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

02 October, 2009

The Silver Eagle, by Ben Kane. Book review

Edition reviewed: Preface Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84809-011-8. 402 pages.

Sequel to The Forgotten Legion, The Silver Eagle is set across most of the Roman known world in 55 BC to 48 BC. Julius Caesar, Decimus Brutus*, and some of the senior Roman officers and politicians are secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Fabiola, sold into prostitution as a child slave, has been bought and freed by her lover, senior army officer Decimus Brutus. Her twin brother Romulus and his friends the Etruscan soothsayer Tarquinius and the mighty Gaulish warrior Brennus were captured by the Parthians after Crassus’ disastrous defeat at Carrhae (told in The Forgotten Legion), and are now serving the Parthians as border guards in the distant province of Margiana (modern Turkmenistan). Fabiola wants to find out if her brother is still alive and to take revenge on the unidentified Roman aristocrat who raped her mother. Romulus wants to return to Rome and find his sister – but he, Tarquinius and Brennus must first face an epic battle in India and a dangerous journey from the ends of the known world. And Fabiola faces her own challenges in the no less perilous world of Roman high politics.

The four leads are the same as in The Forgotten Legion, virtuosos in every respect. The all-action cinematic style of The Forgotten Legion is continued in the sequel, and if anything the pace is even faster. Rapid intercutting between Fabiola’s adventures in Rome and Romulus, Brennus and Tarquinius in the east, always switching scene at a crucial moment with one or more of the leads on the brink of death, adds to the sense of breakneck speed. Fans of graphic battle scenes will find much to enjoy in the description of the Battle of Pharsalus and the 30-page epic (fictional) battle between the Forgotten Legion and the armies of the Indian kings, which takes place by the River Hydaspes in what is now the Punjab, literally on the edge of the Roman known world**.

Paradoxically, as I noted with the previous book, the technique of always leaving at least one character in mortal peril started to pall after a while, at least for me. I find it difficult to maintain a constant peak of dramatic tension when there are no quieter interludes to provide contrast, and after a while I got rather blasĂ© and found myself thinking not “are they going to get out of that?” but “I wonder how they’re going to get out of that?”, which is not quite the same thing. This feeling was accentuated by the frequent use of prophecy.

Mysticism and supernatural visions featured in The Forgotten Legion, and this theme is continued and developed further in The Silver Eagle. In the earlier book, Tarquinius was established as a soothsayer with real supernatural powers to predict the future. In The Silver Eagle, I felt the mysticism tipped over the balance into historical fantasy. Romulus now also has prophetic visions, and Fabiola not only has visions but undergoes some sort of shape-shifting experience. This is not belief or illusion, as many other characters (an entire army) see her for real in her shape-changed form. Events are so heavily prophesied and foreshadowed that although the plot twists and turns there are few surprises. For example, the jacket copy says that of the three heroes “only two will survive”, but the prophecies in the first book, heavily repeated in The Silver Eagle, make it obvious from the beginning who has the short straw. This has the effect of reducing the suspense, and for me it gave the book a curious feel of waiting for the inevitable to happen.

The worship of Mithras, a soldier’s god, is widespread among the Parthians (as one would expect, given the eastern origin of the cult), and also runs through the Roman Army like a sort of first-century Freemasonry. This gives an interesting slant, as Tarquinius and Romulus in Parthia and Fabiola in Rome all encounter the Mithraic religion at about the same time, despite being thousands of miles apart.

Roman high politics and the civil war between Caesar and Pompey form a dramatic backdrop to Fabiola’s escapades in Rome, and her adventures provide a neat way of keeping the reader in touch with the Roman world while also following the three heroes in the distant east. The identity of the rapist who fathered Fabiola and Romulus is made clear in this book, just in case anyone hadn’t worked it out from the clues in The Forgotten Legion (yes, it is who I thought it was, and no, I’m not going to give it away here. Email me if you want to know). I suspect I can hazard a guess at the centrepiece of the third book in the trilogy, and possibly some of the roles the three remaining leads are going to play. Fabiola has already sown a seed that looks as if it might bear dramatic fruit in the Senate in 44 BC.

The geographical spread of The Silver Eagle is if anything even wider than that of The Forgotten Legion, which is saying something. The plot ranges from Gaul in the north all the way to India in the east and the coast of Africa in the south. The scene on the Ethiopian coast where the characters encounter Africa’s iconic wildlife – elephants, giraffes, antelopes – is one of the most memorable in the book. And the cast of subsidiary characters is equally exotic, including nomadic steppe tribesmen, pirates in the Indian Ocean and a wild beast hunter in Africa.

Greatly to the author’s credit, the lengthy civil war between Pompey and Caesar isn't compressed for plot purposes, the book simply makes use of the “Two years later” technique in chapter headings to skip over events that would be too complicated to tell in detail. As with The Forgotten Legion, a helpful Author’s Note summarises some of the underlying history and an invaluable map helps in locating all the exotic places and following the characters on their extensive travels.

Frenetic all-action historical fantasy spanning the limits of the Roman known world.

* The Brutus everyone has heard of, of “Et tu Brute” fame in Shakespeare, is Marcus Junius Brutus. Decimus Brutus was a contemporary who served as an officer in Caesar’s army in Gaul. I guess they were probably related, but they were different individuals.
**The river marked the limit of Alexander the Great’s campaign in 325 BC, so it was the furthest limit of the Mediterranean world’s knowledge of Asia.