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.

27 August, 2007

August recipe: Plum Cake

Plums have connotations of abundance and the good life. Little Jack Horner ‘pulled out a plum’, a particularly desirable appointment is ‘a plum job’, and plum puddings are traditional feast-day fare. Usually a plum pudding (as in Christmas pudding) or plum bread (as in Lakeland plum bread) is made with dried plums (prunes) or raisins. Here’s a recipe for a plum cake made with fresh plums. Any variety will do; I usually use Czar cooking plums or Victoria plums.

Plum Cake

4 oz (approx 120 g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (approx 120 g) self-raising flour
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) baking powder
4 oz (approx 120 g) light brown soft sugar
4 oz (approx 120 g) butter or margarine
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) honey
2 eggs*
1 lb fresh ripe plums

* If making a double quantity, 3 eggs is sufficient.

Rub the butter into the flours, baking powder and sugar until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. (I am told one can do this with a food processor).
Beat the eggs, and mix in along with the honey.
Halve and stone the plums.
Reserve 8 half-plums and cut into neat slices.
Chop the remaining plums and mix into the cake mixture.
Put the cake mixture into a greased and lined loaf tin, or a deep cake tin of about 6” (approx 15 cm) diameter, or a shallow baking tin about 7” (approx 18 cm) square.
Level the top and arrange the reserved plum slices in an attractive pattern on top of the cake.
Bake for about 45 minutes (shallow tin) or about 1 – 1.25 hours (loaf tin or deep cake tin), until the cake is golden brown on top and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool on a wire rack before removing from tin.
Keeps about 3 days in an airtight tin, or can be frozen. I usually make this cake in a shallow tin, cut it into 12 squares, keep half of them for immediate use, freeze the rest and then simply thaw out frozen squares as I need them.

20 August, 2007

The Witch’s Cat

The witch’s cat is as much a part of her traditional paraphernalia as her pointy hat and broomstick. Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg wouldn’t be quite the same character without her formidable tom-cat Greebo:

Under the table, Greebo sat and washed himself. Occasionally he burped. Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.
--Witches Abroad

The logic of the association is clear enough. Cats can move silently, they often hunt by night, and a well-camouflaged tabby or black cat can give the impression of having materialised out of nowhere, all characteristics that fit easily with the supernatural. Superstitions about cats abound to this day, which would fit with them having once been closely associated with magic and the supernatural. The association with deities is very old; in Ancient Egypt, several goddesses were associated with cats and depicted as cats or with cat heads (see the Pitt Rivers Museum website for examples). But how far back does the association between cats and witches go?

Medieval Europe

In The Secret Middle Ages, Malcolm Jones cites a record from 1324 of an Irish witch, Alice Kyteler, whose demonic familiar could take on the form of a cat. Shape-shifting, in which the witch herself turns into a cat, is mentioned by Gervase of Tilbury in 1211, “women have been seen and wounded in the shape of cats”, and by the late fifteenth century illustrations of witches frequently show them with cats (p. 40). So the association was firmly established by the Middle Ages.

Norse mythology

In Norse mythology, the goddess Freyja rode in a carriage drawn by cats, according to the Icelandic writer and historian Snorri Sturluson. Snorri was writing in the thirteenth century when the Norse pagan religious beliefs were dying out, and is usually credited with wishing to record the old traditions before they were lost for ever (for which modern scholars of the Norse world owe him a considerable debt of gratitude). I say “dying out”, rather than “had died out”, because Snorri wrote that Freyja alone of the gods still lived, which could mean that aspects of her cult were still practised in his own day. Among many other attributes, Freyja was the goddess of magic, witchcraft and divination (seidr) (Ellis Davidson 1964, p. 120). She could also change her shape, though she turned into a bird rather than a cat, and she could temporarily disguise her human lover Ottar as an animal (in his case, a boar) (Crossley-Holland, 1980, Hyndla’s Poem).

Eirik’s Saga, written in Iceland in the early 13th century, describes a volva (a seeress, prophetess, sorceress or witch), a human practitioner of seidr magic, who came to a farm in Greenland and foretold the future of everyone present (Eirik’s Saga, ch.4). The volva wore a hood lined with white cat’s fur, and gloves made of catskin with the white fur inside.

In the story of Thor’s journey to Utgard, the giant and magician Utgard-Loki challenges Thor to lift a great grey cat from the floor of the hall. Thor, mightiest of the gods, tries with all his might to pick up the cat, but can only raise one of its feet a few inches from the floor. It is later revealed that the cat is in fact the World Serpent disguised by a magic spell (Crossley-Holland 1980). It may not be stretching a point too far to treat this story as another association of a cat with a practitioner of magic (though I won’t insist on it).

So Norse tradition associates cats with Freyja, the goddess of seidr magic, with female human practitioners of magic, and possibly with a giant magician. The extant written sources date from the thirteenth century, contemporary with the other records from medieval Europe mentioned above, but there seems no reason not to accept that they may derive from earlier traditions.


Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. Penguin, 1980, ISBN 0-14-006056-1.
Eirik’s Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson. Penguin Classics, 1965, ISBN 0-14-044154-9.
Ellis Davidson, HR. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-020670-1.
Jones, M. The Secret Middle Ages. Sutton, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6.

Having traced an association between cats and witches back to Norse mythology, I felt it wasn’t stretching a point too far to apply it to seventh-century ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England. Here’s a snippet:

Ashhere shivered. He was frightened of witchcraft, and frightened of the green-eyed, black-haired witch, who looked at him as if she thought someone had already turned him into a toad. She had said, as far as he could understand, that she had to open Eadwine’s wound to remove the evil that was killing him, and Ashhere had believed her. But he had not expected it to be so harrowing an experience. Had she gone? He crept tentatively to Eadwine’s side. No sign of the witch, but in the exact place where he had last seen her, kneeling beside Eadwine’s shoulder, a cat sat upright with its tail curled neatly around its toes. A very trim, very supercilious, very elegant pure black cat. With green eyes.

Ashhere clutched for the amulet that wasn’t there. The cat twitched its tail and glared at him with unblinking contempt. Ashhere glared back. The cat won.

--Paths of Exile

14 August, 2007

The Greatest Knight, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Edition reviewed, Time Warner, 2006, ISBN 0-7515-3660-1

Set in England and France in 1167-1194, The Greatest Knight tells the story of William Marshal and his involvement with the Plantagenet King Henry II, his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and their brood of wayward sons. Most of the major characters are historical figures, while William’s mistress Clara is a fictional character created from an un-named woman briefly mentioned in the sources.

A younger son with few prospects of inheritance and little money, William earns a living by serving as a household knight. His prowess on the jousting field earns him fame and prizes, but the great turn in his fortune occurs when he saves Eleanor of Aquitaine from capture by enemy knights. Queen Eleanor herself ransoms William and rewards him with a place in the royal household as tutor to the princes Henry and Richard. William is now at the centre of the maelstrom surrounding the House of Plantagenet, as Henry II, Eleanor and their growing sons fight amongst themselves. Royal favour makes William rich beyond his dreams, but one false step in the fickle world of the court and he could lose it all for ever.

William Marshal is the central character and the reader sees much of the story through William’s eyes. He is a thoroughly sympathetic character, level-headed, down-to-earth and with a gift for getting on with people, who somehow manages to look out for his own interests and yet still stay a decent man. Other important characters are rounded individuals with their own personalities. Henry II’s eldest son Henry, known as The Young King after being crowned King of England in his father’s lifetime, is a spoilt brat when we first meet him riding William’s war-horse without permission and manages not to grow up at all throughout his career. William’s elder brother John seems to be unlucky in all things, growing more embittered as his failures contrast with William’s success, until he and William eventually end up on opposite sides of a civil war. John’s unhappy love life, and the troubled marriage of the Young King to the lonely Marguerite, form a counterpoint to William’s much more satisfactory romantic relationships, first with his (fictional) mistress Clara and later with his wife Isabelle de Clare. Isabelle was a great heiress and many years younger than William, and their marriage as portrayed in the novel rests on the twin foundations of expediency (Isabelle needed to marry to escape her restricted status as a ward of the Crown, William needed her lands) and mutual affection. Isabelle brings William not only financial security in the shape of her landed estates, but emotional security too. On several occasions William, who has led a peripatetic life around royal courts and the tourney circuit, refers to Isabelle as his “safe harbour”.

Loyalty forms a major theme in the story. A medieval knight swore fidelity to a lord, and also owed loyalty to his king – so what was he to do when his lord quarrelled with the king? If he joined the king he had broken his oath, but if he stayed with his lord he had rebelled against the king. William has to confront this dilemma several times, and struggles to emerge with both his life and honour intact.

The novel is rich in historical details such as the food, clothes, buildings and weapons of the time. Much of the story concentrates on the personal and political battles of the court, with some battlefield action scenes such as the attack in the first chapter and William’s rearguard action to defend Eleanor’s escape. A welcome feature is the occasional note of humour, with comic vignettes such as the incident in which William gets his head stuck in a jousting helm and has to have it (the helm, fortunately, not the head) removed by the local blacksmith.

As the novel covers nearly three decades, the story sometimes leaps ahead by months or years at a time, so you need to pay attention to the dates in the chapter headings. A useful Author’s Note explains the main sources for the novel, and notes where controversies remain and where fiction has filled in gaps in the history. Before reading this novel I knew two things about William Marshal. The first was the celebrated story of his father handing him over to King Stephen as a child hostage, promptly breaking the terms of the deal and then defying Stephen to hang young William by declaring, “I have the hammers and anvils to forge more and better sons!”. The second, I’m afraid to say, was the scurrilous ballad The Confessions of Queen Eleanor, which is most unlikely to have any basis in fact. So it was very helpful to have a note of the history behind the novel and suggestions for further reading.

Convincing and colourful portrayal of William Marshal, one of the unsung champions of the Middle Ages.

07 August, 2007

Bede: the Father of the Footnote

Written in 731 in Northumbria, Bede’s history is the most important primary source for the early history of the lands that were eventually to become England.

One of the unusual features of Bede’s work is that he makes some attempt to say where he obtained his material. Not so much the Father of History as the Father of the Footnote. In his Preface he lists the authorities he has consulted, and in many places in the text itself he says things like, “This was testified to by Aldwulf, king of the East Angles, who lived into our own day” where he is quoting a specific source, or, “I have thought fit to include this traditional story” where he is relying on hearsay or folklore. However, he doesn’t always cite his references, and this can generate some interesting puzzles.

Where, for example, did Bede get his information about the Brittonic churchmen (from the lands in the west of Britain that would later become Wales) who refused to accept Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury as their boss in 603 AD and later paid a horrible price? Bede’s account is in Book II Chapter 2.

“There came seven bishops of the Britons, and many most learned men. They repaired first to a holy man, asking whether they should follow Augustine. He answered, "If he is a man of God, follow him." - "How shall we know that?" said they. He replied, "Our Lord saith, Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. If therefore, Augustine is meek and lowly of heart, it to be believed that he has taken upon him the yoke of Christ; and offers the same to you to take upon you. But if he is stern and haughty, it appears that he is not of God, nor are we to regard his words." They insisted again, "And how shall we discern even this?" - "Do you contrive," said the anchorite, "that he may first arrive with his company at the place where the synod is to be held; and if at your approach he shall rise up to you, hear him submissively, being assured that he is the servant of Christ; but if he shall despise you, and not rise up to you, whereas you are more in number, let him also be despised by you."

They did as he directed; and it happened that when they came, Augustine remained sitting on a chair. They became angry, and charging him with pride, endeavoured to contradict all he said. He said to them, "You act in many particulars contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three points, viz. to keep Easter at the due time; to administer baptism according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and jointly with us to preach the word of God to the English nation, we will readily tolerate all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs." They answered they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop; for they alleged among themselves, that "if he would not now rise up to us, how much more will he condemn us, as of no worth, if we shall begin to be under his subjection?" To whom the man of God, Augustine, is said, in a threatening manner, to have foretold, that in case they would not join in unity with their brethren, they should be warred upon by their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should at their hands undergo the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted.

For afterwards the warlike king of the English, Ethelfrid, made a very great slaughter of the faithless Britons, at the City of Legions. Many monks came to pray at the battle, having one Brocmail appointed to defend them. King Ethelfrid, said, "If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers." He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without considerable loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only fifty to have escaped by flight. Brocmail turning his back with his men, at the first approach of the enemy, left those whom he ought to have defended. Thus was fulfilled the prediction of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom; that those perfidious men should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation.”

The site of the battle is usually placed at Chester (discussed earlier). Ethelfrid is the king of Bernicia, the northern half of Northumbria, and the battle happened about 110-120 years before Bede was writing.

Bede’s dislike of the Brittonic churchmen is evident from the text. I may as well say up front that I think his attitude is unduly harsh. Stiff-necked isolationism, however inconvenient for Augustine, is hardly grounds for massacre. Though as the destruction visited on Northumbria by the Brittonic king Catwallaun had occurred only a century before Bede’s time and Bede may well have known people who had experienced it, his hostility is perhaps understandable.

The main points for the question at hand are these:

• Bede knows that the Brittonic churchmen had consulted a hermit for advice before their second meeting with Augustine.

• Bede claims to know what the British churchmen said “among themselves” at the meeting.

• Bede knows the name of the Brittonic warrior assigned to protect the monks at the battle of Chester, even though he apparently ran away and was not captured.

Bede says that he had extensively consulted records from the church founded by Augustine in Kent, so we may reasonably assume that this was his source for events at the conference. But how would Augustine have known what the Brittonic churchmen were doing before they came to his meeting? Did they tell him about the hermit’s advice?

And how would Augustine know what the Brittonic churchmen were saying among themselves? Bear in mind that Augustine was an Italian missionary preaching in the English kingdom of Kent, and while he would certainly have known his native language and Latin and may well have learned English for ease of conducting his mission, it is not obvious why he would have known Brittonic. The Brittonic bishops would have been able to talk to Augustine and his entourage in Latin, the international lingua franca of the Christian church, but would have been able to retreat behind their language barrier to exclude outsiders if they chose. Did they choose not to do so? Did Augustine have a bilingual eavesdropper?

As Aethelferth (Ethelfrid) was King of Northumbria, his words and actions at the important battle of Chester would very likely have been preserved in Northumbria, either in written form or (perhaps more likely) in the form of oral tales or sagas. So it’s no surprise that Bede knows the details from the Northumbrian side of the battle. But why would a Northumbrian soldier remember the name of the Brittonic warrior who failed to protect the monks? It doesn’t seem an obviously important detail to preserve.

I wonder if Bede had access to a Brittonic tradition about the clash between their bishops and Archbishop Augustine, and about the Battle of Chester from the Brittonic side, which he then combined with his material from Kent and Northumbria to produce this account? If Bede really thought the Brittonic monks deserved wholesale slaughter it’s perhaps unlikely that he was on speaking terms with any Briton, but he may have had a written record. Another possibility is that such a tradition might have been transmitted via Irish priests, who were active and widely admired in Northumbria in Bede’s time. Bede regards the Irish favourably in all matters except their calculation of Easter, and might have collected information from a visiting Irishman for use in his book.

It may also be possible that some of the “countless faithful witnesses” from Northumbria who gave Bede information had access to Brittonic traditions. At least two members of the Northumbrian royal family had lived in Brittonic kingdoms at around the time of the Battle of Chester, and information may well have come back with them and/or their companions.

Any thoughts?

01 August, 2007

The Traitor’s Wife, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Edition reviewed: iUniverse, 2005, ISBN 0-595-35959-0

Set in England in 1306-1337, The Traitor’s Wife tells the story of Eleanor de Clare, niece of King Edward II and wife to Hugh le Despenser (the Younger), one of the most hated men of Edward’s reign. All the main characters are historical figures.

Eleanor’s formidable grandfather, Edward I, arranges her marriage to young Hugh le Despenser, the son of one of his faithful followers. Eleanor soon falls in love with her clever and witty young husband and the marriage is both happy and fruitful, until the untimely death of Eleanor’s only brother at the Battle of Bannockburn suddenly makes her a great heiress. At first trying to secure Eleanor’s lands and then to add to them, by fair means or – increasingly – foul, Hugh extorts, threatens, blackmails and bribes his way to ever greater riches. When Eleanor’s uncle Edward II becomes besotted with him, there is no check to Hugh’s greed and ambition and soon he rules the country in all but name. Not surprisingly, this earns him powerful enemies. When Queen Isabella, her lover Roger Mortimer and most of the rest of the aristocracy join forces to get rid of Hugh, Eleanor and her beloved uncle King Edward II are caught up in his downfall.

The Traitor’s Wife is very much Eleanor’s story, covering the whole of her eventful life from her marriage to Hugh until her death. Eleanor is an appealing character, sweet, affectionate and straightforward, perhaps a little na├»ve in taking Hugh at his own estimation and managing to remain blind to his faults for so long. Edward II is also well drawn, a kind and attractive man who nevertheless made a hopelessly inept king. Some of the secondary characters are also memorable, such as the charming and irrepressible Piers Gaveston and the honest, decent, pleasant William la Zouche. Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella have a wonderfully snappish relationship towards the end of their period in power, as might be expected of a couple who came together out of a mix of expediency and lust.

I felt I would have liked to understand Hugh le Despenser better. Clearly a very complex man, the reader sees him mainly through Eleanor’s eyes and thus sees mostly his good qualities. I found it hard to grasp quite why he was so detested until very late in the book, when Eleanor has to face the evidence of his misdeeds. I’d have liked to see more of Hugh the villain at the time to understand why the tidal wave of hatred built up against him as it did. Not having seen much of Hugh’s bad side, I wasn’t very clear whether Isabella and Roger Mortimer were acting out of pure spite in their treatment of Hugh’s family, or whether they had some genuine grievance that would explain their behaviour. I also didn’t quite grasp why Isabella’s attitude to Eleanor seemed to change; when Isabella first comes to England she treats Eleanor as something of a confidante, but their relationship cools and Isabella is later Eleanor’s enemy. It seems to happen rather early to be attributable to Hugh’s nefarious activities, so I must have missed something.

The novel shows up the remarkable emotional resilience of medieval women, who have to pick up the pieces when their men end up on the wrong side of a power struggle. How do you explain to children that their father has been executed, and shield them from the worst details of it, when your own heart is breaking for the loss of a beloved husband? Eleanor survives the deaths of her brother, husband, father-in-law and uncle, estrangement from her sisters, her eldest son’s imprisonment, her own imprisonment (twice), and still manages to lead a fulfilling life.

One aspect of the novel that I liked very much is the wry sense of humour. Hugh has a sarcastic wit (On Piers Gaveston being given months to prepare for banishment, “With his wardrobe he’ll need every day of it”), Piers takes nothing seriously, and there are sidelong comments on medieval life, such as the difficulties of being a servant in a castle full of women. There’s a delightful note of comedy when John de Grey and William la Zouche are both wooing the widowed Eleanor, and again when they have to go to court to argue over which one of them married her.

The novel is told in third person from various points of view, so the reader is able to see more than one side to the events and can get to know several people. Although there’s a large cast of characters with a only small range of names between them, the story is clearly told so I had little difficulty in keeping them straight. There’s a helpful list of characters at the front of the book if you do get confused. A useful Afterword also sets out the underlying history, including the aspects that aren’t known and that have to be filled in with speculation, and briefly tells you what happened to the rest of the characters after the story ends.

Detailed and well-researched story that brings the people and events of a complicated period of history to life.

Has anyone else read it?

For more detail on the people and events of Edward II’s reign, see Alianore’s blog and website. Susan Higginbotham also has a blog and website.