Thursday 31 March 2011

Anglo-Saxon Measurements

There were apparently some idiosyncracies in how they measured distance in Anglo-Saxon (or technically here I suppose Anglo-Danish) England:

According to a charter of 1023, Cnut gave to the monks of Canterbury the harbour of Sandwich, "with all the landings and dues on either side of the river from Pepperness to Marfleet... extending as far as a small axe can be thrown from a ship onto the land, when the ship is afloat and the river is in full flood."

They also possessed "anything in the great sea beyond the harbour, as far as the sea at the utmost recedes, and the length of a man holding a pole in his hand, and stretching himself as far as he can reach into the sea."

I do hope the monks of Sandwich went around throwing axes off ships and leaning over the sea with poles in their hands to test the exactitude of these measures.

The Latin and Old English can be found here; here's the relevant parts:

7 ic ann þam ilikan menstre to ðare munece bigleoue ða hæuene on Sandwic 7 ealle ða lændinge 7 þa gehrihte of ðam ilkan wætere of ægder healue ðas streames age land seðe hit age . fram Pipernæsse to Mærcesfleote . swa þæt þonne hit bið full flod 7 þæt scip bið aflote swa feorr swa mæg an taperæx beon geworpen ut of ðam scipe up on þæt land þa gereflanges of Cristes circean underfon ða gerihte...
7 gif aht is in ðare micelre sæ wiðutan ðare hæuene swa micel swa seo sæ heo mæst wiðteohð 7 git anes mannes længe þe healt ænne spreot on his hand 7 strecð hine swa feor swa he mæg aræcen into ðare sæ.

Here's something and nothing: in this same charter, Cnut also confirmed the presentation of his own crown on the altar at Canterbury. The earliest version of the famous story about Cnut and the waves - in which he theatrically demonstrates his inability to control the tide - concludes with Cnut placing his crown on a crucifix. Maybe this charter's emphasis on the extent of man's dominion over the seas isn't so odd after all...

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Norwich Cathedral

I've been in East Anglia for a week; many (many) more pictures of churches to follow!

Friday 25 March 2011


The Angel and the Girl
Edwin Muir (1887-1959)

The angel and the girl are met
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.

See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other's face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He's come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way
Sound's perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make.
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their grace would never break.

Wednesday 23 March 2011


As in many mirrors we are so many other selves, so are we spiritually multiplied when we meet ourselves more sweetly, and live again in other persons.
Centuries of Meditations, 2.70.

Sunday 20 March 2011

To prize what we have

Where people dream, and loiter, and wander, and disquiet themselves in vain, to make a vain show; but do not profit because they prize not the blessings they have received. To prize what we have is a deep and heavenly instruction. It will make us righteous and serious, wise and holy, divine and blessed.

Centuries of Meditations

Saturday 19 March 2011

Righteous Joseph

1. When righteous Joseph wedded was
To Israel's Hebrew maid,
The Angel Gabriel came from Heav'n,
And to the Virgin said:
'Hail, blessed Mary, full of grace,
The Lord remain on thee;
Thou shalt conceive and bear a Son,
Our Saviour for to be.'

Then sing you all, both great and small,
Nowell, nowell, nowell;
We may rejoice to hear the voice
Of the Angel Gabriel.

2. 'Tis wondrous strange,' said Mary then,
'I should conceive and breed,
Being never touched by mortal man,
But pure in word and deed.'
The Angel Gabriel thus replied,
'Tis not the work of man,
But as the Lord in Heav'n decreed,
Before the world began.'

3. This heavenly message she believ'd,
And did to Jewry go;
There three months with her friends to stay,
God's blessed will to show;
And then return'd to Joseph back,
Her husband meek and mild,
Who thought it strange his wife should be
Untouch'd and yet with child.

4. Then Joseph he to shun the shame,
Thought her for to forsake,
But then God's angel in a dream
His mind did undertake.
'Fear not, just Joseph, this thy wife
Is still a spotless maid;
And not consent of sin,' said he,
'Against her can be laid.

5. For she is pure, both maid and wife,
And mother of God's own heir;
The babe of Heav'n and blessed lamb
Of Israel's flock so fair.
To save lost man from Satan's fold,
Which Adam lost by thrall,
When first in Eden Paradise
Did forfeit by the fall.'

6. Thus Mary and her husband kind
Together did remain,
Until the time of Jesus' birth,
As Scripture doth make plain.
As mother, wife, and virtuous maid,
Our Saviour sweet conceiv'd;
And in due time to bring us him,
Of whom we were bereav'd.

7. Sing praises all, both young and old,
To him that wrought such things;
And all without the means of man,
Sent us the King of Kings;
Who is of such a spirit bless'd,
That with his might did quell,
The world, the flesh, and by his death,
Did conquer death and hell.

A carol collected in 1920 by Rev. G. H. Doble, from a woman named Elizabeth Hocking who lived in Redruth, Cornwall. Mrs Hocking, who was 84 at the time, had learnt this carol from her mother as a child in the 1840s. You can find the tune here; it's a nice one. Happy St Joseph's Day!

Friday 18 March 2011

Edward the Martyr

Edward the Martyr (Salisbury Cathedral)

18th March is the feast of St Edward the Martyr, a teenage king whose death - in the view of various later medieval writers - was the beginning of the end of Anglo-Saxon England. Edward was the son of King Edgar, who when he died in 975 left two young sons by two different women. The elder, Edward, was in his early teens, Æthelred (later 'the Unready') a little younger. They both had claims to the throne, and they both had factions supporting them: Edward was supported by St Dunstan and Oswald of Worcester, while Æthelred's faction was headed by his mother, Ælfthryth. In 978 Edward was murdered, after less than three years as king, and Ælfthryth came to be blamed for his death. The extent of her involvement can't be known for sure, but the most lurid stories circulated about her guilt in later centuries (has legend ever been able to resist a wicked stepmother?). This is how William of Malmesbury tells the story, writing in the twelfth century (I'm particularly fond of the bit about the immovable horses!):

King Edward treated his brother [Æthelred], who was still a boy, and his stepmother with proper warmth of feeling, keeping the royal title for himself alone, but allowing them all other privileges. He followed in the footsteps of his father's religious activity; he listened to good advice and took it to heart. The woman however, with a stepmother's hatred and a viper's guile, in her anxiety that her son should also enjoy the title of king, laid plots against her stepson's life, which she carried out as follows. He was coming back tired from hunting, breathless and thirsty from his exertions; his companions were following the hounds where chance had led each one; and hearing that they were quartered in a neighbouring village, the young man spurred his horse and hastened to join them, all by himself, too innocent to have fears and no doubt judging other people by himself.

Edward riding out to hunt (BL Royal 2 B VII, f.245)

On his arrival, his stepmother, with a woman's wiles, distracted his attention, and with a kiss of welcome offered him a drink. As he greedily drank it, she had him pierced with a dagger by one of her servants. Wounded mortally by the blow, he summoned up what breath he had left, and spurred his horse to join the rest of the party; but one foot slipped, and he was dragged through byways by the other, leaving streams of blood as a clear indication of his death to those who looked for him. At the time they ordered him to be buried without honour at Wareham, grudging him consecrated ground when he was dead, as they had grudged him the royal title while he was alive. So they enjoyed a public festival of rejoicing, as though they had buried his memory along with his corpse.

 The murder of Edward (BL Royal 2 B VII, f.245)

But the divine Serenity acknowledged him, and did honour to the innocent victim with the glory of miracles: so far do Heaven's judgements outweigh those of men. There [at his grave] lights shone in the sky, there a lame man walked, there a dumb man regained the use of his tongue, there every kind of sickness gave way to health. The story spread through all England, and made the martyr's merits well known.

Aroused by this, the murderess planned a journey to the place; she had already mounted her horse and was spurring him on, when she felt the manifest anger of God. Her familiar palfrey on which she had been used to ride, and which had before been swift as air and could outstrip the very winds, then by the will of God stood motionless. The grooms set about it with whips and shouting, to make it carry its powerful mistress with its wonted eagerness; their labour was spent in vain. She changed her mount, but with the same result. At length, though slowly, her unfeeling heart understood the purport of the portent, and what she did not deserve to do herself she agreed to get done by another hand.

After its first burial at Wareham, Edward's body was taken to Shaftesbury Abbey, and there pilgrims continued to seek out the tomb of the young martyred king. Ælfthryth retired to a nunnery at Wherwell, which she had founded (supposedly) in penance for the murder of Edward. William of Malmesbury goes on:

And since an unruly spirit is its own torment, and an anxious mind suffers its own evil genius even in this present world, Ælfthryth fell from her pride of royalty into a dire repentance, such that for many years at Wherwell she clad her delicately-nurtured limbs in haircloth and at night slept stretched on the ground without her pillow, besides inventing all the tortures she could for her body, a beautiful woman and finely faithful to her husband but worthy of punishment for the great crime she committed. It is believed, and is a widely popular view, that it was through her cruelty to Edward that the whole country, for a long time after, groaned under the barbarian yoke.
Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thompson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol.i, pp.265, 7.

The ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey

The murder of Edward cast a long shadow over Æthelred's reign. Although Æthelred was too young to have had any part in it himself, it was seen - in hindsight - as a bad omen, the first disaster of a long but troubled reign which was to be beset by factional fighting at court and the renewed pressure of Viking raids. It culminated in the Danes conquering England and driving Æthelred and his family into exile - the ultimate punishment for the murder of his brother, if you believe the medieval historians. St Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Edward's death and Æthelred's accession, was later supposed to have prophesied to Æthelred that "because he had obtained the throne by his brother’s blood, he would live in blood, and his descendants would be destroyed by a cruel invasion of barbarians; and, moreover, the whole country would be depopulated for many centuries by the fierce dominion of these men". In recording this, Dunstan's hagiographer (in this case Eadmer), writing on the other side of the Norman Conquest, adds that "though Dunstan said these things would not happen while he was alive, nevertheless, he asserted in a very accurate prophecy that these things would eventually come to pass in every detail - just as we read in chronicles and see today". 'Today' is the early twelfth century; the suggestion is that St Edward's murder brought about not only the Danish Conquest of England, but the Norman Conquest too.

Edward the Martyr (Salisbury Cathedral)

Thursday 17 March 2011

Cloister Lilies

As an antidote to that Harald Harefoot story.

'Cloister Lilies', Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927)

The Death and (Un)Burial of Harold Harefoot

On this day in 1040, King Harold Harefoot died in Oxford. Harold was England's third Danish king, the son of Cnut (his enemies said he was in fact the son of a cobbler, but that was surely just slander). Cnut had children by two different women: shortly after his arrival in England in 1013 he married Ælfgifu of Northampton, a member of a powerful Mercian family, and they had two sons, Svein and Harold (named for Cnut's father and grandfather). After becoming king of England in 1016, Cnut married the widow of his predecessor, the formidable Emma of Normandy, and they also had two children, Harthacnut and Gunnhild. Here's a family tree from a later medieval manuscript (BL Royal 14 B VI):

This omits Harold's brother Svein, because he never played any part in English history: he was sent to Norway with his mother in c.1030 and ruled there as Cnut's regent, with little success.

After Cnut's death in 1035, both Harold and Harthacnut seem to have been considered viable candidates for the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that a council was held in Oxford to discuss the matter, at which Harold was supported by Mercia and the north of England, as well as by the Danish fleet (the liðsmen), who were based in London. Wessex preferred his younger half-brother, but Harthacnut was away in Denmark at the time and thus missed his chance; before he could return to England, Wessex gave in and Harold became sole king. (Although the Archbishop of Canterbury supposedly refused to crown him.) Loyalty to the brothers split down traditional lines of allegiance in Anglo-Saxon England: Mercia and the north on one side, Wessex (by this period, the whole of England south of the Thames) on the other. Although there's a tendency to see Harold as the 'Danish' candidate, it's worth remembering that he was English on his mother's side, while Harthacnut was the son of a Danish father and a Norman mother, and both had spent more of their lives in Scandinavia than in England. Also, although Harold is sometimes called Cnut's 'illegitimate' son, pre-Conquest England (and Denmark) didn't have quite the same ideas of legitimacy as we do; Queen Emma certainly promoted the idea that her husband's other children should give place to her son Harthacnut, and Cnut may have agreed to this - but he made Svein regent of Norway, so only to a certain extent.

Harold and Harthacnut

Harold's reign lasted only three years (1037-1040) and we don't have much to tell us what he did as king. Perhaps more interesting than what he did is what his early death prevented him from doing; it's intriguing to speculate about what might have happened if he had lived longer. He was only in his early twenties when he died - for some reason, not one of Cnut's four children lived to see the age of thirty. If Harold had lived and held his kingdom firmly, Harthacnut might never have returned to England; in that case Emma's other son, Edward the Confessor, would never have returned from Normandy either. No King Edward means no Norman Conquest, probably. Our view of this crucial period is shaped to a very great extent by the fact that history is written by the winners, and in this case Emma and her sons were the 'winners', literally writing the history of this time in the way which pleased them best; Harold and his supporters never got a chance to tell their version of the story. It's useful to try and push against the appearance of inevitability which history, particularly familiar history, tends to acquire; by the late eleventh century it might already have seemed inevitable that Edward should return to the throne and the Danish kings became a blip in Anglo-Saxon history - but it really wasn't. If Harold had lived, 'everything would have been different. For it would have been another world'...

Anyway, he didn't. He died in 1040, and was initially buried at Westminster. He may have had at least one son, who eventually became a monk in Aquitaine, but there was no one else to succeed him, and Harthacnut returned to England and was accepted as king. Harold's death, like his life, was not peaceful (even on his deathbed he was embroiled in a dispute between the two Canterbury monasteries about ownership of the port of Sandwich.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, no fan of Harold or Harthacnut, describes what happened next in 1040 with unconcealed contempt (from MS. C):

Her swealt Harald cing. Þa sende man æfter Harðacnute to Bricge, wende þæt man wel dyde, 7 he com ða hider mid .lx. scipum foran to middan sumera, 7 astealde þa swiðe strang gyld þæt man hit uneaðe acom... 7 him wæs þa unhold eall þæt his ær gyrnde, 7 he ne gefremede ec naht cynelices þa hwile ðe he ricxode. He let dragan up þæne deadan Harald 7 hine on fen sceotan.
'Here King Harold died. Then people sent to Bruges for Harthacnut, thinking they did well (ha!), and he came here with 60 ships before midsummer. He established a tax so harsh that it could hardly be borne... and those who had previously been so eager for him then became disloyal to him. And he never did anything kingly as long as he ruled. He had the dead Harold dragged up and thrown into the marsh.'

John of Worcester adds more detail, saying that Harthacnut, with the assistance of Earl Godwine, Ælfric Archbishop of York, Styr the master of the king's household, Eadric his steward, Thrond his executioner and 'other men of great rank', had Harold's body exhumed and beheaded, and the body thrown into the Thames. A fisherman dragged it up again and gave it to 'the Danes', who buried it at their church in London (probably St Clement Danes).

Poor Harold! If this story is true, it helps to explain why Harthacnut was so 'unkingly'. But Cnut's sons were not destined to rest in peace, it seems: Harthacnut himself was buried beside his father at Winchester, but in 1642, during the Civil War, his bones (together with those of Cnut himself, and Emma, William Rufus, and a number of other early kings) were dug up by Parliamentarian soldiers and scattered on the floor of the cathedral. Mixed up together, they were collected and preserved in six mortuary chests, where they now remain, unidentified - the greatest men and women of late Anglo-Saxon England, a jumble of bones. A kind of poetic justice for Harthacnut, at least, if he really did treat his half-brother's body with such disrespect.

Monday 14 March 2011

What the Normans Did For Us

"There are reasons for believing that the Normans might have inspired the Anglo-Saxons to form nicknames of a more burlesque and abusive character than was earlier known."

Tengvik, Old English Bynames, p.279

Good to know.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Clad and enclosed

As the body is cladd in the cloth, and the flessch in the skynne, and the bonys in the flessch, and the harte in the bowke, so are we, soule and body, cladde and enclosydde in the goodnes of God. Yee, and more homely, for all they vanyssch and wast awey; the goodnesse of God is ever whole and more nere to us withoute any comparison.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, ch.6.

Friday 11 March 2011

Cutting Costs in the Fifteenth Century

From the Chronicle of Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire, this is a notable cost-cutting initiative by Abbot John Wisbech, who died in 1476:

"He it was who first wisely abolished that ancient or rather that corrupt custom of giving knives to every visitor on St Bartholomew’s day. By this both abbot and convent rejoice in being free for ever from heavy and needless expenses."

St Bartholomew, who was one of Crowland's dedicatory saints, suffered martyrdom by being flayed alive, and so one of his attributes is a knife. I guess people were given them as souvenirs? Sounds like it would get pretty expensive - and a bit of a health and safety issue too.

I found out today that the Crowland Chronicle, which I'm spending a lot of time on at the moment, was completed exactly 500 years, to the very day, before the day I was born. That's pretty cool.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Dangerous Jokes

Harald Hardrada had that nickname for a reason - he was not a man to be messed with. But horrible as this is, I do find it funny:

Harrying in Denmark in 1048, Harald’s men "burned down the farm of a great chieftain called Thorkel Geysa, and carried off his daughters in chains to the ships because they had made derisory remarks the previous winter about King Harald’s plan to invade Denmark; they had carved anchors out of cheese, and said that these could easily hold all the king of Norway’s ships.”

Haralds saga harðraði, ch.32

The girls were OK; their father ransomed them. Still: don't tell jokes about Viking kings.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

An Evening Prayer

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.