From my blog...

Talking Shop with David Gilman

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


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St. Cuthbert and Me

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

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

We had visited Lindisfarne and its abbey the day before…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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On the Passing of a Queen

Wikimedia Commons

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

New Minster (left)…Old Minster (right)

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

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

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

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

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11th Century London

Because few of us are doing much in the way of traveling these days, I thought you might like to join me on a virtual visit to London. Not today’s London, of course, but Emma’s London as I’ve imagined it in The Steel Beneath the Silk.  

Close your eyes and picture London in your mind, and it probably looks something like this:

Obviously, though, the London of today looks nothing like the London of a thousand years ago. First of all, the 11th century city was a great deal smaller than today’s London, which began life in the 3rd century as a Roman settlement named Londinium. You can see a model of that Roman London today if you visit the church of All Hallows By the Tower and go down into the crypt.

Roman Model at All Hallows by the Tower

The large enclosed area on the upper left of the model is the Roman fort. Because we do not know for certain where Æthelred’s palace was, but because that northwest corner is one of the possibilities, that’s where I’ve imagined the Anglo-Saxon palace enclosure that Emma would have known.

In 11th century London the royal residence would have been made up of a group of buildings with different functions. The great hall, where the king held court, conducted business, and where the court and the royal household gathered for meals, would have been the largest of them. It may have had chambers recessed into its walls and partitioned off for privacy. There may have been a second story with a gallery on the upper floor where the king could observe the activities below.

Separate buildings—royal quarters—would have been used for more than just sleeping. Emma may have had her own building in the complex, and it would have been divided into rooms earmarked for different purposes. The children would have grown up there, cared for by nurses and tutors. It might have been a place of refuge for the women of the court if things got too rowdy in the hall. Other buildings in the magnificent, urban palace complex of London might have included guest houses, kitchens, stables, a chapel, weaving sheds, a forge, an armory, and a barracks. I’ve imagined a garden and even an orchard inside the palace walls.

In 1016 London itself was still surrounded by that defensive wall built by the Romans. It was nearly 10 feet wide at the base and 20 feet tall. Bits of it still exist in London today, conveniently located on a street named London Wall near the Museum of London.

Bastion of London’s Wall

You can get up close and personal with London’s wall, and even follow a London Wall Walk that follows the line of the wall for almost 2 miles from the Tower of London to the Museum of London.

The seven Roman gates that led into the city were still there in the 11th century and well beyond. Below is a drawing of the Aldersgate, one of three gates on the city’s northern border. The Aldersgate is the setting for a tense scene in The Steel Beneath the Silk, with its two-story towers on either side of the gates. Those gates would have been closed at sundown and opened again at sunrise.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

There was empty moorland north of the city, just outside the walls, and inside the walls there was plenty of empty space as well. Andrew Reynolds (University College London Institute of Archaeology) speaking at a conference to commemorate the Siege of London in 1016, showed a couple of drawings that imagined 11th century London. One of them emphasized the pastoral aspect of some parts of the city.

London 11th c, Andrew Reynolds (University College London Institute of Archaeology)

Note the two-story church; the thatched houses with their vegetable gardens, the dirt streets, the cattle, the hay ricks, and wheat fields. (There were actually vineyards in London in the 11th century. I cannot speak to the quality of the wine.) Although London probably had a population somewhere between 12,000 and 16,000, it was fairly rural in the northern and eastern areas of the city where fewer people lived.

The lecturer’s second image, though, was of an area more densely settled, closer to the Thames.

London 11th c, Andrew Reynolds (University College London Institute of Archaeology)

The houses are packed closely together, but each dwelling has a garden in behind. These drawings were based on archaeological digs at these sites in the city.

There were many churches in London as well as just outside the city walls. The map below, drawn by Matt Brown for The Steel Beneath the Silk, shows several of them. Churches dedicated to St. Botolph, the patron saint of travelers, stood outside Aldgate, Bishopsgate and Aldersgate.

Not shown on the map, but just outside the gate near St. Paul’s was St. Bride’s church, dating back to the 6th century. It’s still there today, and visitors who go down into the crypt can see the remains of the Anglo-Saxon church and a strip of Roman pavement.

St. Paul’s cathedral was made of stone, and there was a wide swath of open area on its eastern end where the Londoners would gather to hear royal proclamations, to learn of the death of a king, and to choose by acclamation his successor. That open ground plays a slightly different role in my new novel, but you’re going to have to read the book to find out what it is.

All Hallows By the Tower, which I mentioned earlier, stood on the eastern end of the city not far from the Thames. It is still there today, although much of it was destroyed in WWII. In the midst of the rebuilding a wall was discovered that dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period.   

The church was not called All Hallows By the Tower originally because there was no Tower until after the Norman Conquest. But according to Peter Ackroyd in London, The Biography, on the hill where the Tower now stands—known as the White Mound—was a giant Saxon cross, probably visible from most of the city.

It takes a lot of imagination to recreate in one’s mind what a place might have looked like a thousand years ago. My house in Oakland, California, for example, was a cow pasture in 1910. What it looked like 900 years before that is anybody’s guess. Maps are an enormous help, though. The earliest map of London that I’ve found dates to 1270, well beyond the Anglo-Saxon period. But along with my visits to London’s museums and the work of academics and archaeologists like Professor Reynolds, it is the template on which I built the London that Emma might have known.


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Queen Emma & Vikings:Valhalla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sneak Peek: The Steel Beneath the Silk

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

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


Excerpt from Chapter One:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cnut’s Mum


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

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

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

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

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

Boleslaw Chobry. Wikimedia Commons

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

Mieszko. Wikimedia Commons

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

Doubravka of Bohemia. Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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The Steel Beneath the Silk

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

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

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The Great Famine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanity is resilient. We’re still here.


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

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

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham, Wikimedia Commons

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 10

The final episode of this season’s The Last Kingdom is set in Winchester where events cascade breathlessly one after another. Winchester has been under siege for 30 days, and the no man’s land between the Saxon camp and the city walls is littered with bodies, spent arrows, and rats. Ugh. Imagine the stench! Because King Edward’s repeated efforts to throw men against the town have failed to dislodge the Danes, he’s about to set fire to the city, which is exactly what his mother predicted he would do. In his mind the people trapped within the walls are already lost, and he’s willing to sacrifice them and Winchester so that Wessex can grow stronger from the ashes. Uhtred tries to talk him out of this mad idea, but Edward is adamant. Fr. Pyrlig observes that Edward is a boy who is suffering, and it is an apt description. All through this episode the king acts like a spoiled, furious, irrational child.

Inside the city, Brida is no more rational than Edward. When the king sends an emissary with an ultimatum she casually fells him with a single bow shot, so that even that creep Haesten looks at her askance. She is spiteful and angry, still hot for revenge. Frustrated by Sigtryggr’s inaction, Brida announces that they need to kill Uhtred’s daughter in front of his eyes to force Uhtred into action.

Sigtryggr, though, is as calm and thoughtful as Brida is fierce and frenzied. Unlike her, he is after a much bigger prize than mindless vengeance. He’s spent the past month listening to Stiorra read to him from Alfred’s Chronicle and he’s not only gained an understanding of his enemies, but he’s formed a bond with the daughter of the man likely to be his most formidable adversary.

So he chides Brida for her anger and orders his men to protect the city against fire while he chooses the most valuable royal captive to use to coerce Edward into giving him what he wants.

The captives are looking somewhat the worse for wear. Edward’s queen is whining, but not his mother. Aelswith is stoic, fully expecting to die and prepared for it. Death is all they’ve been talking about, and Edward’s sons have been listening, especially Athelstan.

When Sigtryggr stalks in and asks which royal child Edward loves best, the adults are certain that whichever child he takes will be doomed. Athelstan, as stoically unafraid as his grandmother, calmly announces, “I’m the elder brother. I should be chosen.” What a kid! He’d make a great king!

Sigtryggr is on a mission, and he climbs to the city parapet and shouts for Edward to approach and talk with him. Edward refuses. I would, too, because a few minutes ago we saw Brida fire an arrow at the last guy who went out there. But then both of Edward’s sons join Sigtryggr, and although Aldhelm warns him not to approach them, Edward does, drawn by the sight of his boys. (Children in peril. I hate when that happens.)

Edward orders Sigtryggr to leave, but the Dane only laughs because he holds all the cards. Edward makes wild, empty threats—I’ll find your children and take out their eyes—and is met with Sitryggr’s chilling response: retreat, and I’ll let one of your sons live. You choose which one. Faced with such a horrible choice, Edward breaks down. (And this is a terrific performance by Timothy Innes.) Never once, though, has Edward thought to ask Sigtryggr directly what it is that he wants. It will be up to Uhtred to do that.

Young Uhtred has arrived at the Saxon camp, and as father and son listen to Edward’s tormented search for a way out, Uhtred comes to a bold decision. He knows that if he can talk to Sigtryggr, he can end the standoff. With bravado that amuses Sigtryggr, he offers himself in place of Edward’s boys.

Sigtryggr agrees, and everyone in the Saxon camp except Uhtred’s men believes that our hero is about to die. And if Brida had her way he would die. But Aelswith nailed it last episode when she perceived that it was the MAN, not Brida, who was really calling the enemy’s shots. Sigtryggr promises bloodthirsty Brida that she can have Uhtred when he’s finished with him, and he takes Uhtred off for a little chat.

Their meeting begins with a 10th century male bonding ritual that involves one man swinging a large sword and the other trying not to be gutted. Once  they are satisfied that they have each other’s measure Uhtred asks Sigtryggr what he wants and a long bargaining session begins.

Haesten, who is a horrible human being that we hate—but in a good way—is important in this episode as a catalyst for moving events along. He’s already hidden poor Eadith in an attic. Now he’s spying on Uhtred and Sigtryggr, and he tells Brida they’re talking about a truce, which is the last thing she wants. Disgusted, and possibly hoping to goad the Saxons into attacking the city, she throws Uhtred’s sword over the wall. Edward sees it as a sign that Uhtred’s efforts have failed, and when Aethelflaed arrives with an army offering him her full support, the Saxons attack.  Winchester’s gates are battered open and in the midst of a fierce battle, Uhtred has to make his way, swordless, to Edward and convince him to negotiate. It was pretty sweet, watching the two forces form shield walls to stop a battle rather than start one.

The haggling begins then between Sigtryggr and the Wessex royals, and Uhtred leaves them to it, only to be viciously attacked by Brida. All her fury and hatred spills out, and when Uhtred overpowers her she warns him that if he lets her live she will be his undoing. Of course he lets her live, and the last time we see her she is laboring alone to deliver the child that she will breed to hate all Saxons.

At episode’s end, Sigtryggr is given lands in York along with a willing hostage in Stiorra, who sees an exciting future beckoning and grabs it with both hands. Haesten has disappeared, having fled when the fighting began, and Eadith, who was wounded in the confusion, is being tenderly cared for by Finan. Aelswith is dying, poisoned by that snake Aethelhelm whose attempt to rid Athelstan of his grandmother’s powerful support backfires when Edward finds the boy an even better protector: Young Uhtred may be going back to his abbey, but now Uhtred has Athelstan, eldest son of the king, in his care.

Teach him of Northumbria, Edward tells Uhtred. It is the last kingdom. Without it, there will be no England. 

Destiny is all, Uhtred’s voice booms over the final shot. Hopefully, the destiny of this terrific series, with its excellent scripts, talented and creative production crew, stunning settings, and brilliant actors, will bring it back for more seasons to come. Wyrd byð ful aræd.



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