The History of Lindisfarne part 1: How the Irish came to England

Two castles in one photo: Lindisfarne and, on the horizon, Bamburgh.

Kneeling, a young man held the wooden cross upright while the armed men around him backfilled the earth around the cross and made it fast. The man was an exiled prince named Oswald and tomorrow he would fight for his kingdom. But on the eve of the battle, he called down God’s blessing on his small warband.

Oswald received it. The next day, at the Battle of Heavenfield (633/4), he defeated and killed Cadwallon of Gwynedd and reclaimed the realm his father had lost. The king had returned.

Now ruler, Oswald lost no time in sending back to Iona for priests and monks to bring his people to faith in the God who had brought him victory. But, first time round, it didn’t work out so well: Bishop Corman returned, disgruntled, to Iona, complaining that the English were ungovernable and of barbarous temperament.     

Rather than give up – these Irish monks, given to mortifying penances and setting off to sea with neither sails nor oars, didn’t give up easily – Iona sent a new man, Aidan, to Oswald, and the king gave Aidan a base for his mission: Lindisfarne.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The incipit of the Gospel of Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels were written at the end of the 7th century. Their 258 pages (which would have required the unblemished skin of 150 calves) contain the four Gospels, introductory material and a line-by-line translation of the original Latin into Old English, added in the mid-10th century. The translator, Aldred, added a colophon saying who had done what in producing the Gospels. Almost unbelievably, one monk, Eadfrith (later bishop of Lindisfarne) had written and drawn it all. Most early medieval manuscripts were made by teams of monks, so could one man really have done this all? Recent work has confirmed what Aldred said: the Gospels really are the work of one man, although other, named, monks bound the book and covered it.

The Gospels were written “for God and St Cuthbert and for all the saints whose relics are in the island”. They are on display at the British Library; the heritage centre on Lindisfarne has an electronic fascimile.

Adventures in Words: The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

Silk. Even today the word carries connotations of luxury, elegance and cool sophistication. How much more was that the case in the 7th century when the only silk available in Europe, and in particular the still glorious Roman Empire based in Constantinople, had to be imported all the way from India. Wealthy Romans – and wealthy Romans were very wealthy – loved to flaunt their money by sponsoring Games (the old gladiatorial games had been outlawed when the Empire became Christian but the new Christian Empire became fanatically addicted to chariot racing) and wearing rich silk clothing. As the silk had to be transported through the territory of Rome’s long-standing enemy, the Sassanids, this left the Emperor beholden to his foes for supplying his magnates with their clothing.

In his history of the Emperor Justinian, Procopius mentions, in a small aside, how the secret of silk, silk worms breeding and feeding on mulberry bushes, was smuggled out of India and to Constantinople. From this short aside, Evans fashions a marvellously picaresque adventure novel where his protagonists, a retired charioteer, a disgraced aristocratic soldier looking to redeem his reputation and a general fixer who is convinced the world is flat, have to travel to India, retrieve the secret and get back to New Rome, all while being dogged by Sassanid secret agents.

It’s a marvellous romp across a world and a time that is little known, and that, unbeknownst to itself, would not last much longer. The Sassanids themselves would be overthrown in the next century when the conquering armies of Islam swept them aside. The Byzantines were shaken but rallied, but the central Asian world that our trio of adventurers cross was irrevocably changed.

Evans does a stirling job of bringing the time and its people to life, infusing the people with humanity while not downplaying the cultural strangeness of the time to modern people. The Charioteer is the first in a new series and I look forward to reading more adventures from Cal, Theo and Cosmas, and hope the book gets the readership it deserves. One word of warning though: don’t get too attached to the subsidiary characters. Not many of them make it through.

Broken Sword

A pattern-welded sword forged by Owen Bush.

Perhaps the most evocative relic of the 7th century is a rusty broken sword.

Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was about to be 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. However, this exquisite pattern-welded blade, forged by Owen Bush, gives some idea of what it would have looked like when it was drawn from its scabbard and wielded in battle.

In autumn, Birlinn is publishing ‘The Perfect Sword’ by Paul Gething and I which tells the story of this sword, how it was forged and the men that made and used it.

Æthelstan the Glorious part 6: King of Kings

In contrast to his portrayal in Vikings, the real Athelstan was Alfred’s grandson, not Alfred’s father!

Having come to the throne, Æthelstan did not forget the family strategy, begun by his grandfather, Alfred, and continued by his father and aunt: to take back the country from the Vikings. So when the Viking king of York died unexpectedly, Æthelstan moved with the decisiveness he had learned from his father and aunt. While the Northmen sent to Dublin for a new king, Æthelstan rode north and took the city, bringing Northumbria under his control. Such was Æthelstan’s prestige and power now that he could summon all the kings of Britain to come to him and, on 12 July 927, they all swore peace with him and forswore any dealings with idolaters. Through this, Æthelstan sought to ensure that none of them would think to make alliance with the pagan Vikings against him.

Æthelstan was now a king of European stature and, with a bevy of marriageable half sisters through his father’s fecundity, he set about arranging alliances with the royal houses of Europe. But north of the border, Constantin, king of the Scots, brooded on the oath he had sworn to Æthelstan and kicked against its constraints.

In 934, Æthelstan could brook Constantin’s disloyalty no longer. Assembling the kings and princes who had sworn loyalty to him, Æthelstan marched north, into Scotland, harrying and burning, with the object of teaching Constantin a lesson in the wisdom of oathkeeping. Seeing the army arrayed against him, Constantin retreated and offered no battle, settling back into apparent loyalty. But he was waiting the opportunity to put Æthelstan’s rule to the test. That test would come at Brunanburh.

Æthelstan the Glorious part 5: Taking the Crown

The oldest portrait of an English king: Æthelstan as portrayed in a copy of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert dating from 934.

Æthelstan’s father, Edward the Elder, died on 17 July 924. However, it was by no means certain that Æthelstan would be the next king. Edward had sons by his wife, Ælflæd, who had been brought up in Wessex, whereas Æthelstan was almost unknown there. So when Edward died, the question of who would be king after him, and king of where, was very much open.

Æthelstan was acclaimed king by the witan of Mercia but there was a son, Ælfweard, in Wessex who expected a crown too. Perhaps the most likely outcome would have been for the two kingdoms to split apart again, each ruled by one of Edward’s sons. But then, barely two weeks later, Ælfweard followed Edward into death. So convenient a death could not but arouse suspicion, even though Æthelstan appears to have had no hand in it.

It was a year before Æthelstan was finally consecrated king, his coronation, for coronation it was, the first in these islands, taking place in Kingston, Surrey, on the River Thames, the traditional border between Wessex and Mercia. By placing his coronation there, Æthelstan was making a clear political point: he would be king of both kingdoms, cleaving neither to one nor the other, but ruling both justly and well, to the limit of his abilities.

Æthelstan’s commitment to this service was total. Uniquely among early Medieval kings, Æthelstan never married and there are no records of bastard children born to him. His father, who had moved on to wife number three during his lifetime when his rule needed reinforcement from a different direction, had left no shortage of heirs. Seeing the realm come close to descending to civil war on his accession, Æthelstan vowed himself to chastity, thus ensuring that one of Edward’s younger sons would eventually succeed him. By doing this, he prevented a political schism between partisans of factions supporting him or his brothers, at the price of a lifetime of celibacy.

In this hard road he had chosen, Æthelstan was supported by his fervent faith. He believed, to the core of his being, that God had given him the kingship for the purpose of the safeguarding and care of his people, and that failure to act thus would come at the price of his soul. As king, Æthelstan enacted a stream of legislation to better protect his people, from outlawing the death penalty on those under the age of 15 to requiring his royal officials and the stewards of royal estates to care for the needy and provide food for the destitute: Æthelstan was determined that none of his people should die for lack of food, for God had given him the duty to feed them.

Æthelstan the Glorious part 4: Woman’s Work

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, by Annatoone – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Although his father had put him aside, Æthelstan could have had no better mentor than his aunt, Æthelflæd. Alfred had regained half the ancient and historic kingdom of Mercia on signing the treaty with Guthrum that had divided the country into the Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon territory. Mindful of Mercian sensibilities, Alfred had installed a local alderman, Æthelred, to govern it rather than imposing direct rule from Wessex upon a proud and independent kingdom. But to ensure that he was kept informed of what the Mercians were doing, Alfred married his eldest daughter, the clever and determined Æthelflæd, to Æthelred.

When Æthelred fell victim to a long and debilitating illness, it was Æthelflæd who took control of the kingdom. This was unique in Anglo-Saxon history: a woman as de facto ruler of a kingdom. But Æthelflæd had already proven herself to her people: she was known ever after as Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

When Alfred died, Æthelflæd continued to align Mercian strategy with that of her brother, Edward. It was the strategy laid out by their father, Alfred, and one that he had entrusted to his children to see through: first the securing of their realms and then the reconquest of the Danelaw.

Teaching her nephew, Æthelstan, as she went, the Lady of the Mercians advanced inexorably into what had been Viking-held territory, turning the defensive strategy of burhs, fortified towns, into an offensive tactic by fortifying towns as she captured them. By 918, Edward and Æthelflæd had done what two decades earlier must have seemed impossible: they had reconquered the Danelaw. But Æthelflæd died on 12 June 918, and it was to Edward that “all the people who had settled in Mercia, both Danish and English, submitted”, and following Æthelflæd’s death he moved quickly to incorporate Mercia into his realm, removing Æthelflæd’s daughter, Ælfwynn, from power and putting her into a convent.

Edward was now king of Wessex and Mercia but he had sons with his queen consort whom he favoured and who could certainly count on more support in Wessex than Æthelstan. What would happen on Edward’s death remained an open question.

Æthelstan the Glorious: part 3 – the making of a king

Statue of Alfred at Wantage [Source: Odejea, Wikimedia]

Æthelstan remembered when his grandfather, Alfred, had marked him out as the future king.

He had been a boy, not yet ten. Alfred, grandfather, king, stood in front of him, as tall as a tree, while all around the great men of the king’s court watched in silence, his own father among them. Then Alfred had fixed round his waist a sword belt and placed over his thin shoulders a purple cloak. Alfred, king, looked round the assembly of the great men of his realm, marking that all well understood the significance of what he had done. For he had marked his grandson, Æthelstan, for kingship, putting his seal upon him.

This was at a time when there were no fixed rules of royal inheritance. Æthelstan was first-born son of Edward, Alfred’s eldest child, but who would be king was a matter for the witan, the assembly of the magnates of the realm, to decide. Blood mattered, Alfred’s choice counted, but when it came time to make a new king, that king would have to command the support of the men who now watched in silence.

Among the most silent of the watching men was Æthelstan’s own father. Edward had been taught many of the skills of kingship by Alfred, he had been his chief general during the Viking assault that took place in the final decade of Alfred’s rule, but there was one area of rule in which he followed his own counsel. The women who would be his queens.

Æthelstan remembered the desperate struggle his father fought to retain the crown after Alfred’s death. Edward’s own cousin, Æthelwold, had rebelled against him, even going so far as to raise a Viking army in his efforts to claim the throne. Æthelwold had failed, his claim and his life sucked down into the clutching mud of the Fens where Edward had made war on his cousin and his ally, the Viking king of the Danelaw.

Edward had seen off one challenge, but to cement his rule, he needed to bind the warring halves of the royal family together. He did this by putting aside Æthelstan’s mother and taking a new wife, Æthelwold’s niece, Ælflæd, who promptly produced a son for her new husband. Acting with cold logic but at least a grain of compassion, Edward put his eldest son from him but gave him into the keeping of his sister, Alfred’s wise and determined daughter, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. It was the son of his marriage to Æthelwold’s niece, Ælflæd, that Edward intended to be king in succession to him. Edward moved Æthelstan out of the way.

Æthelstan the Glorious: part 2 – Brunanburh

Picture Antonio Borrillo

The battle that would define Æthelstan’s reign took place at Brunanburh. For a century and more, people talking of it simply had to say ‘the great battle’ and everyone would have known of what they spoke. After it was over, five kings and seven earls lay dead on the field of blood. Æthelstan and his weary men held the field, as Olaf Guthfrithson, the Viking King of Dublin, fled in a boat with his few remaining men back to Ireland, and King Constantine of Scotland spurred his horse north, leaving his dead son behind.

Brunanburgh was perhaps the most significant battle along the long road to making of England a country. Now, in the 21st millennium, after centuries united, we find it difficult to imagine just how remarkable this was. But England is the oldest unified country in Europe, its roots so deep we barely see them. It was Alfred, Edward, Æthelflæd and Æthelstan who planted the tree and rooted it, and Æthelstan who, at Brunanburgh, defended it when the axe was poised to bring it down before it had chance to make those roots firm. Those roots have become so strong that few even remember who planted them and even the location of the ‘great battle’ has been forgotten.

As Æthelstan leaned on his sword, looking over the carnage, he must have felt his age. He was 43, a young man no longer, and his life had been one of toil. Giving thanks to God for victory, his memory turned also to his grandfather, and he remembered…

Æthelstan the Glorious: I

No king of England is more important and less remembered than Æthelstan.

It had been the great family enterprise, started by Alfred, continued by Edward and Æthelflæd, Alfred’s son and daughter, and brought to completion by Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan. These three generations had made it their lives’ work first to save their land from the depredations of the pagan raiders who had laid kingdoms waste, then to wrest back control of the country from the pagans, and finally to make the many realms of Britain into one country.

These tasks, through the long labours of his grandfather, his father and aunt, and Æthelstan’s own toil, had finally been accomplished. Æthelstan was now ‘by grace of God king of the English and equally guardian of the whole country of Britain’. But when, in 937, news reached Æthelstan that the kings of Scotland, Dublin and Strathclyde had united against him and were bringing fire and ruin down upon his realm, it seemed that all his family had worked towards for the previous 70 years was on the verge of being undone. Even Æthelstan, the most decisive of kings, became all but helpless with indecision, dithering as to whether he dared face such a host of enemies. But he was the grandson of Alfred, son of Edward and nephew of Æthelflæd. None of them would have given up, even when faced with such odds. So Æthelstan regathered himself, summoned the men of Wessex and Mercia, and marched north for the great battle of his time.