21 June, 2006

Five historical figures

I found this via Martyn and Alex - "list 5 historical figures you'd like to meet and have a chat with." Now, I'd be terrified to meet any of these people, so I'll take a wider interpretation and list five historical figures I'd like to know more about. In chronological order:

1. Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, 1st century AD. Overshadowed in popular history by her dramatic contemporary Boudica, Cartimandua ruled the Brigantes (a federation of tribes occupying roughly the area of modern Yorkshire) from some time before AD 51 to AD 69. She handed the British king and guerilla leader Caratacus over to the Romans after his defeat in AD 51, an action for which she was still remembered and vilified in medieval Wales if the identification with Aregwedd Foeddawg in Triad 26 is secure. At some time after this, Cartimandua's husband Venutius rebelled against her. Cartimandua won the first round, then Venutius invaded with allies from another tribe and Cartimandua kept her throne only with Roman military aid. In 69 AD, Cartimandua divorced Venutius (one wonders what took her so long) in favour of his armour-bearer Vellocatus. Venutius rebelled again, reasonably enough in the circumstances, and this time he won. Cartimandua was rescued by the Romans but deposed from her throne. Her end is not recorded. Traitor, adulteress, or skilful politician - or indeed a mixture of all three - she successfully rode tribal and Roman politics for at least 18 years in a turbulent time. She must have been a remarkable lady.

2. King Raedwald of East Anglia, 7th century AD. Raedwald is one of the more likely candidates for the occupant of the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial, and Bede lists him among the Bretwaldas (approximately, over-king of Britain south of the Humber, although there is much scholarly argument over what the title meant in practice). Bede disapproved of Raedwald, who converted to Christianity in Kent, reverted to worship of the pagan English ('Anglo-Saxon') gods on the advice of his wife and councillors, and maintained a temple containing altars to both Christ and the pagan gods. So Raedwald is usually seen as a vacillator under his wife's thumb, a weathervane who tried to have his cake and eat it. I rather think there may have been more to him than that (although of course we will likely never know). His kingdom was very rich - the Sutton Hoo grave goods attest to that - and he himself was the most powerful king in southern Britain for a while (usually guessed to be from around 617 to the mid 620s). The legendary upper reaches of his genealogy list Caesar immediatey after Woden - did Raedwald have, or pretend to have, a dual heritage? And, given the popularity of alliterative naming in noble families, the king sequence Wuffa, Tytilla, Raedwald makes me wonder if there were rival dynasties contesting the throne of East Anglia. Was Raedwald chased out of his kingdom by a rival and his conversion was the price of Kentish political support? How did he regard the religious question? I have my doubts as to whether a pagan convert would necessarily have seen religious conversion in the same absolute terms as Bede does (More about this in a future post).

3. Archbishop Wulfstan of York, 10th century. Between 939 and 954 AD the Anglo-Danish kingdom of York had seven different kings, in more or less constant warfare with the West Saxon kings further south. Archbishop Wulfstan was the central power broker in these troubled times; kings in York came and went so often one wonders if the citizens had a noticeboard proclaiming the incumbent of the day, but Archbishop Wulfstan remained. His lifestyle was that of a prince-bishop, riding with the army, leading York's witan (council), negotiating diplomatic settlements with foreign powers, making and breaking kings, languishing in prison and finally dying in embittered political exile.

4. Earl Thorfinn of Orkney, 11th century. To find out if Dorothy Dunnett was right in her novel King Hereafter and he was also the historical Macbeth.

5. Mirza Shuja, one of the elite group of Indian spies and surveyors who worked for the British Raj in 19th-century India and were known as 'The Pundits'. These explorers surveyed the Himalayas and the hostile lands beyond India's frontiers - Afghanistan, Turkestan, Tibet - in secret and in peril of their lives, often disguised as Buddhist pilgrims. They measured distances by taking paces of a precise length and keeping count on a modified Buddhist rosary, fixed positions using a sextant hidden in a false-bottomed travelling chest, and surveyed direction using a compass hidden in the lid of a prayer-wheel. Many were away for years. Some never returned. Mirza Shuja himself was murdered in Bokhara. Why did they undertake such hazardous work for a foreign imperial power? How did they cope with the strain of maintaining a false identity for months or years at a time? How accurate is the portrayal of their world shown in Kipling's Kim?

5a. Ulf the Unwashed, Leader of the King's Spies, 10th century Norway. I put him in as 5a because I don't know if he's actually a historical figure or merely a flight of fancy on the part of the unknown author of Njal's Saga. But how can I resist a name like that?

What historical figures would you like to meet, and why?


ali said...

I think I'd like to meet some women from the past. I don't know who exactly, just women!

Because when studying history the impression you get is that either a) women didn't exist, or b) they spent all their time being victims. And saying anything else makes you a feminist :).

So I'd like to meet a few women, from peasants to Queens. Just to find out what they were like.

Rick said...

I knew that pundit had an Indian origin, but how on earth did it get into US media-speak? (Is it even used that way in other English-speaking countries?)

Carla said...

Do you get that impression, Ali? How come? It's true that men were (and, let's face it, still are) the primary wielders of political and military power, so political history - what you might call battles-and-dates history - inevitably focuses on their doings. With some notable exceptions. But many primary sources have quite a lot to say about women, and give a rather more positive picture. Off the top of my head I can think of several abbesses and queens in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, there's the Wife of Bath (among others) in the Canterbury Tales, the Life of Queen Emma (very possibly written to her dictation), Margaret Paston's letters to her husband detailing domestic life and local politics in 15th-century Norfolk, Dorothy Wordsworth's diary.... In some ways it's possible to 'meet' women from past times through records like this.

Carla said...

Rick - Oh yes, it's used that way on our side of the Pond too. It orignally meant a learned person, a scholar, an expert. I would guess it was used in that sense for the survey spies, who were very expert at their specialised trade. From there it's an easy step to the media expert as it's used today.

Gabriele C. said...

Yep, Cartimandua would be interesting, and so would Thorfinn.

Raedwald and Wulfstan of York show me that I have to do a lot of reading up on that part of history. ;) Though I had considered putting Egbert of Wessex on my list because of his exile in Charlemagne's realm and some discussion about the identity of an Egbert named in a source that doesn't fit the timeframe but maybe still does. You know what fun interpreting sources is, esp. if there's no other information about the guy for the time in question (he ought to have been back in England, but since he's mentioned there only later, he could have returned to Frankia to fight for Charlemagne again). The usual mess. :)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

A fascinating list Carla, and I am sorry to say I know very little about any of them, except perhaps a little about Raedwald, and that's only through popular history programmes. As you say, I don't know about meeting them, but I've learned a little bit more just by reading your short biographies.
Meeting wise if I was being totally self indulgent, I'd just hang around with William Marshal and his family, for an evening, but in a wider, more balanced sense I'd have to think about who I'd choose.

Carla said...

Gabriele - that's the fun of working with patchy sources! If it can't be known for sure where Egbert was at the time, your interpretation is as good as anyone's. Assuming he wasn't in an official position in England that he couldn't leave, a warrior might easily return to fight for a lord who'd sheltered him in exile. It would fit in with the culture of loyalty and repayment of hospitality.

Elizabeth - I think that's part of the fun of this meme! I knew very little about some of Alex's and Gabriele's choices. Do feel free to pick this one up on your blog and tell us who you'd like to meet (apart from William Marshal, of course!) - I didn't tag anyone because I don't like tagging, but the more people who play the more interesting it gets.

Carla said...

Ali, quite by chance the Paston Letters are Radio 4's Woman's Hour drama all this week and next. You can hear it on Listen Again if you're interested. Not a bad way to 'meet' some women from the 14th/15th century.

Martyn said...

I like that list :-)

Wulfstan always strikes me as quite an impressive figure. So does St Wilfred but for different reasons and I'm not sure I'd like him that much.

I'd quite like to meet Eirik Bloodaxe or Ivar The Boneless but I'd make sure they were sober and unarmed at the time.

Carla said...

A wise precaution, Martyn! I've jsut realised that 2/5 are from Yorkshire and a third had connections there. Hmmm.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to meet St Wilfred; he sounds impressive but too overweening and arrogant to be likeable. Kipling does quite a good job of making him sympathetic in 'The Conversion of St Wilfred', one of the Puck of Pook's Hill short stories (in Rewards and Fairies, if memory serves). Have you read that? If not, it's well worth a look.

Gabriele C. said...

the problem is Egbert was King of Wessex at that time. He first got ousted by Beorthric, an ally of Offa of Mercia, went to Charlemagne (where he's not mentioned in the sources as far as I know), after Beorthric's death, returned as King of Wessex, later (after another vaccum of some ten years) became bretanwealda and fought the Danes. He married one of Charlemagne's sisters-in-law, so there would be obligations.

We have two 'empty' periods in the sources: the thirteen years of exile which he probably spend in Frankia, and the ten or so years after he became King of Wessex and before he started picking fights with other kings in England and got into trouble with the Danes.

Was his hold on Wessex firm enough for him to return to Frankia?

Well, whatever, I have those thirteen years of exile with no information, and can send him against the Saxons (and Widukind) and other enemies of Charlemagne to my hearts content. ;)

Carla said...

Gabriele - so is your story going to take Egbert to Frankia in the first period of exile, the 13 years before he became king? That would seem absolutely OK. He might have spent the whole 13 years there or he might have gone away and come back multiple times. It might be a bit trickier to take him to Frankia in the ten years after he became king of Wessex, though, unless he went in an official capacity with a West Saxon army at his back. Which he might very well do if he was bound to Charlemagne by gratitude or marriage or both, unless he was extremely hard-pressed at home. I'm guessing the sources in Charlemagne's day aren't much better than those for my period and even a campaign involving an allied king might not get a mention if it just reinforced the status quo and no king or king's son got killed in it.

Gabriele C. said...

that Egbert novel is in my Future Projects file and I haven't done much research yet (except I did a lot for Charlemagne). But yes, the sources have more holes than a Swiss cheese, a third of the chartes are fakes, Eginhard wrote to glorify Charlemagne ... just your average Dark Age/Early Middle Age mess.

Remember my post about the defeat at Roncesvals. ;)

Alex Bordessa said...

Cartmandua didn't quite make the cut for me, but is definitely an interesting figure.

Mirza Shuja sounds intriguing. I'm just reading Sutcliff's piece on Kipling. Is Bokhara where the bug pit was? Heard a radio programme about the bug pit and how various Englishmen (sic) got themselves thrown down there - mostly their own fault. Oh dear, I could get too interested in all this ...

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, I remember it well. Fertile ground for the imagination there.

Alex - It is! Although I don't think Mirza Shuja died in the bug pit. What was the radio programme and is it on Listen Again? I found Mirza Shuja in The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, OUP 1990, ISBN 0-19-282799-5. A jolly good read in clear journalistic style - the author used to be a Times staff reporter. He also apparently wrote another called Trespassers on the Roof of the World which I think has more about the Pundits, but I haven't read that one. Probably both out of print but try the library if you're interested.

ali said...

I was a bit annoyed when I made that comment - I've been studying for a history exam using the set books, and mentions of women are rare. Except in the special chapter especially about 'women's history'.

But thanks for that link - I'm going to listen to it now!

Carla said...

Ali - Ah, I see. I confess I never studied history to exam standard. The timetable at my school couldn't accommodate all three sciences and history at O-level (yes, I daresay the mention of O-level dates me) so I dropped history in favour of physics. Even at 14 I figured I'd have a better chance of getting a job as a biochemist than a historian. So I haven't had the joys (!) of formal history teaching. I just fossick around reading whatever interests me. An approach I recommend :-)

Hope the programme is interesting, let me know what you think of it. I haven't heard any of it yet; I just happened to be looking to see if In Our Time was still on, noticed it in the listings and thought I'd mention it here in case you came back, since I'd just recommended the Paston letters a few hours earlier. How creepy is that?

Alex Bordessa said...

The Bug Pit of Bukhara was on ages ago, but stuck in my small brain - I couldn't quite believe the idiocy of these chaps who kept going on missions to the place and getting themselves chucked into the pit!

Ha - talking of the limitations of school. I too couldn't take the O Levels I wanted. It was either history OR geography (both very applicable for archaeology); couldn't take both. Ended up doing history O level and a really useless (to me) CSE (!) in Combined Science. btw, the history mostly comprised 1950s onward up to 1972 (I took the thing in 1977).

Carla said...

Well, it's hard to say where daring turns into idiocy, and I daresay the Bug Pit wasn't their intended destination :-) It is the kind of thing that lodges in the brain, isn't it? I read Peter Hopkirk's book years ago but it's stuck with me ever since.

Hmmm, seems to me it might be quite hard to study events only 5 years previously as history because the dust hasn't had time to settle and there isn't much of a perspective yet. Wasn't it Chairman Mao who was asked if he thought the French Revolution had been a Good Thing and replied, "Too soon to tell." ? I suppose it might have been considered easier to 'relate' to history that recent, though, since you'd have remembered some of it.

Alex Bordessa said...

At O level, we weren't going into perspective (eg. we didn't discuss the finer aspects of the Arab-Israeli war). It mostly consisted of events; I think modern day GCSEs might be a bit more thoughtful. A level was more considered, but I didn't fancy two years of the agricultural revolution and the unification of Germany in the 19th century (sorry Gabriele).

Gabriele C. said...

Lol Alex,
that bored me to death as well.

Bernita said...

There are just so many.
I couldn't possibly choose.
The "real" Godiva, I suppose would be one.
Always interesting when myth enwraps reality.

Carla said...

Choosing is all part of the fun, Bernita. If Godiva is one of your favourites, you might be interested in this site with a novella about her and some of the historical background.