Category Archives: History & Analysis

Easter in Athelney – King Alfred and the Great Viking Army

As Alfred (r. 871 – 899) led the remnants of his gathered followers into the Somerset fens in 878, it was unlikely that the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ was foremost among his concerns. The Viking force under the leadership of Guthrum had stealthily entered the Kingdom of Wessex during the winter and, surprising a likely de-militarised region (winter being outside the usual campaigning season), began to conquer the kingdom, forcing the inhabitants into hiding. Alfred, seeking protection among the swamps and forests of Somerset, is reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having decided upon the Island of Athelney as the ideal place to establish a stronghold and begin his reconquest of Wessex. So it was that on Easter 878 (March 23) he arrived at his new abode with a small force of fighting men.  Alfred, ever the devout king, undoubtedly ensured a mass was duly celebrated, marking the feast (Easter was of course, as now, the most important feast on the church calendar). However, as Alfred raised his praises to the unconquered Christ in the morass of his exile, it was surely the matter of the Viking settlers that weighed most heavily upon his mind.

A cynical reader will probably note the parallel redemptions tales. On Easter day Alfred rose from the ignominy of certain defeat and death to reconquer his kingdom, just as Christ had done a millennium before, defeating the certainty of death and taking his place in the Kingdom of Heaven. This of course raises a question as to whether Easter day 878 was genuinely the day upon which Alfred turned the fortunes of Wessex and began his own journey of redemption. Our main sources for this event are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of Alfred. Both are products of the Alfredian Renaissance – Alfred’s program of education and vernacular learning. They are both also products of Alfredian propaganda – while many of Alfred’s chosen literary endeavours were translations of established religious texts and commentaries, here his scribes were being enjoined to produce history.

As historical documents, neither the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nor Asser’s Life of Alfred can be taken at face-value. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the compendium of historical events leading to Alfred’s own reign must be viewed to a degree as a history of the house of Wessex. Entries up to 899 have a strong focus on the actions and lives of Alfred’s ancestors, with events elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England being cursory to the primary narrative. In its turn, Asser’s biography of his master – despite its value as a unique narrative account of an Anglo-Saxon life – is panegyric that verges upon hagiography. It is upon the authority of this document that the title ‘the Great’ has been bestowed, and Alfred’s reputation has been established, but it does require careful reading – in effect, Alfred had commissioned the fabrication of his own legend. But you know your propaganda is good when it is still working 1,100 years after your death, and Alfred retains popular prestige as the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings.

On the matter of Alfred’s establishment of a base of operations at Athelney at Easter 878, the documents provide near-identical accounts. Asser tells us that:

In the same year, after Easter, King Alfred, with a few men, made a fortress at a place called Athelney, and from it with the thegns of Somerset he struck out relentlessly and tirelessly against the Vikings.

                                         Asser’s Life of King Alfred, 55.

The Chronicle account clearly either draws from the same source as Asser, or is textually interrelated with Asser’s narrative:

And afterwards, at Easter, King Alfred with a small force made a stronghold at Athelney, and he and the section of the people of the Somerset which was nearest to it proceeded to fight from that stronghold against the enemy.

                 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C-text, 878

Both entries were near-contemporaneous and very likely drew upon eye-witness accounts of events (it is also quite likely that one of said eye-witnesses was Alfred himself). Though evidence from the dating of the texts indicates that Asser drew on the Chronicle account for his narrative, he was writing within fifteen years of events and it seems probable that his account was corroborated by the king, who had commissioned the work. This may explain why Easter is provided as the specific date for the establishment of the fortress in Athelney. The specificity of an exact day is a level of detail more likely to come from someone who had a personal memory of events, while Easter, as a memorable feast within the religious calendar, would temporally contextualise a memory of the past for a witness.

Nonetheless, the provision of a specific day upon which an event is occurred is unusual for both texts; they usually narrate events of a given year without further temporal detail. How definitive is the designation of Easter day though? Asser indicates that Alfred went to Athelney ‘after Easter,’ while the Chronicle states ‘at Easter,’ but neither states ‘on Easter Sunday,’ or ‘on the feast of Easter.’ The Old English support the translators’ interpretations of the texts, and perhaps the best way to reconcile the two accounts is to say that Alfred established his stronghold at Athelney ‘around Easter.’ The establishment of a military base would not have occurred in a single day, and the recollections of those who were present do not necessarily need to be tied to the day of Easter beyond the fact that events began to unfold in the Easter period.

It was fortuitous to the narrative that Alfred’s plans began to take effect around this time and, by mentioning Easter, his scribes undoubtedly meant for their account of Alfred’s return from exile to allude to Christ’s own return from death. Yet I do not doubt the veracity of Alfred’s Easter in Athelney. The run of events that follow Alfred’s establishment of a command post on Athelney supports a reading of a genuine transitional period that started around 23 March 878, with Asser and the Chronicle providing a detailed timeline.

From his base in Athelney, Alfred had immediately begun to harry the Vikings and, having broken from his isolation, within seven weeks of Easter was able to draw together an army from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. This army travelled over two nights before meeting the Viking army at Edington and putting them to flight. Over the next two weeks, Alfred besieged the Vikings in the fortress where they had sought refuge, at the end of which the Vikings capitulated. With the terms of peace organised, the Viking leaders came to Alfred for baptism three weeks later, and Guthrum spent the subsequent twelve days as a guest of the court. Alfred was ascendant: the resurrection of the Kingdom of Wessex had begun.

Easter 878 represents both the best and worst of Alfred’s kingship. Whether Alfred was on the run to Athelney on March 23; whether he was in the process of establishing his base at Athelney; or even if he had already setup his headquarters to mastermind the return to power, he remained an exiled king, caught off guard by an intelligent enemy, reduced to hiding in the swamps of Somerset. It is likely that that Easter 878 was one of the less salubrious Easter celebrations of his life. Yet he was not idle in his exile, and within three months he would burst forth from those swamps and breath life back into the Anglo-Saxon resistance.

-Matt Firth


1) Feature image: King Alfred, BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 2r.

2) Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (eds and trans), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred, London: Penguin, 1983.

3) Charles Plummer (ed.), Two of the Saxons Chronicles Parallel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892.

4) Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.

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.


Edward I’s Welsh Crusade

Any journey to Europe to visit medieval castles is incomplete without a trip to the Welsh countryside to appreciate arguably the most impressive ring of fortifications from the middle ages. Edward’s imposing strongholds are not only an example of the craftsmanship of Master James of St George, but are an enduring representation of the military aptitude of the forceful and dynamic English king. From Flint, to Rhuddlan; through Harlech, Conwy and Caernarfon, and ultimately concluding at Beaumaris, Edward literally set in stone his victories against the Welsh. In this article we will take a brief look at the military background of Edward I, his dealings with Wales, and the experiences of his crusading journey.

So, lets get to the history…

Despite his many victories against his northern enemies in Scotland, those that earned him the moniker, the Hammer of the Scots, it was to the west where Edward would leave arguably his most prevailing legacy, the fortified remains of his Welsh ‘crusade’. As a prince, the future King Edward I of England sought to establish his military prowess by taking part in the greatest adventure of the day; campaigning as a warrior of Christ in The Crusades. In comparison to his rather idealistic and arguably romantic vision, the reality of Edward’s journey was altogether disillusioning. As his dream became a nightmare, he ultimately failed to join the likes of legendary crusaders such as Richard the Lionhearted. Nevertheless, the lessons and experiences that Edward gained on pilgrimage had a profound and lasting importance in his own life, helping to shape the man, and king, that he would become.

The presence of English soldiers on Welsh soil was far from a new occurrence when the then prince, son of Henry III, first set his soon to be soggy feet into the Welsh marches. In fact, by the thirteenth century most of the marches and some of the southern and border districts were under English control. The purpose of Edward’s visit in 1256 was not one of conquest, but due to a dispute over lands, taxes, and associated grievances. Edward was granted an area of Welsh land at the time of his wedding, and as a result his father was adamant that any disputes were his to solve. In the ensuing Welsh revolt, Edward would see his English forces defeated in 1257 in a series of events that would prove highly beneficial for Edward’s most aggressive Welsh foe, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. It is worth noting that although Edward’s forces were defeated, the English forces as a whole were not, and the revolt was quashed. Unlike his father, and indeed their many predecessors, Edward would not only go on to capture large chunks of land in Wales, but would ultimately conquer the Welsh late in the 13th Century. It is in the process of his victories, split into clearly definable eras, that Edward began construction on his famed fortifications.

Edward was crowned in 1274, two years after the death of his father. At the time of his ascension to the throne of England, Edward was still abroad as a result of his crusading misadventures. After the disappointing results of his exploits in the Hold Land, Edward no doubt sought redemption in the form of military conquests. Considering fresh and innovative avenues in which he could achieve the glory he so desperately craved. Prominent Plantagenet historian Michael Prestwich avows that ‘the decade of the 1280s was the period when Edward I’s prestige on the continent was at its height’.[1] Significantly, this period in Edward’s life followed shortly after his crusading adventures and as noted, shortly after his coronation. It was also during this time that Edward would achieve his greatest successes in Wales.

The conquest of Wales by the English under Edward I, as briefly noted earlier, can be split into three key campaigns. The first stage of these stages occurred in 1277, when Edward’s forces partially occupied the country, the second in 1282-3, when the English conquered the Welsh, and finally when the enormity of Edward’s previous victories resulted in the crushing of the the final major rebellion under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294-5. The manner in which Edward achieved his success was not revolutionary, but his triumph in Wales was absolute; although seemingly small in scale, the conquest was – as Prestwich so aptly puts it – ‘exceptional in its totality’.

So, where is the link to the Crusades? I can hear you asking…

Throughout his expedition, Edward distinguished himself as a thoroughly devoted Crusader, resolute in his determination to reach the Holy Land. The prince was recorded (see Prestwich, Edward I) ‘swearing by God’s blood that he would go to Acre and carry out his oath even if all deserted him’. The disasters that constantly arose on his journey failed to dissuade Edward from his quest and he ultimately landed at Acre on 9 May 1271. Upon Edward’s arrival, the city was under siege by a feared host of Mamluk forces that had already tasted victory over Crusaders. As basic necessities became scarce, the city’s inhabitants were nearing surrender.  Arriving in a seemingly impossible situation, the dismal nature of Edward’s Crusade becomes evident. It should be noted however, that Edward’s arrival was the pivotal factor in the decision not to surrender the vital port city.  The stubbornness the English prince had displayed in his journey manifested itself in the defence of Acre. Edward inspired the citizens to further resistance. It is this character, his determination and unwillingness to compromise, that forecasts the future king’s successes in the battles ahead.

During his time in Acre, Edward not only played a vital role in the city’s resistance, but contributed to the upgrade and upkeep of its defences gaining a sound understanding of the importance and function of fortifications. It is without a doubt that Edward also knew of the power and influence of other critical Crusader sites, such as the famed Crusader fortress Krak de Chevaliers. Edward’s initial incursion into Wales in 1277 exhibits striking similarities to the movements of Richard I on his trek from Acre en route to Jerusalem in 1191. Both kings set out on a path following the coast, and both forces were shadowed by naval support to bolster the strength of the marching army. One of the keys to Richard’s plans was the rebuilding of fortifications to form advanced defensive positions for his men. In congruence, at the conclusion of their incursion, Edward’s forces constructed the first of his magnificent castles; Flint and Rhuddlan. Replicating this successful strategy, the subsequent Welsh campaigns were solidified in the same manner. The successes of 1282-3 saw the construction of three more of Edward’s infamous structures; Conwy, Caernarfon, and Harlech, and the suppression of the final rebellion in 1294-5 saw the construction of a palatial scale fortification at Beaumaris.

Although the scale, grandeur, and legacy of Edward’s castles is without equal, he was far from the first medieval leader to solidify his advances with the construction of fortifications. In fact, this is arguably the key purpose of their construction. To truly understand the link between Edward’s success and his crusading voyage, we need to consider some additional aspects.

At the peak of Acre’s power and influence, the Crusader’s most important city outside of Jerusalem was flourishing on the back of its financial successes and the resulting affluence of its inhabitants. Acre was at one point the principal landing point for Crusader seafaring trade and European pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. The financial strength of Acre was arguably more important to its defence than the city walls themselves. The prosperity of the city allowed for improved building materials and techniques to upgrade its defensive capabilities, and in addition, the increase in population multiplies the size of the fighting force. It is this strength of Acre that Edward sought to replicate with his newly constructed castles and their resulting towns. Not only did the encouragement of English relocation to Wales further subjugate the Welsh through the appropriation of additional Welsh land, but it strengthened the defences of the area through the growth in the surrounding economy. As a consequence, Edward’s program of castle building takes on an almost colonial element coinciding with its obvious military nature.

Finally, Edward’s experiences on Crusade did not only influence the strategy of the construction of his castles, but the journey was fundamental in determining both their nature and design. As discussed briefly, Edward constructed his castles to consolidate his victories in each of the individual stages of his overall campaign against the Welsh. In the east, Flint and Rhuddlan from 1277; closer to Snowdon, Conwy, Caernarfon, and Harlech were constructed from 1283; and on Anglesey symbolising the crushing defeat of the final Welsh uprising, Beaumaris was built from 1295. Historian Nicola Coldstream paints a fitting picture of the nature of these structures: ‘these castles are judged to be the apogee of military architecture in the late thirteenth century…imposing and stylish’, each castle commanded a ‘formidable presence’ dominating its surrounds. Significantly, the castles not only followed a common strategy, and a common plan, but the castles were all designed, and their construction was, at the least, overseen, by the same man; Master James of St George. During his markedly unhurried return journey from the Holy Land, Edward was entertained by Count Philip of Savoy as the count was to pay homage to the new, if yet uncrowned, king of England. Edward was hosted at the newly built St Georges d’Esperanche, a castle it is said he was most impressed with; it was here that Edward would first make acquaintance with his future principal mason.

Now, to go into detail of the life and work of Master James, or indeed into the evidence that suggests he was indeed the architect of Edward’s majestic structures, would take up far too much of yours and my time. But if this does interest you, check the references below and definitely check out the work of Arnold J. Taylor. So, to conclude:

Edward’s experiences on his crusading journey either forecast, or are reflected in, a multitude of elements seen later in the king’s life. Despite the moniker of the Hammer of the Scots, Edward arguably accomplished more in Wales than that which he achieved north of the border. The strategy and tactics employed by Edward in Wales were successful – the magnitude of such success is still evident – and the lessons that the great king of England absorbed in the trials and tribulations of his journey across Europe and the Middle East were fundamental. The style, character, design, and grandeur of Edward’s castles not only reflects the nature of his journey and the experiences endured upon it, but are a direct result of his travels. Without Edward’s Crusade, Flint, Rhuddlan, Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris, and the fortified ring they create, would not exist, standing as the exemplars of military and architectural might that we see today.

– Jamie


This was, as you can imagine, a very brief overview of a very complex topic. For an in depth understanding of Edward I, including an interesting insight into a rather unpleasant young prince, the work of Matthew Paris is a definite must read. When read in the context of Michael Prestwich’s Edward I, it provokes some interesting questions around Edward’s motives for crusading.

Furthermore, for more information on the castles themselves and the work of Master James of St George, check out the fantastic references listed, number 4 is one of the foremost modern works on the topic.

-Jamie Gatehouse


  1. Feature Image:
  2. Nicola Coldstream, ‘Architects, Advisers and Design at Edward I’s Castles in Wales’, Architectural History 46 (2003): 19-36.
  3. John R. Kenyon, The Medieval Castles of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010.
  4. Michael Prestwich, Edward I, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
  5. Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards: War and State in England 1272-1377, London: Routledge, 2003.
  6. Diane M. Williams and John R. Kenyon, eds, The Impact of the Edwardian Castles in Wales: The proceedings of a conference held at Bangor University, 7-9 September 2007, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010.

Viking Identity & Christianity – The Performed Violence of Olaf Tryggvason

Olaf I Tryggvason took the throne of Norway in 995, reigning for a brief but eventful five years. Though Olaf had been a pagan Viking raider, by the time he took the Norwegian crown he was a fierce proponent of Christianity, and his reign was pivotal in the inexorable transition of Scandinavia from paganism to Christianity.  It is natural then that over time Olaf became mythologised figure in a Christianised Scandinavia whose literary culture was invested in clerical scribes. While the broad strokes of Olaf’s life and reign as described within our sources seem plausible, implausible tales of heroism, treachery, torture and prophecy have also attached themselves to his legacy. It is these narratives on which I will focus – examining not only the stories themselves, but the sources in which they appear – with a most particular interest in those tales that depict Olaf’s propensity to engage in coercive conversion. Here the intersection of Christian faith and Viking brutality displays a Scandinavian identity in transition – one in which an embrace of Christianity cannot be seen to preclude a proud cultural heritage exemplified by the uncompromising Viking spirit.

Yet I will not launch straight into tales of torture and Olaf’s unique approach to missionary activity. First it is worth briefly considering two narratives that bracket his reign, both because they demonstrate the societal influences at play in historical depictions of Olaf, and because they are stories worth telling!

Olaf’s death in 1000, as recorded by Snorri Sturluson in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, is perhaps one of the best known stories attached to the ill-fated king. Ambushed at sea, Olaf fought a fierce naval battle with his enemies until long after all hope was lost, throwing himself into the ocean at the last, denying his enemies the satisfaction of his death. This heroic representation of an unconquerable, uncompromising warrior is tied into Olaf’s legacy in Scandinavian history as a forceful proponent of Christianisation. Though Olaf’s program of Christianisation was divisive in its own time, for later Christian biographers and historians, he was a missionary king, laudable for his efforts to bring Scandinavia into Christendom. It is this attitude to Olaf’s kingship that informs Snorri’s portrayal of his arrival in Norway in 995. Politically well timed, Olaf’s push to claim the throne coincided with political unrest directed toward the ruling pagan jarl, Hákon Sigurðarson. Hákon became a hunted man, driven to hide in a pig-sty where he spent a restless night in the company of his loyal slave Kark. A loyal slave who took fright at Hákon’s restlessness and, in a panic, slit the jarl’s throat, thereby securing the throne for Olaf. It was a deliberately ignominious end assigned by the author to the pagan chieftain. In his turn, Kark was executed by Olaf for his treachery – a practical brutality which would characterise depictions of Olaf’s reign.

Olaf’s reputation for acts of mutilation can be found throughout the Scandinavian literary corpus and is not limited to the Konungasögur (King’s ‘biographies’) or even to chronicle records, but permeates narrative sources. Hallfreðar saga vandræðaskálds, an early thirteenth-century Íslendingasögur (an Icelandic ‘family’ saga), follows the adventures of the Icelandic skald Hallfred, who is baptised at Olaf’s court. To test Hallfred’s loyalty, both as a follower of the Norwegian King and of Christ, Olaf sent the Icelander on a mission to blind Thorleif the Wise, an intransigent pagan who refused to convert to Christianity. Hallfred does succeed in taking out one of Thorleif’s eyes, however they come to an understanding and establish peace before the other is plucked from its socket. It is representative of the ambivalent attitude toward paganism that permeates both the character of Hallfred, and the saga as a whole. While Hallfred does stop past the abode of an enemy while returning to Olaf’s court in order to extract another eye and present the king with a matching set, his success or otherwise in the mission is of less importance than the saga author’s belief that Olaf promulgated a program of coercive conversion. Once given the chance to convert, unrepentant pagans henceforth had their blasphemy proclaimed to the community through the didactic exemplar of their mutilated bodies (though the preservation of their lives meant their souls could still obtain salvation). Perhaps more so than any other occasion of Olaf sanctioning the mutilation or torture of a pagan, the blinding of Thorleif has an inherent plausibility. The concept of mutilation as both social exemplar and spiritual mercy is established within late Germanic law-codes; only twenty years later, England’s Danish king, Cnut, codified blinding as a method of punishing recidivist criminals

(This is not a tangent I should follow – the law code II Cnut 30.3b – 30.5 is one of the best examples of this type of legislation, and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe’s article, ‘Body and Law in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ discusses it at some length).

Thematically, all of Olaf’s acts of punitive mutilation follow a basic pattern of illustrative torture upon the bodies of the unconverted. However, the legalistic concept of the living body as exemplar of non-conversion is not universally present – accounts of mutilation can also perform a literary function in which a widely reported narrative of a suitably brutal and torturous death fulfils a similar hortative function. In these cases the death of an individual is incidental to the description of the transgressor’s punishment. An example of this is found in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar:

Rauðr shouted in protest, saying that he would never believe in Christ, and blaspheming greatly. Then the king became angry and said that Rauðr should die the worst death. Then the king had him taken and bound face upwards on a beam, had a piece of wood put between his teeth so as to open up his mouth. Then the king had a heather-snake taken and brought to his mouth … the snake wriggled into Rauðr’s mouth and after that into his throat and tore out through his side. There Rauðr lost his life.

                                                                                                   (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar 80.327)

In full, the passage is incredibly detailed – including logistical information around how the snake was forced into Rauðr’s mouth by way of a tube and a hot poker. It is sufficient in detail to give the impression of an eye-witness account, but the implausibility of the event means it more likely can be attributed to Snorri’s overactive imagination. It is here, as an authorial invention, that the literary purpose of mutilation as a topos can been seen. Rauðr’s broken, living body did not survive to advertise the price of rejecting the new religion, but reports of such an extraordinary death served the same purpose. Though contained within one of the ostensibly historical Konungasögur, with the implausible description of the snake tearing its way out of Rauðr’s body, Snorri creates an incredible tableau of torture. While Thorleif’s blinding may have a basic plausibility, Rauðr’s death is an apparent homiletic fiction that, whatever its historical basis, was a mere narrative device in Snorri’s record.

Nor is this Snorri’s only account of such acts by Olaf; Eyvindr kinnrifa was killed by hot coals placed upon his belly in a brazier (his belly burst open), while Eyvindr kelda was staked out at sea to await the rising tide. Both were principled objectors to Olaf’s program of conversion, and both are described as skilled practitioners of magic. While at first impression Olaf appears to be engaging in straightforward punitive torture, these were not simple acts of retribution upon an individual – the fundamental didactic and public nature of the punishment is at the core of each event – this was performed violence. Though individual acts of mutilative violence were open to authorial embellishment, there is little question that Olaf’s legacy included a reputation for aggressive Christianisation, the ubiquity of which provides the distinct sense of a genuine preserved memory of his reign.

However, this is a conclusion that requires some specific consideration of our sources. As primarily literary constructs that conform to genre devices, what can be said of Hallfreðar saga and Óláfs saga as sources of historical information (whether as records of events or evidence of societal norms)?

The commonly acknowledged motivations for Olaf’s acts of punitive mutilation across a variety of texts goes some way to negating the difficulty of assessing our specific sagas as historical sources. Further, while it is important to acknowledge that Olaf’s reputation for coercive conversion was recorded over a century after his reign by Christianised authors, the basic story elements are frequently historically locatable.  For example, the presence of Olaf as king of Norway in Hallfreðar saga grounds the narrative historically, as this provides a frame of temporal reference of the years 995 – 1000. Whether Hallfreðar saga is predominantly fictional is peripheral to the fact that the saga author’s portrayal of Olaf acts as an independent voice preserving and affirming the memory of his brutal program of conversion as historical reality. Independent voices are important in establishing Olaf’s reputation for coercive conversion, as almost all evidence for Olaf’s acts of mutilation are found Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar alone. Óláfs saga was written around fifty years before Hallfreðar saga and is typical of the Konungasögur: biographical accounts of Norwegian and Danish kings, dependent on earlier sources written in temporal proximity to the reign of their subjects. In his text of Óláfs saga, Snorri undertook the historian’s role in critically analysing his source material and establishing a workable chronology. Yet as a historian, Snorri was also attempting to preserve the pagan past and Olaf is therefore a conflicted figure throughout Snorri’s narrative. A pagan and successful Viking, turned missionary Christian king, Snorri’s portrayals of Olaf’s acts of religious violence serve to both praise the king’s piety and his uncompromising Viking spirit.

Yet I do believe that the Konungasögur and Íslendingasögur can be considered to preserve something of eleventh-century societal attitudes to punitive mutilation, but only when examined alongside sources outside of the saga tradition. For, while chronicle histories such as those of Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus do not record any tortures ordered by Olaf, this silence is of note. Both chronicles are hostile to Olaf’s kingship, yet neither chronicler considers acts of mutilation to be deeds that would augment their negative portrayals of the Norwegian king.  Indeed, where recorded, Olaf’s deeds of punitive mutilation were designed to assist the spread of Christianity and thus attracted no direct censure. Nonetheless, the hostility toward Olaf should not be entirely dismissed.  It is worth noting that both Snorri and the author of Hallfreðar saga were Icelanders, born of a culture that resented Norwegian kingship, and Olaf’s attempts to Christianise the island in the tenth-century were met with significant resistance. In the political context of the narrative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that wherever an extreme motif of punitive mutilation in the aid of conversion does appear, the author intends indirect censure. The texts do not decry coercive conversion, however Olaf’s methods of undertaking such a program are extraordinary in their brutality. Though a tacit approval for coercive conversion may be implied in the chronicles, it could be that the sagas sought to emphasise the otherness of a Norwegian king willing to engage in such acts of barbarity.

I do not think so though. I believe that what we see in the mythologisation of Olaf is a conflict between the desire to retain the traditional cultural values of a pagan warrior society, and the desire to simultaneously embrace Christianity. For Olaf to be portrayed as a paradigm of kingly virtue by later generations of Christian Scandinavians he had to display both a fervour for Christianity, and the resolve of the heroes of the past. In this light the Olaf of the sagas becomes a composite construction, and it is not difficult to see how complex questions around post-conversion Viking identity were resolved in Olaf, the avenging missionary king.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Halfdan Egedius – the execution of Eyvindr kelda.
  2. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, translated by Francis Tschan, 2nd edn, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  3. Sverre Bagge, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Berkley: University of California Press, 1991.
  4. John Frankis, ‘From Saint’s Life to Saga: The Fatal Walk of Alfred Ætheling, Saint Amphibalus and the Viking Bróðir,’ Saga Book 25 (2001): 121 – 37.
  5. Rory McTurk, ed., A Companion to Old Norse Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  6. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, ‘Body and Law in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Anglo-Saxon England 27 (1998): 209 – 232.
  7. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, edited by Karsten Friis-Jensen and translated by Peter Fisher, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015.
  8. Snorri Sturluson, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, in Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 3 vols, vol.1, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011 – 2014, 137 – 233.
  9. Diana Whaley, trans., The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-poet, in Sagas of Warrior-Poets, edited by Diana Whaley, London: Penguin, 2002, 70 – 108.

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.