Monday 31 December 2018

King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

“It has been quite common for historians to subscribe to the ‘no smoke without fire’ theory of Arthur, even though the smoke is very thin, and indistinguishable from highland mist.” 
- Edward James, Britain in the First Millennium.

King Arthur
The Making of the Legend

Nicholas J Higham

Yale University Press, 2018

From the front flap:

“Sometime around 500 CE, King Arthur saved Britain from the Saxons and reigned gloriously – according to legend. But is this in any sense true? Was there ever a ‘real’ King Arthur?

“There have been many competing answers to this question. While most scholars declare themselves agnostic, Nicholas J Higham sets out to solve the puzzle, drawing on his own research and a lifetime’s immersion in the subject to establish whether or not King Arthur was historical, and when, and more importantly why, the legend began.

“In this compelling account, Higham explores the claimed Arthurian connections with pre-classical Greece, Roman Dalmatia, the Eurasian Steppe and the Caucasus, as well as different identifications of Arthur within Britain. He then plots the legend’s emergence in Wales to his rise to fame more widely after 1100.

“Crucially, Higham shows how early ninth-century Welsh clerics in a land under threat from the English rewrote the past in ways designed to bolster local morale in the present, portraying Arthur as a Christian British warrior who won multiple victories over the pagan Saxons. This heroic figure was taken up in Wales and beyond, becoming pivotal to works written in both prose and poetry over six centuries and more.

“Certain to arouse heated debate amongst those committed to defending any particular Arthur. Higham’s book is essential to understanding the origins of this legendary figure.”

The Author
N. J. Higham is professor emeritus in history at the University of Manchester. His many works include Ecgfrith, King of the Northumbrians; Edward the Elder; King Arthur, Myth-making and History; and The Anglo-Saxon World. He lives in Cheshire.


Introduction: Arthur, History and the Storytellers

1. Lucius Artorius Castus: A Dalmatian King Arthur?
2. The ‘Sarmatian Connection’
3. King Arthur and the Narts
4. King Arthur and the Greeks

5. A Dark Age King Arthurian
6. Arthur and the Historia Brittonum
7. A British Arthur: Starting the Tradition
8. ‘Fire’, ‘Smoke’ and ‘Highland Mist’

Appendix I – The Artorius Inscriptions
Appendix II – Arthur’s Battles as described in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae
Appendix III – The Mirabilia

This book follows on from Higham's previous Arthurian works King Arthur: Pocket Giants (History Press, 2015) and King Arthur: Myth-Making and History (Routledge, 2002)

A Roman Arthur?
This a book of two parts: the second part of the book, The ‘British’ Arthur, covers similar ground to that discussed by Higham in King Arthur: Myth-Making and History (Routledge, 2002), a work that led to Higham, along with Thomas Green (Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007), being referred to as  the ‘King Arthur assassins’.

But Part One, over a hundred pages, primarily sets out to demolish the resurgent theory of Lucius Artorius Castus (LAC), a Dalmatian officer in the 2nd century Roman Army, as the origin of the King Arthur legend. The 'Dalmation theory' has enjoyed something of a comeback in recent years with the publication of ‘From Scythia to Camelot’ by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, first published in 1994, revised in 2000. 

Malcor, with John Matthews, went on to act as historical advisers to Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 film ‘King Arthur’ starring Clive Owen as Arthur (or Artorius) and Keira Knightley as Guinevere, the screenplay inspired by, and loosely following, the notion put forward in ‘From Scythia to Camelot’. The content of the film is perhaps best described as a historical mish-mash played out in northern Britain.

The idea of a Dalmation origin for the King Arthur legend was first suggested in the late 19th century. Kemp Malone then developed this further in 1925 with analysis of the LAC tombstone in what is now modern day Croatia. Malone saw this as the Arthurian legend’s starting point.

Here, in the first part of his latest book, Higham presents the first serious challenge in popular print to the LAC theory, which essentially comes in three parts: the legends of King Arthur originate from the true life account of Lucius Artorius Castus; the Sarmatian connection; and the Narts sagas.

Historians agree that the name ‘Arthur’ could certainly have derived from the Latin name ‘Artorius’. Armed with this fact, Malcor argues that the Arthurian legend has its basis in a Roman officer bearing this name who was stationed in Britain in the 2nd century (historians disagree on the actual date). Malcor joins this officer together with 5,500 Sarmatians that where sent to Britain in 175 AD after being defeated by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and, hey presto, we have LAC leading a detachment of Sarmatian cavalry in battles along Hadrian’s Wall, which she argues is the provenance of Arthur’s twelve battles listed in the Historia Brittonum. LAC leaves Britain, appointed Dux, to lead a legion against an uprising in Gaul, which in turn is argued as the inspiration behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian Gallic campaign.

On studying the Narts Sagas, Littleton saw much in common with the Grail stories, the sword in the stone for example, and proposed that these myths transferred to the West with the migration of the Alans, neighbours of the Sarmatians from the Steppe, and are responsible for the explosion of Continental Arthurian Romance literature from the 12th century.

It’s an ingenious theory but is there any evidence?

Higham examines the military career of Castus and determines that there is no evidence that he fought any battles in Northern Britain or led a contingent of Sarmatian cavalry. Indeed, by the time he was posted to Britain he was enjoying the twilight of his military career in an administrative role, and in all likelihood never ventured on to the Wall in anger. Much of the argument revolves around the inscription on his tombstone in Croatia; Malcor argues it denotes Castus fought a campaign in Armorica (Gaul) but the earliest readings tend to favour Armenia (the stone is cracked through the key letter).

Higham concludes that the onus of proof lies with those putting forward such theories and is not for their opponents to disprove them. Malcor and Matthews are reported to be working on a further account of Castus and assert, on social media groups for example, that they have further evidence to prove their argument, but frustratingly refuse to divulge this. Personally, I find their vigorous defence of the Dalmatian theory alarming considering the lack of evidence.

Higham’s critical use of the sources and examination of the evidence throughout this book demand that it should be read by anyone and everyone setting out to write an account of Arthur.

The definitive text on the legendary King Arthur? Probably.

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Thursday 27 December 2018

Arthur: Warrior and King

Arthur: Warrior and King
Don Carleton
Amberley Publishing, 2018

From the Publisher:

"People have been looking for the sites of the long-lost and mysterious battles of King Arthur for a thousand years. In this book, the result of extensive consultation with experts across academic disciplines, the author’s researches point to fascinating new conclusions about Arthur’s life.

"Much of the history of the time was lost because of some kind of natural catastrophe around AD 540. But the warrior elite, of which Arthur was part, went on to rule what later became known as Wessex, the cradle of the English nation – for which King Arthur became a founding legend.

"Don Carleton’s study – arguably the first attempt at an ‘authentic history’ of King Arthur for generations – offers a compelling case for a new location of the long-lost Battle of Badon, King Arthur’s greatest battle.

"The king and warrior who emerges from this work will be, to some readers, uncongenial. In this portrait, Arthur appears to have been a wily but amoral, boastful blond Irish raider, unrestrained in his ravaging, who used his battles to carve out a kingdom among the Britons and ended his life as a shambling, incoherent shadow of a warrior, a danger to himself and to everyone around him."

The Author
Don Carleton is a journalist, broadcaster and film-maker who has worked for the BBC and later became Director of Information at Bristol University. Many academic colleagues at the university reviewed the material for this book. He has previously published histories of Bristol University and the Princes Theatre, Bristol.

Arthur, Guinnion and Bridget
This is a strange book. In the Preface Carleton tells us it happened by accident as he came across 16th century references to the old Celtic name for Bristol which prompted him to delve deeper.

In the Third chapter, in which the author puts forward identifications for the 12 Arthurian battle sites as listed in the Historia Brittonum (or ‘Nennius’ as he calls it), he makes reference to David Dumville’s attack on “Arthurian History” in response to publication of books like John Morris’s ‘The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650’ and ‘Arthur's Britain: History And Archaeology AD 367-634’ by Leslie Alcock and seems to be suggesting that ‘Arthur: Warrior and King’ is the first serious attempt at creating an authentic history of King Arthur since Dumville shook the academic world back in 1977. It’s not, despite the author alluding to his work being endorsed by “prominent medieval historians”.

Dumville’s point being that there is so little truly historical information on Arthur that you cannot write an historical account of the legendary king. He is correct; any account claiming to have identified the man and his battles is forced to fall back on conjecture, scribal errors and insecure genealogies.

In discussing the battle sites, Carleton locates Arthur’s eighth battle at Guinnion as having been fought at Glastonbury. This a first to my knowledge, but it fits nicely within the author’s theory for a localised campaign in the south west of England centred around Bristol. There is no tradition of a battle at Glastonbury.

Carleton’s 'Glastonbury is Guinnion' argument is based on the conjectured existence of a Marian cult at the Somerset town. Carleton admits it is doubtful that devotion to the Virgin Mother had reached England by Arthurian times, the first half of the 6th century. He suggests it may record a ‘Christian victory’ or a battle claimed as such in later years when Nennius wrote.

Carleton unravels an etymology for Guinnion as the ‘castle of the holy women’, suggesting it may refer to a refuge or convent. Sure enough he taps in to the tradition of Saint Bridget at Glastonbury and ponders that if there was a monastery for women at Glastonbury, defended by Arthur and his men, it was probably dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the companion of Jesus. Yet Bridget is said to have resided at Beckery for a short period where excavations have revealed a strong male presence among the 50 graves surrounding 6th century monastic buildings. Carleton seems to be getting confused here with John of Glastonbury’s 14th century 'Chronicle' which records a tale of Arthur visiting a chapel at Beckery while staying at a convent on Wirral Hill, midway between Glastonbury Abbey and Beckery, but he fails to mention this.

Carleton later goes on to identify Bridget as ‘Henwen’ (Old White) the white sow of Welsh tradition that gave birth to the Cath Palug, the monstrous clawing cat. He explains the story of the white sow as Arthur expelling Bridget from Glastonbury and destroying her shrine.

In the Afterword, Carleton quotes the four stages of acceptance of JBS Haldane that he says should encourage people putting forward their own thoughts and discoveries about King Arthur:

    • this is worthless nonsense,
    • this is an interesting but perverse point of view,
    • this is true, but quite unimportant,
    • I always said so.

The reader will no doubt categorise ‘Arthur: Warrior and King’ accordingly.

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Monday 24 December 2018

Badon and the Early Wars for Wessex

Badon and the Early Wars for Wessex, circa 500 to 710
David Cooper
Pen & Sword Military, 2018

From the publisher:
“David Cooper's book reappraises the evidence regarding the early battles for Wessex territory. It charts the sequence of battles from the c. AD 500 siege of Badon Hill, in which the Britons defeated the first Saxon attempt to gain a foothold in Wessex territory, to Langport in 710, which consolidated King Ine's position and pushed the Britons westwards. Discussion of the post-Roman British and Germanic factions provides context and background to Badon Hill, which is then covered in detail and disentangled from Arthurian legend. In considering how the opposing commanders are likely to have planned their campaigns, enduring principles of military doctrine and tactics are discussed, using examples from other periods to illustrate how these principles applied in Dark Ages Britain. Going on to follow subsequent campaigns of the West Saxons in southern Britain, a credible assessment is made of how these resulted in the establishment of a viable Wessex kingdom, two centuries after Badon. Grounded in the latest academic and archaeological evidence, David Cooper offers a number of new insights and ideas.”

David Cooper OBE is a retired British Army Lieutenant Colonel with 36 years' service. He was initially taught military history and doctrine by the Burnham lecturers at Sandhurst and later gained a Masters degree in Defence and International Affairs. In the latter part of his career David instructed young officers in doctrine and tactics and wrote related publications for the British Army. Due to an abiding interest in the period he began to study the Dark Age Wessex campaigns in detail in 2002, and this book is the result.

1. The Fifth-century Tribes of Britain
2. The Hampshire Avon Frontier
3. Doctrine, Organisation and Tactics
4. The British in the South West
5. The Badon Campaign
6. The Siege of Badon Hill
7. Cerdic to Ceawlin – The Early Gewisse
8. The Fall of the British Glastenning
9. Wessex, Mercia and Dumnonia
10. Conclusions

Dark Age Warfare
This book is of a similar ilk to King Arthur's Wars (Helion, 2016) in which author Jim Storr, a former soldier turned academic, set out to chart the progress of the Anglo-Saxon conquest by examining placename evidence and defensive man-made landscape features such as earthworks and dykes. Storr located the battle of Badon in Eastern England and did not seem aware that many of the dykes are actually of prehistoric construction.

In Badon and the Early Wars for Wessex, Cooper follows the trail of Ceawlin in establishing the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Wessex as recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, written several hundred years after the events. Most historians today treat the foundation legends of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms in England with a due amount of suspicion and terms such as ‘barbarian invasion’, used to describe the increasing presence of Germanic immigrants in Britain , are no longer considered befitting or accurate.

There are three main themes running through Cooper’s pages. Firstly, he argues that the Germanic rise to power has its roots in post-Roman Britain in which diverse warbands fought localised wars over territory. Secondly, the battle of Badon Hill was the first conflict of larger armies as these localised warbands began to form alliances. Thirdly, that Wessex was not established and then expanded by immigrant Germanic tribes but emerged from much more complex circumstances.

Cooper envisages the Hampshire Avon as the Germanic frontier immediately prior to the Badon campaign with British territories defined by the earthworks Wansdyke and Bokerley Dyke. He argues, in consideration of that frontier, that Badbury Rings must have been the location of the battle of Badon Hill. Following the implication of Gildas writing in the 6th century, that Ambrosius, ‘the last of the Romans’, was probably the leader of the British led alliance at Badon.

Cooper uses chapters three, ‘Doctrine, Organisation and Tactics’, and five, ‘The Badon Campaign’ to discuss Dark Age battle tactics and takes us through the siege day-by-day in the next chapter. Here he introduces Sarmatian lancers as the charge of ‘Arthur’s cavalry’. 5,500 Sarmatian troops were sent to Britain in the 2nd century by Marcus Aurelius. They were stationed on Hadrian’s Wall and Ribchester (Bremetennacum) but there is absolutely no evidence for them fighting a campaign in Britain at that time, let alone their survival into the 6th century and fighting at the border of the Durotriges.

The very nature of this type of study demands a high level of conjecture owing to the limited primary sources.  But we are forced to question if people trained in modern conflict techniques have an advantage in relating to Dark Age warfare and the military tactics of poorly documented battles fought 1,500 years ago?

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Saturday 22 December 2018

Mercia - Annie Whitehead

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom
Annie Whitehead
Amberley Publishing, 2018

From the publisher:
“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.”

Annie Whitehead, a member of the Royal Historical Society, specialises in the 'Dark Ages'. She has written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia; “To Be a Queen” (2013) tells the story of Alfred the Great's daughter; “Alvar the Kingmaker” (2016) features Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century;  “Cometh the Hour” (2017), the first of two volumes set in the 7th century telling the story of the Iclingas, the family who ruled Mercia. Annie Whitehead is also a regular contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site; Casting Light upon the Shadow. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley, 2018) is her first full-length nonfiction book.

Whereas there are ample books on Anglo Saxon England, there is a dearth of books on Mercia, with just a handful of popular accounts, including: Ian W Walker - Mercia and the Making of England (Sutton, 2000); Sarah Zaluckyj - Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England (Logaston Press, 2011); John Hunt - Warriors, Warlords and Saints: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia (West Midlands History, 2016); and Chris Peers - Offa and the Mercian Wars: The Rise and Fall of the First Great English Kingdom (Pen & Sword, 2017).

Before Whitehead's latest offering, perhaps the most thorough examination of the Anglo Saxon kingdom was Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (Continuun, 2011), a collection of academic papers edited by Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr.

Owing to the lack of primary source material for pre-918 Mercia, for the Anglo Saxon period most books tend to focus on Wessex using the primary text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the so-called ‘A’ text, written in Winchester and detailing Alfred the Great’s defence against the Viking onslaught.

Mercia added to versions of the Chronicle that were continued in the Midlands but most of what has survived on Mercia was written by its enemies, such as The Venerable Bede, in his record of the ‘Golden Age’ of Northumbria. And of course Welsh poetry writes of many conflicts with their English enemy. Today the kingdom is probably best remembered for the earthwork separating it from Wales, the dyke said the have been constructed by King Offa.

As Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr write in their introduction:

“There is a mystique associated with Mercia which is almost semimythical and of the sort which often surrounds lost kingdoms. Unlike the other major Anglo-Saxon successor states, there is little recollection of this former contender within the current regional topography of England.”

“The Mercian heartland has been largely overtaken by the visible legacy of the Industrial Revolution and King Offa has come to occupy a role in popular imagination as a shadowy warlord, notorious for his brutality and attributed with the construction of an enigmatic earthwork, Offa's Dyke, which, like its Roman precursor, Hadrian's Wall, is chiefly famed for the popular footpath which follows it.”

In Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom Whitehead attempts to redress the balance and write a history of the Midland kingdom.

Mercians Arise
Some historians see the kingdom of Mercia as starting with the shadowy Creoda, but he is never given the title of king and owing to the lack of source material his very existence is doubted by many. Whitehead commences her story with the emergence of the mysterious Penda, the pagan king responsible for the death of the kings of several rival Anglo Saxon Kingdoms, particularly as a result from the wars with Northumbria. The author discusses the origins of Mercia and the meaning of the name from the Old English ‘Mierce’; to the Northumbrians these were the people south of the Humber.

Mercia was one of the great seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, alongside East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. Based around the Royal palace at Tamworth and its homeland around the upper Trent, Mercia went through rapid expansion from the foundations laid by Penda in the 7th century, through the reigns of Wulfhere, Aethelred and Aethelbald to become the dominant Anglo Saxon kingdom under Offa, a prince from the Hwicce, who took Mercia to its greatest achievements in the 9th century.

The historian Frank Stenton termed this period the ‘Mercian Supremacy’, between 600 AD and 900 AD, when the kingdom went on to dominate the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy and effectively achieved the unification of England south of the Humber.

The Fall
Whitehead then charts the decline of Mercia from its golden age under Offa to its last independent king Burgred who was driven from the kingdom in 874 by the Great Heathen Army who had pillaged the kingdom and burnt the Royal palace at Tamworth. The Vikings installed Ceolwulf II as a puppet king over Eastern Mercia while in the West, English Mercia, Æthelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians emerged as ruler. Æthelred recognised Alfred of Wessex as his overlord and cemented the alliance by marrying his daughter Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. After Æthelred’s death in 911, Æthelflaed ruled the kingdom alone.

But where most commentators see an independent Mercian kingdom ending with King Edward’s deposition of Æthelflaed’s daughter Ælfwynn in 918, Whitehead takes the story up to 1071 and the last ditch attempts by the men of Mercia to reverse the outcome of the battle of Hastings and the young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror.

Annie Whitehead's Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom  should have a place on everyone's Anglo Saxon bookshelf - Highly recomended.

- Edward Watson

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Saturday 15 December 2018

Aethelflaed - Tim Clarkson

Aethelflaed: The Lady of the Mercians 
Tim Clarkson
Published by John Donald (an imprint of Birlinn), 7th June, 2018
Paperback, 256 pages.

From the publisher:
“At the end of the ninth century AD, a large part of what is now England was controlled by the Vikings - heathen warriors from Scandinavia who had been attacking the British Isles for more than a hundred years. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, was determined to regain the conquered lands but his death in 899 meant that the task passed to his son Edward. In the early 900s, Edward led a great fightback against the Viking armies. He was assisted by the English rulers of Mercia: Lord AEthelred and his wife AEthelflaed (Edward's sister).

"After her husband's death, AEthelflaed ruled Mercia on her own, leading the army to war and working with her brother to achieve their father's aims. Known to history as the Lady of the Mercians, she earned a reputation as a competent general and was feared by her enemies. She helped to save England from the Vikings and is one of the most famous women of the Dark Ages. This book, published 1100 years after her death, tells her remarkable story.”

1. Introduction
2. Kingdoms
3. Princess
4. A New Mercia
5. Kinsmen
6. Losses and Gains
7. Frontierlands
8. The Final Years
9. Niece and Uncle
10. Legacy

Tim Clarkson’s latest book was published just before the 1,100th anniversary of the death of  Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, 918. My copy arrived from the publisher in the summer, with no obligation, however, I must apologise for this late review.

Clarkson’s previous six books, The Picts, Strathclyde and the Anglo Saxons, Scotland’s Merlin, Columba, The Makers of Scotland, The Men of the North, have been highly detailed accounts of the subject matter, concentrating on early medieval Scotland. For Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, he ventures south into the realm of Anglo Saxon Mercia and the story of its remarkable warrior queen. This is another highly detailed account, no stone is left unturned in his pursuit of the full story of Aethelflaed and the struggle against the Vikings.

Clarkson discusses the deficiencies of the sources in the first chapter, but where the sources leave gaps, and in Aethelflaed’s story there are plenty, Clarkson discusses the possible outcomes without delving into wild imaginative speculation. The second chapter sets the scene, discussing the origins and relationships between Mercia and Wessex and the arrival of the Danish Vikings.

The book follows Aethelflaed’s story in chronological order with the bulk of the book, chapters 3-7 dealing with her life, commencing with her birth in the late 860s, the oldest child of Alfred the Great, her name meaning “noble beauty”, childhood and her wedding to Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians in the 880s. Chapter 4, subtitled ‘Women and power’ starts with Mercian Queens who enjoyed a higher profile than their counterparts in Wessex. This would be to Aethelflaed’s advantage when her husband died in 911 and she ruled the Midland kingdom alone.

Chapter 4, ‘A New Mercia’, details Mercian successes on the battlefield against the Vikings at Buttington and Chester before examining the refortifications at Worcester, Gloucester and London, concluding with her father, Alfred’s death in 899. The next chapter continues with rebuilding Mercia with the burhs at Shrewsbury, the arrival of the Irish-Viking Ingimund and the restoration of Chester. Chapter 6 continues with burh building and Aethelred’s passing.

Chapters 7 and 8 cover the period of her widowhood and the height of her military career in the conflict with the Vikings. Clarkson suggests that Aethelflaed constructed the burh at Chirbury in response to tensions with Mercia’s old enemy, the Welsh.

In June 916 an abbot called Ecgberht was slain for reasons unknown. This would appear to be the same clergyman who had witnessed a charter issued at the burh at Weardbyrig (location unknown) the year before, perhaps indicating he was a close associate of Aethelflaed. Three days after his death the Mercians ventured into south-east Wales and attacked the royal site, the ‘crannog’ on Llangorse Lake (Brecananmere) in the kingdom of Brycheiniog. The king was not at home but his wife and thirty-four others were taken captive back to Mercia.

Clarkson suggests the raid on Llangorse Lake may have been more than a simple revenge attack for the murder of Ecgberht. In the 880s the kingdom of Brycheiniog had promised allegiance and submission to King Alfred of Wessex for protection from the North Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. A decade later Brycheiniog had been among a number of Welsh kingdoms ravaged by Vikings encamped on the bank of the River Severn at Bridgnorth. This was clearly Mercian territory and may have resulted in a switch of allegiance to Aethelred and Aetheflaed for their support, yet Alfred’s son Edward may have not have recognised Brycheiniog’s switch of allegiance.

In 914 when a Viking fleet sailed into the Severn estuary, raiding up the Wye and taking the bishop of Llandaff hostage, King Edward of Wessex intervened to safeguard his release. Clarkson sees this as the act of an overlord stepping-in on behalf of a subordinate kingdom and the possibility that the Mercian attack on Llangorse in 916 and the taking of royal hostages as an act of restoring Mercian dominance over Brycheiniog. The episode suggests growing tensions with her brother Edward.

Aethelflaed was now at the peak of her power, she had refortified Mercia and was now pushing into the Danelaw. In 917 she took Derby, the following year Leicester and York submitted peacefully, probably to avoid conflict with the Mercian military machine.

But by June that year Aethelflaed was dead. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us she died at Tamworth without divulging any further information. The Winchester version, or ‘A’ text, of the Chronicle makes a rare mention of Athelflaed, stating “[Edward's] sister Æthelflæd at Tamworth departed twelve days before midsummer;”

Aethelred and Aethelflaed had only one child from their marriage, a daughter named Aelfwynn (meaning ‘Elf-friend’). If this had been a son, succession after Aethelred’s death would have been straightforward for Mercia but would have created complications for Wessex and a united England which brings us to chapter 9; ‘Niece and Uncle.

The ‘A’ text continues, “...and then he [Edward] rode and took the stronghold of Tamworth, and all the nation of the land of Mercia that was earlier subject to Æthelflæd turned to him......”

Here, Clarkson tells us, the West Saxon chronicler has compressed a series of events into one short entry to deliberately avoid the political uncertainty created by Aethelflaed’s death. Whereas the author of the Mercian Register writes:

“Here also was the daughter of Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians, deprived of all authority in Mercia, and she was taken to Wessex three weeks before midwinter. She was called Aelfwynn.”

Clarkson notes the omission in the ‘A’ text of any reference to Aelfwynn’s authority over the Mercians, the West Saxon author implying that there was a swift transition from Aethelflaed to Edward. Admitting there is clearly bias on both sides, Clarkson ponders whether Edward’s takeover was welcomed by the Mercian elite, and if Aethelflaed herself had favoured the likelihood of a formal union of Wessex and Mercia following her passing?

Clarkson goes on to discuss these matters and the fate of Aelfwynn, the 'Second Lady of the Mercians' and suggests that Aethelflaed envisaged her daughter continuing her role as the sole ruler of Mercia, citing the immediate transfer of authority in June as evidence of this. He adds that the charter witnessed at Weardbyrig by Aelfwynn in 915 as evidence that Aethelflaed was raising the profile of her daughter while she gained experience of government in readiness to succeed her mother. Certainly the Mercian attack on Brycheiniog suggests Aethelflaed did not consider herself as subordinate to her brother Edward, and, significantly just before her death she had obtained the submission of York, the rulers of Northern England.

Clarkson argues that Edward could not have removed Aelfwynn without support from some Mercian factions. Perhaps this is correct but rather tellingly Edward’s reign would come to an end as he attempted to put down a Mercian uprising by the men of Chester in 924. Whatever the truth of Aelfwynn’s deposition, and its place leading up the unification of England, it is a fascinating episode worthy of further study.

The final chapter ‘Legacy’ details how we remember Aethelflaed today and how her profile has steadily grown over the last fifty years or so through academic journals and the writers of historical fiction. Finally, Clarkson recalls places we can see evidence of Aethelflaed from Runcorn in north Mercia to Gloucester in the south. And who could disagree with the author in his claim that the most recognisable modern image of Aethelflaed is the figure on top of the pillar at Tamworth Castle, sword in one hand, the other around her foster son, the young Aethelstan, first king of all England.

If you read just one book on Aethelflaed it has to be this, full of detail this must be the definitive study on the Mercian Queen. Highly recommended.

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Monday 10 December 2018

Founder, Figher, Saxon Queen

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians
Margaret C Jones

From the publisher:
“Alfred the Great s daughter defied all expectations of a well-bred Saxon princess. The first Saxon woman ever to rule a kingdom, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, led her army in battle against Viking invaders. She further broke with convention by arranging for her daughter to succeed her on the throne of Mercia. To protect her people and enable her kingdom in the Midlands to prosper, Aethelflaed rebuilt Chester and Gloucester, and built seven entirely new English towns. In so doing she helped shape our world today. This book brings Aethelflaed's world to life, from her childhood in time of war to her remarkable work as ruler of Mercia. The final chapter traces her legend, from medieval paintings to novels and contemporary art, illustrating the impact of a legacy that continues to be felt to this day.”

This year has been the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, on 12th June 918 at Tamworth. The celebration of this remarkable warrior queen who fought the Vikings and won has seen several good books published over the last couple of years, where previously there was very little. This book is an easy, enjoyable read, aimed at the general audience and a welcome addition to the few accounts of Aethelfaled available.

This book Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians by Margaret C Jones was published (Pen & Sword History) on 3rd August 2018 just after the celebrations at Gloucester and Tamworth during the summer came to end. However, the author delivered talks on the Saxon Queen at both Tamworth and Gloucester during July as part of the Aethelflaed 1100 celebrations.

The Preface discusses the problem of source material for Aethelflaed with Jones briefly reviewing the secondary sources, which until very recently consisted just of the works of FT Wainwright, Jane Wolfe and Don Stansbury, and up to date with last year’s contribution from Joanna Arman. Jones is surely correct when she states that Michael Wood's 2013 documentary for the BBC King Alfred and the Anglo Saxons, screened at the time that both Stafford and Tamworth celebrated 1,100 years since their foundation, has done more to raise the profile of the Lady of the Mercians with the general public “than a thousand printed pages”.

The first three chapters, A Wartime Childhood, Aethelflaed and her Sisters, Marriage, and the sixth chapter, Alfred’s Daughter, centres on her family and influences that moulded the personality of the young woman who was to become known as the Lady of the Mercians. This title alone underlines the fact that this princess from Wessex won over the hearts of the Mercians.

The middle section of the book, chapters Remaking Mercia and Lady of the Church, focuses on Aethelflaed’s achievements in Mercia, re-fortifying towns as burhs and building new, many went on to become urban centres. The cult of Royal Saints was an important part of Anglo Saxon religious belief but were also promoted for political reasons; in her new towns Aethelflaed introduced new cults: St Bertelin (Beorhthelm) at Stafford and Runcorn; St Werburgh at Chester; St Oswald at Gloucester; St Alkmund at Shrewsbury.

Chapter Seven returns to her family with Aethelflaed’s (Missing) Daughter and a discussion of her aspirations for her daughter and successor Aelfwynn. Yet, the reign of the Second Lady of the Mercians was short-lived. Just six months after her mother’s death at Tamworth in June, King Edward (The Elder) rode into Mercia and led her away into Wessex and she simply disappeared from the historical record. We know not of her fate.

The final chapter, Legacy and Legend, discusses how we remember Aethelflaed today, from medieval art to the subject of recent novels. Whereas the modern view tends to follow her near contemporary chroniclers in focusing on Aethelflaed’s military role as a Warrior Queen in support her brother Edward, Jones draws attention to the view that she pursued policies to make Mercia more independent from Wessex. Jones sees this bid for independence as a major factor in Edward’s prompt removal of Aelfwynn following Aethelflaed’s death. Edward’s relations with Mercia were clearly not good; in 1924 he died at Farndon on the Dee after putting down a rebellion at Chester.

The author closes with a summation of sites where you can find evidence of Aethelflaed’s work in the towns of the Midlands.

This book contains much useful information and discussion on the Mercian Queen. However, there are just a couple of little niggles. Owing to the lack of primary source material on Aethelflaed the author occasionally inserts “imagined short scenes”, as she calls them, to “evoke key moments” of her life. These conjectured interjections are unnecessary and detract from the value of the book as a serious composition.

Secondly, in a couple of places (Preface and Acknowledgements) the author refers to “The Making of Aethelflaed”. As these sections are usually written after completion of the main text I can only assume this was to be the original title for Jones' book which should have been updated by the editor before going to print as “Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen”.

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Saturday 8 December 2018

The Uncrowned Queen: A Biography

“The success of Edward’s campaigns against the Danes depended to a great extent upon her co-operation. In the midlands and the north she came to dominate the political scene. And the way she used her influence helped to make possible the unification of England under kings of the West Saxon royal house. But her reputation has suffered from bad publicity, or rather from a conspiracy of silence among her West Saxon contemporaries.” - FT Wainwright, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

Scandinavian England
Academic articles aside, until very recently there was very little information available for general readership regarding Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, Queen in all but name, and her role in the recovery of the Danelaw from the Vikings went relatively unnoticed; most sources credited the success of the Viking Wars to her father King Alfred the Great and her brother Edward the Elder.

An article by Frederick Threlfall Wainwright (1917 – 1961) in 1959 was the first to highlight Æthelflæd’s part in recovering Mercia: “Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians” in The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins, ed. Peter Clemoes (Bowes and Bowes, 1959).

This article was published posthumously in 1975, with a collection of other significant articles by Wainwright in “Scandinavian England” (Phillimore) edited by Herbert (HPR) Finberg, highlighting the Scandinavian settlement of north-west England, which Wainwright saw as nothing less than a mass migration. Using place name evidence and O’Donovan’s 1860 translation of the Three Fragments he brought Ingimund’s story and the invasion of the Irish-Vikings in the north-west of England out from the shadows.

Other significant articles in Scandinavian England include: North-West Mercia AD 871-924 (1942); Ingimund’s Invasion (1948); The Scandinavians in Lancashire (1945). Sadly this collection does not include Wainwright’s article ‘The Chronology of the Mercian Register' (The English Historical Review, Volume LX, Issue CCXXXVIII, 1 September 1945, Pages 385–392), however, although now out of print this book should be in the library of anyone with an interest in Æthelflæd and the Viking Age in Britain.

The Lady who Fought the Vikings

After Wainwright there was no further popular works on Æthelflæd published for nearly another 20 years. ‘The Lady who Fought the Vikings’ (Imogen Books, 1993) by Don Stansbury received mixed reviews on publication, he was accused of being over creative and story telling in his efforts to reconstruct the life and times of Æthelflæd. Yet, it must be admitted there is very little historical information available on her and her husband, Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia.

Stansbury spends the first half of the book setting the scene and filling in the background to the Viking Wars, a period largely dominated by King Alfred and his construction of burhs in Wessex. This is not surprising as the primary text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, our main source for the period, was written in Winchester, the ‘A’ text, at the direction of Alfred himself we are led to believe. To that we can add Asser’s biography of the king and the list of burhs in Wessex (The Burghal Hidage) produced some years after Alfred’s death, 911-914.

Much of the first half of Asser’s Life of King Alfred is based on the entries in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle up to 887 and fails to record the battles with the Vikings in the 890s or the death of the king in 899 and was probably left unfinished.

Stanbury heavily references Asser’s work, it certainly is not much use to us in constructing an account of Æthelflæd and merely tells us she was Alfred’s oldest child who married Æthelred and the Mercian Viking conflict up to the division of the kingdom in 874. Stansbury makes no mention of The Chronicle of Aethelweard, edited by Alistair Campbell in 1962, essentially a Latin translation of a lost early version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

However, that said there is very little primary source material available for Æthelflæd; her history is entirely absent from the 'A' text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle which simply records her death in 918. Aethelweard does not include much information on Æthelflæd either; following the Winchester version of the Chronicle he merely mentions her passing and burial at Gloucester. So we find most of our primary Anglo Saxon sources silent on the achievements of the Lady of the Mercians.

Stansbury, like most commentators on the Æthelflæd story, is forced to rely on secondary sources, with the key text being Wainwright’s 1959 article. Yet, a series of entries found in alternative copies of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the 'B', 'C' and 'D' texts, focusing on the years spanning 902 to 924 termed 'The Mercian Register', or 'Annals of Æthelflæd' tells the story of the 'Lady of the Mercians' (Myrcna hlæfdige).

Stansbury spends some time discussing Gloucester and Worcester, perhaps the two key sites in Æthelflæd's story. He then moves onto ‘Defending the North’ detailing the burh at Shrewsbury in 901, an episode often ignored, and the translation of the obscure Anglo Saxon Saint Alkmund. He then moves onto Chester and the arrival of Ingimund in 902. Before concluding Stansbury discusses the Æthelflædian burhs at Bremesburh, Scergeat, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Eddisbury and Warwick before a brief analysis of the last three burhs constructed in 915 at Chirbury, Weardburh and Runcorn. Now that the Mercian borders were secure Æthelflæd turned to the recovery of the Danelaw working in conjunction with her brother Edward, launching attacks into the Danelaw from the Mercian burhs. In 917 Derby submitted, followed in 918 by Leicester and York.

Stansbury closes with Æthelflæd’s death 12 days before midsummer at Tamworth and a brief mention of Edward taking her successor and daughter Ælfwynn into Wessex three weeks before Christmas before summing up Edward’s recovery of the Danelaw and then the ascension of Æthelstan, the first king of all England, who as a boy was fostered at the Mercian court by Æthelflæd. And that is Æthelflæd’s story.

Stansbury’s book was the first full biography of Æthelflæd; in essence the story hasn’t changed in subsequent accounts although modern scholarship has produced more detail, particularly on the archaeology of the Mercian burhs.

Aethelflaed: Royal Lady, War Lady
Eight years after Stansbury’s book Fenris Press published a little book of just 35 pages by Jane Wolfe entitled ‘Aethelflaed: Royal Lady, War Lady’ (2001), “aimed at the general reader, to give Æthelflæd the place in history that she clearly deserves.

Wolfe’s all too brief account tells the story of Æthelflæd and how she built or refortified 10 defensive burhs to protect Mercia against the Vikings and includes the raid into Wales in 916 in retaliation for the murder of an Abbot. The booklet includes a map of the Boundaries of Mercia, Wessex and the Danelaw C. 900, and a Plan of Chester in the 10th century. Appendices include Æthelflæd's Burhs and Genealogy of the Kings of Wessex.

From a limited print run this rare booklet has obtained cult status and now as rare as finding Unicorn doodah in your garden! Grab a copy if you get chance.

England's Forgotten Queen
These three books were all the popular reader had since Wainwright’s article  Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians back in 1959. With so little primary source material available and author’s often accused of conjecture and story telling to fill out the gaps perhaps fiction is the best way to reconstruct the story of Aethelflaed?

At the turn of the 21st century the writers of historical fiction turned their attention to Æthelflæd’s story with Bernard Cornwell producing The Last Kingdom (2005) series telling the tale of Alfred the Great and his descendants (Aethelflaed features in Book 4, Sword Song, 2007), now a major television series available on Netflix, and Annie Whitehead’s novel To Be A Queen (2013)  said to be the true story of Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, to name just two of many.

2017 saw the publication of two new historical works: The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Æthelflæd, Daughter of Alfred the Great by Joanna Arman and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians: The battle of Tettenhall 910AD; and other West Mercian studies by David Horovitz.

I first came across David Horovitz in researching the Stafford place name. His book on Æthelflæd is over 700 pages long and not a quick read, but it is full of very detailed information. Arman’s debut book is aimed more at the general reader and has received excellent reviews and is highly recommended.

2018 saw the Æthelflæd 1100 celebrations marking 1,100 years since her death at Tamworth which no doubt inspired the production of two further historical works: Æthelflæd: Lady of the Mercians by Tim Clarkson and Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians by Margaret C Jones. It seems the forgotten story of the Uncrowned Mercian Queen is finally getting out there and this remarkable Lady is now getting the recognition for her decisive part in the fight against the Vikings.

Perhaps aware of the gap in the market with the unavailability of Jane Wolfe’s  booklet, in February 2019 Penguin are due to publish Æthelflæd: England’s Forgotten Founder by Tom Holland. This little book (around 50 pages) is part of the new Ladybird Expert Series which retain the classic Ladybird style that anyone as old as me will remember from early school days. These Ladybird books were often the very first books we, and then our children, came across with a page of (large) text and pictures opposite. The publisher claims the books are the “same iconic small hardback format, artwork is gloriously retro, echoing the original Ladybird style but containing completely up to date information designed for an adult readership”.

Holland recently wrote on Æthelstan (2016) for the Penguin Monarchs series; the new book promises to tell the epic history of England's forgotten Queen, pulling her out of the shadowy history of the dark ages.

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Saturday 1 December 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War Exhibition

An exhibition at the British Library featuring 180 spectacular treasures spanning 600 years in which the people of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms tell their story, in their own words. 

Treasures from the British Library’s own collection, including the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Bede's Ecclesiastical History, sit alongside stunning finds from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. The world-famous Domesday Book offers its unrivalled depiction of the landscape of late Anglo-Saxon England while Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, returns to England for the first time in 1300 years.

Fri 19 Oct 2018 - Tue 19 Feb 2019 

PACCAR Gallery
The British Library
96 Euston Road

For further details see the British Library website

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