30 January, 2010

King Arthur: Warrior of the West, by MK Hume. Book review

Edition reviewed: Headline, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7553-4868-8. 488 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Sequel to King Arthur: Dragon’s Child, this is the second in a trilogy retelling the Arthurian legends. Set in south-western Britain shortly after the end of Roman rule, most of the characters are familiar figures from the legends, including Artor (King Arthur), his second wife Wenhaver (Guinevere), his cousin Caius (Kay), his foster-father Ector, Myrddion Merlinus (Merlin), Nimue, Morgan, Morgause and her husband King Lot, Gawayne and Bedwyr (Bedivere). Other characters, such as Artor’s veteran swordmaster Targo and the spy Gruffydd, are fictional.

Artor, raised in Roman ways as the anonymous ward of the Roman nobleman Ector, is now established as High King of Britain with his capital at the rebuilt hillfort of Cadbury. He has one more battle to fight, against the Saxon chieftain Glamdring whose stronghold is at Caer Fyrddin (modern Carmarthen) in south-west Wales, for which Artor will need the help of his reluctant ally King Lot and an ex-slave named Bedwyr. Artor also knows he must marry again to beget an heir, but he is still traumatised by the tragic death of his beloved first wife (told in Book One). Eventually he weds Wenhaver, the beautiful, brainless, spiteful, blonde daughter of the powerful king Leodegran – reckless of Morgan’s long-ago prophecy that a woman with yellow hair will destroy his kingdom…..

This version of the perennially popular King Arthur story takes as its premise the inscription reported to have been found by medieval monks marking the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey. The inscription is now lost, and different sources give different versions of its wording (see the Wikipedia article on Avalon for discussion of its historical authenticity, or otherwise]). Gerald of Wales, a contemporary chronicler who apparently saw the inscription at or shortly after its discovery, gives the wording as:

Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon
--Quoted in Wikipedia article

If Guinevere was King Arthur’s second wife, legend is silent on the subject of his first wife so the novelist’s imagination has free rein. In this retelling, Artor’s first wife Gallia was a sweet Roman lady and the love of his life. Artor has never recovered emotionally from her cruel murder, so although Gallia is dead before Warrior of the West opens (her story is covered in Book One), the memory of her still shapes Artor’s feelings and behaviour. I thought this was an interesting premise.

Warrior of the West seemed to me to have a strong flavour of unreality, perhaps fantasy. This is not because it features magic – the book is refreshingly free of supernatural happenings – but comes from the general tone. For example, the name of Artor’s stupid and dastardly Saxon adversary in the first half of the novel is Glamdring. Fellow Tolkien geeks will immediately recognise this as the name of Gandalf’s elven-forged sword in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, meaning ‘Foe-hammer’ in Tolkien’s invented language Sindarin. The elements aren’t obviously present in the Old English dictionary, so it doesn’t immediately appear to be an Old English word that Tolkien adapted to his own purposes (as he did with ‘orc’). Even if it is derived from an Old English name, calling a major character ‘Glamdring’ certainly gave me a strong impression of a fantasy setting. This is reinforced by setting Glamdring and his Saxon stronghold at modern Carmarthen in south-west Wales, a place that isn’t usually associated with Saxons in Arthuriana. The author’s note credits The Keys to Avalon by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd as inspiration and/or source for the locations. I have to say I have not found this particular theory terribly convincing (for details, see Keith Matthews’ critique, available online), and this no doubt contributed to the impression of a fantasy setting.

As regulars will know, I enjoy ‘invented history’, so I have no problem with stories set in entirely imaginary worlds, with or without historical parallels. So the chief weakness of Warrior of the West for me was not in the setting but in its structure and its prose style. The book falls into two scarcely connected parts. The first part features Artor’s military campaign against Glamdring, and has a starring role for a courageous young ex-slave and warrior called Bedwyr with a prophetic destiny. Then at the end of this campaign Bedwyr disappears from the narrative entirely and is, as far as I can recall, never mentioned again in the rest of the book. The second part focuses on political chicanery and a sadistic serial killer at Arthur’s stronghold at Cadbury, with apparently little or no connection to the first part. Perhaps Bedwyr’s story will be taken up and integrated with the rest in Book Three; all I can say is that Warrior of the West felt disjointed. The style seemed to me to be excessively wordy, reminiscent of the more ponderous types of academic writing, or of the reports of Victorian antiquaries. Some readers might find this gives the book an archaic olde-worlde feel. I found it lifeless, especially in the second part of the book where there is less action and more court bickering.

Since I found the style dull, this probably explains why I also found that most of the characters never really came to life for me. Artor is an interesting mix of cold, calculating ruthlessness and passionate loyalty to his friends, and the Roman Army veteran Targo is sympathetically drawn as a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth old soldier. Wenhaver is memorably portrayed as a spoilt, selfish, spiteful brat with no redeeming features whatsoever except that she has the face and figure of a Barbie doll (and about as much brain).

A couple of useful sketch maps at the front of the book show the arrangement of Glastonbury and Artor’s stronghold at Cadbury, and the Author’s Note provides an interesting discussion of the various sources for the legend and the author’s take on the characters.

Retelling of the Arthur legend based on an interesting premise, but the style isn't for me.

27 January, 2010

January recipe: Date and Ginger Cake

Ginger is always warming, and this is a comforting cake for a cold winter day. It’s also easy to make and can conveniently share the oven with a slow-cooking winter casserole.

Date and Ginger Cake

2 oz (approx 50 g) stem ginger in syrup, or crystallised ginger
4 oz (approx 120 g) dried stoned dates
4 oz (approx 120 g) butter
4 Tablespoons (4 x 15 ml spoons) golden syrup*
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) demerara sugar (or other brown sugar, e.g. dark muscovado)
4 oz (approx 120 g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (approx 120 g) plain flour
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) baking powder
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) ground ginger
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) bicarbonate of soda
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) ground almonds (optional)
2 eggs, beaten
3 fl. oz (approx 85 ml) milk

Chop the stem ginger and dates into pieces about the size of a raisin (or whatever size pieces you like to find in your cake).

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a medium sized saucepan over a low heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then remove from the heat.

Stir in the wholemeal flour, plain flour, baking powder, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, bicarbonate of soda and ground almonds (if using; I have found that you can miss the ground almonds out if you don’t like almonds). Mix thoroughly to a smooth paste.

Beat the eggs into the mixture, followed by the milk, and stir thoroughly to a smooth batter. Remember to keep scraping the mixture off the back of the spoon as you beat the eggs and milk in.

Stir in the chopped stem ginger and dates.

Pour into a greased and lined loaf tin or deep cake tin (about 6”, or about 15 cm, diameter is about the right size).

Bake in a moderate oven about 170 C for about 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Turn out of the tin while warm and cool on a wire rack.

Keeps for about a week in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.

If you don’t like dates, you can use sultanas or raisins instead, or a mixture.

*I think the approximate equivalent in North America is light corn syrup

21 January, 2010

Location of the seventh-century church in York

The first historical reference to York after the end of Roman government in Britain is in April 627, when Bede tells us that Eadwine (Edwin) of Deira/Northumbria was baptised in a newly built timber church in the city. Eadwine later started rebuilding the timber church in stone but was killed before it was finished, and the work was completed by his nephew Oswald:

The king’s baptism took place at York on Easter Day, the 12th of April, in the church of Saint Peter the Apostle, which the king had hastily built of timber during the time of his instruction and preparation for baptism; and in this city he established the see of his teacher and bishop Paulinus. Soon after his baptism, at Paulinus’ suggestion, he gave orders to build on the same site a larger and more noble basilica of stone, which was to enclose the little oratory he had built before/ The foundations were laid and the walls of a square church began to rise around this little oratory; but before they reached their appointed height, the cruel death of the king left the work to be completed by Oswald his successor.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II ch.14

Oswald was killed in 642 (Bede Book III ch. 9), so the stone church in York must have been completed some time before then. Where might it have stood?

As Eadwine’s church was dedicated to St Peter, the same dedication as the present York Minster, it is very likely that it stood on or very near the same site. The present York Minster is an enormous building , on the same sort of scale as the headquarters building (principia) of the Roman legionary fortress which it partly overlies, so Eadwine’s small church would have occupied only a tiny fraction of the area of the current cathedral. When the Minster foundations needed underpinning in the 1960s an archaeological excavation was conducted as part of the work (partly displayed in the present Undercroft), which identified massive remains of the old Roman principia under the Minster. For obvious reasons this was the archaeological equivalent of keyhole surgery, but it was sufficient to identify some of the mighty columns of the principia basilica or cross-hall, one of which was later re-erected in the precinct outside the Minster (Ottaway 2004). It was also sufficient to locate the principia precisely in relation to the Minster.

Sketch plan showing the location of the present York Minster in relation to the Roman legionary fortress principia.

There is a much more detailed plan in Tweddle et al 1999 (see references), but this rough sketch should be enough for the purposes of this post. As you can see, the present Minster sits diagonally across the north corner of the cross-hall, with the south transept overlying a corner of the principia courtyard. The Minster is aligned east-west and the principia is aligned north-east to south-west with the entrance on the south-west and the cross-hall occupying the north-east range. Most of the principia courtyard is not under the footprint of the current Minster. The excavations carried out during the underpinning work were in the north corner of the cross-hall and parts of the associated range of offices along its back wall (Ottaway 2004).

Excavations in and around the south transept of the present Minster located a graveyard of Anglo-Scandinavian date (ninth to tenth century) containing large numbers of re-used ‘Anglo-Saxon’ stone sculptures (Tweddle et al 1999). These graves were aligned north-east to south-west, rather than the usual E-W alignment of Christian graves, which suggests that they were aligned on the church associated with the graveyard and that this church was on the Roman principia alignment.

No trace of the church associated with this graveyard or of the small early church built by Eadwine and Oswald was identified in the Minster excavations, but this is not all that surprising. The underpinning work on the foundations provided access to only a small part of the cross-hall, and the rest of the area occupied by the principia remains unexplored. It is quite likely that Eadwine’s church was near the present Minster, but not necessarily directly underneath it.

There have been at least three churches on the site since the one built by Eadwine (counting his timber church and its stone replacement as one): a larger ‘Anglo-Saxon’ church built in the 8th century and sometimes called the Anglian Minster; a Norman Minster built in the Romanesque style in the 11th century; and the present Minster built in the Gothic style between the 13th and 15th centuries. It is quite likely that some of the successive churches were in slightly different locations, partly because if the old church was still standing there is a logic in building the new one on a different site so the old church can still be used while the replacement is under construction, and partly because the degree to which the Roman remains constrained the site will have changed over time as the Roman buildings collapsed and became buried by the rising ground level.

It is not known how long the Roman principia building stood or remained in use after the end of Roman government, but it may have been a considerable time. Say what you like about the Roman military, they could do engineering when it suited them. The west gateway of the Roman fort at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall was still standing until the fifteenth century, dated by the pottery found underneath its collapsed arch (Wilmott 2001 p.137-138), and part of the Roman Multangular Tower at York is still standing now. The principia was a massive building judging from the size of the columns, so it may well have stood for some considerable time if it was not robbed for stone. Ottaway (2004) suggests that it may have been standing and in use until the Danish (Viking, if you prefer) invasions of the late ninth century. If this is the case, the Norman Minster would not have been constrained by its presence, which would explain why it disregards the Roman alignment, but the earlier ‘Anglo-Saxon’ churches would have been.

This being the case, one plausible location for Eadwine’s early church is the courtyard of the Roman principia building. Bede makes it quite clear that the church was a new building, not a re-used or refurbished Roman one (and Bede knew the difference; he specifically says that Augustine in Canterbury at first used an old Roman church dedicated to St Martin, and then repaired another old Roman church in the city; Book I ch. 26 and ch. 33). The principia courtyard may well have been one of the few sites in the vicinity of the York principia in 627 that was not already occupied by standing Roman buildings or Roman ruins and was therefore available for a new build. A story recorded in a Life of Pope Gregory the Great written at Whitby some time in the early eighth century is consistent with this. It describes Bishop Paulinus and Eadwine giving religious instruction in the royal hall, then hurrying across a public square or street to the church (Tweddle et al 1999). Unfortunately the location of the incident is not recorded (chroniclers can be annoyingly remiss about these things), but if it was in York, it is consistent with the principia cross-hall being in use as a royal hall and the church being somewhere in the principia courtyard.

Eadwine’s church was built specifically for his baptism, and this may be another slight clue to its location. Roman forts often contain a well or a water tank in the principia courtyard (Bidwell 1997 p. 71). As the excavated examples are often quite shallow or of limited capacity, they would not have gone far as emergency water supplies during a siege. Paul Bidwell suggests that their purpose was to provide water for religious ceremonies conducted in the principia, and cites the example of the fort at South Shields where the well was built at the same time as the shrine of the standards, before the rest of the building was constructed (Bidwell 1997 p 71). If there was such a well in the principia courtyard at York, possibly there may have been a shadowy tradition that it was a ‘lucky’ or ‘holy’ or ‘powerful’ well (even if no-one remembered why) and therefore an auspicious site for the baptism of a king and the establishment of a new church. This would be consistent with a location for the seventh-century church in York somewhere within the principia courtyard.

Needless to say, other interpretations are possible.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Bidwell P. Roman forts in Britain. Batsford/English Heritage, 1997. ISBN 0-7134-7100-X.
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.
Wilmott T. Birdoswald Roman fort: 1800 years on Hadrian’s Wall. Tempus, 2001. ISBN 0-7524-1913-7.

Map links
South Shields

14 January, 2010

The Legate’s Daughter, by Wallace Breem. Book review

First published 1974. Edition reviewed: Phoenix, 2005, ISBN 0-75381-895-7. 310 pages.

The Legate’s Daughter is set in Rome and Mauretania (North Africa) in 24 BC, against the background of a fictional political intrigue in the reign of Emperor Augustus. Several secondary characters are historical figures, including Augustus’ wife Livia and daughter Julia, King Juba of Mauretania and his wife Cleopatra Selene (daughter of Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Antony), and various important Roman senators including Marcus Agrippa. All the main characters are fictional.

Augustus is ill and has no heir, and the senators of Rome are plotting in factions to gain the succession. When a senior Roman legate in distant Spain is killed and his daughter kidnapped, it is a serious embarrassment to Augustus’ government. Curtius Rufus, a failed centurion with a taste for gambling, drink, women and trouble, is despatched by Marcus Agrippa to find and rescue the girl. Together with his friend, a Greek secretary and aspiring poet called Criton, and a reluctant detachment of Praetorian Guards, he arrives at the court of King Juba and Queen Cleopatra Selene in Mauretania. Curtius soon discovers that all is not what it seems, as he uncovers a complex web of intrigue and deceit whose threads reach not only to the highest levels of the Mauretanian court but all the way to Rome itself.

The Legate’s Daughter is a political thriller, and doesn’t have the military setting or the action of Wallace Breem’s famous The Eagle in the Snow. The plot is driven by the slow disentangling of layer upon layer of lies and half-truths, and Curtius Rufus is frequently in the dark and having to guess at what is really going on. People speak in veiled allusions and cryptic references, which may (or may not) become clear in time. As a result, the reader needs to be alert to every detail and nuance to have any chance of following the story. I read the book twice before I pieced some of the plot together, and I suspect there are still intricacies that I missed. This is a book that needs concentration; think John le Carre rather than Simon Scarrow.

The street scenes are superb, both in Rome and North Africa. Sharply drawn vignettes bring the bustle and variety of a big city to vivid life, such as the beggar boys waiting like starlings for the baker to overload his cart so they can grab the spilled bread without being accused of stealing. The political shenanigans in Rome and in North Africa are well, if slowly, brought out (provided you pay attention), and an atmosphere of threat and menace builds gradually to the tense climax.

Despite the title, the legate’s daughter herself is hardly mentioned for the first third of the book, and appears only in a brief and rather pathetic glimpse towards the end. The focus of the story is Curtius Rufus, and although the narrative is in third person it’s mainly his viewpoint that the reader sees. Curtius is intriguing and contradictory, always wanting the opposite of what he presently has. When he has a steady job he is bored and resents its restrictions; when he loses the job he doesn’t know what to do with himself. When on his mission in North Africa he longs for his irresponsible life in Rome; when living on his wits in Rome he yearns for the stability of a respected role. Clearly very able when he chooses, as shown when he has to carry out emergency repairs to an aqueduct in imminent danger of collapse, he has nevertheless managed to fail at every career he has tried. He treats women badly, but somehow remains irresistibly attractive to them. The ending, like the rest of the book, is ambiguous, with more questions than answers: will Curtius make a new start, with a respectable job and the love of a good woman, or will he drift back to his precarious life in the slums?

Tense political thriller set in Ancient Rome, with layer upon layer of deceit, intrigue, plot and counter-plot.

07 January, 2010

Pictish female names

The king-lists in the Pictish Chronicle provide quite a few Pictish male names, such as Alpin/Elpin, Drust, Talorc(an), Cinad, Bridei/Brude and Nechtan. Unfortunately, there is no comparable source for Pictish female names. Very few Pictish women are recorded in surviving documentary sources. Given that the Picts practiced a form of matrilineal succession according to contemporary writers such as Bede (see article on Pictish matriliny), it seems surprising that so few royal female names were recorded. Can we infer anything useful about the likely form of Pictish female names?


Symbol stones

Pictish symbol stones are found in Scotland, mainly north of the Forth and Clyde, and are generally dated to the period of the 6th to 9th centuries AD. The frequency distribution of the common symbols is a fair match for the frequency distribution for the Pictish names recorded in the Pictish king lists, which is consistent with the theory that the symbols may represent names (Cummins 1995). Ross Sansom (1995) has suggested that a specific symbol, a stylised comb and mirror, may indicate that the person named on the stone was a woman. If true, this may shed some light on Pictish female names.

If a special comb and mirror symbol was needed to indicate the sex of a person named on a symbol stone, this implies that the symbols themselves did not convey this information. In other words, if the symbols represent names, either these names could be borne by either sex (i.e. there were not specifically ‘male’ and ‘female’ names), or male and female names were sufficiently similar that they could be represented by the same symbol, perhaps differentiated by adding a male or female ending.

A system of differentiating male and female names by means of a specific ending is familiar from Latin, where the ending –us indicates a male name and –a indicates a female name, e.g. Julius / Julia, Claudius / Claudia. If Pictish names followed a similar pattern, the main symbol would represent the masculine form of the name (e.g. Julius, in the analogy with Latin) and the comb and mirror symbol the element required to turn it into the feminine form (something like –ia or -a, in the Latin analogy).

Annals of Ulster

The Annals of Ulster mention one Pictish royal lady by name, a Pictish princess who died in the late eighth century:

778. Eithne, daughter of Cinad, dies
--Annals of Ulster

The death of Cinad, king of the Picts, is recorded in the Annals of Ulster in 775.

Eithne is, however, an Irish or Gaelic name. This may indicate that the Picts routinely used Irish names for girls, which would be consistent with the colourful origin legend of the first Picts having obtained wives from Ireland (see article on Pictish matriliny for the legend). If the Pictish language (about which little is known) contained a sizeable component of Irish Gaelic, Irish names may have fitted readily into Pictish culture. However, this possibility is not easy to reconcile with the suggestion from the symbol stones that female names were the same as male names, differentiated by a specific feminine name element or ending.

Another possible explanation is that Eithne may be exceptional in having an Irish name, perhaps indicating that this particular Eithne had important Irish ancestry or other connections that the family wished to signal when choosing her name. This would be consistent with her presence in the Annals of Ulster, as strong Irish connections could explain why the Ulster annalist(s) thought it worth recording her death. Unfortunately, with a sample of one it is pretty well impossible to tell whether it represents an exceptional or typical situation.


So, did female Picts use Irish names, like Eithne daughter of Cinad, or did they use the same names as male Picts (such as those recorded in the king-lists), perhaps with a specific element to indicate the feminine form, or indeed something else altogether? I don’t think the available evidence is sufficient to be able to say. The meaning of the symbols on the symbol stones is unknown, and the comb and mirror symbol might convey some other meaning that has nothing to do with gender. Indeed, the symbol stones may not be personal memorials at all. As for Eithne daughter of Cinad in the Annals of Ulster, we know her name but arguing from the particular to the general is perilous at the best of times and doubly so on the basis of a small sample.

For what it is worth, I think it is fair to say that high-ranking Pictish ladies could have Irish names, since Eithne daughter of Cinad did; and that the symbol stones can be interpreted in a way that is consistent with Pictish female names being the same as or similar to Pictish male names. These are not mutually exclusive, of course, since there is no reason to assume that Pictish female names were all of the same type. Name choices could have varied according to region, family, prevailing fashion at the time or simple personal preference.


Annals of Ulster, available online

Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.

Sansom R. Power to the Pictish ladies. British Archaeology 1995, available online

01 January, 2010

The Enchanted Woods of Loch Maree

Happy New Year to everyone. The year has turned, the solstice is ten days past, and the days are - just - perceptibly lengthening towards the distant spring. As a reminder of spring to come, here are some pictures of the woods along the north side of the Kinlochewe River and Loch Maree in the North-West Highlands of Scotland, taken in early May 2009.

For a location map, click here. Starting at the car park near the school in Incheril (south-east corner of the map, if I have got the link right), the path runs along the north bank of the Kinlochewe River and then the north shore of Loch Maree.

Not only is it the approach route to the mountain of Slioch (which was our destination and which I may post more about later), it's a beautiful walk in its own right. All along the north shore of the river and loch are stands of old woodland, cloaked in velvet moss and starred with primroses on a bright spring day. It's an enchanting place, the sort of wood that really ought to have fairies living in it.

Sunlight in the woods

The path climbs to cross a knoll, with the Kinlochewe River below

A not-quite fallen tree leans out over the river

Cute little pony in the pastures near Incheril