Friday 31 October 2014

'An earthy flavour'

Rochester in the rain
Not only is the day waning, but the year.  The low sun is fiery and yet cold behind the monastery ruin, and the Virginia creeper on the Cathedral wall has showered half its deep-red leaves down on the pavement.  There has been rain this afternoon, and a wintry shudder goes among the little pools on the cracked, uneven flag-stones, and through the giant elm-trees as they shed a gust of tears.  Their fallen leaves lie strewn thickly about.  Some of these leaves, in a timid rush, seek sanctuary within the low arched Cathedral door; but two men coming out resist them, and cast them forth again with their feet. 

In the waning days of October, I've been re-reading Charles Dickens' final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I first read it nearly two years ago, at a particularly impressionable period, and it hit me hard, the way novels sometimes can. It strikes some personal chords, since it's set in the kind of place where my imagination often wanders (and my work often takes me), within a cathedral community burdened by a half-remembered past.

For sufficient reasons, which this narrative will itself unfold as it advances, a fictitious name must be bestowed upon the old Cathedral town. Let it stand in these pages as Cloisterham. It was once possibly known to the Druids by another name, and certainly to the Romans by another, and to the Saxons by another, and to the Normans by another; and a name more or less in the course of many centuries can be of little moment to its dusty chronicles.

An ancient city, Cloisterham, and no meet dwelling-place for any one with hankerings after the noisy world. A monotonous, silent city, deriving an earthy flavour throughout from its Cathedral crypt, and so abounding in vestiges of monastic graves, that the Cloisterham children grow small salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses, and make dirt-pies of nuns and friars; while every ploughman in its outlying fields renders to once puissant Lord Treasurers, Archbishops, Bishops, and such-like, the attention which the Ogre in the story-book desired to render to his unbidden visitor, and grinds their bones to make his bread.

A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity. So silent are the streets of Cloisterham (though prone to echo on the smallest provocation), that of a summer-day the sunblinds of its shops scarce dare to flap in the south wind; while the sun-browned tramps, who pass along and stare, quicken their limp a little, that they may the sooner get beyond the confines of its oppressive respectability. This is a feat not difficult of achievement, seeing that the streets of Cloisterham city are little more than one narrow street by which you get into it and get out of it: the rest being mostly disappointing yards with pumps in them and no thoroughfare—exception made of the Cathedral-close, and a paved Quaker settlement, in colour and general confirmation very like a Quakeress’s bonnet, up in a shady corner.

In a word, a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral-bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath. Fragments of old wall, saint’s chapel, chapter-house, convent and monastery, have got incongruously or obstructively built into many of its houses and gardens, much as kindred jumbled notions have become incorporated into many of its citizens’ minds. All things in it are of the past.

This description is recognisably Rochester in Kent, which Dickens knew very well, but it could apply to many ancient cities. The setting of the novel is cathedral crypt and churchyard, amid the dust of graves and masonry, and the whole novel is obsessed with death; it is, after all, a murder mystery, of sorts, and Dickens died before it was completed. In the description above, it is (you won't be surprised to learn) the monastic graves which most appeal to me. As a lover of medieval monks, I'm always very aware when visiting cathedrals and monastery ruins that the dust of their former inhabitants is mingled with the ground you walk on and the air you breathe. Cathedrals are full of the tombs of kings and late-medieval archbishops, but the early medieval monks who mean the most to me rarely have anything to show where they were buried; at Rochester I tread unaware on the graves of Gundulf and Paulinus, at Canterbury I breathe the dust of Dunstan and Anselm, Eadmer and Osbern. (For some reason I always associate the latter with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, since it's the story of a troubled young cathedral precentor!) This is not an unpleasant or a morbid thought - actually I find it comforting. I have far more attachments among the dead than among the living, and am sometimes more at home there, too.

Durdles is a stonemason; chiefly in the gravestone, tomb, and monument way, and wholly of their colour from head to foot.  No man is better known in Cloisterham.  He is the chartered libertine of the place.  Fame trumpets him a wonderful workman—which, for aught that anybody knows, he may be (as he never works); and a wonderful sot—which everybody knows he is.  With the Cathedral crypt he is better acquainted than any living authority; it may even be than any dead one.  It is said that the intimacy of this acquaintance began in his habitually resorting to that secret place, to lock-out the Cloisterham boy-populace, and sleep off fumes of liquor: he having ready access to the Cathedral, as contractor for rough repairs.  Be this as it may, he does know much about it, and, in the demolition of impedimental fragments of wall, buttress, and pavement, has seen strange sights.  He often speaks of himself in the third person; perhaps, being a little misty as to his own identity, when he narrates; perhaps impartially adopting the Cloisterham nomenclature in reference to a character of acknowledged distinction.  Thus he will say, touching his strange sights: ‘Durdles come upon the old chap,’ in reference to a buried magnate of ancient time and high degree, ‘by striking right into the coffin with his pick.  The old chap gave Durdles a look with his open eyes, as much as to say, “Is your name Durdles?  Why, my man, I’ve been waiting for you a devil of a time!”  And then he turned to powder.’  With a two-foot rule always in his pocket, and a mason’s hammer all but always in his hand, Durdles goes continually sounding and tapping all about and about the Cathedral...

He lives in a little antiquated hole of a house that was never finished: supposed to be built, so far, of stones stolen from the city wall. To this abode there is an approach, ankle-deep in stone chips, resembling a petrified grove of tombstones, urns, draperies, and broken columns, in all stages of sculpture. Herein two journeymen incessantly chip, while other two journeymen, who face each other, incessantly saw stone; dipping as regularly in and out of their sheltering sentry-boxes, as if they were mechanical figures emblematical of Time and Death.

Erthe oute of erthe is wondirly wroghte,
Erthe has geten one erthe a dignite of noghte,
Erthe appon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte
How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte.

Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge
Bot how erthe to erthe sall, thinkes he no thinge.
When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe
Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting.

Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres;
Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, "This es al ourres!"
When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his bourres
Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scourres.

Erthe gos upon erthe as molde upon molde
He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde,
Like as erthe never more go to erthe scholde
And yitt schall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde

Now why that erthe luffes erthe, wondere me thinke
Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke
For when erthe appon erthe has broughte within brinke
Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke.

(For more on this poem, see this post.)

You might mistake this for a Halloween post, but it's not; as I think I've said before, I'm not a big fan of Halloween. I do like winter rituals of the kind described in this article (East Kent's hoodening tradition is wonderfully scary) and I have happy childhood memories of Bonfire Night, but when I was growing up Halloween was only celebrated by teenagers who had seen it on American TV and wanted an excuse to intimidate the neighbours. Consequently I'm one of those people who dislikes and slightly resents it, or at least the social pressure that comes with it. Over the past few months I've been thinking a lot about the seasons as they are represented in medieval literature - witness, for instance, this growing series of posts on the Anglo-Saxon year - and the more I do this, the more I object to the media forcing their shallow, ersatz constructions of seasonal ritual upon us, in their own version of trick-or-treat intimidation. Festivals of light and darkness, and seasons for remembering the dead, are too important and too beautiful to be monopolised in this way, or reduced to one homogeneous holiday which pushes aside the rich diversity of other traditions and practices. Nothing will ever stop the media doing this, but we don't have to pretend to like it, or go along with it ourselves.

As a medievalist, I'm particularly uncomfortable with co-opting medieval art and literature into the day as it's now celebrated, as if the grinning skeletons of medieval art had anything to do with plastic pumpkins and kids dressed up as Disney characters. Almost every feature of modern Halloween is later than the medieval period, and pretending there's any such thing as 'medieval Halloween', even just in fun, is pretty misleading - one of those occasions where we remake the past in our own image, for our own entertainment, rather than making an imaginative effort to perceive the ways in which the medieval world was different from our own. There's been a lot of this circulating on Twitter this week, and it makes me squirm. I don't care what people do with manuscript images of black cats and spiders, but I have to demur at the grinning skeletons, and especially at co-opting The Three Living and the Three Dead, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Halloween. In medieval literature there is no season more appropriate than any other for a memento mori; you get them in season and out of season, in spring as much as in November, and the whole point of an image like the Three Living and the Three Dead is that at any moment you are close to death - not just on 31 October. If anything, it's an anti-Halloween image; yet I've seen one particular version (Arundel MS 83, f. 127v) posted by five different people today, without context but with some jokey comment about how it's 'seasonal'. This is a distortion. To a modern audience such images may seem strange and comic - and grim humour forms part of their power, as it does in 'Erthe upon erthe' (and the works of Dickens, for that matter) - but I don't like the idea of laughing at them; they are supposed to be strange, and disquieting, and they deserve to be taken seriously. Allow them to scare you. We're all children in the face of death, 'growing small salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses', but the purpose of such images is to teach us to be wiser, to remind us what we are:

'Quid est homo?'
Man is dethys underlyng
Man is a gest in hys dwellyng
Man is a pylgrym in his pasyng.

It's nice that there are people happy and secure enough to make a joke of this, who are so full of life that they find it easy to giggle at other cultures' representations of death; but I'll never be one of them, I think.

Thursday 30 October 2014

'Æthelnoth the Good', Cnut's Archbishop

Æthelnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury, died in the last days of October in the year 1038, and in some places (Canterbury, mostly) they commemorate him on October 30. Æthelnoth is a fascinating figure to me, because he embodies some of the most intriguing questions about cultural and national identities in eleventh-century England: how and why did this English churchman, so thoroughly a product of Anglo-Saxon society at its confident best, become someone who could work closely with the Danish conqueror Cnut, aligning himself with the interests of a new Anglo-Danish regime?

Æthelnoth was born, some time in the second half of the tenth century, into a noble Anglo-Saxon family based in the south-west of England. He was connected to some very illustrious people: he was descended from one of the brothers of Alfred the Great, his grandfather was the chronicler and cultured ealdorman Æthelweard, and his father Æthelmær was the founder of Eynsham Abbey and patron of the homilist Ælfric. This was a powerful and pious family which cherished its roots far back in the royal line of the kings of Wessex, well-connected players in contemporary politics but with sophisticated literary and spiritual interests too. According to tradition Æthelnoth was baptised by no less a person than St Dunstan himself, and at the baptism raised his hand in a gesture of blessing, which Dunstan interpreted to mean that the baby would be an archbishop one day. In time Æthelnoth became a monk at Glastonbury, where Dunstan had been abbot before his elevation to Canterbury.

Although he was born into a time of relative peace, Æthelnoth's life was to be shaped by the troubled period leading up to Cnut's conquest of England in 1016: more than two decades of Viking attacks from without and internal political chaos splitting the kingdom from within. As ealdorman of the western shires (I love that title!) it was Æthelnoth's father who led the west's submission to Svein Forkbeard in 1013, and a few years later Æthelnoth himself seems to have participated in some kind of ceremony which bestowed legitimacy on Cnut as victorious conqueror and king of England: either a confirmation ceremony in 1016, or a coronation in 1017. (Thanks to the Canterbury writer Osbern we know Æthelnoth 'bestowed chrism' on the king, but we don't know exactly what ceremony this refers to.) It would be fascinating to know whether Æthelnoth had much choice in this: in 1017 Cnut had Æthelnoth's brother killed, as part of a last purge of the English aristocracy.

BL Additional 34890, f. 115

In 1020 Æthelnoth was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, presumably in part because he was already a trusted supporter of the new Danish regime. How did that come about? If only we knew... He was consecrated archbishop in the year of the foundation of the church at Assandun, about which I wrote recently, and after he became archbishop Æthelnoth and Cnut seemed to have worked well together, improbable though such a pairing may appear. Æthelnoth was the impetus behind the ceremonial return to Canterbury in 1023 of the body of St Ælfheah, the archbishop one before Æthelnoth, who had been murdered by a Danish army in 1012. The return of the martyr's body to Canterbury was a large-scale public spectacle, involving the body being taken by ship from St Paul's, where the archbishop had first been buried, down the Thames to Kent. Cnut, Emma and their little heir Harthacnut were all in attendance, and this grand occasion - masterminded, presumably, by Æthelnoth - was an effective piece of political theatre, righting one of the cruellest wrongs of the Danish Conquest, the murder of the elderly, saintly archbishop. Osbern, in his account of this event, paints an attractive picture of Cnut and Æthelnoth cheerfully working together as they retrieve the martyr's body from its tomb and take it down to the royal dragon-ship. This is mostly a product of Osbern's ever-vivid imagination, but something about it rings true.

BL Additional 34890, f. 115

This is only one of the occasions on which Æthelnoth aligned himself closely with Cnut and Emma, and consequently he gets a rave review in the Encomium Emmae Reginae (written a few years after his death) which calls him "a man gifted with high courage and wisdom" because after Cnut's death he refused to crown Cnut's 'illegitimate' son Harold Harefoot - saying that no one should be king but Emma's son Harthacnut. Harthacnut did indeed become king in 1040, but Æthelnoth didn't live to crown him; he died in the middle of Harold's reign, in 1038. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) records his death as follows:

Her forðferde Æðelnoð arcebiscop se goda, 7 Æþælric biscop on Suðsexan, se gewilnode to Gode þæt he hine ne lete lybban nane hwile æfter his leofan fæder Æðelnoðe, 7 he eac binnan seofon nihton þæs gewat.

'In this year died Archbishop Æthelnoth the Good, and Æthelric, bishop in Sussex, who had prayed to God that he should not be permitted to live a long time after his dear father Æthelnoth, and he died too within a week.'

The title 'Æthelnoth the Good' and this little note about the bishop's answered prayer suggest there were some people inclined to consider Æthelnoth a saint, but this never really came to fruition. In the years after his death the Anglo-Danish regime which Æthelnoth had so staunchly supported collapsed with the early death of Harthacnut. Canterbury was a troubled place in the reign of Edward the Confessor and directly after, and it's not surprising that a cult of Æthelnoth did not take hold; by this point it was no longer a good thing to have been closely aligned with Cnut. But I can't help wondering if things had gone differently, if Harthacnut had lived, whether 'Æthelnoth the Good' might have acquired a reputation somewhat like that other survivor of conquest, St Wulfstan of Worcester: a unifying figure, a promoter of peace and reconciliation, and a saint.

BL Additional 34890, f. 115

The illustrations in this post come from the 'Grimbald Gospels' (BL Additional 34890), a gorgeous manuscript produced at Canterbury around the time Æthelnoth went there. It's one of several lavish manuscripts made at Canterbury in the years 1012-23 - books of breathtaking beauty, created in the middle of wartime and the first years of uneasy peace.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

'Books are Glorious'

Re-reading the Old English poem known as 'The Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn' (which I wrote about this time last year), I was reminded of a lovely passage on the value of books. This poem is a debate between the wise king Solomon and a pagan prince named Saturn, who exchange questions and answers about the nature of the world - and on the subject of books, they agree. Solomon says:

Bec sindon breme, bodiað geneahhe
weotodne willan ðam ðe wiht hygeð.
Gestrangað hie and gestaðeliað staðolfæstne geðoht,
amyrgað modsefan manna gehwylces
of ðreaniedlan ðisses lifes.
Saturnus cwæð:  
Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes;
symle bið ðe wisra ðe hira geweald hafað.
Salomon cuæð:  
Sige hie onsendað soðfæstra gehwam,
hælo hyðe, ðam ðe hie lufað.

'Books are glorious. They abundantly proclaim 
the appointed purpose to anyone who thinks at all.
They strengthen and made stable the steadfast thought,
gladden the heart of every man
amid the pressing miseries of this life.
Saturn says:
Bold is he who tastes the skill of books;
he will ever be the wiser who has command of them.
Solomon says:
Victory they send to each of the true-hearted,
the haven of healing for those who love them.'

The value to be found in books, and in learning and wisdom generally, is a common theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry - although the most famous bookworm in Old English gets nothing by the books he devours! The 'Solomon and Saturn' example is particularly nice because it doesn't just talk about the value but the pleasure of books: they amyrgað 'make merry, gladden' the heart in the midst of the troubles of the world. Don't they, indeed?

This image shows one of my favourite medieval bibliophiles, St Dunstan (in BL Royal 10 A XIII, f. 2v), of whom we are told "Many were the meadows of sacred and divine volumes which, like some bee of genius, he flew over on the swift wings of his able nature." Something for every reader to aspire to! Dunstan has been proposed as a possible author of 'Solomon and Saturn'. In twelfth-century Canterbury, today (21 October) was celebrated as the feast of St Dunstan's ordination.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Walking to St Frideswide's Well

Today is the feast of Oxford's patron St Frideswide, our very own Anglo-Saxon saint. According to legend Frideswide was the daughter of a Mercian king, who fled marriage to become a nun in Oxford on the site where Christ Church now stands. Besides Christ Church, the place in Oxford most associated with St Frideswide is Binsey, where legend says the saint took refuge from the king who wanted to marry her. While there she discovered a well which can still be seen in the churchyard at Binsey - a 'treacle well' of healing water (and inspiration for Alice in Wonderland's treacle well). This morning, it being a bright October day, I took a walk to Binsey.

I wasn't planning another photo-post after yesterday's mammoth effort, but I never can help taking pictures when I go to Binsey, so here they are for your enjoyment (or not, I suppose). For me, Binsey and Frideswide are a bottomless well of associations, literary, historical and personal, but I said pretty much all I want to say about that in this post about Binsey and this post about Frideswide. So today I'll try not to say more than is necessary.

I walked to Binsey by way of Port Meadow, which probably looks much as it did in Frideswide's time. This large area of common land has never been ploughed (so they say) and its history goes back long before Frideswide, to Bronze Age barrows and Iron Age settlement, and by comparison Frideswide's Oxford seems like a thing of yesterday.

In the fourteenth-century Middle English Life of St Frideswide (which I posted here) it says that when she learned she was in danger from the pursuing King Algar, she fled down to the Thames and found a boat, miraculously ready for her, and an angel to guide her from Oxford to Binsey.

To Temese heo yede and fonde a bote al preste, thorw Godes sonde,
And therin heo fonde an angel that broght hem to the londe.

I didn't have an angel, but you can't get lost going to Binsey; the road doesn't go anywhere else.

Binsey is not really big enough to be a village - I'm not even sure it qualifies as a hamlet. It's a row of houses and a pub; even the pub is picturesque.

The road to the church and the well goes past the houses and out among fields, touched today by autumn colour and lit by fitful sunshine.

The church is at the end of this road, concealed by the trees.

In a wode that Benesy yclyped ys al day
Thre wynter in an hole woned, that seylde me hure say...

Binsey church has many charms, especially when you have it all to yourself on a Sunday morning, but it's very dark and very damp. Everything was clammy to the touch - stone, wood, paper left on the pews. Even the light is murky, like being underwater.

It was a relief to get back outside, though the churchyard too is damp and dark, overshadowed by huge trees. It's as if the whole place has been washed in Frideswide's healing water, and never dried out again.

There was the occasional bird chirping in the trees, as if it hadn't noticed it's October and not May.

And this is St Frideswide's well. It's actually dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch (as is the church), but since St Margaret never came here and Frideswide did, I can't help thinking of it as Frideswide's well.

A mayde that seve yere ne myght nothing yse
Cam to hure in the wode, and felle adoun a kne.
Hure eyghen that holy mayde wysche with water of hure honde,
And as hole as any fysche that maide gan up stonde.

I had all these things swimming around in my mind as I stood beside St Frideswide's well: Langland and Hopkins and Edward Thomas and 'Balm in Gilead', and the holy stone and the dear ground of Draper's hymn. They are poems, and memories, which make me melancholy, but it's the kind of sadness which is not painful, either to experience or to recall; if you come 'with springing tears to the spring of mercy', even if there's no mercy to be found, the tears can bring their own healing.

Saturday 18 October 2014

A Visit to Assandun (maybe)

18 October is the anniversary of the climactic battle of the Danish Conquest of England: on this day in 1016 the Danish army, led by Cnut, defeated an English army led by Edmund Ironside at a place called Assandun in Essex. After Assandun Edmund Ironside conceded defeat to the Danes and agreed to divide the kingdom with Cnut; when he died just over a month later, Cnut was accepted as king of all England. Assandun was, therefore, a significant date in the history of Anglo-Saxon England, which probably would have been even more significant if it had not been overtaken by the Battle of Hastings, which took place exactly fifty years later, almost to the very day. Last year I wrote about three sources for the battle in English, Latin and Old Norse, partly in an effort to suggest just how large this battle loomed in the memory of Cnut's conquest later in his reign (those three sources were written between 5-25 years after Assandun). Today I want to do something different - where that post was nearly all words, this will be nearly all pictures.

As I've been working on narratives of the Danish Conquest and writing a series of posts about it (which you can find here), I've been getting interested in what you might call the landscape of conquest: what significance certain places might have had for the people involved in the various events of the conquest. (For a possible comparison, think how the single word 'Hastings' has come to stand for everything that happened at the Norman Conquest.) We don't know whether Assandun had that kind of significance to Cnut and his followers, but there are various bits of evidence to suggest it might have done - I touched on another possible example in my post about a church in Sandwich. This train of thought has encouraged me to try and visit some of the places in question, so today, come with me on a visit to Assandun.

Actually, that's not possible. The site of the battle of Assandun has never been conclusively identified: it’s a common placename, and there are various possible candidates. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says it was in Essex, so the two most likely sites are Ashdon and Ashingdon, in the north-west and south-east of Essex respectively. Ashingdon has traditionally been the favoured candidate, but there are strong arguments for both (I personally lean towards Ashdon, for reasons I'll only bore you with if you really want to hear them). I recently paid a flying visit to Suffolk, in the course of which I found myself not far from Ashdon, which is on the border between Suffolk and Essex. This seemed the perfect opportunity for an impromptu pilgrimage. Now, even I wouldn't attempt to plan a pilgrimage to a completely unidentified battlefield, but there's a more tangible relic of Assandun, more worth going in search of. In 1020, a few years after becoming king, Cnut founded a church at the site of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) tells us in the entry for 1020:

on þisan geare for se cyng 7 Þurkyl eorl to Assandune, 7 Wulfstan arcebiscop, 7 oðre biscopas, 7 eac abbodas 7 manege munecas, 7 gehalgodan þæt mynster æt Assandune.

[In this year the king and Earl Thorkell went to Assandun, with Archbishop Wulfstan and other bishops, and also abbots and many monks, and consecrated the church at Assandun.]

The people named in this entry indicate the importance of this church to the new Danish regime. Wulfstan is the great archbishop of York, whom we last encountered in 1014 railing against the disloyalty of English people who collaborated with the Danes; he had by this time had quite a change of heart, and become one of Cnut's chief advisers and law-makers. (A lot can happen in six years!) Wulfstan presided at the consecration of the church at Assandun, and one of his surviving sermons, 'On the Dedication of a Church', may well have been preached on this occasion. The other person named by the Chronicle is Earl Thorkell, who was remembered as the hero of Assandun, and whom Cnut had recently made Earl of East Anglia. Any event which could bring these two men together must have been pretty extraordinary. We can also populate the Chronicle's crowd with various people likely to have been there, standing beside Cnut, Thorkell and Wulfstan: Cnut's new wife Emma, Earl Godwine (and his new Danish wife, Gytha?), Æthelnoth (soon to be made Archbishop of Canterbury), the Norwegian earl Eiríkr, newly appointed earl of Northumbria, and more. The church was entrusted to Stigand, a priest probably of Anglo-Danish origin, who though very much a winner after the Danish Conquest was very much a loser after the Norman Conquest. With hindsight, there are many tantalising connections and ironies to be drawn out from this disparate collection of people - English, Danish, Norwegian and Norman - who were between them to shape England's fate throughout the eleventh century: the following year Thorkell would be outlawed, three years later Wulfstan would be dead, and fifty years later the young priest Stigand would be Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning the upstart Godwine's son King of England.

So the church at Assandun is very much worth searching for, and that's what I went to find at Ashdon. In this post I'll take you on a tour of what I saw at Ashdon, but do take everything I say on the understanding that this might not be the site of Assandun at all - I’m not sure I can sustain ‘might be’s all the way through the post, so if I slip into unwarranted certainties you’ll have to forgive me! Perhaps another day I’ll go to Ashingdon and give that possibility its proper due. The awkwardness of this is not lost on me - the innate strangeness of going in search of a long-lost battle-site is only exacerbated by the idea that I might have been doing so in completely the wrong corner of Essex, so I do appreciate how absurd this whole venture is. But that's not a bad thing, for two reasons. Firstly, it proves some of the points I made in my first post about the problems of commemorating the Danish Conquest, or indeed any historical event where the sources are more complex than can easily be translated into a modern act of commemoration. And secondly, I'm aware that I went to Assandun to commemorate an event which was itself a commemoration, an act of collective remembering which was public, highly political, and open to multiple interpretations. Was Cnut's foundation of a church at Assandun an act of penance, attempting to make amends for some of the wounds of conquest; a display of mutual reconciliation, with both sides agreeing to put the past behind them; or a victor's monument to a triumphant conquest? Or a combination of all three? (And did Cnut and Thorkell and Wulfstan and the disparate audience all think it was the same thing?) Commemoration is and was problematic in any number of ways - in 1020 or today - and it's not a bad thing to be forced to confront what a strange and difficult thing we're really attempting when we try to commemorate the past.


All that said, let me show you what I saw at Ashdon. If Ashdon is Assandun, Cnut's minster would be this church, St Botolph's, which is actually in the nearby village of Hadstock. Why not Ashdon itself? I'll quote the guidebook: "While it is just possible that evidence for an Anglo-Saxon building is encapsulated in Ashdon church, there is nothing to suggest a structure of minster-proportions; hence historians have turned to Hadstock where a large and imposing Anglo-Saxon church cannot fail to command attention. There is no doubt that it was a minster, and of the period in question; it stands on the same 'Hill of the Ash Trees' as Ashdon."

The core of the present church is late Anglo-Saxon, and thus plausibly of the date of Cnut's minster. It's worth noting that St Botolph, the dedicatee of the church, was one of the saints in whom Cnut took an interest; Cnut was responsible for the translation of Botolph's relics to Bury St Edmunds, where he founded a church on the anniversary of the Battle of Assandun in the 1030s. There's some suggestion there was a shrine to Botolph here, not just a dedication - the archaeologists talk about traces of an empty Saxon grave in the fabric of the south side of the church.

The church stands in an attractive spot, on a more impressive hill than I was able to capture with a photograph. From the gate of the porch the churchyard slopes down towards the village of Hadstock, which consists of a few houses around a little village green.

The church has gone through various phases of rebuilding, but there are several parts of it which appear to be essentially unchanged since the eleventh century. Behind the fifteenth-century porch... a late Saxon doorway.

The decoration around this doorway, I'm reliably informed, is from the early eleventh century. The ornament is fairly worn on the front-facing side, though still clear:

And on the insides of the doorway it looks as if it could have been carved yesterday, rather than 1000 years ago.

The door itself is interesting too: according to the church guide, it's been dated by dendrochronology to c.1034-1042, making it the oldest door in England still in use. And very solid and ancient it feels. It's also one of a number of church doors associated with a gruesome folk-tradition: that it was once covered with the tanned skin of a Dane who had been flayed for stealing from the church, and had his skin nailed to the door in punishment. Needless to say, bits of the 'skin' have been tested and shown to be nothing more than cured cowhide. As I said, this bizarre story is attached to several English churches, but it's intriguing to find any oral tradition linking this particular church to Danes.

(15 pictures and we've only just made it inside the door! Hope you don't have anything better to do with your day...)

It's a plain but pleasing church, white-walled and light with a narrow nave. It's the nave which is the Saxon core of the church, apparently. Just in the corner of the picture above you can see the font, of which the base is 'possibly Saxon'.

Lots of fonts are 'possibly Saxon', but one can't help wondering, is this the font in which poor Stigand performed his first baptisms?

Other traces of the Saxon church are the four high, cobwebby windows in the nave.

In the eleventh-century church there was a stone tower above this crossing, but this had collapsed by the middle of the thirteenth century. The chancel is Victorian, but the two transepts preserve more of the older building.

With a mind full of Assandun, I was a bit startled to see a Danish flag – had some Cnut-loving pilgrims been here before me? It transpired that its presence was nothing to do with Cnut’s Danes at all; it commemorates links between this church and St Botolph's Cathedral in Aalborg. So nothing more than a fortuitous coincidence, apparently. It’s a particularly apt one, though, because it was at Assandun that the Danes bore into battle (according to legend) a famous and unusual flag of their own: a plain white silk standard, upon which would magically appear in time of war a black raven. If the bearers of the standard were to be victorious, the raven would flap its wings and clap its beak; if they were to lose, it would droop. At Assandun, says the Encomium, the raven was exultant; Thorkell read the omen rightly and encouraged his men: “Let us fight manfully, comrades, for no danger threatens us; the restless raven of the prophetic banner bears witness.” Inspired by this, the Danes rushed on to victory. This reference to the raven banner comes straight out of Scandinavian legend, and specifically legends associated with the most famous Danish conquerors of England, the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Not the kind of flag you'd want to hang in an English church!

On the south side there's more of that carving around the opening to the transept:

Perhaps a few strokes of carving on stone don't seem all that exciting to you, but there are precious few bits of stone, or of anything, really, which we can imagine being seen by the eyes of Cnut and Wulfstan and Thorkell.

The south transept:

The war memorial, so familiar a sight in English churches, struck me particularly here, since Cnut’s minster was, of course, a war memorial too. This one was installed in 1920, exactly 900 years after Cnut's, because however much has changed in nine centuries, some things don't change.

The Roll of Honour for the English side at Assandun is given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Þa wearð þær ofslægen Eadnoð biscop, 7 Wulfsie abbod, 7 ælfric ealdorman, 7 Godwine ealdorman, 7 Ulfkytel of Eastenglan, 7 æþelward ælfwines sunu ealdormannes, 7 eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode.
'There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfkytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Ælfwine, and all the best of the English nation.'

We don't know the names of those killed on the Danish side.

A few assorted shots:

The white walls and the hanging lamps made me think, perhaps only by association by ideas, of the church at Jelling, where Cnut’s grandfather commemorated bringing Christianity to Denmark. (There is a superficial resemblance!) If only Cnut had erected a stone monument rather than a minster church, we might not have so much trouble finding the site of Assandun...

There are a few bits of masonry just lying around; the north transept is like a museum of old books and unidentified lumps of stone:

The foundations of the Saxon chancel lie under the Victorian one, so that remains a mystery:

Looking back from the chancel:

(Where did Wulfstan stand to preach his sermon?)

And so, via that wonderful door, we go back out into the sunshine.

Such an English view!

So, that's the church. Where to find the battlefield? I'm afraid this is where things get hopelessly speculative, and really, kind of absurd. Because not only does no one really know where the battle site might be (if it's near Ashdon), on the day I visited Hadstock I had nothing to go on but this description from the local history website:
A local county history of Cambs reports that weapons were found in Red Field in the 1850s when the railway cutting was dug, 'presumably the relic of some skirmish between Saxon and Dane', but there is no official record and one would expect the odd weapon to be found almost anywhere in East Anglia after all the Viking raids... There used to be a small pasture on the corner of the Bartlow Road at the junction with Chalky Lane. According to the late Ernie and Joe Freeman, this was called Traitors' Field and it was unlucky to plough it because it was where Eadric Streona and his men held back from the battle and betrayed Edmund and the English.

This seemed marginally better than nothing, so that's where I went. But since I was lacking a properly detailed map (it was an impromptu visit, remember), I'm not even really sure if the field I went to, among the many fields around, was actually the one this website was describing. (By this point the whole expedition had become a lesson in how not to do a field-trip, to the point of almost being an unfortunate metaphor for the wild goose chase of academic study. I promise I usually do my research more meticulously than this!)

Anyway, I followed the map I had, and found a lane:

On the slope of a hill which is (I think) called Haw's Hill:

There's nothing around but farmland and fields, as far as the eye can see. I think this is the above-mentioned Traitors' Field:

The lane leads to a point of high ground above the River Granta, where there's a ford leading into the Red Field. 'Red indicates a battle site' said the church guide, optimistically.

Unlike Hastings, there's no visitor centre here, no audio tour, no English Heritage signage - maybe not even a battlefield. But even if there were, it would still just be a field. Everything else is all in the mind and the memory.

If you'd read this far in the post, I admire and congratulate and slightly pity you. Your reward will be a bit of actual, incontrovertible Assandun history. Because on the same trip, pre-planned and therefore properly pre-researched, I went to Ely - and in Ely Cathedral is buried the most high-profile casualty of Assandun, Eadnoth, Bishop of Dorchester.

This chapel at the far end of Ely Cathedral, now strangely empty and denuded of its medieval statues, is the final resting-places of seven prominent men of late Anglo-Saxon England, whose bones lie in chests behind this monument. They were Ely's chief patrons and benefactors, highly valued in the twelfth century, when the Liber Eliensis was written. Their remains were removed from the Saxon church into the choir of the Norman one, and eventually into the chantry chapel of a sixteenth-century Bishop of Ely. There they lie, barely mentioned in the guidebook and barely glanced at by the stream of tourists who entered the chapel while I was there. Perhaps it was the flamboyant eighteenth-century Latin inscriptions which put the tourists off; in which case it's a shame, because behind these memorials are people associated with some of the most powerful words in English literature.

The Liber Eliensis says Bishop Eadnoth went to Assandun with a group of monks 'to pray for the army', and was killed while he was singing mass (it's possible he was in fact just fighting on the English side); 'first his right hand was cut off for the sake of a ring, then his whole body was cut to pieces'. His body was retrieved from the battlefield and buried at Ely, where he was considered a martyr. Four years before his death, Eadnoth himself had been responsible for retrieving the body of St Alphege after he was killed by Thorkell's army - which makes his own fate particularly poignant.

Buried beside Eadnoth is the victim of Vikings best-known to students of Old English poetry: Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, killed in battle at Maldon in 991, and hero of the poem of that name. Byrhtnoth died in what is often considered the first battle of the Danish Conquest, Eadnoth in the last, and here they are together. I wonder if anyone at Assandun on the day the church was consecrated had the words of The Battle of Maldon ringing in their ears, whether Byrhtnoth's bold defiance of the Danes or the desperate last stand of his men: Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað...

And buried beside Eadnoth and Byrhtnoth at Ely, as if things couldn't get any more poignant, is Archbishop Wulfstan himself. He must surely have been thinking of Eadnoth - and who knows, maybe of Byrhtnoth too - on the day he consecrated the church at Assandun.

No 'cæsus a Danis' for Wulfstan; he died peacefully in 1023, and was buried by his own desire at Ely. It's Wulfstan who in his Sermo Lupi gives us the most memorable picture of England under Danish attack, where he describes in a thundering series of alliterating doublets the disasters which have befallen the country:

Ne dohte hit nu lange inne ne ute: ac wæs here and hungor, nu bryne and blodgyte on gewelhwylcan ende oft and gelome, and us stalu and cwalu, stric and steorfa, orfcwealm and uncoþu, hol and hete, and rypera reaflac derede swyþe þearle.

Nothing has prospered now for a long time, at home or abroad; but there was harrying and hunger, now burning and bloodshed in every place often and frequently, and theft and death, plague and pestilence, death of cattle and disease, malice and hatred, and the robbery of pillagers have sorely afflicted us.

In his sermon for the consecration of a church he talks about a king and his witan going to dedicate a church together, putting aside envy and hatred, and finding in the process another of those alliterative doublets: unity mid sibbe and mid some, 'with peace and with reconciliation'. Perhaps that's what Wulfstan sought at Assandun.