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.

New God for Old 5: Oswald, the King Returns

Oswald: Return of the King

King Edwin was dead. As such, it seemed that the new faith had failed. But away to the north, living in exile in the sea-spanning kingdom of Dál Riata was an ætheling, an eminently throne worthy man, named Oswald. The son of Æthelfrith, Oswald had fled into exile with his mother and younger brother, Oswiu, when Edwin, his Uncle Edwin, had killed his father. In exile, Oswald had embraced the new faith, learning its tenets and drinking its beauty from the monks of Iona.

In 634, Oswald, the king in exile, returned from over the sea and, meeting Cadwallon in battle near Heavenfield, was victorious. Cadwallon was killed. Oswald, in the tumultuous manner of 7th-century kingship, had vaulted from exile to being the most powerful king in the land in the course of a single battle. And where Edwin’s conversion to Christianity was clearly at least in part political, Oswald’s was just as clearly heart deep and personal: he ascribed his victory at Heavenfield to the intercession of St Columba, the founder of the monastery at Iona, and the king immediately sent to Iona for monks to come over to bring his people to the new faith.

The monk who came was named Aidan. Founding a monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, within sight of the royal stronghold at Bamburgh, Aidan set about the conversion of the Northumbrians with the vocal support of the king – who undertook to translate for Aidan until he learned to speak English. Together, king and abbot created something that had not existed in Britain for centuries: a kingdom that could survive the death of its king. For Oswald died after a reign of eight years, falling in battle with Penda of Mercia, who had remained resolutely pagan when the other kings of the Anglo-Saxons had sought to ally themselves with Oswald by accepting baptism.

But even though Oswald had died, the kingdom held together, bound by the glue of the new religion that Aidan had inculcated in its people. Oswald’s younger brother, Oswiu, took over as king in a somewhat shrunken Northumbria, playing for time against the overweening might of Penda, who rampaged across the country for the next 13 years, removing kings almost at will. In 655, however, the pressure from Penda had become intolerable and Oswiu risked everything on one throw of the battle dice.

Despite having to face Penda’s much larger army, Oswiu marched to battle. The two armies met at the River Winwæd, probably in the vicinity of Leeds, on 15 November 655 in driving rain. In the appalling conditions, Penda’s army broke and fled, more dying in the waters of the flooded river than fell to the sword, and Penda himself was killed. The last great pagan king of the Anglo-Saxons was dead. The gods of battle had chosen the winner in the contest for the soul of the English, and he was the God whose name is peace. (And the story is told in my novels, Oswald: Return of the King and Oswiu: King of Kings.)

New God for Old 4: Edwin, High King of Britain

Edwin: High King of Britain

In 616, Æthelberht, the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king, died. His queen, Bertha, had predeceased him and he had married again, taking a member of the local nobility for his new wife. When Æthelberht died, his son, Eadbald, married Æthelberht’s widow in an effort to shore up his rule, while abjuring the religion of his father, presumably also to win the support of major families who had not become reconciled to the new religion. There was a similar reaction against the new religion among the East Saxons when their king died. It seemed that the whole mission was on the brink of failure.

However, in East Anglia, a fugitive prince named Edwin had taken refuge with Rædwald. He was being pursued by Æthelfrith, the king of Northumbria (who was married to Edwin’s sister, Acha). Æthelfrith was the most feared warrior king in Britain and, learning of Edwin’s whereabouts, Æthelfrith sent a series of increasingly peremptory demands to Rædwald that he deliver Edwin’s person or his head to the king of Northumbria. Fearful of Æthelfrith’s reputation, Rædwald was on the point of doing so when his wife shamed him into remembering the obligations due to him as Edwin’s host and the man who had given him sanctuary. Rædwald decided to fight. With Edwin beside him, Rædwald rode out with his war band and, catching Æthelfrith by surprise on the banks of the River Idle, killed the man his enemies had nicknamed the ‘Twister’. With Æthelberht but lately dead, this immediately made Rædwald the most powerful king among the Anglo-Saxons, and his first move was to install Edwin as the new king of Northumbria.

The unknown man buried in splendour at Sutton Hoo is most probably Rædwald, king of the East Angles. We don’t know exactly when he died, but it was probably around 624, and with his passing Edwin, king of Northumbria, who had been steadily annexing minor kingdoms since his accession to the throne, was now indubitably the most powerful king in the land. But he was a king in search of a queen, his first wife having died.

Edwin found one in Kent, in Æthelburh, the Christian daughter of King Æthelberht. Eadbald, Æthelburh’s brother, had renounced his pagan flirtation and returned to Christianity. Although not the dominant figure his father was, an alliance with Kent, the oldest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, was a good match for Edwin. As part of the marriage negotiations, Edwin, still a pagan, agreed that Æthelburh, like her mother before her, could continue to practise her faith and permitted her to bring north, as a member of her household, the Italian Paulinus.

A cautious and careful man, Edwin knew well that this marriage carried the invitation to conversion to the new religion. With his wife and Paulinus as members of his itinerant court, he could consider such a momentous change carefully. In the end, despite signs and portents, the decision came down to whether he could carry his leading men with him. Edwin summoned the witan and the case for the new religion was placed before them. Then, according to Bede, one of the warriors present stood and, likening the present world to a well-lit hall sealed against the winds and cold of winter, spoke of a bird flying for a few minutes into the light and warmth, only to flight out again into the night. Such, he said, was the life of men: of that which comes before and after their life on earth they knew nothing. If the new religion offered greater knowledge of their origins and their fate, then they should adopt it. The witan had been won over.

Paulinus embarked on a mission of preaching and baptising. Edwin had adopted the new faith and, with God on his side, his reign would assure the adoption of the new faith among all the Anglo-Saxons, for the kings all wanted to be winners in this world as much as the next.

But God, it turned out, did not necessarily back his own side. On 12 October 632 Edwin met in battle Cadwallon, the Britonnic king of Gwynedd, and Penda of Mercia, and lost. Badly. Terminally, in his case and that of one his sons, and proximately for another, for he was taken prisoner and later executed.

Edwin’s kingdom fell apart. Queen Æthelburh fled with her young children (the two sons who took part in the battle were from Edwin’s first marriage) and Paulinus went with her, taking ship from York with whatever effects they could carry and sailing back to Kent. Without Paulinus, the religion newly adopted by the Northumbrians collapsed. Penda was a pagan. Cadwallon was a Christian but his animosity towards the Northumbrians was deep and unaffected by their conversion, and the memory of his ravaging lingered long in the kingdom. In despair of the new god, the Northumbrians reverted to their old ones, only for Woden and Thunor and the rest to fail them: Cadwallon killed their new king too.

New God for Old 3: the conversion of Æthelberht, king of Kent

Augustine preaching to Æthelberht, king of Kent

Augustine landed in Kent in 597. It was vital for his mission that he make a good impression on Æthelberht, king of Kent. But when Æthelberht met the strange man from far away, he had many different considerations to bear in mind.

Æthelberht was regarded as Bretwalda, a term which has produced reams of scholarly debate but one that at the least meant a pre-eminence over the other kings in Britain. Usually a Bretwalda owed his dominance to success on the battlefield, but there is surprisingly little evidence for Æthelberht’s military domination, although given his exceptionally long reign (possibly over 50 years) he must have been more than able to hold his place in the shieldwall.

What really gave Kent its dominance under Æthelberht was its links to the kingdom of the Franks, across the Channel, links that had been cemented by Æthelberht’s marriage to Bertha, his Frankish princess. Marriage into the Merovingian dynasty brought Æthelberht great prestige – the Merovingian kings ruled over a vast area when compared with the petty kingdoms of Britain – and access to the continental trading networks and the high-value goods that brought prestige to barbarian kings. Essentially, a king attracted warriors to his court by giving them bling: gold arm rings were most favoured but any shiny gold treasure would attract glory hound warriors to a king’s court. Through his marriage to Bertha, Æthelberht had access to more and better bling than any other king in Britain, and he used these treasures to secure an unprecedented half century in power and his status as Bretwalda.

So it was vital for Augustine to convert the king. While it would be overstating it to say that as the king prayed, so did his kingdom – the king had to keep the support of the witan, the assembly of the most important men in the kingdom – having the foremost king in Britain adopt Christianity would be a huge step towards the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. After Æthelberht’s initial wariness, as manifest in his decision to meet Augustine away from any structures, the king, under the influence of his queen, accepted the new religion fairly quickly and, by 601, was baptized.

Æthelberht gave his support to the new religion, installing Augustine and his companions in two churches that dated from the Roman era, St Martin’s and Christchurch. With Æthelberht’s support, Augustine’s mission made rapid progress, converting the king of the East Saxons in 604 and shortly afterwards Rædwald, the king of the East Angles, who adopted a rather à la carte approach to religion, keeping altars to both the new god, Christ, and the old gods in his sanctuary.

New God for Old 2: what happened when the Romans left

Grendel, the monster Beowulf has to destroy.

In the first part of New God for Old, we looked at the traditional story of how Christianity returned to England following its extirpation after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. At least, that’s how Bede tells it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

We now know it wasn’t quite like that. But Bede was writing more than a century after these events took place. Without him, we would know almost nothing about what happened in Britain in the years after AD 410 and the withdrawal of the Roman legions. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the east and central regions of Britain had been settled by pagan peoples of Germanic origin, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (with other tribes such as the Frisians also likely arriving). The culture and people they displaced were Romano/Celtic and Christian.

According to Bede, these Christian Britons were displaced by the incoming Anglo-Saxons. Also according to Bede, during the centuries of conflict between the ethnic groups, the Britons made no effort to share their Christianity with the Anglo-Saxons. It’s now clear that both of these are exaggerations.

While in some areas, particularly in the east, the native Britons were clearly displaced, in other areas there is evidence for settlements of Britons and Anglo-Saxons existing in close proximity, although with considerable barriers existing between the two communities and little mixing: think of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In these cases, though, warbands of Anglo-Saxons often displaced the Britonnic rulers, thereby imposing their language and culture on the villages and hamlets under their rule.

Similarly, while there is some evidence that Britons under pagan Anglo-Saxon rule in some places retained their faith, there was little incentive for the new rulers to adopt the religion of the people whom they had defeated. This was an age when warriors were above all pragmatic in their religious choices: they worshipped the gods that could provide them with victory on the battlefield.

New God for Old 1: the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons

St Augustine preaching to King Æthelberht and Queen Bertha

It was 597 and a group of 40 Italians stood shivering on the Isle of Thanet, in the furthest south-east corner of Kent. They were waiting for the king of Kent, a barbarian with the uncouth name of Æthelberht, and they really didn’t want to be there. They had been dispatched from Rome the year before because the pope, Gregory, had developed the mad notion of sending a mission out beyond the ends of the world to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity all because, so he said, he had seen a group of fair-haired Anglo-Saxon youths for sale in Rome’s market and, seeing them, had asked of what people they came from. On being told they were Angles, Gregory had remarked, “Non Angli, sed angeli” (“Not Angles but angels”) and promptly conceived the idea of sending a mission to bring them out of darkness.

And who better to make up the mission than monks from Gregory’s own monastery of St Andrew on the Coelian Hill in Rome? And who better to lead it than his own dear friend, Augustine? As Augustine wrapped his cloak more tightly against the wind and stood on the chalk uprising that formed the Isle of Thanet, looking down to the broad expanse of the Wantsum Channel and the boat making its way across the channel, he thought again that, with a friend like Gregory, what need had he of enemies?

To get to this benighted corner of the world that had been cut off from the light of civilization for nearly two centuries, he and his companions had had to risk their lives crossing the unruly waters of the Great Ocean, so different from the warm blue of the Mediterranean, only to be told to wait on this wind-blasted promontory until the king of what passed for a kingdom on this island could come to meet them. At least King Æthelberht, although a pagan, was married to a Christian. His wife, Bertha, was a Frank, great-granddaughter of Clovis, the first Merovingian king. Another barbarian, but at least a half-civilised one.

The royal boat drew up on the strand and the king got out with his entourage of warriors and, Augustine was glad to see, his queen too, with her chaplain Liudhard. A condition of the marriage contract had been that Bertha could continue to practice her religion after marrying Æthelberht and she had brought a Frankish priest to Kent as part of her household that she might continue to have access to the sacraments.

The king’s reeve, who had met them when they landed on the isle, had told them to wait on the king’s pleasure but they had learned, while waiting for Æthelberht to arrive, that the king feared meeting this group of monks from far away under a roof lest they cast a spell upon him. Apparently the open air was safer so far as magic was concerned. So, with his cloak wrapped tight round his shoulders – did the wind never stop in this country? – Augustine waited on the king’s arrival.

The Advent of the Anglo-Saxons 3: Blood Ties


So, did the Anglo-Saxons arrive en masse, conduct a programme of ethnic cleansing and occupy the land? Or was it a case of a top-level takeover that gradually imposed its language and culture on the lower levels of society? With two competing accounts of the origins of the Ango-Saxons, neither of which could be verified, some other method of deciding what actually happened in the centuries after the Romans left was needed.

The evidence was inconclusive and scholars were divided. Then along came DNA testing. Surely that would provide the answer?

There have been many studies attempting to establish the ethnic origins of the peoples of Britain but unfortunately the first wave of studies provided such wildly contradictory answers that no one was any the wiser. Turns out that genetic analysis for origins is a hugely complex business that also requires large and robust sample sizes.

However, further studies that take account of these difficulties seem to be gradually moving towards some likely conclusions. Firstly, that there is a very strong regional basis to genetic identity in Britain: the Cornish are different even from the Devonians, let alone with respect to the rest of the country, as are the north Welsh from the south Welsh, the Scots and the Cumbrians.

The native population of Britain derives from the settlers who first arrived as the Ice Age was waning and it was still possible to walk to Britain, before the land bridge was cut around 6,500 BC. But over that foundation population, the only significant influx of peoples, localized in the south and centre of England, has their roots in the Jutland peninsula and northern Saxony, the traditional homelands of the Anglo-Saxons. Assuming that in the 5th century the population of England was about a million, then somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 people came from abroad. So it seems that the answer as to the origins of the English lies somewhere between the two opposing views: the native inhabitants were not completely pushed out, but this was not just an elite takeover. In comparison, the Normans have left very little genetic footprint on the peoples of Britain: the Conquest really was an elite takeover.

The most recent archaeological work backs up this genetic analysis, with evidence of Anglo-Saxon and Britonnic settlements continuing near to each other, but there being almost an apartheid like separation between the two communities in the first generations, with the barriers slowly coming down, until eventually, after a couple of centuries, they merge. So the question of the origin of the English depends in great part on the part of the country where the question is asked – which is probably what we would have said all along, comparing someone from the Broads to a native of Cornwall.

Adventures with Words: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Much has been written about this book and deservedly so: its examination of life and death in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and how Frankl and others survived is extraordinary – and let us fervently pray that it remains extra – ordinary. But one of the things Frankl’s book does is remind usjust how much our circumstances and society determine how we behave. We would all like to think that if we had been born in the early 20th century in Germany we would have been one of the brave people who resisted Nazism and tried to smuggle the Jews to freedom. The events of the last two years have unfortunately shown that the vast majority of the population would happily go along with demonising a sub set of the population, particularly when encouraged to do so by those in power and those with loud media voices. A tiny, tiny percentage of the German population actively resisted the Nazis. We, you and I, would be no different today.

But Viktor Frankl, a German Jew, was in the part of the population that was demonised and destroyed. Frankl survived and his book is, in part, an exploration of why some men lived when others, faced with similar hardships, died. According to Frankl, the key factor in determining someone’s endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering is the ability to find some meaning in that suffering. While a devout Jew himself, Frankl was also a psychiatrist and, in examining the factors enabling survival, Frankl deliberately separated meaning from religious faith. While religious faith was very useful in providing a framework to understand and cope with the situation the concentration camp inmates were in, Frankl found that any meaning that could be found was helpful to the survival chances of the prisoners.

Frankl went on to found a school of psychiatry, called logotherapy, which argues that the search for a meaning to one’s life is the central human motivating force. He may well be right, once we take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into account and the ordinary necessities for living are accounted for.

But by divorcing meaning from its usual historical anchor, religious faith, Frankl also described the peculiar situation we find in the modern world. Now, the desperate search for meaning in a consumer world has led to people passionately embracing a whole variety of causes, from veganism to climate change. In itself, this is no bad thing. But problems arise were these people, activists, attempt, just as passionately, to impose these meanings they have found for themselves upon their fellows.

So the peculiar paradox of the 21st century is that we find ourselves having to cope with the fervent beliefs of people searching for meaning in places which simply do not have the moral or intellectual gravity to sustain the importance they attach to them. Hence the increasingly hysterical attempts to force norms on other people. The hysteria ramps up because, underlying all this frantic fury, is the unconscious realisation that the causes so many people have dedicated themselves simply do not carry the import they have ascribed to them. Such levels of cognitive dissonance call forth greater and greater efforts to bring the world into line with their imaginings, in a futile attempt to quiet the strumming strings of dissonance.

Today, we suffer for other people’s meanings. And Frankl unwittingly ushered this in.

Adventures with Words: Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

A lot happened between 1520 and 1536. James Reston Jr whizzes us around the world where it was happening, from Henry VIII’s attempts to extricate himself from his perfectly legitimate marriage to Catherine of Aragon, through to Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a door and setting in train the Protestant Reformation. But the fact that the Reformation endured rather than being suppressed was in large part due to what was happening elsewhere, in particular the looming threat from the east: Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman Empire.

The sixteen years covered in Reston’s fast paced, gossipy book, an excellent example of popular history, revolves in particular around the confrontation between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and, by reason of canny Habsburg marriage diplomacy, ruler of most of Europe apart from France and England, and Suleiman, Emperor of the East. Where Charles was Holy Roman Emperor, Suleiman was Emperor of Constantinople. And while it is possible for there to be a plurality of kings, according to the lights of the time, there could be only one emperor. Both Suleiman and Charles considered themselves the one but Suleiman, with a realm that was less fissiparous, had the advantage. With the Turkish threat, Luther and the German princes who supported him had Charles and the Habsburg monarchy perpetually looking over their shoulders. Thus the Reformation was saved. But it’s clear that, had the weather been better, Suleiman might well have succeeded in his goal of taking Vienna and unlocking the gates of Europe. Then how differently might history have played out. But the spring and summer of 1529 were exceptionally cold and wet, bogging down the great Turkish supply train as it struggled westwards and forcing the Turks to abandon their heaviest cannons. Reaching Vienna, they put up a desultory attempt to storm the city but without the fine cannons that were their trump card, militarily, they could not breach the walls.

However, in an early example of spin, Suleiman and his advisors declared the expedition a victory and went back to Constantinople and celebrated it as such. One of the interesting facts we learn from this book is that propaganda is by no means a recent invention.

Overall, an engrossing and reader-friendly account of a crucial time, with Reston managing ably to delineate the various historical personages so that they each come across as distinctive personalities.

The Advent of the Anglo-Saxons 2: New Kings on the Block


The traditional view of our history was that the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain, supplanting the native Britons and pushing them westwards until they became the Welsh. It was an early example of ethnic cleansing, although a long-winded one. The conquest of Britain was a slow-motion affair. It took centuries, with fortunes fluctuating hugely for the first two centuries. But in the end the Anglo-Saxons prevailed. The Britons became Welsh – a word derived from wealh in Old English, meaning ‘foreigner’ but with a secondary meaning of ‘slave’ – and the Germans became the English. Further north were the Picts while the Scots were still living in Ireland. It was all very mixed-up!

This was the story as told by Gildas. Since he was an eye witness, his testimony was acceptyed by scholars. But in the later decades of the 20th century, a new generation of researchers began to question this story. Archaeological analysis of tree pollen indicated that there had been very little change in tree-cover levels during this period. But this was when whole regions were supposedly depopulated, the native Britions fleeing before the Anglo-Saxons (some went overseas, founding Brittany in France). But if all the farmers had really fled, then land should have turned to scrub, wood and forest. However, there was no evidence for these changes in the pollen record: the land seemed to have stayed under the same levels of cultivation.

So maybe the farmers had stayed put throughout, ploughing and sowing and reaping, while bands of warriors fought their little wars, one elite – pagan and Anglo-Saxon – displacing another – Christian and Briton. Having replaced the men in charge, new Anglo-Saxon rulers imposed their language and culture on the peasant farmers who had remained, farming the land as they had always done. According to this view, there was no wholesale replacement of populations. Rather, warbands of Anglo-Saxons arrived, battled and defeated the native warrior elite, and installed themselves at the top of the social pyramid. The new Anglo-Saxon warrior elite took wives from the Britons but they insisted that their language and culture should dominate in their kingdoms.

Not all historians accepted this interpretation of the evidence. In particular, specialists in place names pointed out that there are very few place names in England that derive from the Celtic. The vast majority derive from Old English. But if a native peasantry had remained working the land for a new set of Anglo-Saxon masters, then we would expect there to be many more names of Celtic origin, for the simple reason that the new lord of the manor would ask his peasants, “Hey, that copse over there, what’s it called?” Hearing the answer, he’d then tell his compliant peasants, “Go chop down some trees from ‘coedlan’.” A new lord would use the names in place to order his peasants around rather than inventing a whole new set of names for the simple reason that then his peasants would know what he wanted them to do.

So, did the Anglo-Saxons arrive en masse, conduct a programme of ethnic cleansing and occupy the land, or was it a case of a top-level takeover that gradually imposed its language and culture on the lower levels of society? The evidence was inconclusive and scholars were divided. Some other way of answering the question was necessary.