From my blog...

Queen Emma & Vikings:Valhalla

In writing my trilogy about Emma of Normandy I hoped to spotlight the 11th century, twice-crowned queen of England whose name had long been relegated to footnotes in history books. I think I’ve succeeded to some extent because a good many of my readers have claimed that they’d never heard of Emma of Normandy until they read my books.

Now it appears that the creators of the tv show VIKINGS, too, have discovered Queen Emma. Scheduled for release sometime in 2021 or 2022, is a VIKINGS spinoff titled Vikings:Valhalla. The story line, it seems, begins in the early 11th century, and like VIKINGS the series will include historical figures in the English realm across the North Sea.

One of them, I’ve learned, will be “…the young, ambitious Emma of Normandy…from the Norman court and of Viking blood. Politically astute, and one of the wealthiest women in Europe.” (

But Emma will not be alone. Elgiva of Northampton, Cnut’s concubine, will be there, too. “Queen Ælfgifu of Denmark has a hand to play in the political power struggles unfolding in Northern Europe. She uses her charm and guile to great effect as she promotes the interests of her Mercian homeland and tries to assert herself in Canute’s growing power structure.” (

Although that description above certainly captures Elgiva’s personality as I’ve imagined her in my trilogy, I can attest that she was NEVER, at any time, queen of Denmark. (Although, knowing Elgiva, she might think she was!)

Cnut will be there, of course: “A wise, savvy and ruthless Viking leader. Keeps his friends close and enemies closer. His ambitions will mold the course of history in the 11th century and make him a defining figure of the Viking age.” ( refers vaguely to an English king, but I have no way of knowing if that will be Æthelred or Edmund Ironside. The show is supposedly covering the entire 11th century, and there were nine kings of England from Æthelred through the reign of William the Conqueror, so surely they will include more than one! (All but two of them, by the way, were linked to Emma by blood or marriage.) mentions as well Earl Godwin who I introduced at the very end of THE PRICE OF BLOOD and who plays a large role in my new book THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK. But Cnut didn’t make him an earl until 1018, which raises the question in my mind as to when the story line of Valhalla actually begins—with the reign of Cnut (1016), or earlier?

And how accurate will the timeline and the history be? VIKINGS was fabulously inaccurate on both counts. Granted, like my trilogy this will be historical fiction, but with no Author’s Note to explain where the fiction veers from historical fact, (as VIKINGS often did, and wildly), anyone watching may be led desperately astray. (See above, Queen Ælfgifu of Denmark? No.)

So when Valhalla appears I will certainly be reviewing each episode to offer clarity and an alternate point of view when necessary, especially with regard to Emma of Normandy and the history that is covered in my books.

Meantime, THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK releases on 2 March, well before Valhalla even begins filming. If you read my book, and I hope you do, when Valhalla does arrive you’ll already be familiar with some of the historical figures and events that the show will portray.

And a huge thank you to Morgan Manning for alerting me to this breaking story.


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Sneak Peek: The Steel Beneath the Silk

Release Date: 2 March 2021 
Paperback, E-book, Audiobook

A dramatic tale of a queen who lived a thousand years ago, beautifully fictionalised and brilliantly researched, brings Emma’s incredible story out from History’s shadows into the light. –Carol McGrath, author of The Handfasted Wife


Excerpt from Chapter One:

Emma heard the faint rasp of footsteps on gravel, and she turned around, expecting to see someone from her household come in search of her. But it was a man who approached, one whose image had been graven on her heart years before. And as she watched him stride purposefully toward her she felt torn between elation and despair.

She had steeled herself for this meeting three days before, when the king’s council had first gathered. But of all the king’s sons, Athelstan alone had not answered the summons nor sent any explanation for his absence. Now he had arrived at last, and she was unprepared. She guessed that he must have been traveling for days, for his boots and cloak were caked with mud, his fair hair disheveled, and his face bronzed from long hours in the sun.

He had looked much the same when last she had seen him, on the day that he had stormed into All Hallows Church to find her standing with Thorkell near the body of the murdered archbishop. For several heartbeats she was inside the little church again, caught between Athelstan’s drawn sword and a handful of Danes who were weaponless except for one grim-faced shipman who stood well beyond her reach holding a knife to her son’s throat.

She shivered at the memory and at the alarm triggered now by the fierce light in Athelstan’s blue eyes as he drew closer.

“What has happened?” she demanded, certain that he brought news of some new calamity.

 “We have unfinished business, you and I,” he snapped, seizing her wrist and turning her hand palm up to reveal the scars that slashed red and raw across her fingers and thumb. She wanted to pull her hand away, but she did not try. She knew that she could not match his swordsman’s strength.

“I took no lasting hurt from your blade, my lord,” she said stiffly, “if that is what concerns you.” She had grasped his sword to prevent a slaughter and the murder of her son, but the only thing that had perished that day had been the trust between them. There had not been a single day in the three months since that she had not grieved its loss.

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Cnut’s Mum


In The Steel Beneath the Silk, the novel that concludes my Emma of Normandy Trilogy, several characters appear who are new to the story. One of them is Cnut’s mum. Who was she? Of course, her son Cnut is well known as a Danish warrior king of Denmark, Norway and England.

Cnut as he appears in E.S. Brooks’ Historic Boys

But the DANISH part of that description is not precisely accurate; because although Cnut’s father, Swein Forkbeard, was Danish, Cnut’s mum was a Polish princess. I hope you’re sitting down, because what I’m about to relate is complicated.

Historians agree that Cnut’s mum was the second wife of King Swein, but other than that she is shrouded in mystery. It’s not clear if Swein was her first husband or her second husband. It’s not clear when they were married, or where and when she gave birth to her children, or how many children she had. We’re not even certain of her name.

What we do know is that Cnut’s mother was the sister of Boleslaw the Brave, King of Poland…

Boleslaw Chobry. Wikimedia Commons

and that their parents were Mieszko of Bohemia of the Piast dynasty…

Mieszko. Wikimedia Commons

and a Bohemian princess named Doubravka who, through her marriage, brought Christianity to Poland.

Doubravka of Bohemia. Wikimedia Commons

Which means that Cnut’s mum was a Christian, and therefore her children, if they spent any time with their mother at all, would also have been Christian. Indeed, Cnut’s baptismal name was Lambert.

But what was Cnut’s mother’s name? Of that we can’t be sure. The names that have been suggested are Swietoslawa, Gunhild, and Sigrid. Professor Timothy Bolton in his recent biography of Cnut suggests that she was Swietoslawa, a name common in the Piast dynasty. The name appears Anglicized as Santslave in the Liber Vitae of New Minster, Winchester, in reference to a sister of Cnut who, it’s suggested, might have been named after her mother. Ian Howard, author of Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions, suggests that, whatever her birth name might have been, she was given the Scandinavian name Gunhild when she married Swein. This seems quite plausible, for it was not unusual for a woman to take a new name when she married into a new culture. Emma of Normandy, for example, was given the name Ælfgifu when she married the English King Æthelred, and sometimes both of her names, Ælfgifu Emma, appear in the records. Such may be the case with Swietoslawa Gunhild. But she’s also been identified with Sigrid the Haughty, a lusty queen who appears in the Norse sagas. More about her in a moment.

Ian Howard claims that Swein’s Polish wife with the new, Scandinavian name Gunhild, gave birth to two sons, Harald and Cnut, and possibly a daughter named Estrith, but he doesn’t attempt to suggest when or where her children were born. Presumably it was in Denmark in the late 980s because in 990, according to Howard, Swein and his family were driven out of Denmark by a Swedish army led by King Erik the Victorious. While Swein took to the seas—he was ravaging in England in 991 and 992—Gunhild fled to Pomerania (part of Poland) on the southern Baltic coast. 

Swein eventually returned to Denmark when his Swedish enemy King Erik the Victorious died (in 993, 994, or 995—not sure) and was no longer a threat. According to Ian Howard, Swein ensured his sovereignty over Sweden by marrying Erik’s widow, Sigrid the Haughty,  conveniently ignoring the fact that he had a wife in Pomerania. Sigrid, as described by James Reston, Jr. in The Last Apocalypse, was a lusty older matron with several grown children, who enjoyed the company of bawdy drinking men. She must have been a handful, even for Swein. According to Howard, Swein’s daughter Estrith might have been Gunhild’s daughter or she might have been the daughter of the bold Sigrid.

Sigrid the Haughty. From 1899 translation of Heimskringla, Wikimedia Commons

Professor Bolton, though, doesn’t accept the existence of Swein’s wife #3, Sigrid the Haughty. He suggests that Swein had only two wives. His first wife, name unknown, was the mother of Swein’s daughter Gytha, who all agree was Cnut’s elder half-sister. Swein’s second wife was the Polish sister of Boleslaw, and she, not the saga queen named Sigrid, was married first to the Swedish king Erik the Victorious, and after the death of her husband in 993, 994, or 995, she wed Swein. Her three children by Swein were Harald, Cnut and Estrith. If Bolton is right, all three of these children must have been born in the mid-to-late 990s, after the death of King Erik and Swein’s marriage to his widow, instead of the in the 980s, as Howard suggests.

But according to the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written at the behest of and with information provided by Cnut’s widow, Queen Emma, after Swein Forkbeard died in 1014 his sons Harald and Cnut went to “the land of the Slavs” and brought their mother back with them to Denmark, implying that at some point Cnut’s mother had left Denmark and been separated from her husband and sons. If this is true, Cnut and Harald must have spent enough time with their mother when they were children to have formed some filial attachment to her. In my mind that argues for a marriage to Swein in the 980s, per Howard’s thesis, not the 990s as Bolton suggests. Either way, though, her name probably wasn’t Sigrid.

So, was Swietoslawa/Gunhild, as Howard claims, Swein’s virginal young bride who gave him two sons and possibly a daughter in the 980s, only to be eventually set aside for the lusty Sigrid? Was she, as Bolton believes, the grieving Polish widow of a Swedish king, forced into marriage with Swein as one of the spoils of war, yet somehow confused with a character in the Norse sagas? And if she wasn’t the haughty, strong-minded Sigrid of the sagas, might she have had some of her characteristics? 

The answer depends on whether your primary sources are the German chroniclers, the Icelandic Sagas, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, or some combination of them. Certainly, she was the sister of the Polish king Boleslaw the Brave. That much is clear. I’m inclined to think that her name was Swietoslawa, and that she took the name Gunhild upon her marriage to Swein in about 980, as Howard suggests. She gave Swein at least three children, but Swein eventually set her aside in the mid-990s, sending her back to ‘the land of the Slavs’ in order to make a political marriage to Sigrid, the widow of King Erik the Victorious. It’s the only way I can make all the names, the dates, and the relationships work out.

In my novel The Steel Beneath the Silk Cnut’s mother’s name is Gunhild, and as the dowager queen of Denmark and mother of its king, Harald, she is arrogant and domineering toward the other women at court. (Unconsciously, it seems, I allowed a little bit of Sigrid to leak into her character.) Cnut’s sister Estrith appears in the novel, too, as does their elder half-sister Gytha. Together with queen mother Gunhild, these three women are Cnut’s tall, formidable, flame-haired female kin.


Bartlett, W. B. King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016. Amberley Publishing, 2016.
Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, 2017.
Howard, Ian. Swein Forbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Boydell Press, 2003.
Reston, Jr., James. The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. Doubleday, 1998.
Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wikipedia: Swietoslawa of Poland.



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The Steel Beneath the Silk

The third novel in my EMMA OF NORMANDY TRILOGY will be published on 2 March 2021.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK continues the story of 11th century queen of England Emma of Normandy during the final, desperate years of her husband’s reign. As the Danish King Swein and his son Cnut attempt to drive the English king from his throne, the royals of England grapple with internal tensions and external strife. Aided in secret by Cnut’s scheming concubine Elgiva, the Danish invaders undermine the English defenders and bring the kingdom to its knees. Faced with English treachery, viking savagery, and even nature’s wrath, Emma must outwit enemies who threaten her children and who seek to destroy the very fabric of England.

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The Great Famine

I have been doing some research while I shelter in place, dipping into books that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t had the time to until now. One of them is The Third Horseman by William Rosen. The title is based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine, and death. The book deals with famine, specifically, the Great Famine of the 14th century, brought about when the four previous centuries of what have come to be known as the Medieval Warming Period came to an end. The book is also concerned with war, because the author goes into great detail about the reign of Edward I and Edward II of England, their determination to conquer Scotland, and the terrible impact that their wars had on the populace of both countries. It is a book that is not for the faint of heart, but it is illuminating and worth considering during this difficult time that we are living through.

According to Rosen’s book, the summer and fall of 1314 saw so much rain that men could scarcely harvest the wheat that was the staple food source of that time, or store the grain safely in the barns. The bad weather continued for two terrible years in northern Europe when life was difficult even when things were good. A single bridge destroyed by floods could starve an area for months. In 1315, fourteen bridges on the River Mur in Austria were swept away. In England, four mills along the River Avon were destroyed by floods, and in Saxony more than 450 villages were inundated and destroyed, along with the villagers and their cattle. Quarries couldn’t be mined. Fields couldn’t be sown or meadows mowed. Wood and peat—necessary fuel for heat and smelting—were too wet to burn. One thing impacted another. For example, salt, which was used as a preservative for fish and meat, became scarce because the fuel that was used to fire the salt pans and evaporate sea water wouldn’t burn. Without salt they couldn’t make another staple: cheese, which was the only way to keep milk from spoiling.

Not enough food could be grown or raised to feed the populace whose numbers had skyrocketed during the earlier Medieval Warm Period as a result of longer growing periods and increased food production. Rosen speculates that the tale of Hansel and Gretel, cast out of their home because there was not enough food for them, may have originated at this time–a folk memory of “children starving for a crust of bread”.

Rosen tells stories even more horrible than what the Brothers Grimm recorded, but this one, hinting of cannibalism, is bad enough.

The Great Famine was exacerbated by war and by leaders who were inept or incompetent. People died of starvation or of illness that they could not fend off because their bodies were so weakened from lack of nourishment. To add to their woes, in 1319 an epidemic of rinderpest killed two-thirds of the cows, oxen, sheep and goats of northern Europe. In 1320 a disease called glanders took out nearly half the horses.

It would not be until 1322 that the food supply returned to something resembling normal, and during the Great Famine years of 1314-1321 the excess mortality rate was somewhere between 5 and 12 percent for all of northern Europe. Twenty-two years and a generation later, Europe would be hit by the Black Plague. Out of the frying pan…

The 14th century was a terrible time; nevertheless, all of us living today have ancestors who lived through it.

Humanity is resilient. We’re still here.


Sources: Rosen, William. The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century. Viking, Penguin Group U.S.A., New York. 2014.

Banner Photo: Medieval Town by Water. Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Wikimedia Commons

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham, Wikimedia Commons

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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. Wikimedia Commons

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. Wikimedia Commons

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. 

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. 

Swein Forkbeard, who conquered AEthelred’s England in 1013. Photo: Nigel Davies / Viking detail in Swansea Guildhall. Wikimedia Commons

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 (Wikimedia Commons)

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

Wikimedia Commons


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Swords, Wyrms & Vikings

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

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:
Night Sky: Tom Bayly, Wikimedia Commons
Great fire of London, painted 1670: Museum of London
Firefighter: San Bernardino County, Wikimedia Commons

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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.

Photo: BLM Nevada (Wikimedia Commons)

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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