Friday, December 14, 2018

Heroes of the Dark Ages - Who's yours?

by Matthew Harffy

If I were to ask a group of people to name a hero from the Early Medieval period, the era more commonly known as the Dark Ages, who do you think they might mention? Alfred the Great perhaps? After all, he is the only king to be known as “Great” that Britain has ever produced.

King Alfred the Great

Some might go with that famous warrior king from the end of the period, Harold Godwinson. He will forever be known to all British schoolchildren as the man who rather clumsily got an arrow in his eye at the Battle of Hastings on that most famous of dates, 1066.

Harold has something in his eye on the Bayeux Tapestry

Some people, unsure of what is fact and what is fiction, might even give King Arthur a plug. Now, we don’t even know whether Arthur really existed, and we certainly don’t have any facts about his life or who he was even if we believe he is not purely fictional. And yet, his name is synonymous with Britishness and the distant mist-veiled days of the Dark Ages. He is “the once and future king” who will return to rid us of an invading army when the land most needs him.

A watery tart lobs a sword at Arthur

People who are more knowledgeable of the period’s history, and who are more inclined to turn to learning rather than battle-glory as a sign of greatness, might well mention The Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian monk and scholar who wrote much of what is known of the history of Britain up to his death in the 8th century.

Bede - the grandfather of British history

If they are really into their seventh century history, people might say their hero is King Penda of Mercia, or King Oswald (later Saint Oswald) of Northumbria, but I think those people would be few and far between.

What I can guarantee is that nobody would say that their hero of the Early Medieval period is King Sigebehrt of East Anglia. Well, perhaps I can’t guarantee it, but if someone voted for him, you can be sure they would belong to an extremely niche crowd!

However, to his people, Sigebehrt was every bit the hero.

St. Felix and King Sigebehrt

King Sigebehrt of East Anglia (known later also as Saint Sigebehrt, following his ***SPOILER ALERT*** martyrdom ***SPOILER ALERT***), had been the epitome of the warrior kings of the Anglo-Saxons.

You may well be thinking that it’s no wonder you haven’t heard of some ancient king of a small area of modern-day England. But back in the 7th century, East Anglia was a big deal. It was one of the most powerful kingdoms of Britain, perhaps the most powerful for a time. Indeed, it was powerful enough for its king, Rædwald, to be called by Bede ‘Rex Anglorum’ (King of the Angles, which makes him sound like he was great at trigonometry, but remember that the Angles were the Germanic tribe who gave their name to what would eventually become England). Rædwald was not only able to rule over all the Angles, but also to put those he favoured on the thrones of other kingdoms, as he did with King Edwin of Northumbria.

Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet

Rædwald is probably the noble buried in the ship beneath the famous mound at Sutton Hoo, and it is likely that Sigebehrt was either his stepson or his nephew. Whatever his relationship to the great king, Sigebehrt was part of the dynasty of the Wuffingas, the ruling family of East Anglia for many decades.

Little is known about Sigebehrt’s early life, save that he was exiled from East Anglia to France. Exile was common at the time for nobles with a claim to the throne. It certainly beats death! In France he became a Christian and was in fact the first English monarch to be baptised before his succession to the throne.

Upon the assassination of Rædwald’s son, Eorpwald, Sigebehrt returned to take the throne of East Anglia. Nothing is known about how he did this, but given the violence prevalent at the time and the fact his prowess in battle was later chronicled, it seems likely he had to fight his way to the top. That he was a Christian wouldn’t have hurt his prospects either, what with Edwin of Northumbria and Eadbald of Kent both having converted to Christianity and having ties to the Frankish rulers, who may well have aided Sigeberht to take the crown.

However he managed it, he was the king by 629 and he promptly went about setting things in motion that would cement Christianity’s place in the kingdom. During his stay in France, Sigeberht had been impressed by the learning found in the religious schools on the Continent. So, after setting up a Burgundian missionary, Felix (yet another Saint!), as Bishop of Dommoc (possibly Dunwich), Sigeberht then secured the future of the Church by establishing a school, based on the model that he had witnessed in France, where boys could be taught reading and writing in Latin.

Saint Fursey (not sure which one he is!)

Furthering the Church’s influence in his kingdom, he then granted the Irish hermit Fursey (yes, another Saint!), a monastery site called Cnobheresburg, most commonly identified as Burgh Castle, near Great Yarmouth.

If it sounds as though Sigebehrt was obsessed with learning and the Church, you wouldn’t be wrong. He was clearly much more interested in the Church than in governing and being a warlord king of the people of East Anglia. We know this, because a few years after attaining the throne, he abdicates power to Ecgric, another of the Wuffingas dynasty, whereby he promptly retires to his monastery at Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds).

Now this is where the story gets really interesting, and what drew me to the character in the first place.

In 636 or thereabouts, that most successful of pagan warlords of the age, Penda of Mercia, attacked East Anglia. For some reason the people didn’t think Ecgric was up to the task of defending them, so they went to Beodricesworth and dragged their erstwhile king, Sigebehrt, out from his monastery, that he might save them from the invading Mercians.

Well, the peaceful, Christian Sigebehrt refused to fight, but his ex-subjects were having none of it and he was forced onto the battlefield unarmed and unarmoured to lead his people. I won’t give you details of what happened, but let’s just say that a robe and a cross are not great protection against spears and swords! And you already know he becomes Saint Sigebehrt, after his ***SPOILER ALERT*** martyrdom ***SPOILER ALERT***, so join the dots!

Battles are never pretty

Sigebehrt, might not be the most famous of kings of the Early Medieval period, but he was certainly influential in securing the Church in East Anglia, and his life was definitely interesting enough to spark inspiration in me to write a novel featuring him and his unfortunate end. And if being brave enough to step into the chaos and havoc of a Medieval battlefield without weapons or armour doesn’t make you heroic, I don’t know what does!

Who is your Dark Ages hero or heroine? Leave a comment below. I’d love to read your thoughts.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. KILLER OF KINGS, which features Sigebehrt, Ecgric and the battle with Penda is now available in hardback, e-book and audio.

The other books in the series, The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse, Blood and Blade and Warrior of Woden are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good bookstores.

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy
Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor

King Alfred: Odejea [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
King Arthur: Newell Convers Wyeth [Public domain]
Death of Harold: Myrabella [Public domain or CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
The Venerable Bede: The original uploader was Timsj at English Wikipedia. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Stained glass, Old Felixstowe Church: Copyright Andrew Hill
Sutton Hoo helmet: British Museum [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( or Public domain]
Saint Fursey: Public Domain
La victoire de Tullus Hostilius sur les forces de Veies et de Fidena ---- Giuseppe Cesari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Rædwald is my favorite pagon Christian what ever it takes he's gonna get to Valhalla

  2. I don't have heroes or heroines but this man sounds like a contender! That was a very interesting post, thank you.

    1. Thanks! There are so many amazing people who have been all but forgotten by history.


  4. I vote for The V. Bede ... we owe him a lot for jotting down the gossip so far.

  5. I suspect that Gruffydd ap Llywelyn is too late, so from your article, my decades-long interest in Sutton Hoo - the Beowulf connection has to be ignored - so can I say Rædwald. Well, I used to live in East Anglia.

  6. I think Alfred certainly deserved the title of "great".

  7. At the early end...but as all my Great Grandparents are from NKent and my wife can trace part of her ancestory back to C15 N Kent there can be only one name ...Hengest.


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