27 December, 2007

December recipe: Leek and turkey pie

I hope you all had a happy Christmas! Plenty of presents, food, drink and good cheer, and not too much of all the family staring at different walls. One thing there always seems to be too much of is the turkey. If ever a bird was designed for feeding a large extended family, it surely must be the turkey – so if you stuck to the traditional Christmas meal for a small family or even a couple, you walked into the kitchen this morning and contemplated the half-untouched bird with a sinking heart, didn’t you? How many turkey sandwiches can anyone reasonably be expected to eat?

Help is at hand. Why not try a turkey pie with the leftovers? Here’s how I make mine:

Leek and turkey pie (serves 4)

Shortcrust pastry
4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard or whipped cooking fat
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter or margarine

1 lb (approx 450 g) leftover turkey
8 oz (approx 250 g) leeks
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) flour
Half a pint (approx 250 ml) milk
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried tarragon or dried mixed herbs

Rub the lard and butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add a little cold water and stir until the mixture forms a dough.
(Or just buy ready-made shortcrust pastry).

Wash, trim and slice the leeks.
Chop the turkey into fork-sized pieces, discarding any bones, skin or unidentified stringy bits that you won’t want to eat.
Fry the leeks in cooking oil or butter in a saucepan over a medium heat until soft.
Stir in the tablespoon of flour and mix in well.
Add the milk, and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. The sauce will thicken and won’t contain lumps (This is an absolutely foolproof method of making a white sauce).
When the sauce is bubbling, turn down the heat and stir in the chopped leftover turkey.
Season with salt and pepper, and add herbs of your choice. I like tarragon, but dried mixed herbs or parsley also work well.
Put the filling in a greased pie dish. A dish about 3” (approx 8 cm) deep and about 7” (approx 18 cm) diameter should be about the right size.
Roll out the pastry on a floured worktop until it is about the size of the top of the pie dish. Put it on top of the filling. If it breaks, dab the broken edges with a little water and push the fragments back together as best you can – the sauce will bubble out of the crack as the pie cooks, but so what?
Brush the pastry with milk.
Bake the pie in a hot oven (200 C) for 35 minutes or so until golden brown on top.
Serve with roast or mashed potatoes, and roast parsnips or a green vegetable.

If you can summon the energy to strip all the meat off the turkey carcass, you can freeze the leftover meat and use it to make a pie like this in several weeks’ or even months’ time. You’ll have recovered from turkey fatigue by February. Honest.

Turkey, leek and bacon pie: substitute 4 oz (approx 100 g) chopped bacon or ham for the equivalent amount of turkey
Mushroom and turkey pie: use mushrooms instead of some or all of the leeks
Pork (or chicken) and leek pie: use leftover roast chicken or pork instead of turkey

20 December, 2007

Yuletide and Mothers’ Night

Welcome to Day 21 of the 2007 Advent Blog Tour, and a spot of Christmas history. Most of us recognise “Yule” and “Yuletide” as alternative names for Christmas. But where do they come from?

Yule is the modern spelling of an Old English word “giuli” or "geola", which was the name used by the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) for the months corresponding roughly to our December and January. We know the name because it was recorded by Bede, a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria (northern England), in a book written in 726 AD. That’s almost 1300 years ago, which probably makes Yule one of the earliest recorded English words.

Bede was a Christian, and his book was devoted to explaining the workings of the Christian calendar, but he very kindly (for us) took the trouble to explain how the English calendar worked before the conversion to Christianity. He tells us that Giuli (Yule) is called after the day when the sun turns back and begins to increase again – in other words, the shortest day of the year or the winter solstice. Even today in our technological society, with food in abundance and light on demand, most of us are pleased to see the days starting to get longer again, with its promise that the sun is going to come back (yes, even in damp and rainy Britain) and spring is going to come round again. It’s easy to imagine how important it must have been to the early English farmers, who depended on growing crops and raising livestock. They made it the start of their year, and celebrated it with a festival called “Modranecht”, Mothers’ Night. Bede says it was the same date as the Christian celebration of Christmas.*

Who were the Mothers of Mothers’ Night? Bede, naturally enough for a devout Christian, doesn’t explain. They were probably related to the goddesses of plenty and good fortune who were honoured in inscriptions in Germany, Holland and Britain in the first century AD.

What ceremonies were held in their honour on Mothers’ Night? Again, Bede doesn’t tell us, so it’s largely open to the imagination. Since they were goddesses of plenty, it’s a fair guess that a great feast was a central part of the celebrations.

What would a Yuletide feast on Mothers’ Night have consisted of? Well, not turkey, that’s for sure! A fragment of a will from Bury St Edmunds sets out a list of items required for a feast, and these include ale, bread, a pig, a bullock, three bucks [I presume this refers to deer, so venison was on the menu], cheese, milk and fish. So we can imagine an Anglo-Saxon pagan household settling down to something like roast pork, roast beef, venison, cheese and fish, all accompanied by plenty of bread and washed down with large amounts of beer. There might have been apples from the store, probably nuts, and perhaps sweetmeats made from honey. See The Blue Lady Tavern for a fictional 8th-century innkeeper’s Yuletide feast.

So when you sit down to the groaning table on Christmas Day, you’re continuing a tradition that stretches back a very long way indeed. Eat, drink and be merry, and best wishes for good fortune in the coming year!

* In the Julian calendar used in Bede’s day, 25 December was the date of the solstice. Since then the calendar has been modified, so Christmas Day no longer falls on the solstice.

Here are the other stops on the 2007 Advent Blog Tour:

1 December - Becky
2 December - Lisabea
3 December - Lady Tink and Marg
4 December - Valentina’s Room
5 December - Melissa
6 December - Laura
7 December - Wendy
8 December - Nymeth
9 December - Raidergirl, Chris
10 December - Dewey
11 December - Suey
12 December - Chris
13 December - Jill, Stephanie (Written Word)
14 December - Robyn
15 December - Alyssa,
16 December - Rachel
17 December - Literary Feline
18 December - Dev, Stephanie (Confessions of a Book-a-holic)
19 December - Callista
20 December - Tiny Little Librarian
21 December - Carla, Susan Higginbotham
22 December - Carolyn Jean
23 December - Booklogged
24 December - Kailana, Carl

19 December, 2007

A Roar for Powerful Words

Julie of Virtual Journey kindly awarded me 'A Roar for Powerful Words', a blog award which began life on the Shameless Words Writing Circle.

Julie described my blog thus:

"My fifth award goes to CARLA NAYLAND, another historical writer, in recognition of her careful analysis and depth of understanding in her chosen genre"

Thank you, Julie. I'm honoured.

The recipient of the award has to set out three things that they believe are important to powerful writing, and nominate five more recipients of the award.

Here are my suggestions for three features that contribute to powerful writing:

  • Clarity. This is a prerequisite. It's very difficult for writing to be powerful if no-one can understand what it says.

  • Economy. Using the minimum of words to convey the idea clearly. This doesn't mean reducing everything to three-word soundbites, it means compact writing without waffle.

  • Vivacity. Powerful writing is vivid and lively. It shows that the writer is interested in what they are writing about; which is a good first step to getting the reader interested too.

And my five suggested recipients:

  • Rick of Rocketpunk Manifesto. Science fiction, with occasional forays into fantasy fiction, alternate history and invented history.

  • Wordcarving, John Ahearn's poetry blog.

  • Nan Hawthorne of the Blue Lady Tavern. Gossip, anecdote and tales from the daily life of a (fictional) tavern keeper in 8th-century England.

  • Martin Rundqvist of Aardvarchaeology. Mostly Scandinavian archaeology, with occasional diversions (e.g. scroll down to Dec 16 for some eye-popping pics from a Swedish cabaret club).

  • Shared between: Alianore of the Edward II blog, rehabilitating the reputation of an unfairly maligned king one blog post at a time, and Susan Higginbotham's Unromantic Richard III, devoted to an unfairly maligned king whose rehabilitation has perhaps gone just a little too far.

So, off you all go to Shameless Words (link above) to claim your psychedelic lion, and I shall look forward to seeing your choices!

18 December, 2007

Scots vs Irish

If you thought the Picts were confusing (see earlier post), their nomenclature is a model of clarity compared with the Scots and the Irish. Example:

There's a Scottish monastery (Schottenkloster) in Vienna, founded in the 12th century. Why is it so-called? Because it was founded by Irish monks.

(Does this sort of apparent illogic explain the popularity of the "Irish joke"? Discuss.)

This delightful fact was mentioned in passing on Radio 4's Food Programme on Sunday 16 Dec. They were doing a feature on Vienna's Christmas markets, if you want to listen again.

10 December, 2007

The Picts (or Cruithne, or Albans): What's in a name?

“Picts” is the name used by late Roman and later writers for the inhabitants of what is now north and east Scotland, with “Pictland” being used for their territory (see map for approximate location). It is identical with the Latin word “picti”, which is from the same root as words like “picture” and “pictorial”, and means something like “the painted ones”. No doubt it has contributed to the enduring image of the Picts as tattooed or woad-painted warriors, revived for Mel Gibson’s late thirteenth century Scottish troops in the 1995 film Braveheart.

Although “Picts” is now the accepted name for the people(s) of north-east Scotland in the late Roman and post-Roman period, with no serious challenge from any alternative label, the name was as far as we know not their own name for themselves but was given to them by outsiders. Where did it come from, what do we know about it, and were there alternative names in use?

Roman sources (Third and fourth centuries AD)

The earliest surviving document to use the name Picts is a Latin panegyric dedicated to Constantius Caesar and dated to 297 AD, which refers to the “Picti” as customary foes of the “Brittani” (Britons) (Aitchison 2003). This may not be the first use of the name, and indeed the fact that the panegyric did not explain it may indicate that it was already an established name that the audience could be expected to understand. It has been suggested that the name Picti may have come into use in the Roman world after the campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus in the early third century (Laing and Laing 2001); whatever the truth of this, it was evidently in use by the end of the same century.

In 313 the Verona List referred to “Picts and Caledonians” (Laing and Laing 2001), and in 364 the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus reported an attack on Roman Britain by “the Picts, divided into two tribes called Dicalydones and Verturiones”. This strongly suggests that Latin writers at this time regarded the Picts as a collective name for at least two distinct groupings. The name Caledonians, to which Ammianus’ Dicalydones must surely be related, appears as far back as Tacitus’ account of Agricola’s Roman campaigns in the north-east of Scotland, written in the first century AD. The Caledoni also appear, along with numerous other tribes, in Ptolemy’s second-century Geography. None of the names in Ptolemy’s Geography appear to resemble the name “Picti”. This suggests to me that Roman writers initially regarded Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line as inhabited by numerous distinct tribes, and that some time in the third century they began using “Picti” as a general label to refer to several or all of them. Whether this reflects a genuine shift from separate tribes to a stable confederacy, as suggested by Cummins (1995), or merely a change in the way the Romans saw and/or labelled them, is open to question.

Gildas (Sixth century AD)

Gildas was a Brittonic monk writing somewhere in what had been the Roman province of Britain, around the middle of the sixth century. He wrote in Latin, and referred to “Picts” (“pictorum” in the original) in extremely derogatory terms. (But then, Gildas was derogatory about almost everybody).

Bede (Eighth century)

Bede was an English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) monk living in Northumbria in the eighth century. He also wrote in Latin, and referred to the Picts (“Picti”, “Pictorum” in the original) as one of the four peoples inhabiting Britain in his own day (Book I Ch. 1). He says they were divided into a northern and a southern grouping, indicating that “Picts” was a general label that could apply to more than one distinct group.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Ninth century)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun in King Alfred’s Wessex in the late ninth century. Written in Old English, the entries that correspond to events recorded by Bede and Gildas refer to “Pihtas” (e.g. the entry for AD 449). The Old English translation of Bede, produced at around the same time, refers to “Peohtas”. These terms could be Anglicised forms of the Latin terms Picti or Pictorum used by Bede and Gildas.

Pictish Chronicle (Fourteenth century manuscript, may be derived from earlier original)

The Pictish Chronicle, written in Latin, uses the same name for the Picts as other Latin sources, Pictorum. It also includes a summarised origin legend, saying (in Latin) “Cruithne, son of Cinge, was the father of the Picts living in this island. He reigned 100 years and had seven sons, Fib, Fidach, Floclaid, Fortrenn, Got, Ce, Circinn”.

Cruithne is an Irish Gaelic word, corresponding to the Brittonic word Pritani, which in turn gives the name of the island, Britain (Laing and Laing 2001). Gaelic and Brittonic each belong to one of the two main groups of Celtic languages. The characteristic difference between the groups is that Q-Celtic (to which Gaelic belongs) uses a K- or Qu- sound where P-Celtic (to which Brittonic belongs) uses a P-sound. For example, the word for ‘head’ is Pen in Brittonic and Kin in Gaelic. If you take ‘Pritani’ and transliterate it into Q-Celtic, you get ‘Cruithne’.

Irish translation of Historia Brittonum

The Irish translation of Historia Brittonum (a ninth-century Latin text) recounts the same origin legend in Irish:

“Moirfeisear do Cruithne claind
Roindsed Albain a seacht raind
Cait, Ce, Cireach cetach cland,
Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Foirtreand.”

These are recognisably the same names for the founding father figure and his seven sons, but here they are said to have “divided Alba into seven parts”. This strongly suggests that the same people and territory could be called “Alba” in Irish and “Picts” in Latin.

Annals of Ulster (Twelfth century manuscript, may be derived from earlier original)

The Annals of Ulster are of particular interest because they are written partly in Irish and partly in Latin. The full text is available online in the original and in modern English translation. In Latin entries, the Picts are referred to as “Pictorum”. For example:

858 (in Latin) “Cinaedh m. Ailpin rex Pictorum” (modern English translation “Kenneth mac Alpin, King of the Picts”)

Some entries switch language in mid-sentence. For example:

871 (in Irish) “Amhlaiph & Ímar do thuidecht afrithisi du Ath Cliath a Albain dibh cetaibh long, (then in Latin) & praeda maxima hominum Anglorum & Britonum & Pictorum deducta est secum ad Hiberniam in captiuitate”

(modern English translation) “(from Irish) Amlaíb and Ímar returned to Áth Cliath from Alba (with two hundred ships, (from Latin) bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts.

The same entry transcribed in a different version of the Annals, in Irish, lists the three groups of prisoners as Britons, Albans and Saxons (Cummins 1995).

Again, this suggests that the same people could be called “Picts” when writing in Latin, but “Albans” when writing in Irish. Similar situations are commonplace today, but so familiar to us that we don’t find them confusing. For example, the inhabitants of modern Germany are called “Germans” in English, “Deutsch” in their own language, and “allemands” in French.

The Irish annals also seem to have had an alternative name for the Picts, or possibly for one or more of the groups who comprised the Picts.

866 (in Irish) “Amlaiph & Auisle do dul i Fortrenn co n-Gallaib Erenn & Alban cor innriset Cruithentuaith n-uile & co tucsat a n-giallo.”
(modern translation) “Amlaíb and Auisle went with the foreigners of Ireland and Scotland to Fortriu, plundered the entire Pictish country and took away hostages from them”

In this entry, two Viking raiders plus some foreigners from “Alba” – perhaps Norsemen who had settled somewhere in modern Scotland or its islands – are said to have plundered “Cruithentuaith”. “Cruithen” is recognisably the Irish word “Cruithne” and “tuaith” is from the Irish “tuath” meaning a people or tribe and their territory. So “Cruithentuaith” would mean “the people/country of Cruithne”.

The same term appears in the title of one of the royal signatories to Adomnan’s Law of the Innocents, set out at a synod in Ireland in 697 (Aitchison 2003). In Irish his title is “Brude mac Derilei, ri Cruithintuathi”, translated as “Brude son of Derilei, king of Cruithintuathi”. Brude son of Derelei appears in the correct place in the list of the kings of the Picts in the Pictish Chronicle. “Cruithentuaith”, “the people/country of Cruithne”, would appear to have been an alternative Irish name for the Picts.

Perhaps the Irish had two names in their own language for the same country and its people, analogous to the modern use of “Britain” and “UK” as (not quite identical) synonyms. Or perhaps one referred to part of the other, in the same way as modern “England” is part of “UK” but is sometimes used to stand for the whole. The Irish Annals refer to “Alba” in entries for years after about 900, by which time the territory referred to is the combined kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots (roughly corresponding to modern Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line). Perhaps “Alba” had been in use for some time as an Irish name for this area, and was sometimes also applied to its largest component, Pictland.


Writers in Latin from the third century to at least the fourteenth consistently used the name “Picts”, which was rendered in Old English as “Pihtas” or “Peohtas”.

Writers in Irish used two terms, “Alba” and “Cruithentuaith” (“the people/country of Cruithne”). It is not clear whether these were synonyms, or whether one referred to part of the other. From the fourth to the fourteenth century, the Picts are consistently referred to as being composed of several distinct groups, so regional/tribal names and identities are likely.

As no source in the Pictish language, whatever it was, has survived, we do not know what the Picts called themselves. Since the writers of the Pictish Chronicle, who valued the history of the Picts sufficiently highly to write it down, used the Latin label “Pictorum”, it is perhaps fair to say that the name was at least not considered objectionable.

The name “Picti” could have been a Latinised form of the Picts’ own name for themselves, as seems to have been common Roman practice for naming other Britsh tribes. Place names such as Pitlochry and Pittenweem preserve a conjectural Pictish element “Pit-”, meaning a piece of land. It must be at least a possibility that the Picts’ own name for themselves related to this element (Room 1993), perhaps referring to a particular system of landholding. Its association with the Latin word for painting could have been merely a colourful (!) coincidence.

Original sources available online are linked in the text.

Aitchison N. The Picts and the Scots at War. Sutton, 2003, ISBN 0-7509-2556-6.
Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Sutton, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.
Laing L, Laing J. The Picts and the Scots. Sutton, 2001, ISBN 0-7509-2873-5.
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.

04 December, 2007

The Beckoning Silence. TV/DVD review

Even seen from a safe distance on a benign summer day, the North Face of the Eiger (the great dark rock face on the left of the photo) has a sinister look. In Switzerland’s Berner Oberland, this was last of the great North Faces of the Alps to be climbed, and the attempts on it gave the mountain a legendary status. Officially named the Eigerwand (Eiger Wall) or Nordwand (North Wall), newspapers of the 1930s took to calling it by the ghoulish pun of Mordwand (Murder Wall). Even now, in these days of high-tech gear and helicopter rescue, the North Face retains its brooding aura of peril. Here be, if not dragons, 6000 feet of near-vertical rock and ice, subject to rockfall, avalanche and sudden fierce storms, sufficient to test the skill, nerve and luck of any climber.

In this 90-minute documentary film, climber Joe Simpson tells the moving story of the four young Austrian and German climbers who attempted the Eigerwand in July 1936. Joe Simpson is best known for his astonishing feat of self-rescue in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, when he survived a 100-foot fall into a crevasse and crawled for three days across a glacier with a badly shattered leg to reach safety. The episode is recounted in his book Touching the Void. Aspects of his Peruvian experience have some eerie parallels with the 1936 Eigerwand expedition, making Joe Simpson uniquely well-placed to tell the story.

The documentary has three main strands:

  • Re-enacting the 1936 climb, with four young Swiss mountain guides playing the four climbers;

  • Joe Simpson demonstrating key parts of the climb at the exact locations on the Eigerwand;

  • Joe Simpson’s personal reflections on climbing and why people do it.

The photography is superb. Even if you’re not interested in mountaineering, you could watch the film for the breathtaking scenery alone. But it’s the insights into mountaineers and mountaineering that lift the film above spectacular travelogue.

The whole tone of the documentary is refreshingly understated, with none of the breathless high-adrenaline commentary that can be so irritating. This seems to me to suit the subject matter admirably – the straight facts of the 1936 expedition are dramatic enough to require no embellishment whatsoever.

Joe Simpson’s technical demonstrations of the crucial sections, using modern equipment, are an excellent way of bringing home the extraordinary technical skill required for the climb. I had read about the Hinterstoisser Traverse, a 100-foot section of ice-polished rock wall above a 2000-foot drop, but understood it far better after seeing it for real with an expert explaining the difficulties. Simpson’s personal reflections on his own experiences give some insights into the lure of the high mountains and probably come as close as you’re ever likely to get to explaining why people – usually, but not always, young men – risk their lives for such an ephemeral and irrational goal.

All this is seriously worth watching, but the real star of the show is the reconstruction of the 1936 climb. I defy even a non-mountaineer not to get drawn in to the gripping story of Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Willi Angerer and Edi Rainer battling rock, ice, frostbite, rockfall, avalanche and storm first for glory and then for their lives on five fateful days in July 1936. I’m not going to tell you what happens – you could Google for it easily enough anyway – though in truth I think the story is so moving and so well-told that it would have you on the edge of your seat even if you did know the end. I knew the outcome and I was still hooked from start to finish.

Heinrich Harrer said of his successful 1938 ascent of the Eigerwand, “We had entered another world, and we had come back.” This powerful documentary brings a glimpse of that other world into your living room. If you have even the slightest curiosity about high mountains and the strange breed of people who climb them, don’t miss it.

Has anyone else seen the film? Or read the book?

01 December, 2007


Michelle Moran has an interview with me over on her History Buff blog.

29 November, 2007

November recipe: Cinnamon apple pudding with hot fudge sauce

England probably has more varieties of apples than any other country in the world. The National Collection at Brogdale in Kent has 2300 different varieties, including cooking apples, easting apples and cider apples. Apples come in all shapes, sizes, colours, textures and flavours – see Lucy Ann White’s recent post for some examples.

Probably the apple is the basis of more hot puddings than any other fruit. Apple pie, apple crumble, Eve’s pudding, baked apples, apple dumplings – all of which have almost as many variations as there are cooks. Here’s a recipe for a steamed apple sponge pudding that’s simple to make and ideal on a cold day. I generally make it with cooking apples, but it will also work with eating apples.

Cinnamon apple pudding with hot fudge sauce (serves 4)

2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) caster sugar or light brown soft sugar
1 egg
4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour
1 tsp (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
Milk to mix
4 oz (approx 100 g) apple, after peeling and coring

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (I use a wooden spoon and a bowl; you can use a food processor if preferred).
Beat the egg and mix in.
Stir in the flour and cinnamon.
Add about one tablespoon (approx 1 x 15 ml spoon) of milk and beat in. The mixture should have a soft dropping consistency (i.e. if you pick up a spoonful of the mixture then hold the spoon vertically, the mixture will slowly fall off the spoon). If it’s too stiff (i.e. if it won’t fall off the spoon) add a little more milk. Yes, this is very approximate, so don’t worry too much about getting it just right.
Grate the apple or chop it finely, and stir into the mixture.
Put in a greased pudding basin, cover with foil, and steam for about 1 hour.
Turn the pudding out of the bowl and serve hot with custard or hot fudge sauce.

Hot fudge sauce (serves 4)

2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) soft brown sugar
Few drops vanilla essence (optional)
2.5 fl. oz (approx 70 ml) single cream

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan over a low heat and stir until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.
Bring to the boil, and boil gently for two or three minutes.
Pour over the sponge pudding.

If there is any pudding and/or sauce left over, both can be reheated the following day. The pudding can be frozen.

There are any number of variations. Here are a few you could try:

Apple and sultana pudding: Add 1-2 oz (approx 25-50 g) of sultanas to the sponge along with the apples.
Apple and almond pudding: Substitute 1 oz (approx 25 g) of ground almonds for the same amount of flour, and miss out the cinnamon. Add a few flaked almonds as well if you like.
Spiced apple pudding: Substitute ground mixed spice for the cinnamon.

26 November, 2007

The Poetry of History: Battle of Maldon

"Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength grows less.
Here lies our prince all hewn,
a good man in the dust. He will always mourn
who from this war-play thinks now to turn.
My life is old. I will not fly;
but I myself beside my lord,
so loved a man, think to lie."

So speaks the old warrior Byrhtwold, resolving to fight and die beside his dead lord Byrhtnoth, at the Battle of Maldon in 991. The battle was a crushing defeat for the men of Essex and their ealdorman Byrhtnoth, at the hands of a Viking raiding party on the marshes of the Essex coast. But the commemorative poem manages to turn the defeat into a heroic last stand. The values of the warrior ethic - courage in battle, loyalty to a lord and one's companions, contempt for those who flee - echo those in Wiglaf's angry speech to the cowards who abandon Beowulf in his last fight with the dragon (in the poem at least; I can't speak for the recent film).

The Battle of Maldon was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Poetry of History, broadcast on Sunday 25 November. A historian and a professor of English discuss the poem and its context, with splendid readings from a modern translation and from the Old English original. You can listen to it here for seven days after broadcast (so up to Sunday 2 December).

23 November, 2007

‘Anglo-Saxon’ cemetery discovered in Yorkshire

A three-year archaeological excavation has identified the first high-status English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) cemetery known in the north of England. The exact location of the site has not been announced, but is near Loftus in Cleveland, North Yorkshire, and from the picture of the site on the Kirkleatham Museum website it appears to be on a headland above the coast (scroll down to the third picture, and I think you can see the sea in the background). The cemetery is on the same site as an earlier Iron Age settlement, so presumably the graves must have been dug through the Iron Age structures, though this isn’t specified in the press reports. I wonder if this is chance, geography, or an indication that the site was still regarded as special in some way?

The cemetery contained 109 graves, arranged in a deliberate plan with an entrance to the south. One of the graves was covered by a low burial mound. One burial was that of a high-status woman laid on a bed, and with her were found three spectacular gold brooches. According to the report on the local council’s website, the most spectacular brooch was made using gold from Merovingian France, and the others are thought to have originated in Kent. Presumably the gold could have been identified as Merovingian by trace element analysis – gold from different sources contains slightly different trace quantities of other metals, which can be measured by mass spectrometry and other techniques – though this isn’t specified in the press reports. It isn’t clear from the reports so far whether the lady with the brooches was laid under the burial mound, or whether the mound covered a different grave.

The Kirkleatham Museum website has a picture of a spectacular gold and garnet brooch from the dig, presumably the brooch identified as being made of Merovingian gold. More pictures are available on the BBC Tees website, and see also Martin Rundkvist's post on Aardvarchaeology. The archaeologist leading the dig, Steve Sherlock, dates the brooch to around 650 AD, and is quoted as saying, “it must have been commissioned from the best craftsmen in Anglo Saxon England and I think it would have been the jewellery of an Anglo Saxon Princess.”

He goes on to observe that the site is only 10 miles from St Hild’s abbey at Whitby, and to suggest that the lady with the brooches probably knew St Hild. Which raises the interesting question of who she might have been. The jewellery is rich enough to indicate that she was a lady of very high status, possibly royal. The royal houses of Northumbria and Kent were linked in the 620s, when Eadwine of Northumbria married Aethelburh daughter of Aethelbert of Kent. Aethelburh fled to Kent after Eadwine’s death in 633, taking with her their young daughter Eanflaed who was brought up at the Kentish court. In around 651, Eanflaed returned to Northumbria to marry her cousin King Oswy. Kent had close links with the Merovingian Frankish kingdoms, as Eanflaed’s grandmother (Aethelburh’s mother) Bertha was a daughter of the Frankish king, so a brooch made of Merovingian gold would be entirely logical. Perhaps Eanflaed, or someone important in her entourage, brought the brooch with her when she came north to marry Oswy.

Could the lady with the brooches be Queen Eanflaed of Northumbria herself? Unlikely, as Bede (Book III Ch 24) tells us that Queen Eanflaed was buried in the church of St Hild’s abbey at Whitby, along with King Oswy, their daughter Aelflaed, and King Eadwine (in Eadwine’s case, possibly only some of him). It may be possible that Bede mistook the location. Another possibility is that the lady with the brooches was a friend or confidante of Eanflaed, perhaps having come with her from Kent or perhaps having been given the brooch as a gift.

Another interesting observation is that if the cemetery dates to the mid seventh century, Northumbria was officially Christian by then, having been converted once by St Paulinus from Canterbury and King Eadwine in 626 and again (after a year of chaos following military defeat) by Bishop Aidan from Iona and King Oswald in 634 or so. Christian burials don’t usually contain grave goods, to the chagrin of archaeologists who are thus denied valuable dating evidence. Rich burials are more usually associated with non-Christian religions. Perhaps, as is very likely, tradition in Northumbria was slow to change. Or perhaps there is another Merovingian connection here. Sixth-century Merovingian royalty were buried with spectacular grave goods, despite being Christians (for example, see the tomb of Queen Arnegunde at St Denis in Paris, excavated in 1959). Queen Arnegunde was buried in 580-590. Perhaps the lady with the brooches at Loftus knew of this Frankish burial tradition – perhaps she was even from Merovingian France herself – and wished to emulate it?

Probably we will never know the details. What seems certain is that the site is one of the most important finds in early English archaeology.

21 November, 2007

Autumn colours

Exotic-looking berries in a local hedgerow. I don't know what they are; anyone care to hazard a guess?

Woodland at sunset. The smaller trees and shrubs have mostly lost their leaves by now, but the oaks are still a lovely golden-brown colour.

13 November, 2007

The Eagle in the Sand, by Simon Scarrow. Book review

Edition reviewed: Headline, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7553-2775-1

This is the seventh in Simon Scarrow’s Roman military adventure series featuring the centurions Macro and Cato, and is set in Judaea and Nabatea (roughly the area of modern Israel and Jordan) in the first century AD. The two central characters, tough veteran Macro and the younger and more intellectual Cato, are fictional. So are most of the other major characters. The historical Imperial Secretary Narcissus has a walk-on part. Several familiar figures from the New Testament play important secondary roles, and look out for a cameo appearance by two famous and controversial Christian relics.

The devious Narcissus suspects high-level treachery in the Eastern Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea, and Cato and Macro are sent on an undercover mission to investigate. With corrupt local officials, a brigand with a suspiciously large number of well armed and equipped followers, and the rival empire of Parthia happily fishing in troubled waters, our heroes soon find their problems multiplying. Amidst political skulduggery and double-dealing, Cato and Macro find themselves besieged in a remote desert fort. Can their desperate defence hold out until help arrives? And what is the connection between the brigand leader, the mysterious scout Symeon, and a strange religious sect led by a lady called Miriam?

Readers of the Cato and Macro series know what to expect by now; an action-packed military adventure with the Roman legions facing desperate situations in far-flung outposts of the Empire, with plenty of battle scenes and a leavening of political intrigue. This seventh instalment is true to form. The plot rattles along, scarcely drawing breath between one crisis and the next, and the 500 pages zip by.

A particular feature of The Eagle in the Sand is the exotic desert setting, and the story makes full use of dramatic locations such as Petra and Wadi Rum. The Roman fort that plays a central role in the plot is a real place, and the author comments on the evocative nature of the surviving ruins in his Author’s Note. After five novels cursing the cold and rain of damp Britannia, Cato and Macro now have to deal with the harsh challenges of the beautiful but unforgiving desert landscape.

Battle scenes are among Simon Scarrow’s strengths, and The Eagle in the Sand won’t disappoint readers in search of plenty of blow-by-blow battlefield action liberally spattered with blood and guts. The plot manages to include cavalry raids on desert caravans, artillery bombardment, escalade, hand-to-hand infantry struggle and a duel to the death in the desert.

The style is colloquial modern English, and dialogue includes frequent modern expletives. Readers who are offended by the ‘f’ word may like to take note. The accessibility of the modern idiom contributes to making the novel a fast read, and suits the action-packed nature of the plot. One problem I had with it was that certain modern phrases seemed to be used to hammer home the contemporary relevance of some elements in the plot. Here we have a military force from a Western great power facing armed insurrection, incomprehensible factions and an uncompromising religion in the deserts of the East. Sound familiar? Undoubtedly history has a tendency to run in parallels, even if it rarely repeats exactly, and recognising such parallels is one of the reasons why history can be such a rewarding field of study. In this case, I did feel I would have liked a little more subtlety. Similarly with the elements relating to early Christianity. I daresay it would be impossible to set a novel in first-century Judaea without covering it, and I have no problem with the author taking a few liberties (which he admits to in the Author’s Note). I just wish they hadn’t been signposted quite so obviously. Or was that just me?

There’s a slight oddity in that the fate of one of the slimier villains is unresolved at the very end, but perhaps he may turn out to be the connection into the next instalment. If he is, I shall be interested to find out if my deduction about him is right!

A fast-moving action yarn full of battles, blood, guts and javelins, for fans of Roman military adventure. If you’ve always fancied Roman military re-enactment but haven’t quite got the inclination, this is probably the next best thing.

Has anyone else read it?

05 November, 2007

Origins of Northumbria: Two Aethelrics?

In an earlier post, I argued for 605 AD as a likely date for the annexation of Deira by Aethelferth of Bernicia, based on evidence from Historia Brittonum and consistent with Bede and the medieval chronicler Reginald of Durham. The usual interpretation of the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appears to suggest that Deira was annexed by Aethelferth’s father Aethelric in 588 AD. How might this apparent conflict be resolved?


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

A.D. 560. This year Ceawlin undertook the government of the
West-Saxons; and Ella, on the death of Ida, that of the
Northumbrians; each of whom reigned thirty winters.

A.D. 588. This year died King Ella; and Ethelric reigned after
him five years.

A.D. 593. This year Ethelfrith succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians. He was the son of Ethelric; Ethelric of Ida.

A.D. 617. This year was Ethelfrith, king of the Northumbrians,
slain by Redwald, king of the East-Angles; and Edwin, the son of
Ella, having succeeded to the kingdom, subdued all Britain


In the year 547, Ida began his reign, which lasted for 12 years.

Historia Brittonum

57. Ida had twelve sons, Adda, Belric Theodric, Thelric, Theodhere, Osmer, and one queen Bearnoch, Ealric. Ethelric begat Ethelfrid: the same is AEdlfred Flesaur.

Ida, the son of Eoppa, possessed countries on the left-hand side of Britain, i.e. of the Humbrian sea, and reigned twelve years.

63. Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years.

61. Woden begat Beldeg, Brond begat Siggar, who begat Sibald, who begat Zegulf, who begat Soemil, who first separated Deur from Berneich (Deira from Bernicia.) Soemil begat Sguerthing, who begat Giulglis, who begat Ulfrea, who begat Iffi, who begat Ulli, Edwin, Osfrid, and Eanfrid. There were two sons of Edwin, who fell with him in battle at Meicen, and the kingdom was never renewed in his family, because not one of his race escaped from that war



  1. The usual interpretation of the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) is that the Aethelric (Ethelric) who is noted as succeeding Aelle (Ella) in 588 is Aethelric father of Aethelferth. As we know from Bede that Aelle was king of Deira and that Aethelferth was king of Bernicia, it’s usually further assumed that Bernicia annexed Deira in 588 AD. As discussed in my earlier post, this is difficult to reconcile with the statement in Historia Brittonum (HB) that Aethelferth reigned 12 years in Bernicia and another 12 in Deira, implying that Aethelferth took over Deira 12 years into his reign (in 605 AD). If Aethelferth's father Aethelric had conquered and absorbed Deira in 588, why would Aethelferth not have ruled over both Deira and Bernicia for the whole of his reign?

  2. HB allots Aethelric a reign length of four years, whereas ASC says five years. This could just be a rounding error – e.g. if a king reigned four and a half years and was rounded up to five years in one source and down to four years in another – or it could be a genuine discrepancy.

  3. The ASC says that Aelle reigned 30 winters, but this is inconsistent with its dates for the beginning and end of his reign (560 to 588, which is 28 years). This may be another rounding error, or it may indicate that the dates are open to question.

  4. Four kings of Bernicia – Adda, Theodoric, Freothwulf and Hussa – are listed in HB, with reign lengths for all four and parentage for two, but are missing from the ASC. Reign lengths and parentage are the sort of information one would expect to be recorded in a king list or genealogy, so it is at least a strong possibility that HB took this information from a genuine source that was either not available to or not used by the compilers of the ASC.

  5. The ASC refers to the “kings of Northumbria”. This doesn’t reflect the political situation in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Bede tells us that Northumbria was formed from two distinct kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, with two distinct dynasties. This agrees with Historia Brittonum, which refers to the kings of Deira and Bernicia as clearly distinct dynasties ruling distinct kingdoms.

On the face of it, this looks as though one source must be wrong. However, it seems to me they are not wholly incompatible, and the clue to a possible reconciliation is in point 5 above. The ASC was written in the reign of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century, three centuries distant from events at the turn of the sixth/seventh century. When the ASC was compiled, the old kingdom of Northumbria was under Danish rule and both its rival dynasties were extinct. Any records of the lost kingdom available to the ASC compilers in Wessex were probably scanty at best, and as the AD dating system was popularised by Bede in the 8th century, it’s unlikely that any such records contained AD dates. The ASC compilers probably had little more than king lists and/or genealogies, from which they may have back-calculated dates as best they could by adding up reign lengths. If they did not realise there had been two rival lines of kings in sixth/seventh century Northumbria, and/or if the records they had were incomplete, it would have been very difficult indeed to arrive at a coherent set of dates. Small blame to the chroniclers if they decided not to waste too much time trying to reconstruct precise details of two extinct dynasties in a defunct kingdom three centuries earlier.

Two Aethelrics?

The ASC entry for 588 says that Aelle was succeeded by Aethelric, who reigned 5 years. If you assume that this Aethelric was also Aethelric father of Aethelferth of Bernicia, and back-calculate the dates from the date of Aethelferth’s accession (593) that can be inferred from Bede, you get more or less the dates given in the ASC, with the attendant problems outlined above.

If, however, the Aethelric who succeeded Aelle was not the same man as Aethelric father of Aethelferth of Bernicia, the situation becomes much simpler. This Aethelric could have succeeded Aelle as king of Deira at any time after 586-590 AD, when not-yet-Pope Gregory the Great met two Deiran slave boys in Rome who told him their king was called Aelle. It may have been in 588 AD as in the ASC entry, or at some other date. Either way, it doesn’t imply that Bernicia took political control of Deira at the time, so it doesn’t conflict with HB’s evidence that Aethelferth took over Deira in 605, 12 years into his reign.

If there were two Aethelrics, there is no reason why Aethelric of Bernicia should not have ruled for 4 years (HB) and Aethelric of Deira for 5 years (ASC), so that problem also disappears.

If Aelle and Aethelric of Deira ruled in parallel with a separate line of kings ruling in Bernicia, we can accommodate the missing kings from HB. There are two fixed points in the Bernician succession; Ida beginning his reign in 547 and reigning for 12 years (taking us to around 559), and Aethelferth beginning his 24-year reign in 593. Both these dates are attested by Bede. There is a gap of 34 years between the end of Ida’s reign and the beginning of Aethelferth’s. The five kings of Bernicia listed in HB are as follows: Adda son of Ida 8 years; Aethelric son of Adda 4 years; Theodoric son of Ida 7 years; Freothwulf 6 years; Hussa 7 years. Between them they add up to 32 years, so they all fit into the gap between Ida and Aethelferth. The two-year discrepancy might indicate a missing short-lived king, or it may just be a rounding error. In either case, it is much less of a problem than four missing kings.

Who was Aethelric of Deira?

So, if Aethelric of Deira existed and ruled Deira for 5 years after Aelle, who was he? There are several possibilities:

  • a brother of Aelle (possibly even a mistake for Aelle’s brother Aelfric, who is mentioned by Bede)

  • a son of Aelle (we know that Aelle had at least one child who was considerably older than Eadwine, because Eadwine had a nephew, Hereric, who was old enough to be fathering children in 614. Aethelric may have been Hereric’s father)

  • some other collateral, e.g. a nephew of Aelle or a cousin

  • some outsider who was no relation to Aelle’s dynasty

All of these are possible, and there is no firm evidence for or against any of them, so you can take your choice.

The most obvious place for Aethelric’s five-year reign is 600-605, which would mean he, not Aelle, would have been the king of Deira displaced by Aethelferth in 605. The only evidence against this is Reginald of Durham, whose chronicle says that Aethelferth killed and deposed Aelle to take over Deira. This isn’t very strong evidence, as Reginald was writing in the twelfth century and any sources had had 500 years to become garbled by then. However, Reginald’s statement can be accommodated if Aethelric was a client-king or under-king installed after Aelle’s death to run Deira under Aethelferth’s overall control. It was not unknown for under-kings to govern part of a kingdom, as Bede mentions an under-king of Deira during Oswy’s reign in 651 (Book III, Ch. 14). Client-kings have tremendous potential to confuse records if one chronicler counts the client as a proper king and another doesn’t.

When writing fiction, you have to choose one of the possibilities and go with it. In Paths of Exile I decided to make Aethelric of Deira a nephew of Aelle (because I wanted Hereric’s father for another role in the story), and to make him a client-king installed in 605 under Aethelferth’s control (because that would account for confusion in the records, and because I liked the idea). I don’t claim that this is the Right Answer by any means, but as set out here I think it is a plausible one.

Does this make sense?

29 October, 2007

Innocent Traitor, by Alison Weir. Book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mildly dramatised biography of the tragic Lady Jane Grey.

Has anyone else read it?

27 October, 2007

October recipe: Flapjack

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

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

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

Sultana flapjack (makes 12 pieces)

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

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

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

19 October, 2007

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

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

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


Bede, Ecclesiastical History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Nothing is known of Acha’s death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 October, 2007

Mists, mellow fruitfulness, and mushrooms

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

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

08 October, 2007

The Wicked Day, by Mary Stewart. Book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 September, 2007

September recipe: Sausage and apple ragout

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Acorns bouncing off my head as I cycle to the post office. An adolescent squirrel burying nuts in the lawn. Spiders in the bath (every season has its downside).

Rosy apples on the tree, late tomatoes, plump onions, and a couple of late courgettes (zucchini for readers in the USA) that have been hiding under the leaves until now and have attained Zeppelin-like proportions. Here’s how to turn them into an autumn ragout.

Sausage and apple ragout (serves 2)

2 good quality pork sausages
2 oz (approx 50 g) dried chick peas (or you can use tinned ones, in which case you’ll need about double the weight)
1 onion
1 clove garlic
8 oz (approx 250 g) courgettes (zucchini)
8 oz (approx 250 g) apples
8 oz (approx 250 g) tomatoes (or you can use tinned ones)
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) sugar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) fresh , or 1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried, sage
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) red wine or cider (optional)

Soak the dried chick peas in plenty of cold water overnight or for 4-6 hours. If you forget, cover them in boiling water and soak for 1 hour.
Rinse two or three times, and boil for about 1 – 1.5 hour until the chick peas are cooked. Or just use tinned chick peas, which can be used straight from the tin.
Peel and chop the onion.
Cut the courgette (zucchini) into chunks if large, or thick slices if small.
Peel and core the apple and cut into chunks.
Peel the garlic clove.
Wash and chop the tomatoes if using fresh tomatoes (you can peel them if you want, but I never bother).
Heat approx 1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cooking oil in a large saucepan. Fry the sausages over a medium heat until browned all over. Remove the sausages.
Add the onion, courgette (zucchini) and apples to the pan and fry gently until starting to brown. Crush the garlic and mix in.
Add the chopped tomatoes and wine or cider if using, and stir well.
Stir in the cooked chick peas.
Add the sugar and chopped sage. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Replace the sausages.
Simmer on a low heat for approx 30 minutes. Or put in a casserole and bake in a moderate oven (about 170 C) for about 45 – 60 minutes. Stir from time t time and add a little water if it starts to boil dry.
Serve with potatoes, rice or fresh bread, and a green salad if liked.

You can make a double quantity and freeze it as an instant ready-meal.
You can vary the vegetables and herbs according to taste and availability. Carrots, sweet peppers and aubergine go well in this dish, and marjoram, oregano and thyme all work well instead of sage, as do dried mixed herbs. You can also vary the dried beans; red kidney beans and haricot beans can be substituted for the chick peas. Diced potatoes can be added to make the ragout a complete one-pot meal, though if you do this you’ll need to add extra liquid.

For a vegetarian dish, miss out the sausage and double the quantity of beans.

25 September, 2007

Origins of Northumbria: Dating Aethelferth’s annexation of Deira

The English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdom of Northumbria was constructed in the first half of the seventh century AD from two smaller kingdoms, Deira (roughly the area of modern Yorkshire) and Bernicia (roughly modern Northumberland and County Durham, plus some of Lothian and the Scottish Borders region). The name ‘Northumbria’ is first recorded by Bede, and as Bede has to explain more than once that it means ‘the people living north of the River Humber’, it seems clear that the name was a fairly new coinage at the time and may have been Bede’s invention. Each of the two constituent kingdoms had its own royal dynasty, and the struggles between them are the stuff of sagas.

My attention was drawn to one character in this saga, Eadwine of Deira (585 – 633 AD), who is the central character in my novel Paths of Exile. One aspect that attracted me to start telling his story is that he had endured a long period of exile and not only survived it but returned to build a great kingdom. Now, the first thing I needed to start building Eadwine’s story is the dates of his exile. We can deduce from the length of his reign given in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People that his exile ended some time in 617 AD, when he was about 32. But when did it begin?

We know from Bede that Eadwine’s deadly enemy was Aethelferth the King of Bernicia, and that Eadwine was a fugitive during Aethelferth’s reign. It seems likely, therefore, that Eadwine’s exile began when Aethelferth annexed Deira and combined it with his own kingdom of Bernicia to make the larger unit that Bede and later ages called Northumbria. So when did Aethelferth annex Deira?



Bede gives no direct date, but mentions several snippets that may have bearing on the case:

1. Aethelferth won a major battle against the Irish kingdom of Dal Riada (modern Argyll in western Scotland) in 603 AD. Bede says this was in the eleventh year of his reign, which lasted 24 years in total (Book I Ch. 34). We know Aethelferth died in 617 AD, so his reign began in 593 AD and 603 AD was its eleventh year.
2. Aethelferth was married to Acha, sister of Eadwine. Their son Oswald was aged 38 when he died on 5 August 642 AD (Bede, Book III Ch. 9). He must therefore have been born between August 603 and August 604, and so his parents Aethelferth and Acha must have been married by at latest early October 603.
3. Aelle, Eadwine’s father, was king in Deira when not-yet-Pope Gregory the Great saw some Deiran slave boys for sale in a Roman market and made his famous pun, “not Angles but angels”. This happened before Gregory was appointed Pope in around 590 AD, but after he returned to Rome from Constantinople in around 585/586 AD.

Historia Brittonum

Chapter 63: “Eadfered Flesaurs reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira”
Eadfered is an alternative spelling of Aethelferth or Ethelfrid, and Flesaurs is a Brittonic nickname meaning something like ‘The Artful’ or ‘The Twister’. The total of 24 years for the total reign length agrees with Bede.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

"A.D. 588. This year died King Ella; and Ethelric reigned after
him five years."
"A.D. 593. This year Ethelfrith succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians. He was the son of Ethelric; Ethelric of Ida."

Reginald of Durham (12th century):

“Aethelferth not only drove from his kingdom Aella king of the Deirans whose daughter he had married, but after inflicting a series of defeats on him and expelling him from several refuges he deprived him of his life and kingdom together.”

Quoted in John Marsden, Northanhymbre Saga.


Historia Brittonum is specific and precise; Aethelferth ruled for a total of 24 years, and was king of Deira for 12 of them. Bede confirms the 24-year total and as we can deduce from his dates that Aethelferth’s reign ended in 617 AD, we can further deduce that Aethelferth’s reign began in 593 AD and thus that he annexed Deira some time in 605 AD.

This is a year or two after his victory over Dal Riada, and a year or two after his marriage to Acha. Perhaps significantly, it is also after the birth of Oswald, who had Deiran royal blood and thus a claim to the Deiran kingdom through his mother Acha. Maybe Aethelferth was on a roll after his victory over Dal Riada, and had decided to turn his attention southwards after securing his position in the north. The date also fits with Reginald of Durham’s assertion that Aethelferth annexed Deira after his marriage to Acha.

The date even fits with Pope Gregory’s encounter with the slave boys, as this occurred between 585 and 590 AD and Aelle would have been king in Deira until 605 AD.

So we have three different sources, one eighth-century English (Bede), one ninth-century Brittonic (Historia Brittonum) and one medieval English (Reginald of Durham) that don’t contradict each other and that are all consistent with a date of 605 AD for Aethelferth’s military annexation of Deira and the beginning of Eadwine’s exile. Eadwine would have been a young adult at the time, aged about 20. He would have been old enough to be a significant threat to Aethelferth, especially if he was already showing signs of his later prowess as a warrior, and this would explain why Aethelferth hunted him all over Britain for the next dozen years. So this is the date I went with in Paths of Exile, which is set in the autumn and winter of 605 and 606 AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s date of 588 AD for Aelle’s death conflicts with this interpretation, but I think the balance (three sources against one) favours the date of 605 AD. I also think the conflict can be at least partly reconciled – more about this in a later post.

Does this make sense?

07 September, 2007

Pause in posts

The next post on this blog will be on or around Monday 24 September.

See you all then.

30 August, 2007

Kingdom of the Ark, by Lorraine Evans. Book review

Edition reviewed: Simon and Schuster, 2000, ISBN 0-684-86064-3

Kingdom of the Ark is a work of narrative non-fiction, putting forward the theory that refugees from Ancient Egypt settled in Britain and/or Ireland in the middle of the Bronze Age, under the leadership of Meritaten, eldest daughter of the ‘Heretic Pharaoh’ Akhenaten.

Medieval legend

A medieval manuscript called the Scotichronicon, or Chronicles of the Scots, written in AD 1435 by a monk named Walter Bower, gives the following legend about the origin of the Scots:

“In ancient times Scota, the daughter of pharaoh, left Egypt with her husband Gaythelos by name and a large following. For they had heard of the disasters which were going to come upon Egypt, and so through the instructions of the gods they fled from certain plagues that were to come. They took to the sea, entrusting themselves to the guidance of the gods. After sailing in this way for many days over the sea with troubled minds, they were finally glad to put their boats in at a certain shore because of bad weather.”

The manuscript goes on to say that the Egyptians settled in what is now Scotland, were later chased out by the local population and moved to Ireland, where they merged with an Irish tribe and became known as the Scotti. They became High Kings of Ireland, and eventually re-invaded and re-conquered Scotland, which gains its name from their founding princess, Scota.

This sort of folk etymology, deriving contemporary names from (legendary?) eponymous founders, was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. For example, Britain is supposed to have been named after Brutus, Gwynedd after a (legendary?) king Cunedda, and the seven provinces of the Picts after the seven sons of Cruithne. Orkneyinga Saga, written in Iceland in about 1200 AD, attributes the name of Norway to a legendary founder called Nor, and Historia Brittonum, written in northern Britain around 830 AD, attributes the names of major European tribes (Franks, Goths, Alamans, Burgundians, Longobards, Saxones, Vandals) to the sons of a descendant of Noah.

Kingdom of the Ark attempts to find evidence to support the story of Scota’s journey from Egypt to Britain or Ireland.

Egyptian history

As Scota is not an Egyptian name, the first task for the author is to identify a plausible candidate princess from surviving Egyptian records. The Walter Bower manuscript gives the name of Scota’s father as Achencres, and a historian called Manetho, writing around 300 BC, gives Achencres as the Greek version of Akhenaten. As readers of the recent novel Nefertiti will know, Akhenaten ruled in Egypt around 1350 BC and instigated a political and religious revolution, moving the capital to a new city at a site known today as Amarna and attempting to change the religion of Egypt to sole worship of the sun-disk or Aten. Six daughters of Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti are known from carvings in the royal palaces excavated at Amarna. The author argues that five of the daughters appear to have died in Egypt, and that the eldest daughter Meritaten disappears from the records at around the time of Akhenaten’s death and met an unknown fate. On the strength of this, she identifies Meritaten as ‘Scota’.

Akhenaten’s reign was not a successful time for Egypt, and the end of his reign appears to have resulted in a period of political chaos. He was followed by three short-lived successors (including Tutankhamun of the famous tomb), and then by a military Pharaoh Horemheb, who came to power about 1320 BC. Horemheb appears to have had a particular dislike of everything associated with Akhenaten, and systematically destroyed buildings and monuments erected in Akhenaten’s reign. Given this upheaval, it is not implausible that a daughter of Akhenaten might have had good reason to become a political refugee and look for a new life outside Egypt, perhaps with a foreign husband. Several chapters in Kingdom of the Ark are devoted to Akhenaten’s chaotic reign and its aftermath, and are among the most detailed and informative in the book (probably reflecting the author’s background as an Egyptologist).

Having suggested that Scota might be an alternative name for Meritaten, the author then looks for evidence that Meritaten/Scota travelled from Egypt to Britain and/or Ireland as recounted in the Walter Bower manuscript. This relies mainly on material from a range of archaeological sources, summarised below.


A necklace of amber, jet and faience beads was found with a secondary Bronze Age burial of a young man in a Neolithic burial mound at Tara in Ireland, excavated in 1955 and carbon-dated to 1350 BC. The faience beads were similar to those in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which dates to about the same period. (Note: faience is a ceramic, often characterised by a glossy blue glaze resembling precious stones such as turquoise or lapis lazuli). A second, similar, necklace was found in a Bronze Age burial mound in Devon in 1889. As the faience beads are similar to those found in Egypt at the same period, the author suggests that the burials may have been high-ranking Egyptians.

A shipwrecked boat excavated in Ferriby on the Humber Estuary in northern England in 1938-1946 was of a design similar to those used in the ancient Mediterranean and was carbon-dated to 1400-1350 BC. The author suggests that the boat may have been part of Scota’s fleet from Egypt.

Amber from the Baltic Sea is found in Bronze Age contexts in Britain and in Mycenae (Greece), indicating the existence of long-distance trading routes across Europe. The amber’s source can be identified by infrared analysis.

Egyptian artefacts such as faience are found in Mycenaean excavations, and Mycenean-style pottery is found in Akhenaten’s city of Amarna in Egypt, indicating trading and/or diplomatic links between Mycenae and Akhenaten’s Egypt. The author suggests that Akehenaten’s daughter Meritaten could have known about north-western Europe via contacts with Mycenae.

There are mysterious prehistoric towers called motillas in Spain, which consist of a conical tower in an enclosure. One was excavated in 1947 and metalwork dated to the middle Bronze Age was found. The Bower chronicle says that the followers of Scota settled for a while in Spain and built “….a very strong tower, encircled by deep ditches, in the middle of the settlement….”, and the author suggests that the motillas are these towers. Numerous Egyptian artefacts have been found in Spain, dating from the Third Dynasty (well before the time of Akhenaten and the supposed flight of Meritaten), indicating long-established links between Egypt and Spain. (However, as far as I can see the author does not claim that Egyptian artefacts have been found at motilla sites).

Two barrow burials near Stonehenge in Britain were excavated in 1808 and 1818 and contained amber jewellery and gold artefacts that resemble types found in the eastern Mediterranean.

Tin ingots have been found in Cornwall that resemble those found in the eastern Mediterranean. The author suggests that Cornish tin may have been traded, probably by the Phoenicians, into the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, but notes that it cannot be proved because the Cornish ingots cannot be dated.

Two Bronze Age shipwrecks found in the English Channel, one near Dover and one in Devon, date to about 1200 BC and appear to have been carrying cargoes of bronze artefacts of types found in Continental Europe, indicating that seaborne trade between Britain and Europe occurred in the Bronze Age.

Summary and conclusion

To my mind, the archaeological finds described in the book make a reasonably convincing case for trade links across Europe in the Bronze Age, connecting Ireland, Britain and the Baltic with central Europe, Spain, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt. If the boats found at Ferriby did indeed come from the eastern Mediterranean, some of this trade may have been direct rather than the passage of goods through a sequence of intermediaries. This doesn’t particularly surprise me; ancient cultures have a habit of turning out to be more mobile, more connected and more sophisticated than we thought. I would have liked to see some attempt to set the finds in context. As presented, they indicate that long-distance trade was possible, but give little idea of whether it was rare or commonplace.

I’m afraid I’m less convinced that these links can be construed as ‘evidence’ of a single person’s journey from Egypt to Ireland and/or Britain, and still less that they constitute proof that a daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh founded the dynasty of the High Kings of Tara and gave her name to Scotland. It could have happened (and it would make a great starting point for a novel), but it seems to me that the artefacts do not demand an explanation involving a refugee Egyptian princess. They can be just as easily, and more simply, explained as the result of regular trading and/or diplomatic links over a considerable period.

Kingdom of the Ark presents an intriguing hypothesis, but in my view has a tendency to over-interpret its evidence. For example, the book claims that the Walter Bower manuscript had preserved accurate details that were only later discovered by archaeology, such as “the exact dimensions” of the towers in Spain and the “terrible plagues” in Akhenaten’s Egypt. Yet the actual wording of the Bower manuscript – taking the translations given in the book – seems to me to be too unspecific to support this claim. Bower’s description of the Spanish settlement is, “….a very strong tower, encircled by deep ditches, in the middle of the settlement….”. This is a general description, not a set of exact dimensions. It could also apply to a medieval castle in the middle of a fortified town, for example – which would presumably have been familiar to Bower. And Bower specifically says that Scota fled “…from plagues that were to come,” whereas the plagues documented at Amarna happened before Meritaten disappeared from the records – i.e., Bower would seem to have got the events the opposite way round. He may have been drawing on a genuine tradition (although it’s worth noting that 1350 BC to 1435 AD is over 2,700 years, which is a very long time to maintain a tradition), but I think it is stretching a point to claim accuracy. There are also occasional oddities in editing, e.g. “These are found on the Continent, predominantly in southern Germany to the west of the River Seine.” The famous River Seine is in France. Is there another one in Germany, or is this an error? Kingdom of the Ark presents its case with a strong narrative drive that carries the reader easily along, but needs to be read with a critical mind.

A colourful narrative full of interesting snippets of history and archaeology, presenting an intriguing (though to my mind not entirely convincing) theory.

Has anyone else read it? Or come across the theory?

Orkneyinga Saga. Translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards. Penguin, 1981, ISBN 0-14-044383-5.