From my blog...

The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 1

The first episode of the long-awaited Season 4 of The Last Kingdom covers a lot of ground—re-connecting us with on-going characters and introducing some new faces. It appears to be following the two major story lines from Cornwell’s 7th novel, The Pagan Lord. The first plot involves Uhtred’s return to Bebbanburg and his attempt to retake it. The second focuses on the Danish armies under Cnut and their efforts to conquer Mercia. How the story lines play out on the show, though, differs greatly from what happens in the novel.

The episode opens with a desperate, bloody battle in Northumbria between our hero’s nasty uncle Aelfric, (Joseph Millson), who stole the fortress and its lands from Uhtred, and a Scottish horde that is eager to dislodge him. Aelfric escapes with his life, but his repellent nature is on full display as he vilifies his men.

Meantime, miles away in southern Mercia, the very opposite of a battle is taking place in Uhtred’s bedchamber. Anyone who is not familiar with Bernard Cornwell’s brilliant novels which are the basis for this series might be surprised to see Uhtred making passionate love to the Lady Aethelflaed, but this scene pretty much mimics Cornwell’s first reference to their coupling back in The Burning Land (Book 5) when one morning we discover that she is with him in his bedchamber, her feet bare as she joins him to gaze out the window. There were plenty of hints that this romantic liaison was coming, of course, but nothing explicit, not even a kiss, until now. Nevertheless, in the space of a single scene we learn that Uhtred (Alexander Draemon) and Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) are now lovers, and we are reminded, when they’re interrupted by her supporter Aldhelm (James Northcote), that she is married to Ealdorman Aethelred who hates her and who has not just one lover, but many.

Speaking of Aethelred (Toby Regbo), his newest near-conquest is a beauty named Eadith (Stefanie Martini) who is playing a ‘come hither’ game that is frustrating the ealdorman. She appears to be out for whatever she can get from him without giving anything in return.

Eadith and Aethelred. Does he ever take off that crown?

We hope she wins, but her brother, Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) is worried that Aethelred will slip from the hook if she’s not a little more forthcoming. As the commander of Aethelred’s household guards, Eardwulf has been talking with the Dane Haesten who’s been feeding him information about the movements of Cnut’s Danish army.

Eardwulf, ambitious and a bit clueless.

At this point longtime TLK fans are shouting at the screen “Haesten is a spavined weasel. Don’t trust him!” But Eardwulf can’t hear us.

Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen), of course, is in cahoots with Cnut (Magnus Brun) and Brida who are hungry for conquest and are happily misleading the Saxons about their plans. The character of Brida—the spunky girl who was Uhtred’s love in Season 1 and later Ragnar’s woman—has been slowly evolving into a bitter creature who hates all Christians. It’s an accurate reflection of her character development in the books, and Emily Cox’s portrayal of Brida is spot on.

Down in Winchester there is unrest within the royal family. King Edward’s mother, Lady Not-A-Queen Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), resents her son’s dependence on his father-in-law, Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) while she’s been demoted to a new position as the king’s annoying and ignored mother.

Aelswith and Edward. Mother is NOT HAPPY.

It’s true that she was annoying when Alfred was alive, but at least he listened to her counsel. Her son merely sends her to her room (near the kitchens) and when she complains to Fr. Beocca about Aethelhelm’s ambition he tells her, “You cannot invite a serpent into the garden and be surprised when it slithers on the ground.”

Good old Fr. Beocca (Ian Hart). We’re so glad he’s still around, along with Hild (Eva Birthistle), Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin), Steapa (Adrian Bouchet), and Uhtred’s merry gang of loyal followers Finan (Mark Rowley), Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius) and Osferth (Ewan Mitchell).

Uhtred’s son, Uhtred, makes his appearance near the episode’s end. There were two sons in the novels, and the show runners have decided to combine them into one figure. He and dad do not get along, which is not surprising, given that the boy was raised by monks to be a fervent Christian per Alfred’s command. I loved Uhtred’s grumbling aside that Alfred still torments him. Uhtred the elder really tries to reach out to the boy, but Uhtred the younger is a typical teenager—resentful, surly, defiant, and mouthy for a monk—to the great amusement of Uhtred’s merry band. His personality is very different from either of the sons in the novels. He’s actually a lot like his father, and adorable. Played by actorFinn Elliot.

Uhtred, son of Uhtred

There seems to be a father/son theme running through the episode. In a lovely moment Uhtred calls Beocca ‘father’, and he doesn’t appear to be using it as a title but as a relationship. Edward seems to have accepted Aethelhelm as a father figure, despite trying to be his own man. Edward’s rejected son, Athelstan, is mentioned, and as he is important I think we’ll be seeing him soon. Cnut’s two sons have joined him from Ireland. Aelfric is in trouble because his only son is dead, another digression from the novels. And Uhtred reclaims his own son from the abbey, although the jury is still out about how that relationship is going to go.

It’s a wonderful beginning to a new season. And now, on to Bebbanburg!

Uhtred and company, setting sail for Northumbria

All photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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Æthelred the King

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

On 23 April 1016, Æthelred, king of England, 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.

According to historian Simon Keynes’ entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he was “unequal to the challenge that confronted him, and unfortunate in the circumstances that engulfed him…”

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.”

Nevertheless, the things that Æthelred did would seem to indicate that he could be in turns ruthless or diplomatic, vindictive or forgiving, energetic or irresolute. One historian refers to his reign as bi-polar. Even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries for this period are as puzzling as they are gripping (and depressing).

Æthelred took the throne under a cloud of suspicion and foreboding. His half-brother, King Edward, had been attacked and murdered, and that crime paved the way for Æthelred’s coronation.

As the queen greets her stepson, his murderers creep up behind him

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  young Æthelred, aged ten, then others quite close to him–perhaps even standing right behind him as he was anointed king.

Coronation of the young AEthelred, watched over by his mother, the queen. From a 19th century popular history.

William of Malmesbury wrote that Æthelred was “haunted by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood.” He seems to imply that the troubles that Æthelred faced were brought on by that unpunished murder of King Edward, and that the English suffered because of it. But what happened over the next 30-odd years was far more complicated than that.

When Æthelred attained the throne, England had been a united kingdom for a mere forty years, and allegiances to kin were still far stronger than any oaths made to a distant king. The murder of Æthelred’s half-brother King Edward by men who had sworn loyalty to him is a sign of unrest that didn’t end with the new king’s coronation. When he came of age, Æthelred resorted to steel-gloved efforts to rein in his nobles. These included confiscation of property, exile, blinding, execution, and outright murder. 

Duties of Kingship from the Old English Hexateuch. BBC.co.uk

It wasn’t easy being king.

Æthelred’s sullied reputation rests mostly, though, on his failure to protect his people from the ravages of the northmen. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of the 38 years of his monarchy, only 14 were free from devastation inflicted by ever larger viking armies. Æthelred’s efforts to protect England failed utterly. The armies he raised were vanquished. His attempts to bribe the vikings bought England only brief respites. His alliance with Normandy in 1002 brought him a new queen who gave him three children to add to his tally of six sons and 4 daughters by his first wife, but it did not rid him of his ship-borne enemies, one of whom would drive him from his kingdom. Only Swein Forkbeard’s sudden death would allow Æthelred to re-take his throne. 

King Swein Forkbeard, conqueror of AEthelred’s England

Was Æthelred any more ruthless or cruel than other rulers of his time? Probably not. His was a world that was governed by the sword despite the laws that he enacted and presumably sought to enforce. 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 was fractured more than ever. “…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 nearly 40 years–except for his 4-month exile in Normandy–meant that art and culture could flourish despite the unrest that plagued the land. Benedictine abbeys patronized by wealthy nobles produced metalwork, sculptures, and gloriously illuminated manuscripts.

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.

Such accomplishments as these, though, must be weighed against murders, executions, misplaced trust, bad decisions and desperation that characterized his reign. Æthelred died a reinstated king, but he was a king who had been 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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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

Sources:
Durhamcathedral.co.uk
englandnortheast.co.uk
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: History.com
Great fire of London, painted 1670: Museum of London
Firefighter: SFGate.com

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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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UPCOMING APRIL APPEARANCE


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.

Sources:
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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