The Rise and Fall of King Edwin

Although Bede presents the council as approving the change to the new religion, Edwin himself did not convert . After all, the old gods had been kind to him. He had overcome his persecutor, Æthelfrith. His mentor, Rædwald, had died, probably of natural causes, leaving him the most powerful king in Britain. He had cemented an alliance with the Christian kingdom of Kent through his new wife. Why rock the altar?

It was a close encounter with death that decided Edwin to change religion. A rival king sent a suicide assassin but one of Edwin’s men took the blow intended for the king. In the struggle, Edwin was still wounded by the poisoned dagger. At the time of the attack, Queen Æthelburh was in labour and gave birth to a daughter that night. Edwin swore that if the new god gave him victory over the rival king, then he would pay him back, by his own conversion and by allowing the baptism of his new daughter.

Edwin duly recovered and waged punitive war against his rival, returning with enough heads to conclude that the deal had been sealed. He would tie his future fortunes to the new god.

The question was what would happen should the new god’s favour not always lead to victory and glory. After all, if it was simply a matter of signing up to a new religion and all your wishes coming true there would only be one religion in the world.

The fragility of the new faith was exposed when, in one of the catastrophic reverses that was a fatal feature of kingship during this era, Edwin, at the height of his power, lost the Battle of Hatfield Chase and his life too.

His queen fled to Kent with their children. Her priest, Paulinus, who had baptised hundreds of converts, fled too, later becoming Bishop of Rochester.

The church that Edwin had converted to and fostered essentially collapsed.

After all, in the currency of power, death in battle was the great bankruptcy.

The Conversion of King Edwin

A substantial part of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is taken up with the long process of Edwin’s conversion to Christianity and, as a result, we have the first character portrait of English literature. Bede portrays Edwin as cautious and capable, a king weighing up the relative advantages of remaining true to the gods of his fathers or accepting the new god. The single most famous scene in Bede tells of the council that Edwin summoned, gathering his warriors and also his existing priesthood, to debate the merits or otherwise of conversion.

Rather unexpectedly, according to Bede the most enthusiastic advocate for conversion was Coifi, Edwin’s pagan priest. As Bede had close contacts with the Northumbrian royal court, there’s no reason to think that he made this up. According to Coifi, he had done everything the gods required of him, making sacrifice, offering up prayers, doing all that was required and, in return, he was no better off than men who had ignored the gods.

While it might seem strange to us that a priest should advocate giving up his religion on such pragmatic grounds, it does fit with the basic point of polytheistic religion. The world these religions dealt with was uncertain: disease, storms, famine and death stalked the world, personified by the powers of sky and earth. The gods, as those personifications, were as fickle as their earthly powers. The key purpose of religion was to change the odds in your favour by appeasing and placating inscrutable gods.

But Coifi says up front that he’d done all that to no end. He’d performed the rituals, made the sacrifices, done all that the gods asked of him, and it had not produced results. So rather like a man washing his hands of an unfaithful lover, he throws the old gods over and suggests they try their luck with a new god.

Edwin, New High King of Britain

Newly installed on the throne of Northumbria following the Battle of the River Idle, Edwin needed to bolster his position. To do so, Edwin entered into a marriage contract with Eadbald, King of Kent, to marry his sister. Kent, however, was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom with the strongest contacts to Europe and in particular to Francia (as shown archaeologically by goods traded from Francia and the isotopic analysis of a relatively high proportion of bodies having their origin in Francia). Kent was also where Augustine had landed with his mission in 597, and it was where he had established his archbishopric in Canterbury.

The sister of the King of Kent, Æthelburh, was a Christian and a condition of the marriage contract was that the pagan Edwin would allow her to continue to practise her religion through bringing with her a priest who could continue to administer the sacraments to her and her party.

Much of the early advance of Christianity among the pagan kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons was through marriage diplomacy: princesses dispatched by newly-Christian Anglo-Saxon kings to their pagan peers in the expectation of royal alliance and possible conversion.

Edwin was the first. Æthelburh arrived in Northumbria with an entourage that included a priest, Paulinus, an Italian and one of the second wave of religious that had arrived in AD 601 as reinforcements for Augustine and his original party of missionaries.

King On the Run

Replica of the Sutton Hoo helment [By Ziko-C (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3533575]

The 7th century was an era when the petty kingdoms of the previous two centuries began to be consolidated into larger units. The larger realms swallowed the smaller ones, although which kingdom absorbed which much depended upon the battle nous of particular kings. Northumbria had risen to prominence in the early 7th century by having as its ruler the most fearsome warrior of the time, Æthelfrith. Æthelfrith had begun the consolidation of Northumbria by killing the king of Deira and marrying his widow. The son of the late king, Edwin, fled into exile. As Æthelfrith cut a bloody swathe through the kingdoms of early medieval Britain, he always kept a weather eye on Edwin’s whereabouts. Having an exiled prince (ætheling in Old English, a man throne worthy) was a useful bargaining chip in the lethal game of thrones that united the disparate tribes of the time.

Edwin appears to have made a round of southern kingdoms, going from Mercia, the marcher kingdom in the Midlands, to the Britonnic kingdom of Gwynedd (that an Anglian prince might find refuge among the Britons might seem strange but it held with the oldest piece of realpolitik, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend), before fetching up in East Anglia in the kingdom of King Rædwald (who is likely to have been the man buried in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo).

In East Anglia, Æthelfrith had his quarry cornered and, as the most powerful king in the country, sent messengers to Rædwald requiring him to deliver up Edwin, in pieces or in person. But the obligations of hospitality laid upon the warrior caste were great. Faced with going against these principles, Rædwald chose to fight. Bede records that it was the scornful rejoinder of his wife that decided the vacillating king to chance his arms against Æthelfrith. It may also have been the realisation that giving up Edwin would explicitly announce his status as inferior to that of Æthelfrith and East Anglia was a rich and proud kingdom, relatively safe from Æthelfrith due to its distance from Northumbria.

So Rædwald and his warband, bolstered by Edwin and the men who had accompanied him into exile, decided to chance battle. They caught what seems to have been a relatively unprepared Æthelfrith on the River Idle in Nottinghamshire and there, the most feared king of his time died. It was no easy victory: Rædwald’s own son was among the dead. But in consequence, Rædwald became the most powerful, and richest, king in the land while Edwin took up the rulership of the kingdom of Northumbria.

The Real Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar Loðbrók

The Norse Sagas start in legend and end in history, with diversions into tales of adventure and chivalry throughout. But the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrók neatly straddles the transition from the purely legendary to the definitely historical: it begins by anchoring the future wife of Ragnar in the greatest of Germanic/Norse legend cycles, the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and Brynhild (ignoring the difficulty of Sigurd and Brynhild belonging to a time four centuries earlier), and ends with the sons of Ragnar, men such as Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, who are undoubtedly historical characters.

Whether Ragnar himself was a historical character remains an open question. While a group of Viking war chiefs were known as sons of Loðbrók, this could refer to a tribal founder rather than their actual paternal father. But if Ragnar was real, then he probably first appears in the historical record in 845, when a Viking chieftain named ‘Reginheri’ in Frankish sources led 120 longships up the River Seine to attack Paris. According to the French chroniclers, this Ragnar succumbed to the plague that devastated the Vikings besieging Paris.

But ‘Ragnar’ would prove as difficult to kill as a Hollywood villain. He pops up again in the following decades, raiding Scotland and the Isles, settling in Dublin, attacking Anglesey and, finally, dying in a snake-filled pit in York, England. Totting it all up, Ragnar appears to have died at least five times during his career.

So the suspicion must be that a series of different Viking chieftains who shared similar names had their stories conflated into one semi-legendary character: Ragnar Loðbrók. Once this process began, the gravitational pull of a good hero with name recognition would ensure that other tales would be ascribed to him, in the same way that Arthur, at most a war leader of the Britons against the invading Anglo-Saxons, became the exemplar of medieval chivalry and the ideal of kingship for the very people who had defeated his forebears.

With the modern lionization of Vikings, it was only a matter of time before Ragnar Loðbrók would be reimagined for the screen. Vikings makes for great television but, even more than the sagas, it conflates different times and characters, making the historical Rollo, the first ruler of Normandy, Ragnar’s brother and contemporary when in reality Ragnar came two generations before Rollo. But such tale making is in keeping with the writers of the sagas: they would have enjoyed Vikings as much as we do.

The Presence of the Past – no.1 in an occasional series

Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.

So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.

Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):

15dt8oy

And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:

bamburgh-sword

Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.

Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:

Cadfan

And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.

IMG_6180IMG_6192

It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.

Book review: The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham & Martin Ryan

The Anglo-Saxon World
The Anglo-Saxon World

Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.

Nick Higham’s writing style has improved immensely since he wrote The Kingdom of Northumbria A.D. 3501100 (my go-to guide when working on Edwin High King of Britain and now Oswald: Return of the King), and he now combines engaging prose with his immense knowledge of the subject. Really, no criticisms; if you want to learn about the history and culture of the Early Medieval Period in Britain, read this book.

When The Old King Ends His Tour

Source: http://jesuisnormalrassurez-moi.tumblr.com/

Edwin’s epic blog tour has finally come to an end, closing as summer draws down to autumn and the nights get longer than the days. I’m going to collect all the reviews here, with links. In the end, I’m delighted to say most of the reviews were very good – and since these are hard-core historical fiction readers, they suggest I must be doing something write.

So, here goes.

How could any author not purr with pleasure when reading A Book Drunkard’s review: What a wonderful debut novel this is.  Edoardo Albert is a stunning new voice in Historical Fiction.  The details in the story make you feel you’re there, living a life in the 7th century and I absolutely applaud the obvious amount of research that must have gone into it.

Layered Pages said: I am absolutely thrilled with this story! Outstanding read beyond any expectations I had for historical fiction. And that says a lot right there for just how good this book is. For a long time I have wanted to read about the rise of Christianity in certain parts of Britain and how it was brought about to the pagan people of its time. And in this story it is really interesting how paganism and Christianity mixed among the people, how the people who are pagan convert and their thought process in doing so.

Words and Peace said: VERDICT: England’s history did not wait for the Tudors to be full of intrigues and conflicts. This book is a wonderful entry to 7th century England, where pagan and Christian values clashed as small kingdoms fought to take prominence. Highly recommended to all lovers of history and historical fiction.

A Bibliotaph’s Reviews gave Edwin 4/5 stars, saying: If it hasn’t become abundantly clear, I have a particular love of Historical Fiction novels that focus on the medieval period and before. Edwin: High King of Britain definitely fits the bill of that love; set in a time around 625 A.D. (or C.E. if you wish to be politically correct) this book follows the story of a long-exiled king.

Mason Canyon (that really is her name!) at Thoughts in Progress interviewed me about writing Edwin and historical fiction in general.

100 Pages a Day… Stephanie’s Book Reviews said: I love reading historical fiction in order to learn about history I would have never otherwise be exposed to.  This first installment of The Northumbrian Thrones did just that.

Book Nerd gave Edwin 4 stars: Edwin, High King of Britain was a fantastic read! The first line is a perfect indication of what’s to come ” The king is going to kill you.”

Svetlana’s Reads & Views didn’t like Edwin very much, giving him 3/5 stars. Ah well, can’t please everyone: Okay, good news and bad news when it comes to this book: the good news is that the writing is enjoyable and for me it feels very accessible. Also, before accepting this book for the tour, I recall reading a review on Goodreads where the person complains that too much time is spent on Christianity. Much to my relief, while time is spent with Christianity, it’s not the whole book.

A Book Geek said: The historical period covered in Edwin: High King of Britain isn’t written about very much, or at least, I haven’t encountered it much in my reading so far. I have to wonder why, since I was captivated with the period as described by Albert in Edwin.

The Mad Reviewer is not mad at all: she gave Edwin 5/5 stars, and my favourite two review sentences: Edwin is not your typical hero in modern tales.  He’s dark and broody and occasionally prone to wartime atrocities.

 Book Lovers’ Paradise said: Edwin and his family are characters a reader can enjoy. The characters are interesting without being over the top. You want battles? This book has battles. You want gore? Well, there’s a little of that, too. This book has everything a historical fiction lover could want.

Dab of Darkness also did an interview with me, asking a fascinating – and thought provoking – series of questions. My answers are here.

Dab of Darkness said: What I Liked: Plenty of history with accuracy; conflict due to culture clashes; very interesting characters. What I Disliked: Could use more women.

Unshelfish gave Edwin 4/5 stars: Albert’s writing style and thrilling narrative consume the reader. I found myself lost in this book from the beginning. I am looking forward to this series, if this is a prelude of what’s to come, I will be ecstatic. Great snapshot into history and the brutal times of the 7th century.

Just One More Chapter said: This is Edoardo Albert’s debut and the start of a new series, The Northumbrian Thrones.  From the very first chapter, when the secret messenger makes his appearance and has his say, I was captivated.

2 Book Lovers Reviews gave Edwin 3.5 stars, saying: Edwin is a good debut novel for author Edoardo Albert. I enjoyed this in depth look into a less well known part of English history; and even though I fully realize more history has been made in kings’ courts and through councils than in bloody battles, it is still the battles that I want to read about.

Back from holiday

We’ve been away in the garden of England – Kent – for the last week, hence my blogging silence. Not that Kent is beyond the reach of the information superhighway, but I left my computer at home and my mobile – an ancient beast in itself – switched off; digital silence…

On Hythe beach
On Hythe beach

Kent was surprisingly lovely, and I’ll long remember the clattering roar of the waves on the pebble beaches at Hythe and Deal, so different from the sound of water on sand. And Dover Castle is magnificent – William may have been a Bastard (the other standard appellation for the Conqueror was ‘the Bastard’) but he certainly knew how to build castles.

While we were away, Edwin started on his blog tour and so far it is going well, with excellent reviews, giveaways and even an interview with me (containing the most interesting set of questions I’ve yet been posed).  Here’s Edwin’s schedule:

Edwin: High King of Britain Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, August 25
Review at Princess of Eboli
Review at 2 Book Lovers Reviews

Tuesday, August 26
Review at Just One More Chapter
Review & Giveaway at Unshelfish

Wednesday, August 27
Interview & Giveaway at Dab of Darkness

Thursday, August 28
Review at Dab of Darkness

Monday, September 1
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Review at Queen of All She Reads

Tuesday, September 2
Review at Flashlight Commentary

Wednesday, September 3
Review at The Writing Desk
Review at The Mad Reviewer

Friday, September 5
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Monday, September 8
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Tuesday, September 9
Review at Book Nerd

Wednesday, September 10
Review & Giveaway at 100 Pages a Day – Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Interview & Giveaway at Thoughts in Progress

Friday, September 12
Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews

Monday, September 15
Review & Giveaway at Words and Peace

Tuesday, September 16
Review at Layered Pages

Thursday, September 18
Review & Giveaway at Beth’s Book Reviews

Friday, September 19
Review at Book Drunkard

 

Edwin On Tour

Edwin on tour
Edwin on tour

Edwin is going on tour! From 25 August to 19 September, Edwin: High King of Britain is touring some of the best book blogs around, being reviewed, interviewed and given away. So join him (and me) on the tour.

Here’s the complete schedule:

Edwin: High King of Britain Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, August 25
Review at Princess of Eboli
Review at 2 Book Lovers Reviews

Tuesday, August 26
Review at Just One More Chapter
Review & Giveaway at Unshelfish

Wednesday, August 27
Review at Dab of Darkness

Thursday, August 28
Interview & Giveaway at Dab of Darkness

Monday, September 1
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Review at Queen of All She Reads

Tuesday, September 2
Review at Flashlight Commentary

Wednesday, September 3
Review at The Writing Desk
Review at The Mad Reviewer

Monday, September 8
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Tuesday, September 9
Review at Book Nerd

Wednesday, September 10
Review & Giveaway at 100 Pages a Day – Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Interview & Giveaway at Thoughts in Progress

Friday, September 12
Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews

Monday, September 15
Review & Giveaway at Words and Peace

Tuesday, September 16
Review at Layered Pages

Thursday, September 18
Review & Giveaway at Beth’s Book Reviews

Friday, September 19
Review at Book Drunkard