Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature: Cliff May

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Interview with Cliff May

Please welcome Cliff May to Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature spot. As you can see by the premise of this blog, I’m very interested in the period once called the Dark Ages, but now called the early Middle Ages. Cliff is an author I’ve known for sometime and we have a shared interest in the post Romano period and the later Anglo-Saxon era. 

Cliff, I’ve had your books on my TBR list for what seems like an eternity, but getting closer! To help me decide which one to read, I thought I’d ask you some questions about your books as I know you have written quite a number. Firstly, tell me how long you’ve been writing, and a bit about the series you have published.

Hello Paula, thanks for inviting me here! I began writing full-time at the end of 2012, so I
am now in my seventh year as a full-time writer.
At the beginning I was unsure whether to write historical fiction or fantasy, but I read an
article which advised aspiring authors to begin with a subject they already knew a fair bit about to cut down on the research needed, stop procrastinating, and actually get some words down. I am a long term fan of the Beowulf poem and it combined elements of history and the fantastic, so this seemed a good place to start. My original idea was to tell Beowulf’s story from childhood through to glorious death in old age fighting the dragon, but once I reached the Grendel episode I found that I wanted to spread my writing wings; so I ended it with the death of Grendel’s mother and it became the trilogy known as Sword of Woden.

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A scene from the Beowulf and Grendl film starring Gerard Butler

Next I moved back a thousand years in time for my Conqueror of Rome duo, drifting south geographically to tell the story of the migration of a Gallic tribe from what is now
Northern France. Known as the Senones, they crossed the Alps to settle in Northern Italy
around the year 390BC. Naturally the peoples already living there were a bit put out
having eighty-thousand hairy barbarians turn up out of the blue, and in the fighting which followed both the Etruscans and Romans were comprehensively defeated. They sacked and occupied Rome itself for the good part of a year; it was a pivotal moment in the growth of the then small city state, in many ways the shock which led to the creation of the Roman Empire.

 

I really enjoyed my research and writing about the ancient Celts but I missed the Anglo-Saxons which have always been my first love, so it was back to the sixth Century for my
following trilogy, King’s Bane. The main character, Eofer, had earned the sobriquet by
killing the Swedish king Ongentheow in battle. An Angle, he had featured as a minor
character in the Beowulf books, so this gave me the opportunity to continue the timeline
from my Sword of Woden series and shift the focus of the tale from Scandinavia to the
migration of the Angles from Jutland to what is now East Anglia in England where I live.
The final book, The Scathing, sees Eofer and his war band helping to found the kingdom of Mercia in the Trent Valley.

Conqueroro of Rome

One of the advantages of being a truly independent author is the fact that you can write
about any subject which appeals to you, so I jumped forward four centuries for my current Erik Haraldsson series. Better known to history as Erik Bloodaxe, he was the favourite son of Harald Fairhair, the first warlord to unite the scattered provinces of Norway into one centralised kingdom. At the end of the first book, Bloodaxe, a hostile political act by the English king Athelstan undermines Erik’s position at home forcing him to give up the kingdom and go Viking. I am writing the final book of the trilogy now which will see him become the last king of an independent Northumbria.

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Well, that gives me quite a bit to go on I reckon! Definitely a man after my own heart, especially where the Anglo-Saxons are concerned. So, where did you get the inspiration for your books? Do you have an author who has influenced you in your writing?

My ideas all come from my love of history in general and the Anglo-Saxon period in
particular. We are surrounded by history in this country. Within a short walk or bike ride as a child I could visit a Battle of Britain spitfire airdrome, a Palaeolithic watering hole where the bones of mammoth, lions and hippopotamuses were discovered and one of the very earliest Saxon settlements at Mucking. I believe that people in the past were the same we are today with all our strengths and weaknesses, only technology has changed, so for anyone with imagination it is easy to repopulate the landscape with those who have gone before us, be they pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, children watching Luftwaffe air fleets filling the skies or Viking raiders on the nearby River Thames. As for author influences I read very little fiction; I have too many stories in my own head and I am always afraid that I will unwittingly plagiarise.

Who are the main characters in your books and tell me and my readers a bit about them?

Beowulf, I am sure, needs little introduction. A Dark Age monster killer, I wanted to delve beneath the superhero image and discover what made him tick, the influences and
experiences in his childhood and youth which made him the man in the poem. That
Beowulf can appear to be a bit of a braggart to modern ears, a bit one dimensional, so I
introduced compassion; he rescues a young girl from sexual abuse and finds her a home in a loving family, supporting her financially until she reaches adulthood. I also added a
psychological condition due to a head wound gained in battle to make him appear less
invincible. This worsened as the tale developed until… Well you will have to read the
series to find out who cures the hero, but the title Sword of Woden may offer a clue!

The Conqueror of Rome duo really contains three main characters: a female druid, a boy
destined to be a great British warrior and a young Gaul at foster who will become
chieftain of his clan. The boys become part of the warlord Brennus’s Gallic migration to
Italy, while the druid is driven by vivid dreams to discover the destiny the gods have in
mind for her. It is a story of journeying – physically, mentally and emotionally as the trio
grow from childhood to adulthood and go out to make their names in a violent world.

Eofer Wonreding is the hero of the King’s Bane trilogy, the man made famous by killing the king of Swedes in the Beowulf tale. He is highly regarded by his king and people, the go-to warrior if a difficult job needs doing and doing well. However his undoubted abilities cause problems for our man. The king and leading men of the Angles wish to elevate him from thegn to ealdorman. Following the death of King Hygelac of Geats in battle against the Franks and Frisians (which you can read about in my short novel Dayraven, which loosely links the Sword of Woden and King’s Bane series’) Eofer’s wife is now the sister of the new king of Geatland and no longer content to be the wife of a lowly thegn. Eofer resists both entreaties for as long as he can as he clings to the freedom to raid and generally come and go as he pleases without the added responsibility which would come with the advancement. Eofer is the last of the Angles to leave Jutland for the new home across the North Sea, but as Jutes, Danes and finally the Britons of Powys fall beneath his sword and the Angles become established in their new home the situation smoulders until a final tragedy strikes.

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Unlike my other main characters, Erik Haraldsson is the son of a king and born to rule.
Unfortunately his father, Harald Fairhair, appears to have sired at least twenty sons, most of whom felt they too deserved to be high king on Harald’s death. A brother war followed which Erik won, only for a dimly remembered half-brother who had been fostered with King Athelstan to return with English help. But Erik is nothing if not a fighter, and along with those who remain loyal to him and his royal Danish wife Gunnhild he wins new kingdoms to rule in, first the Orkneys and Hebrides, and then the kingdom of York and Northumbria itself.

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Tell us who is your favourite main character and your favourite supporting character and why you enjoy them so much?

It always surprises people when I say that Catumanda, the female druid in the Conqueror of Rome series is without doubt my favourite main character. She actually started out as a he, but when I did my first rewrites it just became more and more obvious as I read the story that the character was crying out to be changed to female. She is a very strong young woman, and deadly if you get on the wrong side of her; confident, cheery and outgoing, I am a little besotted with her to tell the truth!

My favourite supporting character is Thrush Hemming, Eofer king’s bane’s senior hearth
warrior. Steadfast could be his middle name, so much so that he earns himself a war band of his own by the end of the series. There is a period in book two, Gods of War, where Hemming has to take command of the hearth troop in desperate circumstances and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. Loyal and capable, he is the perfect second in command.

When starting a new book, how do you structure it? Do you set an outline for yourself, or do you write freely and let the story come? Or do you use any other method?

Once I have researched the subject I have a pretty good general outline of the whole story from start to finish in my mind, down to the closing scene and even the last line. I roughly sketch out the story arc for each volume so that they work both as stand-alone tales and as part of a series, and after that the details tend to take care of themselves. I use a series of sketch books for each volume in which I jot down lineages, the names of ships and other details which need to remain constant throughout the books and then just start writing. I liken it to a long motorway journey; you know the start point and destination, and you have a pretty good idea of what will happen en-route, but the smaller details are unknowable until they occur.

I like that comparison! Is there anything of you in your writing, your experiences, characteristics etc? 

 

 

I think that there must be for all writers. I do believe that my own work draws on my life
experiences, and that some of the tougher times have been the most valuable. I have
crewed the replica of Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour, renovated a medieval hall and
suffered the joys of childcare; it all goes in there. Writing full time can be a tough gig
when you are the only source of income for the family, but there is no place to hide and I
am sure that the determination to fight against the odds is reflected in quite a few of my
characters. Historical fiction, like history itself, tends to be written through the eyes of
the upper echelons of society (it is more interesting than a life tilling soil after all) but I
like to think that I manage to give the common folk if not an equal voice, at least visibility in my tales.

Do you have a favourite author at the moment?

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Harry Sidebottom, writer of books set in ancient Rome http://www.harrysidebottom.co.uk/the-books/

As I said above, and I know this goes against perceived wisdom, I read very little fiction.One author I do follow is Harry Sidebottom. One of his main characters, Ballista, is an Angle fighting in the service of Rome so I can get my Anglo-Saxon fix without worrying about inadvertently duplicating his ideas. It also helps that he is a terrific writer ofcourse!

What books are you reading?

Just one at the moment, The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby. He is a retired travel writer
and journalist who as a young man in 1938 crewed a tall ship to Australia and back – the
grain race of the title. I am a bit of a people watcher so enjoy reading first-hand accounts
of travel and action. Being a travel writer his descriptions of mountainous seas and broody skies are breathtaking and useful for my own work.

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What are you working on currently and what are your future writing plans?

I am a third of the way into the final book of the Erik Haraldsson trilogy which will be
available this autumn. At the same time I am writing a series of short stories which will
present alternative outcomes for the various invasions of 1066 to be published this
summer. Early next year I have a book to write which will tidy up a few loose threads left hanging at the end of the king’s bane trio, in a similar way that the short novel Dayraven straddles the earlier series’.

I have it in mind to tell the story of the Angles from the time of their involvement in the Beowulf poem, through the migration to Britain and culminating with the death of their first Bretwalda, the high king Raedwald of Sutton Hoo fame. There is still a fair way to go, so the new main character for the following Anglian trilogy will come to the fore there. To give myself a little variety I may well expand on the Erik Haraldsson books by writing a string of Scandinavian/Viking trilogies at the same time.

Is there anything else we should know about you or your books – let us know of any
significant appearances or events. 

As I said above, I am a single parent and have been for five years now. My youngest was still in primary school at that time so I had to get my head down and make this writing lark work. That of course meant that giving book talks and attending book fairs etc were out of the question without bringing the whole tribe along with me so I learned to get by without such things. The upside was that I could concentrate my efforts on producing new material; every book written brought in new readers, and I gradually built up what can only be described as a worldwide fanbase. Very few people successfully combine the skills of authorship and marketing and I know that I am not one of them, so I concentrate on what I do best which is writing new stories. The majority of my books have been Amazon bestsellers, so thankfully most readers appear to enjoy them.

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Bio

Cliff May is a writer of historical fiction, working primarily in the early Middle Ages. He has always had a love of history which led to an early career in conservation work. Using the knowledge and expertise gained Cliff moved with his family through a succession of dilapidated houses which he single-handedly renovated. These ranged from a Victorian townhouse to a Fourteenth Century hall, and he added childcare to his knowledge of medieval oak frame repair, wattle and daub and lime plastering. Cliff crewed the replica of Captain Cook’s ship, Endeavour, sleeping in a hammock and sweating in the sails and travelled the world, visiting such historic sites as the Little Big Horn, Leif Eriksson’s Icelandic birthplace and the bullet-scarred walls of Berlin’s Reichstag.
Now he writes, only a stone’s throw from the Anglian ship burial site at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia, England.

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Follow Cliff on Twitter

Well, that was fabulous talking to you Cliff, you sure have had some exciting adventures and this is obviously reflected in your writing. I was particularly intrigued by your admission that you have been to the site of the Little Big Horn, I can’t imagine how moving that must have been. I would definitely find that very emotional and also the Endeavour, which growing up in Australia as a kid I had learned so much about. The awful conditions that must have been faced by those transportees must have been horrific. The medieval hall experience must have also been very poignant, being able to touch the walls intimately and walk on the same floorboards that have been walked on over hundreds of years is just amazing. Thank you for guesting on my blog Cliff, it has been a great honour and here at 1066: The Road to Hastings we wish you the very best.

 

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Writers of Anglo-Saxon literature: Annie Whitehead

Today I’d very much like to welcome fellow Anglo-Saxon nut, Annie Whitehead, (sorry Annie!) to my Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature series. Here she is talking about her beloved Mercia, and the characters that inhabited that world in the not so Dark Ages.

If you’re here reading Paula’s blog, then you probably don’t need to be told how interesting and exciting Anglo-Saxon history is. Despite the epithet, these times weren’t really the Dark Ages. There’s a wealth of documentary and archaeological evidence and an abundance of tales about characters who are too interesting not to write about.

It wasn’t deliberate, but I seem to write almost exclusively about the inhabitants of a particular Anglo-Saxon kingdom: Mercia.

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Map – Heptarchy (image attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:England_green_top.svg)

Why Mercia in particular? Well, I happen to think that some of the most charismatic characters came from there or operated within its borders. More of them anon.

We don’t know precisely where the Mercians came from, or how they ended up where they did, or even what their name means and whether that’s what they called themselves.

Theories abound. Some say they migrated from the eastern settlements, some say there’s no evidence for this. Some think that they were Angles rather than Saxons, and most agree that their name, Myrcne, means the Marcher, or Border, People. So straight away they’re marked out as different; not named for who they were and where they came from – unlike the West Saxons, (Wessex) or the North Folk (Norfolk) – and we’re not even sure which border is being referred to. Was it the border with the Welsh? The Northumbrians? Or even the West Saxons?

It gets even more complicated when we realise that they weren’t even one kingdom, but more like a confederation of states. These smaller kingdoms gradually merged, or got consumed by Mercia proper, but their administrative organisation bore traces of those early kingdoms, and tribal identities remained, even into the eleventh century. (They almost toppled Edward the Confessor, too, but I’ll come back to that.)

At crucial times, their backing of a particular candidate for the throne was pivotal. Athelstan was first declared king in Mercia, and just as well, because he had a little difficulty shoring up his position in Wessex, initially. There was a small amount of trouble from a half-brother who was elected king in Wessex but died just a couple of weeks later, and then another half-brother who was implicated in a rebellion and was put to sea, where he drowned.

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Athelstan with his aunt, Æthelflæd – author’s photo

Later on in the tenth century, a fairly feckless young king, Eadwig, failed to bribe enough noblemen to support him – not for lacking of trying; in his short reign he issued over sixty charters, attempting to buy support in return for land – and the Mercians elected his brother, Edgar, as their king. There were two courts for a while, until Eadwig, like so many before him, died a convenient death at aged just nineteen. Edgar was keen throughout the rest of his reign always carefully to acknowledge the debt he owed to the Mercians and what by then had effectively become the Danelaw, in fact if not in name.

So, for me, they’re a little bit different. A little bit unconventional. And the people who led them were fascinating.

Any history of Mercia has to start off with Penda, the pagan warlord. Official line: he made war on Northumbria for no reason, burning, pillaging and generally behaving in an unsportsmanlike manner. But a chance remark by his sternest critic, the Venerable Bede, informs us that at one point he went to war because the king of Wessex had repudiated his sister. Vicious pagan he may have been, but I’d want him on my side if I ever got ‘dumped’.

At one point, the kingdom of Mercia stretched from the Thames to the Humber. Mercian kings were at various points overlords of most of the smaller kingdoms of the south and east. Their downfall though came in part because of their make-up. Having started out as a confederacy of separate kingdoms, they retained a tribal element and often their ealdormen weren’t elected by the king, but served in government because they were, effectively, tribal chiefs. This meant that an awful lot of successions to the kingship were contested, by rival claimants from various families. This might not have mattered so much had it not been for two things: the coming of the Vikings, and the fact that Wessex started getting its act together and established a strong dynasty of its own, the most famous member of that family being Alfred the Great.

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Æthelflæd (Public Domain image from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

Still, the Mercians remained quite cheerful, putting their weight behind a lady of whom you might have heard: Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred. She was half-Mercian anyway, but her strategic burh-building meant that, in partnership with her brother, the boundaries of the Danelaw were pushed back and important territories regained. Her daughter succeeded her in Mercia for a short while. They weren’t queens, but they were accepted by the Mercians in a way that the West Saxons never accepted women leaders.

Still, after a brief spell as leader, this daughter was removed by Alfred’s son, Edward, and Mercia was governed from then on by Wessex.

They weren’t for giving up their national identity though, as we’ve seen; twice they were instrumental in electing West Saxon kings. And in the eleventh century, their identity was still discrete from Wessex. It doesn’t cast them in a positive light, but when their ealdorman, Eadric Streona, was accused of fleeing the battlefield, it was said that he took with him the men of the Magonsæte, one of the original kingdoms which had made up the Mercian confederacy.

Later in the eleventh century, when politics was dominated by the machinations and ambitions of the family of Earl Godwin, the Mercians had a part to play. When the northerners rebelled against Tostig Godwinson, Mercian brothers Edwin – Earl of Mercia – and Morcar – newly-elected earl of Northumbria – led the northern earls in a deputation which very nearly ended in outright rebellion, causing Harold Godwinson to ride north with all due haste and negotiate with them. It might even have been at this point that he arranged to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar. Not bad work for Mercian brothers who were probably still only teenagers at the time.

When you consider that such lively characters as Offa and Lady Godiva were also Mercians, the question for me isn’t Why Mercia, but Why Not?

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Bio:

Annie is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, chronicles the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and her second, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, Cometh the Hour, charts the life of King Penda. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down. She is the recipient of various awards for her novels and has also won awards for her nonfiction essays. She won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in Sep 2018.

Links:

Website: http://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk

Blog: https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anniewhiteheadauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ALWhitehead63

Paula Says

Thank you so much, Annie, for coming on my blog today. I’ve learned so much about Mercia already! I think the explanation for the name of Mercia being derived from the marches or borders is a good one myself, and quite reasonable. They were bordered on all sides as you say, so perhaps there is some truth in that. Perhaps they were a mixture of Britons, Saxons, and Angles, which could explain why they were never known as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

I agree that the Mercian characters are a fascinating bunch. I wonder how different things might have been had they ended up being the more dominant kingdom instead of Wessex. One of the most interesting things I find was their links with Wales, and how sometimes they were allies and sometimes they were enemies – I noticed you didn’t mention that old rebel, Alfgar, whom i happen to think of as one of the most interesting Mercians of the mid 11th Century apart form Leofric and Godiva, his parents. I’d love to know what it was the recalcitrant son of Godiva blurted out before he could stop himself that got himself exiled on two occasions!

As for Æthelflæd, she is my darling. I love your portrayal of her in your book To Be A Queen . For me she is the kick ass woman of the Dark Ages. If only we knew more about her life, her appearance and her character. Thank goodness that we have authors like yourself who bring these characters to life.

Which leads me to heartily recommend Annie’s books and her recent non-fiction book about MERCIA which currently awaits my hungry little eyes and fingers on my book shelf.

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Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature: Mercedes Rochelle – Researching Godwine

 

I’m giving away my age by admitting this—not to mention the length of time it took to write this book—but my research on this period began before the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Way before. In fact, I began my research in my college years while I was living in St. Louis, MO—a very nice town but far from the libraries I needed. I went to every university library in the city; luckily they were free to all comers. But I could only get so far. If the book I needed wasn’t in the library, I was out of luck. In fact, I didn’t even know what to look for! Imagine, you young ones, not being able to do a search for all available sources. If the book wasn’t in the card catalogue, it might as well not even exist. Even for me, it’s hard to conceive not being able to find what I need, and I went through it.

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New York Public Library Reading Room. Source: Wikipedia

So, like any warm-blooded researcher who didn’t have a family to take care of, I pulled up stakes and moved to New York. The day I discovered the New York Public Library my life changed forever! The wealth of information at my fingertips had just grown exponentially. Merely thumbing through the card catalogue was enough to make my heart palpitate. You couldn’t browse the shelves and had to request books then wait about twenty minutes, but it was worth the effort. I discovered authors I never knew about, and finally got my hands on my first copy of Edward A. Freeman’s “History of the Norman Conquest of England”. I thought I had gone to heaven! In six volumes he wrote about every aspect of Anglo-Saxon England I could possibly think of. (These days Freeman is somewhat out of fashion, but he’s still my go-to when I need to look something up; he has never failed me yet.) Copy machines were available for ten cents a page, but as much as I needed to copy, I’d be better off buying the books—if I could find them. A couple of years after I moved to New York, I took a book-buying trip to England and discovered Hay-on-Wye. A breakthrough! Those were the days (the late ’80s) when old used hardbacks were still easy to find, and I discovered my very own set of Freeman which I gleefully brought home. That was the original basis of all my research.

I wrote two books (at least the first drafts) before a crushing disappointment and my own thin skin caused me to put my manuscripts on the shelf for twenty years. When the time came for me to blow the dust off my copies, everything had changed. Old books were harder to afford, but search engines had come into their own and the world was at my fingertips. What a difference.

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Holy Trinity Church in Bosham, home of the Godwines

This brings me to my hero Godwine. We know he was a commoner; as for his origins, historians have relied on guesswork and the occasional contemporary document. However, Godwine was a common name as well as Wulfnoth (his father), so we can only assume we have the right man when we put the clues together. Freeman gave us a multi-page assessment of Godwine’s origin in an appendix to Vol. 1 with all the permutations. He favored the story I ultimately used, which was derived from the 13th century Knytlinga Saga (The Saga of Cnut’s Descendants), problematic though it was. It wasn’t until many years after I finished my book that I discovered Ian Walker’s “Harold, The Last Anglo-Saxon King”, where the author concluded that Godwine served first Athelstan then Edmund Ironside before he went over to Canute (or Knut, or Cnut). Both historians’ explanations were pretty convoluted (there were two Wulfnoths in question as far as Freeman was concerned; Walker didn’t go there); nonetheless, these were totally different origin stories. It certainly emphasized the difference between pre- and post- internet. Ultimately, had I known about the other version I still might not have changed anything (I love the saga account), though in essence, I’m glad to be spared the decision!

When it came to Godwine’s marriage to Gytha, I had little to work from. We are told that Canute gave her to him in marriage. That’s about it. As we know, women had little say in the matter, but theirs was an unequal match. This was early in Godwine’s career; he may have been an earl by then, but he couldn’t have moved far beyond his common origins at this point. And she was a noble woman; her brother Ulf was a Danish Earl and her father was a chieftain. I can see the potential for stress! On the other hand, they had lots of children together, so there must have been some attraction between them.

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Godwine embraces Edward’s brother Alfred; Alfred is brought before King Harold Harefoot, Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fo. 11v

But more to the point for me: why did Swegn turn out to be such a bad egg? Any why did Godwine support him so loyally despite his transgressions? He was the firstborn; the Godwines were wealthy and powerful; his future was guaranteed. I’m not a believer that people are born evil—especially characters in a novel. Something must have happened to sour his personality. Then it came to me in a flash: why not have Swegn be conceived in this environment of stress and antagonism? If he was born before Godwine and Gytha were reconciled, it’s very possible that she could reject her unwanted child. And so the troubled Swegn grew from bad to worse. I could see that Godwine might feel guilty about his neglected son and would feel the need to make up for his unhappy childhood. Thus, all the pieces fell into place.

Other events required more guesswork. Was Godwine responsible for the death of Alfred the Aetheling, or was he a victim of circumstances? That’s a big question. No one has agreed on his guilt, from contemporary writers to the present. That’s where history ends and speculation begins, and of course the historical novelist gets to call the shots!

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About Mercedes

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Born and raised in St. Louis MO, Mercedes Rochelle graduated with a BA in English Literature from University of Missouri. She learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. Her first four books are historical novels about 11th century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy starting with “A King Under Siege” about Richard II and the first ten years of his reign. Mercedes now lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.

 

The Last Great Saxon Earls series on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B06XP6BGJT
Links:
Blog: http://www.HistoricalBritainBlog.com
Facebook: http://www.MercedesRochelle.net
Webpage: http://www.MercedesRochelle.com
Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/authorRochelle

 

Paula says: 

Thank you so much for coming onto my blog to talk about this very favourite era of mine! As you know Mercedes, I am also a fan of the Godwins, though perhaps more favourable to his son, Harold. But its hard to deny Godwin’s achievements which were pretty formidable when you consider he came from obscurity, though I’m not so sure I would consider him a commoner, he was the son of a thegn who was a king’s naval commander, as I believe, and not the ‘other’ Wulfnoth that Mercedes mentioned. But I guess it depends on what you call a commoner in those days. Thegns made up a broad grouping of middle nobility with some holding vast areas of land and wealth and some only the mere minimum.

I have to say that I totally buy your version of why Swegn was a troubled son. We know today that those raised in non-validating dysfunctional environments often have issues when they are older and I’m sure it was the same back then and throughout history. The terminology ‘black sheep’ has often turned up in throughout the historical narrative. I am slightly on the fence here about theories that have been expressed about Swegn, Cnut and Gytha, but I can also see a possibility that perhaps Gytha and Cnut might have had a relationship before her marriage to Godwin and she might have been pregnant at the time of her wedding to Godwin. Perhaps these ‘rumours’ might have been what Swegn, looking for something to blame his behaviour on, might have jumped on when he put it about that he was not Godwin’s son, but the true son of Cnut, which Gytha had to call for supporters to swear for her before a council of important women to prove her innocence. I’m sure that deeply hurt Gytha. Still, we can only speculate and historical fiction writers are allowed to interpret these long dead people’s actions in order to explain them.

As for the Alfred scenario, my feeling is more in line with Godwin being caught between a rock and a hard place. He was Harefoot’s sworn man, he had to obey orders or he was dead meat himself. I think he had to detain him, was probably going to deliver him to Harefoot, when he was intercepted by his henchmen and had to hand him over. However, we wont really ever know, will we? But as an historical fiction writer, looking at Godwin’s career, he was not known for his ruthless treatment of others. If he was more involved than he’d admitted, it was a one off, most likely. And I can’t see Godwin having anything to do with the blinding of Alfred, that does not seem to have been his style.

Thank you again Mercedes for a very interesting post. I’ve read Mercedes book The Sons of Godwine and recommend it to those interested in this family and period.

The Battle of Dunsinane: MacBeth Vs Malcolm Canmore

Malcolm

July 27th – Malcolm, the exiled son of King Duncan I, marshalled thousands of English and Danish warriors in Birnam Wood, in Perthshire, where he had come, supported by his kinsman Siward, Earl of Northumbria to defeat the king of Alba. Nearby, a few miles from them, MacBeth was holed up in his fortress of Dunsinane Hill, expecting to meet Malcolm in battle. This was to be the decisive fight that would see Malcolm take back the crown from the man who was said to have killed Duncan, his father. But although Malcolm’s troops slaughtered 3000 of MacBeth’s men, MacBeth was not done, and it was not for another 4 years before Malcolm would wear the crown of the whole of Alba, becoming Malcolm III.

Duncan 1
Duncan I

Following the death of his father, King Duncan l , in 1040  Malcolm fled to his kinsman, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Malcolm’s mother, had been a relative of Siward’s and had died in childbirth.  Malcolm, who was to become known as Malcolm Canmore (meaning head of men, possibly interpreted wrongly later as big head) grew up at the English court of Edward the Confessor. It was there that he may have made friends with Tostig Godwinson, who was to become Siward’s successor in Northumbria in 1055, which may account for their closeness when Tostig later ruled  in the north. In 1054, Edward the Confessor agreed to assist Malcolm in his bid to regain the crown of Alba from MacBeth. Edward allowed Siward to march north into Scotland with thousands of English soldiers, reputed to be 10,000 strong, which, if true, was generous, considering the king was able to call on 14,000 men for the select fyrd. Edward was also said to have supplied a large number of his own huscarles.

Macbeth_of_Scotland_(Holyrood)

MacBeth, had been Mormaer of Moray when he killed Malcolm’s father. Duncan and MacBeth had both been grandsons of King Malcolm ll. MAcBeth had killed Malcolm’s father in 1040, most likely during a battle, or after capturing him in pursuit. The reason for the hostility between the two men was said to have been something to do with Donald’s rather violent, unkingly, behaviour. Malcolm, Duncan’s grandfather, had been a somewhat cruel and ruthless man, and Duncan had gone the same way, subjecting his people to the rampaging of their lands, stealing  their property, and offering them death and destruction if they opposed him or his men. MacBeth’s tennants demanded that MacBeth do his duty and protect them. MAcBeth, having had enough, decided to put an end to this undesirable king’s doings. With the support of Thorfinn of Orkney, known as the Mighty, Duncan’s end came somewhere near Elgin or Forres. This led to the Bigheaded one fleeing to England, although his head might not have been that big then,  and MacBeth ruled sensibly and peaceably for 17 years over Scotland, or Alba, as it was then known.

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Photo c/o Christopher Doyle and Tim Benfield of Regia Anglorum

Thorfinn of Orkney, also ruler of Caithness, and a cousin or half-brother of Duncan, had more reason to be hostile to MacBeth, but he too had been attacked, though unsuccesfully, by Duncan and swore allegiance to MacBeth. The two men joined forces to bring peace and order to the kingdom sending out small bands of men to oversee that justice was carried out. MacBeth is also credited with having brought social reforms to Alba, seeing to it that widows received a pension and orphans, benefits. Doesn’t sound like the ambitious cousin murdering, avaricious mad man of Shakespeare, does it? Marianus Scottus, the Irish chronicler, tells us that MacBeth went to Rome and gave coins to the homeless in the streets there. A very nice man indeed with a social conscience.

But what caused Shakespeare to portray MAcBeth as a monster? Tony Harmsworth  asks this question: with all these good deeds, how did Shakespeare get it so wrong?

“William Shakespeare, was reading the History of Scotland by Holinshed and was living under the rule of King James – you can imagine the Bard interpreting events as Macbeth murdering the king and then stealing the throne from the rightful heir.”

Therefore, it seems, it was a case of making the facts fit the political situation of the time as King James was obviously descended from Malcolm who would have been seen as the rightful heir valiantly returning the throne to the rightful king. The English of James court in Shakespeare’s time would not have understood the tanistry system of the Scotland of the eleventh century, meaning that the kings (as they were in Anglo-Saxon England) were elected and not followed by primogeny.

Harmsworth claims in his book, Scotland’s Bloody History, that when MacBeth returned from Rome c 1050/51, he pushed Alba’s borders with a substantial army all the way down to Yorkshire and Lancashire; however Harmsworth does not clarify his sources for this, and it is difficult to know the veracity of this information, especially when none of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles mention it. If there is any truth in this, it might have been one of the reasons why Edward allowed Siward to lead the fyrd, including many of his own personal warriors into Scotland to support Malcolm against MacBeth.

Known today as MacBeth, his name in Medieval Gaelic was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. His father Findlaich was Mormaer of Moray, and was said to have been murdered by a usurping cousin, Gille Coemgáin in 1032. MacBeth cornered him and avenged his father by burning them in a hall. He then married Gruoch, the wife of  Gille Coemgáin and adopted her son Lulach. Gruoch was also of royal blood and so MacBeth could have had a claim on both his own and his wife’s lineage. He has been thought by some to have also been Thorfinn the Mighty. In fact Dorothy Dunnett, the famous historical fiction writer of the 70’s and 80’s writes about Thorfinn and MacBeth in her book, The King Hereafter, as being one and the same based on the fact that they are never mentioned together in the chronicles and a reference in the Orkneyinga saga to Thorfinn killing a Karl Hundason (man son of a dog), King of Scotland, thought to be Duncan.

Malcolm was in his mid twenties when he made his expedition into his old homeland with a large army of professional fighters at his back and his uncle Siward at his side. Growing up in the English courts, he would have learned to fight with numerous weapons and battle strategics. No doubt the doughty character of his uncle would come in use in his first taste of war.

The English army were said to have crossed the river Tweed, raiding, plundering as they went, a sure way to win hearts and minds, but that’s how it was done in those days. According to Hollingshed, whilst planning his strategy in Birnam Wood, Malcolm was hit with the idea of using branches of cut trees as camouflage to approach MacBeth’s position, camped nearby with an elite bodyguard. Harmsworth mentions that this is one of the earliest recorded use of camouflage in battle. This is where Shakespeare gets his lines: Dunsinane-Hill

It is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D (Worcester) that:

Siward travelled forth with a great raiding ship army, and raiding land-army, and fought against the Scots and put to flight the king, MacBeth, and killed all that was best there in the land…

The fact that they took ships as well, does suggest a large scale invasion. The battle that took place was also said to have been ‘hard-fought’ and the chronicle goes on to say:

…and led away from there such a great warbooty as no man had ever got before; but his [Siward] son Osbern and his sister’s son, Siward, and some of his huscarles and also the king’s, were killed on the Day of the Seven Sleepers.

The chronicle makes no mention of Malcolm or the purpose of the expedition, which seems to have been to restore Malcolm to his rightful birthright of king of the Scots. Florence of Worcester mentions that Siward, by the King’s orders (Edward the Confessor), made Malcolm king (Florence refers to him as the son of the king of the Cumbrians). Chronicle C, (Abingdon) like the D, mentions Earl Siward only, and fails to mention any ships. It mentions that much slaughter of the Scots was made there and also that many Danish and English died, indicating that both many men died on both sides and that the Danes were probably Siward’s men, being a Dane himself. What was wrong with the English monks that they failed to mention Malcolm’s achievements in this? There was definitely an economy among the monks in their establishment of facts when writing the chronicles in the 11thc! Would mentioning Malcolm’s name overshadow the doings of the English so badly, after all, he was but one Scotsman, and there were plenty of Anglo-Danes. One has to wonder at this seemingly jealousness that riddles the chronicles!

Interestingly, MacBeth had given succour to a couple of Anglo-Normans, Hugh and Osbern, who had been forced with their men, to flee the return of the exiled Godwinsons. It was said that they  reinforced MacBeth’s army at the Battle of Dunsinane. More recently I have found this information that was documented by Byrhtferth in the Northumbrian Chronicles:  A large Northumbrian fleet was led by Malcolm. They captured the city of Dundee and was joined by Scottish rebels on horse. They raided and pillaged (probably where the large amount of booty came from) marching out to the to Gowrie passing Scone and Edinburgh. Macbeth was faced with a huge invasion and would have been forced to ride the country to muster forces.  The  Battle of  Dunsinane occurred on the Seven Sleepers. There is little mention of how things went during the battle,  but Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the Northumbrians but were put to flight. The annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead and all of Macbeth’s Normans were wiped out.

The Battle of Seven Sleepers put Canmore in firm control of the Lowlands, for the English this was enough, who made a separate peace with Macbeth and returned overloaded with booty back to London and Northumbria leaving Canmore with only his Scottish forces.

Dunsinane Hill is located near the village of Collace in Perthshire. It has the remains of two early forts and the highest point on the hill is 1020 feet. We do not know where MacBeth was camped, or whether he was in the fort – depending on what state the fort was in – but it seems that if Malcolm’s army were able to sneak up on them, then they were vulnerable so probably not surrounded by defences. It was said that MacBeth’s guard surrounded him and defended him as best they could but they were defeated 3000 – 1,500, but MacBeth eventually got away to safety and spent the next 3 years on the run. Among the English killed were many of Edward the Confessor’s huscarles creating a lot of jobs for any unemployed warriors.

Malcolm attended a meeting of the mormaers who elected MacBeth’s stepson Lulach as king – perhaps thinking that MacBeth was dead – or that it was time to move on – who knows? Malcolm, of course, was not happy about this, seeing as he had fought really hard to win. He still had a support from the English soldiers, so he chased Lulach, if the king was not to be him, then he would kill whoever it was. And Lulach was  caught and killed  by Malcolm, another victim in the long line of murdered Scots kings. As far as killing their kings went, the Scots seemed to be pretty good at it, perhaps better than the English.

Three years after Dunsinane, MacBeth was finally cornered and killed at Lumphanen and his 17 year reign came to an end. There has to be a moral to this story, that being: ‘you will get yours eventually’. And whatever happened, Malcolm was eventually crowned, not because it was his birthright, but because of the tanistry system that operated in Scotland at this time in which a male successor was elected from among the royal family including extended branches – much like the Anglo-Saxon aethelings. 

References

Primary Sources

AS Chronicle C (Abingdon)

AS Chronicle D (Worcester)

Florence of Worcester

The Northumbrian Chronicles

The Annals of Ulster

Secondary Sources

Stenton F 1998, Anglo Saxon England (2nd ed), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Harmsworth T 2015, 1057 – BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO HIGH DUNSINANE HILL, http://harmsworth.net/scottish-history-heritage/1057-birnam-wood-high-dunsinane-hill.html

Further Reading

Aitcheson N (1999)  MacBeth Man and Myth, Sutton Publishing Limited, Gloucestershire.