Tuesday 30 November 2010

Really Nothing

It's been snowing today. I'm sick of snow. And I'm glad November is over.

Sunday 28 November 2010

The Crowning of the Year

At the beginning of a particularly wintery Advent, this carol gets the frosty feel just right:

People, look east; the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad; though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
He for fledging-time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch; when night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.

Angels, announce to man and beast
Him who cometh from the east.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

- Eleanor Farjeon

Wednesday 24 November 2010


More stained-glass Anglo-Saxons, this time from my own county of Kent. For some reason I can only find a set of windows from one church, at Minster-in-Thanet, but they're good ones.

You see, St Augustine landed near Minster, at Ebbsfleet, in 597:

And began to evangelise the people of Kent:

I like the axe casually cast aside on the ground in this window. I'm not sure why the building in the top left corner looks so much like Stonehenge - it might be meant to be the Roman fort of Richborough, not far from Ebbsfleet. If it isn't, it should be!

The main reason I like these windows is for this figure:

Bertha, wife of the King of Kent, was already a Christian, and had brought a Frankish bishop with her to England when she married King Ethelbert. With the permission of her pagan husband, she had restored a Roman church in Canterbury before the arrival of Augustine's mission; that's it in her arms, I think. It's St Martin's, the oldest parish church in continuous use in England. Her influence seems to have played an important part in encouraging her husband to accept Christianity.

There she is in the background as Ethelbert is baptised; just beautiful. I think Bertha and St Margaret of Scotland would have found a lot in common.


More stained-glass Anglo-Saxons, though this time the windows are from Northumberland, and some of the people aren't Angles or Saxons at all. First, for instance, St Aidan of Lindisfarne:

This is from the church at the royal castle at Bamburgh, the site of his death; it shows the moment of his death, which took place in 651.

And here we have lots of saints in one spectacular modern window. I think it's from the church of St Ebba in Beadnell, just down the coast from Bamburgh, but I took this picture a few years ago and now can't be sure. But that would explain why St Ebba is so prominent, so...

This is a really delightful composition. I particularly like the bearded Bede, intent on his book, and St Columba's flowing robes.

The saints along the bottom are beautifully done as well, especially Martin on the far right. It's a real gem, hidden away in a tiny church in a barely-there holiday village...

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Our Fathers That Begat Us

There haven't been enough pictures around here recently. And so, in no particular order, here's a collection of some stained-glass Anglo-Saxons, from various churches. The windows are mostly 20th-century, but revivalism is often just as dear to me as the real thing... It's important that this history is commemorated, and in the late 19th/early 20th centuries the English church understood that rather better than it does today.

This is the coronation of King Edgar, from Bath Abbey. Edgar was the first English king to be crowned and consecrated in the way we would understand a coronation ceremony today; but his coronation took place when he had been king (and a very good king, at that) for fourteen years. The ceremony took place at Bath on Whitsunday, 973, and legend has it that Edgar was rowed up the river by six British kings who had submitted to his overlordship:

Hence the ship at the bottom. Note that he's being crowned by St Dunstan.

Here are some more kings, this time from Wells Cathedral. I got rather excited when I saw this window - six Anglo-Saxon kings all in one go!

The text along the bottom reads "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us". The first king at the far left is Ine, king of Wessex between 688-726, who is mostly known for issuing one of the first law codes in Anglo-Saxon history, but who is commemorated at Wells because he founded its first church on the site of the present-day cathedral. The second from left is Egbert, king of Wessex from 802-839, who contributed to the final dominance of Wessex over the kingdom of Mercia (Wells is right in the heart of Wessex; in Mercia, and in Northumbria, and Kent they celebrate different Anglo-Saxon kings...):

Next we have the wonderful Alfred the Great, about whom nothing need be said, and his son Edward the Elder. Note the book and sword which Alfred the warrior-philosopher king is holding. I can't quite work out what it is Edward the Elder has in his hands:

Then Athelstan, the victor of the battle of Brunanburh, a 'warrior king' indeed; and Edgar again.

Alfred appears in a second window at Wells, I think in honour of his being the founder of the British navy:

And of course then there's my own favourite, Edward the Confessor, sharing a window with St Dunstan:

(Not a great photo, unfortunately, but I hope you can see that Edward is holding his emblem, a ring.)

Before we leave Wessex, here's a non-royal Anglo-Saxon: Eilmer the flying monk, from Malmesbury Abbey. Do read the link on him; he's just wonderful. An eleventh-century attempt at human flight!

And also from Malmesbury, St Aldhelm, holding a plan of the monastery he founded (below). Although William of Malmesbury, next to him, isn't actually an Anglo-Saxon (since he lived in the twelfth century and all), it's nice that he should have a place here, since he was the first real scholar of Anglo-Saxon history. I use his work twenty times a day, and can only aspire to be half the historian he was.

Also from Wessex, this is a good St Dunstan (again) at Selworthy, Somerset:

And a rather less good King Alfred, from Aller in the same county:

This commemorates one of the most important events of Alfred's reign, the peace treaty he signed with the Danes in which the Viking leader, Guthrum, agreed to be baptised with Alfred as his godfather. There's an indistinguishable lump of stone in the church which they say might be the font used in that baptism; well, you never know.

That will have to be enough for today; tomorrow, Northumbria and Kent.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Eadmund se eadiga: reprise

A repost from two years ago. I've gone back and corrected the translation, though, because I like to think my Old English has got better in that time, although it's probably got worse ;)

This is a tough day for me, loyalties-wise. On this day in 869, Edmund, King of East Anglia, was killed after refusing to submit to the Danish army who were ravaging his kingdom. Though I blithely say 'killed', I should mention that the (St Sebastian-influenced, but nonetheless widely accepted) story says he was tied to a tree, beaten, shot through with arrows like a hedgehog, and then beheaded. Before long he began to be revered as a martyr (that's what happens when you're killed by something called 'the Great Heathen Army') and got Bury St Edmunds named after him. His death became one of the defining images of Viking aggression, even among (later, Christian) Norse writers.

So today is rather a sad day for those of us who like both Old Norse and Old English, because a lot of the time Vikings wrote really good poetry and fantastic sagas, but then sometimes they also brutally murdered people.

Ælfric's Life of St Edmund is one of the texts most English students at Oxford study for the Old English Mods paper; it functions as a nice typical saint's life for beginners to read, and as a bonus features not only the aforementioned hedgehog parallel, but also Edmund's severed head calling out "here! here!" to the people looking for it. This story is consequently one of the things everyone knows, even non-medievalists. But it's not those colourful details I like best: my favourite part is the little dialogue when Edmund is deciding how to answer the Viking messenger who has come to tell him to submit to Ingvar. He consults with a bishop, who's frightened and says maybe he should just give in. This is how Ælfric describes Edmund's response:

Þa suwode se cynincg and beseah to þære eorþan, and cwæþ þa æt nextan cynelice him to,"Eala þu bisceop, to bysmore synd getawode þas earman landleoda, and me nu leofre wære þæt ic on feohte feolle wið þam þe min folc moste heora eardes brucan."

That is:

Then the king became very quiet and looked at the ground, and at last said to him in a kingly manner: "Alas, bishop, the poor people of this land are shamefully mistreated, and it would now be preferable to me to fall in battle so that my people might continue to enjoy their land."
I love that moment of contemplation - "suwode... and beseah to þære eorþan" - and Ælfric's understated, near-tautological "cynelice". Edmund's concern for his people's welfare is one of his distinctive saintly attributes (he's particularly kind to widows, it says elsewhere). And here's why it's necessary:
And se bisceop cwæþ, "Eala þu leofa cyning, þin folc lið ofslagen, and þu næfst þone fultum þæt þu feohtan mæge, and þas flotmen cumað, and þe cucenne gebindað butan þu mid fleame þinum feore gebeorge, oððe þu þe swa gebeorge þæt þu buge to him." Þa cwæð Eadmund cyning swa swa he ful cene wæs, "þæs ic gewilnige and gewisce mid mode, þæt ic ana ne belife æfter minum leofum þegnum þe on heora bedde wurdon, mid bearnum and wifum, færlice ofslægene fram þysum flotmannum. Næs me næfre gewunelic þæt ic worhte fleames, ac ic wolde swiðor sweltan gif ic þorfte for minum agenum earde, and se ælmihtiga God wat þæt ic nelle abugan fram his biggengum æfre, ne fram his soþan lufe, swelte ic, lybbe ic."

And the bishop said, "Alas, dear king, your people lie slain, and you do not have sufficient forces with which you can fight, and these seamen will come and bind you alive unless you preserve your life by flight, or save yourself by yielding to him."
Then said Edmund the king, very bravely: "This I desire and wish in my mind, that I should not survive alone after my dear thanes, who have been suddenly slain in their beds by these seamen, with their children and their wives. It has never been my custom to flee; I would rather die, if necessary, for my own land; and almighty God knows that I will never turn aside from His worship, nor from His true love, whether I die or live."

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Margaret and Malcolm

Not to start another post 'on this day in...' but: on this day in 1093 St Margaret of Scotland died, just three days after her husband, Malcolm III, was ambushed and killed at Alnwick by the Norman earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray. I'm fond of Margaret of Scotland, by all accounts a good and holy woman who made the best of a very difficult situation. One of the few surviving members of the Anglo-Saxon royal family, she found herself in exile in Scotland after the Norman Conquest, and she was married to Malcolm presumably without having much choice in the matter; but an account of her life by Turgot, Bishop of St Andrews, who knew them both well, speaks touchingly of their relationship:

"By the help of God she made [Malcolm] most attentive to the works of justice, mercy, almsgiving, and other virtues. From her he learnt how to keep the vigils of the night in constant prayer; she instructed him by her exhortation and example how to pray to God with groanings from the heart and abundance of tears. I was astonished, I confess, at this great miracle of God's mercy when I perceived in the king such a steady earnestness in his devotion, and I wondered how it was that there could exist in the heart of a man living in the world such an entire sorrow for sin. There was in him a sort of dread of offending one whose life was so venerable; for he could not but perceive from her conduct that Christ dwelt within her; nay, more, he readily obeyed her wishes and prudent counsels in all things. Whatever she refused, he refused also; whatever pleased her, he also loved for the love of her.

Hence it was that, although he could not read, he would turn over and examine books which she used either for her devotions or her study; and whenever he heard her say that she was fonder of one of them than the others, this one he too used to look at with special affection, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands. Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals, whom he commanded to ornament that volume with gold and gems, and when the work was finished, the king himself used to carry the volume to the queen as a kind proof of his devotion."

And again:

"Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold upon Maundy Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the Queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried, and found guilty."

The whole thing can be read here. Sadly, these lovely stories did not make it into Shakespeare's Macbeth, which deals with a rather earlier period in Malcolm's life...

Saturday 13 November 2010

St Brice's Day

Today, November 13th, is the date of one of the most unpleasant acts of government brutality in Anglo-Saxon history. On St Brice's Day, 1002, King Æthelred ordered "all the Danes who were among the English people" to be killed, apparently because he was afraid of plots against his life by Danes resident in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) is tight-lipped about the events of St Brice's Day, at the end of its account of an eventful year:

Her on þissum geare se cyng gerædde 7 his witan. þæt man sceolde gafol gyldon þam flotan. 7 frið wið hi geniman wið þon þe hi heora yfeles geswican sceoldan. Ða sende se cyng to þam flotan Leofsig ealdorman. 7 he þa þæs cynges worde 7 his witena grið wið hi gesætte. 7 þet hi to metsunge fengon 7 to gafle. 7 hi þa þæt underfengon. 7 him man þa geald .xxiiii. þusend punda. Ða on gemang þysum ofsloh Leofsig ealdorman Æfic þæs cynges heahgerefan. 7 se cyng hine ða geutode of earde. And þa on þam ilcan lengtene com seo hlæfdige Ricardes dohtor hider to lande. On ðam ilcan sumera Ealdulf arcebiscop forðferde. 7 on ðam geare se cyng het ofslean ealle ða Deniscan men þe on Angelcynne wæron on Bricius messedæg. forþon þam cynge wæs gecydd þæt hi woldon hine besyrewian æt his life. 7 syððan ealle his witan. 7 habban syþðan his rice.

[In this year the king and his advisers decided that they should pay tribute to the [Danish] fleet, and make peace with them on condition that they should cease their harmful attacks. Then the king sent Ealdorman Leofsige to the fleet, and at the command of the king and his advisers he arranged that there should be a peace-settlement with them, and they should receive provisions and tribute. They accepted that, and they were paid 24, 000 pounds. Then in the middle of this Leofsige killed Æfic, the king's high-reeve, and the king exiled him from the country. And that same spring the Lady, daughter of Richard [Duke of Normandy], came here to this country. That same summer Archbishop Ealdulf died. And in that year the king ordered to be killed all the Danes who were among the English people, on St Brice's Day, because the king was told that they were plotting to take his life and then those of all his advisers, and after that have his kingdom.]

That's all the Chronicle tells us - the order, and why it was given, but not how and where it was carried out. The armies of the Danish king Svein Forkbeard and other Scandinavian leaders had been raiding England on and off for the past decade, so Æthelred and his advisers were trying a range of solutions - but St Brice's Day did little to help, and probably made things worse. We know from a contemporary source that in Oxford - a border town where the Danish residents were as likely to be traders as Viking warriors - a group of Danes took refuge in St Frideswide's church (on the site of what is now Christ Church Cathedral), and the church was burned down by their pursuers. The order was impractical from the outset, because in the early eleventh century it would have been impossible to kill 'all the Danes among the English'; there were just too many of them, and the order certainly could not have been carried out in the north and east of England, a mixed population with many people of Danish or part-Danish descent (just ten years later this part of England would reject Æthelred and accept Svein Forkbeard as king - can't imagine why!). Perhaps the idea was not really to encourage people to kill their neighbours but to force them to choose sides, to affirm that they were part of the Angelcynn, and not sympathetic to the Danes. Here, as elsewhere, Angelcynn seems intended to be an exclusionary, polemical name for 'the English', defining them in simple opposition to 'the Danes', and leaving those who might have shared lineage or sympathies caught between the two. In practice the order must have been directed at small communities settled within towns like Oxford, which makes it a particularly cruel and ineffective idea - this was the kind of bad counsel which in later medieval tradition got Æthelred his nickname 'Unready' ('ill-advised'). The marriage which took place in that year was not well-omened: 'the Lady' mentioned by the Chronicle, the formidable Emma, came to England to marry Æthelred, and the following year gave birth to his son Edward (the future Confessor) - but she ended up fifteen years later married to her husband's enemy, Cnut. You can see what a chaotic state the English nobility were in from that reference in the Chronicle to Ealdorman Leofsige killing Æfic and being exiled. The atrocities of the Viking Age were not, by any means, all on the Viking side.

Apart from the events in Oxford, it would be difficult to assess the impact of St Brice's Day if it were not for the historian Henry of Huntingdon, writing about 130 years later, reporting what he had heard about that day:

King Ethelred’s pride increased and his faithlessness grew: in a treacherous plot, he ordered all the Danes who were living peacefully in England to be put to death on the same day, namely the feast of St Brice. Concerning this crime, in my childhood I heard very old men say that the king had sent secret letters to every city, according to which the English either maimed all the unsuspecting Danes on the same day and hour with their swords, or, suddenly, at the same moment, captured them and destroyed them by fire.

Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford, 1996), p. 341.

Henry was a child in the 1090s, so the people he heard talk about this during his childhood were (unless they were very old indeed) probably not eyewitnesses, but had perhaps heard about the massacre from their parents. The story sounds exaggerated, but is perhaps more interesting for being so; it suggests that the 'massacre' was remembered in the East Midlands, where Henry grew up, as an event of greater significance than the bald record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would suggest. There are other twelfth-century references to it which give a similar impression: William of Malmesbury tells how the sister of Svein Forkbeard was supposed to have been among those killed, together with her husband and child:

[When Svein invaded England] his chief purpose was to avenge his sister Gunnhild. Gunnhild, who was a woman of some beauty and much character, had come to England with her husband the powerful jarl Pallig, adopted Christianity, and offered herself as a hostage for peace with the Danes. [Æthelred's chief adviser] Eadric in his disastrous fury had ordered her to be beheaded with the other Danes, though she declared plainly that the shedding of her blood would cost all England dear. And for her part, she faced death with presence of mind; she never grew pale at the prospect, nor did she change expression after death, even when her body was drained of blood, though her husband had been killed before her eyes, and her son, a very likely child, pierced by four lances.

Gesta Regum Anglorum, ed. and trans. by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998) p. 301.

There may a grain of truth in this story; Pallig was a Danish warrior who had been recruited to fight for Æthelred and then turned against him in 1001, so Æthelred might well have taken the opportunity of St Brice's Day to kill him. And it's not impossible that he was married to Svein's sister and that they were both killed along with their child in 1002. But Gunnhild's bravery and her prophecy - 'the shedding of her blood would cost all England dear' - are pure legend, and interesting for that reason. Vengeance for such a death is a noble motive for an invasion, and avenging his valiant sister casts Svein in a more positive light than English sources usually do. (And note that the child killed would be his sister's son, a particularly significant relationship in both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian culture and literature.) There are in fact multiple stories from medieval England which say the Danes invaded the country to avenge the death of an innocent family member, and in my view at least some of them originate in a kind of mythologising and justifying of the Danish conquest which went on among those parts of the population sympathetic to Danish rule (whether a later writer like William of Malmesbury intended this by repeating them or not). It's attractive to give a story a human motive like love or revenge - it's part of the process which turns historical events into legend and powerful cultural memory. Gunnhild's bravery on St Brice's Day is the stuff of such legend, and who knows whether Svein and Cnut really thought Æthelred was responsible for her death; but it's a nice irony that some years later, when Cnut married Æthelred's widow, 'the Lady' Emma who came to England in the year of St Brice's Day, they named their daughter Gunnhild.

How a later medieval artist imagined Svein's invasion (BL Harley 2278, f. 98v)

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Tooley and Toosey

A little collection of common versions of saints' names, which for some reason I found rather lovely. It's a note to the observation that there was a St Tooley's Church (a corruption of St Olaf) in Norwich, pulled down in 1546.
There is evidence that the t of Saint was similarly prefixed to Olave at St Olave's Bridge, Southwark, Chichester, Bradford-on-Avon, Chester, Dublin and North Widewall (Orkney)... Useful parallels are the form St Twosole recorded by John Aubrey (Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, p. 29) as the Wiltshire country folk's rendering of S. Oswald; the pronunciation [tu 'zi] for St Osyth, in the seventeenth-century Seinte Toosie (PN Essex 348); T'andry cakes, made in Bucks on the feast of S. Andrew (W. Henderson, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties, 2nd ed., p. 98); tawdry, originally applied to laces (neckties) bought at St Audrey's Fair at Ely; Tan Gate (PN. Wilts 22), which was Seynt Anne Gate in 1455.

Bruce Dickins, ‘The Cult of S. Olave in the British Isles’, Saga-book of the Viking Society XII (1937-45), 53-80 (61, n.4).

I knew that 'tawdry' came from St Audrey (itself a corruption of St Æthelthryth) but the others are new to me.

See also Tooley St, London...

Saturday 6 November 2010

No less edifying

"I steadfastly believe that the holy deeds of the Angles and Saxons of England could be no less edifying to northern Christians than the deeds of Greeks and Egyptians, which devoted scholars have fully recorded in lengthy narratives that are freely studied and give much pleasure. Moreover, I believe that, little as these things are known amongst our own countrymen, they must prove all the more pleasing and full of grace to men of ardent charity."

Thanks, Orderic Vitalis; I quite agree.

And a miracle of St Guthlac:

"A jackdaw dropped a document it had seized into the middle of a pool; yet by the merits of the man of God it was undamaged by the water as it caught on a reed, and Guthlac restored it safely to the anxious scribe".

There you go, a saint for any student who's ever dropped their work in a puddle.

Thursday 4 November 2010


George Herbert, of course.

Thou that hast giv’n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a gratefull heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And sayes, If he in this be crost,
All thou hast giv’n him heretofore
Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
To save.

Perpetuall knockings at thy doore,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
And comes.

This notwithstanding, thou wentst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay, thou hast made a sigh and grone
Thy joyes.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than grones can make;
But that these countrey-aires thy love
Did take.

Wherefore I crie, and crie again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankfull heart obtain
Of thee:

Not thankfull, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare dayes:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.