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Vikings Valhalla 1.4 The Battle at London Bridge

Question One: Did Olaf Haraldsson pull down London Bridge? Yes. But he did it in 1014. In that year the armies of  Swein Forkbeard had taken control of England and London. Æthelred, Emma and their sons had fled to Normandy. But Swein died in February of 1014, and Cnut, who had been wintering with the army in northern Mercia, took command of the army as his father’s heir. In about April Æthelred returned to England from Normandy along with fleets led by Olaf and Thorkell the Tall. To help Æthelred re-capture London, Olaf pulled down the bridge.

Question Two: Did Cnut lay siege to London? Yes. 3 times, in 1016. And Edmund came to the rescue every time. How did Cnut surround the city when he couldn’t get ships past the bridge? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains:

“They sunk a deep ditch on the south side (of the bridge) and dragged their ships to the west side. Afterwards they trenched the city without, so that no man could go in or out, and often fought against it: but the citizens bravely withstood them.”

That’s the background concerning London Bridge. Now, let’s get into this episode. Early on, the Vikings are examining a map of London. It’s beautiful, and pretty accurate, although there would have been large spaces in London where there were fields, for example the area known as Cornhill; and there would have been settlements outside the wall on every side. That’s my only quibble. If you go into the undercroft of All Hallows Church by the Tower you can see a beautiful model of Roman London that looks a lot like Cnut’s map.

I have a map, too. It shows the various battles between Cnut and Edmund in 1015-16. All of these have been condensed into this one episode—at least I think so. I haven’t watched Episode 5 yet!

So, a lot has been left out.

Early on, Olaf says that London is the key to taking England, and Harald replies that the key is taking the king. I can see where they’re going with this. It reflects that idea that Edmund is at risk, which is what really concerns Emma and Godwin. And Harald is right. While London was really, really important—it was the financial powerhouse of England even then—the real key to capturing England was getting the nobles to submit—to become dispirited and give up the fight. Yes, if the king was killed or captured, that would do it. Cnut’s father, Swein Forkbeard, captured England, though, by taking its fortified cities one after the other. Sometimes they submitted without a fight because his army was so strong. Finally, all that was left was London, and once Æthelred fled to Normandy, London submitted, too.

Meantime, we’re getting to know Cnut a little better. He’s asking questions, listening to his advisors, thinking. Thinking, as Leif (not Olaf) lays out a plan to pull down the bridge. And a couple of scenes later he has a heart to heart talk with Leif about his plan. He’s trying to fathom Leif; can he be trusted? And something like a bond is formed between them. Cnut was a good leader, and he valued loyalty. I hope we’re going to see that play out in this series.

At the same time, over in London, Edmund is being a petulant child and Eadric Streona is negotiating for power. He’s not going to risk his men while the king stays behind London’s walls. Emma stands firm, telling him to go ahead and leave, but warning him that if Cnut takes Wessex, Mercia will be next. Streona calls her bluff, making to leave, and it’s Edmund who caves, offering to double Mercia’s lands.

Emma is staring at Streona and we don’t know what she’s thinking; but even though she’s the queen and Edmund’s step-mother, Edmund is still the king. He’s been crowned and anointed, and they have to present a unified front. But neither Emma nor Godwin appear to like what Edmund is agreeing to.

Emma is a uniter. Streona is a divider. And I can’t get over that they keep calling him Streona. I really don’t think that anyone would have called him that to his face. It was a derogatory name meaning The Grasper. He had a bad reputation among the nobles of England. There were factions that did not like him because he was Æthelred’s henchman and he grew wealthy and powerful at others’ expense. 

I was impressed by the scenes of the Vikings making preparations for the taking of the bridge. It looks just like a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry where the Normans are building ships to conquer England.

Except, here they are making what look like surfboards. Now, today, we don’t really know exactly how that bridge was brought down. We have to look at what they could reasonably do in the 11th century and speculate. This show has set up the idea that there is a swamp that needs crossing, and apparently this is how they plan to do it—move an entire army in the dark. On rafts. Don’t look at the logistics too closely. Just enjoy the ride.

At dawn the trap that Cnut and his leaders have concocted is set into motion while Emma, Edmund and Godwin are watching from the walls. Everybody is playing a waiting game: Cnut parleying as he’s waiting for the tide, Emma urging Edmund to keep Cnut busy while they are waiting for Eadric to attack. Edmund, though, can’t take Cnut’s needling and Emma can’t stop him from leading the city guard out on to the bridge.

I like that Emma–played  by actress Laura Berlin–recognizes the Danish trap, and is directing the English army from atop the city wall. Here is a quote from the Lidsmannaflokkr, a skaldic poem describing Cnut’s capture of London in 1016:

“The chaste widow who lives in stone will look out…[to see] how the Danish leader, eager for victory, valiantly assails the city’s garrison; the sword rings against British mailcoats…Each morning, on the bank of the Thames, the lady sees swords stained with blood; the raven must not go hungry…Every day the shield was stained with blood, lady, where we were out early on our expedition with the king…”

Screenwriter Jeb Stuart has clearly read this poem. He’s brought it to life.

Always remember that Emma’s mother was a Dane and that her father’s grandfather was Rollo. Emma knows how the Vikings fight. They are tricksters.

Final question: Did Eadric Streona run from battle, thus guaranteeing Cnut’s victory? Yes. Here is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s description of the Battle of Assandun, the real showdown between Edmund and Cnut in 1016:

“The king collected for the fifth time all the English nation and went behind the Danes, and overtook them in Essex, on the down called Assandun; where they fiercely came together. Then Ealdorman Eadric, as he often did before, first began the flight, and so betrayed his natural lord and all the people of England.”

My biggest complaint with this episode is the portrayal of King Edmund Ironside. He was not a callow young man, but a fierce warrior and about the same age as Cnut. He won several battles against Cnut, and had the Danes on the run for 18 months; he only lost at Assandun because Eadric Streona fled with his Mercians from the battlefield.

13th century depiction of Cnut, covered in ravens, battling with King Edmund. (Wikimedia Commons)



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Vikings Valhalla 1.3: The Viking War on England Begins

Remember, we’ve telescoped time in this series. Events that happen in the course of a year are actually pulled from an entire decade between 1002 and 1015.  Episode 3 starts with gruesome scenes of battle and plundering in Kent. We are given a miniscule hint of Cnut’s character when he reaches a hand down to help a captured English lady to her feet. It’s a kind act after scenes of mayhem and cruelty.

In London Edmund is praying at his father’s bier. There is a fire burning in a fireplace. Note: there were as yet no such things as fireplaces and chimneys. Just saying.

There is a brief meeting between Godwin, Edmund and Emma as she thanks them for gaining Eadric Streona’s cooperation in defense of London. Although Edmund wants to fight the Viking army, Emma insists that as king-in-waiting he is too valuable to put his life at risk. This works beautifully in the scenario that’s been set up here, as we watch a young Edmund and a young Leif come into their own. But actually, when Cnut invaded England—for conquest—it was 1015. Edmund and Cnut would both have been about 26 years old.

Near the end of this conversation Edmund suggests that if Eadric Streona is successful at vanquishing the Vikings, the nobles might look to him as a more suitable king. This was unlikely. No noble would have been chosen over an adolescent son of the king. Æthelred’s half-brother took the throne at about 13 when their father died in 975. Æthelred himself was crowned at age 10. Nevertheless, this works within the framework that the showrunners have set up. And, in fact, in 1066, when King Edward the Confessor died childless, it was a wealthy noble—a son of Godwin—who was crowned king of England because there were precious few alternatives (that anybody really liked, anyway).

This show is making much of the conflict between the Christian Vikings and the pagan Vikings. Poor Freydis is running into this as she makes her way to Uppsala, and that acrimony would have been an issue, certainly. There were definitely indications that pagan Scandinavians were coerced into accepting Christianity about this time, sometimes at sword point. Cnut doesn’t really take part in this conflict—at least, not that we’re seeing—but he was, in fact, a Christian. His mother was very definitely Christian, and later in his life he made a pilgrimage to Rome.

I liked how Godwin put young, arrogant Edmund in his place, humiliating him at sword play. Still, it wouldn’t have been Godwin doing this, who was probably about the same age as Edmund, and Edmund wouldn’t have needed the lesson because he was, you know, Edmund Ironside. 

In one scene we find Queen Emma seated at the head of a council table in London, meeting with the ealdormen of Sussex, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Kent. One of them worries that Streona of Mercia might not want to fight London’s battle against the Vikings. And this was a real issue in 1010 when Thorkell’s army ravaged England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mourns, “Then all the privy council were summoned before the king to consult how they might defend the country. But whatever was advised, it stood not a month; and at length there was not a chief that would collect an army, but each fled as he could: no shire would stand by another.”

In 1010 the Vikings were raiding, but at the council we’re witnessing Emma points out that what England is facing is not raiding, but war. And this is true. By 1013, Swein Forkbeard was already king of Denmark and Norway, and he’d made up his mind to conquer England. When he did, Cnut sailed with him.

So then we see Cnut, Olaf and Harald on a ridge looking across a marsh toward the Thames, with London in the far distance. Cnut is dubious. How do we get an army across that? Actually, there was a fortress on the south side of the bridge, and there had been a village there since Roman times. In Æthelred’s day there was even a mint in Southwark. Yes, there was a marshy area right along the River Thames, but an army would have to pass through Southwark first.

Now, about that bridge. When Harald and Leif cross it, they are stopped in the middle because it is a bascule bridge, meaning that part of it is hinged to raise up, like a drawbridge, so that ships could pass through. Leif stared at it, stunned. Me too! In medieval times, London bridge had a bascule section, but that was much later. In the 11th century, ships made it past the bridge in either direction at low tide, when they could go underneath it. There is going to be more about that bridge in future episodes, I’m certain.

And I want to say something about Cnut. In this episode he is finally given some character-revealing dialogue. He recognizes that the English know they are coming, and that they are actually daring the army to go ahead and strike from the south; he gives the English credit: “They may be smarter than we are.” I’m a little confused by how little we have seen of his capabilities so far. Cnut was a brilliant strategist. His biographer Timothy Bolton* describes him as “…a cunning and resourceful military leader…” We haven’t really seen much of that yet.

At another council session in London the ealdormen, with Godwin’s tacit approval, agree to crown Edmund, and they call him the Bretwalda. This is an Old English term referring to the ruler of all Britain, first used in the 9th century back when a united Britain didn’t even exist yet. But that’s what it means: ruler of Britain. It’s a little Anglo-Saxon garnish. Nice. Emma, though, is not happy. She’s worried about Edmund being too impulsive. Godwin disagrees with her, telling her that they must make sure Edmund succeeds. Like it or not, he insists, she has a stake in this because she has much to gain if Edmund wins against the Vikings, but even more to lose if he fails.

So, they both have the same goal in mind, but they’re not agreed on how best to attain it. This is reflective of the relationship, over 30 years, between Emma and Godwin. He was a strong supporter of the queen until….well, spoilers. It will be interesting to see how this relationship is explored as the series continues.

*Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, 2017.


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Vikings Valhalla 1.2: Enter the Queen

There is a lot to unpack in this second episode of Vikings Valhalla, most of it having to do with what’s happening in England. The thing is, we know a lot about what was happening in England because we have chroniclers writing about it in England, Wales, Germany and Normandy; we also have English charters telling us which nobles are in power and when; and we actually have a will left by King Æthelred’s eldest son when he died in 1014—one of the two elder brothers mentioned by Edmund in this episode. What we don’t have are any written records from Norway or Denmark. Their stories made up the bulk of sagas and eddas that were written down in Iceland in the 13th century.

So when a script writer is putting together a story about Vikings, he can make up a lot, because there is a huge informational gap. When the Vikings interact with the English or the Normans, though, that’s another story. They kept records.

So I won’t be saying much about Leif and his sister because what they did is culled from sagas which are as much story-telling as this series. But I will say this: Leif Eriksson was not part of the Viking fleets when they raided England from 1002-1016. Leif was probably sailing to Vinland (North America) and his sister was probably with him. So, maybe this series will eventually take us to Vinland, I don’t know. We’ll see. The scene where Leif looks up, sees birds in the sky and knows that it means he’s close to land is a good one. The Vikings could even tell what land they were near depending on the kinds of birds they could see. Their sailing skills were exceptional, and this series is showing that through Leif.

About Jarl Haakon: she is an invented character, and I think she is meant to show the wide-ranging Viking world. Also, she mentions Aegir, who is the god of the ocean, and Ran who is the sea goddess who allows those who drown to attend their own funerals if she likes them. So this is all part of that pagan/Christian conflict that the show is exploring. Haakon gives us a somewhat believable back story, and she is very clear-sighted. Whether there was anybody remotely like her in 11th century Scandinavia, I couldn’t say. But I like her.

Now, back to England. The scene opens on a brand new church. It’s St. Frideswide’s and it was in Oxford. And there is a lot that is absolutely correct about this scene. In 1004 Æthelred gave money to St. Frideswide’s church because it had been burned down during the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, which in this episode he refers to as “a most just extermination.” Those words are pulled right from the charter recording this transaction. I’m impressed! And then he says that the Danes themselves set fire to the church. At this point the reaction of the English noble (Godwin) accompanying the king is significant. Did you catch it? He’s looking askance at Æthelred. And the reality is that when the Danes fled from the English into the church for sanctuary, the English barred the door and burned the church with the Danes inside. This segment seems to be revealing Æthelred’s twisted character as he accuses the Danes of burning the church and oh whoops, they killed themselves in the process when he knows perfectly well what really happened. I hope it wasn’t too subtle for viewers who don’t know the real story.

You probably couldn’t tell, but in this episode, 10 years just flew by. We went from 1002/1003 in episode 1, to 1004 in Oxford, to 1016, because that’s when Æthelred died. Um, they skipped a lot here—a lot of really juicy historical stuff. You can read about it in my books, but let’s focus on the show.

Queen Emma has now made her entrance. She is appropriately steely, smart, and concerned for England. (Yay!) I loved it when a dying Æthelred moaned that he was leaving her with a nightmare (meaning the invading Vikings) and her response was “You married a Norman. We CREATE nightmares.” Oh! Snap! And yes, it’s true that the Londoners for centuries avoided living within London’s Roman walls because they believed the place was haunted; but that changed way back in the reign of Alfred the Great. Still, it’s nice that they give Emma the credit for fortifying London. And it’s true that she was in London when Cnut laid siege in 1016 and was probably responsible for holding the city until it was relieved by King Edmund.

As for Edmund….it’s always interesting to see how different writers portray historical figures. My own impression of the historical Edmund is that he was a pretty tough, confident character. In 1015, with Cnut invading in the south Edmund rebelled against his father by marrying the widow of a powerful Mercian noble that had been murdered by Eadric Streona per Æthelred’s orders. Then Edmund led his men south to confront the invading Danish army, except he ran up against Eadric’s army and was forced to turn back north. Something happened between the two men, but we don’t know what. In this show Edmund is young and unsure of himself. Fair enough. It was pretty cool to see Eadric Streona protesting that it would be foolish of him to lead troops south against the Vikings and Edmund responds with, “I’m going to be king, and I promise that I will remember your doubt and your decision to refuse an order.” Eadric backs down. It’s a shorthand way of revealing the relationship between these two men. Good job.

About the ages of Emma, Edmund, Eadric Streona (whose name means “the grasper” btw), Godwin, and Cnut: We don’t know for sure when any of them were born. Emma may have been as old as 20 in 1002 when she married Æthelred. I’m guessing she was more like 15, so born in 985. Cnut was born about 990, and whenever his birth date, he was definitely younger than Emma. He doesn’t look younger in this show. It’s a quibble because we aren’t really certain what year this is supposed to be! At least he’s younger than Æthelred who had already been king for 25 years when Emma married him.

Eadric Streona was Æthelred’s golden boy, married to one of his daughters, and probably at court a lot of the time. He and Edmund would have known each other well, and probably didn’t like each other. Eadric was THE WORST. He betrayed, King Æthelred, King Edmund and King Canute, always putting his own interests first. This was in a culture where loyalty to your sworn lord was sacred. Eadric failed at that every time.

 Godwin tells us about his father, whose name was Wulfnoth (not Godwin senior), and some of what he says is true. In 1009 Eadric’s brother accused Wulfnoth to the king of we-don’t-know-what and Wulfnoth’s lands were confiscated and he had to flee into exile. But Æthelred’s eldest son left Godwin those estates in his will, so from about 1014 on Godwin was on the way up. He became king’s right-hand-man under Cnut, though, not Æthelred, and you probably know that his son would one day be King of England. Briefly.

Now, about Olaf. This is so complicated! Olaf was not in Cnut’s fleet in 1015/16 or whenever this is supposed to be. He was on Æthelred’s side. (!!!) Cnut and Olaf were always enemies because they both wanted to be king of Norway. (Cnut wanted to be king of Denmark, Norway and England. AND HE WAS! But that all came later.) Anyway, Olaf seems to be taking the role of Thorkell the Tall here, who was in Æthelred’s pay from 1012 until the king died in 1016. So for a while, Olaf and Thorkell were both working for Æthelred. After the king died, Thorkel joined up with Cnut and Olaf went to Norway and made trouble there.

And I have to say something about attacking London from the south and the importance of London Bridge. London’s walls protected the city on three sides, but not so much on the south which was okay because on the south was this vast river with a bridge that nobody could get past. The bridge had a fortress on its southern end, in Southwark, so an attacking army would have trouble crossing the Thames that way. And the bridge blocked enemy ships from sailing up the Thames into the heart of England or from making a full on attack on London. The bridge could be fortified by men shooting arrows or throwing fire or other missiles down on any ship trying to get past it. So it wasn’t so much that it was too marshy to attack London from the south; it was that no army could get past or across that bridge until…But we’re not there yet.



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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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