Æthelflæd arrives

aethelflaed_TCcopy3

Last week I received from my publisher (Birlinn Books of Edinburgh) the first of six ‘author copies’ of my newly published biography of Æthelflæd. I am very pleased with how it looks and took this quick photo. The other five will hopefully be coming down the M74 in the next few days. They won’t be around for long and will be heading off in different directions soon after I receive them. But this one, being the first to arrive, I will definitely be keeping for myself.

A more detailed announcement of the book can be found over at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

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Cobwebs

I’ve been away from blogging for more than a year and a half, my longest period of absence since the launch of Senchus ten years ago. Distractions of various kinds have caused me to drift off the radar, but now I’m gradually making my way back. All three of my blogs have lain dormant since the autumn of 2016. Returning after such a long break means oiling their wheels, kick-starting their rusty engines and clearing the cobwebs off my WordPress dashboard.

Although absent from the ‘Blogosphere’ I’ve still kept in touch with history and archaeology. In April 2017, the Stove Network invited me to their headquarters in Dumfries to give a talk about Dark Age Galloway. The event was part of a cultural heritage project called Our Norwegian Story which looked at links between Scandinavia and South-West Scotland, so the Vikings featured prominently in my presentation. On a similar note, I was honoured to give the 2018 Oddveig Røsegg Memorial Lecture to the Scottish Norwegian Society a couple of months ago. My topic was ‘Strathclyde and the Vikings’, with an emphasis on the Norse aspect. A nice souvenir of the evening was a Society badge incorporating the Scottish and Norwegian flags (see below).

SNSbadge300high

Also in 2017 I wrote a book, my seventh on early medieval history and the first without a Scottish focus. It’s a biography of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Æthelflæd ruled the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia in the early tenth century and led her armies against the Vikings. Her death in June 918 is being commemorated 1100 years later at a number of places in what was once her domain. My book is scheduled to appear around the time of the anniversary and is being published by Birlinn of Edinburgh. The front cover shows a sculptured portrait of Æthelflæd from a public artwork at Runcorn in Cheshire, the site of one of her fortresses.

Aethelflaedcover_500high

I’ll be posting about Æthelflæd at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, which seems the most relevant venue, but occasional updates on the book will also appear here at Senchus.

Those of you who keep an eye on news about Dark Age Scotland will know that there have been some interesting developments in the last year or so. I hope to report on these as I slowly get back to blogging.

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Bede’s World reborn

St Paul's Church, Jarrow.

St Paul’s Church, Jarrow.


The Venerable Bede was an English monk who spent almost his whole life at the dual monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He wrote about the evolution of early English Christianity in his best-known work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in AD 731. Despite its title the book is far more than a religious chronicle and contains a wealth of information on kings, kingdoms and politics in Dark Age Britain. Bede is one of our key sources on Pictish history. In fact, his book is a useful one to wave around whenever someone asks “Do we really know anything about the Picts?”

Bede

Bede on his deathbed in AD 735 (a painting by James Doyle Penrose).

Jarrow is situated on the south bank of the River Tyne. Its parish church, St Paul’s, stands on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery and preserves some of the original stonework. Nearby stands Jarrow Hall, an eighteenth-century mansion which opened to the public as the Bede Monastery Museum in 1974. Nearly 20 years later, in 1993, a new museum and heritage centre called Bede’s World was unveiled. This had a “living history” aspect which included representations of Dark Age farming with real animals of the type an Anglo-Saxon monk would have seen. I visited Bede’s World a couple of times and always enjoyed it. As well as the historical displays and archaeological relics it had a nice gift shop and cafe (the latter being located in Jarrow Hall). Beyond the old monastic boundary lay the post-industrial landscape of Tyneside but this just seemed to add something to the overall experience.

Anglo-Saxon window at St Paul's Church, Jarrow.

Anglo-Saxon window in the wall of St Paul’s Church at Jarrow.

However, the recession of the early twenty-first century has had a big impact on heritage tourism sites, especially those that rely on government funds to supplement visitor revenues. Bede’s World was one of the places that fell victim to the cutbacks. Despite attracting more than 70,000 visitors per year, this unique and exciting venue was forced to close its doors in February 2016.

However, the story did not end there. A few weeks after the closure, some very encouraging tidings were heard. South Tyneside Council, the landowner of the Hall and museum, announced that the venue had been saved from oblivion. A charity called Groundwork South Tyneside and Newcastle would be taking over as the new operator.

Things have moved further along in the intervening months. Last week it was reported that the site will re-open in October as “Jarrow Hall – Anglo Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum.”

This is all good news. I look forward to seeing the new version of Bede’s World in the autumn. If it’s even half as good as the old one it will be well worth a visit.

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Bede

The sad tale of the closure of Bede’s World and the rather happier story that followed can be traced via the links below.

Bede’s World: Cash crisis forces closure of Jarrow tourist attraction

Bede’s World attraction in Jarrow saved from closure

Former Bede’s World museum to reopen as Jarrow Hall

More links….
Jarrow Hall – Anglo Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum
Jarrow Hall on Twitter
St Paul’s Church, Jarrow

Wearmouth & Jarrow: Northumbrian Monasteries in a Historic Landscape, a book by Sam Turner, Sarah Semple and Alex Turner (published in 2013).

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King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians
This blogpost is about a book published last year – a biography of the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith who ruled from 670 to 685. Ecgfrith was an ambitious warlord whose army campaigned far beyond the frontiers of his kingdom. During his reign, Northumbrian forces clashed with those of Mercia – the main English power in the midlands and a frequent adversary of Ecgfrith’s forebears – as well as with various Celtic peoples. In 684, Ecgfrith sent one of his henchmen across the Irish Sea at the head of a raiding army. The ensuing assault on the territory of the Southern Uí Néill also targeted churches and monasteries, much to the dismay of clergyfolk back home in Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s belligerence finally came to an end on 20th May 685 at the battle of Nechtanesmere in the land of the Picts. There he perished with nearly all of his warriors.

Ecgfrith’s new biography is written by Professor Nick Higham, well-known as author or editor of a number of books on the Anglo-Saxon period. Nick supervised my PhD in the 1990s and helped me to navigate a path through the intricate maze of early medieval history. Many readers of this blog will, I am sure, be familiar with his published works, such as The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 (1993), King Arthur: Myth-making and History (2002) and The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, co-authored with Martin Ryan).

Much of what we know about Ecgfrith comes from the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (published in 731) documented the rise of Northumbria as a major political power. Bede was himself a Northumbrian, so a lot of his information on the kingdom came from local sources. Some of his contemporaries had known Ecgfrith personally. In 685, when news of the disaster at Nechtanesmere reached English ears, Bede was a young monk of twelve or thirteen, living at the monastery of Jarrow beside the River Tyne. In later life, when writing his Ecclesiastical History, he interpreted the Pictish victory as divine retribution for the callous destruction unleashed by Ecgfrith’s soldiers on Irish religious sites in the previous year

Nick Higham’s book is more than just a study of Ecgfrith’s reign. The first two chapters set the scene by introducing the reader to seventh-century Northern Britain and to the various (often enigmatic) literary sources that purport to describe what was going on. Here we also obtain useful information on ethnic/cultural identities, on the nature and practice of early medieval kingship, and on the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the North. In the third chapter, we get to know King Oswiu, Ecgfrith’s father, who ruled the Northumbrians until his death in 670. This brings us to the mid-point of the book and to the start of Ecgfrith’s reign. Those of us with a keen interest in Northumbrian relations with the Picts may find the fifth chapter especially useful, in particular a 15-page narrative under the sub-headings ‘Ecgfrith and the North’ and ‘685’. The same chapter ends with what is, for me, a major highlight of the book: a detailed discussion of how Ecgfrith’s death was reported and interpreted by contemporary observers in Northumbria and elsewhere.

This is a book I heartily recommend (and would do so even if the author had not influenced my own approach to the early medieval North). Writing a biography of a seventh-century Northumbrian king is a challenging project for any historian, even for one who understands the scale of the task better than most. I believe Nick Higham has done a great job here.

N.J. Higham, Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High-King of Britain (Donington: Sean Tyas, 2015)

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Links

Check out Nick Higham’s article on Ecgfrith at the History Extra website: The Anglo-Saxon who (almost) united Britain

I’ve blogged previously about the battle of Nechtanesmere where Ecgfrith was slain by the Picts – Against iron swords: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

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Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

Aethelflaed of Mercia with her young nephew Athelstan (a modern sculpture at Tamworth Castle).


Today is the 1097th anniversary of the death of my favourite individual from the Dark Ages.

I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxon princess Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister to his successor Edward the Elder.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia in the western midlands of England, and joined him in a programme of fortress-building that strengthened his people’s defences against Viking raids. After Aethelred died in 911, his widow became sole ruler and – unusually for a woman in those times – a commander of armies in the field. She led military campaigns in person and achieved several major victories. Working in tandem with her brother Edward, she not only held off the Viking menace but won back a number of conquered territories in eastern England.

As part of her wider anti-Viking strategy, she formed a three-way alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. This northern and Scottish dimension is one of the reasons why I have long been fascinated by her career. Another reason is her connection with Mercia, my homeland, which she governed and protected during a time of great peril and uncertainty.

She died on 12 June 918, at the ancient Mercian settlement of Tamworth.

I’ve mentioned Aethelflaed here at Senchus quite a few times and, six years ago, devoted a blogpost to her. Last year I wrote about her again, at one of my other blogs. Here are the links to those posts…
‘The Lady of the Mercians’ [Senchus blog, 2009]
‘Aethelflaed’ [Strathclyde blog, 2014]

Her alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons is described in a medieval text known as The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The passage in question gives an idea of the high regard in which she was held by contemporaries in lands far beyond the borders of Mercia. The relevant passage, with an English translation, can be seen in my blogpost on the Fragmentary Annals.

I also recommend Susan Abernethy’s article ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’ and Ed Watson’s ‘Aethelflaed: the making of a county town’.

I discuss Aethelflaed and her relations with the northern kings in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (on pages 58-63).

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Yeavering report online

Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor
The full report of the excavations at Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor (1923-2001) is available as a free download.

This monumental tome runs well beyond 450 pages and is one of the most frequently cited texts on post-Roman and early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Originally published in 1977, it has remained a standard reference tool for researchers working on the history and archaeology of Northeast England and Southeast Scotland in the fifth to seventh centuries. The downloadable version has been made available by English Heritage via the Archaeology Data Service at the University of York.

Yeavering was a major centre of power for the Northumbrian king Edwin (died 633) who established a royal palace there. It was mentioned in the following century by the Venerable Bede, who called it Gefrin – a native Celtic name meaning ‘Hill of Goats’. The hill in question loomed above Edwin’s palace and was formerly used by local Britons who had a fortified settlement on the top. One unusual feature unearthed at the palace by Hope-Taylor’s team was a timber grandstand which accommodated spectators at formal public events. This has long been regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

As well as describing the excavations, the report also includes an extensive historical discussion which – nearly 40 years on – is still a valuable source of information on the early kingdoms of the North.

Link Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria [free download]

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Ghosts of Nechtanesmere

Dunnichen Moss

Dunnichen Moss, looking north towards Dunnichen Hill (Photograph © B Keeling).


On 20 May 685, at Dun Nechtáin (‘Nechtan’s Fortress’), an English army from Northumbria was massacred while advancing deep into Pictish territory. As well as being associated with a fortification, the battle was also close to an area of wetland known as Linn Garan (‘Heron Pool’ in the ancient Brittonic language of the Picts) and as Nechtanesmere (Old English: ‘Nechtan’s Mire’).

The location of the battlefield is a matter of debate. Some historians place it near Dunnichen Hill in Angus; others look further north to Dunachton in Badenoch. My own preference is for the Angus site, although I continue to keep an open mind.

Many years ago, while reading Graeme Cruickshank’s 1991 booklet on the battle, I encountered an intriguing tale, a sort of Pictish ghost-story. This told of a strange apparition allegedly seen by Miss E.F. Smith, a resident of the village of Letham, after her car skidded off the road on a dark night in January 1950. According to Miss Smith, she left her vehicle in a ditch and began the 8-mile walk home, taking a route along unlit country roads. Eventually, just before 2.00am, she drew near the outskirts of Letham and saw the black shape of Dunnichen Hill looming ahead. It was then that she noticed shadowy lights moving in nearby farmland. These gradually became clear, to be revealed as flaming torches held by a group of figures clad in what seemed to be medieval garb. Miss Smith glimpsed another group of torch-bearing figures in a field some distance away, and finally a third group near some farm buildings. As she watched, she saw members of the third group periodically stooping to the ground to inspect dead bodies lying face-down on the grass, turning them over as if to identify them. Continuing on her way, she left the figures behind in the darkness and soon reached the safety of her home.

More than 20 years later, Miss Smith’s strange encounter came to the attention of Dr James McHarg, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, who interviewed her in 1971. Dr McHarg gave cautious credence to the genuineness of her tale, partly because he did not think her the kind of person who would make it up. Miss Smith did, however, admit to knowing – before the alleged sighting took place – that the battle was believed by many local folk to have been fought near Dunnichen Hill. Also, she had subsequently acquired further information from an academic article written by the renowned archaeologist Frederick Threlfall Wainwright.

So, what really did happen on that January night 65 years ago? Did Miss Smith gaze straight back through the centuries to the grim battlefield of Nechtanesmere? Did she really see Pictish warriors conducting a solemn search for their dead comrades? Or did the darkness and the cold, together with the alcohol she had consumed at a cocktail party in Brechin, cause her to hallucinate on the long walk home?

We will probably never know, but it makes a good tale nonetheless.

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Notes & references

I was reminded of this story a couple of weeks ago when the Picts Facebook page posted a link to a blogpost written by Mike Dash in 2010: ‘A Scottish spinster at the Battle of Nechtanesmere, 685 AD’. As with much of the information I find online these days, my initial source was Twitter – in this instance, a tweet by Debra Torrance (@FewArePict) on 4th March 2015.

Graeme Cruickshank, The Battle of Dunnichen (Pinkfoot Press, 1991).

James E. Fraser, The Battle of Dunnichen, 685 (Tempus, 2002).

Frederick T. Wainwright, ‘Nechtanesmere’ Antiquity 86 (1948), 82-97.

Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201. [Woolf suggests Dunachton, not Dunnichen, as the site of the battle]

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