The Edge on the Sword- Rebecca Tingle

288 Pages, June 2003, Speak Publishers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


798539When fifteen-year-old Æthelflæd is suddenly and reluctantly betrothed to an ally of her father, the king, her world will never be the same. For as a noblewoman in the late 800s, she will be expected to be meek and unlearned-and Flæd is anything but meek and unlearned.

Her marriage will bring peace to her land, but while her royal blood makes her a valuable asset, she is also a vulnerable target. And when enemies attack, Flæd must draw upon her skills and fight to lead her people to safety and prove her worth as a princess-and as a warrior.

 

Though technically a children’s book, The Edge on the Sword is a satisfying read for adults as well. The story is a speculative account a year in the teenage life of Æthelflæd, firstborn daughter of Alfred the Great, who would become known as ‘The Lady of the Mercians’. Sixteen year-old ‘Flead struggles to come to terms with her betrothal to Lord Athelred of Mercia, and the challenges of growing up, when all she really wants to do is have adventures in the marshes around her family’s home, and read poetry.

However, trouble is afoot, as the West Saxons soon learn that the region around Alfred’s Burh is teeming with Danish raiders, so a ward named Red is appointed to guard the young ‘Flead. The presence of the mysterious stranger at first proves annoying and frustrating, but it time the loyal Mercian envoy teaches and advises ‘Flead, his example guiding her to maturity, and to face the greatest danger of her life.

‘Speculative’ historical fiction has the potential to be rather problematic, but this story was on the whole, plausible, accurate and well written. I for one enjoyed the way in which the author wove Literature into the story, including Beowulf, Judith and The Maxims- which the title is derived from. It is known that Alfred had his children educated during the time of his great reform programme, and possible that the sharp and quick- witted Æthelflæd may have benefited from this, so the references to her being taught to read and write seem wholly credible. Also, whilst there is no direct evidence that she ever actually physically fought, or was trained to use weapons, the novel has her doing so, which does ‘work’ in the context of the story. Who knows, maybe it’s not impossible…

Those expecting high political drama and battle scenes will be disappointed, as most of the story is devoted to an account of ‘Flead’s life, relations with her family, and experiences growing up- with the youthful impetuousness , stubbornness and occasional indecisiveness and general difficulty that any teenager or parent of a teen could identify with.
However, whilst ‘Flead has reservations and resentment about the changes which her position in life and responsibilities force upon her, these aspects did not ultimately prove anachronistic or jarringly modern as they do in other stories.

Such an approach is interesting from a social historical perspective, giving a ‘feel’ for what the life of a 10th century Saxon princess may have been like, though the story could be a little slow and repetitive in places.
My only gripes were this, and the occasional Americanism, but nothing heinous. It even proved useful for my studies- which was one of my intentions in reading the book, but also an enjoyable pleasure read. I would certainly consider reading the sequel Far Traveller. I would recommend this for all lovers of historical fiction, the Anglo-Saxon period, or just those wanting a good, clean read.

Parents considering the book may wish to know there is some violence towards the end, none of it particularly graphic, but at a level which may prove upsetting for some children.

The Revolt of the Eaglets- Jean Plaidy

Revolt of the Eaglets: The Plantagenet Saga #2

Arrow Books 2007, (New Edition), 430 Pages

1327500I may be in the minority for having not tremendously enjoyed this novel, as all reviews on Amazon are four stars and up. However, I just don’t feel a higher rating was deserved. For one thing, the writing style seemed very repetitive, and, as other reviewers have said, Plaidy seemed to have been very much in the habit of telling rather than showing what was happening. I don’t really hold that against her, as that may have been a style common to the ‘70s when this book was first published.

It was good in places, showing the breakdown of the relationships between Henry and his sons, and illustrating how his apparent desire to keep power for himself seems to have contributed to it. The strong personalities of both King Henry and Eleanor also came though, with the friction between them quite well written. However, perhaps due to the constraints of space it did seem as though things were a little rushed, and events covered very quickly and not in great detail. To me, the novel seemed to read a little like ‘A Brief History of’ book in some places.
Perhaps I’m just not so used to the older style, though I have read other works by this author, and found The Queen from Provence more compelling.

My only other gripe was that I was not sure of the accuracy of the incidents presented. Now I know no novel is going to be entirely accurate, and authors need to use artistic licence, but it seems that the alleged homosexual relationship between Richard and King Phillip II of France is little more than a myth, albeit one that seems to have been common at the time (in light of a similar insinuation in ‘The Lion in Winter’). I believe modern writers and historians are starting to question to whole idea that King Richard was ‘gay’.
I don’t know of any contemporary evidence the he was, and it’s now known that he did have at least one illegitimate son. Personally I think that just because the two men had a close relationship it does automatically follow they were romantically attracted to each other- and even for two men to share a bed did not necessarily carry sexual connotations at this time.

What with this and the mention of King Henry seducing Richard’s betrothed at the age of 11, which was cringe-inducing (which also may not have happened) I believe this may have been a case of artistic licence carried too far.

So in overall summary, Revolt of the Eaglets is worth reading, but may be prove frustrating for people who are more familiar than me with the details of the life and reign of Henry II, and those more used to recent writing styles.

The Knight who saved England….

The Knight Who Saved England: William Marshal and the French Invasion, 1217  Richard Brooks
April 22nd 2014, Osprey Publshing, 350 Pages

21898010This was the first biography of William Marshal I have read, though I recently became more interested in him, due perhaps in part to Thomas Asbridge’s recent BBC Documentary. I can’t make comparison with others, though I really should make an effort to read David Crouch’s William Marshal: Knighthood War and Chivalry in the near future.

I would describe this book as more of a military biography, with extensive attention given to battles, campaigns, strategy and logistics. There is some danger of getting ‘bogged down’ in the detail (and there is a lot of detail) but it’s a book worth persevering with- though I confess it took me nearly two months to finish it, which is not usual considering the Kindle edition is only 250 pages. Not that the book is bad (and I can plead mitigating circumstances), on the contrary it’s a fascinating, crammed full of detail, asides and interesting tidbits (I never knew Archbishop Stephen Langton was the man who divided the Bible into chapters) but those expecting a quick, light and easy read may be disappointed.

However, anyone seeking a well-researched overview of the life, times and historical legacy of ‘The Marshall’, to give them a good ‘sense’ of the period should be pleased. I wouldn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusion’s or comparisons (he does seem to judge by modern standards every so often), the structure could have been better, and perhaps he has fallen in love with his subject. Yet for all his failings, which any failings he did have, it would be hard not to admire William Marshal. How many septuagenarians, even today could lead a charge in battle or a regency government?

It would be no crime to finish this book with the belief that William Marshal is one of the great (if not the Greatest) largely unsung heroes of English history, who has been unfairly forgotten and side-lined. How many have heard of the Battle of Lincoln, or the naval debacle at Sandwich? Like King Alfred having been unjustly reduced in the popular memory to little more than the King who burned the cakes, William Marshall deserves more credit and popular recognition.

Altogether, recommended reading. I received a ebook version of this title from Netgalley in exchange for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

The Bone Thief – V.M.Whitworth

Wulfgar- Book 1, September 2012, 464 pages

13536871Edward, son of Alfred the Great, has inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and achieved a precarious set of alliances through marriage and military conquest. But the alliance is uneasy and the kingdom of Mercia has more reason than most to fear the might of Wessex. Their Lord is elderly and perhaps mortally sick, and his wife fears that she does not have the power to withstand hostile takeover. She also knows too well what her neighbour is capable of — after all, King Edward is her brother.

The chance to rescue St Oswald’s bones, beloved patron saint, to consecrate her new church and unite the people behind her, is too good an opportunity to miss. But they are rumoured to be buried a long way north — outside Lincoln, deep in hostile territory. Her secretary, Wulfgar, groomed for the priesthood since he was a boy in the elegant cloisters of Winchester cathedral but naïve in the ways of the wider world — is surprised to be sent on this mission. It will prove an incredibly dangerous journey, requiring resources and courage Wulfgar did not know he had, and support from surprising allies along the way including a maverick priest and a Viking adventuress whose loyalties are far from clear.

 

This novel was recommended to me at a conference, mainly because it was set in Mercia during  the reign of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and ‘Lady of the Mercians’. This period is not simply one of personal interest, but of current research for me. There does seem to be a strong ‘sense’ of period, and some of the detail was very interesting. Also, as another reviewer mentioned, the Catholic religious beliefs of the Saxon characters are not treated with contempt, ridicule or vilified as seems to be the case in some novels.Mrs Whitworth is clearly familiar with the era she writes about, and can re-create it convincingly for the reader using real events as an inspiration for the story.
The glossary was useful for the unfamiliar terms, and although its over 400 pages its not a heavy or tedious read.

Also, I have to admit though he may not be according to everyone’s taste I did take a liking to Wulfgar- aside from often loose tongue and his unhealthy infatuation with the Viking woman Gunnvor resulting in part from a certain scene in which he sees her in undergarments.
Yes he is weedy, was bullied by other boys as a child so has serious confidence issues, he’s a whiner, green around the gill’s and certainly not the sharpest tool in the shed- but I think I related to him as the unappreciated underdog who makes an unlikely hero.

His companion Ednoth seemed to be a typical hard-man, a useful balance with Wulfgar’s lack of fighting ability- and subtlety.
The other clerical character, Father Ronan had a grittier and more realistic outlook on life and his outlook and experiences seemed quite realistic for people for the Christians living in the Danelaw in which the established hierarchy of the church had broken down, and in which there might be nobody to perform ancient rites like baptism or confession. That said, I didn’t find him entirely likeable, perhaps because I thought him to be rather sycophantic and willing to compromise what he was supposed to stand for.

Gunnvor, the aformentioned Viking woman I found hard to warm to. She seemed little more than eye candy or and a potential Romantic interest for Wulfgar. Her strength of character, independence and having rescue the men from potentially dangerous situations seemed something of a stereotype perhaps intended to appeal to modern notions of girl-power.

Historically, I couldn’t find many problems, though I am not an archaeologist and so I’m not familiar with material culture and probably wouldn’t spot any errors in this regard. The main issue I had was the language, which often seemed rather too modern with characters using many contemporary terms and phrases. Perhaps this was necessary to allow for better understanding, but language which is too jarringly modern in historical fiction is an issue for me generally. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste.

My only gripes with the story were that it could perhaps have been resolved more quickly and seemed to drag a little and some of the characters’ actions didn’t seem wholly consistent or plausible.
Without wanting to give away the story, it just seemed incredibly unwise for the other characters to expect Wulfgar go off on his own after all that had happened to them- and I’m really not sure that the Lady of the Mercians would have risked openly allying herself with Æthelwold, the rival claimant to the West Saxon throne.

Overall, this was a good story with some memorable and lovable characters (in spite of their failings) which might appeal to those who aren’t so keen on novels full of battle or bedroom scenes.  I’m certainly interested being re-united with Wulfgar the next book, The Traitor’s Pit and only hope his heroism doesn’t involve abandoning his beliefs and convictions.

Henry of Huntingdon: The History of the English People

The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon 

Oxford University Press 2009, 154 pages.

6359119Compelling work by a twelfth century historian, poet and son of a married clergyman Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Covering the eleventh and twelfth century up until the death of King Stephen in 1154.
The almost continuous round of treachery, betrayal, murder, corruption, and warfare wrought by feuding kings or backstabbing nobles vying for power could make for a depressing read, were in not for Henry’s style.

For a cleric  and hence a non-fighting man, his battle scenes and speeches are worthy of a modern novelist or screenwriter. In William the Conqueror’s mouth before Hastings are placed the words- “Raise your standards men, and let there be no measure or moderation to your righteous anger. Let the lightening of your glory be seen from the east to the west, let the thunder of your charge be heard, and may you be the avengers of most noble blood“.

An account of a battle of the first Crusade reads “The Christians were furiously put to the slaughter. Their horses, unable to endure the strange shouts, the sound of war trumpets and the banging of drums, would not respond to their spurs… as the Christians were already thinking of flight, or beginning to flee, Robert, Duke of Normandy, raced up crying, ‘Where soldiers, are you fleeing? Their soldiers are faster than ours. There is no safety in flight. It is better to die here. Decide with me, follow me.

Such violent descriptions of Crusaders killing Turks might not appeal to modern sensibilities but even as one who despises William the Conqueror and his Norman thugs, its hard to deny Henry’s ability to create drama and spin a ripping yarn. He does moralize, in common with all Medieval clerical chroniclers Henry drew moral and didactic examples from the past, but nevertheless one is sometimes inclined to agree with his sentiments such as “Nothing is more excellent in this life then to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events. Where does the grandeur of valiant men shine more brightly, or the discretion of the righteous, or the moderation of the temperate, then in the pages of history“.

The author may have been something of a romantic, but he was also a pragmatist, and seemed to have genuine compassion for the abuses of the age. In an age when great men sought prestige and prowess was considered one of the highest of values for fighting men Henry was contemptuous of those who sought only worldly glory and gain, ay the expense of virtue, honour, honesty and humanity and implored men to “work hard at seeking the glory, honour, goodness, wealth,dignity and prestige that are in God. When you have gained these things, you will have them always. When you have gained the things of the world, they will flow away like water from a broken pitcher, and you have nothing

Even for those who are not religious the thoughts are profound and the sentiments relevant even to our own age, with no less of man’s inhumanity to man. My only complaint is that this version does not contain the whole of Henry’s history, which was far longer and not all is devoted to tales of epic battles. Some is regular chronicle, a fairly plain recounting of events. This Oxford version does however include a comprehensive introduction and lots of handy extras like a timeline and glossary, so useful for those studying this period at an academic level- or the interested layperson.

 

Edwin High King of Britain- Edoardo Albert

“Debut historical fiction series vividly recreating the rise of the Christian kings of Northumbria, England

In 604 AD, Edwin, the deposed king of Northumbria, seeks refuge at the court of King Raedwald of East Anglia. But Raedwald is urged to kill his guest by Aethelfrith, Edwin’s usurper. As Edwin walks by the shore, alone and at bay, he is confronted by a mysterious figure–the missionary Paulinus– who prophesies that he will become High King of Britain. It is a turning point.

Through battles and astute political alliances Edwin rises to power, in the process marrying the Kentish princess Aethelburh. As part of the marriage contract the princess is allowed to retain her Christian faith. But, in these times, to be a king is not a recipe for a long life.

This turbulent and tormented period in British history sees the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon settlers who have forced their way on to British shores over previous centuries, arriving first to pillage, then to farm and trade–and to come to terms with the faith of the Celtic tribes they have driven out.

The dramatic story of Northumbria’s Christian kings helped give birth to England as a nation, English as a language, and the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the English.”- Synopsis from Goodreads.com

Since reading T18643058he Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a famous work of history by the eighth century monk named Bede as a teenager I have been captivated by Edwin of Northumbria’s story. When I discovered a novel about him published by Lion (a well known-Christian publisher)  I snapped it up, and the effort of reading was well worth it.

A novel about Edwin is long overdue, and Mr Albert has written a magnificent one, though I long dreamed about writing one myself and he has beaten me to it.
It is the mark of a good writer indeed that I enjoyed this book so much despite knowing what happened to Edwin already from Bede.The story is bought to life  with beautiful deception of a long-departed landscape, and intriguing details  revealing a strong sense of period and a familiarity with the culture, customs and beliefs of the early Saxon people.
Warriors, feasting in the hall, listening to a bard singing tales of the gods and heroes of old, bound by promise of gold- and sometimes bonds of loyalty to their lord. Kings, the chief of warriors, givers of gold to the men who stood beside them on the shield-wall- on whose loyalty their very lives and kingdoms may depend.

In was in this world that Edwin rose to High King of Britain, conquering or gaining the fealty of most of the Kings and Kingdoms around him with the strength of the sword, marriage or diplomacy. Yet Edwin does not act entirely out of a desire for glory and fame, but a wish to unite his people. He and his fellows are well-drawn and believable characters, coming to terms with a changing world in which they were in many ways behind.

The Christian content and its impact on the lives of the people was well-woven in with the characters of the King’s young wife her Roman priest Paulinus, and his companion James. With a will of Iron, and a pair of woollen drawers to ward off the freezing Northern temperatures, Paulinus preached the gospel amongst the pagan men of Northumbria. Though it takes many years, Edwin eventually converts alongside his family, many of his people, and his pagan priest.

My only complaints were some descriptions of the great fortress of Bamburgh which spoke of a garderobe and spiral staircase-archetectural features belonging  more  in a twelfth century castle then a seventh century fortress, and some language that was a little too modern. There is violence, as it was a violent age- but no sex, which is a real plus considering many novels of this genre.

Recommended for all those interested in the medieval period, the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, and Conversion period, and accurate, evocative historical fiction in general.I received an electronic copy of this book free from Netgalley for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

The Question of Marriage…..

Forced marriage. Probably one of the most commonly used- and accepted screen tropes about the Middle Ages. How many Medieval movies or TV shows feature a girl or young woman stuck in an unhappy marriage with a man much older than her, or in any way unpleasant. How often is the unfortunate female depicted as having had no choice, as her unappealing spouse was chosen by her family, or she was forced to wed, or sold to him like so much chattel?

isabella-and-guy-robin-hood-13688524-1370-2055[1]

The seller and the bartered bride. Isabella and her brother Guy the 2009 BBC Series, Robin Hood.

One example would be the character of Isabella from series three of the BBC’s Robin Hood (2009), who in the story was sold into marriage by her brother Guy of Gisborne and the age of 13 to an abusive man. His main justification being that he offered ‘a good price’.

Many seem to accept this as an accurate, factual representation of the situation of many women, especially high -born women, throughout the Medieval Era. Those unenlightened Medieval folk, it may be thought, just accepted such situations, considered them right, and the unfortunate ladies were expected to put up and shut up.

My regular readers will know, however, that I tend to regard fictionalised screen depictions of history with particular suspicion. Hollywood is the source of so much misinformation and distortion that it is hard to take it seriously, but once more the screen poses a relevant question. Does the depiction of uncountable of females regularly being sold into the  lifelong misery of unhappy matrimony reflect the reality of what  life was ‘on the ground’ for the women and girls of Medieval Europe?

As is usually the case the truth is more complicated- and in some ways- more interesting than fiction. A law code of King Canute (who ruled in England from 1016-1035) stated thus: “neither a widow nor a maiden is ever to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he (presumably the husband to be) chooses to give everything of his own free will”.[i] The existence of this law may well demonstrate that such marriages were indeed taking place- but it does serve to demonstrate that such practices were, as least officially, frowned upon. So Richard Armitage’s Guy of Gisborne would likely  have fallen foul of the law in this respect.

Yet even if the civil authorities theoretically disapproved of such practices, surely the church, that supposedly hopelessly corrupt institution that was only out for money would have been willing to turn a blind eye? They were the ones who performed many marriages after all. They were also, it appears, largely behind the initiative to prevent forced marriage, and “by at least the eleventh century consent was regarded as necessary for marriage by both church and state”. [ii] Indeed, if a woman could prove that she had been marred without giving her free consent she could at least in theory seek legal redress law and go before a church court to obtain an annulment or divorce.

Yet in the following centuries,  it seemed, people were still ignoring the proper customs and laws regarding marriage, as William Langland author of the commentary on 14th century English society English society Piers the Ploughman lambasted his contemporaries who  contracted ‘unions purely out of greed to get hold of property’ and expressed disgust at ‘a young girl paired with a weak, worn out old man’[iii]. For Langland the proper marriage truly in accordance with the will of God ought to ‘begin with the consent of the couple’s fathers, and advice of their families, followed by the mutual willingness of the pair themselves’.[iv]

Readers may wish that he had no objection to arranged marriage per se as many Westerners do now. Perhaps the problem in the case of the latter is the tendency to equate arranged marriage with forced marriage, when, as this short post has shown, the two were not necessarily the same.  Applying modern standards and attitudes to the past is seldom helpful, and it seems modern views of marriage have resulted many misconceptions about the matrimonial customs and norms of Medieval Europe.

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[i] Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages (Harper Row, 1987), p106.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] William Langland, Piers Ploughman, edited and translated by A.V.C Schmidt (Oxford, 2000), p91.

[iv] Ibid, p92.

 

 

Recent Read: Willam Langland Piers the Ploughman

6823552“This is a new annotated translation of the B-text, Langland’s own extensive revision of his original text. One of the greatest poems of the English Middle Ages, Piers Plowman remains of enduring interest for its vivid picture of the whole life of medieval society, its deeply imaginative religious vision, and its passionate concern to see justice and truth prevail in our world.”

William Langland, (born c. 1330—died c. 1400), presumed author of one of the greatest examples of Middle English alliterative poetry, generally known as Piers Plowman, an allegorical work with a complex variety of religious themes.

One of the major achievements of Piers Plowman is that it translates the language and conceptions of the cloister into symbols and images that could be understood by the layman. In general, the language of the poem is simple and colloquial, but some of the author’s imagery is powerful and direct.

Little is known of Langland’s life: he is thought to have been born somewhere in the region of the Malvern Hills, in Worcestershire, and if he is to be identified with the “dreamer” of the poem, he may have been educated at the Benedictine school in Great Malvern. References in the poem suggest that he knew London and Westminster as well as Shropshire, and he may have been a cleric in minor orders in London.

Langland clearly had a deep knowledge of medieval theology and was fully committed to all the implications of Christian doctrine. He was interested in the asceticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and his comments on the defects of churchmen and the religious in his day are nonetheless concomitant with his orthodox.

Synopsis and Biography from Goodreads.com

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Anyone seeking to gain insight into fourteenth century England might do well to turn to this work of social commentary. Of course, it must be remembered that Langland’s view of society was bleak as he certainly had a view for what was wrong in his time. Although a cleric, he had little time for many of the clergy whom he censured for being greedy and more concerned with food (and other worldly pleasures) then ministering to their flocks.

Everything from marriage and the correct and moral way of going about finding a spouse (Langland had no problem with arranged marriage per se- provided it was not contracted for money or land to  a person so old they could never bear children), to having a good work ethic and governing the realm. Langland’s utopian wish for a realm governed with truth and justice can speak to us through the ages to today.

That said, the conclusion to the book it abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying, though one could appreciate the sentiment that it is impossible to find happiness in this world, and to act as a pilgrim passing through. I’m not sure if the ‘B’ text is the most full and complete version, as I seem to recall another edition had a different ending. A good version if like me you don’t feel confident reading the whole thing in Middle English, just be warned of a few passages that might prove a little blush inducing because of a little too much information…