Monday, July 25, 2016

The Horse in Early Medieval Britain

By Elaine Moxon

In heraldry, the horse signifies readiness to act for one’s king and country or a readiness for duty. It is also a symbol of speed, intellect and virility. These attributes have their roots in very early history. Our affinity with this beast resonates throughout our pre-history. In Sub-Roman Britain our Celtic ancestors were riding horses as well as using them to pull chariots, which were themselves symbols of speed and agility. At Sutton Hoo there is a wealth of grave goods highlighting the importance of horses in Saxon noble culture from the 5th Century onwards (gilt-bronze decorated bridles, bran tubs, horses as symbols on metalwork and ceramics such as Pagan cremation urns, bow-brooches, footplates).

Sutton Hoo helmet
Picture courtesy of A.J. Pilkington

Detail of Sutton Hoo helmet
Picture courtesy of A.J. Pilkington

Aside from burials, archaeological evidence does exist to support horses used in Anglo-Saxon warfare between 650 – 899AD, although there are some who continue to dispute this. Wooden saddles and a step-rope for mounting (not a riding stirrup) were being used. The horse was incredibly useful as transport, scouting, a fast attack (as I used in my ‘Battle of Bathumtun’ in WULFSUNA) and, if an army came under siege, food. Whilst no direct evidence exists of warriors engaging in battle on horseback, that is not to say it could not have been the case and indeed, I made use of this grey area when writing my novel. Lack of archaeological evidence can often provide the writer room for fictional creativity!

Bede mentions the bearing of weapons and riding a stallion as ‘attributes of the elite male warrior class’ so to ignore this, even if it may be a social or cultural stereotype, would be to ignore at least an essence of the historical fact. Likewise, Sundkvist says the horse is ‘the most important animal of the Old Scandinavian cult’. They ‘played a part in sacrifices and divination, were emblems of sovereignty and symbolised a warrior-ideal’. To support these comments, an array of Old English words abound that refer to horses and their upkeep:
Stodfaldas – stud folds/paddocks
Stodmyra – stud mares
Stodhors – stud stallions
Stodðeofas – stud thieves
Hengest – stallion
Horsa – horse
Horsþegn – horse thegn/thane
There are also several mentions of the importance of horses in a variety of literature from, or in reference to, the Early Medieval period or thereabouts. These further substantiate horses as means of owning and showing wealth and a deeper spiritual connection with the divine. It is worth noting here that in Germanic culture white horses were linked to nobility and kingship, while red (chestnut) horses were linked to Frejya and fertility.

a saddle made fair with skill, adorned with gems...was the war-seat of the high-king.’~ Beowulf
(Horse) ‘is for leaders the joy of princes –
A steed proud in its hooves – where the hero
Wealthy in mounts exchanges speech –
And shall always be a comfort for the restless.’~ Old English Rune Poem, Exeter Book
Peculiar to that people, in contrast, is to try as well the portents and omens of horses: maintained at public expense in the groves and woods, they are white and untouched by any earthly task; when yoked to the sacred chariot, the priest and the king or leading man of the state escort them and note their neighs and snorts. To no other auspices is greater faith granted, not only among the common folk, but among the nobles and priests, for they see themselves as mere servants of the gods, but the horses as their intimates.’~ Tacitus (of horses and the Germanic people).
...all the blood from them was called hlaut (sacrificial blood), and hlautbolli, the vessel holding that blood; and hlauteiner, the sacrificial twigs (aspergills). These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and to serve as food at the banquet.’~ Snorri, Saga of Hákon the Good from Heimskringla
I know that I hung on the windy tree
For nine full nights, wounded with a spear, given to Oðinn,
Myself to myself,
On that tree of which no one knows
For nine full nights, wounded with a spear, given to Oðinn,Myself to myself,On that tree of which no one knowsWhere the roots run.’~ Hávamál, from Prose Edda

Yggdrasil Tree
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
That aforementioned tree is Yggdrasil, the World Tree connecting all the worlds in Norse (and Germanic) mythology. It is interesting to note that ‘Yggdrasil’ can be translated as Ygg’s Horse and ‘Ygg’ is another name for Odin. Odin, or the Saxon equivalent Woden, was the Chief of all the gods in later centuries (replacing Tiw as the all powerful leader of the gods). He of course rode ‘Sleipnir’ the famous eight-legged horse to enable him passage between the land of the living and the land of the dead, resonating with other cultures and legends like ‘Epona’. The same might be said of the mythical unicorn or Pegasus. All of these horse-like creatures link in some way to the divine and magical.

It is not uncommon to find that the eating of blood or flesh of animals, thought to be a link to the divine, is carried out as a way for people to connect with deities. For instance, on the Baltic island of Őland, hundreds of horse remains have been unearthed. The animals were stabbed for blood-letting and their bones split to remove the marrow. Feasts of horseflesh have also been uncovered from the Viking period at Lade and Maere in Trøndelag, Norway. In Denmark there are records of horse sacrifices every nine years, nine being a magical number for the Saxons and other Germanic people.

In conclusion, the Early Medieval age is steeped in horse mythology and the enduring image of warrior and horse irrevocably entwined; an image that would prevail for centuries after.


Seven Ages of Britain – Justin Pollard
A Nobleman Should be on a Horse’s Back – Stephen Pollington
Woden’s Warriors – Paul Mortimer

Additional Attributions

Yggdrasil Tree By Unknown - AM 738 4to, 44r. Digitized version available from Image processing (crop, erase etc.) by Skadinaujo (talk · contribs), Public Domain,

Elaine Moxon writes historical fiction as ‘E S Moxon’. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series of Saxon adventures, where a Seer and one named ‘Wolf Spear’ are destined to meet.

She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. You can find out more about Book 2 from Elaine’s website where she has a video diary charting her writing progress. She also runs a blog. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Politics of the Kirkyard ~ James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton

By Linda Root

Photo by the author, 07/03/2016-Greyfriars 

History has not been kind to James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. Nowhere is his indictment more apparent than at Greyfriars Kirkyard. Other controversial characters in the Scottish Reformation are revered there and at nearby Saint Giles, but not James Douglas, who ruled Scotland from 1572 until 1580, first as de facto regent, then as Regent, and later as the power presiding over the Privy Council. None of it came easily. He withstood challenges from the Presbyterian Council of the Kirk, from Scotland's great northern Catholic Houses, and eventually from an increasingly rebellious adolescent king. However, in the final analysis, Morton was usurped by the young king’s colorful favorite Esme Stuart, who stole the sovereign's heart while Morton was busy running the country. Morton should have seen it coming, but he had encouraged the correspondence between his sovereign and the French aristocrat. It kept young James Charles Stuart out of his hair.

On the other end of the spectrum, Queen Marie Stuart’s erstwhile friend and later, relentless critic, George Buchanan, is honored twice at competing gravesites within the kirkyard, each claiming to be the site where the scholar was buried when his original headstone sank into the mire. He is lauded in the interior of the beautiful Greyfriars Church with its well-known tryptic Buchanan stained glass window said to be the first art glass to be approved for installation in a post- Reformation Scottish church. Construction of the present building began in the early years of the 17th century at the site of an old Franciscan monastery, on land allegedly rededicated to the Kirk by the Queen of Scots. The cemetery thus predates the present church. 

George Buchanan: Wikimedia Commons
In spite of his harsh treatment of his royal pupil, James VI, and his betrayal of the queen who had considered him a trusted adviser, Buchanan is rehabilitated in mixed media splendor, but not his cohort Morton. Perhaps the difference is Morton's liberal hypothecation of clerical assets, diverted to finance the king's household, and his efforts to Anglicize the Scottish Kirk. Buchanan, on the other hand, resisted any move toward an English style episcopacy. He also attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to bend the young king to his philosophy that the ultimate power to rule was in the hands of the people, a position he expressed in writings banned during the politically volatile latter 17th Century. His treatise on the topic of the source of royal power was the star attraction at an Oxford Book Burning.

The principal difference in the legacies left by the two men who controlled the character development of King James VI and I is the public perception of Buchanan as an Erasmine intellectual and Morton’s as an overreaching politician. Neither of them, however, enjoy the popularity of Greyfriars best-known resident, the small black dog known to the world far outside Scotland as Greyfriar’s Bobby, who has become an international icon of love and loyalty, virtues not shared by either of the men who shared his burial grounds. A comparison of the little dog’s grave marker with that of the Earl of Morton illustrates the point.

Photo by the author
For those who are not Marian scholars, after the abdication of the Queen of Scots in 1567 following an armed but bloodless confrontation with the Lords of the Congregation at Carberry Hill and her imprisonment at the Douglas enclave at Lock Leven, the government of Scotland fell into the hands of a series of regents for the infant king, the first being the Queen’s half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Murray (Moray). He was assassinated by a member of the Catholic House of Hamilton in 1570 and succeeded by the king's paternal grandfather, Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, a charming but ineffectual Anglophile, married to the Tudor princess, Lady Margaret Douglas. During Lennox’s Regency and the brief term of the Earl of Mar, the day to day management of government fell to the highly capable Morton, who finally achieved the title upon the death of Mar.

Forward-looking Morton’s policy centered on whatever pleased the English Queen. At the time, there was still a formidable Marian presence in Scotland, comprised of the Northern Catholic lairds, the Queen’s loyal but moderate followers like Lords Livingston and Herres, and Lord James Fleming, who held Dumbarton Castle, in addition to the great statesman Maitland of Lethington and the warrior knight, Kirkcaldy of Grange, who held Edinburgh Castle for the Queen. They were not an insignificant force, and the outcome of the power struggle called the Douglas Wars was by no means a foregone conclusion. Morton’s best chance to prevail against the Marians required support from the sovereign to the South. For example, when he accepted the Scottish Regency after the death of the king’s grandfather Lennox and the quick demise of the Earl of Mar, he wrote to Elizabeth’s minister Burleigh:
The knowledge of her Majesty's meaning has chiefly moved me to accept the charge (the Regency), resting in assured hope of her favourable protection and maintenance, especially for the present payment of our men-of-war their bypass wages. (Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.4 (1905) p.441 no.488, some parts modernised in the Calendar, Wikipedia).
Morton was not so much an Anglophile as he was a pragmatic Scot Kirkcaldy and his faction, including the Maxwells and the Kers of Ferniehirst, were running effective raids from the safety of Edinburgh Castle. The artillery there allowed them to control the city of Edinburgh and keep the King’s Army off balance. They rode as reivers against Morton’s estate at Dalkeith and stole his sheep. Kirkcaldy fired the mighty cannon Mons Meg into the city, and shells almost reached the Regent’s headquarters in a house in The Canongate.

The Old City is still within the range of Mons Meg.
In seeking an alliance with Elizabeth, Morton was not far off the mark. His wooing of the English Queen did more that open her tightly-held purse, but resulted in her sending her siege guns to Edinburgh to bombard the Castle, and thus end the Marian Civil War. The fall of the Castle spelled the end of a Marian force in Scotland.

One would have thought Morton’s achievements would have been applauded, but his seizure of church revenues and his knocking heads with the leaders of the Scottish Kirk also made enemies. In 1577, he was ousted as Regent by eleven-year-old James VI, who in his newly proclaimed majority was being guided by men who had had enough of Morton’s iron-fisted rule. But Morton was a competent manipulator and a military tactician. Within a year he had seized Stirling Castle and reacquired custody of the king. He assumed a principal role in a coalition government. His greatest rival the Earl of Athol mysteriously died after a dinner party at which Morton was suspected of pouring the wine.

However, Morton’s new ascendancy did not last long. The sometimes morose adolescent king had been encouraged to correspond with his French cousin Esme Stuart, son of his father Lord Darnley’s naturalized French uncle. In 1579, the King invited Esme to Scotland to claim his uncle Matthew’s earldom and soon James was entirely in his thrall. What Morton might have thought a clever way to keep the king occupied and out of his hair was a fatal mistake. Esme Stuart was more than just a charming courtier. Even before he met the king, he arrived in Edinburgh and charmed the burgesses with money he had likely carried from France at the behest of the Guise uncles of the imprisoned Queen of Scots. By the time he and James VI first met, Esme already had a faction. By 1580, he had the accomplices and the power to challenge Morton.

In late 1580, through a strawman, Captain John Stewart of Ochiltree, Morton was publicly accused of being part and parcel of the king’s father Lord Darnley’s murder at Kirk o' Field in 1567. While he denied complicity, he admitted knowledge of the conspiracy. Under other circumstances, it might not have been enough, but the tides had turned against him. On June 2, 1581, the mighty Earl of Morton was beheaded by a prototype of the guillotine called the Maiden, a device he is said to have acquired during one of his visits to Elizabeth.

The Maiden 
His body was dumped in a common grave at Greyfriars, but his head was mounted on a spike at the Edinburgh Tollbooth, near the site where his enemy Kirkcaldy had been executed at his insistence. Thereafter, the king ordered the knight Sir William Kirkcaldy’s body exhumed from another Greyfriars gravesite and reinterred in Kinghorn, ostensibly so the Knight of Grange, who had championed his mother, would not have his remains co-mingled with those of Morton, who had engineered his father's death.

Whether the inauspicious stump that is said to mark Morton’s grave is an actual marker or just a post to which animals on their way to the Flesh Market could be tied, is a subject of debate. Yet, whether his grave is marked with the plain stump or not at all seems irrelevant. When compared with the memorials to George Buchanan, the elegant tomb of James Stewart, Earl of Murry, known as The Good Regent, or that of Greyfriars Bobby or his owner the Constable John Gray, James Douglas, Earl of Morton does not fare well. The statue of the Skye Terrier near Greyfriars is an international tourist attraction. People cluster around to pet it, for luck. The city consistently expends funds resurfacing Bobby's nose. No one labors over how much of the story is fact and how much, fiction.

As for the stump which may or may not mark the burial place of the Earl of Morton, no one even bothers to kick it.  They walk on by.

Media Attributions:

George Buchanan: By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Maiden (old style Scottish Guillotine): By David Monniaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Linda Fetterly Root is an American writer of historical fiction set in Marie Stuart’s Scotland and during the reign of her son James VI and I. She is a retired major crimes prosecutor living in the high desert above Palm Springs. She is presently working on the fifth offering in her Legacy of the Queen of Scots series. Her debut novel in 2011, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, features some of the characters in this post. Morton is the villain in First Marie and in the novel The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, being rewritten as a trilogy.

Her books are available on Amazon.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Military Service in Tenth-Century England

By Annie Whitehead

Last week I posted about duties and obligations in tenth-century England. This week I’m concentrating on military service.

Aethelred II (Unready)

Land granted by the king was known as ‘bookland’ and was absolved from all service with the exception of three. According to a grant by King Edgar [1] those three things were fixed military service, the restoration of bridges, and of fortresses. A grant by Aethelred II [2] calls for national military service, the construction of fortresses and the restoration of bridges. The Thegn’s law [3] tells us that:

“He be entitled to his book right, and that he shall contribute three things in respect of his land: armed service, and the repairing of fortresses and work upon bridges. Also in respect of many estates further services arise on the king’s order, … equipping a guardship, and guarding the coast, and guarding the lord, and military watch …”

The king was prepared to grant away rights privileges but not, it seems, his right to military service. The exact nature of the service is not stipulated, but it must have been important. Archbishop Wulfstan and Aelfric the Homilist divided Anglo-Saxon society into three orders: those who fight, those who labour, and those who pray. This would mean that the aristocracy was a warrior class. The nobility was required to provide military equipment [4] and there can be no doubt that a substantial part of their service was of a military nature.

Just as the heriot (war gear) varied according to rank, so the military service requirement differed for men of varying resources. The king had at his disposal his household troops.* Mercenaries were employed, (the career of Thorkell the Tall is evidence of this) but in essence the composition of the fyrd was based on a territorial levy. The requirement was for one man from every five hides of land. Service was basically for sixty days, in a system of rotation, but only in times of war. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 920 tells us that “when this division of the English levies went home, the other came out on military service and occupied the fortress at Huntington.” [5] A landowner with more than five hides of land would be responsible for providing the requisite number of men.

A fine was payable for neglect of military service, and this ‘fyrd-wite’ was set at around forty shillings per man. Commutation, a payment in lieu of service, was lower, at around twenty shillings per obligation. A thegn liable to service could have his lands confiscated if he defaulted. [6] This did not necessarily mean that a thegn had to fight. He could send the required number of men without going himself; he would still be fulfilling his obligation.

Mention is made of two types of fyrd (army), the select fyrd and the gelect fyrd. The distinction between the select fyrd and the great fyrd might have been thus: the select fyrd consisted of soldiers who fought in battle, and the great fyrd may have been the back-up, repairing bridges and fortresses. [7]

The expensive equipment of the ealdormen, king’s thegns and the lesser thegns would have set the aristocracy apart from the ordinary fighting ceorl. The Battle of Maldon describes the ornate trappings of a nobleman in battle:

“An armed man then went to the Earl,
Wanting to strip him of his armbands, armour,
Ring-mail and ornate sword.”

Site of the Battle of Maldon - Ken Eckert 

Clearly the nobility who fought did so with expensive war gear, but to fight was not their only obligation. As landlords, they were responsible for the organisation, summoning and assembling of the fighting forces. They were also involved in the essential organisation to ensure that competent levies turned out to perform military duties on behalf of their estates.

The military crisis precipitated by the resumption of  Danish raiding served to place emphasis on the fighting role of the thegn. But was the aristocracy a warrior class?

Their military equipment set them apart in wealth and status from the rank and file, and their bookland was held from the king immune from all except military service. Yet if this was a warrior aristocracy one would expect to see them holding their land as a reward for military service, and their status deriving from their military rank. This was clearly not the case; that land was not held as reward for military service is a major stumbling block for any historian trying to prove that pre-Conquest England was feudal.

Land was granted for many reasons. King Aethelred II granted Aethelwig land because he did not wish to sadden him. [8] Apart from his being a servant of the king there seems to be no other reason for the grant. A ceorl could amass all the weapons of a thegn and still remain a ceorl if he did not possess five hides of land. [9] Land remained the source of wealth and the indicator of status. Military service was an important part of a nobleman’s duties, but, as we have seen, it was only one of many. [10] One might also expect that in times of peace less emphasis would be placed on the thegn as a warrior than in times of war.

*During the time of Cnut, the household troops were referred to as housecarls. Cnut’s reign was not in the tenth-century, though, and Nicholas Hooper’s article [11] provides, for me, compelling argument to suggest that the housecarl differed little from the English thegn.

[1] Grant by King Edgar to his thegn Aelfwold 969 EHD (English historical Documents) 113 p519
[2] Grant by King Aethelred to his thegn Aethelwig 992-995 EHD 117 p525
[3] Origins of English Feudalism 61 p145 “The Rights and Ranks of People”
[4] For more on this, see my article on Defining the Nobility in Later Anglo-Saxon England
[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (A) 921 (920)
[6] This point is discussed by DJV Fisher in the Anglo-Saxon Age Ch13
[7] See Warren hollister, Anglo-Saxon Institutions. There is also a possibility that the Select fyrd served locally, and that the Great fyrd was the national army
[8] EHD 117 p525
[9] See HR Loyn The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England p167
[10] See last week’s article on duties and responsibilities HERE
[11] The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century - N Hooper

Further General Reading:
The Foundation of England - HPR Finberg
The Beginnings of English Society - D Whitelock
Anglo-Saxon England - FM Stenton
From Roman Britain to Norman England - PH Sawyer

(Above illustrations - public domain unless otherwise accredited)

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and has been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now. A collaborative project, re-imagining the events of 1066, is also available to pre-order. 1066 Turned Upside Down
Annie's Author Page
Buy Alvar the Kingmaker
Buy To Be A Queen

Annie's Website
Annie's Blog

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bees and the Brehon Law in Early Medieval Ireland

By Kristin Gleeson

St Gobnait by Harry Clarke, Corning Museum

What would happen if bees from your hive swarmed and then settled in a neighbour’s tree, or if you were stung badly by one of your neighbour’s bees? If you were living in Ireland in the 6th century, the matter would be very clear. In the first case, your neighbour would be entitled to half the yield of honey, and in the second case, you would be entitled to a sufficient amount of honey that matched the severity of the sting.

Bees and the honey they produced were an important element in early Medieval Ireland and other parts of Europe. They were a significant source of nutrition for people who lived in a land that in many areas was often wet and difficult to farm. Honey also possessed an antiseptic quality that was important for internal healing, as well as external healing. And of course when fermented, it provided a drink that could make you forget how wet and difficult the land was to farm.

Medieval skep
In Britain and the rest of Europe the hives were made of straw, coiled into the familiar cone shape and stitched together with thin branches of brambles/blackberries stripped of their leaves and thorns, called a ‘skep’ from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘skeppa’ meaning ‘basket.’ In winter they would put straw tents over the skeps to keep out the elements, called ‘hackles,’ if they weren’t in little stone nooks, or ‘boles,’ like those of the monks of Lindisfarne. In Ireland, however, where cattle grazed outdoors all year and little straw was harvested, I was told by local historians sedgegrass was used instead, well up until the last century. The hives were then thatched against the rain that fell all year round and kept against the south wall of the ‘lios’ or wall of the home area.

Irish skep with thatch
Bees were kept not only on farms but also at religious communities in early Christian times. Monks (managh) and nuns (cailecha) tended the sick and injured among their community, as well people in the surrounding area. One such cailecha was Gobnait, a woman who settled in West Cork and established a convent, or community of women. She became so well known for her healing, with honey as her staple medicine, that her fame spread and eventually, after her death, she became the patron saint of bees.

With bees such a vital part of the daily lives of medieval Irish people, it is no surprise that they featured in the Brehon laws. “Brehon” is an ancient Irish term for judge. Over the centuries the judges accumulated a series of laws which they passed down orally from one generation of judges to the next. To qualify to become any one of the various levels of judges and lawyers - which in all likelihood were offshoots of the poets (filidh) - required that the person study at one of the named schools. It was a period of study that lasted a number of years in which they learned poetry as well as the laws.

Under the Brehon laws there were five paths to judgement: truth, duty, right, propriety and proper inquiries. These paths ensured that each case was considered carefully.  The choices were thrashed out beforehand by the respective lawyers in a process called airthacra, which was akin to the hearing of legal arguments in modern court cases.  Most disputes, however, were usually settled before they wound up in court.

During the early Christian period, from about the 5th century to the 8th century, the laws and law cases were recorded by Christian clerics and ‘adjusted’ if the laws didn’t fit the Christian outlook. Most of our knowledge of early Irish or Brehon law comes from these old Irish law texts, mainly composed in the 7th and 8th centuries. Some of these texts have survived in a complete form in later manuscripts (generally of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries), but many are to be found only in fragments. The best preserved collection of early Irish law texts is that of the Senchás Mar, "great tradition," which is likely to have been organized as a unit about A.D. 800. The texts in this collection are all anonymous, and it is not known where or by whom they were put together. However, most of the place-names and personal names cited in the texts relate to the northern Midlands and southern Ulster, so it is probable that the material derived from this area. It may have been assembled in a monastic law school, such as that at Slane, County Meath.
Section of Irish law, Library Ireland

Much of the Brehon law is founded on the principle of restitution, rather than punishment, so often the judgements involved various types of compensation for any injury done. The cases and laws therefore encompassed much of what mattered in everyday life. The Senchás Mar originally consisted of 50 law texts broken up into three sections. There doesn’t seem to be a strict logic to the arrangements except that similar subjects are grouped together. For example, the law text relating to cats is followed by the law text relating to dogs.

In the first third of the work there is a general discussion of legal topics and a description of St Patrick’s role in its codification. This essay is followed by laws on the formal seizure of another’s property to enforce legal claims against him. There is also a discussion on the acts regarding hostages, laws regarding the “free fief” and fosterage fees, as well as free clientship and base clientship which were two different classes in the highly stratified society that was Ireland. There were also other texts dealing with the laws of marriage and divorce, the arrangement of customary behavior and the relationship of society to the Church.

The surviving final third, like the first third, is not complete by any means. It does have evidence that suggests it may have contained laws on carpenters, coppersmiths and blacksmiths, sick maintenance as well as trapping deer. It also has medical legal texts “Judgements of Blood-lying” and “Judgements of Dian Cecht” (a legendary physician).

Included in the middle section, the most complete section, are the judgements dealing with trespass by domestic animals, fencing obligations and other related topics. Here we can learn such interesting judgements like if an animal is killed in a jointly owned herd and the culprit cannot be identified then a lot is cast across the whole herd. The animal on which it falls is held to be responsible. Whether or not that animal is punished is a mystery. Other interesting aspects discussed in this section include rules for bringing water for a mill across a neighbor’s land. Conflict in a situation like this is easily imaginable. A final section, which understandably gets full discussion is  "Judgements Concerning Thefts."

It is in this middle section that the Bechbretha or “Bee Judgements” are found. They include a discussion of trespass by honey bees.  It’s there, for instance, we can learn that a person who is blinded by a bee gets a hive in recompense.  Or that there were penalties for a person who moves a hive not belonging to them. And most reasonably we can learn that if a person shakes or disturbs a hive and the bees should attack that person as a result, the owner was free from liability for any injuries that might result.

The Brehon laws stretched back centuries and through them we can understand the daily life of the ancient Irish. If the laws are anything to go by it shows a society that relied heavily on mediation and compensation, perhaps in attempt to avoid more violent acts of retribution, vengeance and punishment.

Kristin Gleeson holds a Ph.D. in history and a Masters in Library Science. Her novel, In Praise of the Bees, weaves in aspects of the Brehon Law. You can find out more about Kristin and her other books at her website.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Dark Ages Tragedy: The Baby in the River

By Kim Rendfeld 

The day must have started out like any other in eighth century Bischofsheim. A peasant woman was about to draw water from the river. What she saw in the water horrified her: a drowned newborn in swaddling.

The woman screamed uncontrollably and attracted a crowd. Rudolf of Fulda, Saint Lioba's hagiographer, says the villager was "burning with womanly rage." When she was able to speak, she said one of those Saxon nuns from Britain had borne and murdered the child and then contaminated the water with the corpse. The nuns led by Lioba protested their innocence and held prayers and processions for God to exonerate them.

A vision like flames appeared around a crippled girl, who publicly confessed. She was a beggar and had received food and clothing from the sisters, but she had been absent for a while, claiming illness. Rudolf said the nuns wept with joy at the revelation, but perhaps it was relief that everyone knew they were indeed guiltless. I would like to think that at least some of the nuns were shocked that someone they had helped not only ended her baby's life but, with the lack of baptism, also condemned the infant's soul.

Le Jeune Mendiants by Léon Perrault
This was not the only time or place parents killed their infants during the Middle Ages, and that practice contributes to the perception that medieval parents were not emotionally attached to their newborns. The reaction of the woman in the village shows otherwise. She was as appalled as we would be.

Rudolf sees this incident as the Devil using the girl to try to destroy Lioba and her abbey and the young mother's confession as a miracle that furthered Lioba's cause. She and the women who braved the Channel crossing and overland travel to today's Tauberbischofsheim, Germany, had a lot at stake. Their abbey was part of Saint Boniface's mission to spread and solidify Christianity on the Continent. If the very people the nuns were trying to help believed the women capable of such evil, the laity might turn away from the religion, and many souls would be lost.

The sisters' greatest obstacle was that they were foreigners. Lioba was born in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and grew up in the abbey of Wimbourne. She and the other nuns would have stood out, even if they didn't wear habits. Their accents and manner of speaking would be different, and many were literate when the vast majority of the population could not read.

Some of you may recognize the story about the newborn in the river from an earlier post I did about the Saint Lioba (link below). Whether or not the vision happened as Rudolf described, I have a sickening feeling the murder of the baby is true.

The unnamed "poor little crippled girl" was an outcast. A medieval audience would have thought her disability was a curse from God, perhaps a punishment for her parents' sin, like conceiving a child on a Sunday. She was probably a teenager, old enough to marry by medieval standards, but her disability, poverty, and lack of family and connections made her undesirable as a wife.

Medieval folk also would have believed the nuns did all they could for the girl, who sat near the convent's gate and begged for alms. Her food came daily from Lioba's table. The nuns provided garments and other necessities as an act of charity.

Rudolf says only that the girl succumbed to the Devil's suggestions and committed fornication, but I have a feeling there is more. We know nothing about the baby's father. Perhaps, a man paid the girl and used her so that she could have some means to support herself in case the nuns no longer wished to provide for her. Or did someone get her drunk and take advantage? Maybe, a man told her she was pretty or was simply nice to her—a powerful thing to someone told she's undesirable her whole life. Did she hope the man might marry her, especially if she was fertile?

When she realized she was with child, did the girl turn to the man who impregnated her? If he agreed to acknowledge the infant as his and support the child but not marry her, a medieval audience would think he was doing the right thing, and if he had a wife, she was supposed to put up with it. But what if he refused to take any responsibility? How was a girl with no home, relying on charity for food and clothes, going to support a baby?

How I wish this girl would have left the newborn on the church steps and allowed her child to be taken to a monastery for the Church to raise. But she must have been alone when she gave birth, without even a midwife on hand. If she suffered from extreme post-partum depression, she might have thought the baby was better off dead.

Perhaps, she confessed to the murder because she did not want to see the people who had shown her the most compassion to be punished. Yet the girl's end is as sad as her child's. Rudolf wrote: "But the wretched woman did not deserve to escape scot-free and for the rest of her life she remained in the power of the devil."

It's uncertain what Rudolf means. Church legislators would forgive a mother who "kills her child by magical practice by drink or any art," but they required penance such as a pilgrimage when travel was dangerous and unpleasant, fasting, alms-giving, not bathing, and prayer. The penance would last seven years if the death was to conceal adultery; three years if the reason was poverty. I suspect the girl committed suicide, an act beyond God's grace in the medieval mind.

What the girl did to her baby was heinous—no other word can describe it. Still when I think about her, I see a frightened teenager young enough to be my daughter, without friends or family. Had one caring person been with her at that fateful moment, could the tragedy for both mother and child have been avoided?

Saint Lioba: Trusted Friend of a Martyr


Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolf of Fulda's Life of Leoba

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in early medieval Francia and is working on a third. In The Cross and the Dragon, Alda, a young Frankish noblewoman, must contend with a vengeful jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband in battle. In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, Saxon peasant Leova will go to great lengths to protect her children after she's lost everything else.

The Cross and the Dragon will be rereleased August 3, 2016, in print and ebook formats. You can preorder the ebook at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, or Barnes and Noble. The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar will be rereleased in November 2016. Preorders are available at Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes. It will soon be available on Amazon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Beowulf: A Miraculous Literary Survival

By Mark Patton

The Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, tells of a great hero, a prince who sails from his native Geatland (part of modern Sweden) to the court of King Hrothgar in Denmark to defeat a monster, Grendel, who has been terrorising the Danish people. Having dealt with the monster, he must also defeat its mother, who comes to Hrothgar's hall seeking revenge. Returning to Geatland in a ship laden with treasure bestowed on him by the grateful Danes, Beowulf becomes King of his people, but he will ultimately have to face a threat closer to home, a dragon that he will defeat, but only at the cost of his own life.

The poem is among the very earliest works of English literature (so early, in fact, that most of us can understand it only in translation), but that it survived at all is little short of miraculous. Previous blog-posts by Kim Rendfeld have dealt with the character of Grendel and with the blending of fiction and historical fact in the poem, but in this post I would like to explore the no-less remarkable story of the survival of the poem itself.

The manuscript of Beowulf, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

Beowulf survives in a single manuscript, probably created by a monk at Malmesbury Abbey in the early years of the Eleventh Century. This monk may well have copied it from an earlier manuscript, which has not survived, and which may have been as early as the Eighth Century.

Malmesbury Abbey. Photo: Arpingstone (image is in the Public Domain).

The world described in the poem is clearly a Pagan one, but the poet himself (whose name we will almost certainly never know) was probably a Christian (he refers to "God" in the singular, but, doubtless as keen as any author of historical fiction to avoid anachronism, does not mention Christ). This points to the Seventh Century, when England was in transition from Paganism to Christianity, and aspects of the dialect point, more specifically, to the court of King Raedwald (reigned c599-624 AD) in East Anglia (he was born a Pagan, subsequently baptised as a Christian, but later, according to Bede, reverted to Paganism), who many believe to have been the king buried in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The handful of historical characters mentioned in the poem, however, seem to have lived in the Sixth Century, so the "Beowulf Poet," like the Greek Homer, was almost certainly working within a pre-existing oral tradition.

Excavation of the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo (image is in the Public Domain). A similar, but not identical, funerary ritual involving a ship is described in the poem itself.
Fragments of a lyre found with the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, British Museum. Photo: Andreas Praefcke (image is in the Public Domain).

The original, oral version of the poem may have been recited or sung to the accompaniment of the instrument shown above, a reconstruction of which can be heard here.

Beowulf would probably have become one of the foundation texts of English literature had it not been for 1066 and all that. In the centuries that followed, Anglo-Saxon as a written language gradually died out, replaced by Latin and Anglo-Norman. The manuscript of Beowulf remained in a monastic library, possibly at Malmesbury, possibly elsewhere; the poem did not influence the work of Chaucer or Shakespeare, Milton or Pope, since they did not know of its existence and would not have been able to read the manuscript even if they had stumbled upon it.

With Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the contents of their libraries were scattered. The most beautifully illuminated Medieval manuscripts had obvious (and very considerable) financial value, and thus are unlikely to have been lost, but Beowulf does not fall into this category; it may have survived only because it was bound together in a volume with other, elaborately decorated works. Many other manuscripts are likely to have been burned or discarded, and we will never know, either in historical or in literary terms, quite what we lost at that moment in time.

The volume containing the Beowulf manuscript was acquired by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1570-1631), one of the leading bibliophiles of his day, and formed part of his library at Ashburnham House close to the entrance to Westminster Abbey (the volume is referred to as "Cotton Vitellius A" because, in this library, it was on the first shelf beneath a bust of the Roman Emperor, Vitellius). Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh and James Ussher were among the scholars who worked in Cotton's library, but none of them would have been capable of reading Beowulf.

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen (image is in the Public Domain).

Ashburnham House, Dean's Yard, Westminster (image is in the Public Domain).

Following Cotton's death, his house, including the library, was acquired by the nation as the basis of what would become the British Library. On the 23rd of October, 1731, however, a fire broke out in the building. The Keeper of the King's Libraries, Richard Bentley, rescued what manuscripts he could, and, as luck would have it, the volume including Beowulf was among these, although it was badly damaged in the fire. Ashburnham House was entirely destroyed, and with it, a great many manuscripts.

It was only with the emergence of Anglo-Saxon and Norse scholarship in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries that Beowulf once more became readable. A full transcription was made by an Icelandic scholar, Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin, in 1815, and a verse translation into modern English by Francis Barton Gummere in 1909.

In the course of my research over the past years, I have had many priceless Medieval manuscripts on my desk at the British Library, but this one I have only ever seen behind glass. Few scholars are allowed to handle it today, because the damage done by the fire of 1731 was permanent, and even, in a sense, ongoing: some of the words that Thorkelin and Gummere were able to read are no longer legible in the manuscript today. One scholar who did have access to it was J.R.R. Tolkien, and his translation, together with his scholarly notes, has recently been published by his son, Christopher. Seamus Heaney's adaptation may, in poetic terms, be preferred by many, but Tolkien's notes are invaluable to anyone who seeks truly to understand the poem, and it is also through Tolkien's own influential fiction that Beowulf, somewhat belatedly, takes its rightful place in the canon of English literature.


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Fifth Monarchists

by Cryssa Bazos

It was not all daffodils and roses for the new Commonwealth following the English Civil War. The tide that had carried Parliament to victory, surging them forward with the promise of a new society, became stagnant. Though most desired reform, the divided factions could not agree on a new course, so it fell to the middle ground. To put things in perspective, ‘moderate’ was still radical by today’s standards. A year following the King’s death, harsh penalties for licentious behaviour were introduced. The governing assembly at this time, the Rump Parliament, enacted a law against adultery and fornication in 1650, with the former carrying a death penalty and the latter three months in the gaol. But it wasn’t enough for some of the more radical Puritan factions like the Fifth Monarchists. They had not lost their vision of a more godly society.

By Publisher Livewell Chapman 
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons    
The Fifth Monarchists became an organized political body in 1651. Until that time, members were content to stand on the sidelines and bear witness to the new society. But when it became apparent to them that the Rump Parliament was not furthering this state, they decided to act.

The movement had its roots in urban centres, with the highest concentrations being around London. Outside London, groups were scattered mainly around southern England and a couple of chapters in Wales. Many were tradespeople, primarily in the cloth and leather industry, but an important source of recruitment was the army. Their spokesman became Major-General Thomas Harrison, member of the Council of State and president of the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. Another notable Fifth Monarchist was John Carew, also on the Council of State. Both Harrison and Carew served as commissioners during the trial of King Charles and were amongst those who signed his death warrant.

Thomas Harrison: after Unknown artist mezzotint 
18th century,NPG D2954
Their first meeting was held at Allhallows Church in London on December 1651, led by preachers Christopher Feake, John Simpson and Henry Jessey. Prior to this meeting, they did attempt to gain Cromwell’s support, but while Cromwell also wanted reform, he had a different perspective on how to achieve it.

To understand their position, it’s necessary to comprehend the core of their religious beliefs. The Fifth Monarchists believed in the Millennium, that the Kingdom of Heaven would be realized on earth. Their name relates to the Fifth Kingdom, a utopia set out in the book of Daniel that follows after the rise and fall of four successive kingdoms.

In the prophecy, the first four kingdoms became progressively baser as the ages progress and were thought to be Babylon (gold), Persia (silver), Greece (bronze) and Rome (iron mixed with clay).

“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2:44)

The preoccupation with prophecy and celestial portents became common during the 16th and 17th century, and many theologians and scholars debated the meaning of prophetic tracts such as the book of Daniel and Revelations.

Prior to the Reformation, theologians had interpreted the prophecies metaphorically, but with the upheaval of the English Civil War, more literal views took root. At this time, the struggles against the King became symbols of the struggles of Christ and the Saints against the Anti-Christ. It was a way to make sense of a chaotic upheaval and look forward to utopia. People needed a measure of control in a world gone mad. The overthrowing of the monarchy was equated with the end of the fourth, or base, kingdom and King Charles I, an agent of the Anti-Christ. They even had a year for this new Kingdom: 1666.

Like many millenarians of that time, the Fifth Monarchists saw themselves as Saints, the preordained elect and chosen ones. They saw it as their calling to prepare the way for King Christ and the New Jerusalem.

The following list comprised their requirements: legal reform, purging the clergy, abolishing tithes, imposing puritanical morality and reducing taxes. The reduction of taxes and law reform would not be out of place in a modern government. Some of the Fifth Monarchists, like Harrison, even offered to serve without pay if it lowered taxes, and even then, the courts were clogged with meaningless lawsuits. But what of the other issues? Purging the clergy meant that these Saints could remove clergy from their posts if they were deemed to preach outside the prescribed doctrine, and abolishing tithes involved tearing down the state church.

But the Rump Parliament wasn’t delivering it.

On April 1, 1653, Oliver Cromwell made the bold step to dissolve Parliament by force. He called in a troop of soldiers, led by Fifth Monarchist Major-General Harrison to assist him.

Cooper, Oliver Cromwell".
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons
At first, Cromwell was sympathetic to the Fifth Monarchists, and he worked closely with Harrison. It had been Harrison’s recommendation to model the next Parliament after the Jewish Sanhedrin and choose 70 members to the Assembly. In they end, they agreed to nominate one member from each county for a total of 144.

The Barebone’s Parliament or Nominated Parliament opened on July 4, 1653. It was also known as the Assembly of Saints. Here was the Fifth Monarchists’ opportunity to realize their vision and shape the future of the country. Though only 12 of the 144 members were Fifth Monarchists, the fact that they succeeded in influencing the formation of this new Parliament showed that at that time, theirs was a significant voice.

Unfortunately, this new Parliament proved to be more dysfunctional than the last. With the exception of the Fifth Monarchists who were organized and voted en masse, most of the other members were not united, and consensus often could not be reached. The will was not there to achieve legal reform, and when they lobbied to abolish church tithes, public opinion went against them, as most equated this with abolishing property.

The Barebone’s Parliament was short-lived and was dissolved on December 12, 1653. Four days later, the country went into a radical new direction and formed the Protectorate, with Cromwell as Lord Protector. Ironically, one of the goals of millenarians was the abolishment of the monarchy, and Cromwell had essentially set himself up as de facto king.

Understandably, the Fifth Monarchists felt betrayed and discouraged as their Kingdom of Heaven had suddenly moved further away.

The Protectorate lasted until 1659, following the death of Cromwell and the deposing of his heir, Richard Cromwell. Charles II was restored in 1660. The Fifth Monarchists fared poorly under the Protectorate and even worse in the Restoration with Harrison and Carew being executed as regicides. Everything that the Fifth Monarchists fought for had been reversed.

The country had come full circle.

The Fifth Monarchy Men: A study in Seventeenth Century Millenarianism, by Bernard Capp
English Dissenters: Fifth Monarchists or Fifth Monarchy Men


Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War (ECW). For more stories about the English Civil War and the 17th Century, visit her blog.