Delving into Anglo-Saxon Charters

Historians of the Anglo-Saxon period can extract a huge amount of information from sources that look as though they’re not going to be of any value. Sometimes, however, historians can get a little carried away and can, unfortunately, gleam too much information from sources that might not be quite as genuine as first thought.

As I finally get my nose down and do the research for my dissertation my primary concern is looking at the Anglo Saxon Charters from 994-1016. These are few in number and they have been utilised to show anything and everything from the King’s favourite ealdormen, to the existence of a royal scriptorium churning out charters for the King, to defining the boundary of lands mentioned within them, and these endeavours are all to be applauded, but it is necessary to take a moment and think about the implications of the work being done.

The charters survive very often as later copies. Historians will do all they can to determine if the copy is based on an original – checking witness lists, cross checking to see if people mentioned were alive or dead at the time of the charters composition and trying to find independent information that verifies the authenticity of the charter, or not as the case may be. But ultimately any charter that has survived has done so because it had some intrinsic value to a monastery or a person interested in the contents of that charter for a reason other than historians are now using it for. As such the survival of any charters from this period can perhaps be more of an indication of events occurring in the thirteenth century, when monasteries and their lands were coming under attack and the truth of their claims was being very closely examined, than what was really happening in the time period when the charter purports to have been written. And, even then the Charter may only survive in one copy.

It feels to me sometimes as though historians build fantastical arguments that are coherent and make perfect sense, until the foundation for the claims are more closely examined. Should huge sweeping statements be made about the career of one man based on only 41 references to them in Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Perhaps not, but if we don’t use the information available, then those awful words, ‘The Dark Ages’ will make a reappearance and no one will be prepared to comment or speculate on anything. So with all that being said, being a historian of one time period (Anglo-Saxon, Tudor, War of the Roses etc) often actually involves being an expert on a different era as well, as well as knowing Latin, Anglo Saxon, Old English, Old Norse, Irish and all the other languages that have dominated the writing of history for the last 1500 years.

It’s an unenviable task, and I wouldn’t be able to do my research if I wasn’t standing on the shoulders of giants and evaluating their arguments and accepting, or disagreeing with what they say. One thing I’ve found to be helpful, is to examine the source closest in time to the period under investigation. As such for 994-1016, I can use the Anglo-Saxon Charter, provided I accept that the source is later and biased in favour of certain people and places. But I can use the overwhelming feeling at that time, say ten to twenty years after events (which is still a long time – think of how we now view the 1980’s or the 1990’s) and try to determine a ‘platform’ on which other information can be built or tested against it. Admittedly that means that I need to understand events taking place during the reign of Cnut (and beyond) in order to understand events being recorded in the reign of Aethelred II.

But I started this with a discussion about sources, and have wondered at a wonderful 21st century tangent for some time. I’ll try to drag myself back to 1000 years ago, but first I must say that there is also the bias of the current historian to take into account. We are a suspicious lot, not happy to accept anything at face value, and always looking for the crux of any information provided by our ancestors. It can only be assumed that they were just as devious and untrusting as we are, and so back to the sources. Can we use them? Should we trust them? To me it looks like there’s not actually much choice but to mine them for every available facet of information. And so I shall! With my devious little mind, and my belief that nothing may be as it seems!!

Book Review – Killer of Kings by Matthew Harffy – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“AD 636. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fourth instalment in The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.

When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.

In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?”

Killer of Kings is the fourth full-length novel in The Bernicia Chronicles, but only the third that I’ve read, although I’ve also read the short-story that accompanies the series which I actually enjoyed more than the full-length novels because it was about Beobrand’s brother, who seems to be a wee bit cheerier than poor grumpy Beobrand.

Killer of Kings starts very strongly – the short prologue is excellent and I thought, because of what happens in it, that it was the beginning of something quite monumental. Sadly that’s not the case and instead, the first 50% of the novel is taken up with almost only one battle. Personally, I found it to be a very long build up to the battle, and then dismissed far too quickly.

The remainder of the story is very much a trip down memory lane for Beobrand, and this bit of the novel I really quite enjoyed before Beobrand goes off to settle an old blood feud.

I found the novel to be moderately entertaining but would have appreciated more sophistication in the plot line. As I said, 50% of the novel is concerned with only one battle, and so what comes after feels at times rushed and also a little bit too easy for old Beobrand to accomplish what he wants. He quickly takes up with moaning and grumbling about his injuries (as he did throughout book 3) but he is almost a happier Beobrand than throughout the previous book.

Overall, he is too easily swayed from his own wishes by weak attempts to incite him to honour which fall a little flat. The ongoing Christianity/Pagan Gods thing is, I know, a staple of the time period, but as with the Bernard Cornwell books, I feel it could be handled in a far more sophisticated manner, if not, entirely forgotten about for much of the book. Penda the Pagan was, as the author admits, no persecutor of Christians and as such, it’s difficult to make the East Anglian battle about religion – it was about ambition and strength, and we are told little about what happens as a consequence of the battle in terms of who is, or isn’t king, and what impact this might have had on Penda and Oswald..

The side-story – taking place at home and in his absence – is used to string the novel along – a battle scene followed by what’s happening in his absence – and while I know this is a literary convention employed by many to great affect. I found the back story to be a distraction from Beobrand’s tale, and also, a little too predictable, even as it mingles with Beobrand’s journey to his childhood home.

Overall I think the novel is a firm three star, bordering on a four, and therefore I’ve given it a four. The author has a strong view of the Albion inhabited by Beobrand and his comrades and this is a strength of the novel.

Killer of Kings is available from 1st June 2017.

Book Review – Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“AD 98: The bustling army base at Vindolanda lies on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world. In twenty years’ time, the Emperor Hadrian will build his famous wall, but for now defences are weak, as tribes rebel against Roman rule, and local druids preach the fiery destruction of the invaders.

Flavius Ferox is a Briton and a Roman centurion, given the task of keeping the peace on this wild frontier. But it will take more than just courage to survive life in Roman Britain”

Vindolanda arrived just at a time when my curiosity in all things Roman was starting to quest for something a little closer to home than Rome and Germany (as all the previous Roman era books I’ve read have been based far afield). Living close to Hadrian’s Wall I was delighted to see this title and pounced on it with delight.

The novel starts well enough, and I was quite hooked from the word go but unfortunately, the author’s vast knowledge on the Roman Empire and military matters, in particular, makes the novel far too complex for someone who has only newly come to Roman era historical fiction. I am sure that those who adore Roman historical fiction and non-fiction will revel in the author’s painstaking details of the forces marshalled at Vindolanda and further afield, of the different cohorts and groups of men sent to fight and ensure Rome’s domination, but I struggled to make any sense of what was actually happening unless the action was focused exclusively on Ferox, who I think is supposed to be the hero of the novel but who has a bit of a rough time of it as his character is never allowed to fully develop – he has potential but the author fails to evolve him as he deserved.

I also very much struggled in remembering who all the characters were. Three of the men all have names beginning with C and despite my best efforts, I utterly failed to keep the three of them clear in my mind – often what happened to them told me more about who I was reading about than anything else. There are also a whole host of British tribes to add to the conundrum of who everyone was and while I salute the attempt at authenticity and indeed believe that it should be a part of all historical fiction, I believe that a much better job could have been done of ensuring that the reader knows what’s happening. There were great swathes of conversation where no indication was given as to who was speaking with who. Just a little ,’Ferox spoke” etc would have made the novel far more ‘user-friendly.’

There are a number of fighting/battle scenes that I struggled to fully comprehend, although I imagine others more skilled in Roman military history may fare much better, and these are well spaced throughout the novel. I found it quite surprising how few Romans died in the battles, and also how often the Britons were naked, but perhaps this is historically accurate.

There were elements of the book that flowed very well and others that didn’t. I think with a little work on pacing, and removing all the strange tense changes that occur, this novel could be much more accessible and better received by a whole host of Roman era fans – as it would appear that there is huge interest in this subject. But at the moment – it has the feel of a work in progress and one with more work still to be done. Having just read another historian’s attempt at historical fiction, I feel that on this occasion, Goldsworthy fails to do his subject justice. A shame all round, compounded when I read the notes at the back and realized that the entire story was completely made up. I do like my historical fiction to have some basis in historical fact.

Vindolanda is available from1st June and is available from here;

Film Review – King Arthur:Legend of the Sword – highly, highly recommended (historical fantasy)

I don’t often offer my opinions on films – as they can be somewhat divisive. However, given the bad press surrounding this film – apparently it’s a flop, I feel compelled to write a little in support of the film as I went to see it and it was massively entertaining and so well done, I think people might need a little nudge in the right direction and a bit of positivity.

Firstly, I am not a huge fan of King Arthur legends – (apart from Sword in the Stone – obviously). I often struggle with the ‘historical placement’ of it all and the huge body of medieval literature and idealism that has affected the original ‘legend’. There is no need to fear on that part in this film. The massively imaginative reimagining of ‘England’ by Guy Ritchie is so vast and encompassing that you can’t help but love it. This is Camelot and Londinium as you’ve probably never seen it before. The landscapes are stunning, the details amazing – even the costumes don’t jar and the music, with its thundering drums, adds to a movie that starts a little slowly for all of 5 minutes, and then just builds and builds until the fantastic conclusion.

If you’re a fan of Guy Ritchie movies everything he’s accomplished since Lock, Stock is there (I am a huge fan of his Sherlock Holmes films because, again, they are so refreshing, and I think the Man from UNCLE is very underrated because it’s so damn stylish). This is Londinium with all the ‘street talk’ of Lock, Stock and the attitude of its characters and their ‘banter’ is up there with the best Sherlock lines. There are some fantastic and quirky camera angles used that really add to the enjoyment of the film – this is a film without dull moments, and I mean none – (unlike Guardians of the Galaxy 2 which was also awesome but has a bit in the middle that’s a bit ‘flat’). It starts, and it rolls and it keeps going.

If you’re a fan of Arthurian Legends then too, this has much to offer. Camelot is there, Uhtred, Vortigern, the Lady of the Lake, Druids and even Merlin gets more than a mention. This is an ‘epic’ England of ‘Arthurian’ times – and if sometimes Ritchie plays a little bit hard and fast with some of the expected storylines, this shouldn’t detract because you’ll be too busy laughing, or watching in amazement with your mouth hanging open!

This is clever, and witty craftsmanship. Having seen a few ‘good’ action films recently, this film suffers from none of their flaws – while it’s as stylistic as Assassin’s Creed and has superb music to accompany it (I felt the music in Assassin’s Creed throbbing through my veins), King Arthur benefits from a plot and story that drives it ever forward. The slightly forced camaraderie of The Great Wall, (which again is a stylistically fantastic film and very well made) has no place in this film – the main stars work so well together that everything feels natural and never forced.

Jude Law is stunningly evil, Charlie Hunnam doesn’t falter once, his delivery is fantastic, and the actress playing the druid is mystical and powerful and beautiful in a mystical way. The supporting cast, which is both vast and small, is filled with familiar faces – it’s good to see the guy from Game of Thrones, the little nod to the BBC Merlin series, and ‘Blue’ is a little gem. The David Beckham cameo didn’t even make me flinch and some might not even recognise him as he delivers his lines in a bluff ‘Londinium’ accent. Eric Bana is exceptionally heroic as Uhtred, and I’m not unconvinced that Jason Statham doesn’t have a cameo as well.

And all this before I even get to the fantastical elements of this historical fantasy (which I’m not spoiling – go and see them) because they are so well done.

For all those fans of Vikings, this is a film for you that doesn’t suffer from the need to drag out storylines for an entire season. For fans of The Last Kingdom – this film will show you how this sort of thing should be done – there’s no half-ass fighting scenes, weak dialogue, or moody ‘elf’ man. The kings and warriors in this don’t pansy around with wooden crosses around their necks, worrying about what ‘their’ God might or might not think about everything that’s going on.

This is a ‘reimagined’ world of epic proportions, and as you might have noticed, I really can’t praise it enough, so put down your latest historical fiction/fantasy novel, and get yourself to the cinema! This is how ‘Arthur’ should be done.

The Legend of Arthur was released in the UK on 21st May 2017.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1972591/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Book Review – The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer (Historical Fiction) Recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“The year is 1348 and brothers John and William have been infected by the plague. Their fate is sealed. Until a voice from the skies offers them a choice: ‘You may stay here and spend your last six days with your wife and children. Or you may put yourself in my hands now. I will wipe the scars from your face and the swellings from your body. I will extinguish your fever. I will let you live your last six days in the distance of the future.’

John and William agree: they will live for six more days and in return they will do good deeds in order to try to save their souls. But there’s a twist: each of those six days will begin ninety-nine years after the last, delivering them each time to an increasingly alien existence. As they travel, the reader travels with them, seeing the world change with conflict, disease, progress and enlightenment. But all the while time is counting down to a moment of judgement.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

Ian Mortimer is a fantastic historian – looking at the past with new eyes and in so doing shedding light on events that are often, erroneously, presented as a fait accompli. For this reason, I was very excited to be given the opportunity to read and review his first work of fiction.

The Outcasts of Time is a deeply intriguing novel, looking not at the past through our perception, but rather the future (which is now our past) through the eyes of a man who lived over 600 years ago. This means that instead of our own misconceptions being applied to the past, every new century is seen afresh, with old eyes that note the changes and the differences as well as the similarities. That said, the novel is not always successful in doing this in an entertaining way, there are the odd occasions where I pondered whether the novel was actually going to be able to successfully bring to a conclusion what appears, at points, as nothing more than a random collection of chance encounters in and around the area of Exeter with different people throughout the 600 year period. I must point out, however, that in the end, I was very pleased to have all the events brought together and to be given some understanding of John’s ‘chance’ encounters.

The initial portrayal of the Black Death is as bleak as we could expect, and edged with harshness. I can understand why the events drove John to seek the option of travelling into the future as opposed to his hideous and painful death. What then transpires is a painstakingly detailed tramp through both the historical and the physical landscape. The book covers a small geographical area – wherever John and his brother could walk in a day’s journey. This feels, on occasion, a little restrictive, and yet the research involved in the endeavour can not be underestimated. Ian Mortimer has either envisaged, or drawn from the historical record, painstaking detail about the way the landscape, people and places changed throughout the 600 years from the Black Death. While this detail may occasionally slow the narrative it can not be ignored. What else would you notice if you did travel through time? It would be people’s clothes, haircuts, the decorations in their houses, the style of buildings and the food available to eat – not to mention the changes in bathrooms.

The grander events of history – the well known wars and kings and queens – are touched upon but they don’t constitute what John is hoping to achieve. He is looking for redemption – to save a soul in order to save his own – and his comments and feelings remain those of a man born and raised in the fourteenth century, confused and beguiled by events almost beyond his comprehension, which only increases with distance from his own time.

The author works hard to bring out every naunce of change through time – right down to evolving speech and the changing of names – by the end John is no longer John of Wrayment but John Everyman – time and language mangling his name, and depriving him of almost everything apart from his brother’s ring and his memories. By making John a stone carver, the author even manages to show that even something as ‘permanent’ as stone can be mangled and broken through time – the carvings John has made, based on his family and friends, gradually fall away and lose their shape. Nothing, it seems, is ever permanent, no matter the initial intent.

The people John meets are perhaps a little too easily convinced of his journey through time, and I do feel that the last two centuries – the 1800’s and 1900’s perhaps work better – but that is probably because they are more ‘real’ to me – they are more comprehensible to me just as those centuries closer to John seem to make more sense to him. This, I think, is to be expected.

I would also add that quite a bit of the novel is concerned with religion and religious change. This is fascinating, but also, on occasion, a little overpowering, and yet reflects the concerns of John very eloquently. It shows how recently religion has ceased to be such a major presence in the lives of many.

When John offers the opinion that “The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom” he is speaking for the rationale behind this novel and doing so very eloquently.

Recommended to all who enjoy history and historical fiction.

The Outcasts of Time is released on 15th June 2017 and you can buy it here.

Book Review – The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien (historical fiction) Highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“From the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Queen’s Choice

A tale of treachery, power-hungry families and legal subterfuges.

Woven through it is a remarkable story of a beautiful girl, desirable as a bride, growing to be a woman of foresight and power.

A story of love and loyalty and of the cost of personal ambition. The story of the woman who would ultimately wield power as the King Mother to 10 year old King Richard II.”

I received a free E Arc from Netgalley.

The Shadow Queen is a fantastic read. Very well paced from beginning to end, it charts the life of Joan of Kent, the cousin of King Edward III, who is a prominent character throughout the story. I always enjoy it when an author finds a 'new' historical character to offer to their readers - for too long the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses have garnered far too much interest, as have the few women who were prominent in Medieval Times - Isabella of Castille and Elearnor of Aquaitaine. Often, no matter how hard an author might try, historical events can only be manipulated so much and I much prefer a fresh story.

Joan is an acerbic character - and some of the best passages in the book stem from when her nature is allowed to fly free - this is often when speaking to the men in her life - but at these times the characters feel very alive and real. So beguiling is she that I found it difficult to put the book down and read it in two days, even though I was supposed to be reading another novel.

I don't wish to spoil the nature of the story - for the unravelling of events around Joan is one of the author's strongest story telling techniques - suffice to say while some elements of her life garner slightly too much time in the novel, and others a little too little - the story is fantastically well crafted without dwelling too much on romance and matters of the heart because this isn't in the strong willed nature of the Plantaganet Princess, who is only too aware of her own power and strength because of her blood.

5 stars and a highly recommended for this story.

I would, however, have liked some longer historical notes at the end with more details about Joan as opposed to the royal family members she interacted with.

And you can buy it here when it’s released on 4th May 2017.

 

 

 

Book Review – Deposed by David Barbaree (historical fiction) Highly Recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“More gripping than Game of Thrones and more ruthless than House of Cards – this a stunning new thriller of power, treachery and revenge

In a darkened cell, a brutally deposed dictator lies crippled – deprived of his power, his freedom – and his eyes.

On the edge of utter despair, his only companion is the young boy who brings him his meagre rations, a mere child who fears his own shadow. But to one who has held and lost the highest power, one thing alone is crystal clear: even emperors were mere children once.

Ten years later, the new ruler’s son watches uneasily over his father’s empire. Wherever he looks rebellion is festering, and those closest to him have turned traitor once before.

To this city in crisis comes a hugely wealthy senator from the very edge of the empire, a young and angry ward at his heels. He is witty but inscrutable, generous with his time and money to a leader in desperate need of a friend – and he wears a bandage over his blinded eyes.

The fallen emperor’s name is Nero.”

Wow, what a stunning debut novel.

I’ve never read any Roman themed novels before the last few weeks, but it would seem that they are both very popular and really rather numerous (I think this is now my sixth or seventh). That said, the books that I’ve read have, more of less, dealt with similar time periods and events. In the case of this novel, I’ve not long since read The Young Nero by Elizabeth George which follows Nero through his younger years and this novel seemed quite a perfect follow up.

This novel, however, is far more wickedly complicated and an absolute delight to read. It has a fast pace and is a very easy read. A note for future readers – do take account of the chapter headings – the novel moves through many different points of views and through two different time periods, as well as occasionally going backward in that time period. It sounds complicated, but it’s a brilliant way of unravelling the events of the novel.

I think it would be fair to say it’s a fairly simple story told in a complicated way – it’s about intrigue in the Roman Government during the AD 60’s-70’s – but it is also so much more than that because of the multiple point of views. This allows the author to decipher events as others see them, with all their attendant prejudices, worries and fears. It is, it must be said, as complex as the House of Cards and as much fun. The portrayal of the corrupt nature of the Roman Government is done very well – I garnered much more from this novel about events in Rome and the wider Roman Empire than I did The Young Nero.

The two timelines, interwoven throughout the novel, eventually offer explanations to the events taking place in the later timeline and while some may find the storyline a little far-fetched, I found it to be told in such a believable way that I had no problem allowing the author to take me down a slightly unconventional route.

My only slight gripe is that I’d assumed this was a standalone novel, and clearly it isn’t, which means I’ll have to keep my eye out for the next novel because I am incredibly keen to read more about Barbaree’s reimagining of Ancient Rome and his Deposed Nero.

And you can buy it here (and should) from May 4th 2017;