30 April, 2011

Raedwald’s queen

In the early seventh century, the kingdom of the East Angles was ruled by a king named Raedwald. He is a likely candidate for the occupant of the magnificent ship burial at Sutton Hoo, and Bede lists him among the kings who held some sort of overlordship over all the English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdoms south of the Humber (Bede, Book II Ch 5). Clearly, Raedwald was a powerful king. His queen was evidently also an influential woman, as two episodes in Bede make clear. What do we know about her?



Eadwine (Edwin) of Deira/Northumbria was in exile at Raedwald’s court in East Anglia for an unknown period before 617 AD, on the run from Aethelferth of Bernicia who had annexed Deira and wanted rid of Eadwine:

[Aethelferth] sent messengers to offer Raedwald a large sum of money to murder him [Eadwine]. Obtaining no satisfaction, he sent a second and third time, offering even heavier bribes and threatening war if his demand were refused. At length Raedwald, either intimidated by his threats or corrupted by his bribes, agreed to his demands and promised either to kill Eadwine or to surrender him to Aethelferth’s envoys...

A friend warns Eadwine of the plot to murder him, but Eadwine refuses to flee, and the friend goes away to find out what else is happening. A short time later the friend comes back with more news, saying:

“...the king [Raedwald] has had a change of heart. He now intends you no harm, and means to keep the promise that he made you. For when he privately told the queen of his intention to deal with you as I warned, she dissuaded him, saying that it was unworthy in a great king to sell his friend in the hour of his need for gold, and worse still to sacrifice his royal honour, the most valuable of all possessions, for love of money.” In brief, the king did as she advised.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 12

Raedwald had [...] received Christian baptism in Kent, but to no good purpose; for on his return home his wife and certain perverse advisers persuaded him to apostasize from the true Faith.

He had in the same shrine an altar for the holy Sacrifice of Christ, side by side with a small altar on which victims were offered to devils.

--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 15

William of Malmesbury

His [Raedwald’s] son, Eorpwald, embraced pure Christianity and poured out his pure spirit to God, being barbarously murdered by the heathen Richbert. To him [Eorpwald] succeeded Sigebert, his brother by the mother’s side
--William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, chapter V, available online

This indicates that Eorpwald was the son of Raedwald, while Sigebert was the son of the same mother but not a son of Raedwald.


From Bede’s two mentions of her, we can reasonably deduce that Raedwald’s queen had considerable influence over King Raedwald’s religious policy (maintaining or returning to his non-Christian gods after he adopted the Christian religion) and foreign/military policy (defying Aethelferth of Bernicia). On one occasion the queen is mentioned along with ‘other advisors’, which may indicate that she was acting as part of a group, perhaps representing a strand of opinion or a political faction at Raedwald’s court. On the other occasion she appears to have been acting alone, since the friend says “.. when he [Raedwald] privately told the queen...”. One can argue as to quite how ‘private’ the occasion was, since the friend evidently knew the content of the conversation, but it seems clear that it was not a formal or public occasion such as a councillors’ meeting. Whether the queen’s influence was purely personal, or derived from her formal position as queen, or reflected a role as spokesperson of a group or faction, is open to discussion. Similarly, it is not possible to say whether the political and religious influence she wielded was normal practice or unusual. However, Raedwald’s queen is not the only influential royal woman in Bede’s history; for example, he says of Abbess Hild of Whitby that kings and princes used to ask her advice and take it. So the authority displayed by Raedwald’s queen may or may not have been normal, but it was not unique.

Since Raedwald’s queen is specifically listed among the advisers who talked him out of his conversion to Christianity, it is a reasonable inference that she honoured the non-Christian gods. It is worth noting that we do not know Raedwald’s reasons for accepting baptism in the first place, nor anything about the circumstances except that it occurred in Kent. Nor do we know the background to Raedwald’s dual-religion policy. Bede, as an orthodox Christian, clearly regarded the church with two altars as an abhorrence, but to people accustomed to a polytheistic religion it may have seemed quite natural. Raedwald may not have thought of himself as an apostate at all.

Bede attributes a strong sense of honour to Raedwald’s queen. It is the main argument she uses for persuading Raedwald to reject Aethelferth’s envoys. The circumstances and motives may well have been more complex at the time; a decision to go to war against a king as powerful and as militarily successful as Aethelferth is unlikely to have been taken lightly. It may have reflected an ongoing power struggle for overlordship or territory, as much as a matter of friendship or honouring a promise. However, it seems reasonable to accept that the motivation of upholding honour was the one accepted in Bede’s day, or at least in the source he was using. Bede’s account of the incident is unusually detailed, and he may well have drawn on a tale or saga or heroic poem that was in circulation and available to him at the time but has not come down to us. Honour is a lofty and high-minded motive, and it is specifically attributed to the queen. This in turn suggests that Raedwald’s queen was regarded as an admirable figure (at least in this instance), by Bede or the source he was using or both.

Since the queen was advising Raedwald on foreign policy in 617 AD, and on religious policy some time before that, she was evidently married to Raedwald before 617. We do not know which of Raedwald’s sons were also her sons. However, if Raegenhere and Eorpwald were both her sons, they were of fighting age in 617 AD and old enough to rule in 627 AD, respectively. Raegenhere cannot have been born much later than 600 AD, or he would have been too young to fight in 617 AD, and Eorpwald cannot have been born much after 610 AD or he would have been too young to be a credible king in 627. If both were the sons of Raedwald’s queen, this would be consistent with her being nearer middle age than youth in 617. This is also consistent with her influence; a lady of mature years might be expected to have more authority than a very young girl. If Sigebert was her son by a different father (see below), it also raises the interesting possibility that Raedwald may have been her second husband.

Unfortunately, the name of Raedwald’s influential queen is not recorded in any surviving source, and nor is there any record of her family connections. There may be some clue to her family background in William of Malmesbury’s account. William is quite clear that Eorpwald was Raedwald’s son and that Sigebert was Eorpwald’s brother on the mother’s side, i.e. that they shared the same mother but that, by implication, Sigebert was not Raedwald’s son. Caveat that William of Malmesbury was writing centuries after the events and information would have had plenty of opportunity to get confused in the interim; however, this seems an odd sort of detail to have been interpolated or made up. It is not certain that the mother of Eorpwald and Sigebert was also the same woman as Raedwald’s influential queen. Raedwald may have had more than one wife, sequentially or simultaneously, for all we know. However, since both Eorpwald and Sigebert became kings of the East Angles, it seems likely that their mother was an important figure, and Raedwald’s influential queen would be a logical candidate.

If Eorpwald and Sigebert were the sons of Raedwald’s unnamed queen, Sigebert may provide some clues to her background. First, his name. There are no other S- names in the surviving genealogy of the kings of the East Angles but there are a lot of S- names in the genealogy of the kings of the East Saxons, including at least one Sigebert in the 650s (Bede Book III Ch. 22). This may indicate that Raedwald’s queen had connections with the East Saxon dynasty (although other families may also have used S- names). If she did have East Saxon connections, she could have been an East Saxon princess who married into the neighbouring kingdom of East Anglia, or she may have been previously married to an East Saxon king or prince (or, indeed, both).

Second, Sigebert was clearly accepted as king of the East Angles, even though (if William of Malmesbury is right) he was not a son of Raedwald. Although it is possible that the East Anglian dynasty had simply run out of other suitable candidates, it may indicate that Sigebert had a claim to the kingship that did not derive from Raedwald. One possibility is that Sigebert’s claim came through his mother, if she was herself a member of the East Anglian royal dynasty. This would be consistent with her evident importance at Raedwald’s court. A second possibility is that Sigebert’s father was a member of the East Anglian royal dynasty, perhaps a previous king. It was not unknown for new kings to marry the widow of the previous king. Bede tells us that the new king of Kent, Eadbald, married his father’s widow (second wife, so presumably not his own mother!) on his accession, much to the horror of the Christian Church (Bede Book II Ch. 5). If Raedwald of the East Angles had done something similar, this would also be consistent with the influence clearly held by Raedwald’s queen and with Sigebert’s (eventual) succession to the kingship. I need hardly say that this is speculative.

Although we do not know the name of Raedwald’s influential queen (how very remiss of Bede), we can therefore draw some conclusions about her. First, it is clear that she held sufficient authority to influence her husband’s decisions on matters as important as religion and war. The source of this authority is open to speculation; it could have been derived from strength of personality, the emotional relationship between her and Raedwald, a role as representative or figurehead for a political faction, a position within the East Anglian royal dynasty in her own right or as the widow of a previous king, or any combination of these. Second, it is very likely that she followed the Old English pre-Christian religion, since she was part of the group who talked Raedwald out of his Christian conversion. Third, she was strong-minded and confident enough to argue with her husband. Fourth, if Sigebert was her son, his name may indicate East Saxon connections. Speculating further, if Sigebert was her son, and if his claim to the East Anglian kingship came through her (two notable ifs), she may have held an important position in the East Anglian royal court in her own right, independent of her marriage to Raedwald.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.

William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, chapter V, available online

19 April, 2011

The Whale Road, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-721530-0. 334 pages

The Whale Road follows the adventures of a band of Norse mercenaries in 964/965 AD in Scandinavia, Russia and the Ukraine, set against the backdrop of the emerging Rus kingdoms around Kiev. The historical figures Sviatoslav of the Rus and his sons Yaropolk and Vladimir have walk-on parts. Harald Bluetooth of Norway and Denmark is an important off-stage presence, and Attila the Hun – a historical figure from 500 years earlier – is the subject of the heroes’ quest. The legendary Volsungs also feature. All the main characters are fictional.

Brought up on his uncle’s farm in Norway, Orm Ruriksson knows his father only as a name, until a threat from the uncle brings Orm’s father home to take vengeance and to sweep Orm away to a new life as a warrior of the Oathsworn. Sworn to each other and to their formidable leader Einar the Black, the Oathsworn are a verjazi band, Norse mercenaries who travel and fight for pay. This time they are on a quest for a rune-inscribed sword and the legendary hoard of Attila the Hun, trying to keep one step ahead of rivals and ex-employers who are also seeking the same treasures. The trail will lead them across the wild oceans and deep into the Russian steppes to face battle and treachery and dark magic – and the inexorable doom woven by a broken oath.

As the author says in his ‘Note on the history’, this is “...a saga, to be read around the fire against the lurking dark.” It has classic saga ingredients – a sword engraved with runes that has magical symbolism in two religions, a beautiful woman with a mysterious link to the Otherworld, a mountain forge of immense antiquity, a long-lost treasure hoard, desperate battles in far-off lands and epic sea voyages through storm and tempest. It also has something of the feel of the Icelandic sagas beyond the adventure, partly from the prose style and partly because of the sense of grim and implacable fate closing in as a result of the characters’ own choices and the unyielding demands of oath and obligation. The language is laconic, sprinkled with occasional vivid phrases reminiscent of Norse kennings, e.g. “...[the ship] leaped like a goosed goodwife”, “windows comfort-yellow with light”, “crow-wing hair”. The title of the novel itself is a classic Norse kenning – the whale road is the open ocean. Dialogue is terse and lively, liberally laced with black humour and Scots or Norse dialect terms. In keeping with the hard-drinking, hard-fighting life of the main characters, modern four-letter words are frequent; readers who are offended by words such as f**k and c**t may like to consider themselves warned.

The book is narrated throughout in first person by Orm. I often dislike first-person narratives, as the reader sees only the narrator’s point of view, but fortunately Orm is intelligent and interested in working out hidden information and in trying to understand other people’s motivations.

The plot is non-stop action, with plenty of casual violence (the “Glasgow kiss” makes an appearance under another name), gory battle scenes and gruesome ways to die. As one might expect from the subject matter, it’s a dangerous novel to be a character in. The Whale Road captures the precarious nature of life as a mercenary warrior, forever poised between the possibility of riches beyond the dreams of avarice and the (much more likely) possibility of an unpleasant death. It is a little surprising that Orm, an inexperienced youth of 15, fits into this tough, ruthless band with apparent ease, although this might be explained by Orm’s ability to read Latin (which turns out to be a skill of considerable use to the fearsome Einar) and his father’s status as a respected member of the group.

A strong sense of the supernatural is woven through the narrative. Storms are sent by angry gods, a lost comrade has to be honoured by a sacrifice, and who else would emerge from an abandoned mine under a mountain but an angry black dwarf wielding a hammer (a scene that still makes me laugh weeks after reading it)? For the most part the supernatural exists in the minds of the characters; the exception seems to be the mysterious and beautiful Hild with her aura of evil spirits, dark magic and supernatural link to the mysterious treasure hoard.

A useful map at the front of the book and a list of place names with their modern equivalents at the back is helpful for following the Oathsworn on their epic journeys, and a ‘Note on the history’ gives a brief summary of the historical background to the tale. There is no glossary for the colourful Norse terms; I recognised most of them and those that were new to me were clear from the context, but I have a long-standing interest in Norse history. Readers who are not familiar with the period may find the Norse glossary on the author’s website useful.

Gripping saga of epic journeys by land and sea, hard-fought battles and the dark power of oaths, as a band of Norse mercenary warriors seek a legendary sword and a long-lost hoard of cursed silver in tenth-century Scandinavia and Russia.

16 April, 2011

April recipe: Hot cross buns

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns
--Traditional rhyme

Another version uses ‘one ha-penny, two ha-penny’, ha-penny meaning half a penny. The variant I know was evidently coined in more inflationary days :-) I have no idea of the significance of the line about daughters and sons, if indeed it has any beyond a convenient rhyme and scan. Feel free to speculate.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the phrase ‘hot cross bun’ is in 1733:

Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.
--Oxford English Dictionary

It seems likely to me that some form of enriched sweet bread baked to celebrate a spring festival goes back a lot further than 1733, though in the absence of evidence you can choose your own favourite theory about the origin of the recipe and the significance of the cross. Wikipedia has a few to choose from. It would be terribly prosaic to suggest that two intersecting cuts across the top of a loaf may have started out as a convenient way of dividing it into four pieces.

There are as many variants of hot cross buns as there are cooks. You can vary the dried fruit (some recipes even substitute chocolate chips), you can vary the spices, you can glaze the buns with honey or icing, and the cross can be marked with pastry, flour-and-water-paste, icing or simply slashed with a knife. Take your pick. Here’s my recipe, and a happy Easter to you when it comes.

Hot cross buns

Half a cup (about 2 fluid ounces, or abut 50 ml) tepid water
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) dried yeast*
1 lb (approx 450 g) strong white flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) ground mixed spice
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) salt
2 oz (approx 50 g) sultanas
1 oz (approx 25 g) currants
1 oz (approx 25 g) cut mixed peel**
1 egg
Milk to mix

Dissolve the granulated sugar in the tepid water and sprinkle the yeast on top. Set aside in a warm place for about 20 minutes until frothy on top. (If using the kind of dried yeast that needs no activation, follow the instructions on the packet).

Mix the light brown soft sugar, flour, salt and spices in a bowl, and rub in the butter. Stir in the dried fruit and peel.

Pour in the yeast liquid, then the beaten egg. Mix well. Add milk until the mixture forms a soft dough. (If it is floury and flaky, add a little more milk. If it is sticky, you have added too much milk; add a bit more flour).

Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead for a few minutes until smooth.

Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and leave in a warm place to rise for about 1 hour. It should roughly double in size.

Knead again for a few minutes, then shape the dough into 12 buns. Place the buns on a greased baking sheet so they are just touching. Make two intersecting cuts with a knife on the top of each bun to form a cross.

Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.

Bake in a hot oven, about 220 C, for about 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

Cool on a wire rack. If liked, brush the tops of the warm buns with honey to make them sticky.

Serve warm or cold, with butter. Any left over will keep for a day or so in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.

*This is the kind of dried yeast you have to activate in warm water before using.
**Cut mixed peel is the UK name. I think it may be called ‘candied citrus peel’ or similar in the US..

08 April, 2011

Kathleen Herbert and Moon In Leo

Kathleen Herbert wrote three historical novels set in what is now northern England and southern Scotland during the Heroic Age of early medieval Britain (late sixth and early-to-mid seventh century), Bride of the Spear (first published as Lady of the Fountain), Queen of the Lightning and Ghost in the Sunlight. I read them a while ago and liked them very much indeed (all are now out of print, but second-hand copies are reasonably readily available).

Last year, I learned through Sarah Johnson's blog Reading the Past that Kathleen Herbert had written a fourth novel, Moon In Leo, before experiencing ill-health. Her friend Connie Jensen set up an independent publishing company, Trifolium Books, and in February this year Moon In Leo was published as their first title. I bought a copy straight away, and am delighted to find that it's well up to the high standard of the three previous novels (review to come in due course).

Moon In Leo is also set in northern England, in the romantic landscape of the Furness peninsula and Morecambe Bay in South Cumbria - the cover photograph (see above) captures the atmosphere well - but at a completely different time in history, Restoration England in 1678. Here's the back cover copy:

People turned out of their homes; others living rich beyond the dreams of the dispossessed. Science struggling with superstition; celebrity and royalty parading in a public sexual carnival. This love story takes place among the political intrigues and religious hatred of England's age of upheaval between civil war and 'glorious revolution'.

Of the two men in Rosamund Halistan's life, one is a fellow scholar of the occult, the other a wild hedonist with tragic memories. She suspects both of them on attempts on her brother's life and designs on her body and land.

It's harder to find a safe path through the thickets of treason and bigotry than through the rip-tides and quicksands, solid routes and sanctuary in the sands of Morecambe Bay.

More about Trifolium Books and Moon In Leo on the company's blog here.

Map link: Furness