Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Anglo-Saxon Childhood

It would be no surprise that childhood in centuries past was radically different from the experience of youngsters in the 20th and 21st centuries. But with so few written sources, can we glean anything at all about childhood in pre-Conquest England?

The laws of King Æthelberht of Kent give a few clues about the value of children in the seventh century. In them, we learn that if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him, there are various penalites, and 
If she bears a living child, she is to have half the goods, if the husband dies first.
If she wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods .*
It may not be much, and certainly not anything like our modern notion of 'child benefit' money, but at least there was a basic provision there.

The laws of King Ine, later on in the seventh century, at first seem to suggest that childhood was short:
A ten-year-old boy can be considered privy to a theft.
Except that even in 2018, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is still ten, albeit that the procedure for dealing with juvenile crime differs from that for adults. Later laws, of Athelstan in the tenth and Cnut in the eleventh centuries, set the age at twelve.

Elsewhere in Ine's laws there is provision for a widow if
the husband dies, the mother is to have her child and rear it; she is to be given six shillings for its maintenance, a cow in summer, an ox in winter; the kinsmen are to take charge of the paternal home, until the child is grown up.

Alfred the Great's laws in the ninth century specified that if a girl who was not of age was the victim of rape, then the compensation would be the same as for an adult.

So we can see that there were certain rights enshrined in the laws, regarding provision for widows with children, and for crimes perpetrated by and against minors. But what of attitudes towards children?

Asser, writing the life of King Alfred, does not at any point mention the name of the king's wife. But he mentions the children:
namely  Æthelflæd the first-born, and after her Edward, then Æthelgifu followed by Ælfthryth, and finally Æthelweard, (leaving aside those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death who numbered...)
How many? We don't know. As Simon Keynes points out in the notes to his translation, the numeral, if it was there, is unreadable. 

It has been suggested that child mortality was around thirty percent in Anglo-Saxon England (S Rubin, Medieval English Medicine.

Coupled with the information from Asser that Alfred had many more children than those who survived to adulthood, it seems to me that there is a very good reason why his eldest daughter had only one daughter, and it is not, as the chronicler William of Malmesbury suggested, that she 'chose' not to have any more and 
ever after refused the embraces of her husband.
I suspect that there were other pregnancies, maybe other births, and that her daughter Ælfwynn was the only one to survive, but that this was not seen as uncommon, and thus was hardly remarked upon. When writing Æthelflæd's story in my first novel To Be A Queen I decided to present this scenario. 

Though rare, Asser's is not the only remark on this subject, and it seems to me that even if still-births or infant deaths were common, there is no reason to think that they weren't distressing.

There is one mention in Bede, of seventh-century King Edwin of Northumbria's children by his second wife Æthelburh of Kent, two of whom
were snatched from this life while they were still wearing [their baptism gown] and are buried in the church at York. (HE ii 14)

but by and large these occurrences are left unrecorded.

It has been suggested that because of the number of adult skeletons found with evidence of cleft palate, that such people must have been exceptionally well cared for when they were children, for it would have been extremely difficult for them to feed (Victoria Thompson, Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, citing Crawford, Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England pp94-5)

A seventh-century grave in a cemetery at Barton-on-Humber, less than a metre in length, was found to contain a feeding bottle, hinting that either the baby had a cleft palate, or that the mother was unable to feed the child herself, or perhaps even that the mother had died in childbirth.

Baptism was obviously important in the Christian age, and when I was writing my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I was keen to find out what happened to children who died before they could be baptised. Information was scant. Compensation was due if a child died without having been baptised, but what happened to the body? 

John Blair (The Church in Anglo-Saxon England) observed that later infant burials at Raunds in Northamptonshire encroached on the reserved strip of land closest to the walls of the church, and in his note 201 p 471 he wrote:
This looks like a case of the widespread practice of burying infants under the eavesdrip.
He then refers to Stephen Wilson (in The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe) 
for the idea that water running off the church roof conveyed some kind of posthumous baptism **
There is one reference to a royal baptism, and a particular incident, which will not surprise any parent, but which was considered an evil omen. Æthelred II (the Unready), according to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, 'made water in the font' during his immersion, causing Archbishop Dunstan to predict the slaughter of the English people that would take place during his reign. 

Of course, Henry was writing in the twelfth century with the benefit of hindsight. It cannot have been unusual for infants to urinate in the font and indeed priests were advised that they only need change the water if the child had defecated. (Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood, citing Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children)

What of the children who did survive those first few months and years? Asser tells us that Alfred's youngest surviving child was 
given over to training in reading and writing under the attentive care of teachers, in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well.
Asser's  job was to portray his patron's credentials as the promoter of learning and culture, but it is interesting to note that he saw fit to add that children of less noble birth were also given access to the rudiments of education. 

Children are rarely mentioned in the chronicles, laws, and charters of the period. Those of low rank probably worked alongside their parents from a young age, but we can see from these few examples that they were valued, cared for, and that those who survived were protected by law, and that those who did not were mourned, and that their journey into the after-world was considered to be of the utmost importance.

* All law codes quoted from EHD (English Historical Documents) Vol I Ed. Whitelock
**I am indebted to Ann Williams for locating this information for me

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Shining a Light: Authors of Anglo-Saxon Novels - Paula Lofting

This year on the blog, I'll be featuring a number of other authors who also write books set in the 'Dark Ages'.

First to shine a light on proceedings is Paula Lofting, who writes books set in the eleventh century. Her stories revolve around Wulfhere, a Sussex thegn  who is a warrior, a husband, and a father. Warfare, family strife, and an enemy close to home - Wulfhere has to summon courage and wisdom if he is to win his battles.

The first in the series is called Sons of the Wolf 

The second book is called The Wolf Banner and I asked Paula to choose an excerpt from the book to share here. This is what she chose, and why:
Paula says, I love the air of mystique that seems to follow Alfgyva whenever she appears in the book, her persona seems to write the scene itself.
Also, it shows the turmoil that Tovi is suffering as keeper of his family's darkest secrets. Poor Tovi is trying to be useful so that his father will acknowledge him, so he runs off eagerly to get help with his father's favourite mare who is struggling to give birth and could lose its life, then he is confronted by the 'witch', his father's lover, whom he had once discovered in bed with his father. Being so young, he does not really know what her connections to his parent's discord is exactly, then when she turns up unexpectedly, demanding the child, he starts piecing things together in his mind and all he can think of is that his whole world is about to come crashing around their ears and he must prevent his mother from seeing her. What eventually happens is that both his aims in those moments are not achieved and although none of what happens is his fault, he feels as though the whole thing is his doing. A heavy thing for a boy of 12 to have to bear.

Excerpt from Chapter 9 of 
The Wolf Banner

Father shook his head. The mare’s front legs gave way and she sank slowly to her knees, despite their efforts to hold her. Father pulled his arm from her as she went. It was covered in blood. There was nothing any of them could do. The foal was stuck, probably dead, and all they could do was get it out to save the mother. 

Father sat near her head stroking her forelock with loving care, whispering endearments to her. Tovi felt his own eyes moisten at the sight of the tears pooling in his father’s eyes. 

“We will need help if we are going to do this,” Father said, his voice so choked with emotion that Tovi thought his father would break down any minute. But he did not. He carried on. 

“We will also need rope to harness the foal. Yrmenlaf, go and –”

“I will go, Father!” Tovi shouted. 

Father looked up at Tovi, his hair matted and stuck to his forehead, sweat running in rivulets down the side of his temples. He nodded to him and said, “Go then, Tovi, but be quick. She is losing blood, fast. Get the twins and Herewulf, and anyone else who might be able to make themselves useful. And rope! Don’t forget the rope!” 
Tovi’s heart lifted and he ran swiftly out of the stables.

Out in the courtyard, the morning sunshine was losing its glow. Instead, dark storm-filled clouds were gathering, moving swiftly in the wind, like a blanket of shadows, pulled across the greying sky. Tovi shivered as a great hand of wind forced him backwards. He put his head down, wrapped his arms around himself, and charged against the ethereal wind-giant, as it forbade him to go forward. He’d left his cloak in the stables and thought about running back to get it as an army of ice-cold showers began to slash down from the heavens. But his father’s voice echoed inside his head, and he thought better of it.

He struggled to open the gates against the unruly elements, then, as abruptly as the wind and rain had started, it subsided. The atmosphere brightened, and he glanced up as he trudged across the waterlogged ford. It was then he saw her, waiting, like a dark wælcyrie astride her black horse. He knew her immediately. Her stillness was haunting. In a moment, the shadows passed over the sun again, but the wind and the rain held off, keeping his vision clear. 

He noticed the others that were with her, three young men, all on foot. Another older, whom he recognised as the woodsman, Welan, holding her horse’s reins. For a moment Tovi’s eyes were fixed upon her and hers, in turn, were fixed upon his. Whisperings of her wiccecræeft were aplenty in these parts and as he felt his eyes drawn to her, he was convinced it must be true. He recalled her name and remembered how his mother had once uttered it with blistering contempt; Alfgyva. The woman in whose bed he had caught his father. The woman, who through guile and enchantment, had stolen Father’s heart, and had twice brought chaos into their lives. 

She looked at him from beneath the shadow of her hood; fiercely proud features, both beautiful and harsh. His heart, pounding in his chest as her demeanour spoke of trouble. 

“Boy!” she called to him, in a voice that was rich and throaty. “Tell your father, Wulfhere, that I would speak with him.”

“He-he is tending the birth of one of our foals. It is not g-g-going w-w-ell,” Tovi stammered, as he often did when nervous. Thoughts to run and complete his task had been thrown into a whirlwind of confusion. He knew what he must do, but he was transfixed by her presence, and her obstruction of his path. 

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Get him! It will not take long to say what I must say. I shall not go until he comes.”

Tovi stared at her, unable to move. 

“Well?” she glared.

“H-he c-c… cannot come. I was g-going to get help – f-for him...”

“Then fetch your mother.”

“M-my m-mother? N-no!”

She manoeuvred her mount closer to stand alongside him. He wanted to run, but his legs were quivering. He knew he had to get the help his father so badly needed, but his mind spun with a multitude of whispering thoughts. 

“Go and fetch her.” The huskiness in her voice was almost menacing. “If you don’t it will be you who must face the consequences.” 

Tovi was not sure if it was rain or sweat that clung to his skin. All sense of duty had been lost, as if a spell had been cast to stop him from fulfilling his mission. She’d appeared like a phantom in the mist, as had the great hand of wind and rain. 

“W-what do you w-w-want w-with my m-m-mother?” 

He recoiled as he saw her dark eyes narrow, like a cat’s. She was terrifyingly beautiful, her eyes pinning him to the spot.

“Tell her I want my child back,” she hissed and the corners of her mouth lifted slightly, as if to smile. When he hesitated, she said ominously, “Do you want me to come in there and rip the child from her arms, boy?”

 All he could think of then, was that this woman should not go anywhere near his mother. He took a few steps away from her, holding out his hands to pacify her. “Stay, m-my lady, I will get your child,” he said. And he thought it better that he did the deed, than his mother suffer the indignity of the woman’s confrontation.

Tovi would not remember later how it all happened, but he rushed through the rain into the hall, and with relief he noticed Godfrida lying unattended in her wicker basket, peacefully sleeping whilst life carried on around her. He picked her up out of her basket and stole her away out of the hall. As he ran across the courtyard, shielding the little bundle from the splattering rain, he heard his mother calling after him in a desperate voice. 

“Tovi!” He heard her gasping as the wind began to rage again.

He ignored her and hurried to the gate. He was just feet away from the opening when Ealdgytha caught him and wrestled the screaming child from his arms, causing him to slip over. Tovi, now perched on his heels, watched the woman enter the palisade. He was shaking with fear, knowing that it was all about to come to an explosive head. 

The two women faced each other. Mother shouted for her maid. “Take her, Sigfrith! Take her inside!” 

He needed to protect Mother. He leapt up, lunged toward her and grabbed her wrist, but she shook him off as if he were no more than a pup making a nuisance of itself. She looked at him with cold eyes, then looked back at the witch. The wind squalled in the air around them, and the sky threw down rain in short sharp rods.

“So, at last we meet again, Alfgyva,” Mother said. She was very calm.

“I’ve come for my daughter,” Alfgyva replied matter-of-factly.

“She belongs here now. You left her, and now you want her back?” Mother’s voice was steady and controlled.

“I was ill unto death and no one believed I would live, let alone myself. I wanted her to be with her father and the rest of her family, but now I am well again, she should be with me. I thank you for your care of her, Ealdgytha. I am truly grateful.” 

“I should have known...” His mother looked away from her adversary.

“So, he didn’t tell you?” Alfgyva tilted her head. 

Instantly, Ealdgytha swung her head back to look the other woman. “Do not mock me, for I know well how he has deceived me, you may rest assured, madam. You, on the other hand, are the biggest deceiver here.”

Back in 2015, Paula was one of my first ever guests on the blog, and you can read that interview HERE

Paula is currently working on the third in the series, which will be called Wolf's Bane.

Paula is writing a series of guest posts for us over on EHFA at the moment, where she's exploring the myths surrounding a mystery figure on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Read Part I HERE
Read Part II HERE
Read Part III HERE
Read Part IV HERE

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Repton - Royal Mausoleum and Viking Stronghold

Repton: the name has always been familiar to me. The first pages of To Be A Queen describe how the royal Mercian family is forced to flee because the Vikings have occupied Repton. The rival king, Ceolwulf II, has their support, and King Burgred and his wife must go overseas.
But Repton had been an important place long before the invasions of the ninth century.

And here I was, at last, standing outside the Church of St Wystan, about to see for myself the Anglo-Saxon crypt, and much more besides. Local historians, Andy and Margaret Austen, were my guides.

If you know me at all, through my novels or my blog posts, you'll know how exciting and emotional it all was. It's not often that one can stand in a place and know for certain that the Anglo-Saxons once stood in the same spot, even on the same stone floor.

Mercia – an ancient kingdom indeed. By the eighth century the Mercian kings were known as the Iclingas, and their dynastic centres lay at Lichfield, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Tamworth, and Repton.

The most famous early association with Repton is that of Saint Guthlac who was a warrior of noble, perhaps royal, Mercian stock, but who, according to his biographer, the monk Felix, entered the monastery at Repton when he was twenty-four years old. In around the year 669 he began a solitary life at Crowland Abbey, in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire.

Guthlac had a frequent visitor there, who at the time was in exile: subsequently one of the longest reigning kings of Mercia, Æthelbald, who was killed in 757 at Seckington (North Warwickshire) and buried at Repton. 

The ‘Repton Stone’, which is now housed in nearby Derby Museum, is thought to have been part of a great cross raised – possibly by King Offa – in memory of Æthelbald.

A later story about the Mercian kings is given to us by Roger of Wendover, writing in the thirteenth century. He tells us that at Pentecost, ‘Bertferth, son of Berthwulf, wickedly slew his kinsman St Wulstan [Wigstan], who was the grandson of two kings of the Mercians. The body of the deceased was carried to the monastery of Rependun [Repton], and is said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandsire Wilaf [Wiglaf].’ Roger then describes heavenly miracles, but gives no reason for the murder.

According to the earliest version of his Passio, Wigstan was indeed the grandson of two kings, his father Wigmund being the son of King Wiglaf, and his mother, Ælfflæd being the daughter of King Ceolwulf I. 

The story goes that upon the death of his father, Wigstan was offered the crown but wouldn’t take it, being then a young boy and with intentions to lead a religious life. His killer, Bertferth [Beorhtfrith] asked to marry Wigstan’s widowed mother (presumably with the intention of ruling as king) and Wigstan refused because of the kinship and the fact that Bertferth was his godfather. Thwarted, Bertferth slew Wigstan, whose body was taken to Repton, and buried in the tomb of his grandfather. 

So it seems conclusive that Æthelbald, Wiglaf and Wigstan were all buried at Repton, but these are not the only significant burials there.

As I said, the first few pages of To Be A Queen are concerned with the Viking occupation of Repton. They were working in alliance with a king from a rival family to that of the ousted Burgred, and who may have been related to Wigstan. 

Having arrived in 873 and overwintered at Repton, the Vikings left in 874/5. 

The site was excavated between 1974 and 1993, and archaeologists Martin Biddle and Berthe Kjølbye-Biddle discovered the grave of a Viking warrior on the site. He had died a brutal death, and a copy of his battered skull, complete with the most piercing blue eyes, is on display in Derby Museum, along with his sword. 

The Dig Site

The Biddles then uncovered the remains of at least 249 other people. Work on the site, which is now part of the rectory garden, is ongoing and Cat Jarman and Mark Horton have been digging recently, and I’m told they will return in 2018.

So, what of the building itself? The crypt was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. It’s thought that it might originally have been a baptistry, and that it was partially underground, built over a spring which was drained by a deep stone-built channel. Andy explained that when Martin Biddle was on site, he thought he might have found evidence of the channel, but as neither myself nor Andy are archaeologists, we found it difficult to see what Mr Biddle had seen!

Later, the crypt was converted into a mausoleum, possibly for Æthelbald and certainly for King Wiglaf, and for Wiglaf’s grandson, Wigstan/Wystan.

It’s thought that rather than the bodies, it was the bones which were housed here, as the recesses are quite small. Wiglaf is believed to have made changes to the crypt, adding the four central columns which support the ceiling. Intriguingly, there are traces of what look like paint on these pillars.

Having recently visited St Mary’s at Houghton on the Hill,  I couldn’t help wondering if, once upon a time, this church was similarly decorated.

Decorated plaster at Houghton on the Hill

Only the westernmost recess is in its original ninth-century condition, and, in later centuries, the crypt was hidden from view with the stairs being covered over and the windows blocked with outbuildings. Ironically, it is this very concealment which helped to preserve it. Exposure to the elements has meant that it has begun to suffer water and frost damage.

Writing as much as I do about the Mercian kings, I was naturally a little emotional to be standing on this spot, but Andy had something else to show me and I followed him and Margaret back up the stairs and into the church. High up in the wall there is an Anglo-Saxon doorway which gives a clue to the nature of the original Anglo-Saxon church building.

Whilst we have historical evidence for a monastery before 700, and that tantalising doorway, there is no other surviving Anglo-Saxon building apart from the crypt. (For more reading on the fabric of the church, see Dr HM Taylors booklet St Wystan’s Church, Repton.)

Standing in the churchyard that quiet autumn afternoon, staring into the vicarage garden, it was eerie to imagine the place as once having been a Danish encampment.

The Vikings did some damage to the church, destroying a stone cross and using its fragments to cover the graves of their warriors, and damaging the upper walls of the building.

Frequently during my research for my forthcoming book I’ve had cause to wonder how much more Mercian historical evidence would be available to us had it not been for the Vikings. But I’ll be following developments with interest as the digs continue, and evidence comes to light about what those Vikings did while they were at Repton, how they lived, and how they died. 

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours

Over the last few months, I've been asking a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time. 

To see where they all went, click on the LINK

But now, it's my turn!


I've only got 24 hours, so I'll make the most of it.  I might as well go where I have to be up at dawn, so let's head for my favourite period, Anglo-Saxon England. But let's make it the later part of that period, and I'd like to pick a section where the country isn't being ravaged by Danes. So I'll go for the mid-tenth century, and I'll pop to the court of King Edgar. 

I'd love to find out the truth about his women and wives - some think he had three wives, some think only two, but some suggest he carried away a nun and impregnated her. His brother was no better, being, according to many of the chroniclers, caught on his wedding night in bed with his wife, and her mother.

Still, much as I'd love to know the truth, I'm not hanging around for long. The food is not great, and unless I manage to find a seat at a nobleman's table, the bread will be so coarsely-ground that I'll lose my tooth enamel if I eat too much of it. Plus there's likely to be ergot* and other nasties lurking on the plates, so let's skedaddle to my next favourite era...

So, it's lunchtime now, and I reckon there'll be a feast in the court of King Charles II. While I'm enjoying the earliest form of Ice Cream, I'm going to take a good look at the king. His portraits don't suggest that he was especially good-looking, yet he had plenty of mistresses. Surely they can't all have been swayed by the power and wealth alone? Did he have some allure that simply isn't in the paintings?

Only trouble is I won't be able to get that close to him, as only his family, other royals and high-ranking officials were allowed to sit near him, apparently.

And, much as I'd love to stay, Charles enjoyed tucking into pineapple, and I hate the stuff, so I'd best move on.

But, I'm not going far, timewise, maybe just slipping into the early eighteenth century, because I fancy some Baroque dancing I'd like a stately Sarabande. (Remember, this is fantasy, so I'll already have mastered the steps😉)
Baroque Dance - Sarabande à deux (Youtube)
So, it's late in the day now, and I'm just going to swap gender, if it's okay. I'd like to be a monk, and sing in a medieval cathedral.  Singing is a passion of mine, and those cavernous buildings have wonderful acoustics.

Perhaps something like this: Testamentum Eternum (Youtube)
Now that it's dark, and I've managed to avoid doing any work all day, I'm heading back to where I started, to an Anglo-Saxon hall.

The food, as I've already mentioned, will not be especially appetising. Depending on the time of year, one might expect meat - beef, mutton, goose or pork in winter, and lamb or kid in spring and summer - and perhaps fresh fish if the settlement is close to a river or the sea. Fresh cheese would be served in spring and summer, and hard cheese available all year round. Fruits, nuts, and dried vegetables might also be on offer.

There'll be plenty of drink, of course: wine, mead and beer (probably in that order of desirability**)

Here, I'll find plenty of camaraderie, boasting, gaming, and maybe, if we're lucky, the scop will tale a tale like that of Beowulf. 
Short extract from Beowulf (Youtube)
There might be a riddle or two to solve, and it might be x-rated:
 A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man, under its master's cloak. It is pierced through in the front; it is stiff and hard and it has a good standing-place. When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee, he means to poke with the head of his hanging thing that familiar hole of matching length which he has often filled before.  
 Answer? A key! 

I'll settle in for the evening, enjoying the feeling of being part of a close-knit community. I promise I'll come home before daybreak...


In all of my novels, there are scenes set in the mead hall, where feasting, drinking and boasting take place. It was an intrinsic part of life in Anglo-Saxon times. Indeed, to be cast out from the hall was to be cast out of society. You can find my books on AMAZON
FEEDAREAD and all other worldwide retailers.

Find me on my website at http://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk/

*ergot - fungus that grows on cereal crops
** Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England - Debby Banham

Monday, 18 December 2017

Snakes, Scrolls & Anglo-Saxon Secrets

"Open weekend reveals secrets of historic church." The headline in the local paper was intriguing. Mum kept the cutting for me, and on my next visit to see her, on a sunny Norfolk autumn afternoon, we drove up a narrow, bumpy bridleway, just beyond the village of North Pickenham. 

The Church of St Mary's, at Houghton on the Hill, is hidden from view, and even when you arrive, it nestles shyly amid the trees.

Houghton on the Hill is mentioned in Domesday, and if the name Houghton has the same derivation as Houghton near West Rudham, then it means enclosure on the hill-spur [hoh (hill-spur) plus tun (enclosure, settlement or farm)].

The main reason for my visit was to see the murals, and they're hard to miss. As you walk through the door, you can see them, in all their - slightly faded - glory. These murals have not been precisely dated, but the general consensus is that they are pre-Conquest, and it's thought that they are the oldest of their type, certainly in England and possibly in Europe. There have been many scholarly articles published, examining the history and the symbolism of these paintings. This blog post is not about that, just about the experience of visiting this unique place and seeing these wonderful murals.

Alan, our guide, explained that they are what's known as a Doom Painting (depicting the Last Judgement.) He showed us the figures who are in Hell, looking up towards God, who has Jesus sitting on his knee. 

The notorious figures holding the serpents/scrolls have been the subject of much discussion. Alan says he is convinced that they are serpents, because of the shape of them. Comparison with the figure on the other side, who is in Hell, would seem to confirm this. The figure here is holding a plump, red, angry 'scroll', which does, admittedly, look very much like an untamed serpent.

My love of all aspects of Anglo-Saxon history has endured for nearly forty years. I studied it for my degree, I've continued to research it ever since, and this has resulted in the publication of three novels, contributions to two anthologies (one fiction, one non-fiction) and a commission to write a history of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. But never have I seen anything like these murals. To view them was a fabulous experience, and I marvelled at the fact that they have survived, and the circumstances which led to their discovery.

Bob Davey found the church back in the 1990s, derelict, and in need of restoration. In the course of that restoration, the murals were revealed.

The Anglo-Saxon images are the earliest paintings to have been revealed beneath the layers of plaster. But there is a fragment of a later painting, which contains words taken from Cranmer's Common Book of Prayer. This was produced during the reign of Edward VI, and demonstrates that for centuries, this was a working church. In all, there are five layers of paintings and the argument persists: should the later layers be completely erased in order to reveal the earlier ones?

On the north wall, the paintings depict the birth of Eve, and one can just make out the figure of Adam leaning against the tree of life.

Nearer the north door, (now blocked up) there was a depiction of Noah's Ark and apparently all around the lower portion of the walls, there was a strip of blue - a reference to the fact that the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Not everything inside the church was a joy to see. When Bob Davey stumbled across the ruined church, hidden by trees, covered with ivy and lacking its roof, he had to evict a group of Satanists before he could begin the restoration. No easy matter, when, as the local police told him, being a Satanist is not a crime. Alan showed us the damage done by this group (see the picture below.) There is also a swastika carved into the church wall, which must be left because, yes, it, too, is a part of the history of the building.

After years of painstaking restoration, the church is now safe, its future secured by the foundation of a trust. Various items have now been returned: a seventeenth-century chest, a prayer book, the font and the stoup bowl.

Alan took us outside for a tour round the building. There was once a round tower, and the existing porch was hit by a zeppelin bomb during WWI, resulting in a gaping hole which remained for eighty years. Lying in the shadow of the south wall is the spot where Robert de Neville's tomb was located. He was the lord of the manor in the thirteenth century, who apparently was executed for being found 'in criminal conversation' with a high-born lady.

Beyond the chancel, it was thought by some that the remains of a Roman baths were visible, but Alan thinks not. He showed us the extent of each generation of building, and the different roof lines.

The window on the north wall was purportedly stolen by GIs in WWII, and the replacement is a 'best guess', as no one knew what the original design looked like.

The replacement window -behind the grave stones
the window can also be seen in the top photo

Between the window and the now blocked up north door, there is a blocked up Anglo-Saxon window. 

Back inside, I photographed the Saxon window on the south wall, which has not been blocked up, but has been glazed. At the time, of course, it would not have had glass in it.

The church, which has never been de-consecrated, is Grade I listed. It is in the middle of nowhere now, but there was a village nearby. The church is close to Peddar's Way, the old Roman Road, and was on the pilgrimage route to Walsingham, (apparently Catherine of Aragon visited with her entourage.) Of the village, there is now no trace. Richard Muir's Lost Villages of Britain does not mention Houghton on the Hill, and there seems not to have been one specific reason for the disappearance of the village. I wondered about plague, or enclosure, but it seems as if the village simply shrank over time. 
"By 1603 the rector reported only fifteen communicants, that is, adults who took communion. In 1676 this had risen slightly to eighteen. In 1664 the hearth tax recorded seven individuals charged for fourteen hearths, seven of them in one household - presumably Houghton Farm, the only substantial dwelling in the village." (Friends of St Mary’s Trust pdf)
The church, still owned by the Church of England, is safe, but the trustees still work hard, and rely on donations to fund the ongoing restoration, plans for which include the uncovering of the paintings on the south wall. 

As we stood in that tranquil place on that quiet autumn afternoon, I contemplated how the church would have looked to its eleventh, maybe even tenth-century congregation. Paintings, in bright colours, covering all the interior walls, and depicting scenes from the Bible, must have been a truly awesome sight.

Links and further information: 

[All photographs by and copyright of the author]

Monday, 11 December 2017

Anglo-Saxon Music

Over the course of this year I've invited a number of authors to write about the music that inspires them, either to write, or while writing. I suppose it's now time for me to do the same!

Some of the authors chose music which came from the period in which their novels are set. It's not so easy for me to do this, as my writing is all set in the pre-Conquest period. I do have a CD, however, which attempts to give the flavour of the music of the time, and it can be quite useful for creating atmosphere.

Sanctus seeks to recreate the sounds with which Bede might have been familiar, taking traditional plainchant and adding harp and pipe.
Factor est cum Angelo
It's fair to say, though, that this is probably not a true representation of the music of the time. Few musical instruments have been unearthed from this period, possibly because they were mainly made from wood. Flutes made from applewood and hawthorn were unearthed from the Anglo-Scandinavian levels at York [1] but where the soil composition is not so conducive to the preservation of such items, they will have been lost. The sound would be more sonorous than those made of bone:
Sheep Bone Flutes (Youtube)
Some flutes were also made from the bones of swans' wings.

The other main musical instrument that we know about is the lyre, referred to in the sources as the harp. The most famous of all these finds is probably the Sutton Hoo lyre, but it is rather more ornate than those which would have belonged to a 'jobbing' musician, or scop. It was made from maplewood, and had six tuning pegs. The sound board was secured using pins cut from a strip of sheet copper alloy [2]
Anglo-Saxon Harp (Youtube)
The highest level of woodworking skills were required to make the instruments. A lyre has two main elements, the sound-box and the yoke into which the tuning pegs were seated. The lyre at Sutton Hoo had a 16mm deep soundbox carved from a single piece of maple. The soundboard, 3mm thick, was nailed over it, and the joints used to fix the yoke to the arms of the sound box were 'bridle joints', not 'mortise and tenon' [3]

Replica Lyre at Sutton Hoo - authors' own photo

Scops, the poets and singers, would have played the harp, but it seems that others were expected to have playing skills, too. Important occasions were marked by feasts, accompanied with music and entertainment. According to Bede, "When a cause for celebration had been determined ... they must all sing with a harp in turn."

However, stage fright appears not to be a modern phenomenon. "Whenever all those present at a feast took it in turns to sing and entertain the company, he would get up from the table and go home directly he saw the harp approaching him." [4]

Another instrument was the handbell, made from iron and primarily used for cows, but also used by Irish monks in the early Christian period. The figures below are depicted at Edward the Confessor's funeral (Bayeux Tapestry)

Much mention is made of the power of song. "That every day he heard the pleasure loud in the hall, the scop's clear song." (Beowulf 1.86-9)

It seems that there were different types of song: giedd (narrative and often sad), the leoð (also narrative), folcræden (tribal tradition) [5]

It's possible that as well as being played and sung in the hall in the evening, the scop's music was also used to rouse the slumbering warriors the morning after - a precursor to the alarm clock!

It's clear that music, and particularly song, was important. From Widsiþ:
...and I with a bright voice, raised a song for our victorious lord. Loud with the harp the sound mellowed, when many men, proud with mead, spoke their words,who well knew, that they had never heard a better song."

 We can't be sure what any of this music sounded like, but we have a little information dating from the end of the period. The Winchester Troper dates from around AD1000 and includes possibly the oldest written music, designed to be performed in Winchester Cathedral. A sample can be heard on YouTube.

Winchester Troper

Here's a recreation of what multi-instrumental music might have sounded like:
Anglo-Saxon Folk Music - "Wælheall"

and a demonstration of music played on replicas of instruments found together as grave goods.
UR Pipes & Lyre

The theme of this series of blog posts has been Writing to Music. For all the reasons stated above, it's hard for me to do this in the way that some authors can. If music inspires me, it's usually the lyrics which spark my imagination. Lyrics, for me, are a bit like the poetry of Tennyson: an elegant yet simple summation of the things we all feel, but struggle sometimes to put into words. Songs often dig down and expose the centre of my characters' situations. If you've read my books, then you'll know who I'm talking about:

Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol: sums up how Æthelred of Mercia feels when he's tired of the struggle and wants his wife to just be with him, supporting him. (To Be A Queen)

You're Beautiful - James Blunt: simply  a perfect way to describe how Alvar feels when he first meets Káta. (Alvar the Kingmaker)

Leaving the Land - Mary Black: a wonderful expression of Káta's belief that you can't go forwards in life if you're always looking behind you. (Alvar the Kingmaker)

I can't make you love me - Bonnie Raitt:  a pivotal moment in the lives of Edwin and Carinna. (Cometh the Hour)

Angel - Sarah McLachlan: this track happened to be playing while I was writing one of the saddest scenes of Cometh the Hour. If you've read it, you'll know.

None of these tracks is remotely medieval in sound. But emotions are timeless, aren't they? However, there is something which bridges the gap between authentic Old English music, and the atmosphere conjured up by those artists and writers attempting to recreate the past. So, fianlly, enjoy this video and the accompanying music.
Wedding (Wardruna)
Amazon Author Page

[1] Wilson, 1976, (Quoted in The Mead-Hall - S Pollington)
[2] [3] Anglo-Saxon Crafts - Kevin Leahy
[4] Cædmon's Vision, Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland
[5] Bloomfield & Dunn 1989