From my blog...

Surviving Despite the Odds: The Bayeux Tapestry

BayeuxShipThe Bayeux Tapestry, as you probably know, is not a tapestry. It’s an embroidery that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings and of the events leading up to it. The Tapestry is 224 feet long and roughly 18 inches high. It consists of 9 strips of bleached linen that are sewn together and embroidered with colored wools. It is damaged in places, and a final panel is missing, yet the fact that this textile from the late 11th century exists at all is something of a miracle.

Bishop Odo

Bishop Odo

The first 400 years of the Tapestry’s provenance are a bit of a mystery. Most scholars now believe that it was embroidered in England and that sometime before 1087 it was carried to Bayeux, Normandy among the possessions of its patron Bishop Odo (William the Conqueror’s half-brother). It’s very likely that it was hung in the Bayeux cathedral nave on special occasions, and kept in storage when not in use. If so, it survived Bayeux’s destruction when Henry I torched it in 1106, escaped a devastating cathedral fire in 1159, and survived Bayeux’s destruction by Edward III in 1335. Already it seems to have had a charmed existence, although how it lost that final panel is anybody’s guess.


Nave of Bayeux Cathedral. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Nave of Bayeux Cathedral. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

The tapestry is mentioned for the first time in a 1476 inventory of the cathedral’s treasures which describes “a very long and very narrow strip of linen embroidered with figures and inscriptions representing the Conquest of England”. It was kept with other textiles in the cathedral vestry which, in 1562, was ransacked when French Calvinists attacked the cathedral. They murdered priests, smashed windows, and stole or destroyed centuries-old treasures including precious textiles and items of gold and silver. Somehow, they overlooked the tapestry. Was it ignored because there were no gold or silver threads in it? Or had it been moved to some safe, hidden place? Another mystery. Another close escape.

During the French Revolution, when all church property was nationalized, a Monuments Commission was formed, and ecclesiastical treasures that were not taken to national or local depots were lost or destroyed. The Tapestry once again was spared, coming under the jurisdiction of Bayeux’s Municipal Council. However, in 1792, the Council in its wisdom approved a request by a local military battalion to use the Tapestry to cover their equipment wagons as they made a 350 mile trek south to Meux. Luckily a local administrator convinced the soldiers to use sacking to protect their cargo instead of one of France’s greatest treasures, and he spirited the Tapestry to his office for safekeeping.

Two years later, when a plan in Bayeux surfaced to cut up the Tapestry and decorate a carnival float with it, the new Commission for the Arts said no.

Bayeux Cathedral. Photo Credit: James Wooley

Bayeux Cathedral. Photo Credit: James Wooley

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 23 : Harold prête serment à Guillaume

Duke William of Normandy.

By this time the Tapestry was recognized as a valuable historical artifact, and throughout the 19th century efforts were made to study it, draw it, repair it, conserve it and properly display it. But dangerous times lay ahead. When France was invaded by German troops during the Franco-Prussian War the Tapestry was packed into a protective zinc cylinder and safely hidden away. By 1939 it had its own bomb shelter, but that did not protect it from Himmler’s Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) team when the Germans occupied France. The Tapestry was displayed privately one evening for elite Wehrmacht and SS officers before it was turned over to a research team that spent a month examining and photographing it. Eventually it was transported 120 miles south to the basement of the Chateau de Sourches near LeMans where it remained for most of the war.

And now we enter the realm of films like Monuments Men and The Imitation Game. Really!

In the spring of 1944, with northern France under heavy Allied bombardment, Himmler began making plans to bring the Tapestry to Germany. The first step would be to move it to Paris, but even before he could order the transfer, the Allied invasion of Normandy had begun.

The Norman Fleet

The Norman Fleet

On June 8 Bayeux was liberated, and within a week Captain LaFarge of the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division had set up his headquarters there. But the war wasn’t over yet. In early July, per Himmler’s orders, Gestapo officers removed the Tapestry from Sourches and escorted it to the Louvre.

Earl Harold

Earl Harold

By mid-August, 1944, the Allies were approaching Paris. On August 18 the team at Bletchley Park in England intercepted a radio message from Himmler to the head of the Gestapo in France ordering him to remove the Tapestry to ‘a place of safety’ – presumably closer to the German heartland. On August 22 a team of SS men tried to do just that, but the Louvre was already occupied by Allied troops and the SS men couldn’t get to it. On August 25, Paris was liberated.

The mayor of Bayeux immediately sent a request to Captain LaFarge asking that the Tapestry be returned to Bayeux from Sourches. He didn’t know that it had already been moved to Paris, and one has to wonder if there wasn’t a panic until Captain LaFarge learned that the Tapestry was in the Louvre. Despite the wishes of the mayor of Bayeux, it remained in the Louvre for a time, on exhibit for five weeks. The Tapestry was finally returned to Bayeux in March, 1945. It’s there now. You can see it, behind glass, in its own special gallery, safe and well protected.

Today's Tapestry Museum. Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis

Today’s Tapestry Museum. Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis

Textiles do not age well. Rarely do they withstand the ravages of time, light, air, mold, and insects. That this work of art has survived for a thousand years, giving us a glimpse into such a significant historical event as well as into the minds of those who lived through it, is nothing short of astonishing.

Source: Lewis, Michael J. The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry. The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK, 2008.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Bayeux Tapestry Feline

A Cat. The Bayeux Tapestry.

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5 May 1010: The Battle of Ringmere

Battle Abbey, preparing for war.On 5 May in the year 1010, a great battle was fought between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes at a place in East Anglia called Ringmere. In the fall of 2012, as part of the research for my novel The Price of Blood, I went with my husband to East Anglia to see for myself where that battle took place.

DSCN1256Ringmere wasn’t easy to find. Pre-Conquest battle sites may be marked on occasion, but even the people living nearby are sometimes unaware of the events that took place there a thousand years ago. (This is understandable. They live in the present. If you were to ask me about my own neighborhood – Oakland – and what it was like even 200 years ago, I could only shrug and say, “There were probably more oaks then.”)

Making fire, West StowThe staff at the marvelous Anglo-Saxon archaeological museum at West Stow, who knew all about the rye, reeds, wheat and heather that the Anglo-Saxons used for roof thatching, and who could explain that when building their houses they pounded square pegs into round holes because they were a tighter fit, looked at me blankly when I asked about Ringmere. By that time it was late afternoon, so we gave up on finding the battlefield for that day and went in search of our hotel in Attleborough. Ringmere would have to wait until I could pinpoint it on the internet.

Overnight, a thick fog settled over East Anglia, and it was still heavy as we drove the next morning along narrow lanes toward the spot I had marked on the map as Ringmere. We parked the car on the side of the road and climbed out to have a look around.

Ringmere3In 1010 the Anglo-Saxon army led by the king’s son-in-law, Ulfkytel, was still gathering at Ringmere when the Danes launched a surprise attack. Standing in the same place a thousand years later, my vision impaired by the sullen fog, it was easy to imagine an enemy army suddenly appearing out of the mist to the horrified surprise of the defenders.

Stretching around me to north, south and east, flat wasteland was studded with rabbit warrens. A stand of trees stood on the western edge of the heath, and beyond that, out of sight, lay the circular lake that gave this place its name. There was no way of knowing if it looked exactly like this in 1010, but there must have been a space not unlike this, wide and flat enough to hold thousands of warriors.

Ringmere2As I walked the heath I wondered if somewhere beneath my feet the detritus of battle still lay undiscovered – broken weapons, the bosses from long-rotted wooden shields, the bones of the dead. It made me sad and a little awestruck to be standing in a place marked by such a violent history. For all I knew, some of my own ancestors may have fought here and had managed to escape the carnage. They may even have been on both sides of the shield wall.

In The Price of Blood I did not describe Ringmere Heath or the battle that took place there, only scenes that came before it, from the Vikings’ point of view . . .

“Ulfkytel will not have his full force until late in May,” Cnut said with a slow smile, “which means that we can strike first, and with a much larger force.”
“Ulfkytel is someone to be feared, my lord. He led his East Anglians against the Danes once before and nearly won.”
“Nearly will not be good enough,” Cnut said, “and we will have the advantage of surprise as well as numbers.”

… and scenes that came afterwards, from the Anglo-Saxon point of view . . .

“The king cursed poor Ulfkytel for losing that battle up at Ringmere. Swore that our sister was wasted on an East Anglian who didn’t have the sense to die when he lost his battle; even threatened to take Ælfa back and give her to someone else.”

When it came to the battle itself, I let the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speak for me:

This year came the (Viking) army, after Easter, into East Anglia…where they understood Ulfkytel was with his army. The East-Angles soon fled. There was slain Oswy and his son, and Wulfric, son of Leofwin, and Edwy, brother of Efy, and many good thanes, and a multitude of people…And the Danes remained masters of the field of slaughter.

The field of slaughter. What a visceral reminder of the harsh realities of war and of the terrible events that were played out so many centuries ago on this lonely heath that the Anglo-Saxons named Ringmere.

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Vikings 3, Episode X: THE DEAD

Vikings-BR-Review-00I cannot possibly write a review of this episode without including spoilers. So, if you do not want to know how Season 3 of The Vikings ends, please leave the room now.

Charles the Simple

Charles the Simple

Are they gone? Right. In this episode King Charles, doing an excellent imitation of Æthelred the Unready, bribes the Vikings to go away; Count Odo finally gets to toy with a nubile young woman (and we are not amused); Rollo reveals himself as Emma of Normandy’s great grandfather, and Ragnar plays Jack-In-The-Box. What a show!

To begin: Charles’ decision to pay off the Vikings has a historical foundation. Lots of rulers did this. The only king whose name went down in infamy for it, though, was poor Æthelred who certainly wasn’t the first to pay, although he probably paid the most. Charles gives them 5000 pounds in silver and gold. Æthelred’s final payment (of many) was 48,000 pounds in loot, so Charles has made a good bargain – or so it seems.

The show opens with the treasure boxes being delivered to the Viking camp along with the demand that they leave Frankia. Rollo tells Ragnar about the payment, but Ragnar is sick unto death, and he really doesn’t care.

But will the Vikings actually leave? We see Rollo gazing out at Paris and recalling the words of the spamaðr: If you knew what the gods have in store for you in Paris you would dance naked in the rain.

RolloAnd Rollo is thoughtful, while Ragnar gives Bjorn advice on how to be a leader of men, reminding us that Ragnar is sick unto death.

In Paris, Odo is again spurned by Princess Gisla, but hard on her heels comes a lissome beauty who observes to Odo that the princess seems very boring, that he would soon tire of her, and so she offers herself as far more interesting. (Is there even a word for ‘boring’ in Old French? I doubt it.) Odo takes the lady to a torture chamber and invites her to submit to a little S&M. Does the prurient whipping that follows further the story? Not as far as I can tell. The entire sequence was pointless and unnecessary. Hirst is not at the top of his game here. Do better, Mr. Hirst.

At the Viking camp Floki begins to build one last boat for Ragnar. And we are reminded of the funeral boat from many episodes ago that was launched and set aflame. Because, you know, Ragnar is sick unto death.

A month goes by and Odo is annoyed that the Vikings are still squatting beside the Seine. Informed that King Ragnar is too ill to travel, he wants to see for himself. Ragnar is too sick to speak, (he’s sick unto death), but Bjorn relays his father’s request that he be given a Christian burial, or the Vikings won’t leave. And so it is arranged that Ragnar’s coffin, once he’s in it, and dead, will be carried to the cathedral by unarmed men for a Christian Mass.

And I’m thinking: It’s taking our Ragnar an awfully long time to die.

But in the next scene Ragnar is looking pretty dead, there in his boat-like coffin. It’s quite a lovely thing, actually. High marks to the set designers for this and for so many beautiful and remarkable things in this entire series.

VikingsX.coffinBjorn places the lid over his father, then invites Lagertha, Rollo and Floki to come in one at a time and make their final farewells. Which they do, because they all believe he’s dead.

You didn’t believe he was dead, did you? I didn’t believe he was dead. I was sitting back, arms folded, waiting for Ragnar’s Resurrection.

To his credit, Hirst took his time setting it up, toying with us. We saw the entire Viking force in procession, carrying Ragnar’s coffin to the gates of Paris. We saw the 6 unarmed Vikings set the lovely coffin upon its stand in the cathedral while the Frankish elite looked on and monks chanted a dirge. I had time to write on my notepad ‘I’m still waiting for R to…’ when Ragnar made his come-back.



Women screamed. King Charles fainted. (Really? Why is he such a buffoon? Is it meant to show the fading of Charlemagne’s line, which will soon be replaced by Hugh Capet and sons? Or is it meant to make the pagan Vikings look better than the Christians? I wonder about this with King Ecbert’s tarnished image, too.)

Minutes later, as Ragnar collapses into Bjorn’s arms and the Vikings storm past them into Paris, the spamaðr reminds us in a voice-over:

Not the living, but the dead will take Paris.

Thank you, Michael Hirst, because I’d forgotten that. And yes, the Vikings used deceit and trickery whenever they could to make it into walled cities. In the 11th century they did it in Exeter and Canterbury, so why not Paris? According to one account, Ragnar returned to Denmark with silver, gold, and a bolt from Paris’s gate.

But now the Vikings really do leave, although Rollo stays behind, intending to over-winter in Frankia and strike Paris again in the spring. Charles soon makes him an offer, though, that he can’t refuse: marriage to the Princess Gisla plus land and a title in return for defending Frankia against his brother, Ragnar.



Yes, Rollo did in fact settle in northern Frankia (in 910) with the understanding that he would defend it against other Viking raiders. The Franks referred to Rollo’s people as Northmen, which soon became Normans, and their province Normandy. According to legend, Gisla (who is herself a legend), didn’t like Rollo much and fell into disgrace for insulting her husband and so…

When Rollo is presented to Gisla as her soon-to-be-husband she gets the award for this episode’s best lines:

I would rather give my virginity and my virtue to the vilest dog than to this piece of worm meat. He disgusts me. He makes me want to vomit.

That’s all in French, of course. Rollo’s clueless response is, “Hello.” In French! Because he’s learned a thing or two from Ecbert the Awesome about speaking your enemy’s language.

Rollo says, "Hello." And grins.

Rollo says, in French: “Hello” And grins.

Gisla, by the way, died childless. Rollo’s progeny came from his liaison with the lovely daughter of a count who fell into his hands when he sacked the city of Bayeux. Her name was Popa.

But back to our show’s final scene which takes place on Ragnar’s ship as he returns to Denmark. It is night time and everyone is asleep. Ragnar is still sick, huddled beneath blankets, but he calls Floki to him, gazes at him with that terrifying smile and says, “You killed Athelstan.” And it is not Ragnar’s face that looks out at us at the very end of this season as it has been in the past, but Floki’s. And Floki is speechless and very, very afraid, and we can hardly wait for 2016 and whatever comes next!



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Æthelred II – the Haunted King

King Æthelred II, from The Life of King Edward the Confessor. 13th c. Cambridge University Library

King Æthelred II, from The Life of King Edward the Confssor. 13th c. Cambridge University Library

On 23 April 1016, King Æthelred II died in London. He was about 50 years old, and he’d ruled England for 38 years. At his death he’d not yet been given the byname, Unræd, (ill-counseled, a play on the Old English meaning of his name, æthel ræd – noble counsel). That would come some years later. Eventually Unræd would be corrupted into Unready, and he would be known as Æthelred the Unready for centuries. As the bynames suggest, his reputation has been anything but enviable:

“His life is said to have been cruel at the outset, pitiable in mid-course, and disgraceful in its ending.” William of Malmesbury, History of the English Kings, 12th century;

“He is the only ruler of the male line of Ecbert whom we can unhesitatingly set down as a bad man and a bad king.” Edward Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England, 1867;

“Good reputations rarely befall those who live for a long time… Had he died in the early years of the 11th century, then we might well remember a king of some competence…” Ryan Lavelle, Æthelred II, 2004.

Talk about damning with faint praise: If only Æthelred had died abruptly at age 34, as his father Edgar did, the 11th century might have been easier for the English. The infamous St. Brice’s Day Massacre of Danes in 1003 would never have happened; nor the debilitating taxation that oppressed the English people and enriched many a Viking; nor Æthelred’s humiliating abdication to a Danish warrior king; nor even that battle at Hastings in 1066 that opened the door to centuries of Norman rule. Æthelred, it seems, has a lot to answer for.

The Massacre of St. Brice's Day from Hutchinson's "Story of the British Nation". 1920.

The Massacre of St. Brice’s Day from Hutchinson’s “Story of the British Nation”. 1920.

But what do we really know about the man himself? Biographer Ann Williams, in Æthelred the Unready, the Ill-counselled King, cautions: “We do not and cannot know what kind of a man Æthelred was, only what he did and what happened to him.”

Williams may be right, but as a novelist writing about Æthelred’s reign I needed to decide what kind of a man Æthelred was. I had to study what he did, what happened to him, and then I had to make up my mind about him. Truth be told, I was hoping to find a villain. And indeed, this ruthless, vindictive, sometimes energetic, sometimes irresolute king (one historian refers to his reign as bi-polar) was the answer to my prayers.

Æthelred came to the throne under a cloud of suspicion and foreboding – and that’s not something I made up. His half-brother, King Edward, had been brutally murdered, and that crime paved the way for Æthelred’s coronation. That no one was punished for King Edward’s murder hints at a cover-up, if not collusion, by someone in power; if not the new young King Æthelred, aged ten, then others quite close to him. His reputation as ill-counselled had already begun.

Edward the martyr

19th c. portrayal of the murder of Edward the Martyr.

William of Malmesbury wrote that Æthelred was haunted by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood. That single phrase inspired my creation of a ghost that torments the beleaguered king in my novels. And because contemporary accounts describe King Edward as violent even toward his own supporters, the ghost that I’ve created is no mild-mannered martyr.

The air before him thickened and turned as black and rippling as the windswept surface of a mere. Pain gnawed at his chest, and he shivered with cold and apprehension as the world around him vanished. Sounds, too, faded to nothing and he knew only the cold, the pain, and the flickering darkness before him that stretched and grew into the shape of a man. Or what had been a man once. Wounds gaped like a dozen mouths at throat and breast, gore streaked the shredded garments crimson, and the menacing face wore Death’s gruesome pallor. His murdered brother’s shade drew toward him, an exhalation from the gates of heaven or the mouth of hell – he could not say which. Not a word passed its lips, but he sensed a malevolence that flowed from the dead to the living, and he shrank back in fear and loathing.           from THE PRICE OF BLOOD

Edward’s ghost is my way of explaining the sometimes baffling decisions that Æthelred made. Truly, there were times when, as I conducted my research, I exclaimed, “But why would you do that?”

There is no question that there were political, social, and religious complexities to Æthelred’s long reign, not to mention recurring Viking attacks and an endless string of dire events that can only be characterized as rotten luck, and I’ve tried to reflect these in my books. But the shorthand for how the king responded to catastrophe is expressed by the appearance of his brother’s ghost. (Thank you, St. Edward the Martyr!)

Was the historical figure of Æthelred, though, any more ruthless or paranoid than other rulers of his time? I doubt it. His was a world that was governed by the sword despite the laws that he enacted and presumably sought to enforce. He ruled a newly united England in which allegiances to kin were far stronger than any oaths made to a distant king, so Æthelred had good reason to be suspicious of the men around him. In the final, dark years of his reign, with a Viking army ravaging the land, all loyalties were strained to the breaking point, and English unity fractured. “…there was not a chief that would collect an army, but each fled as he could: no shire, moreover, would stand by another.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

Nevertheless, Æthelred’s success at holding his kingdom together for over 30 years meant that art and culture could flourish despite the unrest that plagued England. Benedictine abbeys patronized by wealthy nobles produced gloriously illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, and sculptures.

The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold. Winchester. 10th c. British Library

The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold. Winchester. 10th c. British Library

Many of the greatest works of Old English literature were written at this time including lives of saints and the homilies of Ælfric and of scholar/statesman Archbishop Wulfstan. The only copy of Beowulf in existence was produced, it’s believed, while Æthelred was king (although recently some scholars think it was later, but that’s another blog post).

Such accomplishments as these, though, must be weighed against murders, executions, misplaced trust, bad decisions and desperation that characterized his reign. Æthelred died a king, but he was a king who was ill-equipped to cope with the enormous challenges he faced. Even if he was not literally haunted by his brother’s ghost, he must have been, in his final days, haunted by his failures as a ruler.

“He ended his days on St. George’s day; having held his kingdom in much tribulation and difficulty as long as his life continued.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 11th century

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Vikings 3, Episode IX: BREAKING POINT

vikings_usurper5seriableA king is for glory, not for long life. Old Viking saying.

The final image of the previous episode, ‘TO THE GATE’, is of a badly injured Ragnar vowing to conquer Paris. In this episode, the first image is, again, of a badly injured Ragnar, one of many wounded among his shattered followers. The final image that we will see at the end of this episode will be of Ragnar yet again, as is often the case now that I think about it. This time his face is glowing with – what? Rapture? Expectation? As always, we are left with questions.



And I am reminded – thank you Michael Hirst – that, more than anything else, this is Ragnar’s Story. This is the tale of a warrior, of an ambitious man who sought to do spectacular things so that his name would be remembered after his death. And he accomplished this goal. His sons would be referred to in the histories as ‘the Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok’ probably more often than by their own names. So although Hirst has given us many intriguing characters pulled from the pages of history and saga, Ragnar has always, for good or ill, been the central figure. And he continues to be.

The title of this episode, ‘THE BREAKING POINT’, of course refers to Paris, the city under siege. But there is an underlying theme here, and another kind of breaking point specific to Ragnar: his inner turmoil regarding the gods comes to a head in this episode. More on that later.

The Vikings’ second attack on Paris this week displays the battle strategy used by Viking armies again and again.



The strategy was based on the actions of the wily Odin, god of deceit and trickery, and involved surprise, night-time assaults, cunning and deception. Viking armies avoided frontal attacks whenever possible and instead relied on rapid, strategic strikes. (Not always, of course. The siege of Paris in 886 lasted an entire year!) They used informers, spies and captives to get useful information about the enemy, and we see that this week as well. Supposedly, Ragnar had 120 ships when he attacked Paris in 845, and certainly the Viking numbers played a role here in bringing the Franks to the bargaining table.

Paddy Griffith, in his book The Viking Art of War, writes that Viking armies were made up of men who were strong, tough, well-armed and mean. That pretty much describes any 9th century warrior. And in this series the Frankish princess Gisela portrays a noble woman who, while she may not be armed, is just as strong, tough and mean as any of the men around her. Lest we forget, the 9th century was not a gentle time.



Meanwhile, over in Kattegat the theme of conflict between the gods is played out somewhat bizarrely between Queen Aslaug and a Christian missionary. An ordeal involving clutching an iron rod that’s been heated in a forge reflects similar trials carried out throughout the Middle Ages, and reminds us that Aslaug, too, is strong, tough and mean.



In Wessex King Ecbert is spouting gibberish to Judith who remains singularly unimpressed. She has his number now, and she is no longer a deer in the headlights. She accepts his quid pro quo, but only after she forces him to spell it out: I want you for my mistress. In return, she and Alfred will receive Ecbert’s protection from the self-righteous Aethelwulf.

I am not happy with how the character of Ecbert has evolved into a sexual predator, but thinking back over the earlier seasons I can see that Hirst has been hinting at this. It certainly adds some sexual titillation to the drama, and perhaps he is attempting to show the propensity of Anglo-Saxon kings (and their sons) to form sexual liaisons with any number of women. He may also be reinforcing the idea that marriage in this era was a political act. Romance, affection, passion had nothing to do with it, and a bed partner or wife could be cast aside with impunity.

Ecbert, though, has my vote for the best line in this episode. Addressing his son he says, What I intend to pass on to you is not only the kingship of Wessex, but the kingship of England.

Ecbert's response to whether he would sacrifice his son to achieve his ambitions.

Ecbert’s response to whether he would sacrifice his son to achieve his ambitions.

Don’t forget that in his youth, Ecbert was forced to flee England, and he spent several years at Charlemagne’s court. No doubt that was where Hirst’s Ecbert formed his penchant for bathing and for multiple sexual partners (Charlemagne had a lavish bathing complex at Aachen and went through 5 wives). But Ecbert would also have witnessed the glamour of empire, and certainly, when he returned to England to claim the throne of Wessex, he set about establishing Wessex as the dominant power in southern Britain and himself as overlord of Mercia and East Anglia. Ecbert was, indeed, ambitious. I just wish Hirst hadn’t made him quite so smarmy in recent episodes.

And now, back to Ragnar. Ragnar is ailing all through this episode. In fevered dreams he sees Odin, Athelstan, and Christ. He begs, Don’t abandon me, and we do not know to whom he is speaking. He dreams that he is face down in a pool of blood not his own (no surprise there). But when a request for parley arrives from the Franks he asserts himself as war leader and king and, tricksy as Odin, he slips away to meet them with only an interpreter as companion. That leads us to the final scene, when Floki, Lagertha, and Rollo arrive in time to witness with distress and consternation a newly baptized Ragnar, his face glowing with we-are-not sure-what.



Note: If you have not yet done so, do take a look at some of the videos on the History Channel website. I highly recommend all of them, but in particular the 3 minute ‘Filming the Battle Scenes’ and the 7 minute ‘Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok’.

Until next week, and the final episode….

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Vikings 3, Episode VIII: TO THE GATE



“Paris,” Ragnar confides in a soliloquy to Athelstan near the end of this episode, “is everything you told me it would be.”

As he promised, Ragnar has taken his fleet — and us — to Paris. More precisely, as this title suggests, to the gates of Paris. There is an ominous, thundering sound track that accompanies the opening scenes of this episode as Ragnar and company prepare to throw themselves against the city’s high stone walls. We know that this battle is going to be big. It’s the most difficult challenge that the Vikings have met so far, but expressions on the faces of the leaders are set and determined — even enthusiastic.



This is in stark contrast to the face of the French king, who literally wears a mask so that no one can see his terror. My research indicates that Ragnar’s fleet (historically) was composed of 120 ships, and that being the case one can almost excuse the French king for being terrified at such a sight. I certainly would be! But the king’s right hand man Odo and the princess Gisela are made of sterner stuff. While Odo doesn’t look at all happy about the Vikings, he nevertheless rolls up his sleeves and responds to the threat like the commander that he is (and that he indeed was). It is the king’s daughter, Gisela, though, who shoulders the royal responsibility from which her father shrinks. Like a 9th century Jean d’Arc, she carries the Oriflamme to the battlements and uses it to rally her people.

The Oriflamme, by the way, was one of those medieval banners that armies carried into battle to inspire their comrades with courage and their enemies with dread. In this case, it was a red banner that had been dipped in the blood of the 3rd century martyr St. Denis. According to legend, Charlemagne had carried it to the Holy Land to drive out the Saracens. Gisela puts it to good use, and then remains on the battlements without armor or shield, as unafraid and confident as her father is frightened and cowering.



(The Vikings would eventually have a banner, too, made by the daughters of Ragnar Lothbrok and carried into battle by his sons and, much later, by Swein and his son Cnut. It was called The Raven, and like the Oriflamme, it had mystical qualities. The Encomium Emmae Reginae describes it this way: “For while it was woven of the plainest and whitest silk, and the representation of no figure was inserted into it, in time of war a raven was always seen as if embroidered on it, in the hour of its owners’ victory opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet, but very subdued and drooping with its whole body when they were defeated.”)

But I digress. Back to the Battle of Paris. Can I just state right here that, comparing this set piece battle to the Battle of the Blackwater at the conclusion of Season 2 Game of Thrones, I’d have to give the prize to the Vikings? Quick camera cuts from one part of the battle to the other, and from a wide angle view of the river and walls to close-ups of the hand-to-hand fighting kept the tension high. Floki’s siege towers were stunning and, like the covered battering ram, authentic.



The hot oil, (wax, actually), fire, rocks and crossbows used by the defenders were authentic as well. Most impressive of all, though, were the actors’ faces: Ragnar as he follows the progress of the battle, Rollo when he sees Gisela on the wall, Floki as he watches siege towers go up in flames, Lagertha when her crew finally breaks through the bridge gate and they see – well, I’m not sayin’ what they see.


Floki’s response to siege towers in flames. Photo:

There were moments of portent, raising questions in the viewer’s mind: Ragnar clutching Athelstan’s golden cross like a talisman. What does he really believe? Floki undergoing baptisms of fire and water. How will he be changed as a result? Rollo’s face sinking beneath the Seine. Will he endure the same fate as Siggi?

And here’s the thing: we had no idea how it would end!!!

For a time, I was thinking that I’d have to award Michael Hirst the GRRM International Prize For Offing The Most Lead Actors In A Single Episode.

Instead I will give Bjorn the award for the best line:

Today went badly.

And it wasn’t even the season finale. Oh my. What in the world does Michael Hirst have up his sleeve for that?

I have a pretty good idea, but I’m not telling.


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Vikings 3, Episode VII: PARIS


In this week’s episode of the Vikings we have two story lines running side by side. In Frankia, Ragnar’s fleet arrives outside Paris. In England, King Ecbert introduces us to the word Bretwalda, and sends his son Æthelwulf to negotiate with the uppity Mercian Queen Kwenthrith.

Is there any historical truth to these story lines? Yes! King Ecbert became Bretwalda (Ruler of Britain) when he conquered Mercia in 829. And Ragnar’s Vikings did indeed sail up the Seine to attack Paris. Lots of Vikings, in fact, sailed up the Seine to attack lots of places. Lots of times. I think we’re going to see all of them rolled into one.

It would be folly to look too closely for historical accuracy in this episode. The time line, the events, the historical figures are all jumbled up and tossed on to Michael Hirst’s taefl board. The result, while not exactly historical, is nevertheless gripping entertainment.

Ecbert the Awesome. HistoryChannel

Ecbert the Awesome. HistoryChannel

In Wessex actor Linus Roache is having a marvelous time portraying King Ecbert the Awesome as ruthless, devout, corrupt, ambitious, tender, treacherous, smooth-tongued and shrewd. Did I miss anything? Lascivious perhaps? When Ecbert whispers cozily to his daughter-in-law Judith that he will protect her, she knows exactly what he means and she looks like a deer caught in the headlights. Poor Judith, caught between a vengeful husband and an all too solicitous father-in-law. Let’s hope she lasts long enough to teach her son, Alfred (who wasn’t her son, remember) to read.

Up in Mercia Æthelwulf makes his way to the exotic lair of Queen Kwenthrith. It looks far more Byzantine than Saxon, but then, Kwenthrith has bizarre tastes. I have to confess that I was puzzled by just about everything that went on with Kwenthrith. She’s murdered a batch of Anglo-Saxon nobles,

Kwenthrith. Don't drink her wine. Photo: superthumb

Kwenthrith. Don’t drink her wine. Photo: superthumb

and that strikes me as pretext enough for Ecbert to attack Mercia. But instead he sends Æthelwulf to reason with her. This must be the set-up for some future conflict, perhaps having to do with the son she claims is Ragnar’s. And do any of us believe that the child is hers? I doubt it and so does Æthelwulf. Kwenthrith is the sort who would eat her young if she had any. (The real Kwenthrith, by the way, was an abbess, was never the queen of Mercia, and never gave birth to anybody named Magnus.)

King Charles the ? Photo: HistoryChannel

King Charles the ? Photo: HistoryChannel

Across the sea in Frankia, a king named Charles is very concerned about the Vikings on his doorstep. Is this Charles the Bald (grandson of Charlemagne) or Charles the Simple (great-great-grandson of Charlemagne)? He’s not bald, so perhaps he’s Charles the Simple. His name, by the way, did not indicate that he was stupid. It meant straight-forward, although this fellow struck me as a wee bit slow.

Gisela, looking a bit Victorian. HistoryChannel

Gisela, looking a bit victorian. HistoryChannel

Anyway, King Charles has a very strong-minded daughter named Gisela (which Charles the Simple did, supposedly) who has refused to marry a nobleman named Odo, and now we’re in romance-land because…NO! Gisela would have had no say about whom she married, and Odo was the Count of Paris before Gisela’s father became king, so he was a generation older than she was and yes, the timeline is as mixed up here in Frankia as it is in Wessex.

Meantime, Rollo takes a ship up close to the walls of the Île de la Cité, and when cross-bowmen pop up over the parapet and take aim at him, Rollo shouts, “Raise shields!” So now we know where Captain Kirk got it from.

On shore the Vikings have built a camp, and this is historically accurate. They were really good at rolling up their sleeves and throwing up fortifications very quickly. Ragnar, though, is giving us cause for concern because although he is super bent on attacking Paris, he turns the entire expedition over to Floki, which seems counter-intuitive. And besides that Ragnar’s playing with a mouse and a snake, and that’s pretty creepy. It’s worse than that time when he ate roasted rat.

Ragnar assures Floki that he needs him now more than ever, and Floki seems to believe him, but everything about Ragnar is making me edgy. I don’t trust him. Travis Fimmel is doing a heck of a job in this role. Just the look on his face sends shivers up my spine.

Ragnar. Photo: HistoryChannel

Ragnar. Photo: HistoryChannel

Floki, to his credit, builds some amazing siege towers on barges, the better to attack Paris’s walls. This, too, is an accurate historical detail, although the towers, as I understand it, were mounted on wheels because Paris was actually much larger than that city we see on the island in the Seine. It covered both banks of the Seine and the islands as well, with a wall all the way around both. We have to grant the set designers some poetic license here I think because they leave us with a beautiful tableau of our Viking leaders gazing out toward an island Paris skyline that is backlit by the setting sun. They will attack at dawn, but we have to wait until next week.Paris

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Vikings 3, Episode VI: BORN AGAIN

Vikings-BR-Review-00This week, an open letter to series writer, Michael Hirst.


Dear Mr. Hirst,

I have a bone to pick with you. Don’t worry, I am not going to call you out for going all George R. R. Martin on us in this latest season of THE VIKINGS, although many of your fans will. Death was a constant presence in the Dark Ages, and in your series Death is practically one of the main characters. People die, and in ways that are savage and shocking. Frankly, it’s a wonder that any of the major characters in the show are still alive because they’ve been in terrible peril week after week. So I shall not complain about any sudden deaths that may occur on your show.

MichaelHirstIndeed, I’ve even forgiven you for messing with the historical time line. (Am I not generous?) I’ve accepted that this is story, not history. I’ve come to think of it as a saga on film, so I’m willing to ignore the fact that Ragnar Lothbrok, if he existed at all, was not precisely contemporary with King Ecbert, who certainly did exist; and I’m even willing to accept that Rollo is probably going to get his hands on land in Frankia, although that didn’t happen until 910, which would make Rollo about 110 years old. If you feel it’s necessary to collapse time in order to tell your story, I will agree to go along with it. This period of history is pretty hazy to most people, and the figures that inhabit it even more so. Your attitude seems to be, What are a few decades and a few misplaced, unfamiliar historical figures when there have been 1200 plus years between then and now? I don’t agree, but I sympathize with that point of view.


In the recent episode titled Born Again, you have resurrected a historical figure whose name is very familiar indeed, and I’m gnashing my teeth at your cavalier attitude toward one of early Britain’s greatest kings. Talk about Born Again!!! Perhaps you thought you were being clever – even brilliant. I think you must have been lost in a creative fog.

The scene in question should have been removed with a hand seax, stricken from the script before it was filmed. You remember the one – it’s all about Judith. Having made her the wife of King Ecbert’s son Æthelwulf, you’ve given her an illicit passion for our favorite monk (and Ecbert’s favorite monk, and Ragnar’s favorite monk) Athelstan.

In this scene Judith delivers a son. We all know that Æthelwulf is not the child’s father. What’s worse, Æthelwulf knows it, and so Judith is dragged from childbed, hustled outside and tied to a stake. She is accused of adultery, and she’s told that she will lose her ears and nose. Much screaming ensues, followed by the removal of an ear.

Really, Mr. Hirst? Was this necessary? There were so many other directions you could have taken…why this one? It is not only gruesome, it’s unbelievable. Ecbert and Æthelwulf would not have tortured Judith, a high status woman and the daughter of King Aella, in this way. They never would have risked having her father arrive on their doorstep with an army seeking revenge; they would have put her in a convent and forgotten about her – or sent her home and demanded return of her bride price. Perhaps you were thinking about the Arthur/Lancelot/Guenevere love triangle when you wrote this? It was certainly on my mind as I watched the scene. I was wondering who was going to ride in, like Lancelot, to Judith’s rescue. Her father?

But no. Her rescuer is King Ecbert himself, only way past the time when he should have stepped in and put a stop to this (and saved us all from having to watch it). Judith names her lover, and at this point the wily king, pretending astonishment that Athelstan is the father of the child, insists that because Athelstan is a holy man, God must have had a hand in this conception. Judith has given birth to a very special child, he insists, and should not be punished.

At this point I am muttering aloud, “No. Don’t do it. Don’t you DARE do it.”

But you, Mr. Hirst, had already done it.

“There will be a christening after all,” Ecbert announces, “and the child will be called Alfred.”

So in your Wessex World, Mr. Hirst, Alfred (the Great) is not the fifth son of Aethelwulf and Osburh, but the illegitimate son of one-eared Judith and a monk named Athelstan. In fact, he is no blood relation to King Ecbert at all. This is ridiculous, because no king worth the name would have allowed a child not of his blood to be accepted as throne worthy, not even the son of his favorite monk. The entire scenario is ludicrous. It feels as though you wrote yourself into a knot and grasped at an easy way out.

Mr. Hirst, much of your writing in this show has been brilliant, but in this instance you lost your touch. This entire scene felt wrong.

I presume that you are playing fast and loose with the Anglo-Saxons, their historical figures and their history because your real interest is in what’s happening with Ragnar and company. The show is called THE VIKINGS after all; the Anglo-Saxons are merely props for you to manipulate at will in order to highlight that other culture across the sea.

But guess what? Some of us are fans of the Anglo-Saxons, too. And we know the history. And while I applaud your use of Old English in your scripts this season, (that was SO AWESOME!) you’ve made a very large misstep with this latest episode. What a disappointment! What a lame way to end this fascinating rivalry (your invention!) between Ragnar and Ecbert. You are capable of far better than this, and your fans demand it. Please.

Very truly yours,
Patricia Bracewell

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Vikings 3, Episode V: THE USURPER


Oh, Sweet Heaven, I don’t know where to begin with this week’s episode. I have so many thoughts in my head, so much speculation, and even a discovery of sorts. Perhaps I should start with the title. The Usurper.

By my count there are 3 usurpers: Kalf, who has usurped Lagertha’s lands and people at Hedeby; Athelstan, who has usurped the affections (and more) of Æthelwulf’s wife, Judith; Harbard the Wanderer, who has usurped the affections (temporarily) of Ragnar’s wife, Aslaug.

Unpleasant discoveries all around. So what are Ragnar, Lagertha and Æthelwulf going to do?

Aslaug & Ragnar: not a happy homecoming

Aslaug & Ragnar: not a happy homecoming

Upon his arrival in Kattegat, Ragnar is immediately suspicious of what’s been going on with Aslaug. He scoffs, though, when Floki tries to tell him that his wife has been cavorting with a god. (I called that one correctly a couple of weeks ago! Harbard = Odin. High five.) Ragnar is pretty much fed up with women anyway, and besides, he’s dreaming of Paris.

Lagertha demands that Ragnar help her fight Kalf and win her lands back. But Ragnar is pretty lukewarm about this idea, and besides, he’s dreaming of Paris.

And Æthelwulf – well, he does exactly what we’ve been worried he would do, and it’s even worse than we imagined.

Ragnar gets excited about Paris. Photo credit

Ragnar gets excited about Paris. Photo credit

In Kattegat, King Ragnar, hugely excited about his plans for taking on Paris, gets pretty pumped about the idea and soon almost everyone else is excited about it, too. Mead is flung into the air like water on a sweltering day.

Except, there’s Rollo, who is suffering massive man-guilt, so much so that he invents a new kind of self-flagellation which involves brawling in the mud with Bjorn.

Bjorn & Rollo are not happy. Photo credit: The History Channel

Bjorn & Rollo are not happy. Photo credit: The History Channel

Rollo whines to the creepy spamaðr that he is useless and hollowed out by failed ambitions, and he is stunned when the spamaðr laughs at him. “If you knew what the gods have in store for you in Paris you would dance naked in the rain.” Okay, maybe those weren’t his exact words, but something like that.

So, let’s talk about Paris. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I deplored the idea of a military leader who would divide his army into two forces with a broad river in between, allowing the Vikings to merely choose to fight the smaller force. Having done a little research now, I’ve discovered that some dang fool king actually did that, but it wasn’t in Mercia. It was outside of Paris, and the king was Charles the Bald of Frankia. It happened in 845 when the Viking Ragnar, aka Reginherus, sailed up the Seine. So yes, in the tales, Ragnar attacks Paris.

Now, this television series is based on sagas as well as facts, and it’s had to invent its own timeline to bring all its different stories together. For example, King Ecbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians in 825, and he was already dead by 845 when Ragnar would have attacked Paris. Yet in this story they’re contemporaries. The time frame is a little off. Connections have been made that weren’t necessarily there, really. But I’m okay with messing with the timeline. Just because it’s on the History Channel doesn’t mean that this is history. It’s fiction. It’s good storytelling. It’s a modern-day version of a saga. The Vikings would have loved it. And anyway, this all happened – if any of it happened – a long time ago.

So let’s go back to Rollo and the Spamaðr’s prophecy about Paris. In the legends about Ragnar Lothbrok, there is no mention of a brother named Rollo. But there is a historical Rollo, also known as Hrólfr. In the early 10th century this Rollo led a Viking fleet to northern Frankia, caused all kinds of trouble in the area – which, as we know, was pretty standard Viking behavior – and settled within the old Roman walls of Rouen. The Frankish king at the time, Charles the Simple, finally dealt with Rollo by granting him the city of Rouen and the provinces around it, and telling him to defend it if he could. And Rollo did. In fact, he founded a dynasty in northern Frankia.

Rollo's grave in Rouen. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Rollo’s grave in Rouen. Photo credit: Wikipedia

There is a tradition that Rollo married the Frankish king’s daughter; but he had another wife, as well, who gave him a son named William, who had a son named Richard, who had a daughter named Emma who married an English king named Æthelred in 1002.

Which brings us back to Wessex and Æthelred’s great great great great grandfather Ecbert. Isn’t he a charmer?

King Ecbert. Awesome, but also Slimey. Photo Credit: The History Channel

King Ecbert. Awesome, but slimey. Photo Credit: The History Channel

The real Ecbert probably never knew the real Ragnar Lothbrok (if there was one), but he probably knew men like him. Was the historical Ecbert as ruthless as the Ecbert in this series? Probably. He established Wessex as the dominant power in southern England so he had to be more ruthless than any of the other kings around him. Was he as devious as the King Ecbert in this series? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He definitely knew Charlemagne, though, and so, as our King Ecbert congratulates himself for a devious, atrocious, despicable deed, I must award him the prize for this week’s zinger line:

Even Charlemagne would have approved.

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Authors on the Move 2015

AuthorsOnTheMoveLast Saturday night I had the very great pleasure of attending, for the second time, the Sacramento Public Library Foundation fundraiser event, AUTHORS ON THE MOVE. Our keynote speaker was Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket and he was joined by 40 authors from all over California. The theme for the event was Once Upon A Time, so about 1/3 of the authors in attendance were writers of children’s books. Also on hand were some buddies of mine: C.W.Gortner (his newest title, Mademoiselle Chanel releases this Tuesday, March 17); Anne Leonard, author of Moth & Spark (dragons!); Susan Spann whose Blade of the Samurai is the second in her mystery series set in Renaissance Japan; and Barbara Rhine whose debut novel Tell No Lies is set amid the harsh political realities of the 1970’s movement to organize farmworkers in California’s Central Valley.

How AUTHORS ON THE MOVE works: The writers gather late in the afternoon for a banquet and an opportunity to meet and greet each other. I never take full advantage of this. There are so many amazing authors in the room, and I rarely connect with more than one or two. Last night I did manage to meet Jessica Barksdale Inclán (How to Bake a Man) who lives near me (!), and author/artist Josie Iselin (An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed). We are each given a moment in the spotlight to introduce ourselves and our work, and we are also given our three table assignments for the larger banquet to come.

Once we are happily stuffed with the same lovely repast that will be served to the gorgeously attired diners congregating in the banquet room below us, we are invited to make our way to where our books are on display, to spend 30 minutes greeting browsers and signing books.

Capital Public Radio's Beth Ruyak greets the guests.

Capital Public Radio’s Beth Ruyak

The real event begins, though, when the authors take their places in the banquet hall – one author to each table of 10. The attendees are served their first course, and we authors begin our pitches. I spoke passionately to eager listeners about Emma of Normandy, the haunted King Aethelred, and the Viking invasions of England. I answered as many questions as I could before it was time to move to my next table – where I did it all again.

There was only one small glitch the entire evening. An announcement was made after the entrée was served, but it was difficult to catch what was said. A number of authors (including me), presumed it was time to switch to our third table. I gathered my things and made my way to Table 19 where I found Daniel Handler still holding forth. I will have to toss him from his chair, I thought dismally; which I did with help from author Emily Jiang. This is probably why he looked so nervous when, later in the evening, I posed with him for a photo.

I frighten Daniel Handler.

I frighten Daniel Handler.

However, it turned out that we weren’t really supposed to change tables yet. So after hounding the Celebrity of the Evening from his chair, I had to give it back to him and return, chagrined, to my earlier table. And then, to add to my discomfiture, I had to go back to Daniel’s table and reach under his chair to retrieve my purse. It was, alas, a series of unfortunate events, after which my authorial sang froid lay in tatters somewhere under Daniel Handler’s chair.

But now it was time for the Live Auction: 19 Items, many of them involving the participation of one of the authors. I had agreed, some days earlier, to take part in Item #15.

AOM1 Now, before the banquet began, Auctioneer Patrick Hume had sought me out to ask for some details about my book; so I had given him a thumbnail sketch of Emma’s life, her marriages and her historical significance. He, in turn, did a terrific job of ‘selling’ Emma. The result: Item #15 was purchased for $1200. and then purchased again by another bidder. (!!!) So $2400 will go to the library thanks to the gracious donors who will be hosting the dinner, to the brilliant auctioneer, to the two winning bidders, and to Queen Emma. Outstanding! And I’m happy to report that over $100,000 was raised for the library that night.

After the Auction the authors took their places at their third table for the evening. Daniel Handler, no doubt in fear of his life, had already absconded from Table 19 before I arrived to take his place. Shortly thereafter, he was up on the stage giving a keynote address that had the audience in stitches.

And THEN, we scurried back out to the book hall for more sales and signings. All in all, it was a lovely evening. I would do it again in a minute! Well, except for the bit where I tried to steal Daniel Handler’s chair.

With Viking author Anne Leonard. Note Daniel Handler's head looking like a finger puppet on Anne's shoulder. Isn't he cute?

With Viking author Anne Leonard. Note Daniel Handler’s head looking like a finger puppet on Anne’s shoulder. Isn’t he cute?

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