Thursday, 25 September 2014

A Story about Stamford Bridge

On 25 September 1066 a battle was fought which is sometimes said to mark the end of the Viking Age. I generally prefer not to fix firm end dates on historical periods, but the death of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, on a Yorkshire battlefield in 1066 did mark the end of one phase in England's relationship with the Scandinavian world, and set the stage for Harold Godwineson's defeat at Hastings three weeks later. I'm interested at the moment in the medieval legends and stories which accrued round England's two eleventh-century conquests, the Danish and the Norman, but today reminds us of a third which never happened: the Norwegian Conquest, stopped before it began by Harald's defeat at Stamford Bridge. So this is not a post about the history of the battle (for which you would be better off reading the Wikipedia article), but about one later retelling of it; the story is in many ways unhistorical, but it brings this fascinating event to life.

Like the Battle of Hastings, Stamford Bridge attracted many legends, in English as well as Scandinavian tradition. Perhaps the most famous is one told by several twelfth-century English historians, as here by Henry of Huntingdon:

A battle began that was more arduous than any that had gone before. They engaged at dawn and after fearful assaults on both sides they continued steadfastly until midday, the English superiority in numbers forcing the Norwegians to give way but not to flee. Driven back beyond the river, the living crossing over the dead, they resisted stoutheartedly. A single Norwegian, worthy of eternal fame, resisted on the bridge, and felling more than forty Englishmen with his trusty axe, he alone held up the entire English army until three o'clock in the afternoon. At length someone came up in a boat and through the openings of the bridge struck him in the private parts with a spear. So the English crossed, and killed King Harald and Tostig, and laid low the whole Norwegian line.

Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.387-9.

One reason to regret that Stamford Bridge doesn't feature on the Bayeux Tapestry is that we don't get to see what it would have made of this scene!

Apart from the heroic Norwegian warrior, the events of Stamford Bridge were largely overshadowed in English history by Hastings, but Scandinavian traditions about the battle, in poetry and prose, are much fuller and more varied. There are too many to cover in a blog post, so today I want to post about just one story which appears in an Old Norse text called Hemings þáttr. Hemings þáttr survives in manuscripts from fourteenth-century Iceland, but draws in part on earlier histories of the Norwegian kings, on folktale, and ultimately on oral tradition, possibly English as well as Scandinavian. I posted an extract from this text about Hastings (and the legend of Harold Godwineson's survival) three years ago, but the section which describes Stamford Bridge is, if anything, even better. What we're dealing with here is really historical fiction of a particularly interesting kind: the anonymous author, though separated from the events he describes by several centuries and many miles, had an excellent grasp of what made the situation in 1066 so tense and dramatic. All the elements are there: the loose cannon Tostig Godwineson, driven by jealousy of his brother into an uneasy alliance with a Norwegian king, who follows his advice but actually despises him; the king of Denmark, weighing possibilities and chances; the king of England, briefly a heroic victor but soon to become a victim. The story is much less about politics and battles than it is about relationships between men: between brothers (Harold and Tostig, Harald and his dead brother St Olaf), between cousins (Svein, king of Denmark, and his cousins Harold and Tostig), between kings and their advisers, between friends and fellow-warriors.

Most of all it's just a great read, so let me introduce you to some of my favourite parts. I'll have to summarise in places because it's fairly long, but if you want to read a translation of the whole thing one can be found in the splendidly-named Icelandic Sagas and other Historical Documents relating to the Settlement and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles, ed. G. W. Dasent (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1894), vol. III, pp. 374-415.

The saga begins in Norway with the adventures of the titular character, Heming, who (like many a hero of Icelandic saga) does not get on with the Norwegian king, and finds it wise to leave the country. He goes to England, where he becomes acquainted with the leading figures of the English court: King Edward the Confessor and his powerful brothers-in-law, the sons of Earl Godwine. Heming becomes close to Harold, the eldest son, and trains him in various military exploits so well that everyone wonders where he can possibly have learned such amazing skills. (A touch of Scandinavian pride - a Norwegian education is clearly better than an English one!) We are told that Harold is very popular, a paragon of courtesy and of martial virtues, and Heming's loyalty to Harold positions us firmly on his side.

His brother Tostig, by contrast, is "a big strong man, and a man of many words; he had few friends". We've got a classic pair of saga brothers here: the elder handsome, popular, physically strong, a much-loved son and heir; the younger clever, jealous, sarcastic, untrustworthy - but not unsympathetic. (It's not wrong to be picturing The Avengers' Thor and Loki, is it? The story parallels are pretty close, which I guess makes Harald Hardrada some kind of invading alien monster...) The saga includes a little story about Harold and Tostig's childhood to show us the characters of the two brothers: King Edward comes to visit their family home, bringing with him a precious spear. Harold badly wants the spear, but does not ask the king for it. But Tostig, wanting what his brother wants, and prepared to ask for it, makes a wooden spear for himself and shows it to King Edward, which induces the king to give him the real spear. Edward reads his character in this, and tells him forebodingly "You will never lack greed when you see others more powerful than yourself." The king's prophecy, the story shows us, comes true.

Harold on the Bayeux Tapestry

When Edward dies, and Harold Godwineson becomes king of England, his brother is bitterly jealous. As earl of Northumbria, he already rules a third of England (a þriðjungr, the saga calls it, the word from which we get Yorkshire's 'Ridings') - but Tostig isn't satisfied, and wants the whole thing. He goes to Denmark, where his cousin Svein Estrithson is king, and cunningly asks him whether he doesn't think he (Svein) has a claim to rule England, since it had once been ruled by his uncle and predecessor, Cnut. Svein replies, "I won't hide that I did once think so; but it seems to me that things have turned out well, since my kinsman Harold is ruling there, my cousin on the mother's side." (Harold's mother was the sister of Svein's father). But wily Tostig reminds him that a third of the land already belongs to him, and he is well-placed to win the whole country for Svein. Svein is tempted, but eventually decides that if he tries to overreach himself by invading England, he might lose Denmark too. So he refuses, but tells Tostig to go to Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and Svein's own bitter enemy.

(An aside: this is an interesting moment to me in every narrative of 1066, because why didn't Denmark get involved at this point? To understand this, it's crucial to understand the difference between Denmark's relationship with England and Norway's. Svein Estrithson had very close ties to England: he was probably born there, and may have spent some of his youth there. For the first twenty years of his life England and Denmark were ruled, together, by his family, and even after the return of Edward the Confessor meant that Denmark lost control of England, Svein's family were at the heart of the Anglo-Danish aristocracy; his two brothers lived and held earldoms in England, associated closely with their cousins, the Godwinesons. The histories are probably right in saying that Svein was asked and refused to take part in Tostig's rebellion (that is, he decided not to side with one of his cousins against another). We can't know exactly why - although it was, as things turned out, very prudent - but in Svein's eyes Harold Godwineson ruling England was perhaps a pretty good state of affairs. Svein didn't intervene in English matters until after the Norman Conquest, when the Godwinesons had not only lost control of England but had been effectively wiped out; and then his intervention was on the anti-Norman side, in support of English rebels. With Norway the situation was entirely different: Harald Hardrada had no ties to England, personal or political, and was free to try his luck against a country which seemed ripe for conquest. This is why it was rather galling when in a recent BBC programme about Vikings which shall remain nameless the Viking-expert presenter said that the Anglo-Saxons fought the Danes at Stamford Bridge. This might not seem like a big mistake, but it is really Very Wrong. No Danes at Stamford Bridge, and there are good reasons for that! Not all Vikings are the same...)

Anyway, having been unsuccessful with Svein, Tostig goes on to Norway. Even Harald, the most formidable of Viking rulers, is uncertain about Tostig's invasion plan, but he promises to give it some thought and is eventually argued into consenting. Almost before he has done so, the bad omens start: Harald's men have threatening dreams, sailors report mysterious fires at sea and blood pouring out of the sky, a ghost rises up from a graveyard to prophesy that the king will fall. Worst of all, before setting sail, Harald has a vision of St Olaf, his martyred half-brother, who angrily chastises him for what he is about to do. Harald is shaken and Tostig, the "man of many words", has to talk him round, telling him it's just some "English witchcraft" trying to frighten him. But the signs could not be clearer that this invasion will not end well.

By the time they reach the English coast, the relationship between the king and his English egger-on is strained. When they land at Cleveland, they have a tense conversation which is my favourite moment in the narrative:

The king asked Tostig, "What is the name of the hill which is along the land to the north?"

Tostig said, "Not every hill is given a name."

The king said, "But this one has a name, and you're going to tell me what it is."

Tostig said, "That's the burial-mound of Ivar the Boneless."

The king replied, "Few who have landed in England near this mound have been victorious."

Tostig said, "It’s just superstition to believe such things now."

Ivar, son of Ragnar Lothbrok, was one of the most famous Vikings to invade England, and the context for this superstition about his burial-mound is explained in Ragnars saga:
When Ivar lay in his last illness, he said that he should be carried to the place where armies came to harry, and he said he thought they should not have the victory when they came to the land. And when he died, it was done as he had said, and he was laid in the burial-mound. And many people say that when King Harald Hardrada came to England, he landed at the place where Ivar was, and he died on that expedition. And when William the Bastard came to the land, he went to the place and opened Ivar’s mound and saw Ivar, undecayed. Then he had a great fire made and had Ivar burned in the flames. After that he fought battles across the country and won the victory.

The difference between the two invaders of 1066 is shown by how they react to Ivar's burial-mound: William is prepared to risk the wrath of the great Viking by burning his bones, but Harald, already convinced he is doomed to die on this expedition, accepts the bad omen as his fate. Tostig's attempt to fob him off with 'not every hill is given a name' (how do you read the tone - impatient, wheedling, matter-of-fact?) is such a great bit of characterisation.

(It only spoils the legend a tiny bit to know that Ivar the Boneless may actually have been buried at Repton in Derbyshire, which is about as far away from the coast as you can get...)

Harald and Tostig win their first battle on English soil, at Fulford, and there's a fantastic subplot involving Waltheof which is sadly too complicated to go into here. The city of York submits to them, and they raid and harry the land all around. But Harald by this time does not trust Tostig at all, and does not listen when Tostig finally gives him wise advice, not to take his men to York in less than full armour. "You can't trust the English if they get their hands on you," Tostig tells him, but Harald won't heed.

That same night, Harold Godwineson came with a huge army from the south of England to York, and there learned the latest news about the Norwegians. And as soon as the people of the city knew that the king had arrived, they broke their promises to the Norwegians and joined Harold's army.

In the morning, Harold took his army down to Stoneford Bridge, which is now called Stamford, and the two armies were ranged against each other. King Harald said, "What's that in the distance - a whirlwind, or the dust of horsemen?"

"The dust of horsemen, for sure," said Tostig, "and now you'll see how trustworthy my countrymen are!"

(I do love sarcastic Tostig.) The two armies draw up their ranks, but there's one last attempt at a peace-settlement:

Three men rode up to the Norwegian army and asked to talk to Earl Tostig. One of them, the one who spoke, was not a big man, slender, and the most courteous of men; he had a golden helmet and a red shield, with a hawk drawn on it in gold... Tostig told him to say what he wanted.

The rider said, "Harold, your brother, sends you God's greeting, and offers you a settlement."

Tostig said, "What's he offering me now more than before?"

The rider said, "He intends to offer you less, after all that's been done."

"We won't amend that with money," said Tostig, "but what is it he's offering?"

The rider said, "He offers you a fifth part of England, and will take no atonement for his brother [who was killed at Fulford], but the damage you have done to the land will have to be paid for."

"I won't accept that," Tostig said.

The rider replied, "I will not conceal what he said should be offered to you at the last: that he would rather give you half of England, and the name of king, rather than that the two of you should fight a battle."

"What will he offer Harald, king of Norway?"

"Since he was not content with his own kingdom," said the rider, "I'll give him six feet of English ground - a little more, perhaps, since he's a tall man. But nothing more than that, since I don't care about him."

Tostig said, "These offers have been made too late. I have often heard the Norwegians say that if a good offer was made to me I'd abandon them at once - but that won't happen."

The rider said, "Then the king bade me tell you, the blame will be on your own head."

And they rode away.

While they were talking, King Harald was riding around on a black horse and telling the army how they should arrange themselves. Just then the horse stumbled under the king, three times. The king cried out, "Why is this happening, Olaf my brother?"

Tostig laughed and said, "You think King Olaf made your horse stumble?"

Harald said, "I won't have anyone to thank but you, if Olaf has turned against me." He got off his horse and went to stand with the army. He said to Tostig, "Who was that rider who was talking to you?"

Tostig said, "King Harold, my brother."

"Why didn't you say so before?" the king asked.

Tostig said, "I wouldn't betray him, when he rode here trusting in my good faith."

"He is a courteous man," said the king, "and manly, and he stands well in his stirrups; but he will not rule his land long."

That's the wisdom of a doomed man. Tostig's behaviour throughout this scene is brilliantly sketched: he knows that the messenger is his brother Harold, but goes along with the pretence that he's not, so as not to endanger Harold in the midst of his enemies; tempted by Harold's last desperate offer, he still won't accept it unless something is given to King Harald too; knowing full well that the Norwegians don't trust him, he is faithful to them at the last, even as he and Harald are now openly hostile to each other. And the 'six feet of English ground'! Wonderful.

Battle is joined, and now Heming (remember him?) comes to the fore again. He's a good archer - Norway's William Tell - and Harold Godwineson tells him to shoot the Norwegian king, since no one else can pick him out. Heming is afraid of incurring the wrath of St Olaf, but nonetheless he shoots an arrow which leaves a cut in Harald's face, so that the English king knows which one he is; and then Harold Godwineson shoots Harald Hardrada in the throat. As he is dying, Harald tells Tostig to take the offer that his brother made to him; "but as for me, I will take that portion of the realm which was offered to me this morning." And he dies.

Tostig picks up the Norwegian banner, and continues to fight. Heming asks Harold why he doesn't shoot him, and Harold says "I won't be the cause of my brother's death." Then Heming asks to be allowed to shoot him instead. "I will not take revenge for any harm that is done to him," says Harold. And so Heming shoots Tostig through the eye, and he is killed. The English - aided by a Norwegian sharp-shooter - have won the battle.

Afterwards, King Harold has the bodies of the dead, English and Norwegians alike, decently buried in church. Then he rides south (via Waltham Abbey, another English story says) - to his own death.

The death of Harold Godwineson (via Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

An Equinox Miracle

An unusual miracle recorded in Eadmer of Canterbury's Life of St Dunstan, written in the early years of the twelfth century:

[Dunstan], while setting up his hospices at suitable intervals in his villages which were far afield from Canterbury, built a wooden church at Mayfield, just as he had in the locations of his other hospices. And while he was dedicating it and walking around it according to ritual he noticed that it was not aligned with the rising of the sun at the equinox; it is related that while passing near it he pushed it slightly with his shoulder and immediately changed it from its former orientation into direct alignment with the East where he wanted it. No one doubts that he could do this easily unless there exists someone who doubts the words of Christ our Lord in which he promises to those who have faith like a mustard seed that they can move even a mountain with their words.

Eadmer of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), pp.124-5. The place named may be Mayfield in East Sussex. The editors note:

The reference in this episode to the correct orientation of a church is very rare in the literature of the period, if not unique, although the archaeological record shows that Norman builders were usually concerned to obtain correct orientation, and that rebuilt Anglo-Norman churches were often aligned closer to true East-West than their predecessors.

This incident may, therefore, reflect the interests of Eadmer's time more than of Dunstan's; but it's an interesting curiosity, all the same.

A diagram drawn in the second quarter of the twelfth century at Peterborough Abbey (BL Harley 3667, f. 8), showing the correspondences between the four seasons, months, equinoxes, solstices, astrological signs, twelve winds, and four ages of man. Like Eadmer's Life of Dunstan, this diagram shows the twelfth century looking back to the Anglo-Saxon world: the diagram was devised in c.1011 by Byrhtferth of Ramsey, perhaps the best scientist Anglo-Saxon England ever produced, in his Enchiridion.

Friday, 12 September 2014

St Eanswythe of Folkestone


Today is the feast of one of Kent's more obscure Anglo-Saxon saints, Eanswythe of Folkestone. We know very little about Eanswythe, but the two things we do know about her are interesting: she was the granddaughter of Ethelbert, Kent's first Christian king, and she may have been the first woman in England to head a religious community. Her father King Eadbald founded an abbey for her around the year 630 at Folkestone, on the south coast of Kent, some thirty years after Ethelbert was baptised by Augustine of Canterbury. The records of Eanswythe's life are so scanty that we can't be sure whether the distinction of 'first English abbess' belongs to her or to her aunt Æthelburh (Ethelburga) who founded a community at nearby Lyminge, a little way inland from Folkestone, shortly after 633. I wrote about Ethelburga and Lyminge here; we have a lot of information about her because she was married to Edwin, king of Northumbria, and therefore plays an important role in Bede's narrative of Edwin's conversion. If there had been a southern Bede, we might have known more about Eanswythe of Folkestone. However, let's have a look at what evidence we do have for her life, and then at some pictures of the church at Folkestone which preserves Eanswythe's memory - and not only her memory, but, perhaps, the relics of the saint herself.

Eanswythe was one of a number of royal women involved with the foundation of Christian communities in this period: besides Lyminge and Folkestone, abbeys were established at Ely, Barking, Repton, Whitby, Coldingham, Wenlock, Minster-in-Thanet, Minster-in-Sheppey, and more, all founded before the end of the seventh century and closely associated with a particular female patron. Royal abbesses are perhaps the most prominent 'type' of native saint, male or female, in the early Christian history of southern England, and the abbeys they led formed a closely-linked network of secular and spiritual power. In Kent, in successive generations - from Bertha, wife of King Ethelbert, to her daughter Ethelburga, granddaughter Eanswythe, great-granddaughter Domneva (Eanswythe's niece) and great-great-granddaughter Mildred of Thanet - it's royal women who were most closely associated with the spread of Christianity and the first communities of monks and nuns. The Kentish women were also connected by marriage to the 'lady saints' of Ely, St Etheldreda and her sisters and nieces, and to royal saintly women of Mercia and Northumbria, of whom the most famous is St Hilda. (More on all these women can be found in the following posts: St Etheldreda, St Wihtburh, St Eormenhild, St Ethelburga of Lyminge, Domneva, St Mildred of Thanet, St Ethelburga of Barking, and St Werburh of Chester.)

Royal men, by contrast, were often notably less keen on the Christian missionaries, and Eanswythe's father, Ethelbert's son Eadbald, is a case in point. Although Bede doesn't mention Eanswythe, he provides a useful context for her life by telling us that after the death of Ethelbert in 616, Eadbald rejected Christianity:

The death of Ethelbert and the accession of his son Eadbald proved to be a severe setback to the growth of the young church; for not only did [Eadbald] refuse to accept the faith of Christ, but he was also guilty of such fornication as the Apostle Paul mentions as being unheard of even among the heathen, in that he took his father's wife as his own. His immorality was an incentive to those who, either out of fear or favour to the king his father, had submitted to the discipline of faith and chastity, to revert to their former uncleanness. However, this apostate king did not escape the scourge of God's punishment, for he was subject to frequent fits of insanity and possessed by an evil spirit.
Without royal support, the missionaries saw no alternative but to leave England. But just as Laurence, second (and nearly the last) Archbishop of Canterbury, was about to flee, he had a miraculous dream:

On the very night before Laurence too was to follow Mellitus and Justus from Britain, he ordered his bed to be placed in the church of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, of which we have spoken several times. Here after long and fervent prayers for the sadly afflicted church he lay down and fell asleep. At dead of night, blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, appeared to him, and set about him for a long time with a heavy scourge, demanding with apostolic sternness why he was abandoning the flock entrusted to his care, and to which of the shepherds he would commit Christ's sheep left among the wolves when he fled. "Have you forgotten my example?" asked Peter. "For the sake of the little ones whom Christ entrusted to me as proof of his love, I suffered chains, blows, imprisonment, and pain. Finally I endured death, the death of crucifixion, at the hands of unbelievers and enemies of Christ, so that at last I might be crowned with him." Deeply moved by the words and scourging of blessed Peter, Christ's servant Laurence sought audience with the king [Eadbald] early next morning, and removing his garment, showed him the marks of the lash. The king was astounded, and enquired who had dared to scourge so eminent a man; and when he learned that it was for his own salvation that the archbishop had suffered so severely at the hands of Christ's own Apostle, he was greatly alarmed. He renounced idolatry, gave up his unlawful wife, accepted the Christian faith, and was baptised, henceforward promoting the welfare of the church with every means at his disposal.
A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1974), pp.108-9, 110-11.

So Eadbald was converted. He made a more acceptable marriage to a Frankish princess named Emma, and with her had three children, Eanswythe and two sons. The name of Eanswythe's mother is provided by the 'Kentish Royal Legend', an Old English text (or rather, group of related texts) dealing with the history of the Kentish royal family; here's one iteration of it in an eleventh-century manuscript, BL Stowe 944, f.34v:


I've posted extracts from this text before for Ethelburga and Mildred, who both have fairly substantial entries, but Eanswythe gets only one sentence:


þonne wæs Imme Eadbaldes cwen, Francena cyninges dohtor, 7 hi begeaton Sancte Eanswiðe þe æt Folcanstane resteð 7 Earcanbyrht Cantwara cyninge 7 Eormenræd æþelinge.
Eadbald's queen was Emma, daughter of the king of the Franks, and they had St Eanswythe, who rests at Folkestone, and Eorcenberht king of Kent, and Eormenred the Ætheling.

It's worth noting that this does not explicitly say Eanswythe was abbess of Folkestone, nor that she founded it, only that she was buried there; it's possible that later tradition has exaggerated her role, especially as she seems to have died young - the traditional date of her death is 31 August 640, when she might have been not even 25. Her father died the same year, and this time there was no reversion to paganism; his son Eorcenberht married St Etheldreda's sister (Seaxburh of Minster-in-Sheppey) and was the father of St Eormenhild, while his other son Eormenred was the father of Domneva and the two boys whose murder prompted the foundation of Minster-in-Thanet.

(That's the last of the genealogy, I promise; we're coming to the pictures...)

After Eanswythe's death there seems to have been a community at Folkestone for about two centuries, but like several other early Kentish abbeys it was apparently abandoned in the course of the ninth century, when Viking attacks made coastal monasteries vulnerable. After this its history is not entirely clear; there are occasional references to priests based at Folkestone, so there was probably a small community of some sort guarding the shrine and ministering to the town. By the mid-eleventh century Folkestone belonged to Earl Godwine, and formed part of the formidable power-base the earl had built up along the south coast. The monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, claimed Godwine had stolen Folkestone from their possession, after they had acquired Eanswythe's church in the tenth century. The Christ Church historian Eadmer - no fan of Godwine - says the earl had obtained it by bribing Eadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury (1038-50). In the 1080s the monks engaged in a law-suit to get it back again, and forged charters in support of their claim that first Athelstan and then Cnut had granted them the ruins of Eanswythe's monastery. (The claim might plausibly be genuine, but the charters are not!)

However, they lost the lawsuit, and Folkestone remained in the hands of the king. The post-Conquest story of Folkestone is therefore one of secular patronage: the foundation of a priory in place of the former monastery by Nigel de Mundeville, Lord of Folkestone, in 1095, and then, when that fell into the sea - Vikings aren't the only threat faced by coastal monasteries - a new priory on a safer site in 1137. It was apparently on 12 September 1138 that the relics of St Eanswythe were translated to the new church, and that's the date kept as Eanswythe's feast today. The present-day church in Folkestone, originally thirteenth-century but much restored, is dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswythe:


When I visited the church earlier this year we had atrocious weather (it was April, but this is the English seaside) so unfortunately all my pictures are dark and damp; I prefer to photograph churches when the sun is shining, of course, but sometimes you have to take what you can get! When you live by the sea you learn to love a foggy day as much as a sunny one, in any case. The church is on the cliff above the port of Folkestone; the rain and wind were coming in straight off the Channel, which was rendered invisible by a curtain of mist. But the advantage of the torrent which descended just as we reached the church was that the congregation finishing their Sunday morning service were solicitously eager to welcome us, dripping wet, into the shelter of their church.


The fifteenth-century tower, high on the clifftop, must have been a landmark for shipping (though not on a day like this, when even standing at the foot of the tower the mist hid the top).

The churchyard and the buildings surrounding it are very pretty, and in April full of blossoming trees (damp blossom that day, but still).


The interior of the building is thoroughly Victorian, but there are enough memorials to Eanswythe to make it clear that the church values its Anglo-Saxon history.



To the south of the chancel is a chapel dedicated to St Eanswythe, which contains a motley assortment of memorials to the saint.


This was my favourite, a really lovely window dating to (I think) 1955.


It shows Eanswythe as a determined-looking woman, rather than a sweet-faced princess.


Two scenes from her legend show how 'Saint Eanswythe causes a stream of water to be diverted to the service of her nunnery' (note the cliffs of Folkestone behind her):


And 'Saint Eanswythe forbids the birds to settle on her fields and destroy her crops':


These illustrate stories which appear in the late-medieval legend of Eanswythe, as found for instance in the Nova Legenda Anglie here.

The chapel also has a painting, donated by a past organist of the church, showing 'Saint Eanswythe ministering to the poor' at the door of her monastery, the cliffs in the background:


A little lancet window also depicts the saint:


And there are two banners, an underrated form of saintly memorialisation:


The second here shows the location of Folkestone within Kent, plus Eanswythe as she appears on the town crest of arms. At some point in her iconography she's acquired a fish, apparently because of the town's long association with fishing rather than anything connected to Eanswythe herself.

Regular readers will know that I collect 'medieval people in modern stained glass', and there are a few more examples from Folkestone; Eanswythe's grandfather Ethelbert appears elsewhere in the church:


As does his baptism by Augustine:


As quite often in modern depictions of this scene, he's shown being baptised in something approximating the (Norman) font now in St Martin's, Canterbury.

Augustine also appears in the east window:


And Eanswythe is there too:

There's a good window depicting John the Baptist and St Elizabeth (not 'medieval people', but I do like the angel wings!)


And a medieval effigy, rather incongruous in this very Victorian church, of Sir John de Segrave, baron of Folkestone:


But the real excitement is in the chancel, by the north side of the altar, where the glow of the votive candles are in the picture below:



In 1885, during renovation of the church, a lead casket was discovered in the north wall of the chancel, containing the bones of a young woman. It seems plausible that these are the relics of St Eanswythe, hidden or overlooked perhaps at the dissolution of the priory (the community had dwindled to almost nothing by that point). After inspection the relics were returned to their position within the wall of the chancel, which makes this church one of very few in England to still possess the relics of its patron saint:


The survival of these relics is extremely unusual, and to be in their presence was strangely moving. We know so little about Eanswythe that it's difficult to feel much for her personally, but the whole story of Kentish Christianity, which is so important a part of the history of Anglo-Saxon England, is embodied in this young woman's bones. The bodies of her more famous relatives, laid to rest in less obscure places, did not survive the Reformation: the tombs of her parents and grandparents, after being honoured for more than 900 years at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, were destroyed there at the abbey's dissolution, along with the tombs of St Augustine and his companions and other kings and queens of Kent. The reformers who left St Augustine's in ruins were smashing up not only a great monastery but a royal mausoleum, Anglo-Saxon Kent's answer to Westminster Abbey. The sites of their graves are marked out amid the ruins, but there's no physical presence there. Other royal saints of Kent fared little better: Ethelburga's relics probably left Lyminge as early as the eleventh century, and are now lost; St Mildred's body left Minster-in-Thanet during the reign of Cnut, and was also lost at St Augustine's - though some relics of her did return to Minster in 1935, after being preserved on the continent during the intervening centuries. But St Eanswythe has never left Folkestone, and it hasn't forgotten her.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Battle of Maldon

10 August is the date of one of the most famous battles in Anglo-Saxon history: the Battle of Maldon, fought between the men of East Anglia and a force of Vikings on the coast of Essex in 991. Note that I said one of the most famous battles in Anglo-Saxon history, and not one of the most important; it's famous because it's the subject of a poem, but if it weren't for the poem we probably wouldn't see this as a particularly significant event among the many battles and skirmishes which culminated in the Danish Conquest of England in 1016. The poem is, however, so fascinating and so important in the history of Old English literature that it makes the battle correspondingly more interesting, and its anniversary more worth marking.

The poem which is today known as The Battle of Maldon is on the first-year undergraduate syllabus of the Oxford English course, which means that everyone in my world has taught and studied it a thousand times, and it feels like something 'everybody knows'. For this reason it's never seemed to me worth blogging about, but of course that's just silly; among the handful of Old English poems even vaguely known to the general public (a tiny fraction of the surviving corpus), none of them are well-known enough to have become not worth talking about in public. So if you do know this poem well, you'll have to forgive me blogging about it...

Byrhtnoth, All Saints' Church, Maldon

The poem as we have it - 325 lines long - is fragmentary, lacking its beginning and end, so what we have focuses on the immediate prelude to the battle and the events of the fight; we don't know whether the poem originally provided more in the way of set-up or aftermath, context or explanation, and what kind of interpretative frame the poet might have given his account of the battle. The story as we have it is briefly this: a band of Vikings (nameless and unidentified, in the poem as it stands) have come to the coast of Essex, where they are met by the ealdorman of East Anglia, Byrhtnoth, and his men, a mixture of his own trained soldiers and others from further afield in Anglo-Saxon England. The Vikings demand money, and tell Byrhtnoth that if they get it they'll go away peacefully. Byrhtnoth returns a bullish answer, declaring that instead of paying tribute he and his men will fight to defend their land and the kingdom of their lord, King Æthelred. He allows the Vikings to come ashore from the island in the estuary on which they are encamped (as it turns out, a tactical error - the result either of high courage or of overweening arrogance, depending on whose translation of the OE word ofermod you believe). Battle commences. Byrhtnoth is killed, but his men keep fighting to avenge his death, their numbers and strength dwindling; the poem breaks off as we see them declaring their intention to fight on to the last, but even without an ending we know that they are going to lose the battle and die.

One of the fascinating things about The Battle of Maldon is that it's one of the few Old English poems which can be fairly precisely dated, as it can only have been written within a few decades after the date of the battle; I think the latest date that's been proposed is in the 1030s, and it's usually dated considerably earlier than that. Since with most Old English poems we can only guess at a rough century of composition, this makes The Battle of Maldon special. It's also unusual among Anglo-Saxon poems (though not, I should stress, unique) in dealing with specific contemporary events and people, some of whom may have been known to the poem's first audience. In this text we see the immediate past being suddenly transmuted into literature, which should produce for us a jolt of disquieting juxtaposition: these are ordinary modern-day men being talked about in the language of heroic poetry, a minor battle on the Essex coast being turned into an epic struggle between invader and defender, heathen and Christian. And this poem, for all that it seems to elevate its characters out of everyday life into the world of heroic literature, can't help but have an electric political charge: the question of how the Anglo-Saxon nobility should respond to Viking raids, the debate we see acted out in The Battle of Maldon, was a problem which only became more acute in the years after 991. As Viking raids intensified, military and political leadership in England descended into chaos, reaching their nadir in the winter of 1013-14, when King Æthelred was forced to flee into exile and leave his kingdom to the triumphant Danish king Svein Forkbeard. (Svein may possibly have been fighting on the Danish side at Maldon, though the poem affects not to know the names of any of the Viking leaders.) The discussions in the poem about paying tribute vs. engaging in battle, or fighting to the death vs. fleeing to fight another day, or the loyalty a warrior owes to his leader, are thus not abstract theoretical debates but questions of the utmost importance and contemporary relevance. The poem commemorates the men who died at Maldon but it also uses their deaths to intervene in an ongoing debate, to offer implicit commentary on the conduct of the living as much as of the dead.

Where exactly you choose to date and place the poem in the decades after 991 makes a difference to how you read it, but any way you look at it, the actions of the characters in the poem, praised or condemned according to the poet's own agenda, are there to be interpreted, read, judged. And what they say is as important as what they do; several characters draw our attention to the disparity between what people boast they will do and what they will actually perform, which seems not just a commentary on the relationship between words and deeds (an abiding concern in heroic poetry) but an acknowledgement that this poem itself turns deeds into words, battle into language, history into poetry.

As a result, the speeches in The Battle of Maldon are some of its most interesting sections. Byrhtnoth's defiant speech to the Viking messenger, for instance, is a fine bit of rhetoric, which like the most effective political speeches constructs its own reality as it tells the audience, rather than the enemy, what they are fighting for:

"Gehyrst þu, sælida, hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan,
ættrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu þe eow æt hilde ne deah.
Brimmanna boda, abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean eþel þysne,
Æþelredes eard, ealdres mines,
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde. To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum to scype gangon
unbefohtene, nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg ær geseman,
grim guðplega, ær we gofol syn."

"Do you hear, seaman, what this people are saying?
They want to give you spears as tribute,
deadly spear-points and ancient swords,
war-equipment which will not help you in battle.
Sailors’ messenger, take a message back again:
tell your people a much more hostile reply,
that here stands undaunted an earl with his company,
who intends to defend this homeland,
the land of Æthelred, my leader,
people and ground.  The heathen shall
fall in battle.  It seems too shameful to me
that you should go to your ships with our money
unopposed, now you have come
so far into our country.
You shall not get treasure so easily;
spear and sword shall settle this between us,
fierce battle-play, before we pay tribute."

Besides the rhetorical flourish of 'weapons in place of tribute' (the kind of riddling substitution at which Anglo-Saxon poets particularly excelled), the emotional pull of this speech is exerted by ideas of territory, land, and boundaries, real and psychological. Byrhtnoth persistently calls the Vikings 'seamen' and 'sailors', creatures of the waters, while he and his men belong to the land - and the land, therefore, belongs to them. He talks about defending eþel þysne 'this homeland' and urne eard 'our land', highly emotive language, and he links the land on which the Vikings are encroaching to the very name of the English king - how could this eþel be anything other than Æthelred's land? The picture is of a strong, united England behind Byrhtnoth where he stands, unafraid, on the coast of Essex, ready to repel the unrighteous raiders who have come from the sea. This is fantasy. King Æthelred was no great symbol of national unity - controversial from the very beginning of his reign, and if not quite as tyrannical, weak and unpopular in 991 as he was later to become, already well on his way to earning the nickname Unready ('bad-counsel', unwise) by which he has become known to generations of schoolchildren. Byrhtnoth is not on firm ground in staking his appeal to national unity on Æthelred, and surely the poet and his audience knew this. It's rhetoric, not reality; but that doesn't mean it's not true, or that it would not be a powerful idea to which to appeal. Does a king have to be a good king for his name to be an inspiration? I wonder.

Coming to this poem after a week in which the news has been full of the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, as well as so many present-day conflicts, it's tempting to read the poem in light of the wars whose stories and myths are so familiar to us. This is almost unavoidable, I think, and not entirely illegitimate: generations of scholars who lived through the wars of the twentieth century have read The Battle of Maldon under their shadow. (Tolkien's 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son' is one good example.) So I'll now proceed to be shamelessly anachronistic for the rest of this paragraph, because the poem is commemorative story-telling as powerful as any Remembrance Day service, and perhaps some contemporary examples will illustrate that. Byrhtnoth's rhetoric is remarkably close to the kind we now call Churchillian: standing on a beach (or is it a landing-ground?) to proclaim his defiance to the invaders, he seems only one step away from declaring "we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be". But in trying to read the poet's attitude to the events he is recounting, the resonances are sometimes thought to be with another war-narrative familiar to a modern British audience - the 'lions led by donkeys' of the First World War. The references to Æthelred have been interpreted as deeply and bitterly ironic, intended to signal to us that this battle is ill-conceived, futile and doomed to failure (the later you date the poem, the more plausible this reading is). Byhrtnoth too has come in for a great deal of criticism, mostly for allowing the Vikings to cross the causeway (because of his ofermod) but also for his belligerent rhetoric and his loyalty to Æthelred. It's possible - I personally wouldn't do it, but it's possible - to read the poem as one long cynical attack on what happens when loyal soldiers have their devotion abused by arrogant war-mongering leaders. That would make the poet of The Battle of Maldon, I suppose, something like the Siegfried Sassoon of Anglo-Saxon war poetry.

To me, this reading undermines too much of the poem to be sustainable, but I think the poem is aware of the gap between Byrhtnoth's rhetoric (and all the soldiers' grand speeches) and the reality of the war they're fighting. I'd interpret the poem as engaging in the production of a fiction which stands at one remove from contemporary reality - while, as I said earlier, intervening in a live contemporary debate - to paint a picture of how people can and should behave in a crisis, thoroughly conscious that sometimes they can't and won't. Their inability and unwillingness doesn't ultimately undermine the power of the poetic fiction, which is close enough to truth to be effective. The poem shows us an ideal world, but not an idealised one - what the world could be, but isn't now.

I especially don't read the poem as all that critical of Byrhtnoth, but judge for yourself from the account of his death:

Stodon stædefæste; stihte hi Byrhtnoð,
bæd þæt hyssa gehwylc hogode to wige
þe on Denon wolde dom gefeohtan.
Wod þa wiges heard, wæpen up ahof,
bord to gebeorge, and wið þæs beornes stop.
Eode swa anræd eorl to þam ceorle,
ægþer hyra oðrum yfeles hogode.
Sende ða se særinc suþerne gar,
þæt gewundod wearð wigena hlaford;
he sceaf þa mid ðam scylde, þæt se sceaft tobærst,
and þæt spere sprengde, þæt hit sprang ongean.
Gegremod wearð se guðrinc; he mid gare stang
wlancne wicing, þe him þa wunde forgeaf.
Frod wæs se fyrdrinc; he let his francan wadan
þurh ðæs hysses hals, hand wisode
þæt he on þam færsceaðan feorh geræhte.
ða he oþerne ofstlice sceat,
þæt seo byrne tobærst; he wæs on breostum wund
þurh ða hringlocan, him æt heortan stod
ætterne ord. Se eorl wæs þe bliþra,
hloh þa, modi man, sæde metode þanc
ðæs dægweorces þe him drihten forgeaf.
Forlet þa drenga sum daroð of handa,
fleogan of folman, þæt se to forð gewat
þurh ðone æþelan Æþelredes þegen.

They stood steadfast. Byrhtnoth commanded them,
ordered that each warrior set his mind on warfare
who wanted to win glory against the Danes.
A warrior bold in battle advanced, lifted up his weapon
with his shield for protection, and moved towards that man.
Very resolutely the earl went towards the man;
each intended evil to the other.
Then the sea-warrior sent forth a spear of southern work,
so the warriors’ lord was wounded;
he shoved with his shield so that the shaft broke,
and the spear shattered so that it sprang back.
The battle-warrior was enraged: he stabbed with his spear
the proud viking who had given him the wound.
The war-soldier was skilled; he shot his spear
through the man’s neck, guided by his hand
so that he reached the life of his sudden assailant.
Then he quickly shot another
so that the mail-coat shattered; he was wounded in his breast
through the interlocking rings; in his heart
stood a deadly spear. The earl was the gladder:
he laughed then, the high-spirited man, gave thanks to God
for the day’s work which the Lord had given him.
Then one of the vikings sent a spear from his hand,
flying from his fist, so that it went all too successfully
through Æthelred’s noble thegn.

Byrhtnoth's men spring into action to kill his slayer, but the damage has been done. Byrhtnoth, fatally wounded, can no longer hold a sword, but he can still speak and encourage his men - words are sometimes better than weapons in Anglo-Saxon poetry. He dies with a prayer on his lips:

"Geþancie þe, ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe siðian mote
on þin geweald, þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan hynan ne moton."
ða hine heowon hæðene scealcas
and begen þa beornas þe him big stodon,
Ælfnoð and Wulmær begen lagon,
ða onemn hyra frean feorh gesealdon.

"I thank you, Ruler of nations,
for all the joys which I have experienced in this world.
Now, merciful Lord, I have the greatest need
that you grant good to my soul,
that my spirit may journey to you
into your power, Lord of angels,
and depart in peace.  I am beseeching you
that the fiends of hell may not injure me!"
Then heathen warriors cut him down
and both the men who stood beside him;
Ælfnoð and Wulmær both lay dead,
they gave up life alongside their lord.

At this moment some among the English begin to flee - 'more than was in any way right', says the poet, 'if they had remembered all the good things which he had done for their benefit'. But others will not leave their leader, even in death. We then get a series of speeches, brave words and deeds from men who know they are already defeated. A young warrior named Ælfwine urges his comrades on:

"Gemunan þa mæla þe we oft æt meodo spræcon,
þonne we on bence beot ahofon,
hæleð on healle, ymbe heard gewinn;
nu mæg cunnian hwa cene sy.
Ic wylle mine æþelo eallum gecyþan,
þæt ic wæs on Myrcon miccles cynnes;
wæs min ealda fæder Ealhelm haten,
wis ealdorman, woruldgesælig.
Ne sceolon me on þære þeode þegenas ætwitan
þæt ic of ðisse fyrde feran wille,
eard gesecan, nu min ealdor ligeð
forheawen æt hilde. Me is þæt hearma mæst;
he wæs ægðer min mæg and min hlaford."

"Remember the words which we often spoke over our mead,
when we raised up boasts on the benches,
heroes in the hall, about hard fighting:
now we may learn who is brave!
I will make known all my lineage,
that I was born in Mercia of a great family;
my grandfather was named Ealhelm,
a wise ealdorman, prosperous in the world.
I will not be reproached by thegns among those people
that I wanted to escape from this army,
to seek my home, now my leader lies
hewn down in battle.  It is the greatest sorrow to me;
he was both my kinsman and my lord."

Others echo his words:

Leofsunu gemælde and his linde ahof,
bord to gebeorge; he þam beorne oncwæð:
"Ic þæt gehate, þæt ic heonon nelle
fleon fotes trym, ac wille furðor gan,
wrecan on gewinne minne winedrihten.
Ne þurfon me embe Sturmere stedefæste hælæð
wordum ætwitan, nu min wine gecranc,
þæt ic hlafordleas ham siðie,
wende fram wige, ac me sceal wæpen niman,
ord and iren."

Leofsunu spoke and raised his linden-shield,
his shield as protection; he answered the warrior:
"I make this vow, that I will not flee one foot’s step
from here, but will go on,
avenge in battle my friend and lord.
Steadfast warriors near Sturmere will not need
to reproach me with their words, now my friend has perished,
that I journeyed home lordless,
went from the warfare; but I shall take up weapons,
spear and sword."

No sign here of Byrhtnoth's declaration that they are fighting for king and country; these men are dying for loyalty and duty alone. It is a hopeless but - the poem would have you believe - a noble sacrifice; they declare they would rather die with Byrhtnoth than live with the dishonour of retreat.

Dunnere þa cwæð, daroð acwehte,
unorne ceorl, ofer eall clypode,
bæd þæt beorna gehwylc Byrhtnoð wræce:
"Ne mæg na wandian se þe wrecan þenceð
frean on folce, ne for feore murnan."

Then Dunnere spoke, shook his spear,
a simple peasant, cried out above them all,
urged each of the warriors to avenge Byrhtnoth:
"He who intends to avenge his lord among those people
may not flinch or think of fear."

We hear name after name of the men who go on fighting for Byrhtnoth, and then die valiantly by his side - names for the most part meaningless to us, but perhaps very familiar to the poem's first audience. Wistan, Godric, Edward the tall, Oswald, Eadwold, Offa - some of these people have been identified by modern scholars, but like a World War I Roll of Honour, the bare names say much on their own. One by one they fight and die, and the last words of the poem (just before the only surviving copy breaks off) belong to the 'old retainer' Byrhtwold:

"Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.
Her lið ure ealdor eall forheawen,
god on greote. A mæg gnornian
se ðe nu fram þis wigplegan wendan þenceð.
Ic eom frod feores; fram ic ne wille,
ac ic me be healfe minum hlaforde,
be swa leofan men, licgan þence."

"Courage must be the firmer, heart the keener,
mind must be the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Here lies our leader all cut down,
a good man on the ground.  He who now thinks of turning
from this battle-play will always regret it.
I am old in years; I will not go,
but by the side of my lord,
by the man so dear, I intend to lie."

It was an old-fashioned attitude even in the tenth century, the language of heroic poetry and not of real life; but at least one poet thought it noble - something to aspire to, perhaps something to inspire.

My own opinion is that this poem was written within ten years of the battle, most likely c.1000, and at Ely, where Byrhtnoth was buried and commemorated. (I should note that the date 10 August for the battle comes from an Ely calendar; other sources give slightly different dates.) An Ely chronicler, writing some 150 years later, recorded how Byrhtnoth was still honoured as a local hero there, and tells a story about how Ely provided hospitality for the English army on their way to Maldon, claiming that Byrhtnoth had previously tried to have his men accommodated at Ramsey Abbey. At Ramsey the monks offered him food for himself and only seven of his men, but in reply, the Ely writer claims, "he is said to have made the elegantly phrased response: 'Let the lord Abbot know that I will not dine alone without the men you refer to, because I cannot fight alone without them'." Very much in the spirit of the poem, and bearing probably about as much relationship to the reality of what happened at Maldon in August 991.

Luckily the monks of Ely were more generous than those of Ramsey; as well as feeding Byrhtnoth and his men, they buried him after the battle in what is now Ely Cathedral, where he was held in great esteem as a benefactor of the church. His widow Æthelflæd was supposed to have made and given to Ely a wall-hanging embroidered with her husband's deeds - one is tempted to imagine something along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry. But of course it's the poem which is Byhrtnoth's best memorial.

Friday, 1 August 2014

An Anglo-Saxon August

Harvesting (BL Harley 603, f. 66)

This year I've been posting at intervals extracts from the Old English poem known as the Menologium, a tenth-century poem which catalogues the months of the year, describing their characteristic seasonal features and saints' feasts. The sections for riotous May and the bright sun of June can be found in the posts A May Miscellany and 'Se lengsta dæg': The Anglo-Saxon Solstice. In this poem the month of July gets only six lines, mentioning no distinguishing events except the feast of St James; but nearly thirty lines are devoted to August, the month of Lammas and the harvest, and of several important saints' days. So let's take a look at how this poem describes the month which is called in Old English Weodmonað, 'weed-month', the month of long grasses. In Old English weed doesn't necessarily suggest an unwanted plant, only a wild and uncultivated one, so the name evokes the season's rampant growth in meadow, wood and hedgerow; and this is echoed, as we shall see, in the poem's interest in exploring growth and fruitfulness.

The text is from here (ll. 136-162); the translation is mine. For another Anglo-Saxon text about Lammas, see Latter Lammas and Second Shoots.

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. Þænne forð gewat
ymb þreo niht þæs þeodne getrywe
þurh martyrdom, mære diacon,
Laurentius, hæfð nu lif wiðþan
mid wuldorfæder weorca to leane.
Swylce þæs ymb fif niht fægerust mægða,
wifa wuldor, sohte weroda god
for suna sibbe, sigefæstne ham
on neorxnawange; hæfde nergend þa
fægere fostorlean fæmnan forgolden
ece to ealdre. Þænne ealling byð
ymb tyn niht þæs tiid geweorðad
Bartholomeus in Brytene her,
wyrd welþungen. Swylce eac wide byð
eorlum geypped æþelinges deað
ymb feower niht, se þe fægere iu
mid wætere oferwearp wuldres cynebearn,
wiga weorðlice. Be him wealdend cwæð
þæt nan mærra man geond middangeard
betux wife and were wurde acenned.

And 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. six nights], bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed, beautiful upon the earth. Then, after three nights, the loyal prince went forth in martyrdom, the glorious deacon, Lawrence; for that he now has life with the Father of Glory, a reward for his works. And five nights after this the fairest of maidens, glory of women, sought the Lord of Hosts because of kinship with her son, a victorious home in the fields of Paradise. The Saviour repaid the virgin for his fostering with a beautiful reward, life in eternity. Ten nights after that is always celebrated here in Britain the feast of Bartholomew, an excellent event. And likewise after four nights is brought to fruition among men, far and wide, the death of the noble one, he who long ago sprinkled with water the Prince of Glory, the warrior most worthily. Of him the Ruler said that no more glorious person would be born of man and woman in this world.

The riddling style of the Menologium makes you work hard to figure out the dates and the people referred to; even if you know what you should be looking for, you have to set your mind at it! So it's worth saying plainly that the events mentioned here are:

1 August: Lammas Day, the first day of autumn
10 August: St Lawrence
15 August: the Dormition of the Virgin Mary
24 August: St Bartholomew
29 August: the Beheading of John the Baptist

(I don't completely understand how the arithmetic works, but that's the general idea.)

To begin at the beginning: the description of the harvest here is beautiful. In hlafmæssan dæg you can see another instance of the etymology of Lammas (as I said before) in the wild; the name comes from Old English hlaf, 'loaf' + mæsse, 'mass', from the custom of blessing loaves of bread made from the first corn of the harvest. Yet despite its markedly Anglo-Saxon name, the poem reminds us that the feast comes to yrmenþeodum 'all peoples, nations everywhere'. The opening of the extract describes the transition from summer to autumn (hærfest is the name of the season as well as the harvest itself): after a period of summer's brightness (sumere gebrihted), the harvest comes, wlitig, wæstmum hladen, 'bright, laden with fruits', and the earth reveals its wela - its plenty, abundance, riches. It's remarkable that centuries before William Blake praised 'Autumn, laden with fruit' and John Keats described how Autumn conspires to 'load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run' (in poems imaginatively titled 'To Autumn' and 'To Autumn', respectively) the Anglo-Saxon poet could write about autumn as wæstmum hladen, 'laden with fruits'. Nine hundred years of English poetry separate them, but they landed on the same word.

I think we can trace something of autumn and harvest running through the rest of the passage, too. In this poem you get at most a few lines of pen-portrait to describe each saint's feast, so it's a highly allusive and compressed style of description, packed with meaning. Every detail and every word has been carefully selected. So it struck me as interesting that in the descriptions of both St Lawrence and the Virgin there is an emphasis on the 'reward', lean, they receive for their deeds - for Lawrence's loyalty, the Virgin's fostering of her divine son. There's a focus on the idea of repayment, of Christ presenting them (might one say?) with the fruits of their labours.

And we also learn that the Virgin's reward is eternal life in neorxnawange. This is one of the oddest-looking Old English words; its etymology is obscure, but it means 'Paradise', usually in reference to the Garden of Eden. The second element wange means 'fields, plains', and in Old English poetry the word seems to connote greenness and open space (see the discussion of neorxnawange in Ananya Jahanara Kabir's Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature, on Google Books here). So the poet has chosen the most botanical word he could find for the setting of the Virgin's harvest, her life on the fields of Paradise.

We could take this a little further: John the Baptist's death is said to be widely geypped, which means 'made known, proclaimed' but can also refer to flowering and production of fruits - a general sense of 'bringing forth' is the key idea. And the detail the poet chooses to attach to St John is not his death (the actual subject of the August feast) but the fact that he sprinkled Christ with water, mid wætere oferwearp, like some kind of saintly gardener. This might be reading a little too much into it - though I'm not actually sure it's possible to read too much into the glorious complexities of Old English poetry - but I think we can detect a general musing on ideas and images of spiritual fruitfulness, production, yield, and harvest.

From an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August, BL Cotton Tiberius B. V, Part 1, f. 6v

As well as being Lammas Day, 1st August is also the anniversary of the death in 984 of Æthelwold, monastic reformer, educator, and influential Bishop of Winchester, under whose auspices this poem may have been composed. (Æthelwold has actually been suggested as a possible author of the Menologium.) To celebrate this pleasing coincidence, we can close by looking at how the month of August appears in another product of Æthelwold's Winchester: the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598). This manuscript of blessings, made for Æthelwold's own use, covers the cycle of the ecclesiastical year, and so here we are almost seeing how August might have looked through his eyes - how the month ahead might have been shaping up for the bishop at the beginning of August, in Winchester, around the year 980.

The blessings appointed for the feasts of August occupy ff. 101-105v of the Benedictional. This manuscript shares with the Menologium a surprising lack of interest in the month of July (St Swithun and St Benedict excepted; perhaps the monks of Winchester went on holiday in the second half of July); so after St Benedict's Day on 11 July, we resume in early August with a blessing for the feast of St Lawrence:

mære diacon Laurentius, the August saint who was burned on a griddle...


And the Dormition of the Virgin, with the apostles below and angels above:


Swylce þæs ymb fif niht fægerust mægða,
wifa wuldor, sohte weroda god
for suna sibbe, sigefæstne ham
on neorxnawange; hæfde nergend þa
fægere fostorlean fæmnan forgolden
ece to ealdre.

'And five nights after this the fairest of maidens, glory of women, sought the Lord of Hosts because of kinship with her son, a victorious home in the fields of Paradise. The Saviour repaid the virgin for his fostering with a glorious reward, life in eternity.'

(The green foliate border seems particularly apt here, with the poem in mind!)

The blessing for St Bartholomew's Day, the wyrd welþungen:

And for the Beheading of John the Baptist:

Call for Papers: Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300

Steffen Hope of My Albion and I are putting together a session at next year's Leeds International Medieval Congress on 'Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300'. If you work on saints in this period and are interested in giving a paper, get in touch! The Call for Papers is below.

St Dunstan nips the devil's nose (BL Harley 315, f. 15v)

Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300
Leeds IMC, 2015

We are seeking proposals for papers on the topic of renewal, reinvention and reinterpretation in the cults of saints in the period 1050-1300. Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

The reinvention of saints across cultural, national, or linguistic borders
The impact of church reform on the cults of saints
Reinterpretation of a saint's cult within cult practice, hagiography, liturgy and art
How a saint's cult might be renewed or revitalised for a new audience

Papers dealing with renewal in the cults of Anglo-Saxon or British saints in this period will be particularly welcomed.

Proposals for papers of 15-20 minutes should be sent to steffenabhope@gmail.com or eleanor.parker@ell.ox.ac.uk by 25 August.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

St Olaf in England


When Óláfr Haraldsson, King of Norway, was killed in battle on 29 July 1030, fighting against his own people, he was almost immediately hailed as a saint, and he became one of the most popular Scandinavian saints in the Middle Ages - in England as much as anywhere else. In this post I thought I'd draw attention to some of the evidence for veneration of St Olaf in England; it vividly illustrates the closeness between the English and Scandinavian churches, not only in the eleventh century (when it might be expected) but in the centuries after the Norman Conquest too.

At the time of Olaf's death in 1030 England, like Norway, was part of Cnut's pan-Scandinavian empire, and Cnut was an early adopter of the cult of his Norwegian rival. Ever alert to the political advantages of honouring the saints of the countries you've conquered, Cnut as king of England paid elaborate homage to English saints killed by Danes (especially Ælfheah and Edmund of East Anglia) and to murdered royal princes generally (notably Edward the Martyr and St Wigstan) - and Olaf, falling into both categories, was ripe for the same treatment. His death left Cnut - or more accurately his English wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, and her young son Svein - as ruler of Norway, until Cnut's death in 1035. This is probably the most important factor in the early spread of Olaf's cult in England, but Olaf himself had been closely involved in English affairs (that's putting it diplomatically) in his early life. Before becoming king of Norway, Olaf spent his youth in Viking raiding around the British Isles and elsewhere. It's difficult to distinguish fact from later legend on this point, but he was probably involved in the siege of Canterbury in 1009 or 1011 - on which see this post - before going into alliance with the English king against the Danes. (At one point he supposedly pulled down London Bridge.) During this period he converted to Christianity, and when he returned to Norway to claim his kingdom he took English churchmen with him. Some of these men later returned to England, doubtless bringing Olaf's story with them. So it's no surprise, perhaps, to see his death and his sanctity noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS. C), under the year 1030:

Her wæs Olaf cing ofslagen on Norwegon of his agenum folce, 7 wæs syððan halig.

'In this year King Olaf was killed in Norway by his own people, and was afterwards a saint.' Some of the earliest evidence for the liturgical celebration of Olaf is found in an English manuscript, in this mass for the saint in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 422 (the so-called 'Red Book of Darley'); and here's Olaf's name in the calendar from the same manuscript. This might be the influence of his English clerical supporters like Grimkell, who became a bishop in England after returning from Norway. (He spent some time at Canterbury, studiously not mentioning, one might imagine, how Olaf had once burned the city!) But various members of the Anglo-Danish aristocracy also seem to have enthusiastically adopted Olaf's cult: Siward, the Danish-born Earl of Northumbria, founded and dedicated a church to St Olaf in York, where he was buried in 1055; as the Chronicle records (MS. D, 1055):

On þisan gere forðferde Syhward eorl on Eoferwic, 7 he ligeð æt Galmaho on þam mynstre þe he sylf let timbrian 7 halgian on Godes 7 Olafes naman.

'In this year Earl Siward died at York, and he lies at Galamanho in the minster which he himself had built and consecrated in the name of God and Olaf.'

Meanwhile, down in Exeter, the Danish noblewoman Gytha - Cnut's sister-in-law, who had married the English earl Godwine - is recorded in the 1060s supporting a church dedicated to Olaf (it's still there). There seems to have been particular enthusiasm for Olaf in Exeter, one would like to think because of the influence of the fascinating and formidable Gytha: Olaf's name appears in the Litany in a Psalter made in Exeter (now BL Harley 863) and in a Pontifical (BL Additional 28188) adapted for use in Exeter Cathedral, both from the second half of the eleventh century. This is, remember, well into the reign of Edward the Confessor - no fan of Scandinavians! Some of the multiple churches dedicated to St Olaf in London were probably also founded in this period - the one at Southwark, for instance, where Gytha's husband Godwine owned land.

All this is important evidence of an Anglo-Scandinavian aristocratic culture which was fostered in the reign of Cnut but survived several decades beyond his death; powerful men and women like Siward and Gytha, living in England and married into English families, clearly maintained an interest in Scandinavian affairs which they carried over into culturally significant practices such as the patronage of churches. But this culture could not survive the Norman Conquest - quite literally; Siward's son Waltheof was executed for treason against William the Conqueror, and Gytha lost three of her sons in one day at the Battle of Hastings, most famously, of course, Harold Godwineson.

So after the eleventh century we have to look for other factors to explain the evidence for St Olaf's cult in England. Connections between the English and Scandinavian churches continued to be close, as witnessed by the career of someone like Eysteinn, Archbishop of Nidaros, who spent three years in enforced exile in England between 1180-3, probably bringing a copy of his own Life of St Olaf with him. Such recorded examples of direct contact can help to contextualise, if not to explain, the spread of a saint's cult, and in some cases there may be other factors at work too: it's hard not to see significance in the fact that in Grimsby in Lincolnshire, a town particularly proud of its Scandinavian roots, an abbey founded in the twelfth century was dedicated to St Olaf. Does this reflect an expression of local identity, a sense of north-eastern Scandinavian origins such as those celebrated in Havelok the Dane? Quite possibly. But then, even Oxfordshire has a church dedicated to Olaf (in Fritwell), so the overall picture is more complicated than that.

And the most striking post-Conquest evidence for Olaf's cult in England actually comes from Norfolk. It appears in the 'Carrow Psalter', Walters MS. W.34 (image from here, f.42):


The manuscript was made in East Anglia in the middle of the thirteenth century, and this page, the 'B' for 'Beatus' at the opening of the Psalter, depicts scenes from the life of St Olaf, identifiable by his huge battle-axe. This is a very prominent position within a Psalter manuscript, and it must suggest particular interest in Olaf. Let's take a closer look:


We see Olaf calming a storm at sea, having a vision of an angel, healing a man whose arms and legs have been cut off (no, really - middle row on the right), and seated in glory, axe in hand. We can't be at all sure who in thirteenth-century East Anglia might have been this interested in Olaf, or what value they saw in his story. Was his 'Scandinavian-ness' important to them? Or was it his role as a royal martyr, a king murdered by his own people? Or his visions and miracles? We don't know, and it's important not to over-simplify. One thing we do know is that this manuscript later belonged to the nuns of Carrow near Norwich, where it has been suggested Julian of Norwich may have spent some time. This is perhaps the only point of contact between Julian of Norwich and a Norwegian Viking martyr!

On the eastern coast of East Anglia, on the border between Suffolk and Norfolk, there's a thirteenth-century priory dedicated to St Olaf of which the ruins survive:



Perhaps this is where the Carrow Psalter was made. But that doesn't begin to explain why - why Olaf, and why here? You could point to various possible reasons: trade links between the Norfolk coast and Scandinavia; ecclesiastical contact between East Anglian monasteries and Norway; anxiety about royal power in thirteenth-century England; some sense of 'Norse identity' in an area of former Scandinavian settlement. Was it any or all of these? Who knows.


The image at the top of this post is from the church at Fritton, just down the road from St Olave's priory. That church also contains an early wall-painting of the murder of St Edmund which I posted about here.


St Edmund, king and martyr, who died at the hands of a Viking army a century before Olaf was born, and St Olaf, king and martyr, and Viking, thus come together on a distant corner of the Norfolk coast.

All this evidence for Olaf's cult in England paradoxically makes me think, more than anything, about what such evidence does not tell us. From the complex politics of the eleventh century - the mixture of piety and parade in the actions of that astute operator Cnut, or Gytha and Siward's performance of Scandinavian identity in their new English lives - to the exiled Archbishop Eysteinn, bringing Olaf's story to England in a kind of exchange for Thomas Becket's; from Grimsby's fascination with its Scandinavian roots to the unknown benefactor of the Carrow Psalter, there are cross-currents of cultural influence which we should not pretend we can fully reconstruct. It's so tempting to make a simple story out of this, to enjoy (as I just did) the historical irony of a Viking saint commemorated alongside the victim of Vikings, as if ninth-century Danes and eleventh-century Norwegians can all easily be called 'Vikings'; or to think about Olaf 'pulling down London Bridge', a stone's throw from the church later dedicated to him at Southwark, as if a medieval legend about what he might or might not have done in 1014-16 really has anything to do with how a church got its dedication in the 1060s; or to talk as if honouring a Norwegian saint automatically and straightforwardly suggests sympathy towards Norway or Scandinavia (maybe it doesn't). There may be some degree of truth in these ways of interpreting the facts, but they are only interpretations, if well-informed ones; history is always more complicated and more interesting than that.


N.B. I found many of the details in this post via the following articles, though the images (except of the Carrow Psalter) are mine:

Bull, Edvard, ‘The Cultus of Norwegian Saints in England and Scotland’, Saga-book of the Viking Society VIII (1913-4), 135-48.
Dickins, Bruce, ‘The Cult of S. Olave in the British Isles’, Saga-book of the Viking Society XII (1937-45), 53-80.
Townend, Matthew, ‘Knútr and the Cult of St Óláfr: Poetry and Patronage in Eleventh-Century Norway and England’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1 (2005), 251-79.

There's much more evidence for Olaf's cult in England than I could include in this post, so do have a look at all these articles, especially the last.