29 October, 2007

Innocent Traitor, by Alison Weir. Book review

Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2007, ISBN 978-0-09-949379-2

Alison Weir is best known for her historical biographies, and Innocent Traitor is her first historical novel. It tells the story of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Day Queen’, from her birth to her death. All the main characters are historical.

Tudor England was a turbulent place for those who lived near to the throne, and Lady Jane Grey was nearer than most. Her mother, Frances, was the daughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor, and as Jane was the eldest of Lady Frances’ three daughters, she had a claim to the throne of England. Henry VIII’s will stipulated that the throne should go to his only son, Edward VI, and if Edward died without an heir it should then go to Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, in that order. Alas, Henry’s marital entanglements provided ample scope for arguments over the succession, as both Mary and Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate when Henry had been trying to get rid of their respective mothers. When Edward died childless in July 1553, a group of powerful noblemen led by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, decided to proclaim Jane Queen of England. The success of the scheme depended on imprisoning Mary, but Mary was warned of the plot, raised an army and marched on London. Jane was now caught between two factions. Other people’s schemes had brought her into peril of her life.

The tagline on the cover says, “If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.” Lady Jane Grey’s tragedy is so cruel that the straight facts have a fair chance of bringing a tear to the eye, and Innocent Traitor takes the facts and mildly dramatises them.

Innocent Traitor uses an unusual narrative device, telling Jane’s story through multiple first-person narrators. This has the advantage that the reader gets a more rounded view than would be possible with a single narrator, and occasional amusing sidelines as various characters show what they really think of each other. On the downside, I found that most of the narrators had a tendency to sound the same, possibly because almost all of them are aristocratic women. (This might also account for the rather frequent descriptions of clothes etc). I had to keep backtracking to the chapter headings to remind myself who was talking.

Another quirk of the writing style is the use of present tense for almost the entire novel. This had a distancing effect for me, as if the characters weren’t living through their experiences at all but were telling someone about them. Somehow, having a woman enduring a three-day fatal childbirth narrating in fully grammatical complete sentences didn't convey her agony very effectively to me. This sense of distance was compounded by the astonishing self-awareness displayed by every narrator. No confused human emotions here; everyone seems to know exactly what they did and why they did it, as if they are giving some sort of statement to the Recording Angel. The use of present tense may also contribute to the even pace of the novel, which seems to amble along at much the same tempo in the crowded days of Jane’s short reign as it did when describing her upbringing and education.

Innocent Traitor does an excellent job of conveying the sense of Jane as a political pawn. Literally from the moment of her birth, somebody is scheming to use her for their own advancement. If it isn’t her parents, it’s Thomas Seymour or the Duke of Northumberland. Jane makes some of her own choices (such as her refusal to convert to Catholicism in prison), but the choices she is given are of other people’s making.

Jane is the central character and one of the main narrators, and the novel makes an attempt to develop her as a character without falling into the trap of making her a saint. Jane’s courage is admirable, but her refusal to compromise even on small things is irritating. She makes a moral issue out of everything, for example insisting on wearing black when her mother and Princess Mary want her to wear bright colours. From a very early age she displays not only a precocious intellect but also a prudish distaste for anything to do with sex and childbirth, and seems to have few interests outside her studies. No wonder people found her difficult to deal with! Her mother treats Jane with excessive harshness, but one can understand to some extent how frustrating it might have been for her trying to train Jane up to be someone’s wife, mother and mistress of a great estate. The author comments on this in the Author’s Note, observing that Jane is “a very modern heroine”. She certainly seems out of her time, though it seems to me a great pity that Jane could not have become one of the formidable scholar-abbesses familiar from previous centuries, a role which might have fitted her admirably.

In her religious dogmatism, Jane is in many ways the mirror image of Mary. This raises the intriguing question of what sort of a Queen Jane would have made if history had worked out differently. With her uncompromising views and conviction that she was always right, would she have ruled harshly and been remembered as unfavourably as Mary has been? Certainly Jane as portrayed here does not seem to have the flexibility or political cunning that would have been needed to make her an effective ruler. Like Mary she won’t bend, she can only break.

The novel is closely focussed on female characters. The only male narrator is John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, who is a cold-hearted villain with apparently no scruples and not much in the way of redeeming features. It would have been interesting to hear from some of the other men in the story, such as Jane’s father (whose rebellion sealed her fate) and her unwanted husband Guilford Dudley (whose portrayal is so one-sided as to make me wonder about his side of the story). In particular, I would have liked to see and hear more from Dr Feckenham, the Roman Catholic priest and scholar who tries and fails to persuade Jane to change her religious views and save her own life (Though since Jane’s death was the price of Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, one has to wonder if a reprieve could really have been possible). He seems to have genuine warmth and humanity, commenting to Jane that “an old man such as I has learned to question his convictions”. I wonder what he thought of the whole unfolding tragedy.

Mildly dramatised biography of the tragic Lady Jane Grey.

Has anyone else read it?

27 October, 2007

October recipe: Flapjack

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary famously defined oats as “ a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Well, in northern England at least oats are widely used in biscuits and the tray bakes called flapjack.

Flapjack, for anyone not familiar with the term, is made from oats, butter and golden syrup, and is perhaps best described as halfway between a biscuit and a cake. Usually eaten as a snack with tea or coffee. I also make flapjack as an alternative to muesli bars for hiking and cycling from autumn to spring, when they aren’t going to melt in the rucksack on a hot day.

The variations are endless. You can substitute part or all of the syrup with honey or black treacle, or add dried fruit, chopped ginger, chopped nuts, spices, chocolate chips, even pieces of toffee, as the fancy takes you. Here’s a Lancashire recipe for sultana flapjack.

Sultana flapjack (makes 12 pieces)

2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) golden syrup
1 oz (approx 25 g) dark muscovado sugar
3 oz (approx 75 g) butter or margarine
2 oz (approx 50 g) sultanas
4 oz (approx 100 g) rolled oats
1 oz (approx 25 g) self-raising flour

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a saucepan over a low heat.
Remove from heat and stir in the rest of the ingredients.
Spread the mixture evenly in a greased 7” (approx 18 cm) square shallow baking tin.
Bake at approximately 190 C for 20-25 minutes, until set and golden brown.
Mark into 12 pieces.
Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then remove from tin and cool on a wire rack.

Can be wrapped in foil and stored in an airtight tin for several months, and will also survive happily for a week or more in a rucksack or cycle pannier.

19 October, 2007

Acha of Deira and Bernicia: daughter, sister, wife and mother of kings

Acha lived during the early part of the seventh century. She was at the centre of the dynastic conflicts between the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira that would eventually forge the two into the great early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdom of Northumbria. Deira corresponded roughly to modern Yorkshire, and Bernicia roughly to modern Northumberland; for approximate locations, see map.

Acha was born into the royal family of Deira, married into the royal family of Bernicia, and two of her sons were kings of Northumbria. Her life marks the beginning of the unified kingdom of Northumbria, and possibly made a significant contribution to it. What do we know about her? As usual, not very much:


Bede, Ecclesiastical History

  • Oswald was the son of Aethelferth of Bernicia, and nephew to King Edwin by his sister Acha (Book III, Chapter 6)

  • Acha’s husband Aethelferth drove her brother Edwin into exile and tried for more than a decade to have Edwin murdered (Book II, passim).

  • Oswald died on 5 August 642, when he was 38 years old (Book III, Chapter 9). He must therefore have been born between August 603 and August 604.

  • Oswald’s brother Oswy succeeded him as king (Book III, Chapter 14). Oswy died on 15 February 670, at the age of 58, and was succeeded by his son Egfrid (Book IV, Chapter 5). Oswy must therefore have been born between February 611 and February 612.

  • Egfrid’s aunt Ebba was Abbess of Coldingham monastery (Book IV, Chapter 19) at the time it was destroyed by fire in about 680 (Book IV, Chapter 25).

Historia Brittonum
Aethelferth Flesaurs of Bernicia had seven sons: Eanfrid, Oswald, Oswin, Oswy, Oswudu, Oslac, Offa (Chapter 57).

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The sons of Aethelferth were Enfrid, Oswald, Oswy, Oslac, Oswood.
Oslaf, and Offa.

Reginald of Durham
Aethelferth not only drove from his kingdom Aella king of the Deirans whose daughter he had married, but after inflicting a series of defeats on him and expelling him from several refuges he deprived him of his life and kingdom together.
Quoted in John Marsden, Northanhymbre Saga.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Ebba, abbess of Coldingham, was the daughter of Acha and Aethelferth and died in around 683.


Bede says unequivocally that Acha was Edwin’s sister. Reginald of Durham says she was the daughter of Edwin’s father Aelle, and this is consistent with the fact that her sons Oswald and Oswy were both accepted as kings in Deira, suggesting that they had a claim to Deiran royal blood through their mother. Edwin and Acha may or may not have had different mothers; there is no indication either way.

Of Aethelferth’s seven sons listed in Historia Brittonum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is noticeable that all have names beginning with O- except the eldest, Eanferth (Eanfrith, Eanfrid). Eanferth and the O- sons also appear to have taken different routes into exile on their father’s death. Eanferth appears in the Pictish king-lists as the father of a king of the Picts, Talorcan, which strongly suggests that he was exiled in Pictland. Oswald and Oswy, by contrast, lived on the island of Iona in Dal Riada (modern western Scotland). It is a strong possibility that the O- sons were Acha’s children and Eanferth was a half-brother by a previous wife. A daughter Aebbe (Ebba, Abb) is also recorded, but there is no indication of her age relative to the sons. This would suggest that Acha bore Aethelferth at least seven children, six sons and a daughter, during their marriage. If the sons are listed in the correct order, they were all born between 603/604 and 617.

Acha’s son Oswald was born between August 603 and August 604, and so Acha must have been of childbearing age by this time. This sets the latest possible date for her birth at around 590.

Another son, Oswy, was born between February 611 and February 612, so Acha must still have been of childbearing age by then. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum have listed her children by Aethelferth in the correct order, and assuming that all the sons with names beginning with O- were Acha’s sons (see above), she also bore Aethelferth three or four more sons after Oswy. If she bore one child a year, with no stillbirths or multiple births, the youngest son may have been born around 614 to 616, which is only 1-3 years before Aethelferth’s death. This would suggest that Acha was no more than forty or so at this time, which in turn would suggest that she cannot have been born much before 575.

Nothing is known of Acha’s death.

Acha was married to Aethelferth of Bernicia. Reginald of Durham says that she was married before Aethelferth killed her father Aelle, expelled her brother Edwin, and took over the rule of Deira. I’ve argued elsewhere that the likely date for this annexation is 605. Aethelferth and Acha were certainly married before Oswald’s birth, so at latest they were married by autumn 603. How much earlier is open to speculation. As no children older than Oswald are mentioned, I think it likely that the marriage was not much before then.

Acha’s husband Aethelferth killed and deposed her father Aelle (Reginald of Durham), and spent the next twelve years trying to hunt down and murder her brother Edwin (Bede). How did Acha feel about this deadly conflict between her birth family and her husband?

Needless to say, history does not tell us, so Acha’s reaction is open to the imagination. A few things can be inferred. First, she evidently continued to have marital relations with Aethelferth for at least a further six or seven years, since their son Oswy was born in 611 or 612, and possibly up until around the time of Aethelferth’s death in 617 if the remaining sons in the lists are also her children. So it can safely be said that she didn’t leave Aethelferth, die of grief, rebel against him, or refuse to do her duty as his wife. Whether she was forced to stay with him, or was his wholehearted partner, or something in between, is open to speculation.

Second, Bede makes no mention of Acha during his description of Edwin’s reign. This may be simply because she was not germane to his history of the conversion of the English to Christianity. Or it may suggest that she died before Edwin’s reign began, or went into exile with her children. Either way, there’s no indication of a tearful reunion with her long-lost brother, unlike Hildeburgh’s return to her birth family after a similar conflict in the poem The Fight at Finnsburgh.

Third, although Bede says very little about Acha, he does not condemn her. He even suggests that Edwin would, or should, have been pleased to be succeeded by her son Oswald, “…it is fitting that so great a predecessor [Edwin] should have had so worthy a man of his own blood to maintain his religion and his throne.” (Book III, Chapter 6). This may be a slight indication that Acha’s conduct – whatever it was – during and/or after the conflict was not considered dishonourable.

Fourth, there is no record in any of the sources of Edwin attempting to persecute Aethelferth’s sons as Aethelferth had persecuted him. This may simply be absence of evidence, or it may be that he had insufficient power or influence to pursue them to Pictland or Dal Riada. Considering that Edwin’s armies were victorious as far afield as Anglesey, the Isle of Man and the West Saxons (Bede), it is perhaps unlikely that he was unable to pressurise kings in the north if he chose, but the possibility cannot be discounted. Or a further possibility may be that Edwin deliberately chose not to pursue his sister’s sons. In Old English culture the relationship between a maternal uncle and his nephews was a particularly significant one, with the uncle acting almost as a second father. Old English had special words for a maternal uncle (eam) and nephew (sweostersunu, ‘sister-son’), implying that the relationship was distinct from a paternal uncle (faedera) and nephew (nefu). It may be that Edwin was unwilling to violate this relationship – perhaps Acha was still alive? – and was prepared to leave his nephews alone unless directly threatened.

Fifth, there is no record of Aethelferth’s sons attempting to depose Edwin as he had deposed their father. Edwin’s recorded enemies were Mercia, Gwynedd and the West Saxons, not the realms of the far north. Again, this may just be absence of evidence. Or it may indicate that the kings of Pictland and Dal Riada weren’t inclined to take on Edwin’s Northumbria – though one would have thought they might at least have had a go at grabbing some land while he had his hands full in North Wales or Wessex. Is it possible that there was some sort of informal live-and-let-live agreement between Edwin and his sister’s sons during his reign? Was Acha perhaps acting as peace-weaver, putting a brake on the otherwise endless cycle of blood-feud and revenge? This is pure speculation on my part; but an interesting possibility.

18 October, 2007

Mists, mellow fruitfulness, and mushrooms

Well, fungi, anyway. These high-rise mushrooms are growing in a partly hollow tree near my home. I can only suppose it's a high-density affordable housing project for pixies. Do you suppose the penthouse suite on the top commands a premium?

This one, by contrast, is evidently a detached mansion for the pixie who's made it big on the bluebell-polishing franchise.

08 October, 2007

The Wicked Day, by Mary Stewart. Book review

First published 1983. Edition reviewed, Hodder, 2006, ISBN 0-340-35214-0

Set in Britain in the latter part of King Arthur’s reign, approximately the early sixth century, The Wicked Day tells Mordred’s story. The major characters are familiar figures from the legend: Mordred, Arthur, Guinevere, Bedwyr, Arthur’s half-sisters Morgause and Morgan, Morgause’s Orkney sons Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine and Gareth, and Merlin’s successor Nimue. Some secondary characters, such as Morgause’s lover Gabran, the goldsmith and his slave/spy, and Mordred’s foster parents, are fictional. The story follows on from Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, but is not part of it.

Mordred is Arthur’s illegitimate son and nephew, the result of Arthur’s brief incestuous liaison with his half-sister Morgause. Merlin the enchanter prophesied that Mordred would be Arthur’s downfall (see the Merlin trilogy for this part of the story), and Morgause has raised Mordred in secret on the remote Orkney islands, waiting for the day when she can use Mordred to destroy her hated half-brother. When Mordred discovers his parentage, he loves and respects Arthur as both father and king. He defies his mother’s schemes and vows to serve Arthur faithfully – but Fate may not be so easily denied.

The story is told in third person mainly from Mordred’s point of view. Mary Stewart notes that she wanted to add some “saving greys” to the traditional portrait of Mordred the black villain, and I would say she has gone further than this and created him as a complex and fascinating character. Mordred is intelligent, ambitious, resourceful, quick-thinking and honourable. He is eager for power, cool in a crisis, self-contained, analytical and rather cold-blooded, a sharp contrast to his volatile and violent Orkney half-brothers. Although Mordred is attracted to Queen Guinevere, this seems to be something of an adolescent crush and isn’t reciprocated. It would be hard to imagine this rational and self-controlled Mordred falling head over heels in love with anyone; he is much more interested in running the country. Mordred has qualities that could have made him a worthy successor to Arthur, and his death at the ill-fated battle of Camlann is no less a tragedy than Arthur’s.

Mordred is the central character, and because he is not overly concerned with putting himself inside the skin of others, he dominates the book. The other characters are secondary, though they are still drawn as distinct individuals. Apart from the villainous Morgause, most of the characters are a mix of good and bad qualities. As with the Merlin trilogy, the novel is beautifully written, and the poetic descriptions of landscape and wildlife are especially vivid.

The plot is an interesting take on the traditional Mordred legend, which Mary Stewart has managed to turn into a halfway credible plot. This is no mean feat, because the story as it has come down in legend has some manifest absurdities of character and motivation (why would the wise and experienced Arthur leave his kingdom and his wife in the charge of his arch-enemy? Why would Mordred make an attempt at a coup when he knew Arthur was still alive and at the head of an army – surely a sensible villain would have thought to send an assassin first?). Mary Stewart comments that she wanted to “iron out the absurdities” and provide Mordred with some kind of reason for his actions. As with The Last Enchantment, there are so many episodes in the legend that have to be touched on that the story sometimes creaks a little under the weight. In particular, the series of coincidences that lead to the disastrous battle of Camlann would be outrageous without the context of an implacable destiny. Camlann has a place in later Welsh legend as the epitomy of pointless slaughter – it is listed in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain – and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur refers to it as “the wicked day of destiny”. This sense of the working out of a malign Fate is very strong in The Wicked Day.

The novel is based on the Arthur legends as recounted in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which gives the reader fair warning not to get pedantic about looking for historical fact (insofar as there is any such thing in fifth and sixth century Britain). The only reference to Mordred prior to Geoffrey’s twelfth-century bestseller is in Annales Cambriae, “The battle of Camlan, where Arthur and Medraut fell”, which does not even say that the two were enemies. As Mary Stewart comments in the Author’s Note, “For none of the ‘Mordred story’, then, is there any evidence at all.” The novel works best when seen as a retelling of the legend.

The Wicked Day follows on from the Merlin trilogy and is consistent with it, but is not a continuation. Merlin does not appear and is hardly even mentioned. Apart from the sense of implacable fate, there are very few fantastical elements in The Wicked Day, consistent with Mordred’s rational character. The Wicked Day is very much Mordred’s story, and can be read as a standalone (though I should imagine that as the Merlin trilogy is much the more famous, most readers will already have read Merlin’s story before they get to Mordred’s).

An intriguing and attractive retelling of the latter part of Arthur’s legend from the point of view of Mordred, who is made much more interesting than the black villain of tradition.