Category Archives: Primary sources

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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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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