heroine, in whatever era, and I could not think of a better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than with a giveaway of a hardback copy of Heroines of the Medieval World.

About Heroines of the Medieval World

Heroines come in many different forms, and it is no less true for medieval heroines. They can be found in all areas of medieval life; from the dutiful wife and daughter to religious devotees, warriors and rulers. What makes them different compared to those of today are the limitations placed on them by those who directed their lives – their fathers, husbands, priests and kings. Women have always been an integral part of history, although when reading through the chronicles of the medieval world, you would be forgiven if you did not know it. We find that the vast majority of written references are focussed on men. The chronicles were written by men and, more often than not, written for men. It was men who ruled countries, fought wars, made laws and treaties, dominated religion and guaranteed – or tried to guarantee – the continued survival of their world. It was usually the men, but not all of them, who could read, who were trained to rule and who were expected to fight, to defend their people and their country…

 

If you would like to win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World to give to your mum on Mother’s Day, or someone else’s mum – or even as a gift to yourself, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Wednesday 7th March, so you should get the book in time for the day.

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The winner is ….. Janet Carter.

The draw is now closed and I would like to thank everyone for taking part.

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Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: Digging up Folklore – King Arthur by Mary Anne Yarde

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Mary Anne Yarde, author of The Du Lac Chronicles, to History…the Interesting Bits with an article about her fascination with King Arthur.

Digging up Folklore ~ King Arthur

I have been fascinated with the life and times of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table since I was a child — I guess growing up a stone’s throw from Glastonbury (The Ancient Isle of Avalon) may have had something to do with that.

My book series, The Du Lac Chronicles, tells the story of what happened after the death of Arthur, and continues the story of his Knights and their sons. But to write about the end of Arthur’s reign, I needed to know about the beginning. A not so easy task, it turned out.

The history of a historical Arthur is not written in stone but is, instead, engraved in folklore and that brings its own set of challenges.

Firstly, where did Arthur come from? Well, that is an easy question to answer…

King Arthur was English. No, he was Welsh. Arthur was Scottish. He was from Brittany. Oh, for goodness’ sake, he was a Roman General!

Which is right? Arthur is so famous that everyone wants to claim him and, over the years, there have been many names thrown out there as to who he really was. But we mustn’t forget that when we are dealing with Arthur, we are digging up folklore, and that is not the same as excavating relics. We can make Arthur fit wherever we want him to, and that is where the problem lies. It is very easy to make mistakes, and I have read many books that claim to have found the real Arthur, only they haven’t, it is just a theory, sometimes a very shaky one.

The same can be said for Arthur’s famous castle, Camelot. There have been many possible locations for one of the most famous castles in history. Tintagel, Cadbury Hill, Caerlaverock Castle, have all been put forward, and recently it has been suggested that a small Roman fort at Slack is where the real Camelot once stood. However, during all this excitement and discoveries we have overlooked a fundamental issue — there was no Camelot. It was an invention of a French poet in 1180! How can you look for something that was never there to begin with?

The Dark Ages, in which my books are set, are equally challenging to research because there is a lack of reliable primary resources. What was written down was written down for a purpose and that purpose was usually politically motivated, which in itself is fascinating, although not so helpful. Now, in these early texts when Arthur is mentioned, there is nothing about him being a king. Nennuis describes him as a warrior on par with Ironman, but no mention of a crown.

It isn’t until the 12th Century when Geoffrey of Monmouth writes his great work that the Arthur we know is born. The History of The Kings of Briton was meant to be a historically accurate account of British History and for many, many, years what Monmouth wrote was considered factually correct. Of course, we now know it was anything but. However, that does not mean that Monmouth’s work is of no particular value. Monmouth borrowed heavily from folklore and it is his story that drives the legend of Arthur and his Knights forward. I think Monmouth’s book is incredibly important as it tells us a great deal about, not only the era, but also about the people who were listening to his stories. And if we dig a little further, we can discover that it wasn’t only the populous who loved listening to Arthurian tales. Those pragmatic monks at Glastonbury Abbey did as well.

Let’s take a journey back to 12th Century England…

A terrible fire had spread through Glastonbury Abbey, and unfortunately for the monks, they did not have the coffers to pay for the repairs. If only they could encourage more pilgrims to come to the Abbey. What could they do? Pray to God and hope all would be well…?

Thanks to Monmouth’s book Arthur was the hot topic of the day and people would pay to go on a pilgrimage to Arthur’s final resting place so they could pay their respects to this once great King. All that was needed was a good story and a grave. The monks of Glastonbury announced to the world that they had discovered Arthur’s final resting place. That brought in the crowds — much like Tintagel does for English Heritage today! Glastonbury Abbey soon had the coffers to make the repairs and then some. There was as much truth in the story of Glastonbury Abbey and King Arthur’s grave as there was in The History of the Kings of Briton. But for hundreds of years, both the Abbey and Monmouth were believed.

My books are not just set in Britain, but France as well, so I needed to have a good understanding of what was happening in both of these countries in the 5th / 6th Century in order to keep the history real in the telling. Before we look at any of these countries we need to look at the powerhouse of the world at this time, and that was the Roman Empire. However, the golden age of the Roman Empire was almost over; she was politically unstable and was withdrawing her forces from far-flung provinces such as Briton, to defend her borders.

But this dawning new era brings some of the most fascinating historical figures that ever lived. These were the days of men such as Clovis. Clovis won a decisive victory against Rome, at the Battle of Soissons in AD 486. But, Clovis’ ambition didn’t stop there. Roman Gaul and parts of Western Germany fell to him as well. He forged a new empire through blood, war, and marriage. He made Paris the capital of his new kingdom, and he was the first King of a united Frank (France).

The Saxons and the Angles crossed the South Sea (The English Channel) to take advantage of vulnerable Britain who, since the Romans had left, had split back into various smaller kingdoms. There was much infighting and unrest, it was the perfect opportunity for the Saxon’s to come over and stake their claim.

Brittany, like Britain, wasn’t one united country, but many, and they were a race of warriors. While they were busy fighting each other, they missed the real threat to the kingdom, which eventually would be their undoing and they would find themselves at the mercy of Frank.

While all this is going on, the Church is creeping into the crevices, and spreading the word of God and, what could be considered of equal value, one language — Latin. It could be argued that it was the Church that united Britain in the end.

This was a time of great unrest and change, but one thing remained constant for the general populous and that was storytelling. Arthur may well have been a general but folklore made him a Christian King and gave him a castle full of noble knights. Arthur and his Knights (most of them anyway) cared about the people they represented. Arthur was a good king, the like of which has never been seen before or after. He was the perfect tool for spreading a type of patriotic propaganda. Arthur was someone you would want to fight by your side. But he also gave ordinary people a sense of belonging and hope. He is, after all, The Once and Future King.

I have tried to show what life was like in the 5th /6th Century in my books, but I have been heavily influenced by folklore, because when you are dealing with this period in history you cannot dismiss it. Brittany, for example, is terribly difficult to research historically during this era, but when it comes to folklore, she is rich and if that is all she is going to give us, then so be it. Folklore is its own special brand of history, and it is often overlooked by historians, which I think is a shame. You can tell a lot about a people by the stories they tell, and people are still fascinated by this larger-than-life King, which I think says it all. Arthur may well have been a general, or a knight, he may have been English, he may not, but it doesn’t matter because his story is timeless, it will never grow old.

Blurb:

The multi award-winning series, The Du Lac Chronicles, continues…

War is coming…

The ink has dried on Amandine’s death warrant. Her crime? She is a du Lac.

All that stands in the way of a grisly death on a pyre is the King of Brittany. However, King Philippe is a fickle friend, and if her death is profitable to him, then she has no doubt that he would light the pyre himself.

Alan, the only man Amandine trusts, has a secret and must make an impossible choice, which could have far-reaching consequences — not only for Amandine, but for the whole of Briton.

Links for Purchase:

Amazon US Amazon UK  Amazon CA

Bio: Mary Anne Yarde is the multi award-winning author of the International Best Selling Series — The Du Lac Chronicles. Set a generation after the fall of King Arthur, The Du Lac Chronicles takes you on a journey through Dark Age Briton and Brittany, where you will meet new friends and terrifying foes. Based on legends and historical fact, the Du Lac Chronicles is a series not to be missed.

Born in Bath, England, Mary Anne Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury–the fabled Isle of Avalon–was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood.

Useful Links

Myths Legends Books & Coffee Pots

Mary’s Bookcase

A Small Gang of Authors

Goodreads

Facebook

Twitter

Amazon Author Page

I would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Mary Anne for such a fascinating post and wish her every success with her latest novel.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Sharons book cover

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Warriors and Kings by Martin Wall

For centuries, the Celtic peoples of Britain stood fast against invasion and oppression. Theirs is a fascinating and exciting story that includes the deeds of some of the most tenacious and heroic leaders in history – from Caratacus and Boudicca to William Wallace, Owain Glyndwr and the legendary King Arthur. What was it that gave first the Britons, and then the Welsh, this fanatical will to hold out against overwhelming odds through so many centuries?

Martin Wall explores the mythology and psychology of this unyielding and insular people; their devotion to charismatic leaders they believed to be sent from God, and their stubborn determination ‘ne’er to yield’ to oppression and injustice, whether Roman, Saxon, Norman, Viking, or later, the ravages of industrialisation. This fascinating book explores Celtic Britain from before the onslaught of the Roman Empire, through rebellion and open war, to the Act of Union passed under the Tudors and on to the Victorian era.

Warriors and Kings: The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain is a treasure trove of information on the history  of the Celts. Charting their progress, trials and tribulations from the time of the Romans, it provides a unique, in-depth biography of the race that once occupied Britain.

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons by John Opie.

Opening with the first Roman invasion of Britain, Martin Wall takes the reader on a journey through England through the eyes of the Celts, providing a detailed and interesting analysis of their way of life, their culture and beliefs and the key points in the history of the Celtic peoples and – by extension – Britain itself. Warriors and Kings: The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain gives us insight into the key characters of Celtic Britain, the heroes and the villains.

Using and analysing contemporary sources Warriors and Kings: The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain tells the fascinating story of Boudicca’s – ultimately doomed – rebellion. The book also discusses the existence – or not – of King Arthur, offering theories and ideas as to his identity; while leaving the reader to decide for themselves who he may have been.

The real problem which has bedevilled researchers into a ‘factual’ Arthur is that his rise to power coincided with the collapse of Roman Britain and the re-emergence or revival of Celtic culture – combined with a barbarian onslaught of unprecedented intensity from the Saxons. In times so troubled few contemporary records were kept up, but a little later, after the events but close enough to them to be reliably informed, Gildas wrote his De Excidio et conquestu Britanniae, his ‘complaining book’, about the ‘ruination of Britain’

Martin Wall has produced a book that is both enjoyable and informative, providing balanced argument and analysis of all the major events and figures of Celtic Britain. Making good use of contemporary and near-contemporary literature and archaeology, the story is re-told in a fascinating chronological narrative. Drawing on historians from earliest times, such as Tacitus and Gildas, all the way to the most recent studies, Martin Wall pulls everything together in order to tell the story.

Warriors and Kings: The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain charts the 1500-year-long struggle for supremacy over the island of Britain, showing how the Celts have been faced with one invasion after another. Using the battles, conflicts and invasions, we follow the fate of the Celts from the Romans, through the Dark Ages and in to the reign of King Alfred. The wonderful Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, and her struggle with the Vikings leads into the Norman Conquest and further erosion of Celtic traditions, with the invaders pushing inexorably westwards. There are some fascinating insights into Celtic culture and history; for example, did you know that small enclaves of Celts existed in Mercia during the 5th and 6th centuries?

By the late 570s it was clear that several powerful Anglo-Saxon kings were poised ready to move westwards. In the north, King Aethelric of Deira commenced hostilities with Rheged. A bold Anglian attack thrust right over the Pennines and at Argoed Llyfein, the forest of Leven in Cumbria, Aethelric, nicknamed the ‘Flame-bearer’ by the Celtic bards (perhaps his army had marched through the mountain passes in a night attack), was confronted on a bleak Saturday morning by the mighty Urien. The Angles were soundly beaten and Urien became a legendary Brythonic hero. This did not end the war, but intensified it until it became an epic conflict – truly worthy of poetry and legend, a contest between ‘Dark Age’ super-powers.

King Arthur and his Knights have a vision of the Holy Grail a by Evrard d’Espinques

 

Warriors and Kings: The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain demonstrates that, despite its name, ‘Dark Age’ Britain is anything but the unknown entity as previously thought. We have a wealth of information on people and events and Martin Wall has brought all the disparate sources – legends, chronicles and poems – together to recreate and enlighten a hitherto underexposed era of British history.

The author’s analysis is clear, concise and informative. He makes it clear where his own theories and those of other historians either agree or digress, while always being respectful. There are no footnotes, but references are included as part of the text, with a bibliography at the back of the book. The sources are assessed on an individual basis, with Martin Wall giving clear views on their veracity, bias and – sometimes – exaggeration.

For fans of Bernard Cornwell, Matthew Harffy and Annie Whitehead, this book gives the historical background to their fabulous novels, explaining the origins and times of Uhtred, Beobrand and Aethelflaed (even if Uhtred and Beobrand are fictional).

Warriors and Kings: The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain examines every aspect of Celitc history; their language, literature, religion and, even, warfare. It charts their story through the centuries and provides some explanation of how they disappeared into legend, their enclaves getting smaller and smaller as other tribes grew in power and influence over Britain. The book is a pleasure to read and a useful addition to any book shelf – be it a fan of King Arthur, a lover of Boudicca or a general history lover.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Warriors and Kings: The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain by Martin Wall is available from Amberley Publishing and Amazon.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

 

 

Book Corner: Killer of Kings by Matthew Harffy

AD 636. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fourth instalment in The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.

When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.

In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?

This series just gets better and better!

Killer of Kings by Matthew Harffy is the 4th instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles, telling the story of Beobrand Half-Hand, a young Northumbrian thegn skilled in war. And, as readers have come to expect of the author, the novel has a strong, engaging story, that sees the hero travelling the length and breadth of Saxon England, fueled by duty to his king and a desire for revenge against the man who violated his wife and has, as yet, escaped retribution. Set in East Anglia, Kent, Mercia and Northumbria (Bernicia), we see Beobrand facing enemies, both old and new.

Matthew Harffy is a great story-teller. The Bernicia Chronicles are a must-read for anyone with a love of Anglo-Saxon England. The story is fast-paced and impossible to put down. Keeping you on the edge of your seat from the opening chapter, a desperation to know what happens next will keep you reading into the early hours.

Beobrand is developing into a wonderful character; a hero always questioning himself and other people’s perceptions of him. He has a growing sense of responsibility towards his duties, his men and their families, who rely on him for protection and patronage. In Killer of Kings we see Beobrand’s past and present collide; the mysteries of his childhood are revealed, tying up some loose ends, while at the same time helping to set his course in the present and, maybe, the future.

One last look at the other woman and then Edmonda grasped his hand. Beobrand pulled her up behind him with ease.

“God bless you all,” she said, sobbing.

“Hold on to me, girl,” said Beobrand. “Tight, mind, or you’ll fall when we start to ride.”

She did not reply, but her slim arms encircled his waist.

Swinging Sceadugenga’s head around, he turned to the mounted Waelisc warrior in the white cloak.

“You say you know me,” said Beobrand. “And yet, I know you not. What is your name, Waelisc?”

The man offered him a broad smile.

“I am Gwalchmei ap Gwyar. And you have now stolen two things of mine.”

The name meant nothing to Beobrand.

“What two things? What riddle is this?” How he would love to ride the man off his horse and smash that smile from his face.

“Well, now there is that girl. But she is nothing. That however,” he said, indicating Sceadugenga, “is another matter.”

What was the man speaking of? He made no sense.

“What do you mean?” Beobrand asked, his words as sharp and cold as shards of iron.

“That fine stallion you are riding,” said Gwalchmei, “is my horse.”

The storyline follows two interesting opposing paths. With one strand being Beobrand’s mission and his return face the demons of his past. While the other follows those left behind; Rheagan, the freed slave who is his current love interest, and those left to protect and maintain Beobrand’s manor of Ubbanford … who find themselves with their own enemy to face. The contrast between the struggles of those who left to fight, and of those left at home, is stark. It serves to offer a new insight into the intertwined fates of the warriors and their families, the worries of each for the other and their interdependency.

Whether it is setting the scene in a king’s hall, a simple cottage or on a battlefield, Matthew Harffy transports the reader so that the sights, sounds and smells are so vivid it’s hard to believe they’re not real. His attention to detail serves to  paint the picture in the reader’s mind’s eye. The horrors of the battlefield are described with care and attention, with individual fights contrasting with the greater battle and individual, heroic deaths contrasting with the devastation once the battle has ended, leaving the reader exhilarated and bereft at the same time. It is not all about battles, however; even though he is a warrior, past experience has made Beobrand all-too-aware of the political consequences of war and the machinations of kings.

The Bernicia Chronicles are set in the Seventh Century, telling the story of a time even before King Alfred, when Anglo-Saxon England was made up of a number of disparate kingdoms, with kings fighting for supremacy over each other. With his exceptional knowledge of the time, Matthew Harrfy transports the reader back to this period, using his research to vividly recreate the people, buildings and landscape of the time.

Matthew Harffy has a knack of developing characters who are at once vivid, flawed, heroic and human. Each book sees Beobrand grow and mature, and carrying more scars from his experiences. The strong story lines and interesting personalities make Matthew Harffy one of the best authors of Dark Ages historical fiction of today. He is one of those authors I do not hesitate to recommend – and often. His books are fabulous, enjoyable, entertaining and true to the history of the period. The author’s descriptive skills and lively dialogue will draw you in and keep you captivated to the very end – and beyond.

 

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About the author: Matthew Harffy grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

Killer of Kings, Book 4 in the Bernicia Chronicles, is now available from Amazon, Kobo, ibooks and Google Play.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly