Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Four interesting facts about Henry VIII

Part of a blog series about 'I am Henry,' the new novel and award-winning short film of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, by Jan Hendrik Verstaten & Massimo Barbato

During the period we were writing ‘I am Henry,’ we stumbled upon some interesting facts. Some of them made it into the book as part of a conversation or a scene, while others were just interesting to us. Here, we want to share some of those facts.

1. Henry VIII was a loyal friend to his horses

It did not surprise us that as a king, Henry VIII would have an interest in horses, but what we did not know was that despite his reputation of being quite a selfish and at times brutal man, he was actually quite attached to his horses. For him they were like real friends. He visited them long after their retirement, and made sure they were well taken care of. Not an obvious soft side to the man. 

Henry single handedly brought classical dressage to England. He himself trained the horses for many hours and showed a lot of patience with the horses.

During the celebrations after the birth of his son, Henry, the Duke of Cornwall in January 1521, he showed off his dressage skills to Catherine during one of the most lavish jousting tournaments of his reign. In the novel, we re-imagine a terrifying joust Henry must take part in.

2. To wear a beard or not to wear a beard?

Henry VIII was not only vain, insecure and vulnerable to flattery, he was also extremely competitive. He would always look how he would measure up to others and would demand foreign visitors to describe the physical appearance of their kings and masters. It turns out that in 1519 he had no beard but his planned meeting with Francis I the Field of the Cloth of Gold changed all that. The set date was not suitable for Henry and he wanted to delay it.

As a token gesture of goodwill, Henry VIII promised not to shave until they would actually meet. Francis I was pleased with the arrangement. It created a kinship between the two kings. The only person unhappy with the change, was Catherine of Aragon. She hated the beard, and it is claimed she gave him a hard time about it. In 1520, Henry VIII and Francis I met at the summit where Henry personally wrestled Francis - and lost. After that encounter, Henry's beard became one of his defining features, and he keeps it in the novel.

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3. Henry VIII authored one book only. It was an attack on Martin Luther, the German Reformist

Despite being seriously talented and accomplished in many areas, Henry VIII is not known for his writing skills. As a result there is not much written material left of his. He wrote only one book and, ironically, it was an attack on the German Reformist Martin Luther. 'Defence of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther’. It was published in the summer of 1521, years before the dissolution of the monasteries, which features dramatically in the novel. 

In the book he called Luther ‘this one little Monk weak in Strength, but in Temper more harmful than all Turks, all Saracens, all Infidels anywhere.’ It has been debated if these words were actually written by Henry himself but they certainly seem to mirror his temperament. The book provided the reason for Pope Leo X to award Henry the title 'Fidei Defensor' (Defender of the Faith).


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4. Henry gave away Anne Boleyn's ancestral home, Hever Castle, to Anne of Cleves as part of the divorce settlement.

We all know in what a terrible way Henry VIII treated Anne Boleyn and how George Boleyn, Anne’s brother, was also beheaded as a result of the accusations of incest and treason against them. After the death of their father, Thomas Boleyn, in 1539, Hever Castle became Henry VIII’s property and he bestowed it upon his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves in 1540, as part of the settlement following the annulment of their marriage. Whilst Hever Castle appears in the novel, Anne of Cleves, although she is briefly mentioned, is the only wife of Henry's who does not make an appearance.

Were it not for Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn and her family would have been almost entirely erased from history. There were Mary Boleyn’s children of course - Catherine and Henry Carey. They were Elizabeth's cousins, although Catherine was rumoured to have been Henry VIII’s daughter. This was never acknowledged, but Elizabeth I was certainly fond of her cousin and elevated her as one of the most senior ladies-in-waiting. 

Catherine’s daughter, Lettice Knollys, also served Elizabeth as a Maid of the Privy Chamber, but upset Elizabeth by marrying Lord Dudley, the queen’s favourite, in secret. Elizabeth 1 has a very special role to play in the novel.

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I am Henry' is an innovative retelling of the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Due for release in paperback and e-book format by MadeGlobal Publishing, in April 2023. 

For more information about the novel and the short film go to

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Thursday, March 23, 2023

British Women in the Women's Voluntary Services of WWII

by Helena Schrader

Britain was slow to wake up to the danger of war and pacifist sentiment was strong right up until the Munich Crisis. Yet as early as January 1937, the government charged local authorities with organizing air raid protection. This was formalized in the Air Raid Protection Act of 1938 and from the start, women formed a vital part of plans and execution.


The main tasks envisaged for civil defence organizations were air raid wardens to ensure compliance with air raid precautions, first aid and ambulance services, and anti-gas units. In addition, a demand for nurses was anticipated, but nurses were organized as before in existing organizations such as the British Red Cross Society, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). The various organizations took responsibility for both recruitment and training. Other aspects of civil defence, however, were handled separately as voluntary war work. In these tasks, the pay was only for the actual hours worked, uniforms were initially only an armband and a tin hat. Members had no ranks or command structure, but they did receive training. From the very beginning, women volunteered in greater numbers than men.  

In addition to the above, volunteers were sought to augment the capacity of the fire brigade and the police. They were organized in the Auxiliary Fire Brigade and Women's Auxiliary Police Corps respectively. Some ten thousand women were employed as auxiliary police, while 70,000 women served in the Fire Brigade. Women were not, however, employed fighting fires directly, certainly not in the midst of bombing raids. Primarily, they worked in control centres and fire stations handling switchboards and clerical work. They did fire watching in shifts and sometimes drove fire trucks. 

Yet some visionary women recognized that much more was going to be needed than the government had planned and so the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS) was born. The WVS did not have a clear mandate. Instead, it was designed to respond to needs as they came up, but organized regionally to be available anywhere in the country.

It started by offering training courses such as driving in the black-out, first aid, fire-fighting etc. During the war scare associated with the Munich Crisis and at the start of the war a year later, the WVS organized the evacuation of over a million children, pregnant women and young mothers out of urban areas. That is it organized both the registration and mustering of those seeking evacuation and the billeting of evacuees on arrival at the other end. Not all went well in either September 1938 or 1939, but each time "lessons learned" led to improvements that facilitated things the next time evacuation became necessary. 


While the evacuation of Dunkirk took nine days, the Blitz of London lasted nine months. At the start, London endured 57 straight nights of bombing.  At the end, 43.500 civilians had been killed, 159,000 injured and 2.25 million made homeless. And through it all the WVS was in action. It established and ran rest centers where those bombed out could get food and a bed until new housing was organized. It provided clothing and blankets to those who had lost everything. It created and manned Incident Inquiry Points in areas near the destruction to help relatives find one another. It operated mobile canteens to bring tea and sandwiches to firemen, first-aid workers and to the air raid shelters. In some cases, where local supplies could not cope after a massive raid, it organized convoys of food, blankets and clothing from areas of the country not affected by the bombing. These convoys often brought food and clothing donated by the United States or the Commonwealth. On arrival, a in the bombed out area, a distribution point would be set up, which remained sometimes for several days feeding and clothing thousands. 

Meanwhile, the WVS had been tasked with carrying out a billeting survey, something soon put to use when Hitler's armies rolled over Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France, sending tens of thousands of refugees to England. The "refugee crisis" came to a crescendo with the emergency evacuation of 340,000 troops off the beaches at Dunkirk. Much has been written about the "little boats" that contributed to the astonishing success of Operation "Dynamo," but less has been written about the women who met those troops with tea and sandwiches, warm, dry clothing, baths and clean socks, and help in contacting families. Across southern England, troop trains were taking the evacuated soldiers out of the landing ports to military bases across the country. At the height of the evacuation, trains arrived at some of the stations every twenty minutes for an eight-minute "food stop." It was the WVS that made and served thousands of sandwiches each day, working 24/7.


When the Blitz tapered off, the WVS took over less dramatic but nevertheless vital tasks such as organizing collection drives for scrap metal, waste paper, wool, books for service libraries, and even garbage for pig swill. They organized the distribution of ration books and conducted fundraising. Throughout the war, they provided mobile canteens to help harvest workers and when the Americans joined the war, they established "welcome clubs" for American servicemen. During the Allied landings in Normandy, the WVS returned to the train stations of southern England to again provide tea and sandwiches for troops -- now going on the offensive rather than withdrawing from a defeat. And of course, when the V1s and V2s struck, they again set up rest and information facilities for those who had lost their homes or relatives.

Roughly one million British women served in the WVS. Most of them were older women. Women whose children were already out of the house -- often in the armed services or at sea. The founder of the WVS, Lady Reading, claimed: "We know we look shabby and we know our members are not young but we are proud of the fact that we are trusted by ordinary people." [Quoted in Carol Harris. Women at War 1939-1945. Sutton Publishing, 2000. 47] 

In the wartime film The Heart of Britain, the following sentiments were put in the mouth of a character representing a member of the WVS. "You know, you feel such fools, standing there in the crater, holding up mugs of tea while the men bring up bodies. You feel so useless until you know that there is someone in that bombed house who you can actually give the tea to." The evidence of hundreds of memoirs suggests that many hundreds of thousands sincerely welcomed that cup of tea, the sandwich and the warm clothes too.


Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read excerpts at:

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Sir John Crosby and Crosby Place, Bishopsgate, London

by Toni Mount

In 1466, wealthy city grocer Sir John Crosby took a 99 year lease on a buildings adjacent to the Priory Church of St Helen in Bishopsgate, London, paying the prioress, Dame Alice Ashfield [or Ashfed] £11 6s 8d per year in rent. However, he demolished the old buildings and began to build his beautiful new house. Contemporaries noted that it took years before the place was finished and habitable and the unfortunate Sir John had little time to enjoy its luxuries before he died. Indeed from around 1475 Crosby Place became the London town house of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s (later King Richard III). In my new Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mystery novel, The Colour of Bone, much is going on at Crosby Place. This grand mansion – scene of feasting, entertainment and dark deeds in my novel, was centuries later, moved stone by stone across London to Chelsea.

The Great Hall of white stone is the only remaining part of Sir John’s Crosby Place [the rest is 20th century]  

The church of St Helen's Bishopsgate still stands in what is now the heart of the financial centre of the modern day city of London. Inside St Helen’s Church, there is a superb monument tomb of Sir John Crosby and his first wife, Agnes. He is in armour with a Yorkist Suns-and-Roses collar and she wears a fashionable late fifteenth-century headdress with her lap-dogs at her feet. Agnes predeceased Sir John in 1460 and he designed their joint tomb.

Sir John was knighted by Edward IV in 1471 for taking a leading role in the defence of London against Thomas Neville, known as the Bastard of Fauconburg, who attempted to take the city on behalf of the Lancastrians while Edward was away fighting in the South-West of England. Sir John openly supported the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses yet he wasn’t primarily a soldier but a wealthy merchant and member of the Grocers’ Company. He died in January or February 1476, leaving his second wife, Anne, a widow and owner of their luxurious mansion, Crosby Place, but it was far too large for her and she rented it out to the Duke of Gloucester as his town house. Most noblemen, archbishops and bishops had their own private residences in London but Gloucester didn’t, perhaps because he spent little time in the city before he became king. Once he was king, he had the Tower of London and Westminster Palace to live in but it’s thought he continued to rent Crosby Place, maybe using it as first class guest accommodation.

The tomb of Sir John and Agnes Crosby in St Helen’s Church [GRM 2022]

Sir John also bequeathed 500 marks to St Helen’s Church, money which was used to redesign the interior of the nave. A row of arches and a screen shielded the nuns from the common folk but Sir John’s bequest was used to build taller, more elegant arches and a new screen in 1480. [This rebuild is the first crime scene in The Colour of Bone.]

Sir John’s four new arches viewed from the Nuns’ Choir [GRM 2022]

Meanwhile, Crosby Place was at the centre of the action when the Duke of Gloucester became King Richard III in 1483. In his play on the subject, Shakespeare has the mansion as the setting where Gloucester is offered the crown, although this more probably occurred at Baynards Castle, the Duchess of York’s London property down on the riverside. Shakespeare certainly knew Crosby Place as he lived in St Helen’s parish for some time, appearing on a list of rate-payers. Some sources suggest that Gloucester had bought the property outright, rather than leasing it, but this seems unlikely because after his defeat at Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor seized all his possessions but not Crosby Place. Such a desirable residence wouldn’t have been overlooked, so it must have reverted to Crosby’s relatives after King Richard was killed.

The mansion again became the focus for royalty in 1501 when Katherine of Aragon arrived in London in November to marry her first bridegroom, Prince Arthur. Crosby Place was then the home of a wealthy goldsmith, Alderman Bartholomew Rede, who would serve as London’s Lord Mayor the following year. Katherine spent two nights in the luxurious mansion before the wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 14th November.

The Great Hall of Crosby Place much as Katherine of Aragon and Sir Thomas More would have seen it.[i]

A later famous occupant was Sir Thomas More although documentary evidence suggests he held the lease for a few months only and it’s uncertain whether or not he ever actually lived there. John Stow described Crosby Place in 1598, in his Survey of London as ‘of stone and timber, very large and beautiful and the highest in London’, so it was still impressive more than a century later.

If you want to know what’s going on at Crosby Place, in the Duke of Gloucester’s household in 1480, you can follow Sebastian Foxley’s new adventures in the my medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Bone. 

[Some parts of this article and photographs first appeared in Tudor Life magazine]

Toni Mount earned her Master’s Degree by completing original research into a unique 15th-century medical manuscript at the Wellcome Library in London. She is the author of several successful non-fiction books including the number one bestseller, Everyday Life in Medieval England, which reflects her detailed knowledge in the lives of ordinary people in the Middle Ages. Toni’s enthusiastic understanding of the period allows her to create accurate, atmospheric settings and realistic characters for her Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mysteries. Toni’s first career was as a scientist and this brings an extra dimension to her novels. It also led to her new biography of Sir Isaac Newton. She writes regularly for The Richard III Society Bulletin and other magazines and is a major contributor of online courses to 

[i] Crosby Place is known today as Crosby Moran Hall and stands on Chelsea Embankment, by coincidence just a stone’s throw from More’s Garden, once the site of Sir Thomas More’s fine house in Chelsea. The medieval hall was all that remained of Crosby Place when, in 1910, it was moved, stone by stone, from Bishopsgate in the city of London to its new site on the north bank of the River Thames. It has been sympathetically restored and greatly extended since 1988. It’s in private ownership.


Monday, February 6, 2023

Sleeve Puffs, Lace Ruffs, and The Queen's Wardrobe

by Sandra Byrd

"Queen Elizabeth was so fond of her clothes that she would never part with any of them, and it is said that at her death there were three thousand dresses and 'head attires' in her wardrobe." So claims Herbert Norris in his tome, Tudor Costume and Fashion.

Elizabeth actually was known to give away some of her clothing—to her ladies, to maids of honor, and to other less well-off nobles. But there is no doubt that the woman, like her mother and father before her, was a clothes horse.

Queen Elizabeth I Coronation Robes
Her coronation robes, according to Norris, "consisted of a dress with a long train of gold tissue lined with white sarcenet and bordered with ermine, and worn over the Spanish farthingale." Of interest is the fact that, of course, ermine, the winter white fur of the English stoat, is common among the robes of state, sometimes being powdered (as was the queen's visage) to make it even whiter.

Although both Queen Anne Boleyn and her daughter were particular to French fashion, the queen retained a fondness for the Spanish hoop and  underskirt fashion nearly all of her reign. But how did the queen, and others of the age, know what was fashionable in France, or anywhere else?

Portraits of ladies and nobles in other lands were available through diplomatic channels, and they provided insight into continental fashion. Queen Elizabeth tried, in vain, to bring over a French seamstress at least once during her reign.

More interesting, though, were the fashion dolls that were sent from land to land. Helena von Snakenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, sent such a doll to her Swedish sister, Karin Bonde, in 1604. Helena's letter to her sister says, "As regards the doll, which, dearest sister, you have mention in your letter, we have sent our servant up to London, to have it dressed in the best and latest fashion of the season. When it is ready it shall be sent to you as you desire." According to Janet Arnold's Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, there is just such a little doll preserved at a museum in Stockholm, dating from the late 16th century. Click here to see the doll.

Helena  (Elin) von Snakenborg,
Marchioness of Northampton

There are two fashion accessories for both men and women that are particularly noted to the Elizabethan era: the ruff and gloves. Norris teaches that the ruff started out as "a cutwork or lace edging on the neckbands of gentlemen's shirts" before the reign of Elizabeth's brother, Edward VI. But they continued to grow until, as John Davis writes in Life in Elizabethan Days, "ruffs a foot deep are very usual and a gallant's head sticking out of them looks (as a courtier remarked) 'like John the Baptist's head upon a platter.'"

The ruffs were often lace or linen, and were formed and curled on hot irons. Norris states that, "Starch, called by the Puritans as 'the Devil's liquor'" was brought over from the Netherlands, and that a Dutch woman whose husband was Elizabeth's coachman "monopolized in England the knowledge of clear starching."

The queen was famously vain of her long white fingers, and rightly so. To protect them, and to show them to their best advantage, she often wore gloves. Gloves were most often made of soft kid, and were embroidered and embossed, or had delicate ruffs of their own sewn on. Norris says that perfumed gloves were not common until later in Elizabeth's reign, when they became very popular indeed. The queen received a dozen pair of them as gifts for the New Year, 1599.

The queen was famous, like her father, for an abhorrence to "evil smells."  This made perfumed gloves very popular,  but also an easy vehicle for those who would like to poison her through inhalants. In 2012, the London department store Selfridges sponsored an exhibition of gloves to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The centerpiece of the exhibit? The gloves worn by Queen Elizabeth I at her 1559 coronation.  You can view the entire collection here: Selfridge's Diamond Jubilee Glove Exhibit.

James I
According to Lace: A History, by Santina Levey, in today's money, Queen Elizabeth I averaged £9535 4 wardrobe each of the last four years of her reign; James I (That's King James of the King James Bible) averaged £36,377 per year during the first five years of his.  In today's money, that's roughly £1,191,875 ($1,883,163) per year for Elizabeth or £4,547,125 ($7,184,458) for James. So perhaps the Stuarts were the biggest clothes horses of all!


The author of more than fifty books, Sandra’s work has received many awards, nominations, and accolades, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and multiple starred reviews and Best Book selections from Library Journal. Other awards include the Historical Novel Society’s Editor’s Choice award, two Christy Awards finalists, a Bookpage Top Pick for Romance, and inclusion on Booklist’s Top Ten Inspirational Books of the Year list.

As an editor and an in-demand writing coach, Sandra is passionate about helping writers develop their talents and has mentored hundreds of writers at all stages of their writing careers. 

A dedicated foodie, Sandra cooks through the topic and location of every book she writes. In addition, she collects vintage glass and serve ware in her free time, loves long walks with her husband, and Sunday Suppers with her growing family. 

Find the Tudor Ladies in Waiting series here.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Elizabeth I at Table

 by Sandra Byrd

"Queen Elizabeth was an intellectual," Colin Spencer tells us in his book British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, "highly civilised, and greatly disdained soporific indulgence in huge banquets and orgies of drinking. The menu for her dinner on 17 November 1576, a date that marked the eighteenth anniversary of her succession, was not a special one... A first course of choice of beef, mutton, veal, swan or goose, capon, conies, fruit, custard and fritters, manchet (the best white bread made up in small loaves) ale and wine.  Second course provided lamb or kid, herons or pheasants, cocks or godwits, chickens, pigeons, larks, tart butter and fritters."

Although this may seem like quite a bit of food to us, historian Eric Ives tells us in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn that at a feast held at the 1532 Field of the Cloth of Gold celebrated by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, there were 170 dishes.  As can be seen by the regularly increasing size of Henry's armor (his waist measured 52" at the end of his reign!) these dishes were not only presented to display his wealth but were regularly indulged in. Elizabeth, on the other hand, wore her small rings clear through to the end of her reign.

She cared, too, that her friends ate well for their health. Toward the end of his life, the queen teased her favorite Robert Dudley about his girth. Author Anne Somerset, in her biography, Elizabeth I, says the queen "chaffed him that he should cut his daily meat consumption to 'two ounces of flesh ... and for his drink the twentieth part of a pint of wine.'"

If the Queen herself indulged immoderately in any course it was sweets.  She was known to prefer syllabubs: sweetened wine or cider blended with milk and sugar and whipped into a light, sweet foam, as well as marchpane, an almond paste candy most often known to us as marzipan. Tradition tells us that Elizabeth had bad teeth and that for a while, women attempted to blacken their teeth cosmetically to fit in with her royal appearance.

Elizabeth's sparse eating habits likely contributed to her long life, but her sweet tooth may have brought about her end.  Biographer Alison Plowden says, "The immediate physical cause of the queen's last illness seems to have been a streptococcal throat infection, possibly connected with dental sepsis."

Spencer says, "Elizabeth was keen to bolster the fishing industry by making sure that people consumed fish in Lent and on fast days, because her fleet partly depended on the availability of the fisherman and their craft."  According to author Richard Balkwill in Food and Feasts in Tudor Times, the fish the queen ate so often of would have been kept fresh by being wrapped in cool seaweed and stored in a wet larder at Hampton Court Palace.  England's first sushi?
Hampton Court Kitchens

By the end of the Tudor era, food choices for all were not so much predicated by religious calendars and royal decree as by the wealth of the individual. Author Spencer writes, "It was now becoming possible for individuals to rise in the world, and if you had money, you flaunted it." Sumptuary laws were flouted, and "nothing could stop the gentry from flaunting their riches in food and clothing."  Which meant, of course, black teeth properly earned for the well-to-do of any rank.


The author of more than fifty books, Sandra’s work has received many awards, nominations, and accolades, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and multiple starred reviews and Best Book selections from Library Journal. Other awards include the Historical Novel Society’s Editor’s Choice award, two Christy Awards finalists, a Bookpage Top Pick for Romance, and inclusion on Booklist’s Top Ten Inspirational Books of the Year list.

As an editor and an in-demand writing coach, Sandra is passionate about helping writers develop their talents and has mentored hundreds of writers at all stages of their writing careers. 

A dedicated foodie, Sandra cooks through the topic and location of every book she writes. In addition, she collects vintage glass and serve ware in her free time, loves long walks with her husband, and Sunday Suppers with her growing family. 

Find the Tudor Ladies in Waiting series here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Artúr mac Áedáin of Dál Riata and his time

by Marco Mazzi

When we speak of "Dark Ages", we refer to those centuries (5th - 9th) of which we have scarce and often unreliable historical sources. But the lack of information doesn't necessarily mean they were uncivilized times or that important events didn't take place. On the contrary, recent archeological and historiographic research tells us that those were times "of dynamic development, cultural creativity, and long-distance networking", as Professor Peter S. Wells points out.

Detail from the Sarcophagus, Govan Old Parish Church. Public domain

The land we today call Scotland experienced in the 6th century a most unique period in its history: the events of the following three hundred years would have unfolded from what happened in the 6th century.

At that time, southern Scotland was inhabited by the Celtic Britons, while in northern Scotland lived the mysterious ancient Picts. On the southeastern shores, the Angles, one of the Germanic peoples coming from the European continent, were slowly settling into those which for them were relatively new lands. On the northwestern coastal region lived the so-called Scots (but that is not what they used to call themselves) whose kingdom, Dál Riata, had linguistic and social connections to the Irish Gaels of Ireland, while it is still debated whether or not the Dalradians (or Scots) had Irish origin.

All of these very different peoples lived in a semi-tribal society, where many clans joined to form petty kingdoms led by a high chieftain or king. The relations between neighboring populations (Britons, Dalradians/Scots, Picts, even Angles) ranged from war, to competition, to mixed marriages in order to forge political alliances. Some of these petty kingdoms, in particular Dál Riata, held commercial relations not only in the region, but also with distant countries on the European continent, through seafaring networking. Recent discoveries have shown that Dál Riata was a kingdom based on the trade of luxury goods, including gold and silver, worked by the Dalradian smiths.

In this scenario, during the 6th century Christianity appeared as a major game changer. Celtic Britons in the south of Scotland had previously known the Christian religion, but the definitive withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, in the 5th century, had caused the abandonment of Christian beliefs and a revival of the ancestral religion and society of the druids. Now, in the 6th century, Christian missionaries from Ireland brought back Christianity to Scotland, this time for good. A main actor in this missionary work was Saint Columba, whose abbey on the island of Iona, in Dál Riata, became a hub of evangelization for all of northern Britain.

A representation of what the Spike Island monastery may have included. 
 The Wooden Church, Devenish, Co Fermanagh.  An example of a waterside 6th century Irish monastery.  Stone buildings and churches were very rare in 7th century Ireland.

An example of a 6th century Gaelic monastery, as it may have been the Abbey of Iona in its early years.

Artistic drawing by Philip Armstrong

In the last quarter of the 6th century, the most powerful ruler in this region was King Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata.

None of the sources for his life are contemporary: the earliest, Life of Columba (Vita Columbae) was written at the end of the 7th century by an abbot of Iona, Adomnán, who, according to some scholars such as James E. Fraser, draw extensively from an existing body of accounts, all subsequent King Áedán's death by some decades, anyways. All the other sources were written centuries later.

Furthermore, none of these sources are historically reliable. Some of them are hagiographies, some are poems and literary tales, or inconsistent lists of kings compiled hundreds of years later, based mostly on oral accounts. Modern historians had to compare all the different sources and select the more credible information, discarding the implausible details.

Needless to say, the paucity of the historical record makes treating the biographies of Áedán mac Gabráin and his contemporaries extremely difficult.

Nonetheless, historians can identify some facts amongst the many gaps in the records.

Proceeding with selective research, for example, we came to know the existence of a very peculiar character who lived in Scotland in the second half of the 6th century. His name was Artúr mac Áedáin, son of the above-mentioned King Áedán of Dál Riata.

Artúr of Dál Riata is mentioned in three sources: the already mentioned Life of Columba (7th century); the genealogical section of The History of the Men of Scotland (Senchus fer n-Alban), which is believed to have been originally compiled between the 7th and the 10th century; and the Annals of Tigernach (Annála Tiarnaigh), chronicles dating between the 11th and the 12th centuries.

In the Senchus fer n-Alban his name is actually recorded apparently as Áedán's grandson (but as already mentioned, the list shows some inconsistencies). In the Life of Columba, anyways, which dates only a few decades after Áedán's death, Artúr is part of a story which clearly describes him as Áedán's oldest son, and how he predeceased his father.

The bardic poem Y Gododdin, believed to have been transmitted from oral poetry dating from the 7th century (but the oldest manuscript is dated from the 13th century, most probably copied from earlier versions), honoured the memory of a great and famous warrior named Artúr, though there isn't any evidence which links that name to Artúr mac Áedáin, besides the fact that the events celebrated in Y Gododdin are set in the same region where Artúr lived and only a few years after his death: the poem consists of a series of elegies to the men of the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin and its allies who, according to the conventional interpretation, died fighting the Angles at a place named Catraeth around the year 600.

Cross checking the references found in all the different sources, we can draw a possible picture of the historical Artúr of Dál Riata. And it turns out that through the mist of the "Dark Ages", we can glimpse a very unique character.

As is often the case when it comes to the sources on the "Dark Ages", we don't have any date related to Artúr of Dál Riata. We can infer the range of his lifetime indirectly, from references contained in some sources. So, presumably he was born around the 550s and died in battle around the 580s or 590s.

His name is Brittonic, even if he was born into a Gaelic clan of Dál Riata. The reason for that is that his mother, Áedán's first wife, is indirectly recorded as a Briton woman. In the hagiography Acta Sancti Laisriani, written in Latin centuries later, it's mentioned as Áedán's daughter, Gemma or Maithgemma (also a Brittonic name), niece of a Briton king: meaning that Áedán's wife was sister to that Briton king. It's not possible to be sure if this hagiography contains some seeds of historical truth, but Maithgemma and Artur are both Brittonic names. Additionally, several Welsh works in the following centuries claim a Brittonic pedigree for Áedán. His own mother is recorded as a Briton high-ranking woman, daughter of Dumnagual Hen ("Dyfnwal the Old"), a 6th century king of the neighbouring Brittonic Kingdom of Alt Clut (later known as Strathclyde, in the area of the modern Glasgow). Though these pedigrees are inconsistent and likely dubious, they are notable in highlighting Áedán's close association with the Britons.

Thus, it appears that Artúr was probably three-quarters Briton, closely related by blood to the Briton rulers of the neighbouring Kingdom of Alt Clut, which stretched in the territory between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall, in southern Scotland. The Briton king mentioned in the Acta Sancti Laisriani could have been the famous Riderch Hael ("Rhydderch the Generous") of Alt Clut, contemporary of Áedán and Artúr, who reigned between the last quarter of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century. Riderch Hael joined an alliance with another important Briton king, Urbgen of Rheged, whose figure later merged into the Welsh legends as Urien Pendragon.

The meaning of the word "king" when referring to that society is somewhat different than what we would usually expect. It indicates a figure who ruled a confederation of clans as their high chieftain. The Brittonic word was guletic, which means "land-holder". The kingdoms ruled by those petty kings were not organised states, but rather territories under their influence, without defined borders. When a so-called-king became powerful enough, he usually tried to submit the neighbouring territories to his influence, and that led to bloody wars which often led to a shift in the powers of the region. One more aspect to take into consideration is that the armies were much smaller than what they would become many centuries later. Usually they consisted of just a few dozen men, so the correct term would be "warbands", rather than "armies". Only in rare circumstances, a confederation of different warbands from allied kingdoms would reach maybe a (very) few hundred men.

Artúr of Dál Riata was in his teenage years when the battle of Arfderydd was fought in southern Scotland (almost 200 miles away to the south from Dál Riata), which supposedly happened in the year 573 according to the 10th century chronicles Annales Cambriae; an alliance of Christian Briton leaders defeated a pagan Briton ruler, Gwenddoleu, and his retinue. It was possibly a defeat of the ancient druids' supporters, which set off the definitive predominance of Christianity in the region, at least in the Brittonic territories. Some sources, though not all of them, report that Artúr's uncle (if we want to consider believable the kinship reference in the Acta Sancti Laisriani) Rhydderch Hael was among the leaders fighting on the winning side. According to Old Welsh sources (hundreds of years subsequent to the event), Gwenddoleu's bard, named Lailoken, escaped from the battle and went insane wandering in the forests of the territories of Alt Clut. These semi-unhistorical sources tell how Lailoken became a madman with prophetic abilities and became known as Myrddin Wyllt ("Myrddin the Wild"), eventually getting in contact with Rhydderch Hael, to whom he predicted the future. The figure of Myrddin Wyllt will develop much later, through several versions, into the character of Merlin the wizard belonging to the Arthurian legends.

One year after the battle of Arfderydd, Artúr's father was ordained as King of Dál Riata by the hands of Saint Columba himself. It's the first known example in all Britain and Ireland of a king anointed by a Christian priest, and that is another sign of the spread of Christianity not only among the Britons, but among the Scots too.

As the oldest son of the Dalradian king, and at the same time as a nephew of the ruler of one of the most important Celtic Brittonic kingdoms, Artúr of Dál Riata was in a position of power from a young age.

Historian Michael D. Wood and others take into consideration some references in semi-historical sources, whose reliability cannot be confirmed: according to those sources, at some point Áedán mac Gabráin, more and more involved in the Christian transformation of his kingdom under the influence of Columba of Iona, provisionally retreated to a religious life and gave his son Artúr the supreme command of the Dalradian forces, making him the de facto leader of Dál Riata.

It would be Artúr, then, who led the Scots in several battles mainly against the Picts. Under this hypothesis, in his position as leader and considering that he was three-quarters Briton, Artúr would have probably had to deal with the Briton rulers active at that time at the southern borders of Dál Riata, especially with his uncle Rhydderch Hael and his allies, including Urien Pendragon. That epithet, Pendragon, with the meaning of "Highest Commander", was traditionally linked to Urien of Rheged probably because around the year 590 he was at the head of a Brittonic coalition in their first recorded war against the Angles of Bernicia, as is recounted in the Historia Brittonum, a semi-historical account dated from the 10th century. In that war Urien died, betrayed by a conspiracy of a Briton leader jealous of his power, and his figure was consigned to legend.

Artúr was not involved in that coalition, mainly because he was a leader of a Gaelic kingdom, adversary of the Brittonic kingdoms, but also because in the same period he was busy with his own battles at the Pictish borders.

According to some pedigrees, Áedán of Dál Riata claimed as his own territory an area between the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin (centered maybe around the modern city of Edinburgh) and the region called Manau, in the southern Pictish territories. His claims derived from matrilineal line, since his mother was a daughter of a Briton king of Alt Clut (Strathclyde). That's the reason why his son Artúr was active as military leader in that region.

The Miathi, as they are mentioned in Vita Columbae, were a population living in that area. Probably they are to be identified with the Southern Picts, but their identity might be traced back from the ancient Maeatae, a confederation of tribes that rebelled against the occupying Roman legions in the 3rd century.

It was against the Miathi that Artúr fought his last battle. It's not clear when, but around the 580s or the 590s. According to Vita Columbae, in that terrible battle two of Áedán's sons, Artúr and Eochaid Find, lost their lives, though at the end the Dalradian forces defeated the Miathi.

After the tragic "battle of the Miathi", Áedán mac Gabráin came back to the throne of Dál Riata, even though he was already in his fifties or even in his sixties, and he led the Scots maybe until around the time of his death in 609. Or he may have been deposed or have abdicated following his defeat around the year 603 at the battle of Degsastan, recorded also by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. The victor of that battle was the Angle king Æthelfrith of Bernicia, the first unifier of the territories which will come to form the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.

As for Artúr, we don't know if he was buried after the battle of the Miathi or what was his body's fate. But most probably his fame as a great warrior and leader outlived him. We have cited already the Old/Middle Welsh poem Y Gododdin and in particular the stanza in which is mentioned a warrior named Artur in passing, as a paragon of incomparable bravery. There's no evidence about who it could be that mentioned Artur, but considering that the stanza might date back to a few decades after the battle and that the poem is set in the same region as the battle of the Miathi, it could plausibly be a reference to Artúr mac Áedáin of Dál Riata.

It is a common view among historians that the earliest bardic poetry in the Old Welsh language of which we are in possession originated in the Brittonic lands of southern Scotland in the 6th and the 7th centuries and recounts the deeds of heroes belonging to that region's folklore.

If that is so, could it be possible that some of the feats of the commander Artúr became part of the Welsh legends? It is very possible, even if most of it was lost and what survives to our days was just a part of it. Actually, some of Artúr's contemporaries are an important part of those legends: figures such as Urien Pendragon and Myrddin/Merlin are legendary characters whose identities are rooted in real people who lived in the 6th century.

It's not the purpose of this article to prove anything, just to suggest with how much interest our popular imagination plunges into historical events that have been embellished and dramatically changed in the legendary accounts.

Sources include:

- Clarkson, Tim. THE MEN OF THE NORTH. The Britons of Southern Scotland. 2010, Birlinn Ltd.

- Wells, Peter S. BARBARIAN TO ANGELS. The Dark Ages Reconsidered. 2008, W. W. Norton.

- Wood, Michael D. IN SEARCH OF MYTHS AND HEROES. 2007, University of California Press.

- Adomnán of Iona. THE LIFE OF SAINT COLUMBA. As Told by Saint Adomnán (edited with an introduction by Phillip Campbell). 2021, Cruachan Hill Press.

- Bede. AN ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE (edited by B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors). 1992, Oxford: Clarendon Press.


An avid reader, Marco Mazzi has cultivated his passion for writing articles on different subjects for years, from history to modern society to sport. Marco has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication, besides a Musical Arts degree in Viola, which led him to the profession of classical musician. He has always been a history buff, and he has written several historical articles. He currently lives in South Africa, and he is a Lecturer at UKZN University. CHRONICLES OF ALBION is available HERE.