Monday, 5 September 2016

'I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book'

Henry I and Matilda, in a 14th-century genealogical roll (BL Royal MS. 14 B VI)

My latest column for History Today can be read online here. It was prompted by recent news about archaeological investigations at the site of Reading Abbey, which may result (among other things) in finding the tomb of Henry I.

I was interested to hear about this, partly because I explored Reading properly for the first time last year and was very struck by how the medieval and modern sit side-by-side in the town. The date of Henry I's death, 1135, also gave me a good excuse to quote a justly famous passage from Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum:

This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry, king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity... this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord's incarnation. We are leading our lives, or - to put it more accurately - we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.
I often think of that opening: Hic est annus qui comprehendit scriptorem, 'This is the year which holds the writer'. While the present year may enclose the historian's body, it can't limit his imagination; and so Henry casts his thoughts a thousand years backwards and forwards from his own time:

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.

But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men - let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.

I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if - as my soul strongly desires - it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.

Henry I, our historian's namesake and one of his fixed points of temporal reference here, died on 1 December 1135. He was buried at Reading Abbey, which he had founded, and which subsequently became one of the richest and most powerful religious houses in the country. After a later King Henry wrought his usual destruction, the abbey church was largely demolished, the royal founder's tomb was lost, and the remaining buildings of the extensive site fell into ruins. You can read more about the current state of the ruins and future plans for them at this site.

I have to confess that despite living not far from Reading, until last year I'd never really considered it somewhere worth visiting from a historical point of view - I'm afraid if I thought of it at all, it was probably as a place to change trains! But I was wrong: it has some very interesting features, despite its overly present major roads and rather bleak modern town centre. For one thing, it has an excellent museum, which devotes plenty of space to the story of medieval Reading and the relics of the abbey (and the later history of the area too, of course). It has on display some fantastic carved stones from the abbey, including this, which is said to be the earliest surviving depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary:

It dates to the early part of the twelfth century, the time of the abbey's foundation, and in context has fascinating significance in light of Reading's royal connections (on which see this article). The museum's other treasures include a full-size (!) replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, made in 1885 by the ladies of the Leek Embroidery Society. You can read about its story here - it's a quirky but wonderful tribute to Victorian medievalism, and well worth celebrating in the year which holds us, the 950th anniversary of 1066.

Walking around the abbey site itself, it's possible to get a very striking sense of the space occupied by the abbey and its environs. Part of the outer court of the abbey is still (as it would have been in the Middle Ages) a public space, now a park overlooked by office buildings:


(That one's called the Blade. It's Reading's most noticeable feature if you pass through on the train...)


One corner of the park is occupied by the little Victorian church of St James, which was designed by A. W. N. Pugin and built in 1837-40. Its buildings overlap with the site of the abbey church, which would have been more than three times the size of this building.


The dedication reflects a link with the medieval abbey: Reading Abbey possessed the hand of St James, an important relic and a great attraction to pilgrims. St James' claims to be the only Catholic church in England to stand on the site of a pre-Reformation abbey.


Just next door, as it were, are the standing ruins of the abbey. They were closed to the public when I was there (for safety reasons; you can take a tour, though).



There are parts remaining of the chapter house and the cloister, where we might imagine the monks humming 'Summer is icumen in...


There's also the abbey gatehouse, where Jane Austen was briefly at school:


Behind the gatehouse, still within the former precincts of the abbey, the scene quickly gets less picturesque: office buildings, chain restaurants, Reading Crown Court. Hidden among them is the abbey's mill stream, and a few fragments of older buildings.


This is a bit of the old abbey mill, stranded among skyscrapers.


It stands right at the foot of the Blade - as sharp a juxtaposition of old and new as you could ever wish to see.


I was there on a Saturday afternoon, so these buildings were all empty and a little bit ghostly; it was a relief to get away from that glaring glass, back to the ruins and the nearby river. The riverside walk is now a memorial to Oscar Wilde, whose Reading Gaol stood next to the ruins of the abbey.



Away from the abbey itself, Reading is well-provided with churches. I visited the town during the Heritage Open Days weekend, so they were all open and very friendly and welcoming (that's next week this year, should you wish to repeat my experience!).

This is the church of St Giles, whose vicar was killed alongside the last Abbot of Reading, Hugh Faringdon, before the abbey gatehouse in 1539. The present-day church commemorates him as a martyr.


In the centre of town is St Mary's, which they call Reading Minster. The church guide says 'Tradition has it that St Birinus founded a small chapel on the site of St Mary's church in the 7th century', which would make it one of the oldest churches in the area. Tradition also says that a nunnery was founded here by Queen Ælfthryth, wife of King Edgar, in penance for her involvement in the murder of her stepson, young Edward the Martyr. Ælfthryth was a patron of several religious communities for women (whether in penance or not it's not easy to say), and this takes Reading's royal connections back another 150 years or so before Henry I.


St Mary's inherited various furnishings from the abbey after it was closed, including doorways, pillars, and roof timbers. It also has a gorgeous checkerboard tower:


It's right in the middle of town, and the doors were flung wide open, so that passers-by were freely wandering in and out. Both these churches (and St James' too) felt loved and cared-for, in their different ways, and very much alive - one had a wedding going on, another had many little candles flickering before a series of shrines, another a small group praying quietly together. It really is remarkable to think about such things going on in these places, century after century, as royal abbeys and empires rise and fall.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

'On hærfeste ham gelædeð': Anglo-Saxon Harvests

Harvesting sheaves in the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f.232), illustrating Psalm 125/6

In some early medieval calendars, including those followed by the learned scholars of Anglo-Saxon England, August 7 is the first day of autumn. We are halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox; midsummer was (by their reckoning) exactly six weeks ago, and in my part of England at least there's a distinctly autumnal feel in the air. In Old English autumn is hærfest, and the beginning of autumn coincides with the beginning of the harvest: August 1 was Lammas, the 'feast of bread', the earliest festival of the wheat harvest when loaves made from the first corn were blessed. Six nights later comes autumn itself, as the Old English Menologium describes:

And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Weodmonað on tun, welhwær bringeð
Agustus yrmenþeodum
hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð
ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,
wlitig, wæstmum hladen; wela byð geywed
fægere on foldan.

And [after the feast of St James] after seven nights
of summer's brightness Weed-month slips
into the dwellings, everywhere August brings
to all peoples Lammas Day. So the harvest comes,
after that number of nights but one [i.e. on August 7],
bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed,
beautiful upon the earth.

I discussed the Menologium's lush picture of August in this post, but I can't resist pointing out again that the description of autumn as wæstmum hladen, 'laden with fruits', employs the same word as two of the most famous descriptors of autumn in English poetry: Blake's praise of 'Autumn, laden with fruit' and Keats, of course, for whom Autumn conspires to 'load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run'. Though more concise than the Romantics, Old English poetry is no less rich in pen-portraits of the natural world, so in this post we'll look at one or two more brief descriptions of harvest in Old English literature.

Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f.233v, illustrating the fruits and vines of Psalm 127/8

As well as being laden with fruits, autumn is full of plenty, wela, 'wealth, abundance'. In the words of Maxims II, it's hreðeadegost, the season of all the four 'most blessed with glory':

Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost - he byð lengest ceald -
sumor sunwlitegost, swegel byð hatost,
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð. 

Winter is coldest,
spring frostiest - it is the longest cold -
summer sun-brightest, the sun is hottest,
harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men
the year's fruits, which God sends them.

If you learn nothing else from this post, you'll learn the Old English word wæstm! It means 'growth, increase', and therefore is translated here as 'fruits' of the earth in the broadest sense. Fruits of the 'year', actually, which calls to mind the description of harvest in the Old English Rune Poem, in the little verse attached to the rune Ger. The name of the rune is related to our word 'year' but here apparently means something like 'harvest', perhaps 'the yield of the year':

Ger byþ gumena hiht, ðon god læteþ,
halig heofones cyning, hrusan syllan
beorhte bleda beornum and ðearfum.

Harvest is a joy to men, when God,
holy king of the heavens, causes the earth
to give bright fruits for nobles and the needy.

blæd is another useful bit of Old English harvest-vocabulary: it can refer to blossoms and leaves as well as fruit, all kinds of things which bloom and flourish.


Here's a longer description of harvest from The Phoenix, a poem preserved in the Exeter Book. This poem describes the legend of the regenerating phoenix (based on a Latin source), which is interpreted as an allegory of Christ's resurrection and of the rebirth of the redeemed human soul. It also contains some of the loveliest descriptions of the natural world to be found in Old English poetry: the phoenix lives in a paradise of eternal summer, but this allows the poet to sketch beautiful little vignettes both of that glorious summer and of the winters and autumns and springs of this earth, which never touch that land.

A translation of the whole poem can be found here. The following extract (lines 240-259) comes after the poem has told how the rebirth of the phoenix is kindled by the intense heat of the summer, 'when the sun at its hottest, jewel of the heavens, shines above the shadows'.

Þonne bræd weorþeð
eal edniwe eft acenned,
synnum asundrad, sumes onlice
swa mon to ondleofne eorðan wæstmas
on hærfeste ham gelædeð,
wiste wynsume, ær wintres cyme,
on rypes timan, þy læs hi renes scur
awyrde under wolcnum; þær hi wraðe metað,
fodorþege gefean, þonne forst ond snaw
mid ofermægne eorþan þeccað
wintergewædum. Of þam wæstmum sceal
eorla eadwela eft alædan
þurh cornes gecynd, þe ær clæne bið
sæd onsawen. Þonne sunnan glæm
on lenctenne, lifes tacen,
weceð woruldgestreon, þæt þa wæstmas beoð
þurh agne gecynd eft acende,
foldan frætwe. Swa se fugel weorþeð,
gomel æfter gearum, geong edniwe,
flæsce bifongen.

At that time the flesh becomes
born again, entirely renewed,
sundered from sins; somewhat like
how in harvest people carry home
the fruits of the earth for sustenance,
pleasant nourishment, before winter comes,
in the reaping time, lest the showers of rain
destroy them beneath the clouds. There they find sustenance,
joy in feasting, when frost and snow
with overwhelming force wrap the earth
in winter garments. From those fruits
shall spring again the blessed plenty of men,
according to the nature of the corn which first is sown
as pure seed, when the sun's light,
life's sign, in spring
wakes the world's wealth, so that these fruits,
according to their own nature are born again,
the ornaments of the earth. In this way the bird,
old after years, becomes young again,
clad in flesh anew.

We've already seen harvest described as a time of wela and ead, 'wealth' and 'blessing, richness', and here it's both: eorla eadwela, 'the blessed plenty of men'. This period of abundance is joyous and beautiful but necessary, too, as the harvesters lay in a store of sustenance for the winter months ahead, when frost and snow will 'wrap the earth in winter weeds' (wintergewæde - fantastic word!). There's emphasis on both the necessity and the pleasure of eating: food is sustenance (ondleofa, wraðu) but feasting is also wynsum and a time of gefea, which both suggest joy and pleasure. Hence harvest festivals, and the celebration still often today called 'harvest home' - it's nice to see that familiar alliterative collocation in this extract of harvest and home (on hærfeste ham gelædeð).

Harvest, from an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f.6v)

The first three images in this post are from illustrated psalters, two of which depict verses from Psalm 125/6: 'They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed, shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him'. This is how an Old English poet turned those verses into poetry (from the Paris Psalter):

Þa her on tornlicum tearum sawað,
hi eft fægerum gefean sniðað;
gangende and ferende georne wepað
and heora sylfra sæd sniðað æfter,
cumað þonne mid cumendum cuðe mid blisse
and on heora sceafas berað, swa hi gesamnedon.

Those who sow here with grievous tears
will reap again with beautiful rejoicing,
going forth earnestly weeping
and afterwards they will reap their own seed,
returning they will come with joy
and bear their sheaves, which they have gathered.

It would be remiss to spot the word sceafas, even in this Biblical context, and not mention the connection between sheaves and one of the most important (if obscure) legendary heroes of Anglo-Saxon literature: Scyld Sceafing, the great king of the opening lines of Beowulf. Scyld is an ancestor of the royal houses of Wessex and Denmark, and seems to be the son of a figure named Sceaf, a name which means sheaf, as in corn. According to one version of the story, Sceaf (or Scyld himself) was found as a child drifting in an open boat with a sheaf of corn at his head. Taken ashore, he grew and flourished and became a famous king, in whose time there was great prosperity. On his death his people returned him to the waves, sent out to sea in a boat laden with treasure. He left a son named Beow (which means 'barley) of whom Beowulf says 'blæd wide sprang' - his 'fame spread far and wide', but with a pun on the word I mentioned earlier, blæd, 'growth, harvest'. Somewhere amid this conflicting mass of legend we can probably discern a pre-Christian fertility myth - an Anglo-Saxon hero of the harvest.


To close with prose rather than poetry, the description in The Phoenix of yearly rebirth reminded me of a passage from the Old English version of Augustine's Soliloquies:

Ðu recst þæt gear and redst þurh þæt gewrixle þara feower tyda, þæt ys, lencten and sumer and herfest and winter; þara wrixlað ælc wyð oððer and hwerfiað, swa þat heora ægðer byð eft emne þat þæt hyt ær wæs, and þær þær hyt ær wes; and swa wrixlað eall tunglai and hwerfiað on þam ylcan wisan, and eft se and ea; on ða ylcan wisan hweorfiað ealle gesceafta. Wrixliað sume þa on oððer wyssan swa þat þa ylcan eft ne cumað þær ðær hy er weron, eallunga swa swa hy er weron, ac cumað oðre for hy, swa swa leaf on treowum, and æpla, græs, and wyrtan, and treoweu foraldiað and forseriað and cumað oððer, grenu wexað, and gearwað, and ripað; for þat hy eft onginnað searian. And swa eall nytenu and fugelas swelces ðe nu ys lang eall to arimmane. Ge furþum manna lichaman forealdiað, swa swa oðre gesceaftas ealdiað; ac swa swa hy ær wurðlicor lybbað þonne treowu oðþe oðre nytenu, swa hy eac weorðfulicor arisað on domes dæge, swa þæt nefre syððan þa lichaman ne geendiað ne ne forealdiað.

You rule the year, and govern it through the turning of the four seasons, that is, spring and summer and autumn and winter. These change places, each with another, and turn so that each of them is again exactly what it was before, and where it was before; and likewise all stars turn and change in the same way, and the sea and rivers too. In this way all created things undergo change. But some change in another way, such that the same thing does not come again where it was before, or exactly as it was before, but another comes in its place; as leaves on the trees, and fruits, grass, and plants and trees grow old and dry, and others come, grow green, and reach maturity, and ripen, and with that begin again to wither. And just so do all beasts and birds, in such a way that it would take too long to reckon them all now. And indeed the bodies of men grow old, just as other created things grow old; but just as their lives are more valuable than those of trees or other animals, so they will more worthily arise on Judgement Day, so that never again will the body come to an end or grow old.

grenu wexað, and gearwað, and ripað, for þat hy eft onginnað searian - 'grow green, and reach maturity, and ripen, and with that begin again to wither'. That's a later stage of autumn, explored in this post on the fall of the leaves. Elsewhere on this blog you can also find posts for the beginning of winter on 7 November, spring on 7 February, and summer on 9 May, looking at how those seasons are described in some Anglo-Saxon poems.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 11: The Battle of Sherston

The Battle of Sherston in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f.67)

This week marks the 1000th anniversary of one of the most important battles of the Danish Conquest, fought at Sherston in Wiltshire on or around 25-26 June 1016. The Battle of Sherston might be largely forgotten today - though its anniversary is being commemorated in the village this weekend - but it features prominently in medieval narratives of Cnut's conquest of England. In this post we'll look at some of the many accounts of this battle, both the history and (perhaps more interesting!) the legend.

As we saw in the last post in this series, after the death of King Æthelred on 23 April, his son Edmund Ironside was left to lead the English defence against the Danes. Cnut's forces besieged London, unsuccessfully, and then fought a succession of battles with Edmund's army across the south of England during the summer and autumn of 1016. The first major engagements were in the south-west, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E):

Þa wæs Eadmund cyng ær þam gewend ut. 7 gerad þa West Seaxan. 7 him beah eall folc to. 7 raðe æfter þam he gefeaht wið þone here æt Peonnan wið Gillinga. 7 oðer gefeoht he gefeaht æfter middan sumera æt Sceortstane. 7 þær mycel wæll feoll on ægðre healfe. 7 þa heres him sylfe toeodon on ðam gefeohte. 7 Eadric ealdorman 7 Ælmær Deorlingc wæron þam here on fultume ongean Eadmund cyng.

Then King Edmund had gone out before that [the siege of London] and rode into Wessex, and all that people submitted to him. And quickly after that he fought against the army at Penselwood near Gillingham, and he fought another battle after midsummer [June 24] at Sherston. There was great slaughter on both sides, and the armies themselves broke off the fight. Ealdorman Eadric and Ælfmær Darling were aiding the army against King Edmund.

Sherston is near the Fosse Way, a few miles west of Malmesbury. This was the first major battle between the armies led by Cnut and Edmund, but the outcome was apparently unclear; 'the armies themselves broke off the fight', and sources disagree on who gained the advantage. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, whose version of events we can now rejoin for the first time since September's installment, as usual provides a story sympathetic to Cnut and the Danes. (This text was written for Cnut's queen in the 1040s, and probably drew its information in part from the memories of people who took part in the conquest.) For the Encomium, the battle at Sherston was a great victory for the Danish army, and it was won by one of Cnut's most experienced warriors, Thorkell the Tall, on behalf of his young king:

Then Thorkell, observing the time to have come when he could demonstrate his fidelity to his lord, said: "I will undertake to win this fight for my lord with my troops, and will not permit my king to be involved in this battle, very eager to fight as he is, inasmuch as he is a youth. For if I be victorious, I will win on the king's own behalf; but if I fall or turn my back, it will not be to the glory of the English, for the reason that the king will be left, and he will give battle again, and perhaps as a victor will avenge my injuries." Since this seemed to all to be good reasoning, he disembarked with the king's approval, and directed his force against the army of the English, which was then assembled at the place called Sherston.

The Danish army had disembarked from forty ships and more, but still this number was by no means equal to half the enemy. But the leader, relying on courage rather than numbers, sounded the trumpets without delay, and advancing in the forefront and ever praying in his heart for the help of God, laid low all that came in his way with the sword's point. The English, indeed, were the more bold at first, and cut down the Danes with terrible slaughter, to such an extent, that they nearly won the victory and would have compelled their enemies to flee, if the latter, held back by their leader's words and being mindful of their own bravery, had not regarded flight with shame. For he mentioned that there was no place to which they might flee, that they were, of course, foes in the land, and that their ships were far from the shore, and that accordingly, if they should not conquer, they would necessarily fall together.

After they had been rendered of better courage by this, they forthwith showed in battle how dangerous a thing is desperation. For despairing of a refuge to which to flee, they raged on against the enemy with such madness, that you would have seen not only the bodies of the dead failing, but also of the living, as they avoided the blows. Accordingly they ultimately gained the victory which they desired, and buried such of the remains of their comrades as they could find. After they had also seized the spoils from their foes, they returned and made themselves ready for an invasion of the adjacent country.

This was the first honour which Thorkell brought to the arms of Knutr, and for this he afterwards received a large part of the country.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp. 21-3.

Sherston (source)

While the Encomium talks up Thorkell's loyalty in this battle, other versions of events at Sherston are more interested in disloyalty - specifically, the treachery of the ealdorman Eadric streona, who is roundly blamed for things going badly for the English (as we've seen before in this series). Twelfth-century English historians have various tales to tell about Sherston, most of which centre on Eadric's dirty tricks. Although dating from more than a century after the battle, these sources may preserve some older traditions; if nothing else, they develop some of the narrative possibilities implicit in the earliest sources quoted above. In the following stories, we get different versions of two points in particular: Eadric's betrayal of his king, and the fact mentioned in the Encomium that the Danes were deep in Wessex and potentially in great danger unless they could keep together ('they were foes in the land, and their ships were far from the shore...').

Let's start with John of Worcester's account of Sherston:

[Edmund] went boldly to meet them in Dorset, and in a place called Penselwood, near Gillingham, he gave them battle, won, and put them to flight. After this, when midsummer had passed, and he had mustered an army, one greater than before, he determined to fight vigorously against Cnut, whom he encountered in Hwiccia at a place called Sherston.

When he drew up his army according to the terrain and the forces he had, he moved the best soldiers into the front line, placed the rest of the army in reserve, and addressing each man by name, exhorted and entreated them to remember that they strove for their country, children, wives and homes, and with these most inspiring words he fired the soldiers' spirits. Then he ordered the trumpets to sound, and the troops to advance gradually. The enemy army did the same.

When they arrived at the place where they could join battle they rushed together with their hostile standards and with a great shout. They fought with spear and lance, striving with all their might.  Meanwhile, King Edmund Ironside made his presence felt in fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the front line. He took thought for everything; he himself fought hard, often smote the enemy; he performed at once the duties of a hardy soldier and of an able general. But, because Eadric Streona, the most treacherous ealdorman, and Ælfmær Darling, and Ælfgar, son of Meaw, who ought to have been supporting him with the men of Hampshire and Wiltshire and with an innumerable mass of people, were on the Danish side his army was quite exhausted and quite overstretched.

However, on the first day of battle, that is on Monday, so harsh and cruel was the conflict that both armies were unable for weariness to fight any longer, and they left the place at sunset of their own accord.  But on the following day, the king would have crushed all the Danes if it had not been for the wiles of Eadric Streona, the treacherous ealdorman; for, when the battle was at its height and he observed that the English were stronger, he cut off the head of a certain man called Osmear, very like King Edmund in face and hair, and raising it aloft he shouted, saying that the English fought in vain: 'You men of Dorset, Devon, Wiltshire, flee in haste, for you have lost your leader. Look, I hold here in my hands the head of your lord, King Edmund. Flee as fast you can.'

When the English perceived this they were appalled, more by the horror at the action than by any trust in the announcer, whence it happened that the waverers were on the verge of flight; but as soon as they realized that the king was alive their spirits rose, and they attacked the Danes the more fiercely, and they slew many of them, striving with all their might until dusk.  When that arrived, as on the previous day, they separated voluntarily.  But when the night was far advanced Cnut ordered his men to leave the camp silently and, going back to London, returned to his ships again, and not much later he besieged London again. However, when day came, and King Edmund Ironside perceived that the Danes had fled, he returned at once to Wessex to raise a larger army.

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, ed. and trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk (Oxford, 1995) vol. ii, pp.487-9 (paragraph breaks added).

This is taking the idea that Eadric 'aided the Danes against King Edmund' to quite an extreme! Henry of Huntingdon gives in English the words Eadric was supposed to have spoken to send the army into chaos: Flet Engle, flet Engle! Ded is Edmund! 'Flee, Englishmen! Edmund is dead!' (However, he attaches this story to the later battle of Assandun, rather than Sherston.) William of Malmesbury also blames the flight at Sherston on Eadric's wiles, although in a slightly different form:

After St John's Day [Edmund] joined battle with them again at Sherston, but it was broken off with the two sides equal, his English troops taking the first steps towards retreat under the influence of Eadric, who stood on the enemy's side brandishing a sword which he had bloodied in the battle by the bold slaughter of some country fellow, and shouting: 'Flee, flee, poor wretches! Look, this is the sword which has killed your king!' And the English would have fled immediately, had not the king heard of this and made for a prominent hill, where he took off his helmet and displayed his bare head to his fellow-soldiers. He then brandished an iron spear with all the force he could muster and hurled it at Eadric; but he saw it coming and dodged it, and it went astray and pierced the soldier who was standing next to him with such violence that it transfixed a second man as well.

Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thompson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol.i, p.315.

This ruse of tricking an army into believing their leader is dead is a common tale, and similar stories are told in medieval sources about the Battle of Hastings - though in that case it's William the invader, and not the English king, who has to display his face to prove he's still alive. There are all kinds of historical irony about that, as we'll see in a moment...

Edmund Ironside in a 14th-century manuscript (BL Royal MS 14 B VI)

Scandinavian sources also have some interesting things to say about the Battle of Sherston. It's mentioned in a poem written in praise of Cnut by the skald Óttarr svarti, which you can read in full here:

Svefn braut svǫrtum hrafni
sunnarr hvǫtuðr gunnar;
olli sókn inn snjalli
Sveins mǫgr at Skorsteini.

The urger of battle broke the sleep of the dark raven further south; the bold son of Sveinn made an attack at Sherston.

Óttarr svarti, Knútsdrápa, ed. and trans. Matthew Townend, in Diana Whaley, ed., Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages I (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), Part 2, p.774.

Here it's Cnut himself, 'the bold son of Svein', and not Thorkell, who gets all the credit. (I like the alliteration and near-rhyme of Svein and Skorstein - with this campaign Cnut was, he hoped, repeating his father's conquest of England.)

Quoting this verse, the thirteenth-century Knýtlinga saga goes on to give its own version of Sherston, which it calls 'one of the most famous battles of the time'. It has the same story that the English soldiers fled when they believed Edmund to be dead, 'and though the king shouted to them to turn back no one showed any sign of hearing him'. But more importantly, there's also has a fascinating story about the aftermath of the battle. The saga tells how one of Cnut's commanders, his brother-in-law Ulf Thorgilsson, is separated from the rest of the Danish army in the confusion, and loses himself in a forest. He comes upon a boy tending a flock of sheep, and asks him his name. The boy, whose name is Godwine, recognises Ulf as one of Cnut's men, and warns him that if any of the people living nearby find him in the forest, he'll be killed.

Ulf asks Godwine to guide him back to the Danes, and offers him a gold bracelet as a reward. Godwine refuses to take the reward - canny boy! - saying that he would rather have the earl in his debt if he manages to save his life. Godwine takes Ulf home and introduces him to his father, a prosperous farmer named Wulfnoth. (Can you see where this story is going?) The family look after him, feed him, and give him horses to get him back to the army. In return, Wulfnoth asks the earl to take Godwine with him and find him a position in service among the Danes - 'he can't stay here if the locals discover he's helped you escape', he says.

Ulf and Godwine ride off and join Cnut and the rest of the Danish army, at which point Godwine realises that the man he's helped is an important and popular earl. Ulf takes him in, and it ends with Godwine marrying Ulf's sister Gytha and eventually being made an earl when Cnut becomes king of England. He becomes, in fact, Godwine, Earl of Wessex, one of the most powerful men in eleventh-century England.

It's unlikely that much, if any, of this story is true; Godwine's father Wulfnoth was almost certainly not a farmer, but a Sussex thegn. However, it is true that Godwine married Ulf's sister, and from their marriage sprang a family which helped to reshape the ruling dynasties in both England and Scandinavia, long after the conquest we're commemorating here. The children of this Anglo-Danish union outlasted Cnut's rule in England, surviving and holding high positions throughout the reign of Edward the Confessor, with at times greater influence than the king himself. And half a century after 1016, of course, the sons and daughters of Godwine and Gytha were to be important players in another conquest of England: their daughter Edith married Edward the Confessor, and Gytha lived to see (though Godwine did not) her son Harold on the English throne.

Edith and Edward the Confessor (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f.11v)

Today this family is usually called the 'Godwinesons', a testament to their father's dominance of English politics; but Gytha seems to have been a formidable woman in her own right, and her family connections in Scandinavia were an important influence on what happened in 1066 and afterwards. Through their mother, Harold and Edith and their siblings were closely related to the royal family of Denmark, Ulf's children with Cnut's sister Estrith. Exactly fifty years after the Battle of Sherston, in the summer of 1066, Gytha was at once mother of the king of England and aunt of the king of Denmark - although it didn't last, of course. Gytha lost three of her sons in one day at the Battle of Hastings (and one at Stamford Bridge, a few weeks earlier). In 1067 she left England with some of her surviving children and grandchildren, and eventually took refuge with her nephew in Denmark. Her granddaughter, Harold's daughter (also named Gytha), married into a ruling family in Kievan Rus, while in 1069 and 1075 her nephews intervened to aid English rebellions against the Normans. As Knýtlinga saga says, 'many great men from England, Denmark, Sweden and east from Russia are descended from them [Godwine and Gytha]'.

It's not very likely that this all began with a chance encounter between Ulf and a young shepherd-boy, but it's a fascinating origin myth for this hugely important dynasty. And the really interesting thing is that one English source tells a very similar story about Godwine's humble origins: Walter Map in his De Nugis Curialium also has Godwine rising from obscurity through his unwitting attendance on a surprise guest, although in that case it's King Æthelred, who has got lost while hunting and ends up taking the attentive boy into his service. So the story in Knýtlinga saga takes on a shade more credibility; and it's not impossible that at least it was around the time of the Battle of Sherston that Godwine went over to the Danes.

Rattlebone Inn, Sherston (source)

In any case, there were clearly plenty of stories circulating about the Battle of Sherston in the twelfth and thirteenth century, if not before. And later, too: local tradition in Sherston still tells of a man called John Rattlebone, who supposedly fought for Edmund's side against the Danes. This story is first recorded in the seventeenth century by John Aubrey, who says that a small carved figure in Sherston church was believed to represent Rattlebone, and that 'the old women and children have these verses by tradition':

Fight well, Rattlebone,
Thou shalt have Sherston.
What shall I with Sherston do
Without I have all belongs thereto?
Thou shalt have Wych and Wellesley
Easton Town and Pinkeney.

This verse is said to represent what Edmund promised Rattlebone to persuade him to fight. In the battle Rattlebone was mortally wounded, but staunched the flow of blood by pressing a stone tile to his wound, and fought to the bitter end (the pub sign above illustrates him doing so). What a splendid legend - I do like the thought of doughty John Rattlebone going up against Thorkell and Ulf!

Saturday, 14 May 2016

The fiftieth day and 'the tranquility of greatest peace': Bede on Pentecost

The giving of the law to Moses, next to Pentecost in a 'typological picture-book', c.1405 (BL King's 5, f. 27)

This year we have been living through a rare series of dates which would have delighted a medieval expert on the calendar. As I discussed a few months ago, Good Friday fell this year on March 25, which was traditionally believed to be the historical date of both the Crucifixion and the Annunciation. All subsequent dates which are dependent on Easter have therefore also fallen this year on their 'true' dates, including the Feast of the Ascension (May 5) and tomorrow's feast, Pentecost, which is on its supposed historical date of May 15.

From an early date in church tradition, other important events in salvation history were aligned with these significant dates, with which they were typologically linked: March 25 was said to be not only the date of the Crucifixion and the Annunciation to Mary, but also Old Testament events which foreshadowed Christ's death, such as Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, the crossing of the Red Sea, and so on. However, from the very beginning Pentecost already commemorated two anniversaries which link the Old Testament and the New: it takes its date from the Jewish festival celebrated fifty days after Passover, marking the day when the law was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and therefore subsequently the date fifty days after Easter when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. It's a double anniversary in more ways than one.

In case it's of interest, here are two short extracts of texts from Anglo-Saxon England which touch on the connection between the Old and New Testament events celebrated at Pentecost. First a section from the Old English Martyrology, in its entry for May 15 (text from here, with my translation):

On þone fifteogðan dæg þæs monðes bið se micla dæg þe is nemned Pentecosten. Se dæg wæs mære on þære ealdan æ ær Cristes cyme, forðon þe on þone dæg God spræc to Moyse of heofonum geherendum eallum Israhela folce. Ond þy dæge God sealde his æ ond his bebodu þæm ylcan folce on twam stænenum bredum awritene on Sinai þære dune; ond eft æfter Cristes uppastignesse to heofonum þy ilcan dæge he onsænde his þegnum þone halgan gast, ond ealra þara monna wæs on anum huse hundteontig ond twentig. Þa færinga wæs geworden sweg of heofonum swa swa stranges windes sweg: ond se sweg gefylde þæt hus þær hi sæton, ond ofer heora ælcne onsundran sæt swa swa fyr, ond hi mihton þa sona sprecan on æghwelc þara geþeoda þe under heofonum is; ond þa hælendes þegnas mihtan siððan don heofonlico wundor þurh þone gast. Þæm gaste æghwelc gefullwad man nu onfehð þurh biscopa handa onsetenesse, ond se gast wunað mid æghwelcne þara þe god deð, ond he gefyhð on þæs clænan mannes heortan swa swa culfre, þonne heo baðað on smyltum wætre on hluttere wællan.

On the fifteenth day of the month is the great day which is called Pentecost. This day was celebrated in the Old Law before Christ’s coming, because on this day God spoke to Moses from heaven, in the hearing of all the people of Israel. And on this day God gave his law and his commandments to that people, written on two stone tablets, on the mountain of Sinai. And again, after Christ’s ascension into heaven, on that same day he sent the Holy Spirit on his followers, and all the people who were in the house, one hundred and twenty. Then suddenly there came a noise from heaven like the noise of a strong wind, and the noise filled the house where they were sitting, and over each of them individually there rested something in the likeness of fire. And at once they were able to speak in every one of the languages which are under heaven, and the Saviour’s followers were afterwards able to perform heavenly miracles through that spirit. Every baptised person now receives that Spirit through the laying-on of the bishop’s hands, and the Spirit dwells with all those who do good; and it rejoices in the heart of the pure man, like the dove when she bathes in quiet water in a clear well-spring.

That last sentence is just beautiful. While the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a noisy rush of sound and fire (swa swa stranges windes sweg, 'like the noise of a strong wind'), the indwelling Spirit conferred at baptism is calm and peaceful as a dove, bathing in the clear and cleansing waters, which are described as hlutor 'clear, pure, bright'.

Those waters are surely meant to evoke baptism, since Pentecost was traditionally a time when baptisms took place. (The English name for the feast, Whitsun, is often said to derive from the white garments worn by the newly-baptised.) As Bede says in his homily for Pentecost:

In order to stamp the memory of this more firmly on the hearts of believers, a beautiful custom of holy Church has grown up, so that each year the mysteries of baptism are celebrated on this day, and as a result a venerable temple is made ready for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon those who believe and are cleansed at the salvation-bearing baptismal font. In this way we celebrate not only the recollection of a former happening, but also a new coming in the font of the Holy Spirit upon new children by adoption.
Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels: Book Two, Lent to the Dedication of a Church, trans. Lawrence Martin and David Hurst (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1991), pp.170-1.

In his Historia Ecclesiastica, Bede provides some examples of the early Anglo-Saxon church conforming to this practice: the baby girl he calls 'the first of the people of the Northumbrians to be baptised', Eanflæd, daughter of King Edwin of Northumbria and his wife Æthelburh, was baptised with a number of others on Whitsunday in 626.

The Pentecostal dove, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Add. 49598, f.67v)

To stay with Bede: the Martyrology's restful image of the dove, bathing in calm joy in the quiet waters of the heart, calls to mind Bede's discussion of 'rest' in his homily for Pentecost. In a virtuoso combination of mathematics and mystery, Bede describes the relationship between the descent of the Spirit and the giving of the Law to Moses, and explains how the number fifty, which establishes both dates, can be interpreted to represent the rest of heaven. After commenting on baptism, he says:

Therefore, you dear ones, be attentive to how the type and figure of the feast of the law is in agreement with our festivity. When the children of Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt by the immolation of the paschal lamb, they went out through the desert so that they might come to the promised land, and they reached Mount Sinai. On the fiftieth day after the Passover, the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire, accompanied by the sound of a trumpet and thunder and lightning, and with a clear voice he laid out for them the ten commandments of the law. As a memorial of the law he had given, he established a sacrifice to himself from the first-fruits of that year, to be celebrated annually on that day... The law was given on the fiftieth day after the slaying of the lamb, when the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire; likewise on the fiftieth day after the resurrection of our Redeemer, which is today, the grace of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples as they were assembled in the upper room.
He draws a parallel between going 'up' the mountain and the 'upper room'; like Moses and the disciples, anyone who wishes to receive the Spirit must leave behind the things below and ascend to the heights.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, framed like a Pentecost scene (BL Sloane 346, f. 36)

Bede goes on:

[It] was not without deep significance that the number fifty was observed in the giving both of the law and of grace. It was on the fiftieth day after Passover that the former was given to the people on the mountain, and the latter to the disciples in the upper room. By this number the long-lasting quality of our future rest was surely being shown, since on this fiftieth day the ten commandments of the law were delivered, and the grace of the Holy Spirit was given to human beings. This was to point out clearly that all who carry out the commands of the divine law with the help of the grace of the Spirit are directing their course toward true rest. In the law, the fiftieth year was ordered to be called the year of jubilee, that is, ‘forgiving’ or ‘changed’. During it the people were to remain at rest from all work, the debts of all were to be cancelled, slaves were to go free, and the year itself was to be more notable than other years because of its greater solemnities and divine praises. Therefore, by this number is rightly indicated that tranquility of greatest peace when, as the Apostle says, at the sound of the last trumpet the dead will rise and we shall be changed into glory. Then, when the labours and hardships of this age come to an end, and our debts, that is all our faults, have been forgiven, the entire people of the elect will rejoice eternally in the sole contemplation of the divine vision, and that most longed-for command of our Lord and Saviour will be fulfilled: Be still and see that I am God.

Since it is only by observance of the heavenly commands and the gift of the Holy Spirit that this stillness and vision of unchangeable Truth is reached, both the law of the ten commandments and the grace of the Spirit were given on that particular one of the days which designates rest. Nor is it to be passed over that this number fifty is appropriate to signify inward tranquility, for it is arrived at by multiplying seven times seven and adding one. Under the law the people were ordered to work for six days and to rest on the seventh, and to plow and reap for six years and desist during the seventh, because the Lord completed the creation of the world in six days and desisted from his work on the seventh. Mystically speaking, we are counselled by all this that those who in this age (which is comprised of six periods) devote themselves to good works for the Lord’s sake are in future led by the Lord to a sabbath, that is, to eternal rest.

The fact that the seven days or years are multiplied by seven indicates the manifold abundance of this rest, in which there will be given to the elect that sublime reward concerning which the Apostle exclaims, Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it occurred to the heart of man what things God has prepared for those who love him... The grace of the same Spirit is well described by the prophet as being sevenfold, since it is through his inspiration that one arrives at rest, and in the full partaking of and sight of him true rest is reached...

A person who trusts that he can find rest in the delights and abundance of earthly things is deceiving himself. By the frequent disorders of the world, and at last by its end, such a one is proven convincingly to have laid the foundation of his tranquility upon sand. But all those who have been breathed upon by the Holy Spirit, and have taken upon themselves the very pleasant yoke of the Lord’s love, and following his example, learned to be gentle and humble of heart, enjoy even in the present some image of the future tranquility.
Homilies on the Gospels, trans. Martin and Hurst, pp.171-6.

'Seven multiplied by seven suggests the perfection of that rest which will never be brought to an end or marred by any blemish... One is added to seven-times-seven... and thus the number fifty is perfectly completed.’ Such calculations as this don't feature much in sermons today, at least not in any I've ever heard; but if they don't appeal to you, bear in mind that the purpose of such detailed observation of times and dates is explicitly to point beyond time to eternity, to a place where anniversaries, numbers, and calendars are no more. As Bede says in his preceding homily, after explaining the significance of all his complicated fours, sevens, forties, and fifties:

We might be prompted in a pleasing way, by this annual festive celebration, to enkindle our desire always to obtain and hold fast to festal times that are not annual but uninterrupted, not earthly but heavenly. Our true bliss is to be sought not in the present time of our mortality, but in the eternity of our future incorruption – the solemnity where, after all our anguish has ceased, our life will be led totally in the vision and praise of God.

Homilies on the Gospels, trans. Martin and Hurst, p.156.

'The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles', marked on 15 May in a 12th-century calendar
(BL Lansdowne 383, f. 5)

See this post for a Pentecost sermon by Ælfric and some Old English poetry on the gifts of the Spirit, and here for a beautiful Middle English version of 'Veni Creator Spiritus'.

The Danish Conquest, Part 10: The Siege of London

Ða gelamp hit þæt se cyning æþelred forðferde ær ða scypo comon, he geendode his dagas on Sancte Georgius mæssedæg æfter myclum geswince 7 earfoðnyssum his lifes. 7 þa æfter his ende ealle þa witan þe on Lundene wæron 7 seo buruhwaru gecuron Eadmunde to cyninge, 7 he his rice heardlice wærode þa hwila þe his tima wæs. Þa comon þa scipo to Grenawic to þam gandagum, 7 binnan litlan fæce wendon to Lundene 7 dulfon þa ane micle dic on suðhealfe, 7 drogon hera scipo on westhealfe þære bricge, 7 bedicodon þa syððan, 7 þa buruh utan, þæt nan man ne mihte ne inn ne ut, 7 oftrædlice on þa buruh fuhton, ac hi him heardlice wiðstodon. Þa wæs Eadmund cyng ær þan gewend ut 7 geard þa Westseaxon, 7 him beah eall þæt folc to.

'Then it happened that King Æthelred died before the ships came. He ended his days on St George’s Day, after great labour and difficulties in his life. And then after his death all the witan who were in London, and the garrison, chose Edmund as king, and he held his kingdom stoutly while his time lasted. Then the ships came to Greenwich during the Rogation Days, and within a short time turned to London and dug a great ditch on the south side, and dragged their ships to the west side of the bridge, and then built a dyke around the town so that no one could get in or out. They frequently attacked the town, but it stoutly withstood them. King Edmund had previously got out, and went to Wessex, and all the people there submitted to him.'

This is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's description of the events of April-May 1016, picking up where we left it a month ago. After Cnut had obtained the submission of the north, by fair means or foul, the war shifted south again to London, where King Æthelred had been holed up for the past few months. And there he died, on St George's Day, after a reign of 38 years (minus one brief interruption) - one of the longest reigns of any English monarch, despite all his 'labour and difficulties'.

With hindsight, it seems especially ironic to a modern reader that Æthelred, remembered to history as the 'unready' unwarlike king, should die on the feast of such a martial saint. However, St George was not, of course, England's patron saint in the Anglo-Saxon period, so the irony would perhaps not have been so apparent to an eleventh-century reader. But there's plenty of hindsight at play already in this entry, which was clearly written not just after Æthelred's death but after the death of Edmund, too. We get here comments which serve almost as epitaphs for the two kings: Æthelred and Edmund respectively had 'great labour and difficulties in his life' and 'held his kingdom stoutly while his time lasted' - pretty kind judgements, really, especially when compared with the kind of epitaph Æthelred was getting a century or so later (this is from John of Worcester):

At that time, on Monday, 23 April, in the fourteenth indiction, Æthelred, king of the English, died, after the great toils and many tribulations of his life. These St Dunstan had prophetically announced could come upon him when he, on the day of his coronation, had placed the crown upon his head: ‘Because,’ he said, ‘you obtained the kingdom through the death of your brother, whom your mother killed; hear therefore the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord, ‘The sword shall not depart from thine house, raging against thee all the days of thy life’, slaying those of your seed until your kingdom is given to an alien power whose customs and tongue the people you rule do not know; and your sin and your mother’s sin and the sin of the men who committed murder at the wicked woman’s advice will not be expiated except by long-continued punishment.’ His body was honourably buried in the church of St Paul the Apostle.

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, ed. and trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk (Oxford, 1995) vol. ii, p.485.

This prophecy, which in this storming Old Testament form derives from the fertile imagination of Dunstan's hagiographer Osbern of Canterbury, literally became poor Æthelred's epitaph. Æthelred was buried at St Paul’s (where the most recent high-profile victim of the Vikings, St Ælfheah, also lay), and by the later medieval period his tomb had an inscription quoting Dunstan's prophecy. The tomb was destroyed in 1666 in the Great Fire of London, but the inscription can be read here, and it looked like this:


Anyway, very soon after Æthelred's death the Danish army set about to besiege London. They arrived during the Rogation Days, the three days before Ascension Day, which were on 7-9 May in 1016. They dragged their ships to the west of London Bridge, presumably because the bridge itself was heavily defended, and then bedicodon 'bedyked' the city.

At this point we can return to a source which has been absent from this series for a while, the Encomium Emmae Reginae. The Encomium (as a reminder) was written in 1041-2 for Queen Emma, who was by then Cnut's widow, though in 1016 she was newly Æthelred's. It's been suggested that Emma herself was in London during the siege, though if that was the case it isn't mentioned in the Encomium. Its chronology of this period is a bit confused, but it does describe the siege of London, saying that Cnut

ordered the city of London, the capital of the country, to be besieged, because the chief men and part of the army had fled into it, and also a very great number of common people, for it is a most populous place. And because infantry and cavalry could not accomplish this, for the city is surrounded on all sides by a river, which is in a sense equal to the sea, he caused it to be shut in with towered ships, and held it in a very strong circumvallation.

And so God, who wishes to save all men rather than to lose them, seeing these natives to be pressed by such great danger, took away from the body the prince who was in command of the city within, and gave him to everlasting rest, that at his decease free ingress might be open to Knútr, and that with the conclusion of peace the two peoples might have for a time an opportunity to recover. And this came to pass. For the citizens, having given their prince honourable burial, and having adopted a sound plan, decided to send messengers and intimate their decision to the king, that is to say, that he should give them his pledge of friendship, and should take peaceful possession of the city. This occurred at a time when it seemed acceptable enough to Knútr, and a treaty was made, a day being arranged for his entry.

But part of the garrison spurned the decision of the citizens, and in the night preceding the day on which the king made his entry, left the city secretly with the son of the deceased prince, in order to collect a very large force again, and try if they could perhaps expel the invading king from their country. And they did not rest till they had assembled nearly all the English who were still inclined to them rather than to Knútr. Knútr, however, entered the city and sat on the throne of the kingdom. But he, nevertheless, did not believe that the Londoners were yet true to him, and, accordingly, he had the equipment of his ships renewed that summer, lest if the army of his foes happened to besiege the city, he should be delivered by the foes within to those without and perish. Guarding against this, he again retired for the moment like a wise man, and having gone on board his ships, he left the city and went to the island called Sheppey with his followers, and wintered there, peacefully awaiting the outcome of the matter.

And so Eadmund - for so the youth who had collected the army was called - when Knútr retired, came with an army not insignificant but immense, and entered the city in state. Soon all followed him, obeyed him, and bestowed their favour upon him, and urged him to be a bold man, declaring that he rather than the prince of the Danes was their choice.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp. 23-5.

Note that the Encomium - notoriously - does not name Æthelred, 'the prince who was in command of the city', even though he was the first husband of the woman for whom this text was written. Apparently Emma preferred not to mention him; but Edmund (her stepson) is described favourably here and throughout the account of Cnut's invasion.

Viking weapons of this date found in the Thames near London Bridge (Museum of London)

Despite what the Encomium says, Cnut did not enter London at this point; the Danish army besieged London on at least three separate occasions in the summer of 1016, and never captured it (each time ‘Almighty God rescued it’, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says). But the Danes don’t seem to have regarded this as a failure, at least judging by the skaldic poems, which are jubilant about the attacks on London. The anonymous poem Liðsmannaflokkr, ostensibly the voice of a rank-and-file soldier fighting among the Danish army during the siege, adds a splash of brilliant colour to the more sober accounts above. Here are one or two highlights (from this site, where you can find the whole poem):

Gǫngum upp, áðr Engla
ættlǫnd farin rǫndu
morðs ok miklar ferðir
malmregns stafar fregni.
Verum hugrakkir hlakkar;
hristum spjót ok skjótum;
leggr fyr órum eggjum
Engla gnótt á flótta.

Let us go ashore, before the staves of the metal-rain [BATTLE > WARRIORS] and large militias of killing learn that the ancestral lands of the English are traversed with the shield. Let us be brave-minded in battle; let us brandish spears and shoot [them]; an ample number of the English takes to flight before our blades.

Margr ferr Ullr í illan
oddsennu dag þenna
frár, þars fœddir órum,
fornan serk, ok bornir.
Enn á enskra manna
ǫlum gjóð Hnikars blóði...

Many a fierce Ullr (god) of the point-quarrel [BATTLE > WARRIOR] gets this day into the foul old shirt in which we were born and brought up. Once again let us nourish the osprey of Hnikarr (= Óðinn) [RAVEN] on the blood of English men...

Knútr réð ok bað bíða
(baugstalls) Dani alla;
(lundr gekk rǫskr und randir
ríkr) vá herr við díki.
Nær vas, sveit þars sóttum,
Syn, með hjalm ok brynju,
elds sem olmum heldi
elg Rennandi kennir.

Knútr decided and commanded all the Danes to wait; the mighty tree of the ring-support [SHIELD > WARRIOR = Knútr] went, brave, under the shields; the army fought by the moat. Syn [lady], it was nearly as if the master of the fire of Rennandi (river) [GOLD > MAN] were holding a maddened elk, where we attacked the army with helmet and mail-shirt.

Út mun ekkja líta
— opt glóa vôpn á lopti
of hjalmtǫmum hilmi —
hrein, sús býr í steini,
hvé sigrfíkinn sœkir
snarla borgar karla
— dynr á brezkum brynjum
blóðíss — Dana vísi.

The chaste widow who lives in stone will look out — weapons often glint in the air above the helmet-wearing ruler — [seeing] how the victory-avid leader of the Danes [DANISH KING = Knútr] attacks sharply the men of the city; the blood-ice [SWORD] clangs against British mail-shirts.

Hvern morgin sér horna
Hlǫkk á Tempsar bakka
— skalat Hanga má hungra —
hjalmskóð roðin blóði.

Every morning the Hlǫkk (valkyrie) of drinking horns [WOMAN] sees the helmet-destroyers [SWORDS] reddened with blood on the bank of the Thames; the seagull of Hangi ( = Óðinn) [RAVEN/EAGLE] must not go hungry.

‘holding a maddened elk’ – you don’t get that in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle! Amazing. Note that the army are fighting við díki, 'by the moat/dyke', with which the Danes had bedyked London. It's been suggested that the 'chaste widow' is Queen Emma herself, looking out from London's stone walls at the valiant young Danish king, while Odin's ravens feed on the blood of the English...


A Viking siege (in this case of Canterbury) from a 12th-century window in Canterbury Cathedral

So Cnut is near London and Edmund is in Wessex, both now accepted as king by some part of the country. We’ll be back at Midsummer for the commencement of some dramatic battles, and the first appearance of Earl Godwine...

Friday, 13 May 2016

'Lost Literature' and the companions of Hereward


My latest column in the May issue of History Today can now be read online here. (Or you could always subscribe to the magazine, of course...) It's inspired by an intriguing aside in the Gesta Herwardi, the twelfth-century account of the adventures of Hereward 'the Wake'. The Gesta Herwardi is full of awesomeness (yes, that's the technical term), and a particularly fantastic bit lists the various exploits of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls Hereward's genge, his 'gang':

As he had promised his men, Hereward returned to England, together with his two nephews, who were now distinguished in all warlike matters, and his wife Turfrida... They found some of his men in hiding, protecting themselves. Rejoicing at his return, these men quickly hastened to join him: namely, a certain Winter, a distinguished fighter, who was short in stature but very tough and strong, and Wenoth and Ælfric Grugan, notable in all courage and strength. These, as effective in deeds as they were big and tall, were joined by three of Hereward's nephews: Godwine Gille, who was called Godwine because he was not inferior to the Godwine, son of Guthlac, who was greatly celebrated in the tales of the ancients; and Duti and Outi, two twin brothers, alike in character and appearance and both praiseworthy warriors. However, the remainder of his band of followers was dispersed across the whole country. Before his departure he had arranged a signal for them, that he would set fire to three villages beyond Brunneswold near Bourne; and so he set them aflame and disappeared into the woods until his men were gathered around him.

And when they were all assembled, they were all the most eminent men. Not one among them was considered to have achieved knightly rank unless he had first performed some praiseworthy deeds. These are their names, with those mentioned above making up the number: Wulfric the Black, who got his name because he had once stained his face with charcoal and gone unrecognized into a garrison, and laid ten of them low with a single spear; and his friend, a certain Wulfric Rahere, or 'Heron', who was called that because he once happened to be at Wrokesham Bridge when four innocent brothers were brought there to be executed, and terrifying the executioners, who had called him 'heron' in mockery, he valiantly set the innocent men free and killed some of their enemies. Others too were numbered among the more famous of Hereward's knights: Godric of Corby, nephew of the Earl of Warwick, and Tostig of Daveness, kinsman of the same earl, whose name he received at baptism; Acca Vasus, the son of a nobleman from the outskirts of Lincoln who owned one of the towers of the city; and Leofwine Mowe, that is 'Sickle', who got his name because once when he happened to be alone in a meadow cutting grass, he had been set upon by a score of local peasants with iron pitchforks and spears in their hands, and single-handed, with only his sickle, he wounded many and killed some, charging among them like a reaper and finally putting them all to flight.

In company with these was also a certain Turbeorht, great-grandson of Earl Edwin, and Leofwine Prat, that is 'Crafty', who though frequently captured by his enemies cunningly escaped, often killing his guards - and so he had this nickname. And in addition to these must be numbered others, also very experienced in warfare: Leofric the Deacon and Ullicus [or perhaps 'the bailiff'] of Drayton, Thurkell and Utlahe (that is 'Outlaw'), Hereward's cook Hogor, Hereward's kinsmen Winter and Leofred, two distinguished men, and Rapenald, steward of Ramsey. These were leaders; so too were Wulfric the Black and Wulfric the White, Ælfric Grugan, Ylard, Godwine Gille, Outi, and the other Outi mentioned before, and those two splendid men, Siward and the other Siward the Red, who were Hereward's nephews. With these there were other most eminent knights: Godric of Corby, the Norman priest Hugo and his brother Ylard, Leofric the Deacon, Tostig of Rothwell and Godwine of Rothwell, Osbern, Alsinus, Leofwine Prat, Thurcytel, and Ullicus of Drayton. All of these were indeed the most distinguished and splendid knights in the whole kingdom; and there were several others, whom it would take too long to name and describe separately.

The Latin can be found here. This assortment of tales and nicknames suggests a lively culture of story-telling, which provides an interesting context for the reference to the 'tales of the ancients' about Godwine, son of Guthlac, which I discuss in the article. Some of the stories here may have come directly from the men concerned; the author of the Gesta Herwardi says he had met two of Hereward's companions, 'Brother Siward of Bury St Edmunds and Leofric Black', who were by his time still 'men of distinguished appearance, although they had lost the beauty of their limbs because of the trickery of enemies'.

But this fascinating text is much more than a concoction of old soldiers' anecdotes, and it draws its material from romance, hagiography and legend. Leofric the Deacon, named here, is elsewhere said to be the author of the English text on which the Gesta Herwardi claims to be based (another bit of lost literature, if it in fact existed); we're told 'it was the endeavour of this well-remembered priest to assemble all the doings of giants and warriors he could find in ancient tales as well as true reports, for the edification of his audience; and to commit them to writing in English, so they would be remembered'. What exactly is meant by this, and how literally should we take it? I'm still working that out...