King Eadwig, St Dunstan, and the Ménage à Trois – Propaganda in the Anglo-Saxon Court

King Eadwig inherited the throne of Wessex in 955 at age fourteen. Like any fourteen year-old given unlimited power, he proceeded to live it up. In four short years on the throne he kicked out established court advisors, gave excessive gifts of land to followers, lost half his kingdom to his brother, married a girl that the pope subsequently told him he couldn’t marry, and famously escaped his own coronation to have a threesome with said girl … and her mother. Needless to say, Eadwig does not rank among the boy-king martyrs of England. But is all as it seems?  There is the faint suspicion of propaganda and character assassination that lingers around these depictions of Eadwig. The salacious and oft repeated incident of the royal ménage à trois – a tale with distinctly folkloric elements – is particularly suspect. The narrative is loaded with symbolism depicting Eadwig’s disregard for his office and, so the tale goes, upon this event hinges both the fate of kingdom, and the fate of a saint. So naturally, it is on this dalliance that I will be dwelling.

There is little question that Eadwig was a weak king – that he alienated an extraordinary amount of royal land is not in doubt as per charter evidence. Neither is it in doubt that his brother was either granted, or seized, control over half the kingdom and Eadwig never regained that authority. Indeed, that Eadwig ousted long-standing advisors is also verifiable, however it does begin the take us into murkier historical waters. Why did Eadwig exile the great men of his predecessors’ court?

We have little by way of historical record from the king’s household to provide evidence of Eadwig’s reasoning, and the sources we do have must be suspected of significant bias. The sordid details of Eadwig’s sex life come to light in the biographies and hagiographies of one Saint Dunstan, which also paint a picture of a capricious and misguided boy who sidelined experienced politicians when they resisted his whims. In fact, it is reported that one of these politicians was ejected from the realm for his role in breaking up the king’s coronation threesome. Which seems fair. But when it is taken into account that that politician was Dunstan himself, we can begin to suspect character assassination. Eadwig may well appear in late Anglo-Saxon hagiography, but unlike Edward the Martyr and Kenelm of Mercia, he is not the titular hero, but the antagonist, constructed as a foil to the saintly Dunstan, as demonstrated in the account of Eadwig’s private coronation party.

On the very same day, after the king’s ritual installation and anointing, his lust suddenly prompted him to rush out and caress whores in the manner I have described, leaving the happy feasters … At Archbishop Oda’s request, Abbot Dunstan and Bishop Cynesige attended the royal apartments to bring the king back to the feast, whereupon they … went in and found the royal crown … tossed carelessly on the ground some distance from the king’s head, while he was disporting himself between two women as though they were wallowing in some revolting pigsty … Dunstan first told off the foolish women. As for the king, since he would not get up, Dunstan put out his hand and removed him from the couch where he had been fornicating with the harlots … parted from his women if only by main forced.

                                   B, Vita S. Dunstani, 21. 2 – 4

It was a bold move by Dunstan. Not only had he gone against the king’s desires, but upon finding the young king in flagrante delicto, he had publicly humiliated him in front of his nobles at his own coronation. Given the easily wounded egos of both kings and fourteen-year-olds, it is not difficult to imagine why Dunstan was forced to flee English shores. Yet Dunstan quite possibly felt at ease with his actions: he was a man with the courage of his own political and religious convictions (frighteningly so); he had dealt with difficult kings before and survived; and he once fought off the devil with a pair of tongs.

One of these is not like the others. As tempting as it may be, I will not go into the popular history of Dunstan and the Devil, but refer you instead to this blog entry by the inimitable Clerk of Oxford.

St Dunstan was a critical figure in late Anglo-Saxon religious and political history. Born c. 909 and rising from humble origins, Dunstan would be advisor to seven kings, become the Abbot of Glastonbury, and end his long life as Archbishop of Canterbury. Best known for his system-wide reforms of monastic houses in England, it is unsurprising that, after his death in 988, Dunstan was rapidly canonised, and that the extant accounts of his life are hagiographical biographies.

Of particular interest for this discussion is the Vita S. Dunstani, written within ten years of Dunstan’s death by the anonymous author ‘B’. B quite clearly knew Dunstan and seeks to extoll his virtues in life and his sanctity in death in true hagiographical style, though the personal connection adds a dimension of personal testimony from an eyewitness to events. While there are numerous accounts of Dunstan’s life, and many individual events are independently corroborated by chroniclers, the Vita is frequently the source of these alternative accounts. Though it does engage in hagiographical invention, as well as pro-Dunstan propaganda, B’s account of Dunstan’s life is rather less sensationalist than most of these other vitae. The early dating of the Vita and the association of its author as a companion of Dunstan’s lend an authority to the narrative that is unusual in hagiography.

There is near universal acceptance that Dunstan was exiled by the young King Eadwig in 956. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts that in that year Dunstan was driven across the sea, and the exile is recounted throughout the early Anglo-Norman histories without fail. And interestingly, Eadwig was not the first king that these sources, and the Vita, declare that Dunstan fell out with. As a young man, Dunstan had been exiled by Æthelstan – an event that was the catalyst for his taking holy orders. Dunstan later reingratiated himself with the king and was an influential member of the court when Æthelstan’s successor Edmund took the throne. It did not take long for Edmund to similarly exile him, though once again he would make a triumphant return during that king’s life.

It is in Dunstan’s relationships with the Anglo-Saxon kings that B’s adroit use of propaganda is most clearly on display. The trope of the holy man being afflicted by the hardships of the world permeates the Vita, and Dunstan’s conflict with the kings serves to enhance his reputation as a pious man setting himself against worldly authority. Yet B is subtle. The rightly crowned king of the realm was an agent of God and it would have both been impious and impolitic to directly attack the kings.

Thus, the picture painted of Dunstan’s exile under Æthelstan is one which absolves the king of willing complicity. B tells us that Æthelstan’s courtiers became jealous of the well-educated young man who had become one of the king’s favourites and made allegations to the king that Dunstan was a heathen and partook of magical rites. Once Æthelstan’s proclamation of banishment was obtained, Dunstan’s enemies beat him and left him for dead in a cesspool. The narrative repeats itself with Edmund and, once again ill-advised by his courtiers, Edmund forced the holy-man into exile. It is notable that both men redeemed themselves by welcoming Dunstan back to the fold. It is also notable that, by the time of B’s writing of the Vita, both kings had obtained a reputation for good and proactive kingship. In both cases, B intelligently manages to cast Dunstan’s re-entry into the Anglo-Saxon court within the pre-existing traditions of Æthelstan and Edmund’s virtuous reputations.

Not so Eadwig. Eadwig’s age and length of rule were not conducive to his gaining such a reputation for excellence in kingship, and Dunstan’s return to the court was only facilitated by the young king’s untimely death. Further, by the time Eadwig took the throne, his power and influence were far greater than they had been under earlier kings and it seems likely that it was he and his supporters who managed to convince the pope to annul Eadwig’s marriage in 957. Here, however, an already murky tableau of politics, propaganda, and hagiography only gets murkier.

As with the accounts of the other two kings, B absolves Eadwig of independent action – this time by placing the influence of the older of Eadwig’s two coronation consorts, Æthelgifu, at the centre of the plot to oust Dunstan. Æthelgifu was the mother of the other partner in the coronation scandal, and it was to that woman Eadwig would soon be wed – thus Æthelgifu was to become Eadwig’s mother-in-law. That Dunstan’s followers had that marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity the following year would then seem to be a part of an ongoing battle between the monk and the mother. (Yes, according to B, Eadwig had partaken of a ménage à trois with his fiancée and her mother, both of whom were related to him – dinners must have been seriously awkward).

While the annulment is historically locatable, Æthelgifu appears only within the Vita and its derivatives. It is quite possible that she is a literary invention designed to both absolve Eadwig of direct involvement in the plot against Dunstan, while simultaneously augmenting his evident weakness as king. Thus, as an authorial invention, the coronation threesome performs as an introduction into the narrative of Eadwig’s moral weakness, and Æthelgifu’s moral wickedness. B informs his readers that Eadwig devolved power to Æthelgifu in the immediate aftermath of the coronation – an act in keeping with his alienation of the royal demesne – and she began to plot against Dunstan’s person and privilege. Indeed, as Æthelgifu moved against Dunstan’s titles and property, Dunstan fled the country just in time, for as he sailed away there arrived messengers from the wicked pirate-woman (so the story goes) who would have torn out his eyes if he had been found on these shores.

But by removing the wicked queen motif from the narrative, and ascribing direct action to Eadwig, the political situation seems rather clearer. While Dunstan may not have had designs on the throne, his tenure, authority, and patronage overshadowed that of the young king and his new advisors, threatening their political control. As an experienced politician, Dunstan saw the way the political wind was blowing and left England before he could be caught and subjected to worse punishments than exile.

Dunstan would recover from this setback, welcomed back by Eadwig’s successor, upon whom B heaps praise, the man of God went on to extend his political career by thirty-years (with no further exiles). That Dunstan was banished by half the kings he ever served does indicate that he was a problematic political player – it is difficult to say whether this because he was reformer, a rabble rouser, or an over-powerful magnate; an argument from the extant sources can be made for each. Yet while the kings Dunstan served have, in many ways, slipped into obscurity, leaving no biographies to later generations, Dunstan’s person and actions were carefully curated by his followers after his death. Thus Dunstan’s legacy as the cleric who helped forge an Anglo-Saxon world to his own vision in the face of temporal and spiritual opposition has long outlasted the kings who saw him as a threat.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Eadwig (r. 955 – 959), BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 3r.
  2. B. Vita S. Dunstani. In The Early Lives of St Dunstan. Edited and translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Winterbottom. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012.
  3. Eadmer of Canterbury. Vita S. Dunstani. In The Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald. Edited and translated by Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J Muir. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.
  4. Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval Studies 3 (2016): 1 – 33.
  5. Osbern. Miracula S. Dunstani. In Memorials of St Dunstan. Translated by William Stubbs. London: Longman & Co, 1874.
  6. Ramsay, Nigel, Margaret Sparks and Tim Tatton-Brown, eds. St Dunstan: His Life, Times and Cult. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1992.
  7. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.

See our bibliographies on Hagiography and Chronicle Editions.


A Brief Biography of … Kenelm of Mercia

Killed by his sister Cwoenthryth in 819, King Kenelm of Mercia – a lad of a mere seven years – spent less than a year on his throne before meeting a martyr’s death. Or so goes the 819 chronicle entry of John of Worcester. There is an immediate problem, however, for any modern historian writing a biographical account of Kenelm: he probably didn’t exist. Or, more accurately, a seven-year-old Mercian prince name Kenelm who took the throne upon the death of his father and was subsequently murdered by his traitorous sister (and had an extremely active afterlife) almost certainly did not exist. Yet this is the narrative of the Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi, the source that informed John of Worcester’s chronicle entry, and this is the Kenelm that I will be looking at here. Once again, as with Edward the Martyr, our sources dictate that a biography of an Anglo-Saxon royal saint will focus more upon his death than his life. However, in this case we also have treacherous sisters and eyes popping out of heads…

Kenelm was the son of the Mercian King Coenwulf (r. 796 – 821) and this historical Kenelm is easily dispensed with. There are few references to him within the contemporary historical record. The only charter to mention Kenelm as the ‘king’s son’ is a forgery and, while the evidence of other charters indicate a man named Cynehelm was a high-ranking member of the Mercian court, he died around 812 having never claimed the throne. A single papal grant of 799 providing Kenelm and his issue lands in Glastonbury seems genuine, and it is this that most historians rely on as a positive identification of a Kenelm who was the son of the Mercian king.

Notably though, not one of the historical records of Kenelm’s life can fit within the timeline of the Vita et miracula – according to which the seven-year-old Kenelm died in 819, and was therefore born in 812. This means that the known noble Cynehelm died in the year that Kenelm was born; that the papal grant was given to Kenelm twenty years before his birth; and that Kenelm ascended the throne two years before his father was done with it. Two things can be concluded from this mess. Firstly, that can be positively asserted from the historical evidence is that Coenwulf had a son named Kenelm who lived into adulthood yet predeceased his father, thus never attaining the throne. And secondly, that the Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi was not intended as historical record, whatever John of Worcester may think.

Though Kenelm was an early ninth-century figure, his life is recorded in a mid-eleventh century manuscript and, as such, the Vita et miracula is a product of late Anglo-Saxon hagiography and reflects the cultural concerns of eleventh-century England upon the cusp of the Conquest. Indeed, that it was at this late point that Kenelm’s passio was committed to parchment likely reflects a frenzy of hagiographical biography inspired by the murder of Edward the Martyr. The parallels between the central plot of the Passio S. Eadwardi and the Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi are immediately obvious, particularly in the person of the treacherous woman. Setting aside any dispute over historical accuracy v. narrative causality as per that particular trope, both hagiographies record the assassination of a young Anglo-Saxon king at the hands of a close female family member lusting for power.

The Vita et miracula records Kenelm’s inheritance of the kingship in accordance with his father’s wishes, but that ‘Cwoenthryth, goaded by savage envy and an ambition to rule, lay in wait for him…’.  Cwoenthryth did not personally kill Kenelm (just as Edward the Martyr’s step-mother did not herself hold the dagger), but rather convinced Kenelm’s tutor to undertake the deed. While the narrative plays up the tutor’s moral indecision – and Kenelm’s miraculous innocence – over seven chapters of prose, the young king’s death is recorded as a simple beheading in once sentence. (The addition of the authorial note that Kenelm caught his own head is a nice touch, and makes Kenelm one of not an insignificant number of cephalophores in Anglo-Saxon hagiology). In detail, this narrative holds no historical accuracy. The real details of Kenelm’s life and death were likely already obscured by the passage of time by the time of its writing, and there is no evidence of a cult of S. Kenelm prior to 970.  Indeed, as noted, there is no contemporary evidence that Kenelm ever ascended the throne of Mercia, nor that he died a martyr’s death. Similarly, though she is a better attested historical figure than Kenelm, there is no evidence of Cwoenthryth’s supposed repudiation as a consequence of her brother’s murder.

So, as we have established that the central event of the Vita et Miracula is largely a product of authorial invention, we may as well run with it and deal with the fate of Kenelm’s treacherous sister.  The author paints a miraculous scene in which the crime of Cwoenthryth and her accomplices is made known through divine intervention to Pope Leo III, who sends an expedition to recover Kenelm’s body. Upon seeing the joy and adulation of the people translating her brother’s body from his ignominious grave to a resting place at Winchcombe Abbey, Cwoenthryth set about cursing her brother’s memory by chanting Psalm 108 backwards; in a graphic description the author describes the curse recoiling on Cwoenthryth:

…straightway, both her eyes, rooted out from their sockets, dropped upon the very page she was reading.  That same psalter, adorned with silver, still shows the proof of this chastisement, stained on the same sentence with the blood of the fallen eye-balls.

Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi, 17

Cwoenthryth dies in disgrace having lost the crown she had snatched, with the account focussing upon the physical detail of the loss of the eyes, while making clear the crimes for which divine justice was meted out.  The commentary of the author is subtle, but the physical blindness must be considered as a somewhat felicitous punishment for the spiritual blindness Cwoenthryth displayed in her life. That the psalter ‘still shows the proof of this chastisement’ is of particular note, for the relic of the stained psalter is in fact an attestation to her crimes that has greater permanency than a visibly mutilated and blinded, yet ephemeral, body. And it is a relic with an entertaining afterlife.

In his Journey Through Wales, written over a century after the Vita, Gerald of Wales relates a miracle in which a fornicating monk of Winchcombe, carrying a psalter in the abbey’s procession for the feast of S. Kenelm, finds the psalter stuck to his hands until he repents his sin. Gerald identifies this psalter as that which bore the stains of Cwoenthryth’s divine blinding and provides a summation of that event that is a clear borrowing from the Vita. Yet it is interesting that Gerald would seek to revive the narrative with a contemporary attribution of divine intervention.

It is known that Kenelm’s cult was focussed upon Winchcombe, and Gerald’s tale indicates that the story retained some importance in the town three centuries after the alleged event and a century after its documentation. This is unsurprising if Winchcombe was indeed a pilgrimage centre for the cult of Kenelm, which seems likely. The cathedral at Winchcombe went through two rededications between 970 and 1070, the first representing an Anglo-Saxon revival, the second the introduction of the Norman church. It seems likely that the authorship of the Vita et Miracula was intended to accompany one of these events, and the author places much of Kenelm’s posthumous miracle-making within Winchcombe’s geographical bounds. Gerald’s narrative displays a sound knowledge of local lore, demonstrating the extent to which the martyrdom of a highly fictionalise Anglo-Saxon boy-king became entrenched within English hagiographical tradition.

So where does this somewhat rambling examination of the historical life, and the mythologised death of Kenelm leave us? Firstly it is clear that I have a somewhat unusual interest in the trope of blinding in medieval narrative as the vehicle for the deprivation of power and social normalcy. Secondly that, more so than many other Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, Kenelm is largely the product of authorial invention. And lastly that, the historical accuracy of Kenelm’s hagiography is secondary to its illumination of the cultural context in which it was written.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature Image: BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 255r.
  2. Catherine Cubitt, ‘Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints,’ Early Medieval Europe 9 (No. 1, 2000), pp. 53 – 83.
  3. R. R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, translated by Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, 3 vols, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
  4. Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of MedievalStudies3 (2016): 1 – 33.
  5. Gerald of Wales. The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales. Edited and translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
  6. Alan Thacker, ‘Kings, Saints, and Monasteries in Pre-Viking Mercia,’ Midlands History 10 (1985), pp. 1 – 25.
  7. Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi, in Three Elventh-Century Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives, edited and translated by Rosalind C. Love, 50 – 89 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
  8. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  9. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

See our bibliographies on Hagiography and Chronicle Editions.


Manuscript Archives (2): Lambeth Palace Library

Lambeth Palace is the London seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the records centre for the Church of England. Thus its focus and strength as an archive is post-Reformation documentation relating to the church and ergo is a critical repository of material on early modern England and its neighbours. With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising to find that the archives contain over six-hundred medieval MSS, and particularly surprising that this collection contains such a definitively pre-Reformation text as the Vita S. Eadwardi regis et martyris. It was to access this version of the life of Edward the Martyr that I had cause last year to attend Lambeth Palace Library. The text of the Vita contained in MS 149 dates to c. 1250 – 1350 and, as an artefact of the saints’ cults that the reformers so emphatically rejected, we are fortunate it survived the Reformation. That it is now owned and protected by the church those reformers founded is just wonderfully incongruous.

Like the majority of Insular archives containing medieval MSS, the medieval texts contained at Lambeth Palace do not reflect a historically homogenous collection. The dissolution of the monasteries from c. 1536 dispersed MSS amongst many private collections and their re-consolidation into public archives has taken centuries and provided for rather erratic collections. In Lambeth’s case, the MSS have found their way to their repository either through the bequeathal of private collections, the archive’s efforts at MS acquisition, or the Archbishops’ own endeavours to the same end. While much of the medieval MS collection has been at Lambeth for a significant period – and thus appear in the published descriptive catalogues – what can make searching the Lambeth collection a little more difficult is the continued acquisition of MS. Most notably the archives came into the possession of the majority of the MSS held by Sion College library in 1996, and have also added numerous individual MS or small MS collections over the years. As such, there is no integrated descriptive catalogue of the full Lambeth collection as it stands – thus I must refer you to the Lambeth Palace website. May God bless your digital catalogue searches in the CalmView system – for he has only cursed mine.

The archives themselves are one of the most pleasant I have had the satisfaction of being granted access to. Once you find the hidden door and buzz in, the archivists and librarians are most helpful and efficient in reviewing identification and providing a reader’s card. MSS are accessed upon demand and, for a scant £5, unlimited self-digitisation is allowed. I found the archival practices extremely up-to-date, and the small reading room for the consultation of MSS is an ideal and intimate space. They even have tea and coffee facilities in a separate area. In many ways it was unfortunate I had only one MS to consult – both the helpful staff and the pleasant facilities made for an ideal study environment.

Turning now to that single MS I examined, I once again do not intend to do the job of the descriptive catalogues (LP MS 149 – James, vol. 1, pp. 24 – 25), especially considering the complicated custodial history of the manuscript. Rather I will make some general observations on the MS in regards to its history as an artefact, its contents, and construction.

MS 149 comprises of two distinct codices, the first of which has garnered extensive scholarly attention. The scribe(s) used a very clean Anglo-Saxon script (insular half uncial perhaps? – picture of f.23 v. below), and the resulting codex is locatable as a text owned by Leofric – the bishop of Exeter between 1050 and 1072. Leofric’s person, his known interest in MS acquisition, and his geographical and temporal location in the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman rule, are what bring this codex to scholarly attention. The contents are far from innovative, despite the lovely script, containing Bede’s commentary on John’s Apocalypse, and Augustine’s treatise on adulterous marriages. Despite the different topics of the two texts it contains, the scribe (or commission) seems to have conceived this codex as a single volume, with the script consistent throughout and the latter text starting immediately after the former, halfway through a quire.


The second codex, which was that of interest to me, was written around two centuries later and shows significant changes in scribal standards in the adoption of book hand (? – picture of f.164 v. below). It was originally owned by the Augustine priory of Lanthony in Gloucestershire. That this is bound with the Leofric codex from Exeter exemplifies the nature of Insular archives in microcosm. The codices were created in geographically and temporally disparate locations, yet in the MS dispersal after the dissolution of the monasteries, both monastic texts made their way into a single private collection. I have been unable to locate precisely when the two codices were bound together, however this was not an uncommon practice of the post-Reformation MS collectors and it was likely done in the 16th or 17th century. It is not difficult to see why they would have been joined by a later collector – bracketed by the Enchiridion of Augustine, and his de penitencia, the Vita is anomalous within the second codex. Both codices give primacy to the works of Augustine and it is likely this that brings these two distinctive books together in one binding.


In content, the text of the Vita S. Eadwardi regis et martyris in MS 149 reflects the ‘wicked stepmother’ narrative described in my post on Edward the Martyr, and is largely the same as the text I viewed at Trinity College Dublin. As such it assists in the thoroughness of my research, but only insofar as I can state that Lambeth Palace MS 149 does not innovate upon the text of the Vita.

Once again it was a pleasure to be able to handle the historical artefact, and needless to say I spent a fair amount of time examining and appreciating the craftsmanship of even those passages of no relevance to my research. Lambeth Palace Library itself, and its reading rooms, are an intimate and functional space conducive to research. The staff are friendly, the MSS accessible and the archival practices excellent. The online catalogue is not ideal as it stands and is rather particular, though in writing this blog I have noted that it seems to have improved over the past six months, so given time it will grow to serve its purpose. Undoubtedly my favourite of the archives I have visited.

-Matt Firth

Summary, Lambeth Palace Library:


Reading tickets are granted with ID upon arrival at the Lambeth Palace reading room. There is no requirement for a letter of introduction, making the archive more accessible than most.

Access is quite simple once you find the door! Access is from Lambeth Palace Road which runs along the Thames – look for a small black door in the wall with a sign alongside indicating hours of operation (see feature photo). Use the intercom to speak to the duty-librarian who will buzz you in and meet you at the inner doors. I recommend sending an introductory email before attending.

MS Access:

MSS are retrieved upon request and collection is quick and efficient. It is possible to email in advance to confirm MS availability; however, the MSS will only be retrieved upon attendance.


No cost for access.


Available as self-service – £5 per day for unlimited digitisation.


The Lambeth Palace online catalogue is incomplete and somewhat finicky – I have yet to get it to provide an accurate hit. However, the archives are regularly updating it with digitised content and, unlike the below volumes, it theoretically catalogues the acquisitions from Sion College library.

General Catalogue: H. J. Todd, A Catalogue of the Archiepiscopal Manuscripts in the Library at Lambeth Palace, London, 1812.

Descriptive Catalogue: M. R. James, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Lambeth Palace, 2 vols, reprint, Cambridge, 2011 (1932).

Further information:

Lambeth Palace Library:

A Brief Biography of … Edward the Martyr

Ascending to the throne of England in 975 upon the death of his father, Edgar the Peaceable, Edward the Martyr is primarily remembered for being assassinated after only three years on the throne. Though Edward subsequently entered the rolls of Anglo-Saxon royal saints, his was a largely inconsequential reign, and its violent end is often seen as a key progenitor to the Anglo-Saxon crown’s terminal decline.

Edward is the first entry in what will be an ongoing series of biographies. These were conceived as a way to supply contextualising information on the medieval historians that provide us with the bulk of our source-material for the periods and topics we research. However, the concept has grown and we will provide biographies of historical (or semi-historical) figures who enter our research as the need arises. In my blog entry on Trinity College Dublin, I noted that my research primarily examines the saints’ lives narratives of Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, and Edward the Martyr – as Edward will also feature in my blog on the Lambeth Palace archives, I thought he deserved a full introduction. I will be treating Edward as a primarily hagiographical figure and, as such, this biography will focus more on his death than on his life.

Unlike the climactic events of many Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, Edward’s assassination can be grounded historically and explained within the contemporary political milieu, making it of abiding interest. The entry for the year 978 in the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that:

In this year King Edward was killed at the gap of Corfe on 18 March in the evening, and he was buried at Wareham without royal honours. And no worse deed than this for the English people was committed since first they came to Britain. Men murdered him, but God honoured him. In life he was an earthly king; he is now after death a heavenly saint.

The entry continues in a similarly hyperbolic fashion with clear borrowings from hagiographical narrative; however, the entry for 979 in the same version of the Chronicle is prosaic:

In this year Æthelred succeeded to the kingdom, and very quickly after that was consecrated king at Kingston with much rejoicing by the councillors of the English people.

Despite the forays into eulogising narrative, the political bones of this story are straight-forward. In 978 Edward was killed through treachery and his body buried without any acknowledgement of his station. There is likely a two-fold reason for the unusual burial: by denying his body royal treatment, the enactors of the plot deprived Edward of a legitimising symbol Anglo-Saxon kingship, while also depriving his followers of a shrine that could become a cultic centre of discontent. Upon his death, Edward’s half-brother Æthelred II (‘the Unready’) took the throne and was thus the obvious benefactor of the murder. Yet Æthelred was only twelve years old in 978 and therefore unlikely to have been directly involved. So who then killed Edward the Martyr? It is that question which I most wish to examine.

Edward is perhaps the most recognised and widely studied of the murdered royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England, and certainly the best attested in contemporary sources. In part this represents the temporal proximity of Edward’s martyrdom to the literary endeavours of late Anglo-Saxon and early Anglo-Norman England. Within thirty years of his death in 978, his martyrdom had passed into hagiographical narrative in the Vita S. Oswaldi. This narrative informs the reader that it was ‘magnates of this realm’ who organised the assassination of the king, as they felt his younger brother would provide for a more compliant ruler. The only account more contemporary than that provided in the Vita S. Oswaldi are the quoted entries from the Chronicle. It is notable that the scribe of the 978 entry decries the murder of the young king, and subsequently limits the rejoicing at Æthelred’s 979 coronation to ‘the councillors of the English people.’ From these earliest accounts it certainly seems Edward’s murder was plot conceived by the nobility of the English realm.

Yet it is notable that the place where the assassination occurred is known to have been owned by Edward’s step-mother – Æthelred’s mother Ælfthryth. With her son taking the throne at an age when her personal influence could still be significant, Ælfthryth clearly benefited politically from Edward’s death, and it is not difficult to see why she came under suspicion. Yet a cultural distrust of female power must be taken into consideration, and the wicked step-mother trope is a common one throughout European literature. The presence of Edward’s treacherous step-mother is not noted until the late eleventh century, when his story was expanded into an independent narrative in the Passio S. Eadwardi regis et martyris, forming a basis for the transmission of Edward’s martyrdom into the histories of Anglo-Norman era. In this narrative, while visiting his step-mother Ælfthryth and half-brother Æthelred, Edward was stabbed upon Ælfthryth’s order, clearing the way for Æthelred to ascend the throne. As the inheritors of this hagiographical tradition in which the step-mother’s role as conspirator to the murder of the king was considered fact, the Anglo-Norman historians made this the dominant narrative. In the eyes of historians like William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, the truth of this version of events was confirmed by the manifestation of God’s retributive hand in the penuries England was to face.

Modern historians are naturally uncomfortable with ideas of divine retribution and, as such, have taken a somewhat more subtle and politically oriented view, in which  literary tropes of treachery and retribution form only a passing ideological interest. Yet their conclusions are not dissimilar from their medieval counterparts: in Edward’s death we can see the genesis of the chaos into which England would descend over the subsequent fifty years. The young king’s death was pivotal to the accession of Æthelred and the attendant discord of a weak ruler, a fractious nobility, and a resurgence of Viking aggression, which led to the overthrow of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the establishment of a Danish dynasty. Whoever killed Edward, it was a short-sighted act of personal greed and desire for power. Edward’s assassination was divisive and undermined the authority and legitimacy of the young Æthelred. Edward may have struggled as much as his half-brother in facing the resurgent Viking threat, yet there seems little doubt he would have faced it with a more unified nobility behind him.

So who killed Edward the Martyr? The conclusions of the Chronicle and the Vita S. Oswaldi are both contemporary and the reasoning seems logical. Edward’s reign came at the tale-end of an extended period of peace and stability – the nobles of England were not concerned with intangible external threats, but rather with personal gain. A compliant teenager on the throne would have helped them to this end. While the Ælfthryth narrative makes for a wonderfully salacious story, her characterisation and motivations are far too archetypal within hagiography to be considered a genuine social memory of Edward’s assassination.



  1. Feature image: Edward the Martyr (r. 975 – 978), BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 3r.
  2. Byrhtferth of Ramsey, The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine, ed. and trans. Michael Lapidge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.
  3. Catherine Cubitt, ‘Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints,’ Early Medieval Europe 9 (No. 1, 2000): 53 – 83.
  4. R.R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, vol. 2, trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
  5. Christine Fell (ed. and trans.), Edward, King and Martyr, Leeds: University of Leeds, School of English, 1971.
  6. Christine Fell, ‘Edward King and Martyr and the English Hagiographical Tradition,’ in Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, ed. David Hill, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1978, pp. 1 – 13.
  7. Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval Studies 3 (2016): 1 – 33.
  8. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  9. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

See our bibliographies on Hagiography and Chronicle Editions.


Conference Review – ANZAMEMS, Wellington NZ

Nearly a week has passed since the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS) at Victoria University, Wellington, NZ. This means I have now had time to process what was a stimulating, challenging, fun and mildly exhausting week, and have prepared a few thoughts. The nature of conferences of this size (there were 230 odd delegates) is that you attend a varied range of papers and the majority have little to do with your normal period or topic of study. This is very satisfying. It is nice to escape your own niche in the world of history and appreciate the breadth of work that is being done by other medieval or early modern scholars. This also provides new ideas and new approaches for your own work.  Just because something is outside of your usual frame of reference, it does not preclude it from providing new angles and frameworks within which to analyse your own topics.

Once again the brilliance of my peers has left me amazed and inspired.  Yet I am not going to provide a blow-by-blow account of papers I attended. For that check out the #anza17 tag on twitter. Rather, I will provide some highlights; furnish an assessment of my own paper (in the hope that others like me who are newer to the conference scene can learn from my mistakes); and summarise the postgraduate advanced training seminar (PATS) on manuscript (MS) marginalia I attended on Saturday. I promise to keep it interesting and, as proof, I provide this sketch of an angry catfish from an early modern MS in the collection of the New Zealand National Library.


The conference was four days in length, and I hit some real gems in there. On the first day I heard Lindsay Diggelman speak on the representations of grief in Anglo-Norman texts. Lindsay’s focus upon the transmission of grief motifs from the Anglo-Saxon into the Anglo-Norman worlds aligns conceptually with my own interest in the transmission of saints’ lives narratives across the Conquest. On day two I attended a panel – organised by Charles Zika – on Early Modern conceptions of witchcraft, atheism and vampirism on the vague suspicion that it would at least prove enjoyable! It was an extremely well planned panel with each speaker complementing the previous presentation, augmenting an overarching theme on post-Reformation concepts of active evil in the world. I enjoyed a similarly well-structured panel on the final day, organised under the auspices of the Royal Studies Network. Focused upon the application and evolution of Salic Law, the three speakers managed somehow to cover off 1,500 years of French inheritance law in 60 minutes. An impressive feat. The papers were wide-ranging in scope and looked at Salic law through the lenses of hagiography, genealogy, and legislation. There were additionally four excellent plenaries and to my count over 180 papers presented at the conference – so for a fuller summation I refer you back to the twitter feed!

My own paper was on the second day of the conference and it was nice to have it done reasonably early so I could relax for the remaining papers. It was not an overwhelmingly attended panel as it was in competition with one organised by the Early Modern Women’s Research Network and one organised by the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions. Additionally, the three papers in my panel were extremely varied and niche. I was dissatisfied with my paper – something almost every postgrad comes out of their sessions saying. So I will highlight why and explain what I learned for my next outing.

Firstly, this paper was based on an article I am writing up that currently sits at around 7,500 words. Yet for my mode of delivery a conference paper should be between 2,600 and 2,800 words. So I had to edit and edit heavily. Every time I went back to the paper I would notice streams of argument that had become out of place as I had removed earlier threads of discussion in my attempts to simplify and reduce length. I was editing right up to the night before the conference and I accidentally edited out my thesis statement. Yeah, I know. In addition, the paper remained too dense. This meant that I provided an information-heavy presentation without explaining why I was doing so. Which all sounds terrible, but discussing it with attendees, it was not an awful paper. Yet neither was it the exciting piece of narrative theory I had hoped to present. In future I will write new papers for each conference I attend, keep them to one or two major points, and limit my papers to around 2,600 words so I can slow them down and allow a more conversational style to creep in. Practice makes perfect, and it has been a year since my last conference paper.

I will close this blog with a summary of the Saturday PATS. It is the seconds PATS I have attended, and a nice compliment to the previous one on the ‘Manuscript Book.’ The day was dedicated to marginalia and understanding how past readers understood the texts that they read, or furthered the scholarship. It is mildly funny to me that many MEMS students are reluctant to write in the margins of their own books when there is an entire field of MEMS study dedicated to the practice. In the morning, our speakers looked to their own research, providing fascinating insights into the practice of annotation. Much as today, marginalia performed a range of functions from asserting document ownership, to devotional commentary in religious books, reference material in legal documents, study notes etc. The nature of MSS as artefacts – as opposed to the print book – also means they were open to manipulation through the removal of lines, the scrubbing of coats of arms, textual additions, and various other shady acts of manipulation. In the afternoon we saw some of these practices in place as the NZ National Library brought out a selection of their treasures for us to examine and analyse. Of particular interest (to me) were three medieval religious MSS – two annotated bibles and a miscellany containing biblical extracts and commentary. It was a day well spent, and a good way to end a very stimulating week.

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

ARC Centre for the History of Emotions:


Early Modern Women’s Research Network:

New Zealand National Library:

Royal Studies Network:

The Battle of Crècy and the Language of Froissart – Tactics and Etymology in Medieval Military History

Any true medieval warfare enthusiast undoubtedly knows of the battles of the Hundred Years War; Crècy, Poitiers, Agincourt, and possibly the smaller or less celebrated engagements such as my personal favourite – Auberoche. The infamous exploits of the French, and the usually outnumbered English, have been well documented by historians over the years – but even today, the debates rage on.

Now, I am always rather keen for a good debate, especially when it comes to history. In addition, I am also an archery enthusiast, especially in regards to the longbow – yes, I have one, yes, I am that much of a nerd. My fondness for debating is such that, as a teacher, I make my own little peasants partake in the fun almost weekly. With this is mind, it should come as no surprise that looking into an aspect of history that involves longbows, a famous battle, and intense debate over a single word, would be like mining for gold for this historian.

So, on with the history…

In the Summer of 1346, near the town of Crècy-en-Ponthieu in northern France, Edward III’s relatively small English force, comprising the now famous longbowmen, utterly decimated Philip VI’s much larger French force. The numbers of the opposing sides are almost impossible to specify, but the manner in which the Battle of Crècy was won, is for the most part agreed upon by historians. When writing about the battle, a contemporary chronicler, Jean Froissart, described the English formation as such ‘…mis leurs arciers a maniere d’une herce et les gens d’armes ou fons de leur bataille‘, which essentially tells us that the archers were in the manner of a herse with the men-at-arms behind. But what exactly is a herse? Despite the work of countless scholars and the writings of numerous chroniclers, one little word, one seemingly simple detail is met with discussion and debate to this day.

The literature concerning the Hundred Years War is extensive, however it often pertains to aspects of the history separate from specific tactical analysis, and especially the archers. The contemporary chroniclers were often focussed on a particular important individual and as a result, the more ‘common’ members of the army, such as the archers, were, individually speaking, seen as being of little significance. Notwithstanding this, the history of archery during the Hundred Years War has received ample recognition within a number of modern works, scholars of particular note include: Anne Curry, Clifford J. Rogers, Robert Neillands, Andrew Ayton, and Sir Phillip Preston – yes, there are many more. Despite all of this, there remains no fixed consensus on the structures and formations of the medieval English army.

Two particular chroniclers, Geoffrey le Baker and Jean Froissart, feature prominently in works discussing the military aspects of the Hundred Years War. Though Froissart has oft been commended for his ‘independent spirit’ and maintaining a lack of bias throughout his documenting of history, his writing features both continuity errors and highly complimentary language in regards to the English effort. Froissart produced a number of manuscripts on the Hundred Years War and across each, vital facts differ. In addition, while discussing the Battle of Crecy he professed, ‘the wonderful effect of our archery and arrows was such, that flying through the air as thick as snow…they did leave no disarmed place, of horse or man, unstricken and not wounded’. Although this quite clearly demonstrates Froissart’s bias, it was not apparent to the author himself; in his writing he notes, ‘let it not be said that I have corrupted this noble history…for I will say nothing but the truth…without favouring one side or the other’. Froissart is not alone in adding intense flamboyance to his writing. Geoffrey le Baker is also guilty of attaching emotion to his writing of history. In reference to le Baker documenting the concluding scenes of the Battle of Poitiers, Alfred H. Burne notes that ‘evidently feeling that something extra special is expected of him, [le Baker] bursts into a sort of poetic rhapsody’. Furthermore, when discussing the writing of Chandos Herald in his work Le Prince Noir, Burne again notes that poetic notions – in this case, rhyme – ‘should discountenance too literal meaning being attached to individual words’.

Here we find the fun…

Now, there are a multitude of interpretations for the herse of archers at Crècy, so, without going too crazy, I will briefly discuss a few of the more common theories.

The Harrow Theory

The first of the theories is entirely concerned with the translation of the French word herce. In this theory, the suggestion is that we take the translation to mean ‘harrow’, specifically the meaning concerning wedge-shaped farming tool. Essentially this puts the archers in triangular or wedge-shaped formations. These wedges, it is then reasoned, are placed at regular intervals throughout the line of men-at-arms. There are different versions of this, some featuring small numbers of wedges with large numbers of archers in each, or some conversely with large numbers of wedges featuring small numbers of archers in each. For the sake of this argument, they both come under the same theory, derived from the harrow translation, and equally, they are both wrong. Harrowing theories if you will…

If we look carefully at the quote from Froissart, when discussing the men-at-arms he specifically refers to them as at the back, or rear, of the battle – ou fons de leur bataille. Although the Harrow Theory provides a reasonable argument for one aspect of the translated passage, by totally ignoring this secondary factor, it simply cannot be accurate.

The Wing or Flank Theory

Arguably the most commonly accepted theory, for more than just the Battle of Crècy I should add, is the idea that the archers formed the ‘wings’ of the army (totally ignoring the pun with respect to flight here) and stood at each end of the line of dismounted men-at-arms. This is the view that is widely accepted not just among many historians, but is often seen in popular culture. Unless it’s really terrible movie and the archers at the puny little guys all the way at the back, but that is entirely separate debate – and very likely another blog post.

Without going into too much detail, although I would love it, this theory is generated partially from accounts of the French army at the time, partially from accounts of Henry V’s formations nearly 70 years later, and furthermore, partially from accounts of early modern formations concerning gunpowder weapons. Now yes, I know, what the hell do these have to do with the archers at Crècy? The simple answer, nothing. This is a theory that is really easy to accept if you don’t look too closely, or are entirely blind, but one that essentially ignores the contemporary literature. Yes, Froissart was prone to hyperbole, but he was renowned for his writing for some reason and is likely to have at least some idea what took part on the fateful Summer’s day. Not to mention, his version of events is somewhat backed up by other chroniclers.

The Fence or Hedgehog Theory

The final theory not only combines a large number of relevant factors, but it takes into consideration a wide variety of important details; you will likely work out, if you haven’t already, that this is the theory that I hold to be correct.

A common misconception about medieval archers is that the bow was their one and only weapon. This is very much not the case. They did not discharge all of their arrows and then simply sit down to enjoy the combat with a cup of tea. They were armed, understandably, with a number of weapons and as such, when they had emptied their arrow bags, or when the opposing army was within their ranks, they were still of great use in the fight. The secondary weapon of the archer was often a personal choice, and reflective of both their social standing and more importantly their coin purse. This personal weapon, if owned, was supplemented with a stake that was supplied to the archers. The addition of this vital piece of information allows us to reconsider the translation.

The interpretation and translation of the word herce as Froissart gave it, can possibly be understood as the Harrow Theory suggests. However, by tracing different origins of the word, through not hirpex but hèrisson, and hercia it can be understood as related to a hedgehog, or indeed a ‘bristly fence’. For a much more impressive analysis of this, read E. M. Llyod’s ‘The ‘Herse’ of Archers at Crecy’. From this hedgehog like, bristly fence, we get back to a line like formation which matches the contemporary literature. We can now place the archer’s at the front of the battle, forming a fence, and the men-at-arms behind or ou fons de leur bataille. Two separate lines of battle, but each mobile in their own right. This theory is also backed up by additional chroniclers and the slight differing versions are argued as simply being views of different stages of the battle. With the archers likely assuming the front line, or herse, shortly before the actual commencement of battle. The success of a hedgehog type formation will be familiar to fans of the scots, and particular the Battle of Bannockburn. Further suggestion that the Fence or Hedgehog theory has particular merit.

As Thomas Hastings aptly states, Archery ‘occupies a place of great interest in the minds of Englishmen, and for the services which the Bow has rendered…it must ever be held in grateful remembrance’. The exploits of those fighting for the English crown in the Hundred Years War provided England with more than just victories noted in a history book; they provided a sense of belief, pride, and indeed a reason to remind the French for years to come. My research into these matters are only just beginning, but for now the almighty hedgehog is my bet for the translation of a herse!

-Jamie Gatehouse


  1. Haldeen Braddy, ‘Froissart’s Account of Chaucer’s Embassy in 1337’, The Review of English Studies, vol. 14, no. 53, 1938.
  2. Hereford B. George. ‘The Archers at Crecy’, English Historical Review, vol. 10, 1895.
  3. Thomas Hastings The British Archer, or Tracts on Archery, London, 1831.
  4. Alfred H. Burne, ‘The Battle of Poitiers’, The English Historical Review, vol. 53, no. 209, 1938, pp. 21-52.
  5. E. M. Lloyd, ‘The ‘Herse’ of Archers at Crecy’, The English Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 39, 1895, pp. 538-541.

See our bibliography on the Hundred Years War.

The Black Friary, Trim Ireland (2) – The Irish Archaeological Field School

An essential skill within the field of history is critical analysis. Historians apply critical reading skills to primary source texts and to secondary analyses both, but often accept the content of archaeological reports without serious investigation. I believe this is largely as a product of necessity as the archaeological skill-set is not one normally taught within history syllabi. So I was pretty pleased this week that I got involved with the messy technical detail of planning, excavating, and cataloguing that enable archaeologists to build their conclusions. Which said, onto the second week of the IAFS two-week program, the adventures of the week, and what I have learned in my time at Trim (aside from the fact that potatoes go with everything). This week’s IAFS program looked like this:

Day 1 – A visit to the Hill of Tara and Bective Abbey

Day 2 – Excavation & Planning

Day 3 – Excavation & Community Archaeology

Day 4 – Excavation & Post-excavation

Day 5 – Planning & Post-excavation

Tara is, of course, a focal point of Irish identity both within and predating the historical record. Its status as the seat of the High Kingship of Ireland is built into the Irish mythological past of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg, permeates Irish medieval texts, and is an essential component of modern popular conceptions of Irish culture. Bective Abbey on the other hand is probably known only to the Meath natives, but is an impressively intact Cistercian monastery which helps contextualise what may have once stood in the field at the Black Friary in Trim, and make sense of what remains under the surface. However, before going on to what we found as we dug in that field this week, I will briefly outline the community aspect of the IAFS and the archaeological site in Trim, as it is a key aspect of the program.

Archaeology works best if it has buy-in from local people. It provides a sympathetic working environment that allows communal ownership of regional heritage, facilitates interest in a shared past, and fosters a desire to preserve it. It also enables archaeologists to gain alternative evidence for the history of archaeological sites through access to local stories and oral histories that may otherwise be lost. Thus the IAFS and affiliates have a strong community orientation. This week we assisted at the local primary schools, delivering an experiential lesson in the creation of medieval ink which, in one fun package, engaged students’ interest in the past, reminded them of the archaeological site on their doorstep, and reinforced the importance of literacy. The Black Friary dig runs around thirty such events per year. In addition, the site is an open one. Visitors can come see the progress of the dig at any time, access professional on-site archaeologists if they find any artefacts in their own wanderings, and walk their dogs and play amongst the grassy hillocks. All of which occurred during my time in Trim. It makes the dig a functional part of the community.

So we continued in cutting 7 this week. I gained some more experience in planning – taking levels, taking coordinates, drafting plans, and drawing the cobbled surface of the medieval flooring we uncovered. I also gained additional experience in post-excavation, which largely comprised of weighing and recording animal-bone samples, logging some metal and plaster artefacts, and processing around one-hundred pieces of stained glass. Because yes, we found stained glass. These processes are what really enable archaeological analysis. The meticulous cataloguing of the location, type of feature and nature of the sample or find enable archaeologists to build a holistic picture of a site that increases in clarity as more data is obtained. Of all the archaeological pursuits, this post-ex type activity suits my rather orderly mind best.

However, digging did take place and, as I noted, we did find the elusive stained glass, and lots and lots of it. Animal bones, the occasional nail, and pieces of polychrome plaster still rounded out our finds, but the stained glass was certainly a highlight. It was particularly interesting that, as this occurred late within the program, I was able to see how what I had been taught was coming together in my mind. If it had occurred in week one, I would basically have thought ‘cool – I found some glass.’ But instead I found myself interrogating the patch of soil. Why was the glass only in a thin layer? Was it part of the rubble we were cleaning out, or a separate feature? Was it at the interface between two layers of soil? Was it a one-time event – did someone just smash a single window at a single point in time in order to reclaim the lead frames? Why was there charcoal in the deposit? Were they melting down the lead on site, or were the seventeenth-century demolition workers just cold and making themselves some tea over a fire? I have my thoughts.

So in the end, was it a valuable experience abandoning my family for two weeks digging in the mud and cold of the Irish winter? Absolutely. I enjoyed myself immensely and feel that the IAFS has given me a solid grounding in basic archaeological practices. I certainly feel I now have the wherewithal to critically analyse archaeological reports, or at least understand how they reached their conclusions. That the IAFS faculty have been thorough in ensuring the experience encompassed all aspects of field archaeology, and have been extremely accommodating of our various foibles, has been a big part of ensuring the value of the learning experience. But I am not a convert to archaeology – just happy I know more about it!

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

Irish Archaeological Field School:

The Hill of Tara:

Matt’s travel to Ireland was funded by the generosity of the University of New England, through the Mary Dolan Memorial Traveling Scholarship.

The Black Friary, Trim Ireland (1) – The Irish Archaeological Field School

I am a historian, not an archaeologist, yet here I am at the Irish Archaeological Field School (IAFS), excavating a medieval friary in Trim, County Meath, Ireland. Traditionally historians and archaeologists have tended to remain aloof from one another, but this is a perception that is changing and changing rapidly. So I want to explain why I am here before going on to talk a little about the program and this week’s adventures.

The reason archaeology and history are disciplines that need to work in symbiosis boils down to the simple fact that they both seek to answer the same question: what happened in the past? Obviously there are differences in approach, and the specific questions may change, but ultimately history and archaeology advance our understanding of the worlds our ancestors inhabited. A historian may painstakingly piece together a history theorised from documentary evidence, but if that history defies the material evidence it must be treated with scepticism. Likewise, if an archaeologist uncovers evidence of human activity at an archaeological site, it is the historical record, where it exists, that contextualises that material data. So in an effort to become a better historian, here I am in Trim; learning the basic processes of archaeology; learning how artefacts are found and understood; how samples illuminate the social history of a site; and, ultimately learning to read archaeological reports. My hope is that this will enable me to produce more holistic and rigorous historical analyses that work from a broader set of data and a wider understanding of historical context.

But I am also at a Dominican Friary, the home of scholars and scribes who produced in their scriptorium those manuscripts I love so much. So I also get to feed that specific fascination (they have uncovered some lovely manuscript prickers on site, so MS production was certainly in place, though vellum production was likely undertaken elsewhere).

A protected national monument, the Black Friary looks like a paddock in the middle of a bustling market-town. Founded as Dominican Friary in the thirteenth-century, the institution gradually declined into the early modern era. It remained as a physical relic on the landscape until extensively quarried for its stone in the seventeenth-century – yet the evidence of the past lies beneath the grassy tussocks.

The IAFS offers a range of options for students who wish to gain field experience in archaeology within the context of an operational archaeological site. As I have recently completed my Masters I have no need of accreditation for my time here, so have opted for the two-week program. Those doing the short program are integrated with students doing a longer program for university credit, and it is worth noting that this is facilitated by the IAFS. While this necessitates some differences between programs regarding assessment and project work, the bones of the program remain the same for all students. The schedule for the week first week I have just completed involved:

Day 1 – Site orientation and the context of medieval Trim

Day 2 – A visit to Slane Hill and Newgrange

Day 3 – Excavation

Day 4 – Excavation

Day 5 – Post-excavation

I am going to skip past the first two days – orientation being what it sounds like, and Newgrange being a famous prehistoric site that is well described elsewhere. So straight to the excavation, and the hole that I have become rather attached to in the past three days. Cutting 7, section C, and feature 734 for those playing at home. I have been working in a group of three to examine the extent of the feature. This has meant practice in surveying, planning, trowelling, and a great deal of time swinging a mattock. Understanding the processes of surveying and planning in particular are of great value to a historian as these are the contextual markers of any archaeological report – the things that enable analysis of any sample or artefact uncovered. Trowelling and mattocking not so much, but it is the fun bit.

So did we find anything? We are working through reasonably modern layers, but yes we did. Alongside the now subterranean abbey walls previously uncovered in cutting 7, we discovered three pieces of glazed medieval pottery – part of the rubble in the modern layers. We also found a plethora of butchered animal bones, some modern glass, a nail, some seas shells, a fossil, and so, so many rocks. It is a little bit addictive. You sort of just want to keep trying to find the next thing – provided it is not another rock. Did I stuff up? Yep. Was it a problem? No. The IAFS faculty are very understanding of the ineptitude of the bumbling amateurs who show up at their door-step, and our mistakes are teaching opportunities.

I will end here and report back next week. We are currently working in an area where stained glass has previously been uncovered, so I am looking forward to going deeper in the week ahead.

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

Irish Archaeological Field School:


Matt’s travel to Ireland was funded by the generosity of the University of New England, through the Mary Dolan Memorial Traveling Scholarship.

Manuscript Archives (1): Trinity College Dublin

There is little I enjoy more than getting my hands on a centuries-old piece of vellum and researching the written records of the medieval world. For me this almost always takes the form of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Anglo-Latin manuscripts, which takes me into the wonderful, varied and frequently frustrating world of manuscript archives. Even the most seasoned researcher, upon wandering into a new archive, can be surprised by the foibles and odd rules specific to that institution, and such information is not always readily accessible before showing up. Thus I will be providing a short series on archives within our blog, and detailing my personal experiences. In part I will be providing some practical information about the archives I have visited, with details of the accessibility of materials, cost and logistics of access, and ease of digitisation; in part I will be enthusing somewhat over the MSS I deal with. The terminology may get technical.

When I first started manuscript research, my supervisor offered this sage piece of advice.

“You will encounter two types of archivists: 1) those who facilitate research and are eager to make available to you the riches of the repository and 2) those who view themselves as guards who see their duty to keep your grubby hands off of his/her precious MSS and get rid of you ASAP.”

As a researcher you of course wish to encounter the former, but as an archivist I suspect I would be the latter.  It will be immediately evident which type of archivist you are dealing with and, fortunately, the good people of the Trinity College Dublin Manuscripts and Archives Research Library have been extremely helpful from the outset.

I am currently drafting my PhD proposal, much of which focuses on the Anglo-Saxon royal martyrs, Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, and Edward the Martyr. Trinity College holds two MSS that, according to the Abbott Catalogue of 1900 contain material on Edward, TCD MS 171 & 172 (I think Abbott was mistaken on 172, but more on that later). According to their website, the team at Trinity only access their MS archives once a day, so it is imperative to order in advance (see summary below), and I emailed to ensure I would be able to book them in. A positive reply was forthcoming, with a hitherto unseen caveat that, ‘due to difficulties in obtaining the optimum humidity levels for consultation of vellum material, it may only be possible to consult each manuscript for a limited time.’

It all makes sense when you walk into the echoing hall of the Old Library. The place looks and feels right for the consultation of seven-century-old MSS however, even though the MSS reading rooms are a smaller space within the complex, from a conservation perspective the building is entirely impractical. This contrasts with somewhere like the British Library with atmosphere controlled reading rooms, or a smaller archive like Lambeth Palace that has easily controllable and intimate areas for MS consultation. The staff speak hopefully, if dubiously, of a new MSS building in the future.

While I will not do the job of the descriptive catalogue (TCD MS 171 – Colker, vol. 1, pp. 304 – 310; TCD MS 172 – Colker, vol. 1, pp. 310 – 320), I will make some basic observations on each of the MSS I consulted today. I will provide photos in future archive blogs, but not today. Trinity does not allow self-service digitisation.

TCD MS 171 is a 13th C. Anglo-Latin codex containing the saint’s lives for the months March – May, presumably once one of a set of volumes that spanned the year. The codex was clearly conceived as a single work with narratives spanning quires – each quire is identified both by number and catchwords. The vellum is in good condition, the imperfections noted at pp. 81 and 83 were present within the vellum production process as some effort had been made to repair the holes. The MS is largely free of marginalia, the markings are very heavy, and though the scribe has a nice hand, he has struggled to stay within the markings. The scribe has also had to make repairs on the run, scraping and rewriting. The illuminated lettering at the start of each new section is very delicate, largely in blue and red, with some green, and small examples of gilding throughout. I focused very much on pp. 82 – 93 (the codex has been paginated), which contains both the Passio S. Eadwardi Regis et Martyris, and Miracula S. Eadwardi.

TCD MS 171 is a 14th C. Anglo-Latin codex and a miscellany that could be characterised as a compendium of early-medieval Anglo-Latin literature’s greatest hits. But there is nothing on Edward the Martyr, Abbott frankly got it wrong and confused him with Edward the Confessor. Far be it from me to get put off by the fact that the codex had no relevance to my study though, I enjoyed it for what it did contain. Which included extracts from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, an impressive collection of prophecies taken from both Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth, along with a selection of hagiographies. There are some cracking marginalia, with the sketched faces on pp. 362 – 367 a highlight. There is some illuminated lettering throughout, though where gilt appears (eg. p. 394), the artwork is quite exemplary in contrast to other examples in the MS. This codex is comprised of three separate codices that have been combined at some point after the 15th C., and I suspect there is at least half a quire missing from the middle one. The last section is a single quire and the vellum is in pretty bad nick, and probably has been for the past five-hundred years; interestingly, it contains material in French.  Considered as three independent works, there is little surprise each contains a different hand, yet there are multiple scripts even within the sections – granted the varied texts copied within, it is of little surprise that there are multiple scribes at work here. Nice to see the different styles of script, but ultimately for the modern researcher, the volume lacks the clear purpose that MS 171 has. I could speculate, but I won’t (but I want to).

Needless to say it was a joy and privilege to handle these artefacts of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries, representing months of labour by dedicated scribes now long dead. I would hope that they would be delighted to see their works still be handled and studied and brought to life, whether in research, or in an overly long and slightly dull blog entry. Though I do hope my enthusiasm and the extraordinary nature of these artworks is coming through!

Ultimately a beautiful library with some remarkable examples of Anglo-Latin MSS culture and, as a bonus, you gain access to the long gallery and the Book of Kells for free. The staff are welcoming and friendly. However, as seen in my below summary, some of the archival practices from a researcher’s perspective are outdated and put significant restrictions on accessibility of MSS, either for digitisation or transcription.

-Matt Firth

Summary, Trinity College Dublin – Manuscripts and Archives Research Library:


Reading tickets are quickly granted with ID at the Berkeley Library. This is required to access the Old Library, where the ticket is countersigned upon provision of a supervisor’s letter of introduction.

The physical accessibility of the reading rooms is labyrinthine. Into the Book of Kells shop, past the security guards, up the stairs, through the famous long gallery (pictured), past the velvet ropes, through a door, down the stairs, through another door, back up in a lift, turn left to find an unmanned desk.

MS Access:

Their website indicates they will only retrieve MSS once per day, but granted the humidity issue noted above, they will collect vellum MSS on demand. As the reading room sits within the Old Library structure, the infrastructure does not support an environmentally controlled space, so length of access will vary dependent on conditions.

Cotton gloves will be provided (a rarely required archival practice).


No cost for access.


Not available as self-service. There is a digital service provided by Trinity College, however the costs are prohibitive: €25 for the first page, €2 for each page thereafter.


General Catalogue: T. K. Abbot, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, 1900.

Descriptive Catalogue: M. L. Colker, Trinity College Dublin: Descriptive Catalogue of the Mediaeval and Renaissance Manuscripts, Dublin, 1991.

Further information:

Trinity College Dublin Manuscripts and Archives Research Library:

Matt’s travel to Ireland was funded by the generosity of the University of New England, through the Mary Dolan Memorial Traveling Scholarship.

Here goes nothing…

So the time has finally arrived to get the ball rolling and introduce this little history blog to the world – well, a tiny part of it anyway.

The Postgrad Chronicles is the brain child of Matt and myself; two postgraduate history students from Australia. Both medievalists, yet centuries apart in our interests. Within our rambling procrastinatory chats, Matt and I identified a need for an easy to navigate and reasonably comprehensive collective medieval bibliography. This need, we noted, was not currently being met in the world of online medieval history. Eventually our concentrated laziness, and high level of skill in putting things off, was overcome, and we decided that maybe we should be the ones to fill the gap. Add to this our own little reviews of relevant scholarship, some comments on postgraduate history study, and some thematic history blogging, and you have the basis of The Postgrad Chronicles.

Through the blog, Matt and myself will endeavour to provide a place for historical information, mild entertainment – if you share our…interesting sense of humour – and most of all, resources for the study of medieval history. We have already begun compiling a list of relevant online sources – follow the links on the left – which will continue to grow. The bibliography feature is requiring an extensive amount of work, but you will soon see the lists taking shape – once again follow the links. Wherever possible, we have attempted to create lists that are extensive yet at the same time specific. Due to the nature of our topics, and the range in our studies, these lists will be a constantly evolving section of the blog. We are always open to questions and comments, especially suggestions for either work to be reviewed and included in the bibliography, or even for new sections or lists to be added.

Join us for random nonsense intertwined with flashes of brilliance and an abundance of sarcasm – and somewhere in their you might find something interesting and/or useful!

– Jamie Gatehouse

Medieval History from Alfred the Great to The Battle of Castillon