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Tag Archives: Early history: c 500 to c 1450/1500

  • Arthur: Warrior and King by Don Carleton

    King Arthur and Brexit

    History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but it sometimes throws up interesting parallels that can look like repetitions. For example, I was checking some references for my book ‘Arthur: Warrior and King’ around the time negotiations were going on about the size of Britain’s exit payment from the EU was being discussed.

    I found that the issue had come up before – in King Arthur’s time. Back then, according to Triad 51 of the ‘Triads of Britain’ (Trioedd ynys Prydein, an early Welsh collection of verses), Rome had demanded under a treaty (we may call that the Treaty of Rome) that Britain pay a tribute that had been customarily paid. Arthur robustly replied that the men of Rome had no greater claim to tribute from the men of this island than the men of the island of Britain had from them.

    Mrs May hasn’t quite given that reply – at least not yet – but the sum demanded now is not very different from the continentals wanted then. In Arthur’s time, they wanted annually £3000 in money, and that is, allowing for inflation over 1500 years, not all that different from the £39 billion conditionally agreed. Arthur in the end couldn’t reach an agreement and went over to the Alps and inflicted a great military defeat upon them. Let us hope we don’t have to repeat that history.

    Don Carleton's new book Arthur: Warrior and King is available for purchase now.

  • Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

    Escomb Church (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    In Search of the Mercians

    Writing an account of the history of Mercia from c. 605 to 1071 was not without its challenges. The primary sources are scant, often contradictory, and many were lost during the upheaval of the Viking raids. But it is possible to piece together the story of the ancient kingdom through careful examination of the sources. Anglo-Saxon England is a long way from us, however, not just in terms of time, but because a distinct line was drawn with the Norman conquest of 1066.

    This marker is most obvious when one looks at the landscape of England, for with the Normans came the castles, the rebuilt churches; the wooden halls and smaller Saxon churches disappeared in the main. Visiting locations with a palpable connection to Anglo-Saxon England is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the historian.

    But it is still possible.

    Repton, St Wystan's (Wigstan) Church - the crypt which housed the remains of Æthelbald, Wiglaf and Wigstan. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    For a stunning example of a Saxon Church, one need look no further than Escomb in County Durham. Built of stone, it probably dates to the late seventh century. Why did it survive? It is thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham were not interested in building a bigger/better church in such a tiny village. In other words, it has probably – ironically – survived because of a lack of interest. The bishops of Durham, whose official residence is still at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, became virtually autonomous and wielded extraordinary power. Little Escomb Church was in all likelihood a beneficiary, in a strange way, of their almost regal status.

    Escomb is a delight, but it doesn’t have the connections to the people about whom I’ve written. Luckily there are such places, and one of these is St Mary’s at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. It is not a ruin, nor a shell, but a working church where services have been held since Anglo-Saxon times. It retains many of the original Saxon features. Another such place is the Anglo-Saxon crypt in St Wystan’s Church at Repton in Derbyshire.

    Repton had strong associations with the royal family of Mercia.

    Saint Guthlac, who was said to be related to the royal family, began his monastic life there and King Æthelbald, who had been a friend of Guthlac’s, was buried at Repton. A later king, Wiglaf, was buried there, too, but the church is named after his grandson, Wigstan, or Wystan. He was allegedly murdered during a dynastic dispute and he was said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandfather. The original crypt is still intact and can be visited. It was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. Standing here, one feels very much closer to history, knowing that there is no ‘possibly, maybe’. These kings, or at the very least their bones, were interred here.

    The remains of St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, the burial place of Æthelred and Æthelflæd, Lord and Lady of the Mercians. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    At Repton, too, there is a Viking burial ground. It is still being investigated and new findings were published whilst I was writing the book. The archaeologists are now reasonably certain that the burial pit dates to the time of the Viking occupation in the 870s, when Burgred, king of Mercia, was driven out of the country.

    But perhaps the place where I felt closest of all to my subjects was in Gloucester. A short walk from the cathedral are the remains of St Oswald’s Priory. Originally this priory was dedicated to St Peter, but the name was changed when the relics of St Oswald were translated there from Bardney in Lincolnshire. They were moved on the instruction of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and she was buried at the priory, as was her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.

    Æthelflæd is something of an anomaly; one of the very few women to lead an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and yet she was never a queen. The only time she is given this title is in the Irish and Welsh annals; some of the English annals hardly mention her at all. Yet she was instrumental in the fight against the Viking invaders, building fortified towns in strategic areas which enabled the English to arrest the incursions and ultimately to force the invaders into submission. Shortly before her death, she was approached by the men of York who sought her protection and assistance against the Norse raiders too.

    Æthelbald, Wiglaf, Wigstan, Æthelflæd and Æthelred: all feature prominently in the new book, and whilst many Mercians I’ve written about have statues to commemorate them – Cenwulf, Godiva, Wulfrun, and Æthelflæd too – I’m pleased that I was also able to visit locations which brought me closer to the real people.

    Annie Whitehead's new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available for purchase now.

  • Ireland The struggle for Power by Jeffrey James

    The quest for Catholic emancipation during the reign of James II resulted in Ireland becoming a proxy battleground between competing European powers, the legacy of which has blighted modern times. Two Irelands evolved: an impoverished Gaeldom and a more prosperous class which lived well on incomes gleaned from confiscated land. It was an uncompromising system which between the years 1728 and 1845 produced almost thirty artificial famines.

    SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The Wolfe Tone Statue at Bantry

    The outbreak of war in the American colonies provided Irish patriots with an ideological platform for protest. Revolutionary upheavals there and on the Continent were ushering in a new age of Republicanism, a system at odds with the British model of liberal, constitutional monarchy. In 1798, rebellion flared in Ireland. With French assistance, United Irishmen sought to overthrow British rule and declare Ireland a republic. The man most closely identified with them, Theodore Wolfe Tone, was descended from a Cromwellian planter. An avant-garde Presbyterian, Wolfe-Tone brought together dissident Protestants and Catholics under a common banner, asserting the ‘rights of man’, separatism from Britain, and Catholic emancipation. The rising failed and in tragic circumstances Wolfe Tone lost his life.

    Not all emerging rebel groups nurtured Republican agendas. The aims of some were economic and protectionist. These were bands like the Whiteboys and Defenders; loose Catholic factions who targeted debt-collectors and landlords and who were opposed not just by the state but also by rival Protestant gangs like the Peep O’ Day boys and the Orange boys. The latter erected notices warning Catholics that unless they left Armagh – then Ireland’s most populated county – they would have their souls blown ‘to the low hills of Hell’. This was a politically loaded reference to abuses suffered by Ireland’s Catholics in Cromwellian times. The root of such violent rhetoric was competition for land and Catholic penetration of the linen industry at a time when mechanisation was putting downward pressure on wages. The 1790s was perhaps the decade in Ireland when ‘troubles’ first draped themselves in a discernibly modern form.

    Ireland The struggle for Power 3 Whiteboy memorial co Cork The memorial stones at Keimaneigh, laid in 1999 (Ireland The Struggle for Power, Amberley Publishing)

    My new book Ireland the struggle for power tracks through time from Dark-Age Ireland to the Jacobite wars, then on to the emergence of groups like the United Irishmen, Whiteboys and Orange Boys. There are warring high-kings, soldiers of Christ, Vikings, Cambro-Normans adventurers, Anglo-Irish lords, marauding Scots and land-hungry English and Scottish colonists. Under Angevin kings, Dublin and its environs became the western outpost of Empire, but by the turn of the fourteenth-century, military defeats at the hands of a resurgent Gaeldom turned the city’s hinterland into a simmering war-zone. Even more challenging for the occupying English was a Scottish invasion after the Battle of Bannockburn. From Ulster, Edward Bruce’s Scots and a contingent of Irish bravehearts formed a second front against the English, leaving Ireland’s economy in ruins and the legitimacy of English rule in tatters.

    Home rule for Ireland may first have been mooted during the Wars of the Roses in the mid fifteenth-century – the result perhaps of a weakened English state under Henry VI and later Yorkist opportunism. A distrusted Ireland then groaned under the weight and scrutiny of Henry VIII. His daughters continued his containment policies. The first of several new towns outside the Pale, at places like Philipstown (now Daingean) and Maryborough (now Port Laoise), were settled by what the Irish called planters. Territories in modern-day Counties Offaly and Laois were split up and re-named the King’s and Queen’s Counties, after Philip of Spain and Mary of England. These powerful, married monarchs were keen to see Ireland become a more vibrant and integrated part of their joint Catholic domain. Colonising the north, however, proved a more problematic proposition. Northerner Shane O’Neill was described by Elizabeth I as ‘our most cankrid rebel’. Military disasters in the mid seventeenth-century culminated in the infamous Cromwellian settlement, military occupation and the twin horrors for Catholics of ‘Hell or Connaught’ – the catalyst for future violence.


    Jeffrey James' new book Ireland The struggle for Power: From the Dark Ages to the Jacobites is available for purchase now.

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