From my blog...


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. (Wikimedia Commons) 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. (Wikimedia Commons)

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. (Wikimedia Commons) Note crown & scepter. Bunny looks happy.

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

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

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Emma of Normandy: A Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cnut offers marriage to Queen Emma. Fredericksborg Castle, Denmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harthacnut. Photo credit, British Library (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

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

Cnut the Great, Timothy Bolton

Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. Alistair Campbell

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

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

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

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

Harthacnut, The Last Danish King of England, Ian Howard

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Queen Emma and St. Valentine

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

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

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

An example of an imposing & possibly portable reliquary

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

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

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

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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

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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms Exhibit Catalogue


I could not make it to London to see the highly acclaimed exhibit at the British Library, ANGLO-SAXON KINGDOMS, so I purchased the catalogue, which arrived yesterday.

I have a lot of reading ahead of me over the next weeks as I delve into this background material about the hoard of marvels brought together from Italy, France, Sweden, the U.S., Ireland, the Netherlands, and all over Britain for this exhibition.

The cover of the catalogue is a gorgeous reproduction of King Edgar’s charter for the New Minster, Winchester.

I have seen photographs of many of the exhibit items over the years in the course of my research. A few of the actual items I have seen on earlier visits to the British Library where I stood and stared bug-eyed, for example, at a page of one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles or at the reddish, goatskin-covered, 8th century volume of the St. Cuthbert Gospel found in the saint’s coffin back in 1104.

One item I had never seen, and never even read about before, is The Cnut Gospels. The manuscript was produced at some time in the early 11th century, and the first page of each of the 4 Latin gospels is gorgeously illustrated.


Above is the first page of the Gospel of St. John, decorated in gold. It is not the page, the Gospel of St. Mark, that appears in the exhibit and the catalogue, but is similar to it.  Photos in the catalogue are under copyright protection, so what you see here is a page that the British Library has uploaded and is in the public domain.

The manuscript has been given Cnut’s name because two records made during his reign were added to the manuscript some time before 1019. One of them was a copy of a writ of King Cnut in Old English confirming earlier grants to the archbishops of Canterbury, and it was included in the exhibit and it appears in the catalogue as well.

The catalogue description of The Cnut Gospels, written by Alison Hudson, Project Curator of the exhibition, explains that documents were sometimes copied into sacred books to keep them safe or to indicate that they were under God’s protection. I’d known, vaguely, of this practice, but had never before thought about why it was done, so this was new information.

If, like me, you could not make it to London to see the exhibit, consider purchasing the catalogue from the British Library Shop. The beautiful photographs and the in-depth descriptions that accompany them make this book a treasure all by itself.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. Edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story. British Library, 2018.

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The Death of Swein Forkbeard

Candlemas, February 2

On this day in 1014 Swein Forkbeard died; although it might actually have been in the early hours of Feb. 3. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written a decade after Swein’s death reported, confusingly:

Swein ended his days on Candlemas, February 3rd.

Only, Candlemas is on Feb. 2. You’d think that the scribes (monks) who wrote and copied the Chronicle would have known the date of Candlemas. Yet the Chronicle insists that he died on Candlemas, on Feb. 3. Odd, that. Scribal error that just kept getting re-copied? Impossible to know.

What else do we know (or not know) about the death of England’s  viking king?

Photo: Nigel Davies / Viking detail in Swansea Guildhall. Wikimedia Commons

The Encomium Emmae Reginae, written about 30 years after Swein died (with input from Queen Emma), went into more detail in describing his death, even though neither Emma nor the encomiast was there to witness it:

“Feeling, therefore, that the dissolution of his body was threatening him, he summoned his son Knutr and said that he must enter upon the way of all flesh. He exhorted him much concerning the government of the kingdom and the zealous practice of Christianity, and committed the royal scepter to him. Soon afterwards he paid the last dues to nature, returning his soul to the heavens, and giving back his body to the earth.”

William of Malmesbury, writing in the 12th century added some color:
“The invader soon met his end, by what form of death is disputed. It is said that while he was ravaging the lands of St. Edmund, the martyr himself appeared to him in a vision and complained mildly about the miseries of his community; and when he (Swein) returned an insolent reply, the saint struck him on the head a blow from the pain of which he shortly afterwards died.”

Here is Swein, on the left, celebrating the death of his father, Harald Bluetooth, and Swein’s accession to the throne of Denmark.. The child on the far left, in yellow, is Swein’s younger son, Cnut, future king of England, Denmark and; Norway.

John of Worcester, also writing in the 12th century, added even more details, and he clearly had a dim opinion of Swein:
“After many cruel atrocities, which he perpetrated both in England and in other lands, the tyrant Swein filled up the measure of his damnation by daring to demand enormous tribute from the town where the incorrupt body of the precious martyr Edmund lay. At last, at the general assembly which he held at Gainsborough, he alone saw St. Edmund, armed, coming towards him. When he had seen him, he was terrified and began to shout very noisily, saying: ‘Help, fellow-warriors, help! St. Edmund is coming to kill me!’ And while he was saying this he was run through fiercely by the saint with a spear, and he fell from the stallion on which he sat, and, tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death on 3 February.”

Snorri Sturluson, 12th c Icelandic poet wrote quite unimaginatively that King Svein suddenly died at night in his bed.

I ran into Snorri Sturluson in Bergen, Norway last fall.

Symeon of Durham writing in the early 12th century reported that Swein was buried at York, and this may be some indication that Swein had journeyed there from his camp at Gainsborough, and that he died at York, some fifty miles from Gainsborough. Because Symeon was a Northumbrian, he may have had knowledge of local hearsay that other chroniclers did not have. It seems quite plausible that the assembly Swein was attending, mentioned by John of Worcester,  was at York, not Gainsborough. Swein would have gone there to be recognized and crowned at a gathering of the witan under the guidance of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. (The previous king, Æthelred, had already taken shelter with his in-laws in Normandy).

Finally, a 13th century artist depicts Swein’s last moments this way:

St. Edmund puts an end to the ambitions of Swein Forkbeard.

Swein was the first Danish king of England. He would not be the last.

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Cnut the Great, d. 12 November

Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Cnut the Great, England’s Viking king, died on Wednesday, 12 November, 1035. Cnut’s birth date was not recorded, but it was likely some time in the 990’s, so he was probably in his early to mid-forties when he died at Shaftesbury Abbey, a foundation favored by the king.

Shaftesbury was the burial place of a previous, Anglo-Saxon king of England, Edward the Martyr, and it is tempting to think that Cnut might have been at the abbey because he was ill and he wanted to pray for the intercession of the sainted king (who by all accounts was no saint, but that’s another story.) Shaftesbury was an abbey of nuns, so it’s also possible that he was there to be tended by the sisters in hopes of recovering from whatever was ailing him. According to Cnut’s biographer Timothy Bolton, Cnut would have been surrounded by members of his court and his huscarles. I imagine that his queen, Emma, was with him as well. We cannot be certain of any of that, but kings of that period rarely went anywhere alone.

Although he was a viking, Cnut was a Christian. His mother, a Polish princess, would certainly have insisted that her children be baptized; Cnut’s baptismal name was Lambert. During his reign as England’s king he made a pilgrimage to Rome where he not only took part in the coronation ceremony of the Holy Roman Emperor but made visits to every sanctuary he could find in the city. It would have kept him busy, to be sure, but he also spent a good deal of his time there negotiating diplomatic and trade agreements for the benefit of the English.

In England, the make-up of Cnut’s court would have been Anglo-Scandinavian with, presumably, elite visitors from all parts of mainland Europe in attendance at times. Cnut “did his best to correct all the misdoings of himself and his predecessors, and wiped away the stain of earlier injustice, perhaps before God and certainly in the eyes of men. At Winchester especially he exhibited the munificence of his generosity, where his offering were such that strangers are alarmed by the masses of precious metal and their eyes dazzled as they look at the flashing gems.” (William of Malmesbury)

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

Cnut was buried in the minster at Winchester, although his remains are currently undergoing examination along with those of Queen Emma and several other royals whose bones are all mixed together in the same mortuary chest.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The examiners at the University of Bristol hope to identify and separate the remains, and determine the physical characteristics of each through DNA testing. When the findings are complete, we may know a great deal more about the appearance, and perhaps even the cause of death, of England’s Viking king.

Dark Age Dorset, Robert Westwood
Cnut the Great, Timothy Bolton

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The Battle of Assandun

Edmund battles Cnut at Assandun. 14th c, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (Wikimedia Commons)

And all the nobility of the English nation was there undone!
                                                                                  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

On the 18th day of October in the year 1016 a great battle was fought between the forces of the English king Edmund Ironside and the Danish prince Cnut, younger son of Swein Forkbeard. According to the 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury, Cnut had sailed to England in 1015 at the head of a massive fleet with the intention of either capturing the English throne or dying in the attempt.

Cnut’s fleet sails to England

Over the course of the next year the two war leaders met in battle four times, with Cnut unable to secure either the decisive victory he so desired or the death that Edmund Ironside would so willingly have granted him. Not until that fateful day in October would the rivalry for the English throne be decided on a down in Essex called Assandun.

Today, the site of that battle is claimed by both Ashingdon in southeast Essex and Ashdon, about 50 miles farther north. In a paper published in 1993, archaeologist Warwick Rodwell carefully considered both sites, but hesitated to definitively state that one or the other was Assandun. Nevertheless, Rodwell’s careful review of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) account and its tactical implications, along with his boots-on-the-ground research convinced me that the northern site, at Ashdon, is where the battle was fought.

On that October day Edmund Ironside led a force made up of “all the English nation” (ASC) against a Danish army that must have been significantly reduced in numbers after 12 months and 4 major battles. Yet despite the advantage of numbers, the English lost. The 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote, “On that field Cnut destroyed a kingdom, there the whole flower of our country withered.”

So, how did that happen? The earliest account, the ASC, puts the blame for Edmund’s defeat squarely on the shoulders of the villainous Eadric Streona, who “first began the flight and so betrayed his natural lord”. Eadric had allied with Cnut in 1015 but had deserted him for  Edmund when the Danes appeared to be on the losing side in the weeks before this battle. In using the term betrayed, the ASC seems to imply something more sinister than mere cowardice.

100 years later the chronicler John of Worcester went into more detail. He wrote that the English formed a battle line four men deep atop a hill, and King Edmund exhorted them to defend themselves and their kingdom from men that they had beaten before. The Danes approached slowly on level ground, and the English, at Edmund’s signal, attacked down the hill. The battle was fiercely fought on both sides, but Eadric Streona was still secretly Cnut’s ally. So when at Assandun the Danish line wavered and it looked like the English would win, Eadric, keeping a promise he had made to Cnut, fled with all his men “and gave the Danes the victory.”

The battle rages at Assandun

The most extensive account of the battle, though, appears in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written in about 1043 and therefore earlier than Worcester’s account. In this version, Eadric urged his men to flee even before the battle began! “Let us flee and snatch our lives from imminent death, or else we will fall forthwith, for I know the hardihood of the Danes.” Eadric did this at Cnut’s behest in return for some favor—although the encomiast did not hazard what that favor might have been. Seeing a good chunk of his army leave the field Edmund was undeterred. He told his warriors that they were better off without the craven men who deserted them, and he “advanced into the midst of the enemy, cutting down the Danes on all sides.”

The encomiast claimed that the battle lasted all day—a very long time for a battle in this period—and that although the English had more men, they lost more men, too, than the Danes. It seemed to the English that the Danes were not so much fighting as raging (berserkers?), and that the Danes were determined to die before they would withdraw. When night fell, the English, weary and disheartened, retreated and Cnut was left master of the slaughter field.

It seems clear that whether Eadric Streona fled before the battle began or retreated in the midst of the fray, he betrayed his king and directly impacted the outcome of the battle. Cnut’s collusion with him is somewhat less certain; made even more so by the fact that within a year he executed Eadric ‘most justly’ for his betrayals.

Edmund, apparently not yet willing to concede defeat, fled across England with the remnant of his army to Gloucester, with Cnut on his heels. There, the treacherous Eadric, who had a foot in both camps, brokered a settlement between them that divided England, with Edmund keeping the southern shires of Wessex and Cnut taking Mercia and the north, including the mercantile powerhouse that was London.

Cnut & Edmund Ironside agree to divide England

At this point, according to the Encomium, God stepped in: within a  month Edmund was dead, likely from wounds or from an illness he suffered in the aftermath of Assandun. Soon after, Cnut was proclaimed king of England.

The Battle of Assandun, which put a Dane upon the English throne,  is not as well known as that other battle that was fought exactly fifty years later at Hastings and resulted in a Norman takeover. There is no Tapestry that depicts the battle of 1016. But in Denmark, in the King’s Corridor of Frederiksborg Castle, both events are commemorated, for both Cnut and William came from Danish stock. On one wall is a hand-painted photographic copy of the Bayeux Tapestry. Facing it is a series of 19th century paintings documenting the 11th century Danish conquest of England, with several depictions of Cnut’s great victory at the Battle of Assandun prominent among them.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. Rev. James Ingram, London, 1823

The History of the English Kings,  William of Malmesbury, trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M.Thomson, M. Winterbottom, Oxford University Press, 1998

The Battle of Assandun and its Memorial Church, Warwick J. Rodwell; in The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, Ed. J. Cooper, London: Hambledon, 1993

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, trans J. Bray, P. McGurk, New York, 1995

Paintings: The Danish Conquest of England, Frederiksborg Palace, artist Lorenz Frølich, 1886

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Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxons

Where has the horse gone? Where is the rider? Where is the giver of gold?
Where are the seats of the feast? Where are the joys of the hall?
O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
from The Wanderer, Old English Poem. Translation: R.M.Liuzza

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
from The Two Towers. J.R.R. Tolkien

Most fans of J.R.R.Tolkien know that he was not just the author of one of the greatest works of fantasy ever written, but that he was a professor of English at Oxford and, for many years, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He was, essentially, steeped in the language, history and poetry of Anglo-Saxon England.

So it is no surprise that even the title of the trilogy that brought him fame, The Lord of the Rings, is a reference to Anglo-Saxon kings who were warriors, lords, and ring-givers.

My own first encounter with Tolkien’s trilogy took place when I was 14, and although I loved the book and read it more than once over the decades that followed, I did not perceive the thrumming current of Old English history and language that coursed beneath it. That did not happen until I began my own study of the history of England before the Conquest, and I began to recognize Old English words  that were familiar from Tolkien’s novels. For example, Meduseld, the great hall of the kings of Rohan, is the Old English word for mead hall. Tolkien first describes it this way, in the words of Legolas in The Two Towers:

“…a green hill rises upon the east. A dike and mighty wall and thorny fence encircle it. Within there rise the roofs of the houses, and in the midst, set upon a green terrace, there stands aloft a great hall of Men.”

The name of that place is Edoras, from, I can only guess, the Old English word edor, which means  ‘a place enclosed by a hedge’, just as Legolas describes it. Indeed, the very concept of a great hall comes from the cultures of the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse. And of course there are words like shire (OE:scire—precinct), orc (god of the infernal regions), ent (giant), Mordor (OE: morþor—great wickedness), Deagol (secret), or Isengard (Iron fortress).

Many scholars, in particular Nancy Marie Brown in her recent book Song of the Vikings have written about the Norse/Icelandic elements in Tolkien’s novels; but it seems to me that Rohan is more Anglo-Saxon than Norse – although, admittedly, both societies sprang from common Germanic roots. The name Eowyn, for example, is strikingly similar to the Old English theowen, meaning hand-maiden. And because I cannot read about Eowyn’s exploits in The Lord of the Rings without thinking about Æthelflæd, 10th century Anglo-Saxon warrior queen and Lady of the Mercians, I have to wonder if Tolkien had Æthelflæd in mind when he imagined Eowyn.

My own novels are set in the 11th century reign of Æthelred Unraed (OE: ill-counseled), and the more I learned about Æthelred the more I was struck by similarities to Tolkien’s Theoden. In Old English þeoden means warlord, or king. When first we meet Theoden in the great hall of Meduseld in Edoras (see above), he is described thus:

“…in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair. Upon it sat a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf; but his white hair was long and thick and fell in great braids from beneath a thin golden circlet set upon his brow…Slowly the old man rose to his feet, leaning heavily upon a short black staff with a handle of white bone; and now the strangers saw that, bent though he was, he was still tall and must in youth have been high and proud indeed.”

The 12th century historian John of Worcester describes King Æthelred as “…elegant in his manners, handsome in visage, glorious in appearance.” But by the beginning of the 11th century Æthelred is elderly, like Theoden, and has been long upon the throne. His kingdom is being ravaged by vikings as Theoden’s is under attack by orcs. As Theoden huddles in his great hall, unwilling to face the turmoil in his land or lead men to battle, so Æthelred earned a reputation as indecisive, cowardly, and indolent. And like Theoden, he placed his trust in a singularly bad advisor.

Tolkien gives Theoden a counselor named Grima (OE: mask) whose nickname is Wormtongue (OE: wyrm-tunge). A wyrm is a serpent or even a dragon, and Grima is a master at twisting words to persuade Theoden to do his bidding. He is a liar and false counselor who is unmasked by Gandalf.

Æthelred, too, has a false counselor, one Eadric, whom he trusted more than anyone else and whose nickname is Streona (the acquisitor). 12th century historians suggest that Eadric was able to gain advancement by his persuasive speech, and he acquired a reputation for deceit, treachery and murder.  It is only when Æthelred is driven out of England to exile in Normandy and presumably no longer under the spell of Eadric that, like Theoden, he finds his courage again and returns to England to lead his armies against his enemies.

Tolkien wrote, in his foreward to the 1966 edition of The Lord of the Rings,

“An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.”

He was referring specifically to theories connecting the wars in Middle Earth to World Wars I and II; but I think his comment can apply to anything that an author experiences – books read, languages learned, emotions experienced. Everything goes into the mind and one never knows what will re-appear, whether intentionally or not, in a manuscript.

My own historical novels, while based on my study of the reign of Æthelred, are very much a product of my own imagination and experience, but I am certain that they owe something as well to my dog-eared copy of The Lord of the Rings.

The road goes ever on and on…

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Emma of Normandy & Bayeux

The charming town of Bayeux near the coast of Normandy is perhaps best known for its remarkable Tapestry, a very long length of embroidered linen that portrays events surrounding the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

A few years ago I wrote about the Tapestry and its history on this blog, (you can review that here, if you like), but I had not yet visited Bayeux myself. I had been to Normandy – to Rouen, Fecamp, the Abbeys of Jumieges and Wandrille, to Caen and even the island and abbey of Mont Saint-Michele, but I had missed Bayeux in my several trips to Normandy over the years. Last month, though, I spent a few days there, absorbing the Tapestry and its story with some help from the audio tour that, interestingly, tells the story from the French point of view. Which, as you may guess, differs in certain crucial details, from the English version of what happened.

But today’s post is not about the Tapestry. No, it is about what I discovered unexpectedly as I wandered about the city of Bayeux: a direct link between Bayeux and Emma of Normandy, queen of England.

There is a park in Bayeux—Place Charles de Gaulle—named so because on June 14, 1944, shortly after the Allied landings of D-Day, the General returned to France, to Bayeux, after 4 years of exile during the Nazi occupation; and on that day he gave a speech in that park. It was a momentous event, and presaged the end of WWII. (And, by the way, the return of the Tapestry to Bayeux after the Nazis had spirited it away. See earlier post for that story.)

Charles de Gaulle in the streets of Bayeux. Photo: Imperial War Museum

But long before that, in about 960, Richard I—Emma’s father and the first Duke of Normandy—built a castle on what is now Place Charles de Gaulle.  Bayeux Castle was still standing until the latter part of the 18th century, and it’s entirely possible that way back in the late 10th century, Emma may have visited the castle with her family. Like all royals of that time, Richard’s court was peripatetic. It moved from estate to estate, or fortification to fortification, dispensing ducal justice and living off of local food rents. And hunting. And feasting. And probably sorting whatever problems had come up since the duke’s last visit.

Bayeux Castle had a fortified gate to the west that allowed direct access from outside the city. It had another gate to the east, that overlooked the city and was equipped with a drawbridge over the defensive moat that surrounded it. It had a lodge for the castle commander, a chapel, barracks for the garrison, and a manor house. It looks pretty impressive in the drawing below, but my guess is that the first fortification, built by Richard, was much, much simpler. Moat, drawbridge, manor and all those towers you can see were likely added centuries later. Still, it was a ducal estate, and Emma might well have spent time there as a child.

Today, smack in the center of the park stands a fountain that was erected in the 19th century by a mayor of Bayeux to honor the Dukes of Normandy. Atop the fountain is a statue representing Poppa, the woman believed to be the ancestress of all the Norman dukes and, by the way, the kings of England thanks to William the Conqueror and the events depicted on the Tapestry. Here is Poppa:

Statue of Poppa in Bayeux

So. Who, exactly, was Poppa and why did she land on that fountain honoring the Norman dukes?

According to historian David Crouch in his book The Normans, and he is drawing  from the 10th century Norman historian Dudo of San Quentin, Poppa was the beautiful daughter of a Frankish count, Berenger II of Neustria. She fell into the hands of the viking, Rollo when he sacked the city of Bayeux—and that sounds like it might make a good novel!

Dudo goes on to report that Poppa became Rollo’s concubine. It’s just as likely that Poppa had no say in the matter whatever, and Rollo would later set Poppa aside to marry Gisela, the daughter of King Charles the Simple. Marriage in the 10th century was all about political alliances, not personal preference. Gisela, though, was childless, and she fell into disgrace for insulting her husband and for entertaining Frankish men on the sly. Apparently she preferred Franks to vikings, or maybe Rollo hadn’t put Poppa as far aside as Dudo would have us believe. Because when Gisela died, Rollo took up with Poppa again, and it was Poppa who was the mother of Rollo’s heir William Longsword, who was in turn the father of Richard I, who was in turn the father of Emma. So that makes Emma the great-granddaughter of Rollo and Poppa.

Note: The tv show VIKINGS would have you believe that Gisela was the mum of Rollo’s children. Not so. It was the beautiful Poppa, Berenger’s daughter–at least, according to Dudo. And he was there.

Bordering the park and within sight of the fountain is the Hotel Particulier Poppa. Hotel particulier is the French name for luxurious city mansions. This one was built in the 19th century and now it is an actual hotel—something I did not realize until after I left Bayeux. It seems that I might just have to return there one day—to visit the Tapestry again and to stay in the lovely hotel named after Emma’s great-grandmother.

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