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Swords, Wyrms & Vikings


One of the treasures on display at Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure Exhibit is an impressive 13th century sword, the Conyers Falchion.

According to a legend, this falchion was used by Sir John Conyers to slay the Sockburn Wyrm. The wyrm had very bad breath (fire breathing perhaps?) and had been ravaging the countryside for seven years before Sir John came along and used the falchion to kill the beast.

Book by Paul Telfer & Linda Edwards

Scholars believe that Lewis Carroll, who grew up near the River Tees where the wyrm once roamed, may have been inspired by this legend to write the poem Jabberwocky.

Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky

Jabberwocky is one of the few poems I actually know by heart, and I imagine that a lot of people know at least its first two words even if they might not know what one of them means:

“‘Twas brillig!”

Note: “bryllyg is derived from the verb to bryl or broil, so ‘the time of broiling dinner, i.e. the close of the afternoon.”

Now you know.

The Sockburn Wyrm is not the only ancient wyrm story that has been flying around Northumbria for centuries. A study by the University of Durham indicates that there are at least 20 separate folk tales about wyrms recorded in Northumbria, County Durham and Yorkshire.

Wikimedia Commons: The Lambton Wyrm from C. E. Brock, English & Other Folk Tales

The best known of these tales are The Sockburn Wyrm, The Lambton Wyrm, and The Laidly Wyrm of Bamburgh. I’m happy to report that when I was at Bamburgh last fall I did not see the Laidly Wyrm, although I DID hear about her. Wyrm, by the way, is Old English, meaning dragon or serpent. Laidly means loathsome.

Wikimedia Commons: The Laidly Wyrm by John Batten

The various versions of these tales have the dragon eating cattle and carrying off small children. Sometimes the villagers appease the monster by offering it a daily dose of gallons and gallons of milk.

All the stories feature a young warrior who returns home from a journey to vanquish the creature who has been wreaking havoc in the neighborhood. These medieval stories were apparently based on even older tales, some of them dating to pre-Conquest times, and they were expropriated by the families to promote their chivalric past.

But why are there so many of these dragon tales in Northumbria? One theory is that they are an ancient memory of viking armies that once ravaged Anglo-Saxon England. Viking longboats (dragon ships, or drekar in Old Norse) with their carved dragon figureheads could easily be imagined as actual beasts threatening the land. Imagine that it’s the middle of the night, and you are suddenly wakened from sleep. You peer groggily out the door and see a line of fire moving towards you. Is it a fire-breathing wyrm or a viking army? Either way, small children, cattle, sheep and crops are in great danger. If it’s a viking army, though, you can be pretty sure that it won’t be appeased with a big bowl of milk.

Photo credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

The Annotated Alice, Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner

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Reflections on the Dark

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space…
………from DARKNESS, by Lord Byron

I live in California where massive fires fanned by high winds have recently been raging all over the state. There are fires burning even as I type this. Some residents have been forced to evacuate because of the flames, some tragically have lost their homes. During this period of strong winds and hot, dry weather hundreds of thousands of Californians have had their power cut off in an effort to prevent power cables from starting fires (a vain effort, it seems). The power outages have been a severe hardship for many residents and for businesses.

At our house the lack of power, light, internet was an inconvenience, but nothing remotely resembling the hardship that others suffered. We had enough warning to make preparations: phones and laptops topped up; ice purchased to keep food cold; the medievalist in the house setting out candles, and the engineer placing batteries in an assortment of flashlights.

Nevertheless, we were in the dark for a couple of nights, and it gave me the tiniest glimpse into what life was like for the average person in earlier centuries. For example, there was a reason that the main meal was prepared and eaten at mid-day or late afternoon. Try cooking with only the light from the hearth, or try chopping vegetables or washing dishes with only a single candle or rush light.

Because in the modern West we have all but banished darkness, one of the books I used in researching my historical novels was At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch.

I was trying to understand what it was like to live in a dark world. Right from the start Ekirch emphasized humanity’s fear of the dark. “Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.” Moving forward in time, though, straight into the Early Medieval Period, he suggested that not every culture might have suffered from that fear. “The Vikings appear to have relished nocturnal assaults…Rather than access to lighting, perhaps habitual exposure every winter to Scandinavian darkness steeled Norsemen to its terrors.”

Yes, it stands to reason that men who were unafraid of crossing vast expanses of water in small wooden ships would hardly be afraid of the dark!

On the other side of the equation, light, in particular firelight, was also a threat to our ancestors. In Anglo-Saxon England fire would have been a constant danger to villages of wooden, thatch-roofed houses. Cities were not immune, of course. London was a veritable tinder box. It was destroyed by fire seven times (1st, 2nd 7th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 13th centuries) before the Great London Fire of 1666. Driven by strong winds, that fire burned for five days, destroyed 13,200 homes and 87 churches, and left 100,000 people homeless.

By comparison, the Camp Fire that razed the California town of Paradise last November burned for 17 days, destroyed more than 18,000 structures and killed 85 people. It began before sunrise, in the dark.

It seems that even with all our technological advances we are at the mercy of the same hazards that threatened our forebears.  Fire. Wind. Even the darkness that we have tried so hard to banish.

Dedicated with gratitude to the firefighters who risk their lives to protect the rest of us from terrible harm.

Photo Credits:
Moon: The Press Democrat
Viking Raid:
Great fire of London, painted 1670: Museum of London

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Winterfell: The Story Behind the Name

In George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the Stark family—descended from the ancient Kings of Winter—rules from its northern fastness of Winterfell. That name, WINTERFELL, conjures up images of both WINTER and SNOWFALL, appropriate for a place that is the farthest north in the Seven Kingdoms until one hits a vast, sheer wall magically conjured out of ice.

But Martin didn’t make up the name WINTERFELL out of whole cloth. He shaped it out of a similar name found in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien invented a Shire Calendar for the hobbits of Middle Earth, and the name of the month that ran from 22 September to 21 October was WINTERFILTH. But Tolkien, too, borrowed that word, as well as his entire hobbit calendar. He modeled it on the Anglo-Saxon calendar recorded by Bede, a Benedictine monk and revered historian who lived in Northumbria in the 8th century.

The tomb of St. Bede at Durham Cathedral

Bede’s De Temporeum Rationem, (The Reckoning of Time), lists the lunar months of the Anglo-Saxon year, and the tenth month of that year was Winterfylleð. The name combines two words, the first meaning winter and the second meaning full moon because, for the Anglo-Saxons, winter began on the first full moon of the tenth month.

This year the first full moon of the tenth month rises on October 13 or, as the Anglo-Saxons would say, Winterfylleð, and it remind us that winter is coming.

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THE LIFE OF EDMUND IRONSIDE at The Road to Hastings Website

Novelist Paula Lofting very kindly asked me to write something recently for The Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature series on her Road to Hastings Website, and I posted a brief bio there of Edmund Ironside. That’s Edmund up there on the left facing the Danish Cnut in battle. Although Edmund is something of a dark horse in my novels SHADOW ON THE CROWN and THE PRICE OF BLOOD, I have rather a soft spot for this remarkably heroic figure who ruled England for 222 days after the death of his father, Æthelred the Unready. You can find the post on Paula’s website HERE.

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Game of Thrones & The Sense of an Ending

There have been a number of complaints posted on the internet over the past few days about the final episode of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t watched it, don’t read this. If you’ve watched it and were disappointed, read on, because I’m going to try to make you feel better.

The most frequent complaint that I’ve run across has to do with Daenerys’ transformation from Breaker of Chains to Mass Murderer. It seemed, according to many, that it happened in the blink of an eye. Viewers weren’t prepared for it. My response: viewers weren’t paying close enough attention. She’s been doing this for some time.

In episode after episode, Dany assumes the role of sole judge against those she sees as enemies, and the line drawn between justice and vengeance is incredibly thin. By the time she arrives in Westeros she is expecting to be welcomed as Deliverer, just like she was in Mereen. Even when she realizes that she is perceived as an outside conqueror, mistrusted because of her lineage and her history, her conviction that she is the rightful queen of Westeros and that all must submit to her never changes. She roasts the Tarlys. Why? Because they refused to break the oaths they had made to another queen. That’s only two men, you may object. But she would have killed anyone else who stood with the Tarlys, she made that clear. There were no half-measures for Daenerys by this time. Again and again she rejected mercy, choosing fear and fire instead. Drogon was a smoking gun and she was determined to use him.

Viewers were lulled into trusting her decisions, just as Tyrion and Jon were lulled into trusting her. “Love is more powerful than reason,” Tyrion tells Jon. And I think we were meant to be lulled into loving her, into trusting her—into submission. But by Episode 5 the line between justice and vengeance has grown yet thinner. She did not have to kill Varys, but she never considered any other options. (Exile? Imprisonment?) She did not have to destroy King’s Landing. The city was already hers. It had rung the bells of surrender. She gained nothing from its destruction except personal satisfaction. Daenerys was listening to no one, and the line between justice and vengeance had disappeared completely. There is no regret, no compassion, no self-doubt reflected in her expression; there is only determination and satisfaction.

It was Dany’s destruction of King’s Landing that sparked the emotional, moral and political conflict that had to take place in the final episode. Her transformation from Mother of Dragons into The Dragon Queen was made perfectly clear with a visual symbol early in Episode 6. (And that, really, was one of the most striking images in this entire series.)

At this point Dany gets the adulation she craves while Jon, Tyrion and Arya look on in horror. The scene that follows between Jon and Tyrion was masterfully written. Tyrion lists the steps that Daenerys has taken into tyranny and Jon listens in anguish, still trying to convince himself that Dany will see reason, still trying to defend her. “She saw her friend die. Her dragons die.”

Tyrion responds, “You are the shield that guards the realms of men. You’ve tried to protect people. Who is the greatest threat to the people now?”

Tyrion has the last word in that argument, and we see Jon walking past the Unsullied through the falling snow. A bit of symbolism right there: Winter has come to this devastated city, and this is Jon Snow, making his way to Daenerys. He approaches the sleeping dragon that wakens, inspects him, and lets him pass because he is not only Jon Snow, he is also a Targaryen.

In the throne room Dany is gazing hungrily at the Iron Throne, eyes wide, like a lover.

In speaking to Jon about her girlhood and what her brother told her of the Iron Throne, grinning as she talks of fallen enemies, Dany convinces Jon that she has to be stopped somehow. And of course, the only one who can get close enough to her to do this is Jon himself.

And that is another complaint that I have read over the past few days. Why must Jon be the one to kill Dany, the woman he loves? The answer is simple: Because they love each other. This is A Song of Ice and Fire; he is Ice and she is Fire. Martin, Benioff and Weiss long ago rejected any melding of those two elements. Jon and Dany were meant, from the beginning, to be pitted against each other. Therein lies the tragedy that raises this finale above any easy resolution.

When Jon kills Dany in utter despair he expects retribution. He is ready for Drogon’s fire. Instead, Drogon destroys the Iron Throne.  Jon has to live with his grief and with endless questioning about whether he has done the right thing. He carries that with him when he goes beyond the wall, into the winterlands where he belongs, where he has always belonged; outside of the world that is Westeros. An exile.

Do I think this final episode was perfect? Of course not! (I’m only human.) I think that the rise of King’s Landing’s from the ashes was far too swift, even though the show tried to indicate the passage of time. When Jon departs, the port looks absolutely fine. Tyrion and his council meet in comfort in the same old place. All has returned to normal. Somehow, this trivializes the destruction of the city and Daenerys’s death. I wanted to see more indications of the city struggling to revive. The discussions about repairing ports and lack of food and safe water didn’t convey it well enough. this is a visual medium. We need to see it.

I would have liked to hear Bran say something other than “You were where you needed to be,” and “I’ll go see if I can find Drogon.” I know that he has been portrayed as silent, passive, and above-it-all, but he has agreed to lead the six kingdoms. A few sentences from him showing that he is more than just a figurehead would have been appreciated. Bran, though, is a character who cannot be adequately conveyed visually or even through dialogue. It will be up to Martin to reveal what he truly is in the final novel.

Now, about those novels. Anyone who has read them must have noted that each chapter is titled with the name of the character that will be the focal point of that chapter. In Book 1 they are: Bran. Catelyn. Daenerys. Eddard. Jon. Arya. Tyrion. Sansa. In Book 2 Eddard, of course, has disappeared, and Davos and Theon have been added, but no others. The point I am making here is that no one character stands out as THE CENTRAL FIGURE in this epic fantasy. No one character is THE HERO in these books. There are only characters whose stories we follow, who we come to either love or despise.

However, watchers of the series Game of Thrones have had an expectation that there must be a hero. Someone must win the game of thrones. That’s just not the case here. There is no hero. Every character is human, sometimes making grave mistakes that lead to tragedy. Indeed, this is a fantasy world where the characters are all too human, and even the good guys have feet of clay.

That being said, look closely at the names above, and you will note that all but 2 of them are Starks. Whatever else Martin may be doing in his books, he is investing his readers in the welfare of the Starks. So the series ends, fittingly, with a montage that reveals the outcome of this story for the remaining members of the Stark family; the ending refers back to the beginning.

And that is exactly how every good story should end. I’m going to miss this one.

All Photos: HBO

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“Game of Thrones” & the Anglo-Saxons

A quick internet search for ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘History’ will offer theories about what historical events and figures inspired author George R.R.Martin, some of them suggested by Martin himself. For example, the resemblance of the houses of Stark and Lannister to the high medieval houses of York and Lancaster; or the elements of the Red Wedding inspired by the Black Dinner of 1440 Scotland. Search a little further and you’ll find Brienne of Tarth compared to Joan of Arc, (both woman warriors); Tyrion Lannister to Richard III (both successful despite physical handicaps);  even Cersei Lannister as perhaps resembling Russia’s Catherine the Great (women rulers who rid themselves of burdensome husbands and swiftly snatched the reins of power.)

I’d like to point out some elements from Anglo-Saxon England that may have seeped into Martin’s mind as he wove his tale.

ONE:  Let me begin with this final season’s penultimate episode, “The Bells”, when Daenerys Targaryan gave new meaning to the phrase “scorched earth policy” with the addition of a dragon. I am presuming, of course, that Martin had some say in what happened in this episode, and there is certainly a nod to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Smaug’s devastation of Lake Town. But look into English history and we find William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the Anglo-Saxon North in the winter of 1069-70 when, in retaliation for an uprising the previous year, William ordered his army to destroy the north of England and kill everything that lived. This has all the hallmarks of a powerful king’s act of vengeance. It was the calculated destruction of a vast area of Anglo-Saxon England, first by fire and then by famine. Those who survived the burning of villages and farms, the slaughter of livestock and the destruction of winter food supply and seed corn would be faced with starvation through the winter and into the spring. And in case you didn’t notice, that looked to me like snow drifting down on the ruins of King’s Landing at the end of ‘The Bells’.

TWO: Westeros physically resembles the Island of Britain. Not Ireland, or Iceland or Australia or any other large land mass surrounded by water. It looks like Britain.

THREE: Westeros has Seven Kingdoms: the North, The Iron Islands, The Vale, The Westerlands, The Reach, The Stormlands, and Dorne.  Like Westeros, Anglo-Saxon England had Seven Kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Kent, and Sussex.

FOUR: In the North, Martin has placed the wall—a massive, ancient edifice, the largest structure ever built by the hands of men. It is seven hundred feet high, and visible from miles away—“a pale blue line across the northern horizon.” In Game of Thrones Jon looks up at it, “…blazing  blue and crystalline in the sunlight..Centuries of windblown dirt had pocked and scoured it, covering it like a film, and it often seemed a pale grey, the color of an overcast sky; but when the sun caught it fair on a bright day, it shone, alive with light, a colossal blue-white cliff that filled up half the sky.” The wall was erected to keep the wildlings and the almost-mythic Others out of the Seven Kingdoms.

The men of the Night’s Watch keep guard at the wall, and they’ve fortified it with 19 great strongholds strung along the southern side of the wall. Most of the strongholds are empty, though, when the story begins, and the Night’s Watch itself severely depleted.

Martin has claimed that the inspiration for his great northern wall was Hadrian’s Wall. It was built by the Romans in 122 A.D. to mark the limits of Rome’s empire and defend the southern lands against the wild Pictish men of the north who successfully resisted Rome’s iron fist. Hadrian’s Wall spans the width of England for 73 miles, from the River Tyne in the west to the Solway Firth in the East. Historians believe that it was covered in plaster and white-washed, so that its shining surface would have been visible for miles.

Built of stone, it is ten feet wide and anywhere from 16 to 20 feet high, which seems a far cry from the massive edifice in Game of Thrones. But portions of the middle section of the wall lie atop a high, rocky cliff of basalt known as the Whin Sill, and it is an impressive sight.

Hadrian’s wall, too, had strongholds: 80 mile-castles strung along its length that were garrisoned by Roman troops. And, like the strongholds in Game of Thrones, each mile-castle guarded a gateway through the wall.

By the time the Anglo-Saxons settled in England, the wall would have been long deserted by its builders, not unlike Martin’s wall; but it would still appear threatening – perhaps the work of giants. It would certainly have made a strong impression on the Anglo-Saxons.

FIVE: The northern tribes beyond the wall, as noted above, were the Picts; their name possibly meaning ‘painted ones’ – referring to tattooing on their skins. In the 6th century the Irish colonized some of the Pictish lands, and after that the Angles and Britons settled the area—tribes at times united against their southern neighbors  – not unlike the wildings of Martin’s tale. It strikes me as no accident that Tormund Giants Bane looks like a Celtic Scot.

Tormond. Game of Thrones. Facebook.

SIX: Martin’s Iron Born, who are consummate seamen and raiders, resemble the Viking raiders who ravaged Anglo-Saxon England from the 8th to the 11th century.

SEVEN: Petyr Baelish, royal counselor and master manipulator, bears some resemblance to the 11th century Eadric Streona. He, too, was a royal counselor and manipulator, notorious for his complicity in various political crimes involving acts of subterfuge, treachery and murder. Ambitious for power and presumably smooth-tongued and persuasive, Eadric wed the daughter of an Anglo-Saxon king and amassed enormous wealth– his by-name means The Grasper. In the end, he fared no better than Little Finger when one of those he betrayed commanded that he be rewarded with the business end of an ax.

EIGHT: The whole concept of Game of Thrones—a battle for control of the Seven Kingdoms—is a reflection of centuries of conflict among the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England for ascendancy over each other, culminating eventually in the supremacy of the royal house of Wessex in the south. However, the Anglo-Saxon kings who ruled England from the Channel to the Scottish border in the 10th and 11th centuries never had to sit on an iron throne.

Anglo-Saxon king of England, Aethelred, carries a big sword but sits on a pillow.

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It’s an honor to be taking part in this celebration of readers and writers in the beautiful town of Newburyport, MA, north of Boston on April 26-27.

The Literary Festival opens on Friday, April 26, with a DINNER WITH THE AUTHORS at 7:30 p.m.

On Saturday, April 27, I will be in two sessions:

9:00 AM  Perilous Tides
Join Patricia Bracewell for a preview of her upcoming novel Perilous Tides, the third book in the Emma of Normandy trilogy. Bracewell re-creates the medieval world of this little-known, twice-crowned queen. “The familiar themes of political rivalry, court scandal, and disputed lineage so often explored in historical fiction get a new cast of schemer and scoundrels set in a less familiar, but no less dramatic period of English history. Readers of historical sagas and romances will embrace this rich narrative.” —Library Journal
Venue: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

1:00 PM  When One is Not Enough: Why historical-fiction series keep us coming back for more!
Join a discussion by three award-winning historical novelists on the art of writing a series. Whether it’s one character’s journey in several books as with Patricia Bracewell’s Emma of Normandy trilogy; different characters’ perspectives from the same York family in Anne Easter Smith’s series set in the Wars of the Roses; or the intrigues of Donna Russo Morin’s fascinating women artists of 15th century Florence in her Da Vinci Disciples trilogy, crafting a series can be fun but complex. Each book must stand alone and yet a reader should want to pick up the next one.
Presenters: Patricia BracewellDonna RussoAnne Easter Smith
Moderator: Edith Maxwell
Venue: Unitarian Universalist Church

There will be over 60 authors taking part in the Festival, with panels and readings ongoing on Saturday, Feb. 27, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. You can see the full schedule HERE.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a spring weekend!

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The Brief Reign of King Harold I of England

King Harold I. 13th century. British Library. That rabbit looks nervous.

The first king of England to be named Harold (there would be a second Harold, whose reign was even more brief but who is far more famous) died on March 17, 1040 at the age of about 25. His by-name, which has stayed with him to this day, was Harold Harefoot.

Harold was the son of the Danish King Cnut and his English concubine Ælfgyfu of Northampton. His parents’ union took place in England some years before Cnut captured the English throne in 1016. Harold was their second son, probably born in Denmark in about 1015.

Harold earned his by-name by scooting from somewhere in northern England to Oxford quick-like-a-bunny to present himself to the witan soon after his father died at Shaftesbury in November, 1035. Claiming that he was Cnut’s son, and presumably with his mum at his side to certify it, he demanded to be designated king of England as his father’s heir. His claim, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was incredible to many, but the Chronicle doesn’t say why. Was it incredible because he had never been seen at court so no one knew of his existence? Was it because he had never been given any responsibilities by his father and so was considered inept? After all, his older brother (Swein, who died at about this time) had been sent to rule Norway, and his younger half-brother was king in Denmark. Or was it incredible because many people believed the story that he wasn’t really Cnut’s son, but the child of a servant that Ælfgyfu had passed off as hers and Cnut’s? In fact, there were three other men who could have claimed the English throne at Cnut’s unexpected death, but Harold was the only (presumed) son of a king in England at the time. Harefoot got there first.

The man that the witan wanted to put on the English throne was Cnut’s son by Queen Emma, Harthacnut. But he was in Denmark fighting off a Norse army and couldn’t get to England to stake his claim; it was obvious to the witan that he might be a while and that someone had to govern until he arrived. Queen Emma and her close supporter, the powerful earl Godwin, offered themselves as regents for the absent Harthacnut. But Harald had allies who argued against that. Some of them were likely his mother’s northern kin. Others were northerners who were Godwin’s rivals and who considered Godwin already too powerful. The leaders of Cnut’s fleet, too, argued for Harold. Historian N.J.Higham suggests that they might not have wanted to see a Dane land in England with his own fleet that would put them out of business.

In the end, a compromise was reached: Harold would “hold” England for himself and his brother. Queen Emma, with Godwin’s support, would “hold” Wessex for Harthacnut. What must have stuck in Harold’s craw was that Emma, in Winchester, also “held” the royal treasure.

According to Emma’s Encomium—an account of events written at her behest about six years later—Harold wasn’t happy just ruling in the north. He wanted all of England (and, no doubt, Cnut’s treasure.) He summoned the Archbishop of Canterbury and demanded to be crowned. The archbishop refused to do it as long as Emma’s sons lived. He put the crown and the scepter on the altar (in Canterbury, presumably) and forbid any bishops to remove them or to consecrate Harold. Unable to act openly against Emma, in the months that followed Harold used bribes and threats to secure the allegiance of the great men of England. One of them may have been Godwin because he was deeply implicated in what happened next, involving the other claimants to the English throne, Emma’s sons by her first husband, King Æthelred.

Back in 1016 when Cnut conquered England and married their widowed mother, Edward and Alfred had been sent to their uncle’s court in Normandy.

Queen Emma entrusts her sons to her brother, the Duke of Normandy. The Life of Edward the Confessor. Cambridge.

They were still in Normandy in 1036 when Harold was ruling in London, Emma was in Winchester waiting impatiently for Harthacnut, and historical events began to get historically murky.

According to the Encomium, Harold had a letter sent to Emma’s sons, supposedly from Emma, entreating one of them to come to her “speedily and privately” to consult with her about what they were going to do about Harold the usurper. Most historians agree that the claim of the Encomiast—and therefore Emma—that the letter was forged, was a lie. They believe that Emma, desperate to maintain her position as queen despite Harold’s growing support—either summoned her sons or sent them some information that encouraged them to make their way to England. Even Emma’s biographer Pauline Stafford believes that Emma sent that letter and that “her appeal to them was at best sanguine, possibly self-deluding and at worst politically immoral.” I’m inclined to believe Emma’s claim that Harold actually sent them a letter or that they came on their own, lured by the knowledge that mummy was sitting on a vast treasure. (But what do I know? I’m a novelist, not a historian. And I’m prejudiced toward believing the queen.)

In any case, they came. Edward (age 30) sailed to Southampton, took one look at the bristling army waiting to meet him, and turned straight around and sailed back to Normandy. Alfred (age 24) sailed from Flanders and when he made landfall was met by Godwin, his mother’s supporter, someone he could trust. Godwin, though, was already following orders from King Harold. We know this because he would claim it in his defense some years later when he was tried for his involvement in this affair. He delivered Alfred and his company to King Harold’s men who proceeded to brutally murder most of Alfred’s companions. Alfred was taken to Ely where he was given some form of trial, blinded and then murdered.

There is an aspect of Alfred’s death that I have not seen mentioned anywhere in my research, and I am surprised by its absence. King Harold had two uncles–his mother’s brothers—who were blinded by Alfred’s father, King Aethelred. In that same year Harold’s grandfather, Ælfhelm, was murdered on Æthelred’s orders. It is hard for me not to see the vengeful hand of Harold’s mother in the blinding and murder of Alfred. And with an unmarried Harold sitting on England’s throne, the queen at his side, counseling him, would be his mother, Ælfgyfu, eager for a long-awaited revenge.

In 1037, Harold moved against Emma. As the mother of Alfred, who had been tried and executed for attempting to unseat King Harold, she would have been implicated (because of that letter) and so she was driven out of England—in the winter, we’re told, so probably in January or February. Harald finally got his hands on Cnut’s treasure! (What reward did Godwin get, I wonder.) Harold was now king of all England. Perhaps he was even crowned, but his reign was short—four years and sixteen weeks, dating from the death of his father. His only recorded act, aside from the murder of Alfred, was to send troops to punish the Welsh for border raiding. The Welsh responded by pummeling the English, which did nothing for King Harold’s reputation.

Harold Harefoot. 14th c. British Library. Note, crown & scepter. Bunny looks happy.

By the end of 1039 King Harold might have been ailing, although from what, it is impossible to know. (It’s interesting that all of Cnut’s sons died of natural causes in their mid-twenties, and that Cnut’s brother died young as well. Some genetic weakness?) Harthacnut had resolved his problems in Denmark and by early 1040 had raised a fleet and sailed to Bruges to consult with Emma, prepared to invade England. When Harold died on March 17, 1040, English emissaries went to Bruges and offered the throne to Harthacnut. One of his first acts as king was to disinter his half-brother’s body, behead it, and toss it into a fen—vengeance taken on one half-brother for the murder of another, Alfred.

Stafford, Pauline. Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England. 2001
Howard, Ian. Harthacnut: The Last Danish King of England. 2008
Higham, N.J. The Death of Anglo-Saxon England. 2000
Campbell, Alistair. Ed. Encomium Emmae Reginae. 1998
Savage, Anne. Trans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. 1984

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Emma of Normandy: A Life

Emma of Normandy, Dowager Queen of England, died on 6 March, 1052, in Winchester. She was only the second woman to be crowned queen of all England, and the only woman ever to be crowned queen of England twice. For 50 years, through the reigns of her two husbands, her two stepsons and her two sons, she was a significant figure in English politics.

Her first marriage in 1002 was to King Æthelred II—a widower with 10 children, several of them adolescent sons who must have been more than a little alarmed to see dad take a new bride who was young enough to be his daughter and who would likely give him sons to one day vie with them for England’s throne. On Emma’s arrival in England, she surely had to negotiate some thorny family relationships at the same time that she was learning to navigate the sometimes deadly interplay between the king, the nobles, and the ecclesiastics who jockeyed for power in 11th century England. And, along with everyone else, she had to  avoid the marauding viking armies who regularly ravaged the kingdom.

A modern interpretation of Queen Emma from my novel The Price of Blood.

The years of that first marriage could not have been easy ones for the young queen, but Emma was well prepared to face them. She appears to have been a polyglot who spoke Norman French, had probably learned Danish from her mother, and no doubt picked up the English tongue quickly if she didn’t know it already. There is evidence that she could read Latin, which was the language of literature and law in England and the rest of Europe. Before she was 20 years old, she was a wife, a queen, a stepmother, a mother, a landowner, a patron of the church and the arts, and the manager of a vast household.

By 1013, though, with England at all-out war against the invading Danish king Swein Forkbeard–and losing–Emma was forced to abandon her many English properties (and their incomes) and flee to Normandy with her children.

Emma and her children flee war in England. From the 12th c Life of Edward the Confessor

There she persuaded her brother, Duke Richard II, to offer refuge to her husband and his court when no one could possibly have estimated how long such an arrangement might have to last. Once again there must have been some family tensions to navigate.

Swein died suddenly, though, in early 1014 and Æthelred, invited back to England, ousted Swein’s son Cnut and the remnants of his viking army that were scattered all across the kingdom. Emma returned to England as well, but there were more trials to face. In 1015, while the king had some of his powerful lords murdered and his eldest son responded by rebelling against him, (more family strife–it never got easy), the Danish prince Cnut, determined to win himself a kingdom, returned with a massive army. In 1016, probably to no one’s sorrow, King Æthelred died and Emma’s stepson Edmund, now the king, took up the fight against the Danes. When Cnut laid siege to London, Emma was trapped inside the city, and there are indications that the widowed queen played a role in the citizens’ successful resistance, although we cannot be sure. Stories differ. What is certain is that her stepson, King Edmund Ironside, lost a major battle at Assandun in late 1016 and died soon after. When the dust settled, in mid-1017, Emma married Cnut, the victorious new king of England, and her second reign as queen began.

Cnut offers marriage to Queen Emma. Fredericksborg Castle, Denmark

Emma made certain that her children by Æthelred—Edward (12), Godgifu (7), and Alfred (4), were given refuge in Normandy with her brother. As a result, the relationship between Emma’s children and their Norman kin would be very strong, and in 1066 their cousin William would use those ties to bolster his claim for the English throne, and we all know how THAT turned out. But that was way in the future—there would be 4 kings of England between the reigns of Cnut and William the Conqueror.

As queen consort and advisor to Cnut, and as patron to churches and abbeys in England and in Europe, Emma was even more powerful during Cnut’s reign than she had been during Æthelred’s. According to Emma, it was a marriage of equals.

Queen Emma & King Cnut. New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031. British Library, Stowe 944, fol.6.

Cnut’s hold on England was eventually secure enough that he could journey to Rome and lead armies in Scandinavia, leaving England in the hands of regents, one of whom was likely his queen, Emma. She and Cnut had two children: Harthacnut, who would become king of Denmark and England; and Gunnhild who would marry the son of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Still, there must have been some tensions within the royal family itself. When Cnut married Emma he already had a wife, Ælfgyva of Northampton, who had given him sons and who was lurking somewhere in England or Scandinavia. Aware of this problem from the start, Emma demanded a pre-nup from Cnut guaranteeing that any sons she might have would be his heirs; but when Cnut, whose empire included both England and Denmark, died in 1035, the only one of his sons in England was Ælfgyva’s boy, Harold.

Urged by his mum, Harold immediately presented himself as the claimant to Cnut’s English throne, earning the nickname Harefoot. Because Emma’s son, Harthacnut, was in Denmark preparing to defend it against imminent invasion by the Norse and the Swedes, the English magnates decided to divide England in half: Harald to govern north of the Thames, where his support base was, and Emma to govern as regent for Harthacnut in the south. To complicate things even more, Emma’s sons by Æthelred arrived in 1036 to stake their own claims to the throne, and the outcome was disastrous. Alfred was captured and killed by men loyal to Harold, Edward fled back to Normandy, and Emma was driven out of England by Harold, taking refuge with her noble kin in Bruges.

Even in exile, though, Emma was working to place one of her sons on the throne of England. She summoned Edward and they discussed it, but his younger brother’s tragic fate at English hands convinced him that he wouldn’t have support from the English. In 1040 Harthacnut joined Emma in Bruges, fully prepared to make the attempt to oust Harold, his half-brother, from the English throne. Just as Emma and her son were about to lead an invasion force to England King Harold Harefoot conveniently died. Harthacnut, age 22, claimed the crown of England with Queen Emma beside him to offer support and counsel.

Emma was now mater regis, mother of the king, and once again a significant force in English politics. In 1041 Harthacnut invited his half-brother Edward to England from Normandy. This was probably Emma’s suggestion, and it may have been because Harthacnut was not well.

Harthacnut. Photo credit, British Library

For a time, Emma was once more a powerful political figure, second only to her sons. We know this because of her signature on charters and because she commissioned a book—a remarkable example of 11th century political spin that related events in England, from the war with Swein Forkbeard in 1013 to the beginning of Harthacnut’s reign in 1040, as Emma wanted them remembered.  Known now as the Encomium Emmae Reginae, it might have been read aloud as entertainment at court, the Latin translated aloud into Danish, Flemish, French and Old English.

Emma receives her copy of the Encomium Emmae Reginae from the writer as her sons look on.

But in 1042 Harthacnut died, and Edward, almost 40 years old, became sole ruler of England. He did not want any help from his formidable mother, thank you very much, and it especially irritated him that mummy had control of the royal treasure. In 1043 he rode to Winchester to confront her, taking with him three powerful earls and a force of armed men. (Did I mention that Emma was formidable?) With their help he confiscated the royal treasure and divested his mother of most of her lands, ordering her to live a quiet life; for a while she did. But she was back at court in 1044, perhaps having persuaded Edward that he had been too harsh in his actions toward her. Eventually, though, her name disappears from the witness lists and it must be presumed that, after Edward married in 1045, Emma finally decided to step aside. (Two queens is always one too many. More family strife.) Maybe she hoped to retire and help raise the king’s children. If so, she must have been awfully disappointed when there weren’t any.

Emma outlived all of her children except for her son, Edward the Confessor.  She was buried at the Old Minster in Winchester next to Cnut and Harthacnut, and when that building was pulled down their bones were preserved with others in mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

In the past decade Queen Emma, for centuries relegated to the footnotes of history, has been re-discovered. Helen Hollick based her novel The Forever Queen on Emma’s life story. I built my Emma of Normandy Trilogy around her years as Æthelred’s queen. Now, British composer William Blows has written a symphony titled Queen Emma which celebrates her life. She is no longer a forgotten queen. And in Winchester, the bones in those ancient mortuary chests are being examined to see what DNA testing can tell us about the royals of Anglo-Saxon England, including the formidable queen, Emma of Normandy.

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh  Century England, Pauline Stafford

Cnut the Great, Timothy Bolton

Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. Alistair Campbell

‘Sons and Mothers: Family Politics in the Early Middle Ages’. Pauline Stafford. In  Mediaeval Women, ed. D. Baker

‘Aelfgifu of Norhtampton: Cnut the Great’s Other Woman’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, LI (2007), Timothy Bolton

Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power, 840-1066, Eleanor Searle

‘The Aethelings in Normandy’, Anglo Norman Studies, vol. 13, Simon Keynes

Harthacnut, The Last Danish King of England, Ian Howard


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Queen Emma and St. Valentine

Despite the painting above of King Cnut wooing Emma of Normandy, this is not a love story. But it IS about Queen Emma and St. Valentine.

Emma of Normandy, Queen of England, was long remembered as a generous patron by the churches and abbeys of York, Canterbury, London, Winchester and Bury St. Edmund, as well as foundations in Germany, Scandinavia and France. Patronage—the giving of gifts—was a way of exercising queenly power, and a queen’s gifts were much sought after. Emma’s gifts took the form of textiles, such as altar cloths adorned with gold and precious stones; of gold cups; of silver shrines; of beautifully decorated manuscripts; and, especially, of relics encased in lavish gold and silver coffers.

Queen Emma was a great acquirer of relics, most of which she gave away. To the Christian faithful of the early medieval period, relics were far more than just mementos of the dead; or talismans offering protection and healing; or reminders of the afterlife of the soul. They were tangible links to the Divine, and they bestowed honor and privileges on the possessor. They were enshrined in churches all over Christendom, becoming focal points for pilgrimage. They were carried at the heads of armies as they went into battle—emblems of divine support. For example, Edmund Ironside’s army carried the relics of St. Wendreda into battle at Assandun. At battle’s end Cnut confiscated the relics. That St. Wendreda had allowed her relics to be taken by an invader was surely a sign that Cnut, and not Edmund, had her support; and Cnut was not about to toss away any advantage in his quest for the crown. So, although he probably knew nothing about St. Wendereda, instead of dumping the contents and keeping the reliquary for its valuable adornments, he  carried it with him for the next year until he donated it to Christ Church Canterbury. (Who knows? Maybe at Emma’s suggestion.)

An example of an imposing & possibly portable reliquary

One of the relics associated with Queen Emma was the head of St. Valentine who, it was believed, was martyred in Rome in the 3rd century, presumably on 14 February, which became his feast day. In 1042 Emma gave this relic of St. Valentine to the New Minster, Winchester, and it was cherished as one of the church’s most valuable possessions. This was long before St. Valentine’s Day was mentioned in Chaucer’s 14th century poem Parlement of Foules as the day when birds choose their mates, associating it forever with lovers, candy, cards, and flowers.

But, you may ask, how did Emma come by the head of this beheaded saint in the first place? Well, at some time in the early medieval period, a Norman priest acquired the head of St. Valentine in Rome (possibly through nefarious means, it’s hard to say). He took it back to Normandy, to the abbey of Jumieges where he presented it to the monks and entered the monastic life there. In 1037 a close friend of Emma’s son Edward became the abbot at Jumieges, and in 1041 when this Abbot Robert accompanied Edward to England, he brought the relic with him. Either he gave it to the queen, or she purchased it from him. The following year, she gave it, in turn, to the New Minster at Winchester. It was still there 75 years later when the reliquary was opened and the head was washed.

When the New Minster was torn down in the 12th century to make way for a new cathedral, the monks moved into the nearby Hyde Abbey and they took the reliquary of St. Valentine and many others with them. The abbey, though, did not survive the Dissolution of Henry VIII’s reign, and St. Valentine’s head and reliquary are long gone. Nevertheless, some tangible evidence of this story remains. In Winchester’s beautiful Norman cathedral, the bones of Queen Emma and King Cnut are still preserved.

Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine, Henry Ansgar Kelly
Cnut the Great, Timothy Bolton
Queen Emma & Queen Edith, Pauline Stafford
Portable Christianity: Relics in the Medieval West (c.700-1200), Julia M. H. Smith


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