Guest Post – Tales of Freya by Sarah Dahl

When Viking research turns personal

Dress

One question every author of historical fiction is asked is “How do you do your research?”, and then we most likely explain it like this: I have the usual array (or let’s say: addiction to) books about the era and specific aspects of the time (in my and surely also Sharon’s case: women’s lives in the era). My all-time favourite is an absolutely rich book I always consult: Hjardar/Vike’s “Vikings at War”. Unprecedented detail in text, maps, and depictions.

Then we add that of course we go online for more research. We collect pictures, maps, articles. I have a Pinterest board (https://www.pinterest.de/sarahdahl13), where I collect my favourite visual inspiration. This, and a lot more, can be done from home, behind the desk. Entire worlds a few clicks away.

The next step would be to put on pants and actually go outside, to do a journey of sorts, because unlike contemporary authors, us histfic folk have to travel a bit to reach a certain place of interest for more hands-on research. I’m talking museums, battlefields, graveyards, ruins, whatever. In my case, all of those make sense: the Viking times were violent and rich in cultural exchange. I can get just as excited over a bump in the grass that contains a grave as I can enjoy looking at a heap of stones that once was an early medieval wall.

The challenge is to really envision life and people behind these artefacts. Sometimes it’s impossible, sometimes quite easy: imagination runs wild, and with it begin stories. My main interest is always the people and possible stories behind these cold, hard (arte)facts. This is how most of my plots start: during outdoor research, inspired by a place.

The magic of Viking Hedeby/Haithabu

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A place I’m particularly fond of is Hedeby in northern Germany. Not just because it is actually within reach for me in my Dreiländereck – but because it has it all: a modern, interactive museum with all the beautiful artefacts you could wish for, really bringing the era to life. But most important, there’s an open-air reconstruction of the Viking town in the actual historically correct place. So not only some houses and paths are erected again and ready to experience “live”, but the landscape is pretty much still what it was in those times, too. I can stand high on the protective wall and look down at the small settlement and imagine people walking the streets. I can envision the jetties where once dragonboats and merchants’ ships were moored. I can feel the harsh wind and hear the reeds rustle that still so densly border the Slien fjord. I can walk away from the settlement and into the fields and encounter massive runestones with original inscriptions. I really get a feel for the place and era. And every time, new story ideas form.

So this has become a habit now: every year I take a long weekend off to drive up to Schleswig and revisit my favourite place of inspiration. I just take time to be there, discover more details in the wood of the houses, the frameworks, the landscape. I let more stories unfold just by sitting on a bench, or watching a reenactor stir herbs to dye wool in a big pot. Driving home, I always have to pull over and take more notes.

Here is also where my research took another unexpected turn. Hedeby hosts several markets; and I attended the Viking spring market. It does something to a writer when she suddenly walks among her characters as they come alive with frightening vitality. Yes, I totally stalked some of them. The white-bearded guy with braided hair and tattoos. The incredibly handsome sword figther with the thoughtful face. The storyteller lady who captured an audience with a swipe of her staff.
And the colours, the smells! It’s almost shocking to be standing in the world you so far just imagined. You see the colour of their cheese, the texture of their bread, and the vivid patterns of their dresses. You inhale the scent of baking, cooking, sheepskins, and fires.

I never imagined actually HOW dark it is inside a Viking house once the door closes! But sitting on furs around the fire with other Vikings and a storyteller is mind-blowing. I didn’t want to leave! And when the door opened again, a ray of light hit a bump right behind me – it was so dark, I had overlooked sleeping kids within an arms-length. I suddenly had to acknowledge that I was stretching reality in my stories, in that I had made the houses much brighter to have the stories work. My protagonists need to see their opponent’s expressions and movements much clearer than what was obviously possible. We all have to stretch reality a little at times, especially for today’s readers. But I drove home deep in thought.

Becoming what you write

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Another thing the market did was: I had so far only seen myself as an observer, not a participant. I use the knowledge of Viking reenactors to discuss my plots and characters, but I didn’t want to take part in markets, I just visited them, and took notes. Until then, at Hedeby.

I suddenly craved a dress and all that comes with it. But as a Viking dress contains many pieces (including jewellery and tools), and it has to be hand-made in the ancient craft, I found it too expensive an experiment if I didn’t plan to participate in markets. Until my birthday loomed and I thought I want a real feast: a Viking feast in a barn, in a dress of my own!

So that’s when my research became very personal and I commissioned Danish seamstresses to make me a dress. I chose fitting brooches and beads to go with it, crafted after original finds. I chose every single bead according to its correct time period and location: Hedeby, 10th century. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever put together.

The day of fitting then wasn’t only a transformation, it was a revelation: as layer upon layer of clothing slipped over my head, I turned from an observer into more than a participant – I “became” something new. Suddenly everything I had studied and written about was ON me, became part of me. The rough fabrics, the smooth flow of the dress around my ankles. The glint of the brooches and clinging of the beads. I was a little in shock and a lot in awe when I saw myself in the mirror. It does something to you when you suddenly “become” what you write.

I now know what it feels like to prick yourself in the attempt to fix the beads to the brooches. What they sound like when I walk. How warm but light the linen and wool-combination feels.

And since that amazing birthday feast I also know what it’s like to swing a real Viking axe, made by a Norwegian smith (using ancient craftsmanship)! My “shieldmaiden axe” was the incredible birthday gift my husband had ordered made to my tiny measures. It’s awe-inspiring to hold and touch, let alone cut logs with!

So if these days someone asks me “How do you do your research?” I skip the boring books and online part. I hold up the beads I often wear around my wrist, and I might take the shiny axe off the wall and hold it out to the enquirer.

It always, always silences both parties for a long while: to weigh the ancient stuff in your hand and “feel” history is more than inspiring: it’s awe-inspiring. And then to imagine the people who might have lived and died in the times …

It’s so much stronger than my words.

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“Tales of Freya – Sensual Short Stories”

(the complete collection, just out in ebook and paperback)

About Tales of Freya collection of sensual short stories set in the Viking age:

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In this collection of adult bedtime stories, Sarah Dahl pulls back the curtain of history to depict the erotic lives of Viking men and women. Amid the stark landscapes of fjords, forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, her characters search for love and passion. Dahl authentically illuminates the sensual side of a world of battle and plunder in an alluring collection perfect for every lover of gritty Viking romance.

A warrior recovering by a river is drawn into an unforeseen skirmish with a beautiful shield maiden. An enslaved Christian monk is entranced by his captors’ pagan allure. A dissatisfied housewife finds that her home holds an unexpected and liberating secret. An injured farmer is captivated by the magic of his irresistible healer …

In a world of crackling fires and rough landscapes, long winters and bloody raids, the immediacy of life and death ignites undeniable passions. Warriors and monks, healers and housewives – all follow the call of their hearts and bodies to indulge in pleasures that may forever change their lives.

Buy links:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

About the author:

Sarah Dahl lives on the edge of the rural German Eifel and writes historical fiction (novels and short stories) primarily set in the Viking age. She also works as an editor, translates, and coaches new writers in German and English. She is interested in everyday life in bygone centuries and the human stories that may have occurred behind the hard, historical facts.

Author homepage

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Twitter: @sarahdahl13

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Out Now!

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 is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

 

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Sarah Dahl

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: To Be A Queen by Annie Whitehead

Today over at The Review, you can read my thoughts on Anni Whitehead’s wonderful novel of Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, in To Be A Queen.

And there’s a signed copy as a giveaway!

Here’s a taster:

Written by Annie Whitehead, To Be A Queen, is the fascinating story of the most remarkable of Saxon women, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and daughter of Alfred the Great. The novel leads us through Aethelflaed’s personal journey, from a sheltered childhood in the heart of Wessex to marriage, motherhood, and a remarkable partnership with her brother Edward, who succeeded their father as King of Wessex. Aethelflaed and Edward spearhead the fight against the Danes and the struggle to unite England under one ruler.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, To Be A Queen, draws the reader in from the very first sentence,  recounting the story of Aethelflaed’s life while telling you the bigger story that is the making of England. Many readers may be familiar with Aethelflaed from the Bernard Cornwell The Last Kingdom series, but Annie Whitehead develops the Lady of Mercia to even greater depths, getting under the skin and into the heart of this amazing woman.

To read the full review of this fantastic novel – and to enter the prize draw and be in with a chance of winning one of two e-book copies in the giveaway, simply visit The Review and leave a comment.

Good luck!

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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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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2017