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):


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:


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:


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


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.

What We Did On Our Holidays

Just back from an almost rain-free week in the Lake District (it poured on the day we arrived and again when we left, but was dry in between [for my friends abroad, just take it as read that this is the single most important news I can relate when talking about a holiday in Briain]). Here are a few photos to give a taste of what we saw and did. Walney Island turned out a little different to what I had expected (this was the edge of the Island of Sodor in the Rev. W. Awdry’s imagination). Still, we thought it would make a moody shot for our proposed boy band (plus one) album cover.

Call us the the Fab Four. Er, the Fantastic Four. The Famous Four...
Call us the the Fab Four. Er, the Fantastic Four. The Famous Four…


The next is Isaac investigating for himself the ancient conundrum of the chicken and the egg.

Now, which is it?
Now, which came first?

Matthew, the lord of Piel Island… 

Lord of the Island
Lord of the Island

…and Theo, leaping up the Old Man of Coniston like a mountain goat.

King of the Mountain
King of the Mountain

And, finally, me setting off with Isaac on my back to climb the Old Man of Coniston.

All set...
All set…

And me, a few hours later, questioning my earlier decision.

All spent...
All spent…

Harrogate History Festival

In the words of Samwise Gamgee, “Well, I’m back.”

Admittedly, I’ve not been to Mordor, just Harrogate (a considerably pleasanter place), but it was just as much a journey into the unknown: my first history festival, my first literary event, my first time meeting other writers; presenting myself at the reception desk, I was a most unlikely virgin!

But I’m delighted to say it all went well. I got to meet and speak with people whose books I’ve read, one of them actually bought my book (thank you, Giles Kristian!), I had a free supper while talking with some lovely members of the public, met the brains behind Salon London (the lovely Helen Bagnall) and the voice of Scotland (the enchanting Sara Sheridan). And here are some photos to prove I was there!

First, one of me with my books (a slightly pathetic show compared to the feet of shelf space required for other writers but gratifying nonetheless).

Me and my books (dark glasses not because I'm too cool but because I'd just come in from outside)
Me and my books (dark glasses not because I’m too cool but because I’d just come in from outside)

Then one of me sidling in between two of the best young writers of historical fiction in an attempt to catch some of their lustre: Ben Kane (left)  and Giles Kristian (right).

Ben Kane (left), me (centre), Giles Kristian (right)
Ben Kane (left), me (centre), Giles Kristian (right)

And finally, but certainly not least, the two finest beards in Harrogate, possibly the world: Robert Low (author, journalist, raconteur, life liver) and Irving Finkel (Assyriologist and rediscoverer of cuneiform tablets from Babylon with instructions on how to make the Ark).

Rober Low (l), me, Irving Finkel (r)
Rober Low (l), me, Irving Finkel (r)

England’s Last Wilderness

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding
Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back
Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.



Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.


Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.


Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.

Our Lady of Montserrat

Our Lady of Montserrat
Our Lady of Montserrat

On 25 March 1522 a young soldier hung up his sword in front of a small statue. He crossed himself and looked at the dark features of a crowned woman and the child seated upon her knee, hand raised in benediction. Then he turned and limped away, his leg still weak from the cannonball that had wrecked it. He would wage war no more. The man was Ignatius of Loyola and he would go on to found the Jesuits. The statue was the Black Virgin of Montserrat, and she would go on to greet pilgrims by the million.

Black Madonnas – that is pictures or statues of Mary that depict her with dark skin – are widespread through the Catholic world and often come with a reputation for working miracles. Theories as to why Mary should be represented thus vary from the spurious (they’re really depictions of Isis and Horus) to the practical (centuries of candle smoke have stained them) but whatever the reason they always seem to evoke popular devotion. La Moreneta, or ‘Little Dark One’ as the Virgin of Montserrat is usually called, is no exception. Pious enthusiasm dates the statue to St Luke in the first century, po-faced scepticism to the 12th. Whichever is true – and there is also evidence for the statue having been hidden from the Moors and then rediscovered in the ninth century – what is certain is how quickly the statue became a major centre of pilgrimage from the 12th century onwards. This was no doubt helped by the identification of the mountain as the site of the Holy Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parsifal. But what really swung it was the miracles. And it certainly didn’t hurt that King Alfonse X ascribed miracles to Our Lady of Montserrat in his canticles, songs composed in honour of the Blessed Virgin that are still sung. For when all is said and done, one can gauge the popularity of shrines by their results: those that produce get the pilgrims, those that don’t fade into obscurity. By these standards the Little Dark One must still be doing the business: even today more than two million people visit each year.

(This article first appeared in the Time Out Barcelona guide.)

St George of Barcelona

I first wrote this for the Time Out Barcelona Guide.

St George by Raphael
St George by Raphael

What do William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and St George have in common? They all died on 23 April, with the master dramaturge and literary don arranging well-nigh simultaneous exits in 1616. Of course, we’re slightly less certain about the exact date of St George’s death – the more sceptical among historians doubting the fact of his birth let alone the time of his passing – but that has not stopped the enterprising Catalans from amalgamating the feast of their patron saint with the celebrations of the two literary lions. La Diada de Sant Jordi (St George’s day) had been associated since medieval times with lovers, the paramours giving gifts of roses, but in the 1920s the writer Vicent Clavel Andrés proposed marking the birth of Cervantes as a book day. A little tweaking saw the date changed to the more universal 23 April in 1930 and since then the Dia del Libre has gone from strength to strength, with Unesco declaring, in 1995, that 23 April should be World Book and Copyright Day.

Icon of St George
Icon of St George

Thus this most adaptable and travelled of saints makes his way into the 21st century world of supra-national organisations and officially endorsed culture. George has come a long way from the little town in Cappadocia where he was, possibly, born. Of course, there is no historical source for where he came from, nor for the idea that he was a Roman soldier, and not even that he was martyred. But then, there aren’t that many historical sources at all for obscure 3rd century soldiers. What we do have, however, are traces of a man whose mark in history has been all but obscured by the accumulation of later legends. His cult spread rapidly through the eastern Roman empire and by 494 he was cautiously canonised by Pope Gelasius I as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God’.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the religious mind dislikes a blank canvas, so the story of St George soon began to be filled in. The oldest traditions state that he was a soldier who refused to abjure his religion despite the orders of the Emperor Diocletian, who launched the last great persecution of Christians in 303, and was beheaded on 23 April. George’s sufferings soon underwent inflation, taking in poison drinks, being cut into pieces, molten lead and being sawn into two. If some of these sufferings sound a trifle, well, terminal, don’t worry since George was restored to life three times before finally expiring. Pope Gelasius, while accepting George’s sanctity, was somewhat more skeptical about his invulnerability and forbade the promulgation of these lurid legends.

The cult of St George really took off with the Crusades. Those knights that survived brought the Cappadocian home with them, and in the 13th century the best seller of the age, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, featured a new twist to the tale: dragon killing. George became the emblem of the courtly, chivalric culture of medieval Europe, the ideal to be attempted by the rowdy, licentious but essentially pious nobility and a hero to the peasantry who took every advantage of clerically sanctioned days off. Since St George offered protection to those travelling by sea (as well as soldiers, farmers, horsemen, lepers and shepherds among others – he was a busy saint) port cities like Barcelona, Venice and Genoa adopted him as patron. The saint, who didn’t get where he got without results, reciprocated. According to Jaume I George helped the Catalans conquer the city of Mallorca, and the soldier saint played his part in a number of the battles of the long Reconquista, including the 1237 victory at Puig that opened the way for the recapture of the province of Valencia.

Despite a dip in popularity during the Enlightenment and the determined assaults of some recent scholars, St George’s recent move into the literary realm suggests that the old warhorse still has some legs in him. This is one old soldier who positively relishes new tricks.

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


Catalan Monsters

This article was first published in the Time Out Barcelona Guide.

What to do if little Johnny won’t go to sleep at bedtime? A glass of warm milk? A gentle lullaby? Or a blood-curdling horror story of child abduction and flesh-eating monsters? Catalan folklore is full of decidedly non-PC espantanens (‘child-frighteners’), designed to make kids behave and – as a side effect – turn them into gibbering emotional wrecks.

El Coco; Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
El Coco; Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
El Coco is one of the best known. With shaggy black hair and fluorescent eyes, El Coco preys on children who don’t go to bed when they’re told. Only leaving his hidey-hole in the dead of night, he lingers in the shadowy corners of children’s bedrooms and taunts them with a scary grunting noise, before grabbing them and carrying them home to eat raw. Sadly, it can be just as dangerous to go to sleep, at least when La Pesanta is around. In the form of a huge black dog with human hands, she jumps on to the chest of those who sleep on their backs; her great weight gives them terrible nightmares before suffocating them to death.

Warning of ‘stranger danger’ is L’Home del Sac (the ‘bag man’), a sinister old man dressed in old brown rags with shaggy hair and a giant sack on his back. Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he lures over any children he sees out alone with sweets and toys and then tosses them in his sack. Back in his castle, he boils down the children’s juicy flesh to produce a fine oil, which he uses to grease the train tracks.


Then there’s the Caçamentides (‘liar hunter’), a man as tall and wide as the towers of the cathedral and with fingers as sharp as claws, which he uses to snatch up children who tell lies. He knows who they are because when a lie comes out of a child’s mouth, it turns into an invisible bird that flies away after leaving a dark stain on their teeth. The birds fly to Caçamentides and tell him where the child is to be found. He barbecues his captives and eats them seven by seven.

Much feared by little girls who live in Bruç, Esparreguera and Piera is the Cardapeçois, a strange and bad-tempered old woman who’s obsessed with well-combed hair. She visits little girls with long, tangled locks and goes at them with thistle heads and, in especially bad cases, the sharp iron spikes used to card sheep wool. She combs until she’s pulled all the hair out, and the offender is left bleeding and bald.

Putting on the frighteners out in La Vall de Ribes de Freser is Jan de Gel, a boy made of ice, and so cold-hearted that children freeze just by looking at him. He throws the human popsicle on his back and carries it to his ice cave to make it into a hearty soup. Another winter sprite is La Tinyosa, who appears as a mass of foggy cloud, descending over any children lost in her territory of the Montserrat mountains and the plains of Vic, and carrying them away.

Our Lady of Mercé

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé
Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?