Category Archives: Kings & queens

New biography of Æthelflæd

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On the twelfth day of this month, at Tamworth in Staffordshire, a national service of commemoration was held to mark the 1100th anniversary of Æthelflæd’s death. A few days earlier, in Gloucester, a solemn procession conveyed a re-imagining of her funeral bier to the medieval ruins of St Oswald’s Priory. More events are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, all of which will help to raise wider public awareness of the Lady of the Mercians.

June has also seen the publication of my latest book – a biography of Æthelflæd that I mentioned here back in April when it was still in the pipeline. Like my other titles its publisher is Birlinn of Edinburgh who have issued it under their ‘John Donald’ imprint.

The narrative incorporates my usual focus on political history with an emphasis on warfare. It considers the military campaigns not only of Æthelflæd but also those of her father Alfred the Great and of her brother Edward the Elder. Hence there are frequent mentions of battles, fortresses, treaties and alliances. But there is much more to Æthelflæd than the Anglo-Saxon warrior queen visualised in modern artworks. She was an educated, literate woman with strong religious beliefs. She had a keen interest in saints – especially Mercian ones – and actively promoted their veneration by establishing new cult-centres in various parts of her domain. She was also adept at what we now call ‘urban planning’ and has left her mark on the modern street-pattern in a number of west midland towns.

A synopsis of my book is provided by the ‘blurb’ on the back cover:

At the end of the ninth century AD, a large part of what is now England had been conquered by the Vikings – heathen warriors from Scandinavia who had been attacking the British Isles for a hundred years. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, was determined to halt the conquests but his death in 899 meant that the task passed to his heirs. In Wessex, his son and successor Edward continued the English fightback. So, too, did Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd and her husband Lord Æthelred, rulers of the old kingdom of Mercia. After Æthelred’s death in 911, Æthelflæd ruled on her own, leading her army on a series of campaigns to recapture lost territory. Known to history as the Lady of the Mercians, she earned a reputation as a competent general and was feared by her enemies. She helped to save England from the Vikings and is one of the most famous women of the Dark Ages. This book, published 1100 years after her death, tells her remarkable story.

Early chapters include an introduction to the documentary sources as well as a summary account of Anglo-Saxon history up to the ninth century. These are followed by the main narrative which deals with the life of Æthelflæd from her birth and childhood up to her mid-teens, then through roughly 25 years of marriage to the period of her widowhood. The penultimate chapter looks at the immediate aftermath of her death in 918, when her daughter Ælfwynn briefly succeeded as the new ruler of Mercia before being deposed. In the final chapter, Æthelflæd’s historical significance and her modern role as a subject for the creative arts are discussed.

Notes for each chapter point the reader to primary sources and secondary works, all of which are listed in a 10-page bibliography. The middle of the book contains a plate section of 15 black-and-white photographs, while the main narrative is interspersed with maps (mostly relating to military campaigns) and plans of burhs (fortified settlements).

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Æthelflæd: The Lady of The Mercians, by Tim Clarkson
(Edinburgh: John Donald, 2018)
ISBN: 978-1-910900-16-1

Available in paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon USA or direct from the publisher.

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Æthelflæd in 2018

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This year sees the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who died at Tamworth in Staffordshire on 12 June 918. Æthelflæd is one of the most important figures in early English history, yet her story is rarely told. Although she is remembered and commemorated in the areas she once ruled – the west midland counties of England – wider recognition of her achievements is sadly lacking. Many people hope that this will change in 2018.

Æthelflæd’s father was Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, whose long struggle against the Vikings was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other contemporary texts. While still in her teens, Æthelflæd became the wife of Alfred’s staunch ally Lord Æthelred of Mercia, a man who held the power of a king but not – as far as we can tell – a royal title. After Alfred’s death in 899, Æthelflæd and her husband maintained the Mercia-Wessex alliance. They joined her brother King Edward in recovering territories lost to the Danelaw – the eastern part of England that had been conquered by Viking armies. Lord Æthelred died in 911 but his authority passed to his widow who became known as the Lady of the Mercians (Old English: myrcna hlæfdige). Under her rule, Mercia recovered its former status as one of the major powers of Dark Age Britain. This was an era of kings and warlords, a period when female rulership and generalship were almost unheard-of, yet Æthelflæd proved herself adept in both roles. The final chapter of her story was equally remarkable: she was succeeded not by a man but by a woman – her daughter Ælfwynn who, if only for a brief time, ruled the Mercians as their new hlæfdige.

Commemorations of Æthelflæd are being held this year at Tamworth, Gloucester and other places closely associated with her. My own tribute takes the form of a biography, to be published by Birlinn of Edinburgh in the summer. It will be my seventh book and the first to focus on events outside Scotland. Although this might seem like a departure from my usual track, it actually brings me closer to my roots as a native of Mercia. In any case, Æthelflæd’s story is connected to the northern regions I have previously written about, not least because of a tradition that she forged an alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons

Updates on my book will appear on this blog in the next few months. In the meantime, here’s a preview of the cover. It shows an image of Æthelflæd from a public artwork at Runcorn in Cheshire, one of the places where she established a burh or fortified settlement in the early years of the tenth century.

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The picture at the top of this blogpost shows Æthelflæd wearing a crown and holding a sword. It appears in a stained-glass window at Worcester Cathedral (photo by B. Keeling)

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A Govanite on the Scottish throne

Heart of the Kingdom

Earl Siward Earl Siward (from a painting by James Smetham, 1861)
The title of this blogpost should really be turned into a question: Did a man from Govan become king of Scotland? It takes us into a rather obscure period of Scottish history, a period less well-known than the age of Bruce or the Stewart monarchs, but I believe we can glean enough information to answer the question with a cautious Yes.

Our starting-point is the year 1018, when a great battle was fought at Carham on the River Tweed. On the losing side was an English army led by the Earl of Bamburgh, fighting on behalf of their half-Danish, half-Polish king Cnut (‘Canute’). The victors were the Scottish king Mael Coluim (‘Malcolm’) and his ally Owain the Bald, king of Strathclyde. It was a famous battle, possibly with far-reaching consequences, one of which may have been that the Tweed became…

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Essential Sources: 2 – Fragmentary Annals

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in the 12th-century Cartulary of Abington Abbey

Unlike the better-known Irish chronicles (such as the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach) the text known as the Fragmentary Annals embellishes many of its year-entries with long passages of narrative saga. This is one reason why modern historians approach it warily. Another reason is its compiler’s obvious intent to write political propaganda for a particular dynasty, in this case the royal house of Ossory in south-east Ireland.

The text of the Fragmentary Annals survives in a seventeenth-century manuscript but analysis has shown that it was originally compiled in the mid-eleventh century. The compiler used various older chronicles, supplementing their year-entries with narrative tales of uncertain provenance. Without any means of tracing the origin of most of these stories, we cannot assess their accuracy or reliability, nor can we measure their historical value. Such uncertainty makes the Fragmentary Annals a controversial source indeed – and also a frustrating one. Many of the narrative passages offer unique, tantalising details about important historical characters and real events, but the very uniqueness of the data reduces its credibility.

The Viking-Age kingdom of Strathclyde appears twice. The first occurrence is slightly erroneous, because the context relates not to Strathclyde but to its predecessor Alt Clut. The event in question is the assault on Dumbarton Rock by a large force of Norse Vikings in 870. Although the eleventh-century compiler of the Fragmentary Annals knew of a kingdom called Srath Cluada in his own lifetime he seems to have been unaware that a political entity of this name did not emerge until after 870 when the royal dynasty of the Clyde Britons abandoned Dumbarton. The annal for the Viking raid is shown below. This is a scanned image from the definitive 1978 edition by Joan Radner, where the English translation appears on the facing page. Numbers in bold typeface are from Radner’s own editorial notation.

Dumbarton Viking siege 870

The besieging and plundering of Alt Clut was widely reported in contemporary chronicles, so the unique detail about the water supply is usually regarded as an item of authentic information. By contrast, Strathclyde’s second appearance in the Fragmentary Annals lacks a clear supporting context and thus invites scepticism. It occurs at the end of a narrative describing the military activities of Aethelflaed, ruler of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, against her Viking foes. Aethelflaed’s achievements as a war-leader are not in doubt but the Fragmentary Annals credits her with a deed that no other source mentions: an alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons:

Aethelflaed Strathclyde

Again, the text and translation are from Radner’s edition. I have added square brackets to the date 914 because, as Radner herself points out, the section in which the alliance occurs is more likely to relate to 917 or 918. Did the alliance really happen, or was it a fictional detail added by the compiler? Opinions are divided on the issue, with some historians taking a firmly sceptical stance. Personally, I see no reason to reject the passage outright. An alliance with Alba and Strathclyde would have been consistent with Aethelflaed’s defensive strategy, which was concerned with the defence of her borders. From other sources we know that she was particularly anxious about the threat posed to north-west Mercia by Viking forces operating in the Irish Sea. We also know that her policies were looking northward at the time of her death in June 918, for Anglo-Danish Northumbria was on the point of pledging allegiance to her when she passed away. Perhaps their overtures of peace were prompted by news of her alliance with Alba and Strathclyde – a development that would have seemed profoundly worrying to the Northumbrian elite at York.

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Notes & references

Joan Newlon Radner (ed. & trans.) Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1978)

The difficulties of using this source were neatly summarised by Radner in her introduction:
‘Much valuable and unique historical information is contained in the Fragmentary Annals. But the uncertain date and provenance of the text, and its eclectic nature – myth and history, fancy and fact, rather erratically organized – have made modern scholars wary of trusting it as a historical source.’ [Radner 1978, xxxiv]

The extracts used in this blogpost were scanned from the following pages in Radner’s edition:
Siege of Alt Clut – p.142 [text], p.143 [translation]
Aethelflaed’s alliance – p.180 + 182 [text], p.181 + 183 [translation]

For more information on Aethelflaed, see my earlier blogpost.

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The kings of Strathclyde (AD 870 to 1070)

Like my previous books, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age has a chronological structure which guides the reader along a timeline. In this case, the chronology runs from c.750 to c.1150, with special attention being given to a 200-year period between 870 and 1070 – the ‘lifespan’ of the kingdom of Strathclyde.

In the first chapter of The Picts: a history, I stated that the narrative was structured around a medieval list of Pictish kings in which each is named in chronological order, with reign-lengths conveniently added by the compiler. No such list is available for Strathclyde, nor has the kingdom bequeathed a chronicle or set of annals that might otherwise have provided the framework for a linear chronology. The sequence of royal succession in Strathclyde is, in fact, difficult to reconstruct with any measure of completeness. This does not mean that the task of reconstruction should be dismissed as a pointless exercise. It simply means that the resulting sequence is punctuated by gaps where the line of succession is uncertain, or by a question mark where the name of a king is unknown.

Two landmark studies tackled these difficulties head-on. In 1993, Alan Macquarrie listed all the known kings of the Clyde Britons from the fifth century to the eleventh, giving brief biographies in those cases where reliable information can be gleaned from the sources. His task for the early part of this period was made somewhat easier by the survival of a royal genealogy for the kingdom of Alt Clut, the precursor of Strathclyde, which was ruled from an ancient fortress at Dumbarton. Although the Alt Clut genealogy gave no dates, Macquarrie found chronological information in other sources and was able to reconstruct a fairly complete king-list. This ends in the late ninth century with Artgal, the last king, who witnessed Dumbarton’s destruction by a Viking army in 870. The original genealogy ends with Artgal’s son Rhun (pronounced ‘Rhin’) who is usually seen as the first king of Strathclyde, the successor realm established in the strath or lower valley of the river. In the absence of a genealogy for Rhun’s descendants, Macquarrie collated fragments of information from a range of sources, such as the Irish annals, to continue the line of kings through the tenth century and beyond. He noted that the last king of Strathclyde named in any source is Owain the Bald who fought at the Battle of Carham in 1018.

Macquarrie’s study was cited by Dauvit Broun in an equally groundbreaking article published in 2004. Broun showed the sequence of kings from 870 onwards in table form, like a family tree, with question marks indicating gaps and uncertainties. Four years ago, I used Broun’s table as the basis for my own version which appeared in The Men of the North. More recently, I’ve used the same format in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. In both books, the table has been tweaked and polished by a professional designer who makes everything look neat and tidy. The image below is a working copy from my files.

Kings of Strathclyde

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References

Broun, Dauvit: ‘The Welsh Identity of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900–1200’ Innes Review vol.55 (2004), 111–80

Clarkson, Tim: The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

Macquarrie, Alan: ‘The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400–1018’, pp.1–19 in A. Grant and K.J. Stringer (eds) Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community (Edinburgh, 1993)

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Essential Sources: 1 – John of Worcester

John of Worcester Chronicle

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the primary sources in which I located raw data for my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Each post will give a brief summary of the source rather than a lengthy analysis, with pointers to ‘further reading’ in case anyone wishes to know more. In no particular order, then, I’ll start the series with John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex chronicis (‘Chronicle of chronicles’).

Many students of Anglo-Saxon history are well-acquainted with this work, which is frequently cited as a major source of information on early medieval Britain. In older textbooks it often appears under its alternative attribution to ‘Florence of Worcester’. Florence, who was actually called Florentius, was once thought to be the author of the entire chronicle but is more likely to have assisted the principal writer who is nowadays identified as John. Both men were monks at Worcester Priory, the medieval precursor of Worcester Cathedral, in the early twelfth century. Florence died in 1118; John outlived him by twenty years or so.

Chronicon ex chronicis is a history of the world to AD 1140, written in Latin. Its sections on Anglo-Saxon history are particularly valuable because John had access to a number of early English texts that no longer survive. Among these was an old Northumbrian chronicle – a set of annals – dealing with events in the northern parts of Britain. The material John extracted from these lost annals contains information not found elsewhere, some of it relating to the kingdom of Strathclyde.

The image below shows John’s entry for the year 973. It’s a scanned page from the definitive modern edition by Darlington and McGurk, which also gives a parallel English translation. The entry is a record of a meeting of kings and warlords at Chester, hosted by the English king Edgar, an event I’ve described in an earlier blogpost. On the image I’ve highlighted ‘Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians’, otherwise known as Máel Coluim, king of Strathclyde or ‘Cumbria’, whose death in 997 was noted by contemporary annalists in Ireland.

John of Worcester Chronicle

Like any source relating to this period, John of Worcester’s chronicle cannot be taken at face value. Its author, like all medieval writers, had his own ideas about how history should be presented. He carefully selected the things he wanted to write about, putting other material aside – to the frustration of today’s historians. Nor did he cite his sources in a way that enables a modern scholar to easily identify them. Notwithstanding these caveats, his chronicle remains an essential text for the history of early medieval Britain and continues to be widely consulted. It plugs a few gaps left by other works, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and puts flesh on the bones of obscure figures about whom little else is known.

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Manuscripts:

Chronicon ex chronicis survives in five copies, of which the principal manuscript is Oxford, Corpus Christi College 157, written in the early twelfth century by three different scribes, one of whom was almost certainly John of Worcester himself.

Editions:

Reginald Darlington and Patrick McGurk (eds) The Chronicle of John of Worcester. 3 vols. (Oxford, 1995-8). [includes a parallel English translation by Jennifer Bray & Patrick McGurk]

The full text of an older edition by Benjamin Thorpe (1848) is available online via Google Books An English translation based on one by Thomas Forester (1854) is available at Barry Sharples’ website.

Further reading:

Brett, Martin, ‘John of Worcester and his contemporaries’, pp.101-26 in R.H.C. Davis and J.M. Wallace Hadrill (eds) The Writing of History in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1981).

Darlington, R. and McGurk, P. (1982) ‘The Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester and its use of sources for English history before 1066’ Anglo-Norman Studies 5: 185-96.

[The introduction in Volume 2 of Darlington and McGurk’s edition of the chronicle provides a detailed study of contents and sources]

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Games of thrones

While researching the book, I was frequently reminded of analogies between the political dealings of tenth-century Britain and those depicted in the television series Game of Thrones. Being a fan of the series, it was perhaps inevitable that it would spring to mind whenever I came across historical references to dynastic marriages, temporary treaties and oaths of fealty. At times, the webs of alliance and allegiance in the 900s seem just as fluid as those involving the royal families of fictional Westeros – and with similar levels of intrigue.

A number of tenth-century treaties directly involved the kings of Strathclyde, who were as adept as any Lannister or Tyrell in the cut-and-thrust of political negotiation. Strathclyde’s geographical position gave it a shared border with several other realms and this meant that its kings were seen as useful allies. They could also be dangerous foes, and had few qualms about switching sides if it suited them to do so. Like their contemporaries in other lands, they might swiftly abandon a treaty when it no longer gave them an advantage, even at the risk of breaking a sworn oath.

I’ve highlighted three treaties in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, weighing the significance of each and examining the sources that record them. All three were hosted by Anglo-Saxon (English) rulers of the West Saxon royal house, the family to which Alfred the Great belonged, but the other attendees came from far and wide. From the northern Celtic lands came the kings of Strathclyde and Alba, representing the North Britons and Scots respectively. From the old realm of Northumbria came the Viking rulers of York and the still-English lords of Bamburgh. From the West came various Welsh kings and, from across the Irish Sea, the kings of Viking Dublin. Other key figures also turned up from time to time.

The three treaties are discussed more fully in the book but here I’ll simply list them in chronological order, with venue and participants named (where known). Names in italics mean an identification is uncertain.

Bakewell Anglo-Saxon Cross

Shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross at Bakewell Parish Church in the Peak District.

Year: 920
Venue: Bakewell
Hosted by: Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great
In attendance: Constantin, king of Alba; Ragnall, king of York; Ealdred and Uhtred, lords of Bamburgh; Owain, king of Strathclyde.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Edward as ruler of all Britain south of the Mersey and Humber estuaries.
Source: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘A’)

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Mayburgh Henge Cumbria

Standing stone in the prehistoric henge of Mayburgh, a possible venue for the royal meeting near the River Eamont in 927.

Year: 927
Venue: River Eamont (near Penrith)
Hosted by: Athelstan, son of Edward the Elder
In attendance: Hywel, king of the West Welsh; Constantin, king of Alba; Owain, king of Strathclyde; Ealdred, lord of Bamburgh.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Athelstan as the most powerful king in Britain; mutual agreement to refuse offers of alliance from Vikings.
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); William of Malmesbury’s ‘History of the English Kings’

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Chester Anglo-Saxon Cross

St John the Baptist Church, Chester: head and part of the shaft of an Anglo-Saxon Cross.

Year: 973
Venue: Chester
Hosted by: Edgar, nephew of Athelstan
In attendance: Cináed, king of Alba; Máel Coluim, king of Strathclyde; Maccus, son of Harald, Viking warlord; Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde; Guthfrith, brother of Maccus; Iago, king of Gwynedd; Hywel, Iago’s nephew; Iudicael, count of Rennes in Brittany.
Purpose (probable): non-aggression pact to prevent future hostilities
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); John of Worcester’s Chronicle

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