Were the Anglo-Saxons here in my village?

On a cold, darkening winter’s afternoon, in a little country churchyard less than 100 years ago, the churchwarden and the gravedigger sadly collected their tools and prepared to bury their rector. However their spades struck something hard and unyielding.

What they found was a medieval stone cross shaft with the distinct carving of a warrior bearing a shield in his left hand and a long sword or seax in his right hand across his abdomen.

 

They eventually managed to raise it and it still stands today in the churchyard close to where it was found, on a modern plinth.

The current elderly churchwarden remembers his father telling him when he was a young child about his discovery. Someone had told him it was a 9th or 10th century Viking carving, but when I look carefully at it and compare with the Repton stone, below (courtesy of the Derby Museum) which depicts King Aethelbald, 8th century Christian king of Mercia, who is buried in the crypt at Repton church, it seems to me to replicate this very closely. Of course, Repton was the great centre of the reintroduction of Christianity into the midlands in the mid 7th century through the baptism of the Mercian royal family of Peada, an ancestor of Aethelbald. So Aethelbald would have had a strong connection to the Christian communities of this region of Mercia. It begins to figure …

Could this be an Anglo-Saxon cross shaft with Aethelbald’s image right here in our little village churchyard?

The top of the cross has never been found. I wonder whether it would be the typical celtic-style early Christian early Anglo-Saxon cross and circle?

We can’t dig the churchyard for the remains of the cross top because of the many graves there. But what an intriguing mystery! Is this Aethelbald?

Fascinating history: were the Dark Ages really so dark? Myths and misconceptions uncovered.

Why do we call this period the ‘dark ages’?

Recently, while I was on holiday in the sun, I read a fascinating book by Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019) which resonated with me and the ‘thesis’ underpinning my historical (‘dark ages’) time-slip novel A Shape on the Air. The background to my novel rests on my belief that the so-called ‘dark ages’ were not a time of brutal barbaric suppression by the ‘invaders’, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the continent of Europe – but instead, that it was a time of more gradual change with a succession of migrations from Europe and a settling and merging of communities: the Britons/Celts with the Romans then with the Angles and Saxons.

http:myBook.to/ASOTA

So we all know the traditional conventional idea of the ‘dark ages’, don’t we? A time when the civilised Romans left and Britain collapsed into chaos, with villas and towns destroyed and warring tribal barbarians raping, plundering and pillaging each other all over the place? And didn’t the invading Saxons add to the mêlée until the great King Arthur came and sorted them all out?

Well, not necessarily so …

Firstly, we have conventionally referred to the ‘dark ages’ as the period between the withdrawal of the Roman occupying forces (commonly dated at 410) and the mid to late 8th century when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were fairly well established. But why ‘dark’? Tradition has it that it was a time of ignorance and barbaric brutal fighting, and that little of the civilisation, culture or administrative organisational efficiency of the Romans remained. Images of marauding ancient Britons and brutal Saxon invaders, with the settlements and the rule of law abandoned, spring to mind.

But academics and archaeologists now prefer to call 400-600 AD  the ‘late antique’ period (‘early medieval’ 600-850AD, ‘pre-conquest 850-1066AD), although some also refer to it as ‘early medieval’. It was only ‘dark’ because we didn’t have the records, documents, artefacts in evidence. Now, in the light of finds (eg in Kent, Essex, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Cornwall, etc), that picture is changing.

Some of the myths and misconceptions?

There are many: from the date and ramifications of the Roman withdrawal of troops (sudden departure or gradual?), to the state of Britain in its wake (collapse or continuity?), to the status of King Arthur (literary myth or historical saviour?).

Did the Romans really abandon Britain in 410? That has long been the date we assume the Romans left Britain, summoned back by Honorius  to defend Rome. Traditionalists have believed that the Romans abandoned their villas, their culture, and left en masse, for the ignorant Britons and Celts to allow civilisation to go to rack and ruin.

Now a different view is emerging. It appears (eg from studies of Notitia Dignitatum 4th/5th c AD) that Roman military units were still here much later, suggesting a gradual withdrawal over possibly half a century, and even the ‘Honorius edict’ is in dispute. We only have ‘evidence’ written in the 6th ,7th and 8th centuries either by Byzantine officials or writers such as Gildas, Bede and Nennius, who are now regarded as distant from events, subjective and unreliable.

Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Saxons.

But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with the remaining Romans, and likewise for Britons and Celts and even Saxons.

This view of gradual change and evolution by way of immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies.

As to King Arthur, much as I’d love to believe in a brave 5th/6th century Celtic/Briton saviour who defended Britain against the Saxon invaders, I’m afraid that it’s unlikely that this is entirely historic truth. Our image of Arthur and his Round Table knights is largely from Mallory’s 15th century work ‘Morte d’Arthur’. It’s now suggested (eg Nicholas Higham 2018) that the myth originates from the 12th century Benedictine monks of Glastonbury Abbey who made a ‘miraculous’ discovery of the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in the grounds as a cunning ploy to raise funds to rebuild the abbey. An elaborate wheeze? Such cynicism: they must have read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tales of Arthur’s chivalric deeds of a few decades earlier!

However … recent archaeological finds at Tintagel, Cornwall (2016), have revealed a high status 5th/6th century palace, probably the main residence of the kings of Dumnonia, with evidence of global trade and fine cultured living. It’s even mooted that this was a ‘client state’ of the Roman Empire from 5th to 7th century. Was this the home of some kind of real King Arthur? The jury’s still out.

How have I brought my research in to my novels?

In my last novel, the early medieval (so-called ‘dark ages’) time-slip A Shape on the Air, the world of the late 5th century is depicted as rich with cultural and religious artefacts, and intermarriage between Romans, Britons, Celts and Saxons, although at times fraught with dispute. Their world, in the midlands of England, is more concerned with Picts raiding from the north than internal fighting as such. The main conflict is between Sir Pelleas (a Saxon pagan), who is adopted by Sir Tristram (a Romano-Briton), succeeding him as chief of the settlement, and Tristram’s daughter Lady Vivianne, a Christian.  In my story, the inter-marriage of Lady Vivianne’s parents (her mother is also a pagan but Celtic-Briton) intermingled Christian values and rites with more magical ancient deism. Bringing in to my tale the magical ‘king’ Arthur (Arturius), as a mystical Celtic leader of this time with Roman connections, as well as a legendary figure of literature, also signifies the mingling of cultures and beliefs. And adds a bit of magic (and why not? Even historic novelists are entitled to creative imagination)!

Personally, I do believe in the logic of unbroken continuation and developing richness of the world of the Romans, Celts, Britons, and Anglo-Saxons and that the ‘dark ages’ are only so-called because we haven’t found definitive answers yet. Now, that picture’s changing, so perhaps we should delete the term ‘dark ages’ and instead use a more positive term to reflect a period that is intriguing and emerging. Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?

© Dr Julia Ibbotson (2019)

Lives intertwine across time and space

Can an ancient key unlock the secrets of past and present? Two women reach out to each other across the centuries in A Shape on the Air. It’s a medieval timeslip mystery with more than a little romance. To celebrate my upcoming Bookbub deal on April 16th when it will be on offer in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, my publisher Has reduced the price to 99p/99c for a couple of weeks. So I’m tempting you with a free preview of the first chapter. Just click below. I hope it’ll be a treat in time for Easter. Get it soon and enjoy! Along with the chocolate and hot cross buns of course!

And thank you so much for your interest. If you enjoy the book and have a moment, please do post a short comment up on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Authors really do appreciate reviews, however short.

With best wishes, and love,

Julia

Book Tours and a plot ‘spoilers’ challenge

The brand new Drumbeats Trilogy Omnibus edition is just out in ebook from my publisher Endeavour, and it’s available on Amazon right now – all three novels together in one place for only £5.99. The trilogy overall is a saga about love, betrayal and second chances – and one woman’s search for the strength to rise above adversity.

http://mybook.to/DrumbeatsOmnibus

It’s the story of Jess and we first meet her in Drumbeats as an 18 year old in 1965 on a gap year in Ghana (West Africa) where she’s teaching and nursing in the bush. She goes with a naive mission to make a difference in the world, but faces tragedy, civil war, and a new romance – with the echoes of the village drumbeats warning her of something … but what?

The next, Walking in the Rain, follows Jess back to England, and marriage, motherhood, and disaster … and the drumbeats continue to pervade her dreams.

The final book, Finding Jess, published singly just last August, sees Jess coping with betrayals, family problems and desperately trying to juggle a job at the same time … and finally returning to Ghana to try to ‘find herself’ again as an individual. Will she succeed? And what are the drumbeats trying to tell her throughout it all?

Some of the wonderful reviews I’ve already received: “scenes of raw emotion”, “an emotional roller-coaster”, “a heart-warming read, wonderfully written, compelling, warm and uplifting”“feel the searing heat of Ghana burning right off the pages”, “a powerful story”, “so evocative, it transported me to a different time, different place; I couldn’t put it down”.

There’s a major launch of the omnibus edition and a book blog tour with Rachel’s Random Resources from January 26 to February 8. The tour’s full and all ‘sold out’ for 42 stops. So, I’m busy preparing content for the tour: guest posts, Q&As, selecting extracts …

How do you select extracts from all three books without giving away ‘spoilers’ for the plots? Goodness, it’s difficult! I’ve worked on several attempts. One host wants an extract from just one of the books, OK, but I have to select very carefully as it’s the second book in the series. Two of the hosts want extracts from all three and a few words about the context of each one. Fair enough, but what a challenge. All three hosts need a selection of different extracts, because I guess many blog readers will be following the whole tour and obviously don’t want to be reading the same stuff over and over! I wouldn’t! Should I take a different ‘theme’ for each, maybe? But even so, how do I do it, especially the context statements, without giving away too much of what happens to Jess through three whole novels and 30 years?! Well, I’ve given you enough above! Yikes.

Any advice, gratefully received! In the meantime, I’ll be ensconced in my study for the duration.

Get those brain cells working overtime, Julia. I WILL get there … eventually! In the meantime, I’ll pop up the official book tour banner from my tour organiser shortly. Six guest posts and Q&As drafted … nearly there …