Tag Archives: Medieval Studies

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As historical documents, neither the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nor Asser’s Life of Alfred can be taken at face-value.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.


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.

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: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/%28The_castle%2C_Harlech_Castle%2C_Wales%29_%28LOC%29_%283751638943%29.jpg
  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.

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.

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 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:


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: