28 October, 2010

Soemil of Deira

Soemil was an early king of Deira, a territory occupying part of what is now Yorkshire. Historia Brittonum lists him in the Deiran genealogy, with the addition of a cryptic note that he “separated Deira from Bernicia”, implying some important action or event. What do we know about him?


Historia Brittonum

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
--Historia Brittonum, available online

Anglian Collection genealogies

Woden Frealafing
--Anglian Collection, available online

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Ella was the son of Iff, Iff of Usfrey, Usfrey of Wilgis, Wilgis ofWesterfalcon,
Westerfalcon of Seafowl, Seafowl of Sebbald,Sebbald of Sigeat, Sigeat of Swaddy,
Swaddy of Seagirt, Seagar of
Waddy, Waddy of Woden, Woden of Frithowulf
--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (entry for year AD 560), available online

The lists are broadly similar, with variations in spelling, but not identical. Brond and Baldaeg in the Historia Brittonum list are replaced by Uegdaeg in the Anglian Collection genealogy. Suebdaeg and Siggot in the Anglian Collection list are missing from the Historia Brittonum list. Sguerthing in the Historia Brittonum list is replaced by Uuesteralcna in the Anglian Collection list. From Uilgils/Giulgils onwards, the two genealogies agree (with variations in spelling).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle genealogy matches the Anglian Collection genealogy, with variations in spelling, except that Soemil and Saefugul in the Anglian Collection list are replaced by Seafowl in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.



The first king of Deira who can be dated securely is Aelle, father of Eadwine/Edwin. Bede tells us that Aelle was reigning in Deira when St Augustine arrived as a missionary to Kent in 597 (On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 66 (4557)). Bede also tells us that Aelle was king in Deira when not-yet-Pope Gregory the Great saw some Deiran slave boys for sale in a Roman market and made his famous pun, "not Angles but angels" (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 1). This happened before Gregory was appointed Pope in around 590 AD, but after he returned to Rome from Constantinople in around 585 or 586 AD. In an earlier post on ‘Aelle of Deira’, I suggested that Aelle’s reign may have begun around 570 or 575.

Applying the inexact method of counting generations and allowing 25 years per generation, this would place Soemil somewhere around the middle of the fifth century.

‘First separated Deur from Berneich’

The meaning of this intriguing statement is not certain. We can probably be confident that whoever compiled Historia Brittonum, or its source material, thought that this action of Soemil’s was sufficiently important to be worth recording. Moreover, it is the only deed listed for any of the kings between Woden and Edwin, which suggests that it was considered very important indeed.

The kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia were combined, separated and recombined several times during the seventh century, as recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. The two kingdoms were separate before Aethelferth of Bernicia annexed Deira; I have argued elsewhere that this probably happened in about 605 (see ‘Dating the annexation of Deira’ for the rationale). Aethelferth ruled both kingdoms until his death in battle in 617, after which Eadwine son of Aelle ruled both kingdoms until his death in battle in 633. In 633/634 the two kingdoms were separated, with Deira ruled by Osric (son of Aelle’s brother Aelfric) and Bernicia by Eanferth son of Aethelferth; both were killed within a year. From 634 to 642, both kingdoms were united again under Oswald son of Aethelferth. After Oswald’s death in battle in 642, his brother Oswy ruled Bernicia and Oswine son of Osric ruled in Deira until Oswy had him murdered in 651 (yes, being a king in early medieval Britain was a dangerous job). If the compiler of Historia Brittonum was familiar with this to-and-fro, Soemil’s ‘separation of Deur from Berneich’ may have been seen as Round One in a long-lived dispute.

The founder figure for the dynasty of Bernicia was Ida, whom Bede says began his reign in 547 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book V Ch. 24). At first sight this is a puzzle; if Ida did not found the kingdom of Bernicia until 547, how could Soemil have separated Deira from it a century earlier?

Two possibilities come to mind (besides the prosaic ones that the names or dates are wrong, or that the entry is fictional):

  • Bernicia (or what was to become Bernicia) was in existence before Ida’s reign, and controlled the territory that was to become Deira;

  • Soemil separated Deira (or what was to become Deira) from some political entity other than Bernicia, and the Historia Brittonum chronicler misunderstood or misinterpreted his source.

Although Bede is clear that Ida founded the Bernician (later Northumbrian) royal dynasty, that is not necessarily the same thing as founding the kingdom of Bernicia itself. The name Berneich or Bernicia is of uncertain origin and does not appear to be an Old English name. There seems no reason why the kingdom of Bernicia could not have been in existence, perhaps for some time, before Ida came on the scene. Historia Brittonum provides some support for this in another cryptic remark, saying that Ida united the fortress of Dynguayth with Berneich:

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

--Historia Brittonum, ch. 61, available online

Dynguayth refers to the site of modern Bamburgh, which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Ida fortified by surrounding it first with a hedge and then with a wall (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry for 547). The statement that Ida “united” his fortress with Berneich is consistent with Berneich/Bernicia being a kingdom that already existed at the time. If this is the case, there is no indication of when it was founded, and therefore no reason why a kingdom of that name could not also have been in existence in Soemil’s (approximate) period in the mid-fifth century. Such a mid-fifth-century Bernicia would have had to be much larger than the later kingdom of Bernicia, if it controlled the area that later became Deira, but it is quite possible that kingdoms could have varied in size over time as political units consolidated or fragmented.

The second possibility is that Deira in the mid-fifth-century was subject to some other political authority, to which the compiler of Historia Brittonum applied the familiar name Bernicia. Given the date, only a few decades after the Rescript of Honorius telling the inhabitants of Roman Britain to look to their own defences, and the location of Deira, a short distance east of the major Roman fortress of York, a likely candidate for such a political authority would be whatever continued or succeeded the Roman government based at York.

Very little is known about post-Roman York (more about this in a later post). However, if some sort of local or regional government continued in York after the end of official Roman administration, that would be consistent with post-Roman activity observed by archaeology in other Roman cities (see post on Wroxeter) or Roman forts (see post on Birdoswald) in Britain. If Soemil of Deira was subject to a post-Roman ruler based in York and gained independence from his overlord, this might well have been considered worth remembering. By the time Historia Brittonum was compiled in 830 or so, York was under the control of Northumbrian kings of Bernician descent, and in ch. 50 of Historia Brittonum, Ida is described as “the first king in Bernicia, and in Cair Ebrauc (York).”. This is unlikely to be literally true since Bede, who was in a position to know a lot about Northumbrian history, doesn’t refer to Ida in connection with York. It may indicate that the compiler of Historia Brittonum considered that anyone who was a king in York would also be a king of Bernicia (as was the case in the early ninth century when he was writing). In this context, a rebellion against a previous authority based in York could be described as having “first separated Deira from Berneich”. Indeed, since there are no contemporary records of fifth-century names, any such post-Roman political entity based in York might even have been called Berneich for all we know (although something based on the Roman name Eboracum or its Brittonic equivalent Caer Ebrauc might seem more likely). If it was a polity covering most or all of the territory controlled by the Roman Dux Britanniarum, it would have extended from York to Hadrian’s Wall and could have taken a name equally easily from anywhere in the region.

The most famous account of a rebellion by an English leader against a post-Roman British overlord at some time around the middle of the fifth century is of course the tale of Hengest’s revolt against his employer Vortigern. Variations of the story are told in Bede, Gildas, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum. Briefly, Vortigern was a ruler of part or all of Britain after the end of Roman administration, and hired Germanic mercenaries led by Hengest to protect Britain from the Picts in exchange for grants of land and regular pay. Hengest’s troops defeated the Picts, demanded more cash and more land (obtaining Kent, Essex and Sussex by treaty from Vortigern), sent for friends and relatives to join them in Britain, then rebelled, murdered many of the British leaders (but not Vortigern), and plundered large areas of Britain in a destructive raid. Bede dates these events to the middle of the fifth century (Book I, Ch. 15; he gives the initial arrival of Hengest as AD 449, but the sequence clearly took place over an extended period).

The coincidence in approximate dates raises the intriguing possibility that Soemil in Deira might also have been a captain of English federate troops, who was hired under similar terms to Hengest and who rebelled at the same time. This is the sort of thing that might well have been remembered in oral tradition, perhaps hazily as time went on, to be written down centuries later as a cryptic note in Historia Brittonum. I need hardly say that this interpretation is speculative.

Speculating further, it may be noteworthy that the genealogies disagree about Soemil’s immediate successor. The Anglian Collection and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle give the name of Soemil’s successor as Uuesteralcna or Westerfalcon, Historia Brittonum says it was Sguerthing. Furthermore, in all the genealogies there is a change from the succession of S- names up to and including Soemil to a succession of names beginning with a vowel (W = uu). This change happens immediately after Soemil in two of the genealogies, and after his successor in the other, and is consistent with (but does not prove) a change of dynasty, from a family that favoured names beginning with S- to a different family that favoured names beginning with a vowel. Possibly there were different family factions among the Deiran aristocracy in the mid-fifth century, and possibly Soemil’s ‘separation of Deira from Berneich’ ended up having adverse consequences for his faction or family. If the ‘separation’ turned out to be temporary, perhaps Soemil’s faction was displaced by a rival group when it was reversed. Or if the ‘separation’ involved breaking the terms of a treaty or agreement, perhaps a rival faction disagreed and took the opposing side.

From the single line in Historia Brittonum and the genealogies, we can reasonably infer that Soemil lived some time around the middle of the fifth century, and that he was remembered for gaining independence for Deira from some other political entity. What that entity was, whether Soemil’s independence from it was temporary or permanent, how it was achieved, what its consequences were, and whether it had any connection with the more famous and roughly contemporary rebellion of Hengest against Vortigern, are open to question.


Anglian Collection, available online
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
Bede, The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Historia Brittonum, available online

Map links


19 October, 2010

Elizabeth. Captive Princess, by Margaret Irwin. Book review

First published 1948. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN , 323 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess is the sequel to Young Bess, which I reviewed in March this year. It covers the years from 1553 to 1555, when Elizabeth was aged 19 to 21. All the main characters are historical figures.

In July 1553, Elizabeth receives a touching message summoning her to visit her dying younger brother, King Edward VI. But her political instinct, finely honed during her turbulent childhood and adolescence, warns her of imminent danger. The Regent, John Dudley Duke of Northumberland, wants to rule England through his young daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey, and to do so he will have to imprison and/or execute both Elizabeth and her elder sister Mary. As Mary and Duke Dudley struggle for the throne, Elizabeth is in grave danger from both sides. Even when Mary successfully secures the throne, Elizabeth’s peril is no less, as her popularity attracts Mary’s jealousy and makes her (willingly or otherwise) a focal point for dissenters and rebels. As Mary’s suspicions of her grow, Elizabeth will need all her intelligence and political ability if she is to avoid her mother’s fate on the block.

This is the second in Margaret Irwin’s trilogy of novels about Elizabeth I. I read and greatly enjoyed the trilogy years ago, and am pleased to see the novels back in print. The writing has a freshness and vivacity that doesn’t pall with time, or with any number of re-readings. No matter how well the modern reader knows the outcome, no-one at the time knew what would happen, and Elizabeth, Captive Princess brilliantly captures the uncertainty and the dizzying speed of events. This is particularly true of the crammed nine days of Jane Grey’s brief reign, which covers the first third of the novel.

As with Young Bess, the characterisation is splendid. Elizabeth’s cleverness and charisma, her unpredictability, her courage, her quick wits and shrewd judgment, all leap to life on the page. It is easy to see how she alternately exasperated and charmed those who had to deal with her, and to admire her remarkable skill in treading a dangerous path with hardly a wrong step – a skill that would stand her in good stead in her later career.

The other people in the story are no less individual, with their characters revealed through their actions and words as well as by others’ assessments of them. Although their lives touch Elizabeth’s – difficult not to, for anyone involved in English high politics in the mid 1550s – they are the chief actors in their own dramas, not bit-players in hers. All have their own ambitions and failings, their own past history and their own hopes for the future. Even while admiring Elizabeth, the reader can still respect Mary, who begins her reign with courage, bright optimism and honest good intentions, can feel for scholarly Jane Grey earnestly trying to puzzle out right and wrong among the brutal contradictions and compromises of power politics, and can sympathise with all three as they are pushed into deadly conflicts with each other that are not of their making or desire. Even the minor characters, like Elizabeth’s ex-tutor Roger Ascham, now a would-be diplomat and courtier, and homely Doctor Turner, are individuals following their own paths as best they can.

The rapid political and religious reversals of the 1550s form the background to the novel, and there is a real sense of a time of bewildering and yet also exhilarating social change. For those with nerve, ability, energy and luck new opportunities were opening up; but for those caught on the wrong side of change the consequences could be unpleasant, even fatal.

Elizabeth has an instinctive understanding of and empathy for other people. Unlike Jane Grey and Mary Tudor, both of whom are concerned with absolute right – and absolutely convinced that they are right - Elizabeth recognises and accepts the complexity and contradictions in English society. Her concern is not to eliminate differences of opinion, but to manage them so that disparate people can get on with their own lives more or less in harmony, or at any rate with a minimum of destructive conflict.

Vivid, powerful portrayal of Tudor England and the people who shaped it.

17 October, 2010

October recipe: Apple cakes

You can make these cakes with eating apples or with cooking apples, according to taste and availability.

Apple cakes (makes about 12)

2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
1 egg
4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour
1 tsp (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground mixed spice or ground cinnamon (optional)
3-4 oz (approx 75-100 g) apples (weight after peeling and coring)

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the beaten egg.

Stir in the flour and spice (if using).

Peel and core the apples. Grate or chop finely. Stir the chopped/grated apples into the cake mixture.

Put spoonfuls of the mixture into greased bun tins. It doesn’t spread much during cooking, so you can fill the tins quite full. I usually get about 12 buns out of the mix.

Bake in a moderately hot oven about 180 C, until set and golden brown.

Cool on a wire rack.

Keeps for a week in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.

13 October, 2010

Gleann Bianasdail

Way back in January I posted some photographs of the Enchanted Woods of Loch Maree. The next stage of the walk takes you into lovely Gleann Bianasdail (yes, it has taken me a long time to get around to posting the next photos; life is like that). For a location map, click here.

Over the course of its 4-5 km length (approximately 3 miles or so), Gleann Bianasdail falls from about 320 m altitude (approximately 1000 feet) at the shores of Lochan Fada (“the long lochan”) to near enough sea level on the shore of Loch Maree. Most of the rock in the glen is Torridonian sandstone, a handsome red-purple sedimentary rock laid down in thick strata around 1000 million years ago. Still more or less horizontal, the strata form a series of terraces, with the river sweeping from side to side around sandstone walls...

.... or leaping down the terraces in a succession of sparkling waterfalls...

....sometimes carving a steep-walled miniature gorge....

.... until the waterfalls give way to rapids in the flatter terrain at the foot of the glen

View downstream from the footbridge across the river at the foot of Gleann Bianasdail

06 October, 2010

Helmet acoustics: a definitive answer from King Raedwald

King Raedwald at Sutton Hoo

A few months ago, the subject of the acoustic effects of full-face helmets came up in a discussion thread here (scroll down to the last few comments). I mentioned a TV documentary on the Sutton Hoo helmet, in which someone from the British Museum said that the replica helmet gave the wearer’s voice an impressive booming, echoing quality. We immediately wondered if this was true, and if so, whether it applied to other designs of helmet or was some unique property of the Sutton Hoo helmet.

Elizabeth Chadwick kindly posted a query for me on the Regia Anglorum re-enactors’ society email forum. I don’t have permission to post the responses, but in summary the consensus of the replies was ‘no’. None of the respondents thought that a face-covering helmet did anything to the wearer’s voice except perhaps to muffle it.

I can now give a definitive answer to the question, at least for the Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of King Raedwald himself (or, more correctly, his 21st-century alter ego). King Raedwald, or whoever was buried in the Mound 1 ship burial (see earlier post for discussion of the likely candidates), makes occasional appearances at Sutton Hoo when there are special events on. I was fortunate enough to meet him a couple of weeks ago, as the King had read and enjoyed Paths of Exile and had expressed an interest in meeting me.

As you can see from the photograph, King Raedwald looks immensely impressive. The helmet is particularly dramatic in sunlight, although the camera hasn’t fully caught the glitter and sparkle.

Close up of the replica Sutton Hoo helmet

The King also sounded very impressive when declaiming to the assembled multitude. I shouldn’t think he would have any difficulty in making himself heard across a battlefield. However, I think that was due to the King himself and not to any acoustic property of the helmet. When talking to the King later, his voice sounded similar whether he was wearing the helmet or not. I noticed a slightly disconcerting visual effect, in that when he was talking to me wearing the helmet I automatically expected the mouth to move in line with the spoken words, and of course it doesn’t. I imagine this discrepancy between audio and visual signals could have a slightly disquieting effect, but only on a listener who was close enough to see the helmet in detail.

King Raedwald very kindly let me try the replica helmet on, and my voice didn’t sound noticeably different to me. This suggests to me that the helmet has little effect on the wearer’s perception of their own voice, although it’s possible that a female voice may be in the wrong frequency range.

It appears that the Sutton Hoo helmet as currently reconstructed does not have any dramatic acoustic effects on the wearer’s voice, either as perceived by other people or as perceived by the wearer. The King suggested that the TV programme might have been referring to Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s comments on the earlier reconstruction of the helmet made in the 1970s. That version of the helmet was larger than the current reconstruction and could perhaps have had different resonance effects. Another possibility was raised by one of the people who replied on the Regia Anglorum forum, who suggested that some helmets make the wearer feel more important, which in turn could alter how the wearer projects their voice. Looking at the replica helmet, it’s easy to see how it could make its wearer feel like a king.