From my blog...

Vikings Valhalla 1.1

The first thing that the audience watching VIKINGS VALHALLA needs to do is to throw away the historical timeline because that is what the script writer, Jeb Stuart, has done. Let me give you some examples: The opening scene takes place in England in 1002 when, the show tells us, Æthelred was England’s king and, over in Denmark, Canute was on the throne. Trouble is, it was Canute’s father Sven Forkbeard who was the king of Denmark in those years. Canute would have been, at most, 12. But when we meet Canute later in Norway, he’s played by a strapping and heavily bearded Bradley Freegard, who looks to be – what? 35? Even older? And before we meet Canute we are introduced to Harald Sigurdsson aka Harald Hadrada (Leo Suter) and Olaf Haraldsson (Johannes Hauker Johannesson) who appears to be a combination of two Olafs: Olaf Haraldsson (aka St. Olaf) and Olaf Tyrggvason (d. 1000). Both Harald Sigurdsson and Olaf Haraldsson were kings of Norway, but much later—say, 30 and more years later, and not at the same time, of course. Harald wasn’t even born yet in 1002. We also meet Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett), who was at least alive in 1002 and who was indeed supposed to have been visiting Norway around this time and who was converted to Christianity by Olaf Tyrgvasson (not Olaf Haraldsson). We meet Leif and his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) as they’re sailing from Greenland to Norway, and they give us a good look at how much fun it must have been to go sailing in the North Sea on a Viking ship during a storm. Not.

Okay. So, back to history. What Jeb Stuart is doing is taking some big names in Scandinavian history, throwing them into a pot, stirring them up, and ladling them into this show. One reviewer I read suggested that viewers keep Wikipedia open while they’re watching Valhalla, which made me laugh. But honestly, I don’t recommend it. With all those Haralds and Olafs you’ll only get confused. Just try to follow the interpersonal relationships without trying to figure out if they’re historically accurate. For the most part, they’re not. You can still enjoy the show. Just don’t take it too seriously history-wise.

So let’s look at what is historically accurate. The episode begins with the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Yes, this happened on November 13, 1002. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle “The king gave an order to slay all the Danes that were in England…because it was told the king that they would beshrew him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.” How many Danes were killed is unknown, but the massacre became legend, with gruesome details added (possibly invented) as the story was told and retold. Nevertheless, there were Danes who were trapped and burned in Oxford’s St. Frideswide’s Church, and two mass graves have been found from about this time which archaeologists suggest may have been ships’ complements of viking raiders caught up in the St. Brice’s Day event. In fact, a charter signed by King Æthelred mentions that the Danes were in the land “like cockles amongst the wheat”, and the show actually has Æthelred say that. I was impressed. (Cockles are a kind of weed.)

Did the St. Brice’s Day Massacre spark revenge by the Danes? That could well be true. Supposedly, one of the women killed was Sven Forkbeard’s sister who was living in England at the time with her husband Pallig. Scholars have theorized that Sven’s repeated attacks on England over the next decade were spurred by vengeance for the murder of his sister. What is misleading in this episode is that the event as shown here appears to be ethnic cleansing. But according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it was a response to a perceived threat—that the Danes intended to kill the king and his council. Whether the threat was real or not is anyone’s guess today. Certainly viking raiders from outside England had been hitting the kingdom for years, and the king was looking for ways to halt them. But what happened on St. Brice’s Day merely threw fuel on the fire.

The fleets that Swein would lead in 1013 and that Cnut would lead in 1015 were drawn from all over Scandinavia, as shown here; but while some of their men would have been eager for vengeance and some for glory, most of them were out for plunder.

It’s true that Olaf Haraldsson was violently Christian, as he’s presented here. He eventually forced Christianity upon Norway, but he wasn’t even converted until 1013 so, again, the timeline is off.

I enjoyed hearing Canute extolling Ragnar Lothbrok in front of that viking crowd. Actually, I believe that Canute claimed to be descended from Ragnar’s son, Ivar the Boneless and so, presumably, from Ragnar, assuming Ragnar actually existed. That’s debatable. The mention of Ragnar and Lagertha, and the setting of the fictional Kattegat in Norway is a surely a way of linking this series to the earlier VIKINGS.

There’s been no sign Emma of Normandy yet. She’s still in the wings, awaiting her big moment. She is, of course, the one really solid link to the earlier series. She was the great grand-daughter of Rollo.




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A Family Tragedy

Emma with her sons Edward & Alfred from The Life of Edward the Confessor, 12th c.

In 11th century England the blending of royal families due to consecutive marriages of both king and queen could result in dissension between step-brothers and half-brothers. In one case it led to disaster: the death of Alfred Ætheling.

On 5 February 1037, Alfred, the youngest son of Emma of Normandy and her first husband, King Æthelred the Unready, died at Ely Abbey. Alfred was about 25 years old, and his death was the result of his blinding by order of his step-brother Harold Harefoot, the son of Emma’s second husband King Cnut and his first wife/concubine Ælfgifu of Northampton – the woman who appears in my trilogy as Elgiva.

What do we know about the circumstances leading to Alfred’s death? We know a few things, but there are mysteries as well.

Alfred had been living in Normandy from the time that he was 4 years old, exiled there by the Danish King Cnut when he took the English throne in 1016 and married Alfred’s mother, Queen Emma. But Cnut died in November, 1035, so the man who had exiled Emma’s sons was no longer ruler of England.

Was it news of Cnut’s death that brought Alfred to England, probably in the autumn of 1036? Did he mistakenly believe that, because his mother had been made regent for England’s southern shires, holding them in the name of Harthacnut—her son by Cnut and therefore Alfred’s half-brother—Emma’s exiled sons could safely return to England?

Or did he come in response to a letter purportedly written by Emma that urged her sons to come to her from Normandy because they were being deprived of their regal inheritance by their step-brother Harold and they needed to do something about it? And here’s the biggest mystery: if that letter existed, was it actually written by the Dowager Queen or was it, as she later claimed, forged by Harold, to lure her sons into a trap and rid him of any claimants to the English throne?

Whatever it was that drew Alfred across the Narrow Sea, he was met by armed men. Unknown to Alfred, they were agents of Cnut’s son Harold who, like Emma, was regent for part of England. Alfred and his companions were first welcomed and offered accommodation, then attacked in the night. His companions were slaughtered or enslaved, and Alfred was taken aboard a ship that brought him to Ely. At Ely, this son of an English king was likely tried as a foreign invader, found guilty, and blinded. Afterward, he was cared for by the monks at Ely until he died from his wounds. Within months Harold would claim the throne of all England as his birthright.

In medieval times, blinding was used as a penalty for treason or as a way of rendering an opponent incapable of ruling or of leading an army in war. It was also an act of revenge. I suspect that Alfred was blinded, partly to secure the throne for his step-brother, and partly in vengeance at the behest of Harold’s mother Ælfgifu for something that Alfred’s father, King Æthelred, had done before Alfred was even born.

In 1006 Ælfgifu’s father, Ealdorman Ælfhelm, had been attacked and murdered by operatives of King Æthelred for a treasonous act that was never recorded and that today remains a mystery. Her brothers Wulfheah and Ulfegeat were captured at the same time and blinded. We do not know if they survived their blinding, but it is likely that they suffered the same fate in 1006 that Alfred suffered in 1037. Harold, acting as ruler of England although not yet accepted as king by the entire realm and certainly uncrowned, would never have known his uncles. But his mother knew her brothers, and she knew their fate. She saw to it that Alfred Ætheling met the same fate as they did, not because he was a threat to her son Harold, but because she wished to exact vengeance on Alfred for the murder of her kin 3 decades before.

It is family that consumes us.
                                                from the film THE KING


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On the Life & Early Death of the Ætheling Athelstan

Athelstan was the eldest son of King Æthelred II of England. One of at least 9 brothers and sisters, Athelstan was born sometime in the mid-to-late 980s—we don’t know the exact year—and he died on 25 June 1014 at about the age of 28. His name never appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, although for most of his brief life he was recognized as the presumed heir to his father’s throne.

All of the king’s sons were named after earlier kings of Wessex, and all were considered throne-worthy. Athelstan had been named after the king’s great-uncle, King Athelstan (d.939), who had been the first king of Wessex to unite all of England, at least for a time. In the 11th century King Athelstan would have been perceived as the most renowned and important of the royal forebears—even more so than his grandfather Alfred the Great, so it is significant that the king chose that name for his first-born son.

Athelstan’s mother, Ælfgifu, was the daughter of Thored, the ealdorman of Northumbria, and her marriage to Æthelred likely served to strengthen ties between the king and his northern lords. As a result of these northern relations, Athelstan and his brothers would, throughout their lives, have some natural affinity with the nobility of the northern Danelaw.

Their mother Ælfgifu was never crowned queen of England; nor, apparently, was she responsible for the upbringing of her sons. Athelstan and his younger brothers seem to have spent their early years with their paternal grandmother at her estate of Æthelingdene in West Sussex. They don’t appear on the historical record until 993, when Athelstan was about 7. In that year he and three of his brothers signed charters for the first time. Their grandmother, the Dowager Queen Ælfthryth, signed just ahead of them. Presumably, he and his siblings accompanied her to court that year for the first time. On all of the numerous witness lists that follow over the next 20 years Athelstan’s name appears first among his brothers, giving him precedence over them. Nevertheless, upon the death of their mother in 1001, change was in the wind. The king remarried, and the king’s new wife, Emma of Normandy, gave birth to a son, Edward, in 1005. Athelstan would have been about 19, and it is quite likely that the arrival of this new sibling gave rise to certain doubts and questions among the king’s elder sons about the line of succession.

Historian N.J. Higham suggests that although Athelstan perceived himself as the accepted heir to the throne, it is not clear that the king agreed with him. With the birth of Emma’s son, there may have been a serious movement to promote young Edward as next in line for the throne. If so, Athelstan and his brothers would have had good reason to oppose it, possibly causing a rupture between the king and his eldest sons.

Nevertheless, Athelstan was a wealthy young lord. He owned land in at least 10 counties of south-eastern England, and he was a donor to religious houses at Winchester, Canterbury, Shaftesbury and Ely. He had a household and retainers, and he was friends with a number of significant men in Sussex, Yorkshire, East Anglia, the Five Boroughs and southwest Mercia. And although from 1006 onwards the king excluded some regionally powerful northern kindred from his court, Athelstan retained strong links with them.

Athelstan’s Estates, as mentioned in his will.

Over the next 7 years, increasing military pressure by viking armies led to turmoil in England and disrupted the royal family even more. Athelstan and his brothers would have been involved in their father’s military planning, while their younger half-siblings would have been associated with Emma’s household. By the year 1012 three of Athelstan’s younger brothers had died. In 1013, when Swein Forkbeard and his army overran English defenses—probably with the aid of a secret accord between Swein and the northern lords—Emma and her children fled to Normandy. King Æthelred followed them, but his eldest sons did not.

Emma’s biographer Pauline Stafford suggests that the elder æthelings remained in England, and that when Swein Forkbeard died in early 1014 Athelstan may have made a bid for the empty throne. As it turned out, King Æthelred returned that spring to drive out the Danes and punish the northerners who had supported them. And on the 25th of June, Athelstan died. We don’t know the cause of his death. We only know that his brother Edmund was at his side, and that Athelstan had time to make a will. It is the will that tells us what little we know about the ætheling.  

The first thing that he did in that will was to free his slaves—men who were penally enslaved and under his jurisdiction. He bequeathed to various friends and relatives a coat of mail, two shields, a drinking horn, a silver-coated trumpet, a string of fine horses, and eleven swords. One of those swords was apparently a valued family heirloom—the sword of Offa; perhaps the sword that Charlemagne had sent to King Offa of Mercia in 796. It went to Athelstan’s brother, Edmund, who would take his place as the eldest ætheling. Athelstan left properties and estates to his father, to Edmund, to his chaplain, his foster-mother, to various servants and friends, and to several religious houses. I think the bequest that says the most about him was this one: “And I grant to Godwine, Wulfnoth’s son, the estate at Compton which his father possessed.” King Æthelred had confiscated that estate from Wulfnoth; and I can’t help thinking that in bequeathing it to Godwine, Athelstan believed that he was righting a wrong.

Athelstan was buried at the Old Minster in Winchester. He was the first non-king to be buried there in over 90 years. It’s possible that his remains are among the royal bones that lay for centuries in the mortuary chests above the cathedral altar and that are now under study. If so, we may one day learn more about this royal son who never became king.

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

Æthelred the Unready, Levi Roach
The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Ed. Michael Lapidge
The Death of Anglo-Saxon England, N. J. Higham
English Historical Documents, D. Whitelock
Queen Emma & Queen Edith, Pauline Stafford

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The Queen Behind the Queen

The first 2 novels of my trilogy show a Queen Emma whose face is turned away from the reader.  But for my third novel I wanted to show a stern, determined Emma, and I knew exactly what she should look like. The figure on the cover of The Steel Beneath the Silk is my friend Tori.

Tori is a horsewoman whom I had consulted during my research, and she is also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). The SCA is an inclusive community that pursues research and re-creation of pre-seventeenth century skills, arts, combat and culture, and its “Known World” is divided into twenty regions called Kingdoms. Each Kingdom is ruled by a pair of monarchs who have competed in a Crown Tournament to win the throne.

Tori has reigned as Queen of the West Kingdom twice, and the cover of my novel was pulled from a photo of her taken at an SCA event. If you think being a Queen in the SCA is a cushy job, think again! The SCA and Tori’s role in it make a fascinating story. I’ll let her tell it…

“I was 11 years old when my mom brought me to a small local SCA event, and I was 15 when I attended my first big event. There were knights fighting in armor, drums pounding, bellydancing at night in the firelight, and music everywhere. I was always a kid that loved fantasy books, medieval history, any book that gave me anything approximating those things. I felt like I’d stumbled into one of my books. I was hooked!  After that I went to every SCA event I could. The only requirements are an entry fee and an attempt at pre-17th Century clothing. I went to events for years where I basically had a tent, two dresses and a small cooler of cheese and salami, a loaf of bread and some water.

One day during a tournament I very shyly went up to a gentleman running the Herald’s Point table to request my SCA name. He grandly introduced himself as “Flieg.”  He was wearing a floppy hat and had twinkling eyes and a hearty voice.  He looked like Gandalf. I told him I wanted the name Arwen, from Lord of the Rings. He told me there were no Elvish names in period, but perhaps we could find something similar. I walked away with the Welsh name Arianwen, and the knowledge that “ferch” meant “Daughter of” in Welsh.  All I had to do was figure out what my father’s name might have been, and my SCA name and persona were born: Arianwen ferch Morgan.

Introducing Arianwen ferch Morgan, attended by her husband, Viscount Kith von Atzinger, KSCA. Photo credit: Baron Joel the Brewer.

My persona is set in 14th century Wales. However I have been known to dabble in other time periods for my costumes, such as German, Venetian, Roman and Greek.  When you live in California, a chiton is so much more comfortable on a hot day! I’ve made some of my gowns; my more elaborate gowns were mostly created for reigns. Typically when you are an heir to the throne, wonderful and kind people will step forward and volunteer to help you with clothes.  There are seamstresses in the SCA that will take your measurements, discuss your ideas with you and then custom make an outfit for you.  I’ve been incredibly blessed to have many amazing people in my life that sewed for me. 

Her Majesty of the West Arianwen at a Western Court, seated in the hand-carved Queen of the West’s throne. The dress is in a German style. Photo credit: Duchess Megan nic Alister of Thornwood.

The SCA Kingdoms are ruled over by Kings and Queens—the premiere ranking members while reigning. They essentially act as CEO’s during their time on the throne. They make decisions, give out awards, handle any disciplinary actions necessary and are the figureheads for the group. Principalities are smaller areas inside of a Kingdom; these are reigned over by Princes and Princesses in fealty to the region’s King and Queen.  The West Kingdom is made up of Northern California, most of Nevada and Alaska; Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Pacific Rim. 

I carry a number of “titles.” I am a Duchess, one of the highest ranks the Society offers. Dukes and Duchesses are members that have reigned as King or Queen at least twice.  I am also a Countess—an individual who has reigned once as a Queen (or Count if as King.) I am a Viscountess, meaning I have reigned as a Princess over a Principality. I am a Baroness, which is a title given to individuals by the Crown at their discretion. I also carry the right to the title Rider of the West.  I was granted a Gold Scarf for my endeavors in horses and horsemanship.

Her Majesty of the West Arianwen. Surcoat and horse barding carry the arms of Queen of the West: red roses on laurel wreaths on a yellow background. Photo credit: Viscountess Esmeralda of the Lakes.

I do a lot of service in my Kingdom, from helping Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses run their reigns to running events large and small.  Volunteers are the support network of the SCA, the ones that make it all come together! 

I have held the following SCA offices:

Equestrian Mistress—responsible for all horse related activities. This officer must know the rules and regulations for having horses involved at events, take care of any boarding requirements for longer events, and ensure that all horse events are done in a safe manner.

Lists Mistress—in charge of running tournaments: setting up who is fighting where and when! 

Chatelaine—essentially helping new members with all the information they may need to get started. 

Deputy to the Seneschal. Seneschals are very important. They act as the day to day business managers of the various locations.  They work exceptionally hard for their groups! 

On the day that this photo was taken I was at the West/AnTir war–a large inter-kingdom event.

AnTir is our neighbor, which includes Oregon, Washington, the northern tip of Idaho, most of British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Every year we get together for 4-5 days in Gold Beach, Oregon and have a “war” over 4th of July weekend.  At wars we have large armored battles, equestrian activities, cooking events, many merchants with a variety of wares, dog coursing, the list goes on! 

In the picture, I was getting ready to ride into Grand Court. Grand Court is usually a big elaborate affair, with sitting Royalty from many different Kingdoms and Principalities visiting. The entrance into Court is often a large procession, with Heralds, banners and attendants. My consort Titus and I were the current heirs to the West Kingdom. He had won the June Crown Tournament, and thus we were the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of the West.

I live in Chicago now, in the Midrealm. Due to Covid, I have not had much opportunity to get to know much about my new kingdom!

Patricia, I’ve enjoyed being involved with your books over the years, and I’m so glad we met all that time ago over a question about a horse’s girth. It’s been such a joy to be your Emma.”

Thank you, Arianwen, for taking us into the world of the Society for Creative Anachronism and, most especially, for allowing me to use your image—of a Crown Princess on her way to war—for the cover of my novel. It’s wonderfully appropriate, I think, given all that occurs in the book!

Note on SCA Membership: SCA members pay a yearly fee. This allows them to hold offices in the SCA, fight in Crown and Principality tournaments, and receive a discount on their entry fees.  They also receive access to the monthly newsletter of their area.  Membership is not required, though, to attend events. People wanting more information about the SCA can go to 


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A Cornwall Recollection

As the world turns its eyes on the G7 Summit currently taking place in Cornwall, I’m reminded of a lovely book published by Wanderland Writers in 2015 filled with stories and poems written by a group of travelers visiting, most of them or the first time, that tiny corner of southwest Britain. The editors of WANDERING IN CORNWALL, Joanna Biggar and Linda Watanabe McFerrin, honored my by asking me to write a forward for the book. My FOREWARD appears below, but this lovely little book is still available for purchase. And until we are able to travel to Cornwell ourselves, I heartily encourage you to find a copy and visit Cornwall through its pages.

by Patricia Bracewell

Cornwall, its peninsula trailing west from Britain’s southern shires like an afterthought, has ever been a place apart.



In the sixth century it was the last refuge of Celtic tribes who were driven to land’s end by Saxon invaders. In the ninth century their descendants would be forced to bow to Anglo-Saxon overlords, but for a thousand years they would keep their own language and culture as part of England’s Celtic Fringe. Separate. Distinct. Distant. Even today Cornwall is a world away from the frenetic madness that is London, so far away that those who come here do not stumble upon it by chance. When they come, it is with a purpose.

For this is a land of quests, of dark legends, mystery, and heartbreaking romance. Cornwall is where Tristan and Iseult shared a hopeless love; where Uther’s lust for Ygraine led to Arthur’s mythical birth; where Merlin was enchanted and entombed by Nimue. Its headlands and bays have been prowled by Conan Doyle’s Holmes, by Winston Grahame’s Poldark, by Daphne du Maurier’s gothic heroines, and by Susan Cooper’s child heroes who, like Arthur, continue valiantly to lead the forces of light against a threatening darkness. 

That stark contrast between darkness and light captures, for me, the essence of Cornwall: white sea foam splashing on brooding granite rocks, castle ruins silhouetted against a milky sky, sun-washed megaliths planted on a dark moor, and whitewashed stone cottages with windows and doors trimmed boldly in black. There is beauty in the contrast, perhaps because shadow is such an effective tool for defining the light, or perhaps because we recognize in that play of light and dark the dual elements of human nature.



Cornwall’s history, too, and the livelihoods of its people have been veined with darkness. For generations they braved the depths of the earth in search of tin or set out in the pre-dawn gloom to work the sea for fish. The tin mines are closed now, the skeletal remains of their engine houses adding to the savage beauty of the landscape. The fishing industry lingers on, though, for Cornwall is bounded on three sides by the sea with so many coves and inlets one imagines that its coastline was carved with a giant spoon.


That rugged shore now draws artists, writers and tourists to its pretty harbor towns. From Polperro to Penzance, from St. Ives to Port Isaac, they come in search of – something. Sometimes they find what they are looking for. Sometimes they find something else. I went looking for Arthur’s Tintagel, and I found a stark beauty I should have expected yet hadn’t imagined. I found, too, the kernel of a dream that would take half a life-time to blossom. That was thirty years ago, and although I have returned to Britain many times since, my road has never again led me across the River Tamar. Perhaps now it is time to go back, to revisit Tintagel and Polperro, and to look once again for inspiration in the darkness and the light of Cornwall.


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Vikings or vikings?

In Chapter Two of The Steel Beneath the Silk King Æthelred asks his son Athelstan why he has arrived several days late to an important meeting of the witan. Athelstan responds, “I was in Devon, my lord, responding to news of viking raids there, and to a report that they appeared to be making for the Severn.”

One of my readers was puzzled by the fact that I did not capitalize the term ‘viking’ throughout the entire book. He was used to seeing the word printed this way: Viking. And it is true that when one types ‘viking’ in a WORD document, the auto-correct insists that it should be ‘Viking’. In my first two novels the word ‘viking’, whether singular and plural, was capitalized. So why did I go out of my way to do something different this time around?

Actually, one of the first questions my editor posed as we were preparing this manuscript for publication was, “Should it be Viking or viking?” No one had ever asked me that before. With the first two novels we had simply acquiesced to WORD’s opinion, but this time around I gave it some thought.

Historians are not in agreement on this subject. For example, in Frank Stenton’s definitive work Anglo-Saxon England (1943, 1971, 1989, 1998, 2001); in Timothy Bolton’s Cnut the Great (2007); and in Levi Roach’s Æthelred the Unready (2016) the word ‘viking’ is not capitalized. In Peter Sawyer’s Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (1997, 1999, 2001); in Ann Williams Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King (2003); and in Ryan Lavelle’s Æthelred II: King of the English 978-1016 (2002, 2004) it appears as ‘Viking’. We seem to have something of a stalemate. What’s a historical novelist to do?

I don’t know when the term ‘the Viking Age’ (always capitalized) was first coined, but surely it was long after these men were actually roaming the seas and plundering Europe. The Oxford English Dictionary has a quote from P.B.DuChaillu in 1889 that reads “We must come to the conclusion that the ‘Viking Age’ lasted from about the second century of our era to about the middle of the twelfth,” thus indicating the first use of that term at the end of the 19th century. (Today’s scholars would disagree with DuChaillu’s opinion that the Viking Age began as far back as the second century!)

And here we have another vote for Viking!

At any rate, to resolve the issue I turned to the first mention that I could find of the word viking, which was the Latin text of Archbishop Wulfstan’s ‘Sermon of the Wolf’. Wulfstan delivered his sermon in 1014, and he used the word ‘wĪcinge’. There was no capital letter. Because my novel was in the same period in which Wulfstan lived, and because I wanted to get inside the heads of my characters, I decided that, this time around, I would follow Wulfstan’s lead.

In my mind, the vikings—no capital letter—are, as Sawyer defines them, ‘roaming fleets of seaborne heathen’; while the Vikings—capitalized—are a Minnesota football team.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve made it all the way through this explanation without your eyes glazing over, congratulations and thank you! Feel free to weigh in via the Comments.

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The Death Scene of King Æthelred


Death of Edward the Confessor. Bayeux Tapestry (Wikimedia Commons)

Æthelred II, Anglo-Saxon king of England, died on 23 April, 1016. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that notes his passing, probably written within a decade of his death, reads like this:

“He ended his days on St. George’s day; having held his kingdom in much tribulation and difficulty as long as his life continued.”

A century later, historian William of Malmesbury commented at greater length and with far less charity on the king’s life and death:

“His life is said to have been cruel at the outset, pitiable in mid-course, and disgraceful in its ending…He was hounded by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood. Who could count how often he summoned his army, how often he ordered ships to be built, how often he called his nobles together from every quarter, and nothing ever came of it?…At the beginning of Lent…he departed this life, a life made for trouble and misery, and lies buried in St. Paul’s London.”

Not exactly a warm eulogy! But what led up to the moment of the king’s death? Who was standing at his bedside? What words, if any, did he speak before he breathed his last?

As a novelist portraying the scene around the king’s deathbed, those were questions that I had to answer. I had created an unsympathetic Æthelred in my novels based on the historical record and on later historians’ speculations, and it was time now to lay the king to rest. Excerpted from my novel The Steel Beneath the Silk, here is that moment, as seen through the eyes of his queen, Emma.

“The royal bedchamber was silent but for the sibilant prayers of Æthelred’s archbishops and the intermittent rasp of the king’s labored breathing. Emma gazed down at the shrunken frame outlined beneath the blankets, and with his every exhalation her own breath caught as she waited for the next rattling gasp.

The stench of illness in the room was not quite masked by the honeyed scent from the branches of candles placed around the bed, but the light they gave off was enough to banish any hint of shadows. She had ordered candles to be burned in this chamber day and night, for she knew better than anyone that Æthelred feared the dark.

Let him have the light, she thought, until the final darkness engulfs him.

He would die in his bed as he had wished, rather than struck down by the hand of a vengeful enemy; but Death itself had been a cruel and merciless foe. Æthelred had been subject to days of torment, his effort to draw air into his failing lungs a wide-eyed, panicked struggle. It had been terrible to watch and no doubt far worse to endure. Now, though, he seemed to have fallen into something that was deeper than sleep. Each gasping breath was shallower than the one before it, and his hollow cheeks and the grey hue of his skin told her that the end was near. She and the others gathered here were witnessing the final, losing battle in Æthelred’s desperate struggle to stay alive.

Emma considered the royal offspring keeping watch with her over the king’s prone body. Edmund, standing at the foot of the bed, was still disheveled from four days of hard riding in response to her urgent summons. His expression was set in a grimace, bearing no sign of sorrow or even compassion as he stared at the waxen face on the pillow. He had not hastened here to reconcile with a dying father, but to claim a dead king’s throne…Once Edmund took the throne all their fates would be in his hands. And as she studied Edmund’s stern expression, the questions that had been spooling through her mind for months surfaced again, and her folded hands tightened with anxiety. Could she persuade him to allow her to remain at court as dowager queen, or would he force her to retire to a convent, the fate of so many widowed queens before her? What would happen to her sons? Might Edmund send them across the Narrow Sea to her brother, and her with them? Richard, she did not doubt, would swiftly arrange a second marriage for her; one that would be to his advantage and without any regard for her wishes.

As she pondered such dismal prospects, the king opened his eyes, and his face convulsed with terror as he gazed at some vision that only he could see. She gently touched his shoulder but, as so often in the past, it did not ease him. How many times had she seen him stare like this in horror at empty space? What did he see that so frightened him, even now, at the end of his days?

His mouth formed voiceless words, and he lifted a clawlike hand as if to push something away—a futile effort. Almost immediately his hand fell to the bed, and his ragged breathing halted. It did not begin again.

Two days later Emma walked, straight-backed and dry-eyed, behind Æthelred’s coffin as it was carried from the palace to the minster of St. Paul’s. Four royal children—Edmund, Edyth, Edward and Alfred—trailed in her footsteps. A vast crowd lined the streets to pay silent homage to the dead king, most of them having known no other ruler. It had been thirty-seven years, Emma reflected, since Æthelred had been crowned following the murder of his half-brother, King Edward. Then, swiftly, she pushed the thought of murdered royal half-brothers from her mind lest the very thought summon a similar disaster.

Inside the great stone church, amid billows of fragrant incense and the mournful chanting of the office of the dead, Æthelred’s soul was committed to God. Emma, relieved that the long death watch was over, could not grieve for the husband and king who had inspired neither her love nor her respect. He had suffered from a darkness of soul that seemed to consume him, and she could only pray that in death he had found release from the shadows that had both tormented and goaded him.” From The Steel Beneath the Silk, Chapter 36

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The History of the English Kings by William of Malmesbury, edited and translated by R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Volume 1 (1998), Oxford University Press

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Talking Shop with David Gilman

On April 17 historical novelist David Gilman and I discussed our recent books, our writing and our research. David’s latest novel in his best selling Master of War series, set during the Hundred Years War, is THE SHADOW OF THE HAWK, a riveting 14th century tale that has warfare, treachery,  and a witchy villainess.  My latest novel, THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK, set during the 11th century Danish conquest of England, has warfare, treachery, and its own scheming villainess. You can watch a reply at the link below:


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St. Cuthbert and Me

On a trip to Northumbria in 2019 I visited a number of sites with ties to Cuthbert, the saint whose feast day is March 20 and who was greatly loved by the Anglo-Saxons. Cuthbert was born in Northumbria in 635, became a monk at Melrose Abbey, and eventually became the bishop of Lindisfarne (Holy Island). Today there is a hiking path commemorating the saint and called, of course, St. Cuthbert’s Way. It runs from Melrose Abbey in Scotland to Lindisfarne in Northumbria where the saint died.

St. Cuthbert’s Way is 100km long, and on my visit in 2019 we walked only a tiny part of it—7 miles. We rambled through heather and bracken, passing an iron age hill fort, and skirting cattle, sheep, and wild goats—descendants of a herd dating back a couple of millennia, even before Cuthbert’s time.

We had visited Lindisfarne and its abbey the day before…

…  on the Holy Island that is only accessible by land twice a day via a 3 mile long causeway. We took a bus along that causeway, but we saw people walking it, just as they would have in Cuthbert’s time. It’s a long, muddy walk, and even a car can get into trouble if the crossing is timed wrong.

In 793 the vikings arrived by boat, and in 875 their raids finally forced the monks to abandon the island.

Cuthbert had died there in 687, and the monks, reluctant to leave their saint behind, carried his uncorrupted remains in a coffin around Northumbria for years. In 995 St. Cuthbert was finally laid to rest at Durham and a shrine dedicated to him.  That sojourn is the subject of this beautiful, modern sculpture at Lindisfarne’s priory church—six monks carrying the saint’s coffin on their shoulders.

I was told that the monks were more likely to have used a cart rather than carry it this way. Mind you, having walked part of St. Cuthbert’s Way, I can tell you that even with a cart it would have been rough going.

St. Cuthbert’s shrine is now in the 12th century Norman cathedral. In 1827 the coffin was opened, and early vestments, silks, and a pectoral cross were removed and can be seen in the cathedral. The gospel book found in the coffin is on display at the British Library in London.

Why was Cuthbert laid to rest at Durham in the end? The official story is that an angel appeared, telling the monks that this was where he should be buried and a shrine built. A cathedral docent confided to me that actually a wheel fell off of the monks’ cart at Durham, and they probably took that as a sign to stop their wandering. But who’s to say that an angel didn’t kick the wheel off that cart?

We visited Durham cathedral and the wonderful exhibit displaying the  relics of St. Cuthbert. It was a moving experience for me. In this brief video, historian Janina Ramirez offers a glimpse of the cathedral and the remarkable treasures of St. Cuthbert.



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On the Passing of a Queen

Wikimedia Commons

Entry from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1052:
Ymma Ælfgifu, King Edward’s and Harthacnut’s mother, passed away.

The very mention of Emma of Normandy’s passing in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an indication of the significance of her career as queen, queen mother, queen regent and dowager queen, for the Chronicle rarely made mention of women at all. Only the second woman to be crowned queen of all England, Emma was as well the only woman ever to be crowned queen of England twice. For nearly fifty years, through the reigns of seven kings—Æthelred, Swein Forkbeard, Edmund Ironside, Cnut, Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor—she was a significant figure in 11th century English politics.


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

Because Emma’s birth date is unknown, her age at the time of her death is a matter of speculation, although she was certainly in her late sixties. Nor is there any indication of the cause of her death. She had retired from court probably in 1047, and since then had been living quietly in her dower city of Winchester. Had she been ailing during that time? It is impossible to say.

Her great nephew William the Conqueror, who would use his blood connection to Emma to justify his claim to the English throne in 1066, may have spoken with her when he visited England in 1051. Emma’s biographer, Pauline Stafford, speculates that William may have wished to discuss the question of English succession.

If Emma met with him for such a discussion, one fraught with enormous political implications and a crown in the balance, she can hardly be considered as ‘ailing’.

The exact date of Queen Emma’s death was March 6, 1052. She breathed her last in Winchester and was buried in the crypt of the Old Minster beside her second husband King Cnut and their son King Harthacnut.

New Minster (left)…Old Minster (right)

Prior to this, queens in England and Wessex had been laid to rest in the abbeys where, frequently, they retired in their widowhood. Emma was the first to be interred in the royal mausoleum at Winchester, and the only woman among the 23 individuals whose bones have recently been removed for examination from the mortuary chests that since Tudor times have rested atop the high stone screens of the chancel.

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

It is interesting that Emma’s son, King Edward the Confessor, who would presumably have been responsible for her interment, buried his mother not with his father at St. Paul’s in London, but with her second husband and their son in the royal city of Winchester. Perhaps, in doing so, he was fulfilling Emma’s particular request—to lie for eternity beside the king during whose reign she had the greatest influence and prestige.

Painting of Cnut asking for the hand of Queen Emma. Fredericksborg Palace, Denmark.

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