Friday, 25 May 2018

King's Sons Who Didn't Make It

There are some well-known younger sons in history, who became kings because their elder brothers died young, or left no heirs. 

Henry II was succeeded by more than one of his sons, the last being John. 

Edward III should have been succeeded by his son, the Black Prince. Had he been, perhaps the Wars of the Roses would never have happened.

Henry VII should have been followed by his eldest son Prince Arthur, but instead the country got Henry VIII and the seismic changes which accompanied his reign.

Henry VIII then of course famously had a bit of difficulty siring a legitimate male heir and the one he finally produced, Edward VI, also died whilst still a teenager. What would the country have been without the reigns of Mary I or Elizabeth I?

Charles I was not destined to rule; his elder brother Henry was the heir, but died when still a teenager. Would there have been civil war if Henry had lived and reigned?

Back in Anglo-Saxon times there were also some occasions where the elder brothers' deaths had far-reaching consequences.

A few instances even in the early part of the period leave me thinking, what if?

Offa of Mercia went to a great deal of time and trouble to secure the legitimate succession of his son, Ecgfrith. Offa and his predecessor, Æthelbald, were only distantly related, and neither was directly related to the kings who had come before. In Mercia during the eighth century there were several contenders for the throne upon every death of the king, and Offa was determined to make the way easier for Ecgfrith. Bloodshed was one of the preferred methods, and letters show that it was not approved of . Alcuin of York wrote a letter in 797 in which he said of Ecgfrith: 'You know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son.'

But Offa went further, having Ecgfrith anointed by Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield. (It's probable that the archbishop of Canterbury had refused to do it.)

It was all for nothing, however. Ecgfrith died only a few months after becoming king. The history of Mercian kingship for the next almost one hundred years is one of rival families vying for the throne. The secure dynasty which Offa envisaged was not to be. It might not be stretching a point to suggest that had there been a stronger dynasty, Mercia would have remained an independent kingdom instead of being absorbed by Wessex.

Probably one of the most famous kings who should never have expected to rule was Alfred the Great. He was the youngest of the five sons of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (839-858.)

Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage in 855, taking with him his youngest son, Alfred, and leaving his domains in the hands of his eldest son Æthelbald (Wessex) and second eldest Æthelberht (Kent and the Southeast.) When he returned, he had with him his new wife, Judith of Flanders.

The welcome was perhaps not what he was expecting.  Æthelbald refused to hand back Wessex, and for a while the kingdom was divided - although historians argue the precise nature of this division. Upon his father's death, Æthelbald married his stepmother Judith, which earned him the opprobrium of the chroniclers, particularly Asser, who said that his actions were 'against God's prohibition and Christian dignity, and also contrary to the practice of all pagans ... incurring great disgrace from all who heard of it.' Asser went on to report that the king controlled Wessex for only two and half 'lawless' years after his father.

So the crown passed to his brother, Æthelberht, but he died in 865, and was succeeded by the next brother, Æthelred, who died in 871. He had children, one of whom later rebelled, but who must have been too young to rule in 871. Thus Alfred, the fifth son, became king. 

His grandson, Athelstan, famous victor of the battle at Brunanburh, was said to have been a particular favourite of Alfred's. But he was not supposed to be king.

When Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, died in 924, it seems that his legitimate son, Ælfweard, was declared king in Wessex, while it's generally accepted that the supposedly illegitimate Athelstan was chosen as king of the Mercians. The case might not have been quite so simple, but it's irrelevant because a mere sixteen days later, Ælfweard was dead. Another brother, Edwin, described as a king by Folcwin, deacon of St Bertins, drowned in rather suspicious circumstances. 

Athelstan died without issue and the throne passed to two of his half-brothers, and eventually to the young son of one of those ahlf-brothers. This young son, Eadwig, was famous for having reportedly being caught in bed with his wife and her mother, and banishing the cleric, later saint, Dunstan. He lost half his kingdom two years later and was dead by the age of nineteen. He was almost universally loathed, whereas his younger brother, who succeeded, was known as Edgar the Peaceable, whose reign was free from Viking raids, and renowned for monastic reform.

Edgar left two sons, the eldest of whom, Edward the Martyr, gained a reputation for having a fierce temper. He was king only for three years and his murder - said by some to have been arranged by his stepmother - ushered in the long, and troubled, reign of Æthelred, whose nickname was Unræd (ill-counselled.)

This reign saw the renewal of Viking raids, and the invasion forces of Swein Forkbeard and then his son, Cnut. Fighting Cnut for control of the country was  Æthelred's son, later known as Edmund Ironside. Energetic, successful as a military commander, he was nothing like his father. Unfortunately, as mentioned in my last blog post he died, possibly murdered, in 1016. He was probably still only in his twenties. 

In fact, Edmund was a son who didn't make it, having followed a brother who didn't make it. His brother, Athelstan, died while still young, and left a will which provides a wealth of information. From it, we learn that his grandmother, usually reviled for her supposed involvement in the murder of Edward the Martyr, played a huge part in his upbringing. It also shows that he was good friends with a family of Mercians who had strong links with Edmund Ironside.

With some of these cases, it might have been viewed as a good thing that the reigns were cut short; Eadwig, who tried to buy the loyalty of his noblemen, was perhaps no huge loss to the monarchy. Edward the Martyr was not shaping up to be the tactician that his father Edgar had been. 

But the loss of Edmund Ironside was perhaps more significant. He didn't die without issue, but these Anglo-Saxons' nicknames are very telling. Edmund's son became known as Edward the Exile, because he spent most of his life in Hungary. His son was a contender, for a while, for the throne in 1066. But whilst being a teenager was no bar for succession, by the time Edward the Confessor died, powerful court factions and a family named the Godwines had changed the political landscape. 

All these kings feature in my new book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order HERE or HERE

Monday, 14 May 2018

Died of Wounds? Apparently Not...

I've just finished writing a history of Mercia and had to report quite a few deaths.

In a book spanning five centuries, and featuring a lot of kings and noblemen fighting over countries, earldoms, and any old patch of grass, generally, it's inevitable that not many died in their beds of old age.

War is a bloody business. Doesn't really matter which century you pick, it's just a bloody business. With the odd exception - Henry V springs to mind - if you were wounded in battle in pre-penicillin, pre-Florence Nightingale days, that wound was going to kill you at some point, even if you managed to survive the battle itself.

So, obviously the chronicles reporting on Anglo-Saxon matters, which let's face it, were pretty much pre-everything, are going to be stuffed with detail about men dying from their wounds, aren't they?

Well, here's the thing. The answer, I've found is, 'not so much.' Just to give a few examples, working our way through the centuries:

  • Wulfhere, seventh-century king of Mercia
As with most warlord kings of the period, he wasn't averse to the odd knockabout on the battlefield. Of one of his campaigns, it was reported by William of Malmesbury that, 'On he came, confident that he would make good the loss, or win a kingdom.' On that occasion he was not successful, but he didn't let that discourage him.

However, there is some dispute about his final battle. We are not told the outcome of the fighting at a place called Biedanheafde but we are told that Wulfhere died 'later that year.' It seems fairly logical to assume that he died from wounds sustained during the battle, but the sources are confused. Henry of Huntingdon said that he died of disease, while the author of the Life of St Wilfrid confessed that he did not know the cause of death. William of Malmesbury said that he died a few days after the battle. Well, this sounds more likely, except that William was referring to the previous battle, so had clearly got muddled with his dates.

  • Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians
The husband of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, died in 911, and in 910 the 'Vikings' of Northumbria had broken a peace established by her brother, Edward the Elder and ravaged Mercia. According to the Chronicler Æthelweard, they crossed the River Severn at Bridgnorth and battle was joined at Tettenhall. It seems feasible that Æthelred, who died the next year, must have sustained fatal wounds during the battle.  Except, he wasn't there.

A few years earlier, Chester had been overrun by 'Vikings' and the Irish annals known as the Three Fragments record that messengers were sent to 'the king of the Saxons [Æthelred] who was in a disease and on the point of death.'

Roger of Wendover recorded that in 908, Leicester was restored by both the Lord and Lady of the Mercians, but while no other source mentions his illness, there is also no mention of his name in 909 or 910. When Edward the Elder took his forces into Northumbria - which may well have caused them to retaliate by ravaging Mercia - there is no suggestion that Æthelred was with him.

During the campaigns when Alfred the Great was still alive, and he and Edward and Æthelred were working together against the invaders, Æthelred's presence is acknowledged plenty of times. There would be no reason to exclude his name from Tettenhall, had he been there, leading to the conclusion that he was not present at the battle.

  •   Ælfhere, tenth-century ealdorman of Mercia 

Ælfhere was an energetic figure, King Edgar's right-hand-man, and the leader of local forces of Mercia. He was involved in a number of campaigns in Wales, in alliance with Hywel ab Ieuaf of Gwynedd. In 983 the two were once again in action, when Hywel asked for assistance against Einion ab Owain, in an attempt to prevent Einion from annexing Brycheiniog and Morgannwg for the kingdom of Deheubarth. He was unsuccessful, and Ælfhere died the same year.

It would be natural to assume that the battle wounds were the cause of death. But Roger of Wendover reported that he died, ‘his whole body being eaten with worms.’ Possibly this was ergot, a common infestation in grain. However, the chroniclers were not especially fond of Ælfhere and perhaps they thought he deserved a more ignominious death. 'Died of wounds' is just not a phrase they liked to use.

  • Edmund Ironside

In the eleventh century, sons of kings were fighting for the throne. Edmund Ironside, son of Æthelred the Unready, was locked in a campaign against Cnut, son of Swein. In one year there were five battles, the last of which was at Assandun – most likely Ashingdon - in Essex. 

The Liber Eliensis says that Edmund ‘played the part of an energetic soldier and good commander; he would have crushed all of them together, had it not been for the schemings of the treacherous Ealdorman Eadric [Streona]. And there was a massacre in that place of almost the whole array of the nobility of the English, who never received a more wounding blow in war than there.’ 

However,  Cnut went to Gloucester, having heard that Edmund was there, and they came to terms. Henry of Huntingdon said that Cnut cried out, ‘Bravest of youths, why should either of us risk his life for the sake of a crown? Let us be brothers by adoption, and divide the kingdom.’

Not long afterwards, Edmund conveniently died. This was not the first time that a king had expired shortly after the division of the kingdom, although it has often been stated that Edmund died of wounds. Yet this is not what the chroniclers said. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says only that Edmund died. Roger of Wendover claimed that it was Eadric’s son who murdered Edmund, concealing himself in the sink whilst the king was answering the call of nature, and thrusting ‘a very sharp knife into the king’s bowels, leaving the king mortally wounded.’ Henry of Huntingdon concurred.

Of course, Eadric Streona was roundly vilified by most of the sources as a turncoat and murderer. It's natural that he or his family would get the blame, but the author of the contemporary Encomium Emmæ Reginæ doesn't suggest that Edmund Ironside was killed by treachery, suggesting that the story was a later fabrication. But neither does it say that he died of wounds, only that God saw fit to remove his soul from his body after the kingdom was divided. One has to assume that he was pretty much in one piece when the division was agreed, for why else would Cnut have agreed, rather than just waiting for sepsis to kill his rival?

Divine intervention, murder, death on the battlefield, eaten by worms - all these things would kill you. But seemingly  a lingering death caused by an infected wound was just not 'a thing.'

[all of these stories and more are explored in detail in my forthcoming book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order now.]

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Shining a Light - Authors of Dark Ages Novels: Susan S Maire

In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This month, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to guest Susan S Maire, who tells me:

'English and French History has long been my favorite subject, with a particular interest in early history -William the Conqueror to Henry VIII. After I became an attorney, the thought occurred of researching what actual evidence there was, if any, for William’s claims to the English throne.  

My initial thoughts were to write appellate court briefs for each side. As I started down that road, I soon realized that while it might of interest to a court, that format was unlikely to appeal to the average reader. The option was to embark on the unknown venture of trying to write a novel. 

With the help of several writing courses and an editor friend of a friend, The Oath came into being. 

The premise is that instead of initially resolving their disagreement by force, Harold II of England and William of Normandy put their cases before a fictional world court to be decided according to custom and law and presentation of witnesses and evidence. 

I enjoyed the entire process- the research, the acquisition of new skills and the actual writing of the book.'


Excerpt from The Oath

[Richard Vos: Vicomte de Conches en Ouches, a close friend to William, Duke of Normandy and acting as his attorney at the trial before the Court of the International Association of Communities to determine if William is the rightful king of england as he has alleged and Harold Godwinson, former Earl of Wessex, and now King of England, a usurper. Leofwine Godwinson was Earl of Essex and Kent and was a younger brother of King Harold II. He acted as his advisor and attorney. to King Harold. The scene is the afternoon session of court on the day of presentation of the defendant's case and the direct testimony of King Harold in regard to his famous or infamous oath of fealty to Duke William.]

August 30th, Afternoon Session Ghent

Harold arrived at the court just as Leofwine was about to leave the courtroom so, unseen by Vos, he could pace outside. He was uncertain whether to be angry or worried at Harold’s tardiness. Where was he? Would he return from wherever he was before the bailiff called the afternoon session to order? Had something happened to him?

When he finally arrived at the courthouse, much refreshed from his ride, and greeted his brother, Leofwine had a hard time deciding whether to punch him or hug him. He opted to hurry him into the courtroom, all the while asking where had he been, why was he so late.

Harold assured him he was fine. “I can cope with the afternoon’s questions with equanimity and authority. I realize how difficult it is going to be to relive that afternoon in Bonneville-sur-Touques, but I also know it’s critical the justices come to the same conclusion as did King Edward, Archbishop Ealdred and my confessor—that an oath not given freely and under duress, no matter on how many relics it was sworn, is of no effect and is non-binding!”

He and Leofwine had spent a great deal of time determining the presentation of the testimony of the actual oath-taking. There was a fine line between recognizing the sanctity of an oath to God, freely taken before his fellow man and an oath taken under real and present duress. The oath before God was the keystone of society. It should not, and could not, be taken lightly. These twelve justices must be persuaded Harold understood the gravity of such an oath, that falsely taken, his very soul was imperiled. But, he also had a duty to protect the lives of his men, his brother and nephew. William might call them ‘guests’ but in truth they were prisoners, fully under the control of and subject to the pleasure of William. And even though he and his men might go home, he had known that Wulfnoth would not. Harold also remembered the deadly fate of the former Count of Maine and his wife while they were ‘guests’ of Duke William.

Leofwine opened the afternoon session by asking King Harold to describe the circumstances just prior to the ceremony of knighting at Bonneville-sur-Tougues.

Harold responded that they had just returned from the successful campaign in Brittany and it was his understanding that Duke William was planning a feast in celebration and as a send-off to him and his men as they left for England on a boat that Duke William was finally providing. Duke William also gave him a suit of armor at that time and told him it was for saving the lives of his men and also so that he would be suitably attired when the duke knighted him.

“Had Duke William said anything about knighting you before he gave you the armor?” asked Leofwine.
“No, he had not.”

“When did the duke first mention swearing an oath of fealty to him?”

“After the feasting, and after he had knighted me, an altar and casket were brought out and the duke said I was to swear an oath of fealty to him. I was surprised and a bit confused. I hesitated, not quite knowing what to do about it.”

“Would you explain to the Court why you were hesitant and confused about taking an oath of fealty to William?”

“I was hesitant because I didn’t see the point of an oath, or even the knighting, for that matter. I had already demonstrated that I was willing to help protect Duke William’s interests in Normandy by joining him in the Brittany campaign. I had even saved the lives of two of his men at that time. And this was true even though my several requests for a boat to enable our return to England had fallen on deaf ears. My country and his duchy had long maintained ties of cooperation, so what purpose could my individual oath to William in Normandy serve?”

“You just mentioned that you also didn’t see the point of the knighting. Why was that?” continued Leofwine.

“Well, first and foremost, I had no need or even any particular desire to become a knight of Normandy. At that time, in England, only King Edward was more powerful than I, and I actually had more personal wealth than King Edward. The lands I controlled in Wessex were three quarters the size of the duke’s Normandy. If you considered my brothers holding as well, the Godwinesons controlled an area larger than Normandy. Knighting was a meaningless gesture to me, but if William wanted to do it, I would go along with it. If I was ever in Normandy again, it might be useful.”

“What was the Duke’s response to your hesitation?” queried Leofwine.

“He said it was a fitting conclusion to having knighted me and ordered me to swear an oath to be loyal to him.”

“What was your reaction to that?” Leofwine guided the witness along a path of reasonable sounding reactions to an unexpected situation.

“It was his tone of voice when he said that I must swear the oath that made me realize William wasn’t being just the genial host; he was very serious and insistent about my swearing an oath of fealty. It was at that point that I remembered Wulfnoth’s warning to do whatever William wanted or he was a dead man. I remember looking at Harkon before I spoke. The look of fright on his face when it appeared I might not swear such an oath was a further reminder that we all were really William’s prisoners —

"Objection, Your Honor," Vos nearly shouted, as he jumped to his feet. “There has been no foundation established to permit such a slanderous allegation into testimony. I move to strike the phrase ‘William’s prisoners’ from the record.” 

“Your Honor,” Leofwine quickly countered, “the question asked for the witness’s response to an order from the Plaintiff. It is relevant and admissible that he testifies as to his thoughts, emotions, and reactions which arose in response to that order.” Chief Justice DiVinci took a quick poll of the other justices and announced, “Objection overruled.”

“What, if anything, did you do next?”

“Since our future was completely within Duke William’s control, I said a silent prayer to God to forgive me if by taking this oath it was going to require me to do something at a later time that I could not in all conscience do. But I couldn’t risk the lives of my men and my family by refusing.”


Find Susan on Amazon
and on her Website

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Feast or Symbel?

Where can you eat beans, but not vegetables?
Where can you give your cows fodder, but not eat the beef?
Where can you plant garlic, but not carrots?

Yes, in Anglo-Saxon England.

There are two problems facing the researcher or novelist who might wish to provide some detail to the daily life of their characters:

Firstly, did they know of the items, be it food, or plants?
Secondly, did they have a name for the item which would be recognisable today?

Some of the terms are commonly known. The Anglo-Saxons ate cow, the Normans ate beef; sheep/mutton, pig/pork, the differences are explained by the Norman words becoming the more 'civilised' option. Thus a stool becomes a chair, an arse becomes a derriere, and so on. 

When I'm writing fiction, I don't stick rigidly to the system of using words derived from Old English. It's not easy putting dialogue together when you can't use words like because, or try, or sky.

But sometimes the word will give me a clue as to whether an item I'm thinking of including in my Anglo-Saxon world has any right to be there.

What if, for example, you want a character to describe another's eyes as almond-shaped? If the Anglo-Saxons didn't know of almonds, then they simply wouldn't think in those terms. Well, it seems that they did know about them, although they were at the time quite an exotic import. So, a rich person, maybe only even a royal person, would know of such a delicacy, or perhaps only someone living near to a port.

The jury is still out, I believe, about rabbits, and whether the Romans or the Normans introduced them to England, but for safety's sake I make sure my characters only talk about hares.

So, assuming that we make sure only the meat, fruit and vegetables that go into the story were known to the Anglo-Saxons, would the names be familiar? Would it be possible to concoct a feast that not only used produce known to them, but with nouns derived from Old English? ('Feast' isn't by the way, the word would be symbel)

We could start with our meat course, and have cow. We wouldn't eat veal, but if we did, we'd have to call it calf. We might have goat meat, especially kid, but that would be called ticcen. Chicken would be fine, and so would goose. Fish, too, and eel, if you like that sort of thing. Herring, fluke and oysters are all okay, too. But sorry, if you want some plaice, you'll have to say facg.

Cheese will be plentiful, but if you want a ploughman's lunch you'll need to ask for a loaf, not bread, and I'm afraid you'll have to forgo the pickle and just stick with butter.

You could have a nice pottage, but you'd need to call it a briw, and in it you might find the afore-mentioned garlic, along with peas, beans, leeks and beets, but the onion would be ciepe. You'd maybe add some herbs for flavouring, but they wouldn't be called herbs. 

For pudding, you might have some fresh fruit, but if you want strawberries then you need to ask for earthberries, and raspberries would be hindberries.

It is difficult to know, when researching, what is meant by 'native' plant. I decided that if a plant or flower had a name derived from Old English, then it's probably safe to assume that it's a pre-Conquest inhabitant. 

So, happily, we have cress, mallow, hemp, hemlock, (not that you'd necessarily want to put that one in the pot!) nettle, hawthorn and hazelnut, but we'd probably have to do without parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. 

I say 'probably', because it's not a fail-safe method. It's known that the Anglo-Saxons ate cabbage, grew barley, and oats, but of those, only oats have a name that looks anything like the modern-day noun. 

The Anglo-Saxons drank wine, but not from 'grapes', (they called them wineberries!) although beer and hop are both derived from Old English, as is apple, but they turned their apples not into cider, but apple-wine.

Little Miss Muffet had curds and whey, but only whey is recognisably derived from Old English.

I'm not a fan of spices, and I like quite traditional food. I could live without that modern invention, the potato, and I think that this diet of dairy produce, meat and veg would suit me quite well. But it seems there were 'nasties'; not only did they have radishes - they called them rædic - but the vegetable called more might refer to carrots (yum) or parsnip (not so yum, unless I can roast them in honey.)

Ah, what about honey? Yes, it was available, but seemingly not used for sweetening foods, certainly not for cakes or fruit dishes, but possibly for drinks, and there is a recipe for pea soup sweetened with honey, which in Old English was called hunig

Still, if you are worried about the food tasting bland, there were many salt works, for instance at Nantwich and Droitwich, but even if we didn't know that, the name, sealt, makes it clear that the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with the condiment.

Ketchup though? Probably not.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Shining a Light - Authors of Dark Ages Novels: AJ Sefton

In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This month, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to guest AJ Sefton. I'm particularly thrilled as the characters mentioned here feature not only in my Tales of the Iclingas, but in my new history of Mercia, due to be published later this year.

AJ's Teon is top of my summer reading list and I'm thrilled the blog is being sent spinning back to the ancient heartland of Mercia today. Over to AJ...


Something amazing happened two years after I abandoned my friends and family in Liverpool. A load of gold and treasure was found in a field not that far from my new home.
It changed everything.

My spouse had landed a new job in Burton-upon-Trent, a market town in the Staffordshire, and we left our old life behind. As an historian, the first thing I did was investigate the area and its legacy. I knew all about the beer – that’s what brought us here – but why were there so many symbols and statues of swans? Granted they are magnificent creatures, but still.

It didn’t take me long to find out that the swans represented Saint Modwen (or Modwenna, two people often confused) who brought Christianity to the town in the seventh century. Our parish church of Saint Peter’s still holds the foundation stones that Modwen laid down, so the story goes. When she died at age 130, she was carried to heaven by two swans. Love that tale. So I decided to write her story as I couldn’t find a modern one and perhaps I would include some of the wonderful miracles she performed, such as resurrecting a half-eaten swan.

St Modwen, the Washlands, Burton-on-Trent
Click here for image attribution

The king at the time was Penda of Mercia, the last pagan king of mainland England. That would make an interesting contrast with Modwen, I decided, as there were sources that linked Modwen with some of Penda’s daughters and nieces. I set about researching all the Mercian battles he was involved in, particularly relishing the long-running feud with Northumbria. With all my research collated, I began writing a novel about Modwen and Penda.

Then it happened. The local news said something of great interest had been dug up in a field that could change our view of the Dark Ages. It was the Staffordshire Hoard. From the collection of military and religious treasure we could see the intricate craftsmanship and delicate artistry that these unsophisticated Anglo-Saxons produced. Proving, without a doubt, that we had them all wrong.

As for me, my novel was redesigned. I would tell the story of the Staffordshire Hoard; I was going to create someone who buried that treasure intending to come back for it years later, someone who was not a simple warrior, or even a royal one, but someone who was as special as the Staffordshire Hoard itself. His name was Gulfyrian, also the name of my first Anglo-Saxon novel.

The Mercian capital was Tamworth, which is half an hour away from me, and around the area of the castle was Penda’s palace, the castle being built by one of his descendants, Offa. Yes, Offa of Offa’s Dyke fame, who built a boundary between England and Wales. Ten minutes away is Repton, the ancient religious centre that still has a royal crypt, empty now of course, but anyone can visit it and go inside. I like to suck up those Mercian vibes and walk away feeling like a warrior. The old public school next door looks a lot like Hogwarts and must have some medieval magic thing going on, too. Humour me with this.

It all feels like Early Medieval Mercia to me, from the view I see from my window of the old Mount Calvus with the ancient woodland going through the seasons, to the River Trent and its tributaries, the place of many decisive battles.  On the Trent Washlands is a mound of stones that once belonged to the Medieval bridge, replaced now of course. But these stones stand slightly back from the river, close to a cave and remain unlabelled, secrets therefore untapped. Watch this space.

Ten miles south is the cathedral city of Lichfield surrounded by monuments and churches dedicated to Saint Chad (he’s in a couple of my novels, too). The cathedral itself is beautiful in its own right, and if you haven’t seen it already you must sort that out straight away. It is the only cathedral (or any building as far as I’m aware) that has statues of the old Mercian kings. Penda is not included, with him being pagan and all that, but his sons Paeda, Wulfhere and Aethelred are there as well as other Mercian kings of note, including Offa. I must confess that I use these images to conjure up the faces of the men. I love how all of them have lovely wavy hair and beards.

My book Teon is based around a myth involving Penda’s son Wulfhere. There is a well in Tamworth with a label telling the story of how Wulfhere murdered his two small sons because they were converted to Christianity by Saint Chad. Their little bodies were buried under a load of stones and gave the name to the Staffordshire town of Stone. There is no evidence to support this, so I made up my own version. 

As a secondary school history teacher, the role of Burton-upon-Trent serves to demonstrate the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the development of the beer industry, railways, canals and globalisation. The Staffordshire Hoard has finally allowed us to really look into the local history in the Migration period as well, where children can discover the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. The Staffordshire Hoard also gave me a whole new vocation. Thank you that man with the metal detector.


Visit the website to discover more about the history of Mercia, the Dark Ages and AJ Sefton's books at

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Early History of the English Language

Here’s a little test: Torpenhow. Know how to pronounce it? Know its derivation? If it helps at all, it’s in Cumbria, and it’s a hill… and its name means hill hill hill. That’s English for you. But why? How did our language become so, well, strange? Or should that be weird? Why do we have so many different words for the same thing, and why does our spelling not even abide by its own rules?

I think the first clue might be that, as historian Ann Williams remarked, “We have little idea about what ‘spoken’ English was like before 1100 - virtually all the surviving texts are written in the literary standard (Standard West Saxon in modern scholarship) which was never a spoken language. The abrupt change in the Peterborough Chronicle in 1121 (pictured below) marks the moment when the scribe ceased to write in Standard West Saxon, and began to write in something like the local spoken dialect.”

And in reply, historian Stephanie Evans Mooers Christelow had this to add: “There is also the fact that people speak the language of their mothers: French men who married English women had bicultural children who most likely spoke English. French soldiers stationed in English towns had to learn English, and the French who resided in English villages did as well. According to the Cambridge History of the English Language, French vocabulary and syntax did not begin to significantly affect the English language until about 1300.”

So, there are two intriguing pieces of information here: a hint at the marked differences between written and spoken language, and the fact that it’s too easy, and inaccurate, to blame all our language anomalies on the Norman Conquest. So where did they come from?

Two thirds of England’s rivers take their names from ‘Celtic’ words, for example, Avon. We have place names which are a mixture - in the case of Much Wenlock, Much is from Anglo-Saxon mycel, meaning great, Wenlock comes from Celtic wininicas, white area, and the Anglo-Saxon loca, (place.) We have Roman influence, too, with castra (fort), seen in places such as Chester, and Manchester. Of course, the Anglo-Saxons did build forts of their own - burhs, which give Britain all the burgh and borough place names. But the Anglo-Saxons didn’t just come to fight, and/or defend, they also came to stay. They cleared places, to make space for their settlements, and gave us word endings like ley, ly, leay and leigh, which all mean 'clearing'. The Scandinavians followed suit and also added place names - by, booth, and thwaite.

The Normans did add a few of their own - Ashby was given to the de la Zuche family, (giving us Ashby de la Zouche) and Bewdley came from Beau Lieu (beautiful place).

But the Norman-French did not settle in with the same comfort as the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians, nor in the same number. As we saw above, the commoners kept speaking English, which was still evolving, nevertheless, and came to add many French words.

There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from the study of our place names, and as Margaret Gelling says in her Signposts to the Past, “The linguistic agility which enables modern English speakers to accept Salop as a form of Shropshire is paralleled by the ease with which Keighley is an accepted spelling form of a name pronounced Keethley.” (If you can, get a copy of her book and marvel at her enlightening discourse on the ‘correct’ pronunciation of Shrewsbury!)

Of course, places names have different pronunciations not just because of language development, as in the case of Shrewsbury (Shrowsbury/Shroosberry.) So what can regional dialect tell us?

What Fettle Mun is a book on Cumbrian dialect by Tim Barker. Remember Torpenhow? Well, it is pronounced Tra’penner, or Truhpenner. The Tor bit is from an ancient British word, meaning hill. The Pen is from Celtic (Welsh) and it means hill. How is Old Norse, and it means… hill. Yes, Barker confirms that our language is definitely a hybrid.

Cumbria has the same root as the Welsh word for Wales - Cymru. The shepherds’ counting system, Yan, T’yar, tethera, methera, pimp, is very close to the Welsh for 1-5 (Un, dai, tri, pedwar, pimp).

The Lakeland dialect contains lots of thees and thous, similar to older English - Dost thou is still in evidence is phrases like Duster, as in "Duster want a cup o’tea?"

English development is not unique, but it is unusual. Other languages have remained more pure; Canadian French, for example, is much closer to medieval French, and American English bears traces of that spoken by those on the Mayflower who, being English, would nevertheless have talked of fall coming after summer, and of having ‘gotten’ things.

But here in England we can find even earlier traces. Staying in Cumbria, The Dictionary of Cumberland Dialect (Ed. Richard LM Biers) tells us that gang means go, remarkably similar to the Old English (OE) for 'going' : gangan.

At the other end of the country, In Broad Norfolk, Jonathan Mardle tells us that in the ninth century the Danes invaded the East coast and martyred the Christian king, Edmund. People in East Norfolk used to call the carrion-crow ‘Harra the Denchman’ (Harold the Danishman) which suggests a very long folk-memory of the Anglo-Saxon terror of the heathen vikings.

Norfolk shepherds also have a counting system which sounds rather familiar - Ina, tina, tether, wether, pink.

They still call a song thrush a Mavis, the OE name, and they retain OE plurals - childr, housen. There is much of what we would term biblical language:  "Go ye into the village."

East Anglia became part of the Danelaw. The Danes inter-mingled and Danish became part of the East Anglian dialect. Then came the Flemish weavers in the 14th century. Then an influx of Dutch and Walloon weavers in the 16th century - the ‘strangers’ - brought the word ‘lucum’ (attic window) from the French ‘lucarne’. So not all of our French words come necessarily from Norman French. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Those who came to England early on spoke a Germanic language (Indo-European). The word for father in a document of AD800 is faeder. In Old High German it’s Fater and in Old Frisian fadar or feder. Modern German gives us Vater. We can see the connection. The Story of English (McCrum, Cran & MacNeil) adds that other Frisian words, ko (cow) lam (lamb) goes (goose) boat (boat) dong  (dung) and rein (rain) suggest that had the Conquest not happened, we might all be speaking something akin to modern Dutch.

We should therefore expect some hybrids (as we’ve seen in the place names) and some alternatives with the arrival of the Normans eg wedding/marriage. Although why we don’t have Lapin for rabbit, when it was the French who introduced rabbits to England - can anyone tell me?? (Seriously, I would love to know!)

But leaving aside hybrids, dialect and alternatives, why the different spellings of seemingly similar words?

OE contains barely a dozen Celtic words, and most of them, as we have seen, are geographical. And most place names are English or Danish. OE was not uniform, it had local varieties which as we’ve seen are still discernible today, and also regional accents as diverse as 'Geordie' in the north-east, Dorset with its soft ‘burrs’ and Kent, with speech patterns that go back to Jutish origins. The impact of Old Norse (ON) is harder to gauge because words were so similar to OE. But it has given us beck, laithe, garth - all generally found in areas of Viking settlement in the north, as is riding, a word for an administrative unit, which as an interesting aside, is also used in Canada for a parliamentary constituency.

Certain developments affected vocabulary: the coming of Christianity brought biblical words - Greek and Latin - and gave OE the ability to speak of concepts (frumweorc: from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work, which gives OE for creation), and the Conquest brought a linguistic ‘apartheid’ in areas of religion and law, with the introduction of words like felony, perjury, attorney, bailiff and nobility.

But many of our unusual spellings simply boil down to phonetics. The English had two letters for the th sound (þ and  ð) which became virtually interchangeable. They had no silent letters; every letter was pronounced. But there were weaknesses in the system - the same letter, c, was used for cold and child (cild) and king (cyning).

G was both hard and soft, and was also used for a sound similar to the ending of Scottish ‘loch’, as well as the j sound in hedge, which was written with a cg spelling (hecg). The sh sound was written sc - (scip = ship). 

So h, c and g were being used for several sounds.

There were similar problems with vowels; with no clue given in the spelling as to the length of the vowels. The scribes experimented with double letters and accents, but it wasn’t ideal. They had no silent letters, remember, so vowels couldn’t be used as clues to pronunciation.  But post-1066, double vowels came to be used (sweet, queen).

The Normans might not have had everyone speaking French, but they introduced new ways of hinting at pronunciation of English - sc became sh, cw became qu, and cg became dg, as in hedge.

They brought in the letter w, but this looked too much like v v (havving), so doubling up went out and the silent e was added to aid pronunciation (have, live). And suddenly it starts to become clear why we have all our spelling anomalies.

For anyone wondering about  through, trough, throw, threw, thorough, bough, and tough, I recommend David Crystal’s book, Spell it Out, for it would seem that a lot of our peculiar spellings were born of a need to show how words should be pronounced.

So, whilst the Normans might not have altered the way we spoke, they certainly altered the way our words were spelled. Or should that be spelt? 😉

It is my intention to revisit this subject, and in a future post I will look at how Old English and Anglo-Norman turned into what we call Middle English, and how, why and when even the nobility stopped speaking French.

[This post originally appeared on the EHFA blog on Tuesday, November 22, 2016]

[all illustrations are in the public domain, via Wikipedia]