28 December, 2009

December recipe: Beef pie

This is a warming meal on a cold winter day, especially with crisp roast potatoes, roast parsnips and a green vegetable like Brussels sprouts. You can make it with any type of stewing or braising steak, or with stewing venison if you prefer.

(If you have three-quarters of a turkey to use up, you might prefer the recipe for leek and turkey pie)

Beef pie (serves 2)

Shortcrust pastry

4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard


6 oz (approx 150 g) stewing or braising steak
2 oz (approx 50 g) smoked streaky bacon
Half an onion
1 dessertspoon (1 x 10 ml spoon) plain flour
0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) stock, red wine, or a mixture
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried rosemary
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) Worcester sauce (optional)*

Rub the butter and lard into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Gradually add cold water until the mixture forms a soft dough. If it’s flaky, add a little more water, if it’s sticky, add a little more flour.
Or you can use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer.
Roll out to fit the top of the pie dish you are going to use, aiming for about 1/8” (approx 2-3 mm) thick. How much pastry you need depends on the size of your pie dish; if you have a lot left over, surplus pastry will keep wrapped in cling film in the fridge for a few days, or can be frozen.

Cut the steak into cubes about 0.5” (approx 1 cm) square. Cut the bacon into narrow strips.
Peel and chop the onion.
Heat about 1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) of cooking oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. When hot, put the steak and bacon pieces in and fry over a medium heat until browned.
Add the chopped onion and fry another minute or two until the onion starts to soften.
Stir in the flour, and mix well so that the flour coats the meat and onion. Pour in the stock or red wine, add the dried rosemary and season with salt and black pepper to taste.
Bring to the boil, then cover the pan with a lid and simmer over a low heat for an hour or so, topping up with water (or more stock or wine) if necessary to keep the liquid level about constant.
Pour the beef filling into a greased ovenproof pie dish.
Cover with the pastry to make a lid. Use the pastry offcuts to make decorations if so inclined.
Brush the pastry with milk.
Bake in a hot oven at about 200 C for about 30-40 minutes until the pastry is set and golden brown.
Serve with crisp roast potatoes and roast parsnips, which need to be roasted at the same temperature and so can share the oven with the pie, plus a green vegetable (or other vegetables of your choice).

*Don’t ask me what Worcester sauce is made of. Here’s a link to the history (or the legend) of its origin. I am told it bears some resemblance to the Roman garum, in which case all I can say is that I take off my hat to the Romans if they consumed it by the amphora-full.

24 December, 2009

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

Snow is unusual before Christmas in southern England (despite the traditional pictures on Christmas cards), which is just as well given the transport chaos it causes. It looks very pretty if you're not trying to travel, though :-)

Snow on holly berries

Snowy path through the woods

.... with many snow-laden overhanging branches bowed down over the path, just waiting to tip snow down your neck if you forget to duck

Sunlight catching the snow in the canopy

Field covered in snow

16 December, 2009

Outlaw, by Angus Donald. Book review

Edition reviewed: Sphere, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7515-4208-0. 365 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire in 1188-1189, Outlaw is a retelling of the Robin Hood legends. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine has a walk-on part, and some characters are based on noblemen named in contemporary records but about whom little is known beyond the name (e.g Sir Ralph Murdac, who was Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests at the time). The main characters are figures from the legends (Robin Hood, Marian, Tuck, Little John, Alan Dale) or are fictional.

Thirteen-year-old Alan Dale, only son of a poor widow, scrapes a meagre living as a thief and cutpurse in and around the busy town of Nottingham. When he is caught stealing a pie and narrowly escapes the imprisonment and mutilation ordered by the cruel Sheriff, young Alan joins Robin Hood’s band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Growing up fast, he is taught swordsmanship by a hostage Knight Templar and develops his natural musical talent under the tutelage of a French troubadour, until he takes his place as a trusted member of Robin’s band. Robin is effectively the feudal lord of Sherwood, and Alan witnesses at first hand the ruthlessness by which Robin controls his territory. When Robin and the evil Sheriff Ralph Murdac become rivals not only for power but for the hand of the beautiful heiress Marie-Anne, Robin decides to challenge Murdac in a pitched battle – but a traitor in the band could destroy them all.

The tag line on the cover says, “Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest”, and a sticker on the front proclaims, “As good as Bernard Cornwell or your money back”. Between them they give a pretty good idea of what to expect. Here we have Robin Hood as a sort of twelfth-century Don Corleone, all-powerful within his territory, maintaining a private army and providing protection to those who pay him and brutal punishment to those who challenge or betray him. (Not so very far removed from normal procedure for a feudal lord, except that Robin is outside the law and answerable to – and protected by – no-one). Narrated in first person by Alan Dale, looking back on his life from old age, the structure is reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred novels or his King Arthur trilogy. Though Alan appears to be shaping up to be an altogether sunnier character than Uhtred, perhaps more like Bernard Cornwell’s Derfel. It will be interesting to see how his character develops as the series progresses.

As well as Alan Dale, the band’s minstrel, all the familiar figures from the legends make an appearance, often with an inventive take on their stories and their association with Robin. Evil Sheriff Murdac is a villain in the Basil Rathbone mould, a well-groomed and fastidious weasel of a man, and his henchman Guy of Gisbourne is here given an unusual provenance (which I won’t spoil by revealing). Little John and Friar Tuck are instantly recognisable, and the famous quarterstaffs-on-the-bridge incident appears, though not quite in its usual guise. Robin’s beloved Marian (Marie-Anne) is here a great lady, heiress to the (fictional) earldom of Locksley, and Robin himself is a disinherited nobleman possessed of a sharp mind, steely determination and a streak of cruelty. My favourite character was the fictional troubadour (strictly speaking a trouvere, as he tells us, since he comes from the north of France) Bernard de Sezanne. A highly talented musician and composer, Bernard is vain, sentimental, cowardly (“I only like to wield my sword in bed,” as he puts it), and hopelessly devoted to wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order. He is also charming and funny and adds a welcome note of comedy to the proceedings. For example, here he is describing the love of his life to Alan, “How I loved her! I would have died for her – well, not died, but certainly I would have suffered a great deal of pain for her. Well, not a great deal of pain, some pain. Let’s just say a small amount of discomfort…..”

Robin Hood stories, like King Arthur stories, have a tendency to attract larger-than-life elements, which is all part of their appeal. In Outlaw there is a thriving secret pagan religion led by a formidable warrior priestess practising human sacrifice according to Iron Age ritual, Little John wears a horned helmet for the climactic battle scene, knights wear chain mail head to foot when attending a party in the Queen’s audience hall, and Marie-Anne, the superlatively beautiful heiress to an earldom, is unmarried at eighteen and can travel the country to meet Robin in his outlaw hideouts with a small escort of men-at-arms and no female companion, apparently without fear either of abduction or losing her reputation. The author says in his historical note that there is little evidence of widespread paganism in twelfth-century England, but that he liked to imagine that it existed, “perhaps fancifully”, which is fair enough.

The plot is an entertaining and easy to follow series of set-piece action sequences, rather like an action film. Skirmishes, training in sword-fighting by a Knight Templar, a hall-burning, a marauding wolf-pack, torture scenes, mutilation scenes, a bloodthirsty pagan rite, a rescue from an impregnable castle, a bit of mild spying on the Queen’s private correspondence, a pitched battle and a single combat. The mystery part of the plot is fairly slight, and the identity of the culprit is strongly signalled early on, so the eventual revelation may not come as a surprise if you pick up the clue. I thought the ending seemed rather abrupt, but as this is the first of a planned series, perhaps the ‘end’ is intended as more of a pause between this book and the next one.

A straightforward modern prose style makes Outlaw a fast, easy read, ideal if you’re tired after a hard day at work. Modern expletives are refreshingly absent, and Little John in particular has a colourful line in invented curses (e.g. “God’s holy toenails,” “Christ’s crusty drawers”, etc).

A sketch map at the front of the book shows the terrain and dispositions for the climactic (fictional) pitched battle at the manor of Linden Lea. There’s no large map, so readers unfamiliar with English geography might like to have an atlas to hand to locate the more distant places, like Winchester, in relation to the sites of most of the action around Nottingham. A historical note at the end briefly reviews the evidence for a historical Robin Hood, and explains why the author chose to place his version of the legend in the late twelfth century.

Entertaining, easy-reading, all-action adventure based on the Robin Hood legends.

04 December, 2009


Peredur was a Brittonic ruler of the late sixth century, traditionally associated with York and one of the possible sources for the character of Sir Percival in Arthurian romance. What do we know about him?



Gurci ha Peretur mepion eleuther cascord maur map letlum map Ceneú map Coylhen.
--Harleian genealogies

Gvrgi a Pheredur meibon Eliffer Gosgorduavr m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel
--Gwr y Gogledd


Three Prostrate Chieftains
…. Gwgon Gwron son of Peredur son of Eliffer of the Great Retinue. And this is why those were called 'Prostrate Chieftains': because they would not seek a dominion, which nobody could deny to them

Three Faithless warbands
…. The War-Band of Gwrgi and Peredur, who abandoned their lord at Caer Greu, when they had an appointment to fight the next day with Eda Great-Knee; and there they were both slain

Three Horse Burdens
….. Corvan, horse of the sons of Eliffer, bore the second Horse-Burden: he carried on his back Gwrgi and Peredur and Dunawd the Stout and Cynfelyn the Leprous(?), to look upon the battle-fog of (the host of) Gwenddolau (in) Ar(f)derydd.
--Hergest Triads

Annales Cambriae

573 The battle of Arfderydd ‡between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.
580 Gwrgi and Peredur sons of Elifert died.
--Annales Cambriae

Medieval Welsh romance title, Peredur son of Efrawg

Historia Brittonum lists Caer Ebrauc among the cities of Britain. Ebrauc and Efrawg are the same name, and Ebrauc looks closely related to Eboracum (the Roman name for York). The title of the romance may indicate that the Peredur of the Triads, genealogies and Annales Cambriae was associated with York. The name of a kingdom is sometimes appended to the name of its ruler (e.g. Urien Rheged, Maelgwn Gwynedd), and a name such as this could have been misinterpreted as a patronymic.

However, there could have been several individuals called Peredur, and the Peredur of the romance (assuming the romance is based on a historical figure at all) may not be the same as the Peredur of the Triads and Annales Cambriae. It is notable that Peredur’s brother Gurci or Gwrgi, bracketed with him in the genealogies, Triads and Annales Cambriae, is missing from the romance, which may indicate a different Peredur. It is also possible that the author of the romance could just have picked a romantic-sounding name at random for the hero of the tale and that the name has no especial significance.

Y Gododdin

Stanza A31
Caradawg and Madawg, Pyll and Ieuan
Gwgaun and Gwiawn, Gwyn and Cynwan,
Peredur of the steel armament, Gorddur and Aeddan
conquerors in the uproar of battle with shields disarrayed
and though they were slain, they slew
None returned to their districts
--Text reconstructed and translated by John Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin

Other translations render the phrase “Peredur arueu dur” as “Peredur Steel Arm” or “Peredur Steel Arms”.


The two dates of 573 for Peredur’s battle at Arderydd and 580 for his death in Annales Cambriae are not inconsistent with each other. Eda Great-Knee in the Triads is often considered to be a reference to Ida of Bernicia, whom Bede says reigned for 12 years starting in 547 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book V ch.24). This would mean that Ida died in 559 or thereabouts, which is inconsistent with his being responsible for killing Peredur in 580.

Where the dates of events in Annales Cambriae can be compared with dates for the same events in Bede’s history, they agree within a few years (see the list in Dating the Battle of Chester for examples). A discrepancy of 20+ years is unusual. It is of course possible that either Bede or Annales Cambriae has got the date wildly wrong, but another possibility may be that Eda Great-Knee is not Ida of Bernicia.

Historia Brittonum mentions a son of Ida called Adda:
Ida had twelve sons, Adda, Belric Theodric, Thelric, Theodhere, Osmer, and one queen Bearnoch
-- Historia Brittonum ch. 57

If Eda Great-Knee of the Triads was Adda son of Ida, rather than Ida, then the discrepancy over the date may be resolved. Historia Brittonum goes on to say:
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. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Gualllauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 63

It is worth noting that this entry refers to Ethelric son of Adda, and the previous entry referred to Thelric son of Ida. If these are the same individual, then perhaps even the compiler of Historia Brittonum got the names Ida and Adda confused on occasion.

Adda’s reign cannot be dated accurately, though if the order of the text in Historia Brittonum reflects the order of events his reign was presumably some time before 597 when Augustine arrived in Kent. He may be a candidate for Eda Great-Knee in the Triads, or Eda Great-Knee may be someone whose name has been otherwise lost to history. On the whole, I would be inclined to accept the dates in Annales Cambriae for Peredur’s career, and identify Eda Great-Knee as either Adda son of Ida or some other individual with a similar name.

Peredur is listed in Y Gododdin as a battle casualty at Catraeth, which is inconsistent with the Triads unless Catraeth is another name for Caer Greu. As neither place has been definitively identified, this is a possibility. However, the heroic slaughter at Catraeth lauded in Y Gododdin is difficult to square with the Faithless Warband of the Triads. It is possible that there was more than one individual with the name Peredur. The name Gwgaun (Peredur’s son from the Triads) is mentioned in the same stanza, but I can’t see a name that looks obviously like Peredur’s brother Gwrgi or Gurci in the stanza. Gorddur is the nearest, and I don’t think it’s the same name. Given that Peredur and Gwrgi are generally bracketed together in the Triads, Annales Cambriae and the genealogies, this might be a slight indication that the Peredur of Y Gododdin is a different individual. Another possibility may be that the poet who composed Y Gododdin borrowed the names of heroes from other stories.

All the surviving references to Peredur have some connection with the region that is now northern England or southern Scotland. He appears in the genealogy called Gwr y Gogledd “Descent of the Men of the North”, the medieval romance apparently associates him with York, the battle of Arderydd is usually identified with the parish of Arthuret near Longtown in Cumbria, and if Y Gododdin refers to the same Peredur he is in company with a group of heroes from what is now southern Scotland.

It seems reasonable to infer that Peredur was a royal or noble warrior whose territory lay in what is now northern England, and that he lived some time in the later sixth century. Although far from certain, there is nothing to contradict the medieval romance locating him at Caer Ebrauc (modern York), nor is there any compelling reason not to accept the date of his death given in Annales Cambriae in 580. Given that the compiler of Annales Cambriae recorded two entries relating to Peredur, we can infer that he was an important man, or at least one about whom stories were told (which itself may imply that he and/or his family were important and/or rich enough to pay poets).

The genealogies both end at his generation, and the only reference to the next generation is to Peredur’s son Gwgaun, who is noted in the Triads as a son who did not (re)claim his inheritance. This is consistent with Peredur’s family having lost control of their territory after Peredur’s death. If Peredur was the king of a kingdom centred on York, this in turn would be consistent with the Deiran kings under Aelle of Deira taking control of York after Peredur’s death in 580, which could explain how Aelle’s son came to be in control of the city in 627. Whether the Deiran kings attacked and killed Peredur, or had some claim to be legitimate successors, or simply moved into a power vacuum and held onto it, or some combination thereof, is open to interpretation.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Gwr y Gogledd, available online
Harleian genealogy, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Koch J. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from dark-age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4
Peredur Son of Efrawg. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9
Triads, Red Book of Hergest, available online

Map links

28 November, 2009

Autumn colours

The trees have mostly lost their leaves now, but the autumn colours were lovely while they lasted.

25 November, 2009

East of the Sun, by Julia Gregson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Touchstone 2008, ISBN 978-1-4391-0112-4. 587 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

East of the Sun is set in British India in 1928-1930. All the main characters are fictional.

In 1928, three contrasting young women board the Kaisar-i-Hind steamer, travelling from England to Bombay. Rose, aged 19, is going out to marry her fiancee, an army officer she has met only a few times. Her friend Victoria (Tor), about the same age, is ostensibly going as Rose’s bridesmaid but really with the firm intention of finding a husband in India and never, ever going back to her fussy and restrictive mother. Tor is part of the “Fishing Fleet”, the slightly disparaging contemporary slang term for the young upper-class women who go to India to look for a husband after having failed to land one during the London Season. Viva, aged 25, is theoretically chaperoning Rose and Tor, together with a disturbed teenage boy, Guy Glover, who has been expelled from his boarding school in England and is returning to his parents in India. Viva herself lived in India as a child, and is returning for the first time since her parents’ death to collect a trunk of their belongings and – hopefully – to make a new life for herself there after a disastrous love affair in England. All three women will find that India changes their lives for ever, although not always in the ways they expect.

East of the Sun is essentially three interlocking romantic storylines, one for each of the three female leads. Rose already has a husband lined up; Tor is desperately looking for one; Viva thinks she doesn’t want or need one. Their romantic adventures and misadventures, and the developing bond of friendship between them, form the core of the novel. A rather half-hearted political sub-plot pops up out of almost nowhere and vanishes again without being fully resolved, and there are occasional mentions of Gandhi, the independence movement, riots and demonstrations, but the tremendous political and social forces changing India are essentially a backdrop to the girls and their relationships. If you want to understand the political changes that ended the Raj in India, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is among the best I’ve read. If you want to imagine what it might have been like to be an upper-class girl with a restricted education trying to make a life in an exotic country halfway across the world from home, East of the Sun gives you three to choose from.

Rose, a soldier’s daughter marrying a soldier, shows the British military perspective, struggling to keep the lid on random violence along the wild and dangerous North-West Frontier. Tor, staying with the glamorous and malicious socialite Ci Ci Mallinson, shows us the brittle luxury of Bombay high society. Viva, working in a children’s home in a poor suburb of Bombay to earn money after Guy Glover has cheated her out of her chaperone’s salary, shows the perspective of the independent working woman and gives a glimpse into the poverty of the Bombay slums. All three women have their own challenges to overcome. Rose has to find out if she can build a successful relationship with a man she barely knows. Tor, eager and naïve, is like a hopeful puppy gambolling after new experiences and opportunities, but her openness leaves her vulnerable to hurt. Viva, the opposite of Tor in many ways, is detached and self-contained, emotionally traumatised by the deaths of her parents and sister when she was a child and on the run from an exploitative love affair. She has to find the courage to confront and come to terms with her past before she can build a future. Their contrasting experiences, the interactions between the three girls and the characters around them, and their developing friendship for each other, form the main strengths of the novel.

One interesting feature is the contrast between the three girls’ hopes and ambitions. Viva and some of the secondary characters, such as Daisy Barker, are trying to make independent lives and to earn their own livings within the limited opportunities open to women. Rose and Tor, by contrast, would not be out of place in Jane Austen’s world; their lives will be shaped entirely by the marriages they will make or fail to make.

East of the Sun is lavish on descriptive detail and rather chattery conversations, especially in the first half of the book while the main characters are on the ship to India. As a result, the book is long - very long – and slow-paced. I often felt that it had taken pages and pages to get nowhere very much. Readers who love detailed descriptions of exotic places and customs will find much to enjoy; others may find the novel too slow and drawn-out. The author says in the question-and-answer interview at the back of the book that she found it frustrating to be unable to include the political turmoil of the time because her three heroines wouldn’t have had much knowledge or understanding of it; no doubt this is true, though it could surely have been solved if desired by introducing another viewpoint character who did.

Curiously, despite its length, the novel skips over some major events in the characters’ lives and some of the plot threads are never resolved. Tor’s whirlwind romance (so unlikely that I wonder if it is based on a real event, truth being stranger than fiction) is disposed of in a page or two with hardly anything to show her feelings. We never see the point of view of the handsome and intelligent young doctor Frank, though I found him an interesting character and would have liked to see more of him. Tor’s story and Viva’s are completed by the end of the book, but Rose is left with a lot of rather unsatisfactory unanswered questions. Guy Glover’s role in the novel is the most unsatisfying. He exhibits symptoms that would now be considered suggestive of schizophrenia (a new concept at the time, according to the novel), and pops in and out of the narrative at intervals to wreck Viva’s plans. His malevolent actions do act as a plot catalyst forcing Viva into important decisions, but his story just stops without being properly resolved, which I found disappointing.

An interesting question-and-answer interview at the back of the book discusses some of the influences and sources for the novel, and a helpful map at the front is invaluable for following the geography. A glossary of Hindi terms might have been handy, but they are almost always clear from the context so its absence is no great problem.

Lavish, detailed and very long romantic story about the developing friendship between three young English women in British India.

24 November, 2009

Appeal for votes by Alistair Forrest

My Quaestor2000 colleague Alistair Forrest is appealing for votes for his novel Libertas in the October People's Book Prize.

Libertas is a historical novel set in Spain in the 1st century BC, against the background of Caesar's civil wars.

Voting is open until 30 November, and you can vote here

Thanks from Alistair for your support!

22 November, 2009

November recipe: Fudge squares

There are lots of variations of this tea-time treat, under lots of different names. I have always known it as Fudge Squares, or sometimes Chocolate Caramel Shortbread, but I’ve seen something very similar called Millionaires’ Shortbread or even Billionaires’ Shortbread. Inflation being what it is, I suppose Trillionaires’ Shortbread is only a matter of time. Anyway, here is my recipe. If you want to make the caramel or chocolate layers thicker, just increase the quantity.

Fudge Squares

Biscuit base:
6oz (approx 150 g) plain flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
3 oz (approx 75 g) butter
0.25 teaspoon (0.25 x 5 ml spoon) bicarbonate of soda (if you can’t measure a quarter of a teaspoon, you’re not alone. I treat this as “a smidgeon”)
1 egg, beaten

Fudge topping:
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar. If you like a really rich treacly flavour, use half dark muscovado sugar
6 dessertspoons (approx 60 ml) milk

Chocolate topping:
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain chocolate.

Grease a shallow baking tin about 7” (approx 18 cm) square.

Rub the butter into the flour, sugar and bicarbonate of soda until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Stir in the beaten egg and mix to a stiff dough.

Press the dough evenly into the base of the greased baking tin. This is easier if you lightly dust your hands with flour, as the dough tends to be sticky.

Bake at about 180 – 200 C for about 25-30 minutes until set and light golden brown. Cool in the tin.

Put the ingredients for the fudge topping in a small saucepan, and heat gently, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.

Increase the heat and boil gently, STIRRING ALL THE TIME, for 6-7 minutes until the mixture thickens and starts to look like fudge.

Remove from the heat and pour evenly over the biscuit base. Spread the fudge using a table knife into a roughly even layer over the top of the biscuit base. Leave to cool.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Pour evenly over the fudge topping, using a table knife to spread the chocolate if necessary. Leave to cool.

When the chocolate has set, loosen the edges of the biscuit base from the tin using a blunt knife. Put a flat board over the tin and invert it so the fudge square falls out of the tin and onto the board chocolate side down. Remove the tin. Cut into 12 pieces. You can cut it up in the baking tin if you like, but I find it easier to cut up if it is turned out chocolate side down.

Keeps in an airtight tin for a week or so.

17 November, 2009

Aelle of Deira

Aelle is the first king of Deira (roughly modern Yorkshire) who can be reasonably securely dated. He lived in the late sixth century, and shouldn’t be confused with the later king Aelle of Northumbria, who reigned in the 860s, was defeated by a Norse (Viking) army and featured (loosely) in the Kirk Douglas film The Vikings. Aelle of Deira was a quite separate individual, and as far as I know has never attracted the attention of Hollywood. What do we know about him?


The 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. Ella was the
son of Iff, Iff of Usfrey, Usfrey of Wilgis, Wilgis of
Westerfalcon, Westerfalcon of Seafowl, Seafowl of Sebbald,
Sebbald of Sigeat, Sigeat of Swaddy, Swaddy of Seagirt, Seagar of
Waddy, Waddy of Woden, Woden of Frithowulf.

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


At some date before Pope Gregory the Great was appointed Pope, he apparently saw some Anglian slave boys for sale in the market in Rome, and enquired where they were from:

What is the name," proceeded he, "of the province from which they are brought?" It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. "Truly are they De ira," said he, "withdrawn from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?" They told him his name was Ælla: and he, alluding to the name said, "Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts."
--Bede Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. I.

This incident is undated, but presumably occurred after Gregory came back to Rome from a journey to Constantinople in around 585/586 (Catholic Encyclopaedia), and before Gregory was made Pope in 590 AD.

He [Pope Gregory] sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ. [….] However, the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under Kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis

Augustine arrived in Kent in 597 AD, so Aelle was king of Deira at this date.

Aelle had a brother called Aelfric:

…the kingdom of Deira devolved upon Osric, son of Edwin’s uncle Elfric…
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III Ch. 1

Two of Aelle’s children are known by name, a daughter called Acha who married Aethelferth of Bernicia (see earlier post for more information on Acha), and a son called Edwin (Eadwine) who was exiled by Aethelferth of Bernicia and later regained his kingdom (Bede Book II Ch.12). Eadwine was killed in 633 at the age of forty-eight, according to Bede (Book III Ch. 20), and was therefore born around 585 AD.

Eadwine had a nephew called Hereric, implying the existence of another sibling, but it is not known whether this was a brother or sister, or whether (s)he was a child of Aelle or of Eadwine’s (unknown) mother. Bede describes Hereric’s descent as ‘noble’ (Bede Book IV Ch. 23), which is consistent with royal descent from Aelle, but this is not certain.


Aelle appears in various genealogies:

Eadwine son of Aelle son of Yffe son of Wuscfrea son of Wilgils son of Westerfalca son of Soemil son of Saefugel son of Saebald son of Siggot son of Seubdaeg son of Woden son of Frealaf
--Anglian Collection

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
--Historia Brittonum ch. 61

See also his genealogy in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted above.

Reginald of Durham (12th century chronicler)

"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.


The genealogies are remarkably consistent for four or five generations before Aelle, and even the names in the upper reaches are broadly similar, so either the surviving manuscripts all copied from each other or they were all derived from the same tradition.

The date given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for Aelle’s death (588 AD) does not fit with the statement by Bede in On the Reckoning of Time that Aelle was still king in Deira, reigning at the same time as Aethelferth in Bernicia, in 597 AD when Augustine arrived in Kent. I’ve argued elsewhere that the date in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may be mistaken, perhaps arising from a confusion between two kings named Aethelric, and that a date of 605 AD for Aelle’s death and Aethelferth’s takeover is a better fit with more of the sources. (You can make up your own mind whether you agree with me).

However, the reign length for Aelle given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t contradict Bede, and there seems no particular reason to challenge it. It’s possible that “thirty years” was just an approximation meaning “a long time”, or that it meant what it said. AD dating was popularised by Bede, and prior to its widespread adoption the standard method of reckoning dates was by regnal years (“in the Xth year of the reign of King Y”), as can be seen from the records of some of the Church synods given in Bede’s history. A system of reckoning time by regnal years requires keeping records of kings and their reign lengths. Reign length is thus the sort of information we might expect a scribe to have access to from early sources, perhaps king-lists from Northumbria and its component parts of Deira and Bernicia and/or stories handed down in oral tradition.

Thirty years (approximately) is a long time to hold down the most dangerous job in early medieval Britain, but reigns of that sort of length are not unknown. Oswy of Northumbria ruled for about 28 years (“with much trouble”) according to Bede (Book III Ch 14), Aethelferth ruled for 24 years in total according to Historia Brittonum, and Alfred the Great ruled Wessex for 28 years between 871 and 899. Perhaps Aelle of Deira was similarly long-serving. If he was, he would presumably have been at least middle-aged and perhaps approaching old age by the end of his reign. This may indicate the context in which Aethelferth successfully annexed Deira. If Aelle did rule for thirty years or so, it’s a reasonable inference that he was an effective ruler (or possibly a very, very lucky one), but no-one remains at the height of their powers for ever. If he was ageing and/or in poor health he may have been an easy target for the aggressive and militarily able Aethelferth.

If Aelle ruled in Deira for 30 years, and his reign ended in 605 when Aethelferth began his 12 years of rule in Deira, then Aelle would have begun his rule in Deira somewhere around 575 AD (give or take a few years if the 30-year reign length is taken as an approximation). If we disregard Reginald of Durham’s late account and say that Aelle’s reign ended five years before Aethelferth’s annexation of Deira, that would place Aelle’s reign from 570 to 600 or thereabouts. Interestingly, either scenario would make him roughly contemporary with Peredur, killed in 580 AD according to Annales Cambriae and traditionally associated with York. Given that Aelle’s son Eadwine controlled York in the next generation (by 627 AD), this raises interesting questions about the relationship between Aelle and Peredur and the political territories they controlled. More about Peredur in a later post.


Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Marsden J. Northanhymbre Saga. Kyle Cathie, 1992, ISBN 1856260550
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Anglian Collection, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Catholic Encyclopaedia, Pope St Gregory I (“the Great”), available online

15 November, 2009

Book Giveaway from Nan Hawthorne

Nan Hawthorne is giving away free e-book copies of her novel An Involuntary King to readers outside North America. Here is what she says:

"I recently checked the price that Amazon.co.uk charges for my novel, An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England. I was appalled. Of course, it's a combination of the fact that the book costs too much anyway and that postage to ship from my printer to your green and sceptered-isle is likewise.

So I am making this offer to those to live in the land where my novel takes place, namely England. If you purchase the ebook version on Smashwords, I will give you a coupon for 100% off the cover price there. That is, I am giving you the book.

You will need to contact me to get the coupon code first. Email: hawthorne@nanhawthorne.com

You can check out the book's page on Smashwords for more information on the book itself.

To qualify you just have to tell me the name of the town and county you live in and the name of your favorite king or queen of England. That part is just to humour me.

Don't dilly dally... there's an expiration date for the coupon. It's not for a while, but still..."

-Nan Hawthorne

So there you go - to get a free e-book copy of Nan's book, all you have to do is email her on hawthorne@nanhawthorne.com, with the name of your town and county and the name of your favourite king or queen of England, and Nan will send you a coupon code.

I checked with Nan, and the offer is open to anyone outside North America.

10 November, 2009

The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis. Book review

Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2000. ISBN: 0099414732, 315 pages.

Set in Rome and Britain in 70 AD, immediately after the political turmoil of the Year of Four Emperors, this historical mystery launched the immensely (and deservedly) popular Falco series. Emperor Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian are secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Hard-bitten and not very successful private informer Marcus Didius Falco is short of funds, as ever. When he has the opportunity to rescue a pretty aristocratic girl from the thugs who are chasing her through the Forum, he naturally hopes for a reward from her wealthy family. Instead, he finds himself commissioned to investigate a murky financial scam, which soon turns out to have even murkier political overtones. When the trail turns murderous, Falco finds himself travelling to the godforsaken wilds of Britain, where he encounters two perils - working as a slave in the silver mines, and the beautiful, classy senator’s daughter Helena Justina.

I’ve read The Silver Pigs many times since it first appeared, and listened to the BBC radio adaptation starring Anton Lesser at least twice, and it’s just as fresh on an umpteenth encounter as on the first. The plot races along even faster than Helena Justina’s carriage driving, with plenty of unlikely twists and turns. I always lose track of who is double-crossing who among all the nefarious dealings – involving stolen silver, smuggling, attempts to bribe the Praetorian Guard, and a conspiracy against the Emperor – but for me that never matters. I read The Silver Pigs not for the whodunnit (although the murder is ingeniously resolved), but for the fun and energy of Falco’s world, the strong cast of characters and the sharpness of the writing.

Rome in The Silver Pigs is a city teeming with people from all walks of life, all of them busy making a living, raising their families, trying to get rich quick, arguing, gossiping, fighting, joking and trying to put one over on each other. Its richness and vitality remind me in some ways of Dickens’ London, or Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. Never mind the Great Men and the marble monuments, Falco’s Rome is a city of jerry-built apartment buildings, dodgy fast-food joints, street markets, brothels, unsavoury taverns, labourers, craftsmen, debt collectors and muggers. There is a wealth of historical detail, but it’s there to create a world and never simply slathered on for exotic background.

Falco is a marvellous character, streetwise gumshoe and hopeless romantic by turns. An ex-legionary who served in Britain during the trauma of the Boudican revolt, he is as tough as an old Army boot and a casual womaniser (or he would like you to believe he is – I’m never sure how many of the Tripolitanian acrobat girls are wishful thinking), but his little niece shows him up to be a big softy at heart and he writes sentimental love poetry that nobody reads. His cynical, witty narrative, in a slangy style reminiscent of Marlowe, is nothing less than a delight. Helena Justina, cool, intelligent and self-possessed, makes a worthy match for him as their relationship develops (in this and subsequent books).

The secondary characters are no less colourful. Falco’s gimcrack apartment building is owned by a retired gladiator called Smaractus who employs a team of heavies to collect unpaid rent, and the ground floor is occupied by a laundry run by the kindly but no less formidable Lenia, who has her eye on marrying Smaractus at a profit. Falco’s old friend and ex-Army colleague Petronius is a world-weary watchman, ever ready to drown his sorrows in a flagon of cheap wine, usually only to find that they can swim. Falco’s domineering mother and tribe of sisters have very little truck with the idea that Falco is supposed to be the head of the family. Emperor Vespasian, the tough provincial army general who came from nowhere and made himself Emperor, has a splendid cameo role (in the radio adaptation Michael Tudor Barnes plays him as a bluff Yorkshireman, and now it’s his voice I always hear for Vespasian when reading the books).

But the great strength of the Falco novels, for me, is the racy, humorous writing style. Some examples:

  • A Praetorian guard officer on investigating smugglers: “…. tracking the weevils back to their biscuit….”

  • On Britain: “If you simply cannot avoid it, you will find the province of Britain out beyond civilisation in the realms of the North Wind. If your mapskin has grown ragged at the edges you will have lost it, in which case so much the better is all I can say.”

  • On Bath: “Hot springs gushed out of the rock at a shrine where puzzled Celts still came to dedicate coinage to Sul, gazing tolerantly at the brisk new plaque which announced that Roman Minerva had assumed management. […] I could not believe that anything could ever be made of this place.”

  • On a shady dealer in metals: “…..a loud British wideboy, all twisty electrum necklets and narrow, pointed shoes …..”.

  • On a brawl in a brothel: “The table toppled over, pulling down a curtain to reveal some citizen’s white backside rising like the Moon Goddess as he did his anxious duty by a maiden of the house; the poor rabbit froze in mid-thrust, then went into eclipse.”

  • On Helena Justina, when Falco first meets her as an enemy: “…burnt caramel eyes in a bitter almond face….”, and later, when he realises she is far from an enemy, “….warm caramel eyes in a creamy almond face….”

Warm, humane, funny and unsentimental, The Silver Pigs is lighthearted but not lightweight, ranging from the tragic to the absurd with a cast of colourful characters and a vivid recreation of ancient Rome in all its grubby glory.

03 November, 2009


The Attacotti are mentioned in a small number of sources as a tribe who attacked Late Roman Britain in the second half of the fourth century. Who were they, and where did they come from?


Ammianus Marcellinus

The major source for the Attacotti’s existence is the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who wrote a history of Rome in the late fourth century. In Book 27 of his history, he writes:

It will, however, be in place to say, that at that time the Picts, divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, were ranging widely and causing great devastation; while the Gallic regions, wherever anyone could break in by land or by sea, were harassed by the Franks and their neighbours, the Saxons, with cruel robbery, fire, and the murder of all who were taken prisoners.
--Ammianus Marcellinus

“At that time” refers to 364 AD, so his account is roughly contemporary with the events described.

St Jerome

St Jerome was a Christian priest who lived between about 350 and about 420 AD, and who travelled to Gaul some time around 365–370 AD. In one of his writings, he mentions the Attacotti as a British tribe and describes them as cannibals:

Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the paps of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.
--Quoted in the Wikipedia entry

The Wikipedia entry says the Latin is capable of a less dramatic interpretation, if the word “humanis” (human flesh) is a mistake for “inhumanis” (animal flesh”, in which case the Attacotti’s dietary preferences would be “haunches of fatted animals” and “sow belly or cow’s udder”. I’m not qualified to comment on the Latin, but I have to say I find this a much more plausible scenario. Cow udder is a traditional dish, along with things like pig’s head brawn, tripe and chitterlings. Animal haunches – otherwise known as hams – need no comment.

Notitia Dignitatum

The Notitia Dignitatum (List of Offices) is an official list of late Roman administrative and military posts from about 400 AD. Some of the military units listed have names that could be variant spellings of Attacotti:

Section VII:
In Italy:
Atecotti Honoriani iuniores

In the Gauls with the illustrious master of horse in Gauls:
Atecotti Honoriani seniores
Atecotti iuniores Gallicani.
--English translation, omitting the lists of units, Latin text, including the lists of units

If these refer to the same tribe as the Attacotti of Ammianus Marcellinus and St Jerome, this suggests that the Late Roman Army had recruited some troops from the rebellious British tribe and sent them off to serve elsewhere in the Empire. Whether the service was voluntary (for the promise of pay and the chance to see the world), or compulsory as part of the price of defeat, or a bit of both, is open to question.

Where were the Attacotti from?

St Jerome, a contemporary who could have met some of the Atecotti soldiers stationed in Gaul, is clear that they were a British tribe. Ammianus, also contemporary, considers them to be distinct from both the Picts and the Scots (Irish). Since they attacked Roman Britain and since Ammianus brackets them with other tribes from outside the Empire, it’s a reasonable inference that they did not live within the Roman province of Britannia.

I can think of two plausible locations for the Attacotti:

  • One of the tribes living in what is now southern Scotland/north-east England, north of Hadrian’s Wall but outside the area associated with the Picts

  • A tribe living in the area associated with the Picts, but sufficiently culturally distinct to be considered a separate group by Roman observers.

Southern Scotland/north-east England

Ptolemy’s Geography, compiled in the second century AD, lists four tribes living in what is now southern Scotland/north-east England, roughly in the area north of Hadrian’s Wall and south of the Forth–Clyde line. This area was outside the Roman province in 360. In later sources the Picts are usually associated with the area north of the Forth–Clyde line. I suspect that the term “Picts” was applied rather vaguely, and perhaps meant different things at different times to different people, but if Ammianus applied the same regional association the tribes of southern Scotland would not have counted as Picts. The tribes listed by Ptolemy are:

The Novantae dwell on the side toward the north below the peninsula of this name
Below are the Selgovae
From these toward the east, but more northerly, are the Damnoni
Further south are the Otalini
--Ptolemy, Geography, Book 2

None of these names looks obviously related to “Attacotti”, but the name “Picts” doesn’t appear in Ptolemy’s Geography either. It is entirely possible that one (or more) of the tribes acquired a new name between the second century and the fourth, or that “Attacotti” was invented as a new umbrella term to group them together. This possible location, combined with St Jerome’s lurid description, may underlie the legend that a race of cannibals once lived in the region of Glasgow.

Culturally distinct group among the “Picts”

Since St Jerome says the Attacotti were a British tribe, I’ll take that as an indication that they came from mainland Britain, not Ireland, and consider where they might be found amongst the “Picts”, but the same line of argument could be applied equally well to an Irish tribe.

“The Picts” was clearly a sort of umbrella term for a multiplicity of different tribes. Ammianus Marcellinus recognises two subdivisions, and there may well have been many more. The Pictish origin legend refers to seven regions, and Ptolemy’s Geography lists many tribes in what is now Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde. I touched on the likelihood of multiple regional groupings among the “Picts” in my earlier post about the name, and Jonathan Jarrett has discussed the issue in more detail. Similarly, Ptolemy reports a large number of separate tribes in Ireland. One would not necessarily expect Latin writers based in the Mediterranean lands to be experts in the detailed nomenclature or comparative anthropology of hostile “barbarian” tribes from beyond the fringes of the known world. The terms “Picts” and “Scots” may have been rather vague catch-all labels, perhaps (probably?) no more precise than modern labels like “Asian”.

If the Atecotti army units in the Notitia Dignitatum were indeed recruited from the Attacotti tribe, there is the possibility that they, or records about their recruitment, were the source of Ammianus’ and St Jerome’s information about the Attacotti. In which case, “Attacotti” may have been their own name for themselves. Presumably the Roman army bureaucracy would have wanted to know what to call the new recruits, and the simplest way to find out would have been to ask them. If the Attacotti thought of themselves as a distinct tribe, and either didn’t accept or had never heard of the Roman label of Pict, they would naturally give their tribal name and the scribe would naturally write it down as best he could.

A related possibility is that the Attacotti were somehow sufficiently distinct from the Roman idea of a “Pict” for Roman observers to conclude that they must be a separate tribe. This could have been due to a difference in any cultural marker - customs, religion, language, appearance, etc. For example, if the Romans assumed all “Picts” were “painted people”, maybe the Attacotti didn’t use body paint or tattoos? Material culture certainly varied widely across the territory associated with the “Picts” (see Jonathan Jarrett’s article for some examples). I’ll focus on one: the brochs.

The broch-builders

Brochs are impressive and sophisticated drystone towers, found only in what is now Scotland. Many have a double-skinned wall with a passageway and steps in the space between the inner and outer walls, and appear to have been two- or three-storey buildings. The double-skinned wall would act as a barrier to stop rain seeping in to the dwelling areas, and would also have helped circulate heat through the structure (see explanation and a reconstruction drawing here). If the cattle lived on the ground floor in the winter they would have contributed to the central heating – you get a lot of heat off a cow – without too much in the way of smells or mess in the dwelling area. As usual, there’s a debate about the purpose of brochs – defensive castle, farmhouse or stately home? – and there’s no reason why they couldn’t have fulfilled more than one role at different times and places.

Not only are brochs confined to what is now Scotland, they are concentrated in defined areas, mainly Caithness (the north-east corner of the mainland), the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland), and the Western Isles (see distribution map on the Wikipedia page). This restricted distribution is consistent with (though does not prove) the possibility that brochs were mainly built and used by one or a few tribes.

As an interesting straw in the wind, it’s worth noting that Norse place names in Scotland are also heavily concentrated in the Northern and Western Isles and to a lesser extent in Caithness (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998). I should stress that I am not suggesting a direct association between Norse place names and brochs. For a start, they are separated by a thousand years or so, as brochs are mostly considered to have been built in the century or so either side of 0 AD, and Norse place names are mostly considered to date from around the ninth to twelfth centuries. However, the one thing that never changes about history is geography, as the saying goes. The Northern Isles and Caithness are the areas most obviously open to seaborne contact with Norway. Maybe there was cultural contact between these regions long before the historical Norse (Viking, if you prefer) settlements in Scotland, leading to the development of a distinctive cultural identity among the people living in the Northern and Western Isles and Caithness, expressed in the building of brochs (and possibly also in other ways that haven’t left evidence).

Place name

The Pictish origin legend says that their land was divided between the seven sons of Cruithne. In the Pictish Chronicle their names are given as:

Fib, Fidach, Floclaid, Fortrenn, Got, Ce, Circinn
--Pictish Chronicle

In the Irish translation of Historia Brittonum their names are given as:
Moirfeisear do Cruithne claind
Roindsed Albain a seacht raind
Cait, Ce, Cireach cetach cland,
Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Foirtreand.
--Historia Brittonum, Irish

“Got” or “Cait” is the origin of the modern name Caithness. Clutching at straws, how about a connection between “Cait” and the “-cott-” element in Attacotti? This is no more than dictionary fishing on my part, and I am not qualified to say whether there is any possible basis for a connection on linguistic grounds, so it may well just be a superficial resemblance. But possibly an interesting one.

Speculative interpretation

How about the broch-builders or their successors, living in what is now Caithness and the Northern and/or Western Isles, as a candidate for a culturally distinct tribe who in the 360s AD were called the Attacotti by Ammianus Marcellinus and St Jerome?

If other aspects of their culture were as distinctive as their architecture, such a tribe may well have seemed sufficiently culturally distinct from the other tribes the Romans called “Picts” to warrant a separate name.

Contact with Norway across the North Sea may have stimulated the development of a distinctive culture in Caithness and the Northern and/or Western Isles, as happened with the Norse (Viking) influence in similar areas in later centuries.

An echo of the name Attacotti may – and I stress ‘may’ – possibly be traceable in the name of Caithness.

Needless to say, other interpretations are possible.

Ammianus Marcellinus, available online
Graham-Campbell J, Batey CE. Vikings in Scotland: an archaeological survey. Edinburgh University Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0748606412. Searchable at Google Books.
Historia Brittonum, Irish, available online
Notitia Dignitatum, available online, English translation, omitting the lists of units, Latin text, including the lists of units
Pictish Chronicle, available online
Ptolemy, Geography, Book 2, available online

Map links
Location map showing Shetland and Orkney (The Northern isles) in relation to Scotland and Norway

27 October, 2009

Sword Song, by Bernard Cornwell. Book review

Edition reviewed: Harper, 2008. ISBN 978-0-00-721973-5. 360 pages.

Fourth in Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred series, Sword Song is set in 885. Alfred of Wessex (later known as Alfred the Great), Aethelred of Mercia, Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed and the Danish leader Haesten are based on historical figures. All the main characters are fictional.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is now 28, married to his beloved Gisela, sister of the Danish king of Northumbria (told in Book 3, The Lords of the North). Still reluctantly oath-bound to serve King Alfred of Wessex, he is lord of the burh of Coccham (modern Cookham) on Wessex’s eastern border. Alfred and the Danes have signed a treaty, ceding north and east England to Danish rule (the Danelaw), and the land is more or less at peace. When a new group of Norse adventurers come to Lundene (modern London) bent on conquering Wessex, they offer to recognise Uhtred as King of Mercia if he will join them. Uhtred has to choose between allying with the Danes, whom he likes but does not entirely trust, and remaining loyal to Alfred, whom he neither likes nor trusts but to whom he is bound by a sworn oath. When Aethelflaed, Alfred’s lovely and spirited daughter, enters the frame, Uhtred’s uncertain loyalties shape the fate of kingdoms.

Years ago, I once persuaded a gentleman in my local bookstore who said he loved the Sharpe series but had got fed up with Bernard Cornwell’s medieval novels to try The Last Kingdom, on the grounds that it was essentially Sharpe with Vikings and battleaxes instead of rifles and Frenchmen. Well, it seems that early assessment was not too far off the mark. The Uhtred series seems to get more like Sharpe with each succeeding book. Sword Song has all the trademark ingredients: the detailed blood-splattered battle scenes; the resentful hero from the wrong side of the tracks with an unrivalled talent for violence and war; the incompetent/vicious/deceitful/hypocritical enemies in high places on his own side; a plot constructed around one or two set-piece battles. In Finan, the capable Irish warrior introduced in Book 3 (Lords of the North) and now Uhtred’s loyal friend and comrade-in-arms, there may even be an echo of Sergeant Harper. Sword Song is located firmly in the south along the River Thames, so Ragnar and the likeable Guthred of Northumbria don’t make an appearance, but Finan and the ebullient Welsh warrior-turned priest Father Pyrlig inject a cheerful note into the proceedings.

All the usual features of the Uhtred series are present too: Vikings are cool; whenever Uhtred kills someone he quite likes he makes sure to put a weapon in the man’s hand so they can drink together in the corpse-hall after death; Christianity is “…a religion that sucks joy from this world like dusk swallowing daylight…” and its senior clergy are cruel woman-oppressing hypocrites; Uhtred miraculously overcomes impossible odds. Fans of the series so far will know pretty much what to expect.

Sword Song is a quick, easy and undemanding read. The plot is somewhat average, and in places it feels almost as if it has been padded out to fill in the space between the battles (e.g. a dozen pages devoted to an obscure Old Testament ceremony with no evidence of it ever having been used by the relevant characters). As one would expect, the set-piece battle scenes are suitably bloodstained, brutal and graphic. For me the highlight was the assault on Lundene in the middle of the book, with its attack and counter-attack and its bitter fighting among the gates and ramparts of the old Roman fortifications.

Poor Aethelred of Mercia gets a very unflattering portrayal, and probably has grounds for joining the Support Group for People Unfairly Maligned in Historical Fiction. Not that much is known about Aethelred, and he may well not have been the greatest ruler ever, but there’s no evidence that he was a stupid wife-beating snake. It’s his misfortune to be in the right historical place at the right time to be cast as a fictional hero’s antagonist, and I suspect he also has to be cast as a loathsome creep so that the reader won’t mind when Aethelflaed cuckolds him. Bernard Cornwell, to his credit, acknowledges in his Historical Note that he has probably been extremely unfair to the real Aethelred.

The Historical Note also acknowledges that there is more fiction in Sword Song than in the previous Uhtred novels. In particular, the major plot strand involving Aethelflaed is completely fictional, as acknowledged in the Note. I can see its attraction; it has the same obvious dramatic appeal as a meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. I can’t help wishing, however, that something more interesting had been made of it. The historical Aethelflaed was a remarkable woman, a highly effective ruler of Mercia whose death was respectfully noted in the Annals of Ulster (“U918.5. Ethelfled, a very famous queen of the Saxons, dies”) and Annales Cambriae (“917. Queen Aethelflaed died”). In Sword Song, however, she is merely beautiful and haughty and spends most of the novel being taken here and taken there, willingly or otherwise, by the various men in her life. Perhaps this is because she is still only about fourteen or fifteen, and maybe she will come into her own in the later novels in the series. I hope so.

Entertaining adventure yarn with Cornwell’s trademark battle scenes carrying a rather slight plot. Not his best, but still an enjoyable read.

25 October, 2009

October recipe: Lamb with tomatoes and aubergines

October is towards the end of the season for plum tomatoes, but there were still a few left on our plants last weekend, and glasshouse-grown aubergines* are still around.

This lamb casserole is good on a fine autumn day, warming but not too heavy. Serves 2.

Lamb with tomatoes and aubergines

8 oz (approx 250 g) lamb (I usually use leg or shoulder, and sometimes use leftover cooked lamb from a roast)
12 oz (approx 350 g) aubergines
12 oz (approx 350 g) tomatoes
Half an onion
1 Tablespoon (approx 1 x 15 ml spoon) plain flour
1 Tablespoon (approx 1 x 15 ml spoon) red wine or cooking sherry
1 Tablespoon (approx 1 x 15 ml spoon) chopped fresh basil (or half the amount of dried basil)
1 Tablespoon (approx 1 x 15 ml spoon) chopped fresh sage or rosemary (or half the amount of dried)
0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) water or stock

Cut the aubergines into slices approx 0.5 inch (approx 1 cm) thick. Sprinkle with salt and leave for 30 minutes or so.

Remove any bones from the lamb and cut into pieces about 0.5 inch (approx 1 cm) square.

Peel and chop the onion.

Slice the plum tomatoes into slices about as thick as the aubergine.

Fry the lamb and onion in cooking oil in a heatproof casserole dish until browned.

Stir in the flour and mix well so the flour coats the meat and onion. Pour in the stock or water. Bring to the boil and stir until thickened. Stir in the red wine or sherry and the chopped sage or rosemary, and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Remove from the heat.

Arrange the tomato slices in a layer on top of the lamb and onion mixture, and sprinkle with chopped basil.

Rinse the aubergine slices in cold water and pat dry using kitchen towel. Arrange the aubergine slices in an overlapping layer on top of the tomatoes.

Cover the casserole and cook in the oven at approx 170 C for about 1 hour if using leftover cooked lamb or about 1.5 – 2 hours if using fresh lamb. Baste the aubergine slices with the cooking juices (or turn them over if that’s easier) about halfway through cooking so the top surface of the aubergine doesn’t dry out.

Serve with rice or potatoes.

*Aubergines are also called eggplants

21 October, 2009

Brittonic names in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ genealogies, and vice versa

In an earlier post, I discussed some examples of marriages between Brittonic and early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) royalty. The presence of Brittonic names in Anglo-Saxon genealogies, and a possible Brittonic warrior whose father had an Old English name, may be further supporting evidence for intermarriage.

Caedbaed of Lindsey

The genealogy of the kings of Lindsey (roughly modern Lincolnshire, see map for approximate location) is given in the Anglian Collection:

Woden; Winta; Cretta; Cwedgils; Caedbaed; Bubba; Beda; Biscop; Eanferth; Eata; Aldfrith
--Anglian Collection (scroll down)

None of the individuals can be securely dated. Bede mentions a man called Blaecca, who was the reeve of the city of Lincoln in around 628 (Book II ch.16). If this Blaecca was some sort of relative of the three kings beginning with B- in the genealogy, as might be consistent with the habit of alliterative naming and his possession of a position of responsibility, then those kings might be tentatively dated to somewhere around the early to mid seventh century, but this really is clutching at straws.

For the purposes of the current discussion, the name of most interest is the one immediately preceding the three B- kings, Caedbaed. This name contains the common Brittonic name element Caed- (also spelled Cat- or Cad-), which derives from the word for ‘battle’ and occurs in the names of numerous documented Brittonic kings and princes in the seventh century, including Cadfan, Cadwallon and Cadwallader of Gwynedd (see earlier post on the Kings of Gwynedd) and Cadafael Catguommed (see earlier post on Cadafael). Does its presence in the genealogy of the kings of the Anglian kingdom of Lindsey indicate a coincidence, a fashion in names, a scribe who mistakenly copied the name in from somewhere else, or a dynastic connection with Brittonic royalty?

Cerdic of Wessex

Bishop Asser, writing in the late ninth century, gives the genealogy of Alfred the Great as follows:

King Alfred was the son of king Ethelwulf, who was the son of Egbert, who was the son of Elmund, was the son of Eafa, who was the son of Eoppa, who the son of Ingild. Ingild, and Ina, the famous king of the West-Saxons, were two brothers. Ina went to Rome, and there ending this life honourably, entered the heavenly kingdom, to reign there for ever with Christ. Ingild and Ina were the sons of Coenred, who was the son of Ceolwald, who was the son of Cudam, who was the son of Cuthwin, who was the son of Ceawlin, who was the son of Cynric, who was the son of Creoda, who was the son of Cerdic, who was the son of Elesa, who was the son of Gewis, from whom the Britons name all that nation Gegwis
--Asser, Life of Alfred

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:

A.D. 495. This year came two leaders into Britain, Cerdic and
Cynric his son, with five ships, at a place that is called
Cerdic's-ore. And they fought with the Welsh the same day. Then
he died, and his son Cynric succeeded to the government, and held
it six and twenty winters

A.D. 519. This year Cerdic and Cynric undertook the government
of the West-Saxons; the same year they fought with the Britons at
a place now called Charford. From that day have reigned the
children of the West-Saxon kings.

A.D. 534. This year died Cerdic, the first king of the West-
Saxons. Cynric his son succeeded to the government, and reigned
afterwards twenty-six winters.
--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Never mind the contradictory dates for now; there is clearly a tradition that an important early king of the West Saxons was a man called Cerdic. This is the same name as the Brittonic name Ceretic or Ceredig. Bede mentions a Brittonic king Cerdic (Book IV ch. 23), at whose court St Hild of Whitby was born in around 614 (probably the same Ceredig whose death is recorded in Annales Cambriae in 616).

616 Ceredig died.
-- Annales Cambriae

Cadwalla of Wessex

At least one later king of the West Saxons also had a Brittonic name. Bede describes a king called Cadwalla (the same as the Brittonic name Cadwallon, see above under Caedbaed of Lindsey) who made himself king of the West Saxons by military force in around 686 and died on a pilgrimage to Rome in 689 (Book IV ch. 16; Book V ch. 7). Bede explicitly says that he was a member of the West Saxon royal dynasty (Book IV ch. 5).

So the West Saxon dynasty was founded by a man with a Brittonic name, and a member of the same dynasty also had a Brittonic name in the late seventh century. This could be coincidence, fashion or may indicate a dynastic connection with Brittonic royalty.

Possible Anglian name in Y Gododdin

Y Gododdin is a Brittonic epic poem describing a disastrous attack by a warband from Gododdin (roughly the area of modern Lothian and Edinburgh) on ‘Catraeth’ (location unknown, possibly the Roman fort at Catterick in North Yorkshire). The date is unknown, but usually placed in the late sixth or early seventh century, although the poem survives only in a much later (around 13th century) manuscript. It mainly comprises elegies for fallen warriors. One of them, Yrfai or Uruei, had a father whose name was Golistan or Uolstan:

It was usual for Uolstan’s son – though his father was no sovereign lord –
that what he said was heeded
It was usual for the sake of the mountain court that shields be broken through
reddened before Yrfai Lord of Eidyn
--Translation and reconstructed text by John Koch (stanza B2.28)

John Koch interprets Golistan or Uolstan as a form of the common Old English name Wulfstan (Koch 1997). (John Koch's interpretation of the historical context of the poem and the battle is controversial, but the name Golistan/Uolstan doesn't depend on his theory about the historical context). If correct, perhaps this Wulfstan was a mercenary or exile in Gododdin (“no sovereign lord”) who married his employer’s daughter and whose son held a high rank in Gododdin’s warband.


There are two reasonably well-documented inter-ethnic royal marriages from Northumbria in the early seventh century, with possibly a third from the same region in the late sixth century (see earlier post).

Recognisably Brittonic names appear in the genealogies of the Anglian kings of Lindsey (Caedbaed, undated, possibly early seventh century) and the West Saxon royal house (Cerdic, possibly legendary founder, late fifth century; Cadwalla, late seventh century). There may be a hint of an Old English name in the patrimony of a Brittonic hero in Y Gododdin (late sixth or early seventh century). Cross-ethnic naming may be merely a matter of fashion, or could indicate inter-ethnic dynastic connections.

I would interpret the documented marriages and the presence of cross-ethnic names to indicate that inter-ethnic aristocratic marriage could occur in early medieval Britain. There is insufficient evidence to say whether it was rare or widespread, or how its occurrence may have varied by region or over time.

Map links

Koch JT. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from Dark-Age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997, ISBN 0-7083-1374-4.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Anglian Collection, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Annales Cambriae, available online

17 October, 2009

Spectacular dragonfly

Dragonflies and damselflies* abound in late summer and early autumn. Although they like water and you're most likely to see them hunting over ponds and streams, you'll also see them flying ahead of you down a sunny path or quartering a meadow. One even turned up briefly to investigate the temporary puddles on our drive after washing the car.

They come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny svelte damselflies not much bigger than a flying pencil lead to big chunky dragonflies whose wings rattle when they do a mid-air handbrake turn, and in a variety of colours from electric blue to bronze to metallic emerald. Normally they zip about so fast doing aerobatics that all I see of them is a flash of colour and a swirl of gossamer wings.

This one, however, as well as being just about the biggest dragonfly I have ever seen (something like 4-5 inches long from nose to tail), was also obliging enough to sit still on a blackberry bush long enough to be photographed. What a completely amazing creature. I think it might be a female Southern Hawker, but don't quote me on that.

Slightly wider shot showing more of the wings.

Close-up of the head and thorax. Just look at those eyes.

Pictures taken in late September.

*Dragonflies hold their wings outstretched perpendicular to the body when at rest, damselflies fold their wings parallel to the body when at rest

13 October, 2009

Pendragon’s Banner, by Helen Hollick. Book review

Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks 2009. ISBN 978-1-4022-1889-7. 458 pages.

Pendragon’s Banner is the second in Helen Hollick’s King Arthur trilogy (the first is The Kingmaking, reviewed earlier). I read and enjoyed the trilogy when it was first published, and am pleased to see it back in print. Many thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy and organising the blog tour (details of the other stops on the blog tour at the foot of the post).

Arthur, the illegitimate son of Uthr Pendragon, is now Pendragon and High King of Britain, after the political and military struggles recounted in The Kingmaking. But Arthur is still young, aged only 24, and his position is not secure. Other lords, such as Amlawdd in the south-west and Lot and Hueil in the north of Britain, fancy themselves as High King. The Council of Britain and Arthur’s uncle Ambrosius hanker after a return to the Roman Empire. Winifred, Arthur’s ex-wife, is scheming to get the kingship for the son she had with Arthur, Cerdic. Morgause, Uthr’s cruel mistress who has hated Arthur since his childhood, is plotting his destruction and has laid a curse on Arthur – that if he pursues her, none of his sons will live. Arthur, his beloved wife Gwenhwyfar and their young children are beset with dangers, and defending Arthur’s position as High King demands a heavy price. Will it be too high for their relationship to bear?

As with the previous book in the trilogy, Pendragon’s Banner is free of supernatural powers. No Merlin, no enchanted sword, no magic, no sorcery, no Round Table, no knights in shining armour. This is a good thing in my view, but readers looking for the fantasy aspects of the King Arthur legends will not find them here.

Pendragon’s Banner is a story of human love and conflict, centred on the two main characters, Arthur and his wife Gwenhwyfar. Gwenhwyfar, a princess from Gwynedd (modern north-west Wales), is the descendant of a long line of warriors and something of a warrior herself. She is beautiful, clever, hot-tempered, passionate and as strong-willed as Arthur, leading to frequent quarrels as their opinions and desires clash. Arthur is a military genius, but his skill on the battlefield is not matched in the council chamber. He makes no secret of despising his councillors as a bunch of irrelevant old fools, he antagonises his uncle Ambrosius, he provokes and belittles his loyal but strait-laced cousin Cei, and his jealousy over other men’s attentions to Gwenhwyfar (real or imagined) gets him into more than one fight. The stormy marriage between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, their private family tragedies, and the intolerable stresses resulting from the conflict between Arthur’s position as High King and his role as husband and father, form the core of the narrative.

The novel spans a period of about seven years, giving ample opportunity for a lot of warfare and political scheming as well as the personal relationships. It also incorporates numerous legends attached to the King Arthur story, such as the tale of Ider fighting a giant on Brent Knoll near Glastonbury and a quarrel between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar at the Queen’s Crags on Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps as a result of including so many legends, the book is a lengthy read and I found the plot rather sprawling. Arthur has to face not one but two rebellions in the north, Morgause and Winifred are constantly hatching schemes, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar quarrel and make up, become estranged and reconciled and quarrel again. Some plot threads, such as Arthur’s alliance with the Saxon leader Winta, are introduced in detail and then disappear, perhaps because this is the middle part of a trilogy and they may be setting up for something in the third book.

Detailed descriptions of landscape and weather, among other aspects, make for a leisurely pace. This is accentuated by the elaborate prose style (e.g. “had the wanting of” instead of “wanted”), which sets a consciously archaic tone and sometimes requires more than one reading to disentangle the meaning. Keeping track of everything takes concentration, and readers may like to take note that typos in some of the dates in the chapter headings can be confusing (e.g. Chapter 43 in Part 1 is headed “April 456”, but is a continuation of the battle in the previous few chapters headed “December 462”). Although the backstory from Book One is explained where necessary, the trilogy works best if read back to back as a single long story.

A helpful Author’s Note explains some of the background, and a family tree at the front of the book helps in keeping track of the family relationships between the large cast of characters. There’s also a very useful list of place names with their modern equivalents (but note that Wroxeter and Winteringham have been mistakenly reversed in the list), and a list of questions for reading groups to consider.

Book Two of a trilogy retelling the King Arthur legends without fantasy trappings.

The other stops on the Pendragon’s Banner blog tour are as follows:

The Tome Travellers Weblog (10/12)
A Reader’s Respite (10/12)
Enchanted by Josephine (10/14)
Fumbling with Fiction (10/14)
Found Not Lost (10/15)
Nan Hawthorne’s Booking the Middle Ages(10/15)
Jenny Loves to Read(10/16)
The Review From Here(10/17)
The Courtier’s Book(10/18)
Chick Loves Lit(10/19)
Love Romance Passion (10/20)
He Followed Me Home… Can I Keep Him?(10/20)
The Impasse Strikes Back (10/21)
S. Krishna’s Books (10/22)
Books Like Breathing (10/23)
Passages to the Past(10/24)
Virginie Says(10/25)
Reading with Monie (10/26)
Books & Needlepoint(10/27)
Capricious Reader (10/27)
Books are my Only Friends (10/27)
A Sea of Books (10/28)
Bloody Bad (10/28)
Revenge of the Book Nerds! (10/28)
Booksie’s Blog (10/28)
Devourer of Books (10/29)
Peeking Between the Pages (10/29)
Starting Fresh (10/29)
Historical Tapestry (10/30)
Medieval Bookworm (10/30)
Book Soulmates (10/30)
Susan’s Art & Words (10/30)
Steven Till(10/31)
Café of Dreams (10/31)

07 October, 2009

Intermarriage in early medieval Britain

Dynastic marriage to secure or strengthen a political alliance was standard practice throughout medieval Europe, as a cursory glance at royal marriages will show. For example, looking at the post-Conquest kings of England, Henry I married Edith (also called Matilda), a descendant of the English royal family displaced by Henry’s father William the Conqueror. Their daughter Maud (or Matilda) married the German Holy Roman Emperor. Her son Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress to great tracts of what is now southern France. Their son John married Isabella of Angouleme. John’s daughter Joan married Llewellyn of Gwynedd and John’s son Henry III married Eleanor of Provence. Their son Edward I married Eleanor of Castile. Their son Edward II married Isabella of France. And so on; practically every generation involved an international marriage. The reasons are obvious, including:

  • Pedigree. In an age when birth counted for everything, having royalty on both sides of the pedigree was an obvious plus;

  • Inheritance. A royal wife would be well dowered, and if you were really lucky she might inherit her father’s kingdom and bring an unexpected windfall (the Hapsburgs inherited Spain in the 16th century when biological accident left Juana, wife of Philip the Fair, as the only surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella);

  • Political alliance. Two powerful royal families could aid each other in their respective wars, increasing the chance of success for both. And it was not the done thing to attack a family one was married into (although practice had an unfortunate habit of diverging from theory).

What about early medieval Britain? The same reasons apply, so one would expect dynastic intermarriage to occur. Is there any evidence?

Documented inter-ethnic marriages

It’s rare for the names of queens to be recorded, let alone their descent, but there are two reasonably solid examples of marriages between ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kings and Brittonic queens, plus another that is rather less secure.

Aethelferth of Bernicia and Bebba

Eadfered Flesaurs reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguoaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 63

Bede, writing in 731, confirms the story:

…the royal city, which is called after a former queen named Bebba
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3 ch. 6

Bebbanburg is modern Bamburgh. Bebba is not an English name. Nothing is known of Bebba’s ancestry, but there may be a clue in the fate of Aethelferth’s eldest son Eanferth (Eanfrid, Enfret). Eanferth was exiled on his father’s death in 617 AD, and inherited Bernicia in 633 AD:

During the whole of Edwin’s reign the sons of Aethelferth lived in exile among the Irish or the Picts
…Eanfrid, as eldest son, inherited the crown of Bernicia
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III ch. 1

Elsewhere in the Ecclesiastical History Bede tells us that Aethelferth’s other sons Oswald and Oswy lived in exile among the Irish (Book III ch. 3 and ch. 25), so it is a reasonable deduction that the other son Bede mentions, Eanferth, was the one who lived among the Picts. While there, he presumably married a Pictish princess, because he fathered a king of the Picts:

Tallorcen filius Enfret iiij. annis regnavit
[Translation : Talorcan son of Eanferth reigned 4 years]
--Pictish Chronicle

Eanferth’s career would be consistent with his mother Bebba having belonged to either the Pictish aristocracy, or to the aristocracy of a Brittonic kingdom with Pictish connections, such as the kingdom of Gododdin in what is now southern Scotland (roughly the area of modern Lothian and/or around Edinburgh; see map).

Eanferth’s nephew Ecgfrith son of Oswy is described as cousin to Bridei king of the Picts in 685:

Egrid is he who made war against his cousin Brudei, king of the Picts, and he fell therein with all the strength of his army and the Picts with their king gained the victory
--Historia Brittonum ch. 57

The date is from Bede (Book IV ch. 26). Bridei may have been a cousin to Ecgfrith through Eanferth’s Pictish marriage in the previous generation, or their relationship may indicate another Pictish–Northumbrian royal marriage.

Oswy of Northumbria and Rhianmellt of Rheged

Oswy was the son of Aethelferth. It is not known whether he was the son of Bebba, or of Aethelferth’s wife Acha of Deira. I have argued elsewhere that he was probably the son of Acha because he has the same Os- prefix to his name as Acha’s son Oswald, but this is not proven. Oswy was born in around 612 and died in 670.

Oswy had two wives, Riemmelth, the daughter of Royth, son of Rum; and Eanfled, the daughter of Edwin, son of Alla.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 57

Oswy’s marriage to Eadwine’s daughter Eanflaed is confirmed by Bede (Book III ch. 15). Bede doesn’t mention Rhianmellt, but she does appear in the correct place, immediately before Eanflaed, in the list of queens in the Durham Liber Vitae:

-- Durham Liber Vitae, searchable on Google Books

I think we can therefore consider her existence confirmed. Rhianmellt is a Brittonic name. Her father Royth son of Rum is not otherwise mentioned, but her grandfather Rum is usually considered to be the Rum map Urbgen mentioned elsewhere in HB:

If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rum Map Urbgen
--Historia Brittonum ch. 63

Urbgen or Urien was a famous king of Rheged (somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland, location uncertain) in the late sixth century. He features in the poetry attributed to Taliesin and in several royal genealogies:

U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen
--Harleian Genealogy

Vryen uab Kynuarch m Meirchavn m Gorust Letlvm m Keneu m Coel
--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd

Putting the pieces together, and assuming that Rum father of Royth was also Rum son of Urbgen, this would make Rhianmellt a descendant of the royal dynasty of Rheged in north-west England, a logical dynastic marriage partner for a king of Northumbria in north-east England.

Ida of Bernicia and Bearnoch

….Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 56

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

Bede confirms Ida as the founding figure of Bernicia, “In the year 547, Ida began his reign, which lasted twelve years. From him the royal family of the Northumbrians derives its origin” (Book V, ch. 24).

Bearnoch is not mentioned elsewhere and so her ancestry is not known, but her name is very similar to the Brittonic name of the kingdom, Berneich. Her name may be genuine (in the same sort of way as the name of a region, Gwynedd, is now also a modern female name, Gwyneth), or it may be a vague memory that Ida gained or consolidated his position as king by marrying a woman of the local royal or noble dynasty. However, it may also be possible that a reference to the region has been misinterpreted as referring to a person, or even that Bearnoch was invented as a mythical ancestor to shore up a dodgy pedigree (although this in itself may be an indication that dynastic marriage was considered a valuable thing to have in one’s pedigree).

Legendary (?) marriages

Vortigern and Rowena daughter of Hengest

Possibly the most famous example of inter-ethnic intermarriage between early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) and Brittonic royalty is the (legendary?) marriage between Vortigern and the daughter of Hengest:

[…] bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist.
[…] Vortigern, at the instigation of the devil, and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her whatever he should ask. Then Hengist, who had already consulted with the elders who attended him of the Oghgul race, demanded for his daughter the province, called in English Centland, in British, Ceint, (Kent.).
[….] Thus the maid was delivered up to the king, who slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 37

Historia Brittonum was written down in the early ninth century according to its prologue. I’ll happily take it as a source for events within a couple of centuries of its composition (i.e. back to about the turn of the sixth and seventh century), especially as quite a few of its statements can be corroborated from other sources such as Bede (insert the usual caveat that some of the sources might have copied from each other and may not be independent). But in the case of Vortigern and Hengest it is around 400 years after the event, and caution is in order. However, even if the story of Vortigern’s marriage to the daughter of Hengest has been misinterpreted, embellished or even invented over time, it does indicate that inter-ethnic dynastic marriage was considered a reasonable component of power politics when Historia Brittonum was in circulation and being written down.

Cadwallon of Gwynedd and the sister of Penda of Mercia

His [Cadwaladr’s] mother was Penda’s sister
For Cadwallon, after his reconciliation with her brother, made her the partner of his bed and had Cadwaladr by her.
--Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Book XII Ch. 14

The source for this is Geoffrey of Monmouth, and if Geoffrey said the sun rose in the east I would still want to check it. So I’m inclined to consider this a legend. I mention it here because Cadwallon’s military alliance with Penda is confirmed by Bede (Book II Ch. 20). A dynastic marriage to seal a military alliance is not at all unreasonable, so that could be taken as partial support for Geoffrey’s statement, though I wouldn’t take a bet on it. However, the same comment applies as above; even if the marriage itself is legendary, it may indicate that Geoffrey – and his intended audience – considered it plausible.

There are also some examples of Brittonic names in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ genealogies, and a possible instance of a Brittonic warrior whose father had an Old English name, which may indicate intermarriage. I’ll discuss these in another post.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Durham Liber Vitae, searchable on Google Books.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Pictish Chronicle, available online

Map links