31 December, 2011

Alexandria, by Lindsey Davis. Book review

Arrow, 2010. ISBN 978-0-099-51562-3. 355 pages.

Set in Alexandria in Egypt in 77 AD, Alexandria is the nineteenth Marcus Didius Falco historical mystery. Heron of Alexandria, inventor of ingenious machines, is a historical figure with a cameo role. All the main characters are fictional.

Marcus Didius Falco, Roman informer and investigator, is on holiday in Alexandria with his wife Helena Justina, their two small children and adopted teenage daughter, intending to see two of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids at Giza and the Pharos (lighthouse) at Alexandria. When the head of the Great Library is found dead in a room locked from the outside, the day after being a dinner guest of Falco’s family, Falco is called on to investigate. Soon Falco finds himself dealing with academic rivalries, fraud, arson and a man-eating crocodile – not quite the relaxing holiday he had in mind.

I’m a long-standing fan of the Falco series (for a review of the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, see earlier post). Alexandria seemed to me to fall somewhat short of the standard set by the earlier books. Historical background comes in chunks like excerpts from a travel guide or historical textbook inserted into the text. In a way this is appropriate, since Falco and his family really are tourists in Alexandria and might be expected to read bits out of a tourist guide to the city, and sometimes it has a comic effect, as with Helena’s impromptu lecture on the hydraulic fire pump. However, I mostly found it clumsy. The central mystery is resolved, but I found the solution an anticlimax.

On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable romp through the Great Library and Museion of Alexandria, one of the great centres of learning of the world, in the company of Falco’s eccentric family and a cast of colourful misfits. Falco himself still has the world-weary, cynical humour that was such a feature of the earlier novels, and seeing him as a family man with Helena and their two small daughters shows up his soft side. Helena is a cool, steadying presence, though she has relatively little to do here. She and Falco are plainly as much in love as ever, which is saying something after 19 books’ worth of adventures. Falco’s disreputable father turns up on his usual quest for a dodgy deal, this time in collusion with an equally disreputable uncle, the uncle’s live-in boyfriend and Thalia, the tough snake-charming exotic dancer and businesswoman who first appeared in Venus in Copper.

The secondary characters are at least as much fun. Among the academic staff of the Museion we meet the handsome Zoo Keeper, convinced of his irresistible attractiveness to women, the over-promoted Director who makes the lives of his staff a misery, the taciturn astronomer, the blustering law professor and the soapy Head of Philosophy intent on smarming his way up the greasy pole. All of them are after the now-vacant Librarian’s job, and to complicate matters further, two of them are also after the same woman.

The historical mathematician and inventor Heron of Alexandria, inventor of an early steam engine and the first known vending machine, has a charming cameo role, and a reclusive scholar at the Library turns out to be compiling a book that looks remarkably like a forerunner of the medieval bestiaries. Some splendid set-piece action sequences make full use of the setting, including a man-eating crocodile at the Zoo and a chase up the tower of the Pharos. (In a mystery/adventure novel set in a city with the highest lighthouse in the known world, it would be surprising if the characters didn’t get to the top of it in some dramatic fashion...)

A street plan at the front of the book – conjectural, since earthquakes and coastline change have obliterated most of first-century Alexandria – is helpful for following the action through the streets. A character list at the front, with the trademark irreverent asides, may help readers keep track of the cast. There is no author’s note, which I thought rather a shame as I would have liked to know if there were other historical cameos besides Heron and his experimental steam engine.

Entertaining historical mystery featuring the cynical Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco, set against the exotic backdrop of first-century Alexandria. An enjoyable and amusing read, if not quite up to the earlier Falco novels.

23 December, 2011

Locations: Mam Tor or Shivering Mountain, Derbyshire

Mam Tor is a prominent hill in the Derbyshire Peak District, part of the ridge forming the southern rim of the Edale valley (see earlier post on Edale).

Map link: Mam Tor

Mam Tor is a distinctive dome-shaped hill, standing 517 metres (over 1600 feet) above sea level and about 350 metres (about 1000 feet) above the valley floor, and with an impressively steep south-eastern face (marked with crag symbols on the map, and visible on the right of the picture below).

Mam Tor from the south

Mam Tor is also known locally as ‘Shivering Mountain’, because of the frequent landslips on its unstable south-eastern face. A huge landslide occurred on this slope several thousand years ago, forming the steep scarp just below the summit.

Mam Tor from the east, showing the steep upper part of the south-eastern face

Lower down the slope, the debris from this ancient landslide hasn’t stabilised yet. Several attempts have been made to build a Sheffield to Manchester through-road across the lower slope, and the hill has shrugged off every one of them. In 1979 the highway authority gave up and closed the road permanently. You can see the hairpin line of the road in the photo below, running below the steep section of the face.

Mam Tor from the east, showing the line of the defunct A625 road

The British Geological Survey has a brief description of the landslip and some impressive photographs (click on the links to Figures 2-5) of the wrecked A625 road.

The summit of Mam Tor forms a nearly flat plateau, and was the location of what must have been an impressively-sited early Iron Age hill fort. A double line of ramparts encircled the top of the hill (marked as earthworks on the map linked above), still clearly visible today.

Hill fort ramparts on Mam Tor, visible as two near-horizontal parallel lines near the top

‘Mam’ is of course instantly recognisable as a variant of ‘Mum’, Mom’, ‘Mama’, all forms of early infant sounds used to signify ‘mother’. In Scottish Gaelic place names ‘Mam’ also appears as a place name element referring to rounded hills (e.g. the west Highland mountain range called the Mamores); it is sometimes translated as ‘breast-shaped hill’, which has obvious connections with the ‘mother’ meaning.

‘Tor’ means a rocky peak, a steep hill, a prominent rock or a pile of rocks. ‘Tor’ occurs commonly in place names in the south-west of England (Glastonbury Tor being a famous example), predominantly in Devon and Cornwall, and in the Derbyshire Peak District. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it appears in Old English in a charter from 847 and may be one of the few borrowings from Brittonic (ancestor of modern Welsh) into Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it is cognate with modern Welsh ‘twr’, Old Welsh ‘twrr’, meaning ‘heap, pile’, and with Gaelic ‘torr’, meaning a steep or conical hill or a mound. I wonder if it is also related to the Latin ‘turris’, origin of ‘tower’.

So the name ‘Mam Tor’ means something like ‘Hill of the Mother’ (if you take the ‘Mam’ element to mean ‘mother’), or ‘rounded hill’ (if you take the ‘Mam’ element to refer to the shape of the hill), or a bit of both. If the name meant ‘mother’, it is possible to speculate that it may indicate some cultural significance. Possibly the hill was regarded as a central place for the people living in the surrounding areas, perhaps considered to be the ‘mother’ of their lands or fortunes. It may have had connections with a female supernatural force (a sort of ‘Mother Nature’?) or a female deity (a ‘mother goddess’). Kathleen Herbert imagined a Mother Goddess cult centred on the Mam Tor area in the mid-seventh century, in her novel Ghost in the Sunlight. The Iron Age hill fort is consistent with the hill having been regarded as an important place in prehistory.

By the time of Paths of Exile, set in the early seventh century, the Iron Age hill fort on Mam Tor would have long since gone out of use. However, the ramparts may well still have been recognisable, and the hill may still have had some local significance. Although I have not gone as far as Kathleen Herbert’s interpretation of it as a major pagan cult centre, it features in Paths of Exile as the traditional site of a feast held to mark the onset of winter.

Both elements of the name Mam Tor have cognates in Celtic languages*. There are several more ‘Tor’ place names in the Derbyshire Peak District; I can think of Higger Tor near Hathersage, Upper Tor and Nether Tor on Kinder Scout, Dovestone Tor, Back Tor and White Tor on Derwent Edge, and Back Tor on the ridge east of Mam Tor, and that’s not an exhaustive list. The occurrence of ‘Tor’ place names is one of the reasons why I imagined the language spoken in the area in the early seventh century to have been a Brittonic language (an ancestor of modern Welsh and Breton).

*Celtic languages are generally divided into two groups; Q-Celtic (Scottish and Irish Gaelic) and P-Celtic (Welsh, Cornish, Breton).

20 December, 2011

December recipe: Venison in red wine

A robust, richly flavoured casserole is comforting in the dark, cold days of mid-winter. This casserole can be made with venison or beef, according to preference.

Serves 4.

Venison in red wine

12 oz (approx 350 g) stewing venison
4 oz (approx 100 g) smoked streaky bacon
Half an onion
1 garlic clove
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) plain flour
Approx 4 fl. oz. (approx 100 ml) red wine
0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) water
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) redcurrant jelly
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried rosemary


4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) suet
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) sage, or other herbs of choice

Cut the venison into cubes about half an inch (approx 1.5 cm) in size. Chop the bacon.
Peel and chop the onion.
Fry the venison and bacon in cooking oil in a heatproof casserole over a medium to high heat until browned.
Add the onion and crushed garlic and fry another minute or two until the onion starts to colour.
Stir in the flour and mix well to coat the meat.
Pour in the wine and water. Bring to the boil, stirring all the time.
Stir in the redcurrant jelly and dried rosemary. Season with salt and pepper.
Cover the casserole and cook in a moderate oven about 170 C for about one hour while you make the dumplings.

To make the dumplings, mix the self-raising flour, suet and sage in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Gradually add sufficient cold water to mix to a soft dough. If the mix is floury, add a little more water; if sticky, you have added too much water, so add a bit more flour.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces and roll into balls.
Add the dumplings to the casserole.
Return the casserole to the oven for a further half an hour (one and a half hours in total), by which time the dumplings will have swelled up and cooked through.
Serve with jacket potatoes and vegetables of choice.

The casserole can be frozen without the dumplings

10 December, 2011

Winterbirth, by Brian Ruckley. Book review

Orbit, 2006, ISBN 978-1-84149-423-4. 537 pages.

Winterbirth is the first of a fantasy trilogy set in the invented ‘Godless World’, an imaginary location on the north-western edge of a continent. It is inhabited by two main races each subdivided into separate, often warring, clans, tribes and kingdoms. The Kyrinin live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in forests and mountains, and their two main clans in Winterbirth, Fox and White Owl, are implacable hereditary enemies. The Huanin, humans with approximately medieval technology, are divided into Bloods (clans) grouped on religious lines into two broad alliances, the Black Road in the north and Haig in the south. Kyrinin and Huanin can interbreed to produce na’kyrim, who cannot have children but who can access a supernatural power called the Shared.

Orisian, nephew of the Thane of Lannis-Haig, is just entering adulthood. Inexperienced and with no great talent as a warrior, he is still mourning the deaths of his mother and elder brother and is anxious for his father who suffers periodic severe depression. All these concerns are swept aside when the Lannis lands are attacked and overrun by the Horin-Gyre Blood of the Black Road, bent on exacting revenge for their defeat and exile many years earlier, and acting in alliance with the White Owl Kyrinin. Orisian is wounded in the attack and is saved only by his faithful shieldman Rothe and the unexpected help of two Kyrinin from the Fox clan. With his lands in ruins, most of his family dead and the Horin-Gyre warriors determined to slaughter every last member of the Lannis ruling family, Orisian faces a desperate journey south to the precarious safety of the allied Kilkry Blood. But as well as the pursuing Horin-Gyre warriors and the sinister Inkallim, a more deadly power is at large – the na’kyrim Aeglyss who wields a terrible and destructive power in the Shared that may plunge the whole world into war and darkness.

Winterbirth is a dark tale focused on destruction, despair, battle and blood. The tagline on the front cover says “The greatest tales are written in blood...”, which gives the reader a fair idea of what to expect. I found the first 90 pages rather slow, as the rival political factions and the existing order are introduced and the back-story of the enmity between Haig and Black Road is filled in. Although it may seem slow, the build-up is necessary to establish the various factions and characters, because when events do start to move, they move fast as Orisian has to run for his life. I found the list of characters at the back and the two maps at the front invaluable for keeping my bearings.

Although a fantasy novel, Winterbirth does not involve a great deal of explicit magic (a plus point for me). The Kyrinin are not human – a sort of cross between elves and aboriginal hunter-gatherers – and have skills that humans do not have, such as keener senses and greater healing abilities, but this could be read as technology rather than magic as such. The major supernatural element is the ‘Shared’, which seems to permit such things as telepathy and a form of mind control. I suspect from the ending of Winterbirth that the Shared is going to play a much greater role in the rest of the trilogy, as Aeglyss’ sinister powers become more developed.

Much of the plot in Winterbirth itself is driven by political rivalries, both between the major human groupings (Black Road versus Haig) and within them. The various kingdoms have a complex and well-realised history of political and religious conflicts, and for me this was a strong point of the novel. The Black Road clans believe in predestination and were exiled for their creed a century or so before the events of Winterbirth. They want revenge on the Haig clans who defeated and exiled them, they want their old lands back, and they want to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the world. Cutting across this major conflict, there are many internal conflicts within both Haig and Black Road, and the internal politicking between rival factions seems as significant as the main struggle.

Another feature I liked very much was the landscape, particularly the mountain and moorland descriptions. The topography is reminiscent of the western Highlands of Scotland, with long mountain ridges dividing glens and sea lochs, and the rugged Car Criagar with its crags, biting winds and treeless uplands reminded me of the Cairngorm plateau (minus the ruined city, of course!).

Winterbirth is a hefty book at over 500 pages, yet it reads more as the first part of a larger story than as the first book in a sequence. The ‘end’ is more of a temporary pause with most of the plot threads still open, and is clearly setting up for Books 2 and 3. For readers who like a story to reach a definite end, it may be a good idea to have the remaining two books lined up. This ‘setting up’ function may account for why Orisian, the central character, seems to be rather a passive figure for much of the novel, being chased from place to place by his enemies and with little opportunity to influence events, let alone to take control and take the fight to the opposition. There is a coming-of-age element to the narrative as Orisian has to grow into the new role so unexpectedly and unwillingly thrust upon him, so I hope he may take on a more active role in the later books. If I’m correct that Aeglyss’ sinister supernatural powers will come more to the fore, it will be interesting to see how Orisian’s role plays out.

First book in a dark fantasy trilogy set in a well-realised imaginary world, with political, religious and clan conflicts and a sinister undercurrent of magic.

27 November, 2011

Roman York to Anglian York: documentary sources

In Late Roman Britain, York (Eboracum) was the base of the Sixth Legion and the civilian part of the city had the status of colonia, the highest rank of Roman city. It was clearly an important centre of Roman civil and military power. What happened to it after the end of Roman imperial administration in Britain?

Documentary sources refer to York in the fourth century and the early seventh, with a possible snippet or two in between. Archaeology also provides some possible clues. I’ll discuss the documentary sources in this post.


Death of Emperor Constantius and elevation of Emperor Constantine, 306 AD

"Constantius died at Eboracum in Britain in the thirteenth year of his reign, and was deified. ..."
"On the Death of Constantius, Constantine, his son by a somewhat undistinguished marriage, was made emperor in Britain, and succeeded to his father's position as a very popular ruler. ..."
--Eutropius, Breviarium, Book X Ch. 1 and 2, available online

These events occurred in July 306 AD.

Bishop of York attends Council of Arles, 314 AD

Eborius episcopus de civitate Eboracensi provincia Britanniae
Restitutus episcopus de civitate Londiniensi provincia suprascripta
Adelphius episcopus de civitate Colonia Londiniensium
Exinde Sacerdos presbyter Arminius diaconus
--Signatories to the acts of the Council of Arles, 314. Text quoted in Painter 1971, first page (with the relevant quote) available online.

The Council of Arles was held in 314 AD. The text translates roughly as follows:

Eborius bishop of the city of Eboracum in the province of the Britains
Restitutus bishop of the city of Londinium in the above province
Adelphius bishop of the city of Colonia Londiniensum
[?] Sacerdos the priest [and] Arminius the deacon
--My translation, very approximate.

I don’t know what ‘exinde’ means on the fourth line (if anyone would like to enlighten me, please feel free to comment), but it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post. The two cities clearly identified are Eboracum (York) and Londinium (London). ‘Colonia Londiniensum’ is unclear. It might be a repeat of London, although two bishops from the same city seems a little extravagant, or a spelling mistake for Colonia Lindensium (Lincoln). Clearly, York had at least one bishop in 314 of sufficient standing to attend an important church council. Whether his name really was Eborius, or whether this was a mistake or a guess by a harassed scribe, or a title used instead of a name, is open to interpretation.


The next unequivocal mention of York in a documentary source is from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, which quotes a letter from Pope Gregory to St Augustine written in 601:

We wish you also to send a bishop of your own choice to the city of York, and if that city with the adjoining territory accepts the word of God, this bishop is to consecrate twelve other bishops and hold the dignity of Metropolitan. If we live to see this, we intend to grant him the pallium, but he is to remain subject to your authority. After your death, however, he is to preside over the bishops whom he has consecrated and to be wholly independent of the Bishop in London. Thenceforward, seniority of consecration is to determine whether the Bishop of London or of York takes precedence, but they are to consult one another and take united action...
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book I Ch. 29

Pope Gregory clearly envisaged two senior bishoprics at York and London with approximately equal status. It may be significant that these are also the two bishoprics clearly identifiable in the Council of Arles, with which Pope Gregory must surely have been familiar. Perhaps he looked up the records when deciding how he would like his new branch of the church to be organised. Or possibly he had heard of a bishopric at York in his own day or in the recent past.

In 627, York was the site of the baptism of King Edwin (Eadwine) of Northumbria and was established as a bishopric:

...King Edwin, with all the nobility of the kingdom and a large number of humbler folk, accepted the Faith [...] in the year of our Lord 627 [...] The king’s baptism took place at York on Easter Day, the 12th of April, in the church of St Peter the Apostle which he had hastily built of timber [...] and in this city he established the see of his teacher and bishop Paulinus.
-- Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book II Ch. 14

For a discussion on the possible location of the early church mentioned by Bede, see my earlier article ‘Location of the seventh-century church in York’.

It was another century before York formally acquired archbishopric status and Pope Gregory’s wish was fulfilled. (However, at least it was fulfilled eventually. Augustine’s southern archbishopric ended up being based in Canterbury rather than in London as Pope Gregory intended, a situation that persists to this day.)

Notitia Dignitatum

Dux Britanniarum.
Sub dispositione viri spectabilis ducis Britanniarum:
Praefectus legionis sextae.
--Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online

This translates approximately as “Under the command of the honourable Duke of the Britains, Prefect of the Sixth Legion”. The base of the Sixth Legion is not named in the Notitia, but the Sixth was known to be based at York in earlier centuries and several inscriptions relating to the Sixth Legion are known from Roman York. Assuming that the Sixth hadn’t relocated, this would suggest that York was still a legionary base when the Notitia Dignitatum was compiled, which is usually placed in the early fifth century.

Where the Dux Britanniarum himself was based is not specified in the Notitia. York would seem a likely candidate, but somewhere closer to the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall might also be possible, or the Dux may have had several bases and moved between them as occasion demanded.

Annales Cambriae

501 Bishop Ebur rests in Christ, he was 350 years old.
--Annales Cambriae, available online

The similarity of the name ‘Ebur’ to the Roman name for York, Eboracum or Eburacum, and to the name of the bishop of York who attended the Council of Arles in 314, Bishop Eborius, is consistent with this ‘Bishop Ebur’ also being a bishop of York. If this is correct, it might indicate a long-running practice of referring to the bishop by the title of his see*. If this inference is correct, it implies that there was still a Christian bishop based in York in 501 or thereabouts. If so, this could also suggest a context for Pope Gregory’s desire to establish a bishopric at York; if he thought there had been one there in the comparatively recent past, he might have wished to revive it.

The rather enigmatic reference to the bishop’s age ‘he was 350 years old’ is a bit of a puzzle. The number could be a straightforward scribal error, and this is perhaps the simplest explanation. Another possibility may be that it referred to the office, rather than to the incumbent, i.e. that the bishopric of York was 350 years old. The Council of Arles shows that it was established by 314. Three hundred and fifty years before 501 takes us back to about 150 AD, which would be early but perhaps not impossibly so. York was a major army base and major city, and had a cosmopolitan population. Tombstones have been found in York commemorating people from Italy, Gaul, Sardinia, Bavaria and possibly Egypt, and eastern religions such as Isis and Mithras were present in the city (Ottaway 2004). Perhaps Christianity might have arrived in the city and established a church as early as 150 AD, which could have been remembered as the origin of the bishopric. Or possibly whoever compiled Annales Cambriae was familiar with the legend recounted by Bede of a British king requesting Christian conversion in 156 AD (Bede Book I Ch. 4), ascribed that (with or without cause) as the origin of the York bishopric and did the calculation.

If the entry refers to the bishopric, it could be interpreted to mean that the bishopric of York, i.e. the office, came to an end in 501 AD. Or it could refer to the death of the current bishop at the time, conflated with a separate record about the antiquity of his office.


York was clearly an important ecclesiastical centre in 314, as well as a military base and colonia. The military base may have persisted into the fifth century if the Sixth Legion mentioned in Notitia Dignitatum had not changed its location.

When York next appears clearly in the historical record, in the early seventh century, it is again as an ecclesiastical centre (intended in 601, realised in 627). Whether it also had political and/or military importance is not known. As the southern bishopric established by St Augustine ended up in the royal centre of the kingdom of Kent at Canterbury (rather than in London as specified by Pope Gregory), this may indicate that bishoprics tended to gravitate to royal centres, and this in turn may suggest that the northern bishopric was also established in a royal centre. If so, this suggests that York may also have been a royal and political centre for the kingdom of Deira/Northumbria by 627.

What happened in between? Apart from the enigmatic reference in Annales Cambriae, which is consistent with (but does not prove) York having retained some ecclesiastical significance up to (at least) 500 AD, the documentary sources are silent on the fifth and sixth centuries at York. Further clues to the post-Roman development of York may come from archaeology. I’ll discuss these in later posts.


Annales Cambriae, available online

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.

Council of Arles, 314. Text quoted in Painter 1971, first page (with the relevant quote) available online.

Eutropius, Breviarium, Book X Ch. 1 and 2, available online

Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online

Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.

Painter KS. Villas and Christianity in Roman Britain. British Museum Quarterly 1971;35:156-175. First page available online

*The Archbishop of York still signs documents as ‘Ebor’, so this may be a very long-running tradition indeed.

Map links

25 November, 2011

November recipe: Apple cake

I adapted this recipe from one for carrot cake, because I grow more cooking apples than carrots. I daresay it could also be made with eating apples, although you would probably need to reduce the amount of sugar. It’s a delicious cake, rich without being heavy. It’s also very easy to make, especially if someone will help you grate the apples.

Apple cake

For the cake
8 oz (approx 250 g) wholemeal flour
6 oz (approx 150 g) dark brown soft sugar
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) baking powder
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
2 eggs
5 fl. oz. (approx 140 ml) cooking oil
Approx 1 lb (approx 450 g) cooking apples, after peeling and coring

For the cream cheese icing
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) butter
3 oz (approx 80 g) icing sugar
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) cream cheese

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and cinnamon in a large bowl.

Make a well in the centre, pour in the beaten eggs and the oil. Mix well.

Peel and core the apples. Grate the apples using a coarse grater. Add to the cake mixture and mix well. It should be the consistency of thick batter.

Grease and line a 6 inch (approx 15 cm) deep cake tin, or a loaf tin about 6 inches x 4 inches x 3 inches (approx 15 cm x 11 cm x 7 cm). Pour in the cake batter and level the top.

Bake in a moderately hot oven, approx 170 C, for about 1.25 – 1.5 hours until the cake is risen, set and golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack.

To make the icing:
Sieve the icing sugar. (It is quicker to sieve the icing sugar first, rather than try to beat out the lumps later. Trust me on this).

Beat the butter into the sieved icing sugar until smooth.

Beat in the cream cheese.

Cut the cooled cake in half horizontally, and sandwich the two halves back together with the cream cheese icing. If you prefer, you can spread the icing on the top of the cake instead and decorate with walnut halves.

Serve cut in slices.

I expect to get 12-14 slices out of this (but that will depend how big a slice you like). It keeps for about a week in an airtight tin. The cake can be frozen without the icing.

18 November, 2011

The Wolf Sea, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper, 2008. ISBN 978-0-00-721533-1. 336 pages.

Sequel to The Whale Road, reviewed here earlier, The Wolf Sea is the second in the series about the Oathsworn, a verjazi band of Norse mercenaries hired for pay, on their quest for a rune-spelled sword and a hoard of cursed silver. This instalment is set in Byzantium, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in 965/966. Historical figures such as the Byzantine generals Leo Balantes and John Tzimisces (John Red Boots) appear as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Having escaped with their lives and not much else after their quest to find the treasure-tomb of Attila the Hun, young Orm Ruriksson and the remnant of the Oathsworn, now sworn to Orm as their jarl (leader), find themselves in Byzantium with no ship, no money and no plan. Beyond survival, Orm has two concerns; retrieving the precious rune-sword stolen from him by an old enemy, and finding the remainder of the Oathsworn who were left behind in Novgorod when Orm and the others went in search of Attila’s tomb. Going into partnership with Radoslav, a Slav-Norse trader who has a ship but no crew, gives Orm and the Oathsworn an opportunity to start the first task, and so begins a chase through the islands of the Mediterranean and the deserts of the Holy Land. Amid the wars between the Byzantines and the Arabs, the Oathsworn relentlessly pursue their stolen sword – and finally discover the fate of their lost comrades.

Like its predecessor, The Wolf Sea is an action-packed tale of violence and intrigue, full of gory battle scenes, gruesome deaths and black magic. If anything, the tone is even darker than The Whale Road. Orm is finding the responsibility of leadership a heavy burden, and is haunted by dark dreams of betrayal and loss. Black humour leavens the grim events, from the warrior losing an arm in battle and saying, “See if you can find the hand. I had a ring I liked”, to the Norseman told that Islam will allow him four wives but no alcohol and trying to work out if this is an acceptable deal. Narrated in first person by Orm, the laconic prose style is reminiscent of the Norse sagas, terse but sprinkled with vivid images recalling Norse kennings, e.g. bad news arrives “like a mouse tumbling from rafter into ale horn”, a beefy warrior is described as “he had muscles on his eyelids.” The characters display the openness to new lands and customs that seems to have been a characteristic of the historical Norse travellers. They may refer disparagingly to foreigners as “goat-botherers” (and more, ahem, colourful variations; there is no shortage of modern expletives), but they quickly develop a liking for exotic spices and learn to cook Arab food.

Some of the characters are familiar from The Whale Road. Orm himself, intelligent as ever and now older than his years; mystical Sighvat with his store of folklore and two tame ravens; brawny Finn Horsehead. New characters are introduced (the attrition rate in the Oathsworn requires it), of whom the most memorable for me were the Goat Boy, a young Greek boy with a name the Norse can’t pronounce who acts as guide and translator, and the lively Irish monk Brother John. As might be expected for a tale about a hard-bitten warrior band far from home, the cast is almost exclusively male. Apart from dark witchcraft, women are peripheral.

The end is more of a pause in the action, as the Oathsworn still have their search for Attila’s treasure to resolve. Indeed, the plot is almost circular; for all their adventures, Orm and the Oathsworn end in much the same position as they began, no further from returning to Attila’s hoard but not noticeably nearer to it either. It will be interesting to see if the quest for Attila’s hoard is resolved in Book Three (and if so, how).

A historical note summarises the historical background and the major events invented by the author, and a map at the front is invaluable for tracing the route of the Oathsworn’s epic journey.

Violent, action-packed military adventure following the grim fortunes of a Norse mercenary band in tenth-century Byzantium and the Middle East.

10 November, 2011

Cousins at war: Ecgfrith of Northumbria and Bridei son of Beli

In 685, Ecgfrith of Northumbria and Bridei son of Beli, King of the Picts, fought a decisive battle which resulted in Ecgfrith’s defeat and death and an end to Northumbrian ambitions in Pictland. Historia Brittonum adds the intriguing detail that Ecgfrith and Bridei were cousins. How might that be so?


Historia Brittonum

Egfrid is he who made war against his cousin Brudei, king of the Picts, and he fell therein with all the strength of his army and the Picts with their king gained the victory; and the Saxons never again reduced the Picts so as to exact tribute from them. Since the time of this war it is called Gueithlin Garan
--Historia Brittonum ch. 57, available online

Brudei, Brude, Bruide, Bride, Bridei are all alternative spellings; Egfrid is an alternative spelling of Ecgfrith.

The Latin text is:
echfrid ipse est qui fecit bellum contra fratruelem suum, qui erat rex pictorum nomine birdei et ibi corruit cum omni robore exercitus sui et picti cum rege suo uictores extiterunt et numquam addiderunt saxones ambronum ut a pictis uectigal exigerunt. a tempore istius belli uocatur gueith lin garan.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 57, Latin text available online

In the original Latin, the term translated into English as ‘cousin’ is ‘fratruelem’. Wikipedia says that this is a specific term meaning ‘maternal first cousin’, i.e. indicating that Ecgfrith and Bridei were the sons of two sisters. I have also seen definitions saying that it can mean that they were the sons of two brothers; it’s unclear to me whether the term can also extend to sons of two siblings, i.e. sons of a sister and a brother.

Pictish Chronicle
Bride filius File .xx. annis regnauit.
Tolorcan filius Enfret .iiii. annis regnauit.
--Pictish Chronicle, available online

File is an alternative spelling of Beli or Bile. Enfret is an alternative spelling of Eanferth.

Annals of Ulster
642 Afterwards Domnall Brec was slain at the end of the year, in December, in the battle of Srath Caruin, by Hoan, king of the Britons

686. The battle of Dún Nechtain was fought on Saturday, May 20th, and Egfrid son of Oswy, king of the Saxons, who had completed the 15th year of his reign, was slain therein with a great body of his soldiers
722 Mael Corgais from Druim Ing, and Bile son of Eilphín, king of Ail Cluaithe, die.
693. Bruide son of Bile, king of Foirtriu, dies
--Annals of Ulster available online

Strathclyde genealogy
Run map arthgal map Dumnagual map Riderch map Eugein map Dumnagual map Teudebur map Beli map Elfin map Eugein map Beli map Neithon map Guipno map Dumngual hen map Cinuit map Ceritic guletic …
--Harleian genealogies, available online

In an Irish Life of St Adamnan, Bridei is described as “son of the king of Dumbarton” (according to Tim Clarkson’s website Senchus). Dumbarton, also known as Alt Clud (“Rock of Clyde”), was an important centre for the kingdom of Strathclyde.

There are two Belis to choose from in the Strathclyde genealogy. Beli map Neithon appears in the middle of the list. His son Eugein (a variant spelling of Owain) may be the ‘Hoan King of the Britons’ recorded as having won the battle of Strath Carron in 642 in the Annals of Ulster. This date is consistent with Beli having lived in the early-to-mid seventh century (since he had an adult son in 642). If correct, it is in turn possible that Beli could also have fathered a son who was adult in 685.

Another Beli, Beli map Elfin, appears three generations later, but he died in 722 according to the Annals of Ulster and so cannot be the Beli who was the father of Bridei.

For in the following year [685], King Egfrid [...] rashly led an army to ravage the province of the Picts. The enemy pretended to retreat and lured the king into narrow mountain passes, where he was killed with the greater part of his forces on the twentieth of May in his fortieth year and the fifteenth of his reign.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV Ch.26

Bede does not say who Ecgfrith’s mother was. As Ecgfrith was around 40 in 685, he was born in around 645. His father Oswy married Eanflaed, daughter of Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria some time before 651, because Bede recounts a story about a miracle performed by Bishop Aidan (who died in August 651) about Eanflaed’s voyage to Northumbria (Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III ch. 15). It seems likely (although not certain) that Ecgfrith was the son of Oswy and Eanflaed, since Ecgfrith appears to have succeeded Oswy without opposition, and a son of Oswy (of the royal house of Bernicia) and Eanflaed (of the royal house of Deira) would have had a strong claim.

If Ecgfrith was the son of Oswy of Bernicia and Eanflaed of Deira, how could he have been a cousin to Bridei, son of Beli of Strathclyde and king of the Picts?

Scenario (a): through an unrecorded daughter of Eadwine

Click to enlarge

This scenario postulates that Eadwine had another daughter, unrecorded, who married Beli ap Neithon of Strathclyde and became the mother of Bridei. This hypothetical daughter would be the sister or half-sister of Eanflaed, making Bridei and Ecgfrith the sons of two sisters or maternal first cousins. In its favour, this scenario fits the use of the term ‘fratruelem’.

It has several disadvantages. First, if Bridei had two non-Pictish parents (father king of Strathclyde, mother a Northumbrian princess), where did his claim to be king of the Picts come from? One possible resolution to this problem is to suggest that Beli of Strathclyde may have had Pictish ancestry and that this was the source of Bridei’s claim. Another is to suggest that Bridei’s mother had Pictish ancestry and Bridei’s claim came through her. A maternal claim would fit with the hypothesis that the Pictish royal succession had at least some matrilineal component (discussed in an earlier post). If one postulates that Eadwine married or had a liaison with a lady of the Pictish female royal line (‘X’ in hypothetical family tree (a) above), then matrilineal succession would mean that the sons of this union were eligible for the Pictish kingship via their mother. What about the daughters? If the daughters were eligible to be mothers of future kings of the Picts, then a daughter of Eadwine and X would be able to pass a claim to the Pictish kingship to her son (the grandson of X through the female line). By this mechanism, a daughter of Eadwine and a Pictish royal lady could bear a son (Bridei) who would be eligible to be considered as king of the Picts. This relies on matriliny operating over two generations, so that as well as the sons of a Pictish royal lady being eligible for the Pictish kingship, the sons of her daughters were also eligible. This doesn’t sound implausible, but as far as I know there is absolutely no evidence for it.

A second disadvantage is that as far as I know there is no evidence to suggest that Eadwine had any dealings with the Picts, either friendly or hostile.

Scenario (b): through a marriage between Oswald and an unrecorded sister of Beli

Click to enlarge

This scenario postulates that Oswy’s brother Oswald married an unrecorded sister of Beli of Strathclyde. In its favour, it introduces no difficulty with Bridei’s claim to the Pictish kingship, as it makes no assumptions about Bridei’s mother and therefore she could have been a lady of the Pictish royal line whose sons were eligible for the Pictish kingship. Oswald was in exile among the Scots of Dal Riada (roughly modern Argyll) from 617 to 633 or 634. A marriage with the neighbouring kingdom of Strathclyde during this period of exile would make reasonable sense, either as an alliance between Oswald’s hosts in Dal Riada and their neighbours across the Clyde, or as an alliance between Oswald in his own right and an ally who he may have seen as a potential source of support for his own claims to Northumbria, or a bit of both.

Against it, this scenario makes Ecgfrith and Bridei cousins only by marriage, with Ecgfrith’s uncle Oswald marrying Bridei’s (hypothetical) aunt. This may not have counted as ‘fratruelem’, depending on how the author of Historia Brittonum used the term.

Scenario (c): through an unrecorded sister of Oswy

Click to enlarge

This scenario postulates that Oswy had an unrecorded sister or half-sister, daughter of Aetheferth of Bernicia and his wife Bebba (or another lady), and that this unrecorded sister married Beli of Strathclyde and gave birth to Bridei.

In its favour, this scenario would make Ecgfrith and Bridei the sons of a brother and a sister (or half-sister), which would make them first cousins and could be consistent with the term ‘fratruelem’ if it extended to include children of siblings of either sex. Eanflaed and Oswy’s (hypothetical) unrecorded sister would have been sisters-in-law. Depending on how in-laws were viewed, the writer of Historia Brittonum may have considered them sisters and thus their sons as ‘fratruelem’ even if the term was meant specifically to mean sons of two sisters.

It has the same disadvantage as the first one mentioned for scenario (a) above: the source of Bridei’s claim to the Pictish kingship if he had two non-Pictish parents. As above, a possible resolution to this problem is to postulate that Bebba was a lady of the Pictish royal family, and that Pictish matriliny extended for two generations so that the sons of her daughter were eligible for the Pictish kingship. There is a slight straw of evidence that might support this, as Bede says that one of Aethelferth’s sons, Eanferth, lived in exile among the Picts. This would be consistent with a connection between Eanferth and the Pictish royal family, which would fit with Eanferth being the son of a Pictish lady.

Scenario (d): through Eanferth’s Pictish marriage

Click to enlarge

Aethelferth’s son Eanferth, brother or half-brother of Oswy and Oswald, appears in the Pictish king-list as the father of a Pictish king, Talorcan. If the Picts followed a form of matrilineal succession to the kingship, the logical implication is that Eanferth married a lady of the Pictish royal family while he was in exile among the Picts. This scenario postulates that Eanferth and his Pictish wife also had an unnamed daughter, sister of the Pictish king Talorcan, and that she married Beli of Strathclyde and was the mother of Bridei.

In its favour, this hypothesis fits easily with Bridei’s claim to be king of the Picts. In this scenario, Bridei would be the maternal nephew of a previous king of the Picts, Talorcan, a likely candidate for the kingship.

Against it, under this scenario Bridei and Ecgfrith would be second cousins a generation apart, which may not have counted as ‘fratruelem’, depending on how the author of Historia Brittonum used the term.


Any of these scenarios is possible, and they all have advantages and disadvantages. No doubt there are other possibilities as well.

Scenario (a) relies on Eadwine having married into the Pictish female royal line, on an unrecorded daughter from such a marriage who then married Beli of Strathclyde, and Pictish matriliny extending for two generations. It is possible that Eadwine’s wanderings in exile “through all the kingdoms of Britain” extended to the Pictish lands and a romantic entanglement and/or dynastic marriage. However, despite the obvious romantic appeal of such a notion, there is nothing in Bede or Historia Brittonum to support any involvement of Eadwine in Pictish affairs. One might imagine that if Eadwine had had ties with Pictish royalty close enough to involve marriage and/or children, he would have had dealings with the Picts and at least some would have been recorded (though the sources are so patchy that this does not necessarily follow).

Scenario (b) relies on a distant connection by marriage being sufficient for the writer of Historia Brittonum to consider Ecgfrith and Bridei cousins. This is possible, if the relationships had become obscured by then (Historia Brittonum was written well over a century after the events, although it may have drawn on earlier sources), or if the writer was using the term ‘fratruelem’ loosely. However, the writer presumably chose the term for a reason, and could equally well have chosen a term for a distant relationship if that was what was meant.

I prefer (c) or (d), as these two scenarios both rely on connections between the Pictish and Northumbrian royal families for which there is some evidence. Bede is clear that Eanferth lived in exile among the Picts and the Pictish king-list is clear that he was the father of a Pictish king. Scenario (d) relies on Eanferth’s Pictish marriage having also produced an unrecorded daughter who then married Beli of Strathclyde, and on the writer of Historia Brittonum using the term ‘fratruelem’ loosely to include second cousins; (c) relies on Eanferth’s mother having been a Pictish royal female, on an unrecorded daughter (sister of Eanferth) who married Beli of Strathclyde, and Pictish matriliny extending for two female generations. Of the two I have a slight preference for (c), because it makes Ecgfrith and Bridei first rather than second cousins, and because if Eanferth had Pictish ancestry it provides a context for his Pictish exile (if he already had family connections there through his mother) and his Pictish marriage.


Annals of Ulster available online

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X

Harleian genealogies, available online

--Historia Brittonum ch. 57, translation available online; Latin text available online

Pictish Chronicle, available online

30 October, 2011

In Winter’s Shadow, by Gillian Bradshaw. Book review

First published 1981. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2011, ISBN 978-1-4022-4074-4. 410 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

In Winter’s Shadow completes Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, begun in Hawk of May (reviewed here earlier) and continued in Kingdom of Summer (reviewed here earlier). The central characters are Gwynhwyfar, her husband King Arthur, and Arthur’s chief commander Bedwyr. Other important characters are familiar from the legends, including Arthur’s illegitimate son Medraut and the warriors Gwalchmai (later Sir Gawain) and Cei. Fictional characters from the earlier books, including Gwalchmai’s servant Rhys and his wife Eivlin and Medraut’s companion Rhuawn, also reappear here.

After many years of struggle, Britain is approximately at peace. King Arthur and Queen Gwynhwyfar are beginning to restore some measure of prosperity and stability after the destructive upheavals of war. But although Arthur’s malevolent half-sister Morgawse is dead, the evil she set in train lives after her in the person of her son Medraut. Consumed by hatred, Medraut lives only to bring about the destruction of Arthur. Medraut’s first weapon is the shameful secret of his own birth. But it is the human frailties of Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr that give Medraut his second and most deadly weapon – one which may bring down not only Arthur but everything he has tried to achieve.

Although In Winter’s Shadow is billed as the third in a trilogy, it could be read as a stand-alone. Readers who have read the previous two will recognise events and people from them, and will pick up references to earlier incidents, but the main elements of the back story are filled in as necessary. Arthurian trilogies sometimes seem to fade by Book 3 or to sag under the accumulated weight of legend, but not in this case. I thought In Winter’s Shadow was the strongest of the three novels by quite a margin.

For me, the most compelling aspect of In Winter’s Shadow was the character of Gwynhwyfar, who narrates the novel in first person throughout. Gwynhwyfar as portrayed here is a fully three-dimensional character, with her share of human failings and her share of admirable qualities. She is intelligent and well educated, and sufficiently interested in the past to understand and share Arthur’s dream of recreating the best aspects of the lost Roman Empire, including impartial justice and respect for law. While Arthur is fighting battles, Gwynhwyfar is managing logistics and supply with a quiet fortitude that brings out the best in people and gets things done. Supply may be less than glamorous, but it is as essential as dashing tactics; as the old (apocryphal?) military saw has it, ‘Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics’. Arthur relies on her as much as on any of his warriors, and working together as partners in a shared task allows them to develop a deep and loving marriage. But the relentless immensity of the task inevitably puts a strain on their relationship, intensified by Medraut’s sly scheming.

The love triangle between Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr is completely convincing. No individual is entirely at fault, none is entirely blameless. They are three fundamentally good people who care deeply for one another, yet the conflicting demands of other loyalties, together with Medraut’s malice, conspire to twist their love into a destructive force. Gwynhwyfar is, naturally, at the heart of it, and her dilemmas, her choices, the consequences of those choices and the further dilemmas that follow from those consequences make for compelling reading.

The plot has few surprises for anyone familiar with the Arthurian legends. If anything, the well-worn tale makes the novel more poignant, as events rush to their inevitable conclusion and all the characters’ struggles to escape their fate merely serve to entangle them further. As well as the story of Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr, the tale of Gwalchmai and the boy Gwyn, begun in Kingdom of Summer, reaches its conclusion in In Winter’s Shadow. I noticed some deft references to other legends, for example the relatively minor character of Sandde Angel-face who appears in Culhwch and Olwen: “no-one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping”. No doubt there are lots of other subtle references like this that I missed.

A plus point for me was that fantasy and magic play almost no role in the plot, much less than in the previous two books (This might explain in part why I thought In Winter’s Shadow the strongest of the trilogy). Gwalchmai still has his Otherworld sword and horse, but if they have any magical powers they are scarcely mentioned. Medraut is said to serve the ‘Darkness’, as his evil sorceress mother Morgawse did before him, but for the most part this could be taken as a metaphor for ordinary human vices such as cruelty and greed.

A sketch map at the front of the book is useful for following the characters’ journeyings, for those not familiar with the geography of Britain and Brittany, although not all the places mentioned in the text are shown on the map. There’s no Author’s Note in the advance review copy; I don’t know if there will be one in the final version.

Moving retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of Gwynhwyfar, completing the story of Gwalchmai begun in Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer.

29 October, 2011

October recipe: Stir-fried chicken wings with butternut squash

Butternut squashes are at their best in autumn, when their warm colour and rich flavour bring a welcome touch of comfort to offset the shortening days and the nip in the air. This spicy cross between a stir-fry and a braise uses butternut squash and chicken wings, and is a warming meal on a chilly day. It’s also quick to cook, ready in about 20 minutes after you’ve chopped up the ingredients.

Chicken wings are ideally suited to this recipe, because they are just the right size and thickness to cook in about the same time as the diced butternut squash or pumpkin. Larger joints, like chicken drumsticks, don’t work because they take too long to cook through. You could also use thickly sliced chicken breast or diced pork instead of the chicken wings.

Pumpkin works just as well as butternut squash, so if you’re planning to make a pumpkin lantern for Halloween and are wondering what to do with the pumpkin flesh, here’s a good use for it.

Serves 2

Stir-fried chicken wings with butternut squash

3 or 4 chicken wings, depending on size
Approx 12 oz (approx 350 g) butternut squash or pumpkin
Half a red or yellow pepper
Half a small onion or 1 small leek
Root ginger, approx 1” (approx 2 cm) cube
1 clove garlic
3 Tablespoons (3 x 15 ml spoon) light soy sauce
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) cooking sherry

Halve the chicken wings at the ‘elbow’ joint. This is quite easy to do with a sharp and fairly strong cook’s knife. I find it easier to cut just to the lower side of the joint, where the wing has two small bones (the upper part of the wing has a single thick bone).

Peel the butternut squash or pumpkin and remove the seeds. Cut into chunks about half an inch (about 1.5 cm) cubed.

Wash the pepper, remove the seeds and cut into pieces about half an inch (about 1.5 cm) square.

Peel and chop the onion (or wash, trim and slice the leek). Peel and shred the ginger. Peel the garlic.

Heat about 1 Tablespoon (about 15 ml) cooking oil in a wok or large frying pan. Add the chicken wings in a single layer and brown on all sides.

Add the diced butternut squash or pumpkin, and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until starting to colour.

Add the chopped pepper, onion or leek, ginger and crushed garlic, and stir-fry about 30 seconds.

Stir in the soy sauce and sherry. Put a lid on the wok or frying pan, turn the heat down, and cook gently over a low heat for about 12-15 minutes. Turn the chicken wings once or twice during cooking. It’s ready when the juices run clear when a knife is inserted into the thickest part of the chicken wings, by which time the squash or pumpkin should be soft.

Serve immediately with noodles or rice.

26 October, 2011

Locations: Edale, Derbyshire

On the far side another blind valley bit into the hills, and beyond it the fitful moon gleamed on a line of dark cliffs crowned by rocky teeth.
“That’s Kyndyr!” Lilla exclaimed. “Luned says there’s no way over it!”
Severa laughed, as clear and buoyant as the skylark’s song. “There is if you’re with me! That valley is Combe’s hafod, and I spent seven summers retrieving stray sheep from Kyndyr.”
“… a lung-bursting climb up an ever-steepening rocky valley that pierced the hillside like a sword slash…”
--Paths of Exile, chapter 14

“another blind valley bit into the hills”
View over the Edale valley from the south

Larger version of same photograph

This photograph was taken from the middle of the ridge that forms the southern rim of the Edale valley, and you can see how the uplands form a ring around the head of the valley, enclosing it. You can also see this from the contours in the topographical map link. There’s a road into Edale at the mouth of the valley in the east, but the only way out of the head of the valley is over the hills.

“a line of dark cliffs...”
Close-up of one of the gritstone edges overlooking Edale

“...crowned by rocky teeth”
Close-up view of one of the tors

“...retrieving stray sheep from Kyndyr”
Lamb perched on a ledge halfway up a tor on Kinder Scout, bleating piteously for someone to come and help it down.
(Yes, it did get down safely. After ten minutes or so the mother ewe arrived, they bleated back and forth a few times, and then the mother showed the lamb how to jump across to another ledge and then down to safety, probably the way it got up there in the first place).

“an ever-steepening rocky valley”
The upper part of Grindsbrook Clough. ‘Clough’ is used in Northern England for a steep or narrow upland valley. This is the route taken by the fugitive party in Paths of Exile as they climb out of Edale and onto Kinder Scout.

‘Combe’ in Paths of Exile is modern Hope (see map link at end of post). Hope is derived from Old English ‘hop’, meaning a small enclosed valley, particularly one that overhangs the main valley. In the early seventh century as imagined in Paths of Exile, the language spoken in upland Derbyshire is Brittonic (an ancestor of modern Welsh and Breton). So I translated the Old English ‘hop’ into its approximate Brittonic equivalent, ‘combe’ (spelled ‘coomb’ in Cumbria), also meaning a small upland valley.

‘Kyndyr’ is Kinder Scout. See earlier posts for pictures of the Kinder Scout plateau and some of its gritstone tors.

‘Combe’s hafod’ in Paths of Exile is modern Edale (see map link), the valley immediately south of Kinder Scout and separated from the Hope valley by the long upland ridge of Mam Tor and Lose Hill. Several of the hamlets in Edale have the name ‘Booth’, a Norse word meaning temporary shelter (related to modern Scottish ‘bothy’). I have imagined that Edale in the seventh century was used by the inhabitants of Hope for summer grazing in the valley and on the slopes of the surrounding hills. ‘Hafod’ is a Welsh term meaning something like ‘summer farm’, roughly equivalent to the Norwegian ‘saeter’ or Scottish shieling.

Map links
Scroll around to see how Hope and Edale relate to each other

11 October, 2011

Writing About the Anglo-Saxons: History and fiction in the age of Sutton Hoo

I will be taking part in a one-day event "Writing About the Anglo-Saxons: History and Fiction in the Age of Sutton Hoo", to be held at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, UK on 23 October 2011.

No charge for admission. Book places in advance at Sutton Hoo Reception (01394 389700), or ask at Reception on the day.

Full details here

  • Talks on aspects of Anglo-Saxon history and culture and the challenges of recreating the world of early mediaeval Britain in fiction and non-fiction

  • Panel discussions

  • Question-and-answer sessions

  • Book signing

  • Carla Nayland, author of Paths of Exile, historical novel set in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria

  • PM Sabin Moore, author of Stormfrost and Brightfire, historical novels set at Sutton Hoo

  • Paul Mortimer, re-enactor and author of Woden's Warriors, a non-fiction study of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture

  • Steve Pollington, author of numerous non-fiction works on Anglo-Saxon history and culture

  • Connie Jensen, proprietor of Trifolium Books UK, publisher of historical fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England, including Paths of Exile and Bride of the Spear

29 September, 2011

Burgh Castle Roman fort: Cnobheresburg?

The remains of the Roman shore fort are by far the most impressive visible features on the site of Burgh Castle Roman fort, with three of the four walls and their massive bastions still standing to near full height (see my previous post for pictures). However, although the site may well have started with the Romans in the third century or so, it doesn’t appear to have ended with them. Archaeological evidence indicates occupation in the centuries after the end of Imperial Roman rule in Britain, and may even connect with some snippets of history.


A hoard of high quality glassware, of Roman and Germanic styles, was found buried in the fort (English Heritage) – see picture on the fort information board in my earlier post. The glassware is dated to the early fifth century, so must have been buried at some date after that (possibly considerably after, if the vessels were prized heirlooms kept for a long time).

The English Heritage listing record says that the field east of the Roman fort was the site of both a Roman military cemetery and an early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery, with several cremation burials discovered in 1756 (English Heritage). The report says “Most of the urns illustrated in the records are identifiable as having been of pagan Saxon type”. The report doesn’t suggest a date, but cremation cemeteries are typically associated with the fifth and sixth centuries. Stylistic dating, on the basis of changing fashions in the design of jewellery or other grave goods or the decorations on the cremation urns, can sometimes narrow the date range, but if the urns were excavated in 1756 that dating evidence may not have been recorded.

Inside the fort, an inhumation cemetery has been excavated in the south-west corner with the remains of a large timber building on the south side of the cemetery. The cemetery was radiocarbon-dated to the sixth to tenth century. In the north-east corner, traces of irregular oval timber structures were identified, associated with pottery dated to the mid-seventh to ninth century (English Heritage).

The south-west quadrant of the fort was later occupied by a Norman motte, constructed in the late 11th or early 12th century (English Heritage).


Bede mentions a site called Cnobheresburg, which was granted to the Irish monk Fursey by King Sigebert of the East Angles as the site for a monastery in around 633:

[...]Fursey set himself with all speed to build a monastery on a site given him by King Sigbert [...] This monastery was pleasantly situated in some woods close to the sea, within the area of a fortification that the English call Cnobheresburg, meaning Cnobhere’s Town.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III ch.19

The location of Cnobheresburg is uncertain. It was presumably in East Anglia, since King Sigebert was able to grant it to a monastery, and from Bede’s description it was some sort of fortification close to the coast. Bede’s phrase ‘within the area of’ may imply that it was a large fortification and the monastery did not occupy all of it. All this is consistent with Burgh Castle as a possible location for Cnobheresburg. The mid-seventh-century pottery and the sixth-to-tenth-century inhumation cemetery inside the fort are also indicative of occupation at the right sort of date, especially if the timber building beside the cemetery was a church.

However, there may have been other fortifications along the coast of East Anglia that would also fit Bede’s description and that have since been lost to coastal erosion (there was a Roman shore fort at Felixstowe, for example). Unless or until further evidence is found, the identification is open to interpretation.

St Foillan

Fursey’s brother St Foillan is said to have taken over as abbot of the monastery of Cnobheresburg and to have fled to Nivelles in what is now Belgium with the books, relics and remaining monks in 651 after Penda of Mercia invaded East Anglia and sacked the monastery (see Wikipedia article on St Foillan). If Cnobheresburg monastery was completely destroyed and abandoned in 651, this could be inconsistent with the date of the inhumation cemetery and the pottery at Burgh Castle, both of which suggest some form of occupation extending into the ninth or tenth century, well after St Foillan’s departure. However, it is possible that not all the monks left with St Foillan, or that others rebuilt the monastery after his departure (or that the story is unreliable; the source for it is a record from the monastery at Nivelles, and I do not know the date of the document or its reliability).


Nothing is known of Cnobhere. The second element of the personal name is ‘here’, meaning ‘army’, so it would be a suitable sort of name for a warlord, and a warlord is the sort of person one might expect to be associated with a fort, but this is pure speculation.

Since the name Cnobheresburg was established by the time the site was granted to Fursey, Cnobhere (whoever he was) presumably pre-dated the 630s. It is perhaps likely that he was long gone by then, or he might have objected to having his fort handed over to a monk, although he may have been a party to the transaction for all we know.

Church of St Peter and St Paul

The church of St Peter and St Paul stands just north of Burgh Castle Roman fort, an attractive small church with a round tower. The listed building record identifies the tower as late 11th century, with the rest of the church being later (British Listed Buildings). See earlier post for more details.

If the building near the cemetery inside the fort walls was an early church, the church on the current site may have replaced it at some point, perhaps when the fort site became unsuitable or was taken into use for some other purpose. Since the inhumation cemetery inside the walls has a date range in the sixth to tenth century, somewhere in or after the tenth century may be a likely time for the church to have moved. There are many possible reasons why the church might have relocated. I can think of at least three, and no doubt there are others:
  • The Viking raids of the ninth and tenth centuries, which hit East Anglia hard and may have led to abandonment of the monastery, with the church later rebuilt on a different site;

  • Norman takeover of the fortified area for the motte and bailey castle, requiring any church/monastery/inhabitants within the walls to move to a different site;

  • Collapse of the west wall of the fort – it is not known when the collapse happened, and it may have been sufficiently alarming an event to prompt relocation of the church in case the rest of the fort followed suit.


The various archaeological findings on the site of Burgh Castle Roman fort suggest a surprisingly long history:
  • third and fourth century use as a Roman military base;

  • hoard of expensive Roman- and German-style glassware, dated to the early fifth century and therefore buried at some (unknown) date after that;

  • ’pagan Saxon’ cremation cemetery on the site of the Roman military cemetery in the field east of the fort, date uncertain but probably somewhere around the fifth / sixth century;

  • traces of timber structures in the fort interior with pottery dated to the mid-seventh to ninth century;

  • inhumation cemetery in the fort interior, radiocarbon dated to the sixth to tenth century.

Between them, these take us almost up to the existing church tower at the nearby church of St Peter and St Paul (eleventh century). Burgh Castle may not have been inhabited continuously, but it seems reasonable to infer that it was in use at least on and off over several hundred years.

The monastery mentioned by Bede that was founded at Cnobheresburg in the early to mid seventh century is an obvious candidate for association with the inhumation cemetery and the timber structures and pottery inside the walls. The dates are reasonably consistent, assuming that Cnobheresburg did not cease to exist when St Foillan left in 651, and an inhumation cemetery is the sort of thing one would expect to find on a monastic site, especially if the associated timber building was a church. However, the identification of Burgh Castle with Cnobheresburg is not proven.

If Burgh Castle is the site of Cnobheresburg, it’s an attractive speculation (but no more than that) to associate Cnobhere, who gave his name to the site at some date before the 630s, with the hoard of glassware and/or with the early pagan Saxon cremation cemetery identified in the field east of the fort. This field was also the site of a Roman military cemetery. This does not necessarily indicate continuity of occupation. Roman cemeteries often had tombstones and mausolea, some of which may have remained standing for a long time. It is perfectly possible that the people who used the cremation cemetery arrived on the site after the fort had been abandoned, recognised the Roman cemetery as a burial place – or simply as unsuitable for agriculture because of the standing remains – and used it as an appropriate place to inter their own dead. In this scenario, one could imagine Cnobhere as the leader of a group of Anglian raiders-turned-settlers (like the later Norse), who took over the fort and made it his base, either having found it abandoned or having evicted the previous inhabitants. However, the re-use of the Roman cemetery may also be consistent with continuity of occupation. The Roman garrison could have handed over to a replacement garrison of federate troops, who brought a different funeral rite with them. Or possibly the Roman garrison or their descendants simply changed the funerary rite they chose to use, possibly to reflect a change in their perceived identity. In such a scenario one could imagine the eponymous Cnobhere as the last Roman commander (the Late Roman Army had Germanic officers in high command) or his descendant, the sort of person who could have owned a hoard of expensive Late Roman glassware, deciding to go into business for himself as a local ruler when orders and supplies stopped arriving from HQ, and signalling his independent status by changes in social customs, including (but not necessarily limited to) the preferred funeral rites. Something similar may have happened at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, with a change in building structure to a warlord-style timber hall on the site of the fort granary, as discussed in earlier posts here and here. I need hardly add that this is speculative.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
British Listed Buildings, available online
English Heritage listing, available online

27 September, 2011

September recipe: Plum sponge pudding

Late plums, such as the variety Marjorie’s Seedling, are still in season in September, and make excellent puddings. Plum sponge pudding is simple and delicious, and can be eaten hot or cold according to the weather. Here’s the recipe:

Plum sponge pudding

1 lb oz (approx 450 g) plums
4 oz (approx 100 g) sugar
4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour
2 eggs

Halve and stone the plums.

Grease a heatproof dish and put the plums in the bottom. The fruit should come no more than halfway up the sides of the dish, or the juices may boil over during cooking.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Beat in the eggs.

Stir in the flour, and mix thoroughly until smooth. It should just drop off the spoon.

Spread the sponge mixture over the plums.

Bake in a hot oven at around 180 C for 25-30 minutes until the sponge is risen and golden brown. Some of the plum juice will probably bubble up through the sponge during cooking.

Serve hot or cold with cream, ice-cream, natural yoghurt or custard.

If there is any left over, it will keep in an airtight container for two or three days at room temperature.

I usually expect to get about 6 portions out of this recipe.

18 September, 2011

Kingdom of Summer, by Gillian Bradshaw. Book review

First published 1981. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4022-4072-0. 329 pages. Advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Kingdom of Summer is the second in Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, sequel to Hawk of May (reviewed here earlier). The story still revolves around Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain in the later legends), though it is narrated by his (fictional) servant Rhys ap Sion. Many of the characters are figures from the legends, including Morgause, her husband King Lot of Orkney, their sons Gwalchmai and Agravain, Morgause’s illegitimate son Medraut, Arthur’s knights Cei and Bedwyr, and Arthur himself. Maelgwn Gwynedd, historical king of Gwynedd in the early to mid sixth century, appears as a secondary character*. The central character, Rhys ap Sion, and an Irish servant girl called Eivlin are fictional.

Rhys ap Sion is a freeborn farmer, peaceably working his family’s land near the River Severn. When a wounded warrior, Gwalchmai ap Lot, seeks hospitality at the farm in a bitter winter, Rhys feels drawn to him and goes with him as his servant to Arthur’s stronghold at Camlann and then on a diplomatic mission to Maelgwn Gwynedd. There Rhys encounters Gwalchmai’s sinisterly beautiful mother Morgause and suave brother Medraut, not to mention their attractive Irish serving girl Eivlin. As Rhys learns more of the dark secrets haunting Gwalchmai’s past, he comes to realise that the schemes afoot threaten not only Gwalchmai but Arthur’s kingdom itself.

Fantasy is less dominant in Kingdom of Summer than in Hawk of May, a plus point for me. Gwalchmai still has his magical Otherworld sword and horse, and supernatural duels and healing miracles feature in the plot, but for me the strongest aspect of the novel was the interplay between the characters. Apart from Morgause, who is evil incarnate (as expected from her role in the previous book), everyone has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Gwalchmai is at first sight the ideal hero of legend, brave, courteous and near-invincible in battle, but he is haunted by his not-entirely-honourable treatment of a woman several years earlier, and he is endearingly hopeless at practical matters such as obtaining food and shelter. Agravain is a complete contrast, brash, arrogant, inclined to casual violence and not given to thinking if he can help it, but also likeable in his ebullience. Medraut is a contrast again, charming, subtle and persuasive. The conflicts between the three Orkney brothers are sharply drawn, and test Rhys’s loyalty to Gwalchmai.

Rhys himself, as the narrator, is a central character in the novel, and the tale is as much his as Gwalchmai’s. A hard-headed farmer – both literally and figuratively – he is rather out of his depth in the world of warrior honour and Otherworldly weapons, and his down-to-earth common sense is both a support and a contrast to Gwalchmai’s rather abstract concerns. The Irish girl Eivlin is a delight. Her first line, on being asked where she got that kettle, is to reply, “A hen laid it in the rafters, having been affrighted in a coppersmith’s shop”, which sold me straight away. In her own way, she demonstrates as much courage and loyalty as any of the warriors.

There are two distinct plot strands, Gwalchmai’s search for the woman he wronged and Morgause’s evil schemes to destroy Arthur and all he stands for. The first is resolved – although there is, I think, scope for it to reappear – and the second is clearly setting up for a climax in the last book of the trilogy. I shall be interested to see how it plays out.

There’s a sketch map in the front for anyone who is unfamiliar with the geography of Arthurian Britain, although not all the place names are marked and Less Britain appears to be placed in modern Picardy and Normandy rather than its more usual location in modern Brittany. The ARC has no historical or author’s note, although there may be one in the finished version. Not that it matters greatly, because the Arthurian legends have been told and retold so many times that they have near-limitless scope for interpretation.

Second in an engaging fantasy trilogy retelling the story of Gwalchmai (later Sir Gawain) of Arthurian legend.

*Although Maelgwn is dated to the early to mid sixth century (died in 547), I’m not sure that Kingdom of Summer is intended as set in the same period; Maelgwn may have been displaced earlier in time to make him contemporary with Arthur’s heyday. The author’s note for Hawk of May commented that ‘the novel is only partially historical’, so chronology is not that important.

14 September, 2011

Author Michael Dean – book signings and talk in Colchester and Chelmsford

Michael Dean, author of The Crooked Cross (reviewed here in 2009), will be signing copies of his new novel, Thorn, at Waterstones in Chelmsford on Saturday 17 September 2011 12 noon – 2 pm.

Michael will also be giving a talk about the book and signing copies at Colchester Library on Saturday 24 September 2011, 11 am – 12 noon.

Thorn is published by Bluemoose Books, ISBN 9780956687647. It’s a historical novel set in mid-17th-century Amsterdam, and featuring the philosopher Spinoza and the artist Rembrandt.

Here’s the blurb:

THORN is a Rabelaisian tour through Amsterdam in the mid-17th Century and very, very funny.

In 1656, at the height of The Dutch Golden Age, two giants of European culture meet: philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a Jew of Portuguese descent, and Rembrandt van Rijn, the greatest Dutch Master, find themselves inextricably linked through a failed mercantile venture and membership of the freethinking ‘Waterlanders’ which, in challenging the Calvinist doctrine of the day, pits them against the authorities in Amsterdam.

I’ve read THORN and I think it’s an astonishing book; very powerful, exciting, disturbing and also very funny. It is true to the ideas of its great protagonists Spinoza and Rembrandt and makes the parallel that their lives were made almost impossible because they both sought the truth. It’s a powerful, shocking and moving story of religious intolerance and, as such, more relevant today than it might appear on the surface. DAVID NOBBS

So if you're in the Chelmsford or Colchester area of Essex, UK, over the next couple of weekends, you may like to go along. I expect to review Thorn here in due course (I have a copy on order but it hasn't arrived yet).

01 September, 2011

Fire in the East, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin, 2009. ISBN 978-0-141-03229-0. 391 pages

Set in 255-256 AD, mainly in the Roman frontier city of Arete (Dura Europos) on the River Euphrates in modern Syria. The central character, Ballista, is based on a historical Roman officer, although little is known about the historical figure. The Roman Emperors Maximinus Thrax, Gallienus and Valaerian, and the Persian King Shapur, are historical figures who appear briefly or have an important off-stage presence. All the other main characters are fictional. The siege of Arete is a real event, known from some remarkable archaeological discoveries (see the Wikipedia page).

Originally sent to Rome as a diplomatic hostage for his father, chief of the Angles in what is now southern Denmark, Ballista has risen to high command in the Roman Army. His career has taken him to the frontiers of the Empire on the Danube and in the far west. Now he is on his way to face the Empire’s greatest threat of all, the Sassanid Persians in the east. Posted to the frontier city of Arete on the River Euphrates, last outpost of the Roman Empire, Ballista is given the title Dux Ripae (War-leader of the Riverbanks) and charged with defending the city against the expected Persian invasion. But Ballista has few troops to strengthen the city’s depleted garrison. Watching the Persians’ enormous army mass before the gates of Arete, Ballista knows that to hold the city with the limited resources at his command will take a feat of military genius – or a miracle. And to make matters worse, there is at least one murderous traitor at large in the city, intent on sabotage, assassination and betraying Arete to the Persians...

This is a military adventure with plenty of action – naval battles, desert ambush, assault and siege engineering – reflecting the author’s background as an academic expert on ancient warfare. At first, the pace is leisurely to slow, as Ballista and his staff travel across the Mediterranean in a trireme on the way to Syria to take up his appointment. This section felt like something of a travelogue, perhaps because it is so clearly a prelude to whatever is going to happen when Ballista takes up his command, although it gives the reader time to get to know the main characters and introduces some of the various religions and cultures. Once they reach Arete and begin the preparations for the city’s defence the pace picks up, and when the siege itself gets underway it becomes positively gripping. The last half of the book, as the Persians try various ingenious methods to take the city and Ballista’s defenders try equally ingenious methods to stop them, reminds me a little of Tolkien’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings (and in case anyone is wondering, that’s a compliment). The mounting evidence of a traitor, or traitors, in the city adds to the growing menace of the Persian army outside to ratchet the tension ever higher. As the narrative is told in third person from a variety of points of view, the reader sometimes knows things that the main characters do not, which also helps to build suspense. Ballista is both intelligent and highly experienced, so he is always trying to out-think the Persians as well as out-fight them – and the Persians in turn are always trying to out-think him. If you have even the slightest interest in military engineering and have wondered how artillery, assault towers, siege ramps, battering rams and mines were used in practice, this is a book for you.

Contrasting cultures, opinions and religions are well drawn. Arete has a mix of classical paganism, various Eastern religions and Christianity, and a Persian slave boy provides a zealous description of the Persians’ religion. Ballista’s religious beliefs from his childhood among the Angles are based on Tacitus’ Germania and Norse mythology (in the total absence of any sources in between), so don’t be surprised to encounter the Viking gods in this novel; if anything, the slightly incongruous note helps to reinforce Ballista’s situation as an outsider to patrician Roman society. The prose style is straightforward modern English with a generous helping of modern four-letter words, sprinkled with archaic terminology for period colour and with an attractive line in sardonic humour.

The ‘end’ of the novel is clearly only a pause leading into further adventures, and the historical notes in the Appendix make it clear that at least two more novels will continue Ballista’s story. The half-century or so between 235 AD and about 285 AD is sometimes called the ‘Third-century crisis’, reflecting the many political and military upheavals that shook the Roman Empire as it got into a habit of losing battles and rattled through short-lived Emperors like a bored child through a toy box. It’s a period with plenty of scope for drama, and as it is also a poorly documented period – possibly because everyone was too busy trying to stay alive and on the right side of the chaotic politics to write anything down – very little is known about it so the scope for historical fiction is similarly immense. The author comments in his historical note that one of his academic colleagues congratulated him on his choice of setting because “...so little is known for sure that no-one could prove me wrong.”

Nevertheless, as the author says, he has taken care with the historical background. Even when events and people are not known with any certainty and have to be invented, something is often known in broad terms about the world in which the story takes place, such as technology, trade routes, material culture and so on. A detailed Appendix gives a brief introduction to the known history, people and places, together with suggestions for further reading. A list of characters may help to keep the cast straight, although I found the writing sufficiently clear that I did not need to refer to it, and a detailed glossary defines most of the period terminology for readers unfamiliar with the setting. Two maps at the front of the novel are invaluable for understanding the geography and the detailed progress of the siege.

Gripping military adventure set against the dramatic background of the Roman third-century crisis in the Near and Middle East.