31 March, 2010

Hereric of Deira

Hereric was a prince of the royal family of Deira (approximately modern Yorkshire) in the early seventh century. What do we know about him?


Bede, Ecclesiastical History

In the following year, that is the year of our Lord 680, Hilda, abbess of the monastery of Streaneshalch, of which I have already spoken, a most religious servant of Christ, after an earthly life devoted to the works of heaven, passed away to receive the reward of a heavenly life, on the seventeenth of November, at the age of sixty-six.
She was nobly born, the daughter of Hereric, nephew to King Edwin…
Her life was the fulfilment of a dream which her mother, Breguswith, had when Hilda was an infant, during the time that her husband, Hereric was living in banishment under the protection of the British king Cerdic, where he died of poison. In this dream she fancied that he was suddenly taken away, and although she searched everywhere she could find no trace of him. When all her efforts had failed, she discovered a most valuable jewel under her garments; and as she looked closely, it emitted such a brilliant light that all Britain was lit by its splendour. This dream was fulfilled in her daughter….
--Bede, Book IV Ch. 23.

Cerdic is a variant spelling of Ceretic or Ceredig.

Annales Cambriae

616 Ceredig died.
617 Edwin begins his reign
--Annales Cambriae, available online

Historia Brittonum

Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete, and expelled Cerdic, its king.
--Historia Brittonum, ch. 63, available online


Hereric was clearly the son of a sibling of King Edwin (Eadwine), but it is not known whether he was the son of a sister or a brother. The identity of his other parent is unknown.

Date of birth
Bede does not specify Hereric’s age or year of birth. However, since he tells us that Hereric’s daughter Hild died on 17 November 680 at age 66 years, Hild must have been born between 18 November 613 and 17 November 614. Hereric must therefore have been old enough to father children by early 614 at the latest. Caveat that this calculation assumes that Bede’s dates are accurate and that age was reckoned in complete years incremented on the anniversary of birth, as is the case now – if age was reckoned differently, e.g. by incrementing at a particular season or date rather than on the anniversary of birth, the margin of error might be a year or so either way.

Hild also had a sister Hereswith (Bede, Book IV ch.23). If Hereswith was also Hereric’s daughter, as seems likely from the ‘H’ alliteration of all three names, and if she was born before Hild (see below for rationale), Hereric would have to have been old enough to father children at least a year earlier, in 613 at the latest. Hereric must therefore have been born around 599 at the earliest (making him 14 when he fathered the first of his daughters), and probably some years before then.

Date of death
If Breguswith’s dream that her husband was ‘suddenly taken away’ is intended to represent his death, and if finding a jewel ‘under her garments’ is intended to signify that she was pregnant with Hild at the time, this may indicate that Hild was born after Hereric’s death. Bede says that Breguswith had the dream when Hild was an infant, implying that Hild was born some time before her mother’s dream, although Hereric’s death could have occurred before both Hild’s birth and Breguswith’s dream. Either way, the implication seems to be that Hild was at most an infant when Hereric died. If Hild was born close to the date of her father’s death, this further implies that Hild’s sister Hereswith was probably born before Hild. As Hild was born some time between late 613 and late 614, this suggests that Hereric’s death was some time in 614.

Cause and context of death
Bede says that Hereric died of poison. This may be deliberate poisoning, or it may be that a sudden death from natural causes was interpreted as poison. Accidental food poisoning from something like botulism can be fatal, as can acute infections, especially in an era without access to antibiotics. Allergic reactions such as anaphylactic shock could also be interpreted as poisoning.

Hereric was living in exile at the time of his death, at the court of a Brittonic king called Cerdic or Ceretic. It is not known whether he had been resident there a long time or had only recently arrived. Bede says he was living there in banishment, and it is likely that Hereric was expelled from Deira when it was annexed by King Aethelferth of Bernicia (probably in 605, see earlier article on Dating the annexation of Deira for the rationale for the date). Bede’s statement that Hereric was under the protection of the king implies that he was there with Ceretic’s knowledge and consent. Bede doesn’t name Ceretic’s kingdom, but Historia Brittonum records a Ceretic as King of Elmet contemporary with the reign of Hereric’s uncle Edwin (617-633). It seems likely that this Ceretic of Elmet is the same individual as the Ceretic at whose court Hereric was living.

Elmet was a territory in the area around modern Leeds (see sketch map for approximate location), and the name of the kingdom survives in a few place names such as Sherburn-in-Elmet and Barwick-in-Elmet (see map links). It bordered Hereric’s homeland of Deira on the south-west. Hereric’s reason for being in Elmet when he met his death in around 614 is not known. He may have been living there in exile ever since Aethelferth annexed Deira, perhaps reflecting personal or family connections with Elmet, or he may have only recently arrived in Elmet, perhaps in the hope of gaining support for an attempt to reclaim Deira, or any number of other possibilities.

If Hereric was intending to challenge Aethelferth for Deira, this may suggest a motivation for someone to poison him (if his death was not due to natural causes, see above). Aethelferth would have had an obvious motive to have Hereric assassinated, and no great distance to send an agent to do it. Alternatively, Ceretic, or someone else in Elmet, might have decided that Hereric was too dangerous to have as a guest and arranged to get rid of him. If Hereric was poisoned, as Bede says, there is a plausible political context for murder. Murder, or believed murder, would also be consistent with political developments a few years after Hereric’s death (more on this in a later post). Needless to say, other interpretations are possible.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, ch. 63, available online

Map links

28 March, 2010

Harbingers of spring

So I went for a walk yesterday morning, and saw:

  • a peacock butterfly

  • half a dozen furry bumble-bees busily buzzing about their business

  • a golden-collared grass snake gliding through the leaf litter

  • skylarks pouring out their song over newly-sown fields

  • black*-headed gulls in their smart summer plumage, with deep brown hoods as though they had dipped their heads in dark chocolate (for readers of Watership Down, Kehaar was a black-headed gull)

  • a pair of very handsome great creasted grebes performing their mating dance

None of these would come close enough or stay still long enough to be photographed, but the pussy willows are out:

.... and the celandines. I have no idea whether Tolkien was thinking of celandines when he invented elanor, the 'sun-star', but was there ever a flower that suited the name better?

And, sheltered under a gnarled old tree, this solitary primrose, newly come to full and pristine blossom. Prima rosa, 'first rose', herald of spring and summer to come.

*despite the name, they are dark brown rather than black. I suppose 'dark-brown-headed gull' was too much of a mouthful. I shan't speculate about 'chocolate-headed gull'.

24 March, 2010

An Involuntary King, by Nan Hawthorne. Book review and Book Giveaway

Booksurge, 2008. ISBN 978-1419656699. 614 pages. PDF kindly supplied by the author.

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with Nan Hawthorne by email, and we have exchanged a considerable number of messages about the history and culture of Anglo-Saxon England – indeed, I find myself flatteringly described as “….inspiration and ever-patient mentor” in the acknowledgements section. I read large parts of An Involuntary King in draft form before publication, and have also read a lot of the original scenes and stories that underlie the final novel.

An Involuntary King is set in two fictional kingdoms in eighth-century England, Crislicland (corresponding approximately to modern Lincolnshire) and its neighbour to the west Affynshire (corresponding approximately to Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire). The historical King Offa of Mercia is an offstage presence. All the main characters are fictional.

Lawrence is the younger son of the King of Crislicland, a sensitive and rather dreamy adolescent with no thoughts of becoming king. When his father and elder brother are both tragically killed by a treacherous family rival, Lawrence finds greatness unexpectedly thrust upon him. Having avenged their deaths on the battlefield, he has to overcome not only the scepticism of some of his nobles but also his own self-doubt, as he strives to prove himself a powerful and benevolent king, worthy of his father’s crown. In this he is greatly helped by his beautiful wife Josephine, a princess of the neighbouring kingdom of Affynshire, and her brother Lorin, who voluntarily cedes the rule of Affynshire to Lawrence and serves as his chief minister (high reeve). But the security of Lawrence’s reign is threatened by his evil cousin Gadfrid, who wants to usurp the crown for himself, and by a handsome Breton mercenary knight, Elerde, who has fallen in love with Josephine.

An Involuntary King is an unusual novel, reflecting its unusual origins. As the author explains in her introduction, the story began life as a series of letters and scenes that she wrote as a teenager in collaboration with a pen-friend she met at a summer camp. Many years later, she started rewriting some of the stories for an online group called Ghostletters, and then decided to turn them into a novel. An Involuntary King is the result.

This origin explains the names of the main characters. Lawrence, Josephine and Elerde were the names of the central characters in the original stories, based on films or people the author and her co-writer were fans of at the time. Lawrence, for example, takes his name from the hero of the film Lawrence of Arabia, Josephine from a novel about Napoleon’s empress. Having written about these characters on and off for a lifetime, their names were so much a part of them that they were retained in the rewrite. Together with the invented names for the two kingdoms at the centre of the action, this gives the novel a strong sense of being set in a world of its own. It reminds me a little of some of the medieval tales of Arthur and his knights – a timeless world of desperate battles, sudden reverses, villainy, treachery, courage and undying love, where anything might happen. The archaic tone of the prose and the dialogue reinforces this flavour of a legendary world. A helpful glossary at the back of the book explains some of the archaic terms and foreign words, for readers who may be unfamiliar with them.

An Involuntary King is a long book (600+ pages), told at a leisurely pace and with a sprawling plot that switches back and forth between sub-plots and different groups of characters. Treachery, double-dealing and misunderstandings abound, and the novel benefits from long stretches of uninterrupted reading time. I found that if I had to stop reading for a long period (which happened several times, life being like that), I would usually have to backtrack several chapters to remind myself of who everyone was and what was going on. The character list at the end of the book is invaluable for keeping track of the different characters (though it’s fair to say that it was probably more difficult for me than most readers to keep the characters straight, because I had met many of them in earlier drafts under their old names).

The strongest characters are the three at the centre of the love triangle, Lawrence, Josephine and Elerde, together with the two Irish bards, Shannon O’Neill and Rory McGuinness. Rory is gentle, kind, talented and boyishly in love with the queen from afar. Shannon is witty, irreverent, usually cheerful, frequently drunk (though not always as drunk as he appears), and with a talent for intrigue when occasion demands. I found these two the most enjoyable characters, especially Shannon with his irrepressible humour. Lawrence is tormented by self-doubt and jealousy, doing his best to fulfil a role he would not have chosen. Josephine is an exceptional beauty, though apparently naïve enough to be unaware of the effect she has on men. Practically every man in the novel seems to be in love with her (at one point, she says to Shannon, “Is [X] in love with me?” and Shannon thinks wryly, “Who isn’t?”), and these romantic entanglements drive a good deal of the plot.

For me, the handsome Breton mercenary knight Elerde was the most interesting character. He is in love with Josephine – nothing unusual in that – but as he is charming, cultured and aristocratic, he is sufficiently eligible for his presence at court to provoke Lawrence to violent jealousy. Elerde soon has good reason to hate Lawrence and to ally with his enemies, but his motivation remains ambiguous as his love for Josephine and the nobler aspects of his own character pull him in different directions. I wonder if it was inspiration or coincidence to place Elerde’s crucial scene at Bamburgh, one of the traditional locations for Sir Lancelot’s Joyous Gard?

Lawrence and Josephine’s story is clearly resolved by the end of the book, but Elerde’s story seems far from over. I would have liked to know what happened to him in the end.

The author also has a blog, http://aninvoluntaryking.blogspot.com, with more stories and scenes featuring Rory and Shannon, together with other characters from the novel.

An Involuntary King is available as an e-book on Smashwords, on Kindle and in print.

Book Giveaway for readers of this review

The author will give you a free download of the e-book of An Involuntary King from Smashwords. Just go to: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/5636, and when you check out enter the coupon code PX32V, which will take 100% off the price. All she asks in return is that you leave a comment on the Smashwords page. Offer expires 30 June 2010.

23 March, 2010

March recipe: Chelsea buns

There’s something very satisfying about home-baked bread. Yeast cookery in general has a faint hint of alchemy about it – bubbling potions, dough that doubles in size all by itself – and there are endless variations, both sweet and savoury. Chelsea buns are among my favourites of the sweet variations. They consist of a sweet bread dough rolled with fruit and brown sugar, and are completely impossible to eat without getting your fingers sticky.

Chelsea buns (makes 6-8)

4 Tablespoons (approx 60 ml) warm water
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) sugar
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried yeast

8 oz (approx 250 g) strong white bread flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
1 oz (approx 25 g) sugar, preferably light brown soft sugar or similar
1 egg

2 oz mixed dried fruit
1 oz brown sugar
1 oz butter

Dissolve the teaspoon of sugar in the warm water, and sprinkle the dried yeast on top. Leave in a warm place for 20 minutes or so until frothy.

Rub the 2 oz of butter into the flour.

Mix in the sugar and make a well in the centre.

Pour in the yeast liquid, followed by the beaten egg.

Mix to a soft dough, adding more water if necessary. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour.

Turn onto a floured work surface and knead for a minute or two until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and leave to rise in a warm place for about an hour. It should roughly double in size.

Knead again, and roll out to about 1 cm (less than 0.5 inch) thick, in a roughly rectangular shape.

Dot the 1 oz of butter evenly over the rectangle of dough, and sprinkle with the brown sugar and dried fruit.

Starting from one of the short sides, roll up the rectangle like a Swiss roll.

Cut the roll into thick slices (about 1 inch, approx 2.5 cm, thick).

Put the slices cut side down onto a greased baking sheet, so they almost touch each other. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes. The buns should expand to touch each other.

Bake in a hot oven, about 220 C, for about 20 minutes until firm and golden.

Remove from the tray and cool on a wire rack.

If liked, you can brush them with a sugar glaze, but I prefer them without.

Best eaten within a day or two. I expect they would freeze, but I’ve never tried.

17 March, 2010

The battle of Arfderydd or Arthuret

The Battle of Arfderydd or Arderydd is one of only four battles listed in Annales Cambriae for the sixth century. Two of the others are Arthur’s battles at Badon and Camlann, so it’s in illustrious company. What do we know about the battle?


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, available online


Gwendoleu a Nud a Chof meibyon Keidyav m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel
--Bonedd Gwr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), available online
Gvrgi a Pheredur meibon Eliffer Gosgorduavr m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel
--Bonedd Gwr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), available online

Gurci ha Peretur mepion eleuther cascord maur map letlum map Ceneú map Coylhen.
--Harleian Genealogies, available online

Welsh Triads

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

Three Faithful War Bands
… and the War-Band of Gwenddolau son of Ceidiaw at Ar(f)derydd, who continued the battle for a fortnight and a month after their lord was slain. The number of each one of the War-Bands was twenty-one hundred men
--Red Book of Hergest, available online

Myrddin poetry

Merlin, or Myrddin, features in the poems Afallen (Apple Trees, translation available online) and Oianau (Greetings, Piglet, translation available online) in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in which he says he is hiding from Rhydderch and mourns that no-one now honours him after the death of Gwenddolau at Arderydd. This is mystical poetry, not a historical narrative, and should be interpreted with caution, but it may draw on older traditions.

The late medieval manuscript called Lailoken and Kentigern says that the mad prophet Lailoken was also called Merlin, and was living wild in the wilderness following a terrible battle “fought on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok” (source: Wikipedia page on Myrddin Wyllt).


Annales Cambriae is clear that the battle of Arderydd was fought between the sons of Eliffer, named a few entries later as Peredur and Gurci, and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio. All three protagonists and their respective fathers are also listed in the genealogies, and appear associated with the battle in the Triads. This may not be independent confirmation, since it is possible that the sources could have copied each other, but three sources all consistent with each other is impressive.

The Merlin poetry has Merlin hiding from Rhydderch, presumably Rhydderch Hael, who was king of a territory centred on Alt Clut, modern Dumbarton, in the late sixth century. At first glance this might indicate that Rhydderch was the winner of the battle, which would either mean he was allied with Peredur and Gurci or would be inconsistent with the Annales Cambriae. However, the poetry does not explicitly say that Rhydderch fought or won the battle (as far as I can make out), only that Rhydderch is Merlin’s enemy. This is equally consistent with Rhydderch having opportunistically moved in to part or all of Gwenddolau’s former territory after the battle without having fought in it, or with Merlin having wandered into Rhydderch’s territory in his madness.

It is worth noting that although the genealogy brackets Gwenddolau with two brothers, named Nud and Chof, in the same way as Peredur and Gurci are bracketed together in their genealogy, there is no mention of Gwenddolau’s brothers at the battle. It could simply be that no-one remembered to mention them, or that they were dead before the battle took place, or that they were elsewhere at the time, or that for whatever reason they chose not to fight alongside their brother.

All the participants appear in the genealogies of the ‘Men of the North’. Rhydderch was king of the area around modern Dumbarton, and Peredur is traditionally associated with York (see post on Peredur for the rationale). It therefore seems likely that the battle of Arderydd was fought somewhere in the region that is now southern Scotland and northern England.

If the manuscript Lailoken and Kentigern can be trusted (which is a big ‘if’, as it dates from the fifteenth century and is thus nearly a thousand years after the event), it may provide a more detailed clue to the location. It says, “fought on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok”. Liddel must surely be the Liddel Water, which runs south-westwards from the hills at the northern end of the Pennine chain to join the River Esk on the coastal plain at the head of the Solway Firth, and which was later famous, or rather infamous, as the worst haunt of the Border Reivers. As far as I know Carwannock has not been identified, but the first element ‘Car’ is the Brittonic ‘Caer’, meaning a fort. There are plenty of Roman forts in the area, including the chain along Hadrian’s Wall and outpost forts north of the Wall, and there may well have been other fortified places. This would place the battle somewhere on the Solway plain, perhaps at a strategic crossing of the River Esk or the Liddel Water, which is a plausible sort of location for an important battle.

Arthuret House, on the River Esk just south of Longtown, is the traditional site ascribed to the battle. It is on the plain, not far from Liddel Water, and could count as ‘between Liddel and Carwannok’ if Carwannok is to be identified with one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Nearby Carwinley, which stands on the Liddel Water not far from the site of the Roman fort at Netherby, has been suggested to derive from a name something like ‘Caer Gwenddolau’; if correct, this derivation is further support for locating Arderydd somewhere in this approximate area.

The cause of the battle is unknown. The battle was evidently important enough for the compiler of the Annales Cambriae to consider it worth recording. The ‘twenty-one hundred men’ of the Triads is probably a poetic convention, though it may indicate that the forces involved were remembered as being unusually large. Similarly, it is unlikely that the defeated warriors literally continued the battle for six weeks (!), but that may indicate a tradition that the battle was exceptionally hard fought. All of this is consistent with it having been a major battle, either in numbers or because it was politically decisive in some way, or both.

The ‘Men of the North’ genealogies show Peredur and Gurci as first cousins to Gwenddolau, suggesting that the battle was a dispute between two branches of the same family. Perhaps it was a sort of sixth-century Wars of the Roses, with each side claiming the other’s inheritance. It is worth noting that there is no mention whatsoever of Arderydd having been fought against ‘Saxons’ or other invaders; it appears to have been a strictly family affair.

Gwenddolau clearly lost both the battle and his life. Peredur and Gurci evidently survived, since the Annales Cambriae enter their deaths seven years later in 580. So we can reasonably infer that the immediate outcome was that Peredur and Gurci won. Given that the battle was considered worth remembering, it may be that it also had longer-term consequences that altered the political balance in the area. The genealogy ends at Gwenddolau’s generation, suggesting that either he left no heirs or that his descendants did not reclaim their territory.

The area over which Gwenddolau ruled is not known. It is a reasonable inference (though not a certainty) that his territory was somewhere in the region of the battle, in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland. He presumably controlled substantial resources, if he could maintain a large warband, and therefore it can also be reasonably inferred that his territory was large or wealthy or both. If this is the case, the prospect of gaining it as a prize may have contributed to the motivation for the battle.

If Peredur and his brother were indeed based in York (see post on Peredur for the rationale), this raises some interesting questions. What were the kings of York doing fighting a battle on the other side of the country? Was there some sort of regional overlordship in dispute, or were they trying to extend their territories, or were they simply intent on destroying Gwenddolau for personal reasons that had nothing to do with claiming territory? If the latter, it may explain why Rhydderch was present in the area to hound the insane Merlin; he may have quietly moved into a gap left after the York kings went home. If Peredur and Gurci took over Gwenddolau’s kingdom, one wonders how the logistics would have worked to control a territory sprawling from York to the Solway with the Pennines in the way, unless one of the brothers ruled it as a separate sub-kingdom.

Interestingly, a generation or so after the battle of Arderydd the kingdom of Rheged appears to have emerged as a powerful force in much the same area. Its king, Urien, is remembered in Historia Brittonum as having almost destroyed the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, at a date some time before Aethelric became king of Bernicia in 593. The location of Rheged is not known with any certainty. It was presumably somewhere in the North, since Urien appears in the ‘Descent of the Men of the North’ genealogies and since his recorded enemies and allies are all associated with the region. It was not on the east coast, since that area is accounted for by Bernicia and Deira, so that leaves a gap on the map in the area that is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland, and it seems logical to place Rheged there. How far its boundaries extended is open to argument, and in any case probably varied according to the military success of its kings relative to their neighbours. This is the same area as the location of the battle of Arderydd. Which could be pure coincidence, or could perhaps indicate that the battle of Arderydd was connected with the later rise of the kingdom of Rheged, either directly or by creating a gap into which a new dynasty could move.

Another interesting observation is that the traditional site of the battle at Arthuret House is less than 20 miles from Birdoswald Roman fort. As discussed in an earlier post, someone in post-Roman Birdoswald built two successive massive timber halls on the site of the north granary, which would be consistent with occupation by a local ruler with control of substantial resources. The halls cannot be precisely dated, and the excavator suggests that occupation may have lasted on the site until around 520 (see earlier post on dating for rationale). If this date is correct, the halls on the north granary site (though not necessarily the whole fort) would have been long abandoned by the time of the battle of Arderydd. However, if the halls lasted longer than estimated, which is possible given the absence of dating evidence, this raises the question of whether Birdoswald and/or its ruler had any connection with the battle of Arderydd. A major chieftain’s hall and a major battle within 20 miles of each other may not be entirely coincidental. Could Birdoswald have been the seat of Gwenddolau or his family? If so, one could speculate that the battle at Arderydd may suggest a context for the end of the sequence at Birdoswald. I need hardly say that this is speculative and that other interpretations are possible.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bonedd Gwr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), available online
Harleian Genealogies, available online
Welsh Triads, Red Book of Hergest, available online

Map links
Arthuret House, near Longtown
Liddel Water

11 March, 2010

Young Bess, by Margaret Irwin. Book review

First published 1944. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402229961, uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher. 381 pages.

Young Bess is the first in Margaret Irwin’s trilogy of novels about Elizabeth I. It covers the years 1545-1533, when Elizabeth is aged 12-19, and focuses on the scandal surrounding her relationship with Thomas Seymour. All the main characters are historical figures.

Life at the royal court of England in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII is a risky business. The King, now grossly obese, onto his sixth wife and in failing health, is an unpredictable and bad-tempered tyrant. His younger daughter Elizabeth (Bess) is all too well aware that he killed her mother, Anne Boleyn. A highly intelligent twelve-year-old, she already understands the necessity of learning to navigate the dangerous undercurrents of political intrigue, and the fatal consequences of getting it wrong. She loves her new stepmother, kind Catherine Parr, as a mother, and is delighted to go to live with her after Henry’s death. But soon Catherine marries her old love, the dashing and handsome Thomas (Tom) Seymour, uncle of Bess’s half-brother the child-king Edward. Bess, now fourteen and just entering adolescence, is dangerously attracted to him and he to her. Tom is resentful of his elder brother’s stranglehold on government, and eager to gain a share of power for himself. Whether Tom’s interest in her is due to love, lust, ambition or all three, Bess is about to learn a tragic lesson in the perils of power and love that will shape the rest of her life.

I first read Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth trilogy many years ago, and it is just as fresh and vivid now as it was then. I am delighted to see it back in print. What draws me back to this trilogy time and again is the outstanding characterisation, not only of Bess but of the other characters as well. Everyone is an individual, with their own hopes, desires and all-too-human failings, portrayed in a way that is sympathetic and yet also clear-eyed. Bess, of course, is the centrepiece. Mercurial and charismatic, clever and yet naïve, still a child in her egotistical vanity but showing signs of the woman she will become, she attracts and exasperates the other characters (and the reader) in equal measure. In his much later biography of Elizabeth, historian David Starkey comments that the Seymour affair was when Elizabeth grew up, and in this masterly novel you can watch it happen.

Tom Seymour blazes across the pages like a comet, handsome, adventurous, courageous and careless, living up to Elizabeth’s famous epithet, “…..a man of much wit and very little judgement.” (Whether she actually said it is immaterial; it sums him up perfectly, at least as he appears here). His eldest brother Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, is a bundle of entirely believable contradictions; an idealist who cares about justice for the common people yet thinks nothing of demolishing churches in his desire to amass yet more property, a stern aesthete holding the supreme power of government who is terribly henpecked by his acquisitive wife. King Edward VI attracts sympathy as a frail and lonely boy pushed onto the throne too young – until he demonstrates his share of the Tudor ruthlessness.

Second only to the characterisation is the prose style, which is a delight. Lively, economical and witty, people and events are boldly sketched in a few evocative phrases. On King Henry, “Terrible, jovial, at his nod the greatest heads in the kingdom fell, struck by Jove’s thunderbolt – and then he seemed astonished and annoyed that he was not sufficiently a god to put them on again.” On attitudes to Somerset’s reforms, “Let him try out his fool notions on religion if he must; but property, that was different, that was sacred.” On a noble Scottish lightweight, “He insisted on marriage to either of the Princesses, Elizabeth or Mary (he hadn’t seen either and didn’t mind which) as his price; and was fobbed off instead with the usual promise of Anne of Cleves – a promise that nobody, least of all the lady in question, intended to keep.” On Tom Seymour, “It wasn’t until he had left that Tom remembered the prime motive of his visit, which was to consider his nephew’s kidnapping. Well, that could wait.”

I wonder if Tom’s opinion of Somerset’s German mercenaries might owe at least as much to the circumstances of the 1940s when the book was published than to the 1540s when it is set, and one or two of the characters’ comments about the future, although great fun, are perhaps a little too much of a nod and a wink to the reader (“‘If this goes on,’ said Tom when he heard of it, ‘in another hundred years they will find the King himself guilty of high treason and cut off his head’”). But these nods to the future aside, the overall effect of the novel is of having opened a window onto Tudor England in all its argumentative, colourful, contradictory life. This is a time of rapid social change, as new lands and new knowledge challenge the old certainties and open up both danger and opportunity. Young Bess captures the energy and the sense that anything might happen. No matter how well you know Elizabeth’s story (and I would guess that if you found your way here you probably know it pretty well), the novel manages to make it as exciting and uncertain as it must have been for the characters at the time.

A powerful portrayal of Elizabeth’s teenage years and her relationship with Tom Seymour, told in elegant prose and with superb characterisation.

04 March, 2010

Birdoswald Roman Fort: dating the post-Roman use of the site

In an earlier post, I described the post-Roman timber halls constructed on the site of the north granary in the Roman fort of Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall. We know the halls are post-Roman because late Roman coins of Valentinian, dated to the 380s, were found beneath the relaid floor. How long did the site remain in use after the end of Roman occupation?

Dating the post-Roman halls

Unfortunately, there are no surviving timbers from the post-Roman timber buildings that could be dated by dendrochronology or radiocarbon, and there are no datable objects from the site after the coin of Theodosius found under the collapsed roof of the south granary (Wilmott 2001 p. 123). So dating the post-Roman halls is a matter of interpretation.

There are two distinct timber building phases to accommodate, the first one built more or less directly on top of the north granary and the second one built partly on the north granary and partly on the adjacent street. Both must post-date the coins of Valentinian found under the flagstone floor, so both must post-date the 380s. If the timber buildings replaced the function of the south granary, whose roof collapsed some time after the worn coin of Theodosius (388-395) was dropped on its floor, they also post-date this collapse.

Tony Wilmott suggests that the south granary roof collapsed in the early fifth century, say around 420, as the coin of Theodosius was very worn and thus had been around for some considerable time. If the first timber building on the north granary site was constructed around this time, and if each phase had a life of 50 years, this would suggest the second timber building was constructed around 470 and lasted until around 520 (Wilmott 2001 p. 123-4).

Needless to say, these are very approximate estimates. Timber buildings can and do last a lot longer than 50 years if the structural timbers are supported on stone foundations (as both the Birdoswald buildings were), as witness the medieval and early modern timber-framed buildings that still survive in Britain today. Conversely, a timber building can have a life considerably shorter than 50 years if bad weather, accidental damage, poor construction or bad luck intervene, or if the owner simply decides he feels like replacing it. And although a collapsed building is unlikely still to be occupied, the reverse is not necessarily true; a building could be abandoned for social, political or personal reasons long before it actually falls down. The issue date of a coin can be identified accurately, and this gives the earliest possible date for its loss or deposition, but the actual date of its loss or deposition could be later, perhaps much later, than its date of issue, depending on how long the coin was in circulation (or in storage).

Furthermore, it’s difficult to be sure whether a site was continuously occupied or whether it went in and out of use, if the periods of disuse were too short for archaeologically recognisable deposits to form, or if any such deposits were cleared at subsequent re-use rather than built over. Ken Dark reviews the same sequence of evidence from Birdoswald and proposes a break in occupation between the residential use of the south granary and the buildings constructed on the north granary. In this scenario, he suggests that the south granary was in use as a residential hall during the last decades of the Roman occupation (roughly 350 to 400), that the fort was then abandoned for a period after the end of Roman government, and that the fort was re-occupied some time during the later fifth or sixth century, at which time the site of the north granary was cleared and the timber buildings constructed (Dark 2002, p.198-199).

Another possibility that occurs to me is that there may have been a break between the first and second timber building phases. Since the second timber building was partly on top of the site of the first, the first must have collapsed or been demolished before the second one could be built. Demolition and building might have been quite quick, if all the required materials were assembled and pre-prepared on site beforehand, but that requires efficient logistics and even then the replacement of one building by the other could hardly have been the work of a day. Abandonment of the site, perhaps only briefly, allows for site clearance and the subsequent construction of the second timber building.

It is worth bearing in mind that abandoning the area of the granaries does not necessarily mean abandoning the entire fort site. Areas of occupation may have moved around according to the condition of existing structures and the availability of sites for rebuilding. A barrack-type building constructed in the late Roman period (later fourth century) had re-used an inscription from the commanding officer’s house (praetorium) and another inscription commemorating the rebuilding of the granary, indicating that these buildings had gone out of use while other areas of the site were still occupied and in use.

Only the area around the west gate at Birdoswald has been excavated to modern standards, and it is possible that other early medieval structures may have stood elsewhere in the fort. Early excavations would not have picked up the slight traces left by timber buildings, and parts of the fort interior have not been excavated at all. Medieval ridge-and-furrow plough marks cover the southern third of the fort interior, with the exception of an area in the south-west corner where there is also a long flat platform against the fort wall. This has been suggested as the site of a medieval building (Wilmott 2001, p.133, 135); if so, perhaps the area might also have been in use earlier. The foundations of a square tower, possibly dated to the fourteenth/fifteenth century, were discovered in excavations north of the west gate (Wilmott 2001 p. 137). The west gate was probably still standing when the tower was built, as the pottery found under the rubble of its collapsed arch indicates it collapsed in the later fifteenth century, and Wilmott suggests that the first-floor storey of the gate was re-roofed and used as a hall building to go with the tower (Wilmott 2001, p. 138). If the west gate was sufficiently intact to be re-roofed and occupied as a hall in the fourteenth century, perhaps the same also applied several centuries earlier.


It’s clear from the timber halls that occupation at Birdoswald continued beyond the end of Roman government in Britain, for an unknown period that was long enough to construct two successive large timber buildings on the same site. The size of the halls implies that whoever ordered their construction controlled substantial resources of materials and manpower. It’s a reasonable inference that this was a local or regional ruler.

Although the halls are built on a Roman site, and the first one directly re-used surviving Roman walls as part of its structure, they are built of timber not masonry. This implies that Roman building techniques had been lost, either due to lack of knowledge or lack of the infrastructure to obtain the appropriate materials, or deliberately rejected.

The duration of post-Roman occupation is unknown, but must surely extend until at least well into the fifth century, unless the timber buildings had absurdly short lives, and could easily extend well into the sixth century or beyond, particularly if there was a break in occupation. The long cist grave found nearby is consistent with a burial of early medieval date, and is consistent with its occupant having been a Christian. One could speculate that the long cist grave represents the burial of a Christian ruler who lived in the timber hall, but this really is clutching at straws.

The eighth-century pin found nearby may indicate that the site was in use at this date, especially if the timber halls on the north granary site were succeeded (with or without a break in occupation) by other structures elsewhere in the fort, but this is unsubstantiated.

The place name, combining an Old English personal name with a Brittonic topographical description (“pen or farmyard of Oswald”) is most likely to have been coined some time in the early medieval period in the centuries after the end of Roman rule (since no trace of the Roman name remains in the modern name), but before the eleventh century when Old English names largely went out of fashion following the Norman Conquest and perhaps more likely before the Norse/Viking influence of the ninth and tenth centuries. The absence of any trace of the Roman name of the fort, Banna, in the modern name is consistent with a period of abandonment at some time after the end of Roman rule, long enough for the name to be lost, followed by re-occupation some time in the early medieval period. However, it could also be consistent with deliberate replacement of the old name by someone who wanted to emphasise a change of ownership or political allegiance. Whether “Oswald” refers to the sort of individual who might have owned and feasted in the timber halls, or to a humbler farmer working the site as agricultural land, or anything in between, is anyone’s guess.

On the whole, I would say that occupation until well into the sixth century is supported by the timber halls. This could represent continuous occupation without a break from the Late Roman period, or could represent reoccupation of a temporarily abandoned site. Further occupation into later centuries – with or without a break - is not unreasonable, but the only evidence for it is the eighth-century pin and perhaps the place name, which is not exactly definitive.

If Birdoswald was the base of an important local ruler in the later sixth century, this brings it into the same sort of period as the battle of Arthuret, entered in the Annales Cambriae in 573. Arthuret is traditionally located near Longtown in Cumbria, which is less than 20 miles from Birdoswald. I mentioned Arthuret in my article about Peredur. More about the battle in a later post.

Dark K. Britain and the end of the Roman empire. Tempus, 2002. ISBN 0-7524-2532-3.
Wilmott T. Birdoswald Roman fort: 1800 years on Hadrian’s Wall. Tempus, 2001. ISBN 0-7524-1913-7.

Map links
Birdoswald – Streetmap
Birdoswald – Google Maps satellite image

Note for readers of Paths of Exile
I based the (fictional) warlord’s hall at Navio Roman Fort (modern Brough, Derbyshire) in Paths of Exile on the second of the post-Roman timber halls excavated at Birdoswald. There is no evidence that Navio fort was occupied by a local warlord in 605/606 (nor is there any evidence that it wasn’t).

02 March, 2010

Not just pretty feathers (2)

The resident pheasant, who learned in the winter snow to flap up to the bird table and unhook the string on the hanging fat cake so he could eat it on the ground (see earlier post), has remembered his new skill for well over a month. Here he is on a brighter day tucking in to his ill-gotten gains.

On a brighter note still, the crocuses are out at long last.