Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A sparrow's flight through King Edwin's great hall at Gefrin

by Matthew Harffy

One of the most famous sections in the Venerable Bede's Eccleciastical History of the English People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum) is when King Edwin, king of the Northumbrians calls a council of his wisest retainers to debate whether they should convert to Christianity. Bede reports that one of the "king's chief men" gave the following speech, in which he compared man's life to that of a sparrow flying through a hall in winter:
The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.
Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, ed. by A.M. Sellar, [1907]

There has been much debate about whether the words were truly spoken, or merely written by Bede as an elegant explanation of life and the hope that Christianity could provide to shine light into the darkness of where we have come from and where we are heading. Perhaps the words were spoken, but had been rehearsed and taught to the man by Paulinus, the Christian missionary who had come from Rome, by way of Kent, to preach to the people of England. Whatever the truth of the matter, the words eloquently sum up mankind's total lack of knowledge about what lies beyond the realms of this life, using a metaphor that is as easily understood by anyone now, as it would have been in the early seventh century.

Today of all days, the shortest day of the year, Geola (Yule), as the Anglo-Saxons knew it, we can all imagine the hall in winter, warm inside, protected from the winter chill. And yet there are things that conjure up the picture of the great hall of the early medieval period and give us a small insight into what the hall was like. We see that the hall has a fire that "blazes in the midst". The hearth-fire would provide a pleasant smoky heat for all those lucky enough to be inside, whilst the cold blustery British weather beat against the timbers outside, causing the building to creak and groan. The sparrow flies in one door and out at another, so we learn that the hall has more than one entrance. It would have had windows too, though they would have not been glazed. Wooden shutters would be closed against the night and the elements.

It is not clear where this congregation of Edwin's retinue took place, but it could well have been at Ad Gefrin, or simply Gefrin, (modern-day Yeavering, Northumberland), where one of Edwin's royal vils stood. There was a great hall there and several other buildings. Anglo-Saxon kings travelled their lands from hall to hall, at each place reaffirming to the populace their power, presiding in judgement over disputes and accepting tribute. These halls were dotted about the kingdom, and the king and his retinue would journey from one to the next throughout the year. One such hall and royal township was Gefrin.

Gefrin was mentioned by Bede, but its exact location was forgotten and lost for centuries. Until, in 1949, an aerial survey, carried out by Professor J. K. St. Joseph, revealed an impressive series of crop marks in a field just north of Yeavering Bell. The survey was looking for Roman camp remains, but what it uncovered was arguably one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century.

Aerial photograph taken by St Joseph, 9th July 1949 (enhanced)
Photo: Used with permission. Copyright Brian Cosgrove / The Gefrin Trust.

A young Cambridge scholar, Brian Hope-Taylor, carried out a detailed excavation of the site from 1953 to 1962. Hope-Taylor’s work revealed a complex of great timber halls, some over eighty-five feet (26m) in length. There were also ancillary buildings, such as kitchens, a weaving shed and what may have been a pagan temple, later converted to Christian use.

Brian Hope-Taylor
Photo: Copyright Brian Cosgrove / Gefrin Trust. Used with permission.

One of the most remarkable buildings discovered is a large timber grandstand. It was a tiered, wedge-shaped construction, where many could sit to listen to a single speaker at the bottom point of the wedge, much like a modern-day lecture theatre. It is quite possible that King Edwin’s audience with all of his thegns and nobles to discuss the future religion of the kingdom took place at this very site. Perhaps, it was where Paulinus preached to large groups of people before baptising them in the River Glen, as described by Bede. Whatever its true purpose, it is an unusual and singular find.

Digital reconstruction of the "theatre" building.
Photo: Copyright Brian Cosgrove / Gefrin Trust. Used with permission.

The building work on the site started in the 6th century and the settlement was occupied for over 150 years. There is evidence that many of the buildings were burnt around 633, probably as a result of the war with Cadwallon of Gwynedd (or at least that fits with the timeline).

In September 2013, I was lucky enough to travel to Gefrin as part of the research for my first novel, The Serpent Sword. The site is now owned by The Gefrin Trust. It has placed some plaques and signs at the entrance to the field, but there is little else there to show its historical importance.

I arrived in the late afternoon and the rain that had been beating down all day finally decided to give me some respite. It was overcast, with broken cloud. The sun was attempting to shine through, but failing.

Welcome to Gefrin.
Photo: Copyright Matthew Harffy

The gateway into the field is carved with goat heads and is evocative of the gables of the great hall that stood there in the early medieval period. (Gefrin means "hill of the goats".)

Gefrin: Hill of goats.
Photo: Copyright Matthew Harffy

As I stepped over the stile into the long, plush, rain-soaked grass, I was struck by the stillness. The large area is surrounded by brooding hills. Grey clouds billowed over the peak to the north. To the south, a farmer burnt some refuse on a bonfire, the smoke wafting on the slight breeze.

Brooding hills surround Gefrin.
Photo: Copyright Matthew Harffy

I traipsed through the grass, the rain drenching my trousers and feet (as I discovered that my hiking shoes were not at all waterproof!). A small brown bird, surprised at my approach, burst from the foliage and flew away, squeaking angrily.

I stood there, dimly aware of time ticking by, but for a moment lost from the bustle of modern civilization. As I surveyed the land around me, I could imagine the wooden buildings of Gefrin. The smoke could have come from the forge, where Strang, and his daughter Sunniva, worked the metal for spear points and tools. The view of the hills could have been partially blocked by the great hall, its wooden-shingled roof, bejewelled and glistening with the remnants of the rain. The unusual, tiered, amphitheatre-like structure, would have cast its shadow over the grass.

Flowers after the rain.
Photo: Copyright Matthew Harffy

The same flowers would have grown there. The same grass. It was easy to imagine how it would have been nearly 1,400 years ago.

A car sped by on the road, breaking the silence. I had to leave this place and head back to my hotel in Newcastle.

I drove through hills, small villages and forests, all the time thinking of the characters in my story walking these same lands, traversing tracks and old, crumbling Roman roads.

What there was before we were born is still a mystery to us today. What comes after this life is still as dark to us as to the sparrow flying out of the hall into the stormy night of midwinter. Something about this continuity of mankind’s lack of knowledge through the ages gladdens me. But then I think of the burning of the hall at Gefrin, when different peoples clashed over land and religion, killing those who disagreed with them, or stood in their way. And I think of the world today, at what we see daily in the news, and I realise, with great sorrow, that in 1,400 years so much is different, and yet, nothing has changed.


Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria's Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, The Serpent Sword. In The Serpent Sword you can read what happened to the great hall of Gefrin. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse is released on 22nd January 2016.

The Serpent Sword is available on Amazon.
The Cross and the Curse is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Website: www.matthewharffy.com
Twitter: MatthewHarffy
Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, ed. by A.M. Sellar, [1907]


  1. What an interesting - and evocative - article! Thank you.

  2. Beautiful piece Matthew. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Thank you for this thought provoking piece regarding life and landscape of over a thousand years ago. Having read and reviewed The Serpent sword for the HNS, I thoroughly enjoyed your novel and it was so good to read of one of the inspirations behind it. Thank you, Matthew

    1. Thank you, Richard, for the comment and the lovely review of The Serpent Sword! I hope you enjoy The Cross and the Curse, as much!

  4. It's good to imagine the past with you and feel inspired alongside you. Thank you and best of luck for The Cross & the Curse.

  5. Thank you, Christopher! Hope you enjoy The Cross and the Curse.

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  7. Very interesting and atmospheric elaboration on Bede's words about the sparrow. Thank you.RWR,Ireland


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