Heritage - 1: Direct Line to Our Distant Past. What Made Us English? Reading List for a Bygone Era
Even before Aelfred discovered he'd never make it as a baker, we've been inundated with territorial claims.
It never rains but it pours
I have been asked for a list of books on the Anglo-Saxons. A straight-forward request by any standards, fair enough for a Christmas wish even if Santa's already hurtled headlong back to the North Pole to join his elf and safety committee for a rousing chorus of 'Jolly Good Fellow'.
To be accurate, they were Angles and Saxons, rarely mixing unless near the relative boundaries. The Saxons mingled with the Danes, the Angles mingled with the Danes, the Jutes - who settled Kent in the 5th Century were Danes, (of a sort, insofar as the empire-builders Godred and Gorm the Old included Jutland within Denmark in the ninth and tenth Centuries) and were the original Norse incomers. The Celts mingled with the next influx of Danes in western Wales and Ireland. There wasn't a lot they had in common besides being neighbours before they came to Britain and being neighbours when they landed. The standardisation of place names in 'Anglo-Saxon' England came first some time after the conquest of the Danelaw and Danish Northumbria by Aethelstan and his successor Eadred and more recently by the Ordnance Survey in the 19th Century. The O.S. HQ is in Southampton, in Hampshire... Wessex to those who have their fingers on the historical pulse, i.e., descendants of the Saxons who came with Cerdic and defeated the Britons at Mount Badon. Probablt getting their own back for the kingdom being called England, land of the Angles, and the language being English.
The tongue the Angles spoke, and their grammar was simpler and more straightforward than that of the Saxons, and similar to the Danes' ( look where they came from on a map of Northern Europe. The Jutes/Danes in the Jutland peninsula, with Slesvig, now Schleswig Holstein, to the south and the Saxons around the base of the peninsula with one group in Frisia/Lower Saxony - Friesland/Niedersachsen - to the south-west and the Upper Saxons - Obersachsen - further east). The written medium of the Saxon Chronicle and poetry has precious little to do with what was spoken, and later in the 11-12th Century the vernacular of the Anglo-Danes was used in the Peterborough Chronicle, due to the abbey being well inside Anglo-Danish territory and the scribes mixing with their peers beyond the walls of the abbey. Post Conquest the English language and grammar was simplified even more by the increasing use of Danish grammar at grass-roots level. The pre-Conquest language of the Chronicle was increasingly pushed into the corner with the dust and rushes. It was the language of the past. Sorry, Wessex, but there you have it! Even in the East Saxon territory east of Middlesex - the official location of London until fairly recently, note: Middlesex Street opposite Liverpool Street Station; the Tower of London was built on the eastern edge of Middlesex by the Thames - the Danes settled in the Lea Valley, cutting off the rest of the East Saxons (Essex) from their capital. Even the way Londoners speak owes more to an East Anglian speech pattern from around Cambridge than their Saxon forebears would have understood! It's called King's English, due to King's College being established at Cambridge by Henry VI in 1441.
This takes us a little bit away from the origins, politics and stately machinations of the Angles vs. Saxons, but you probably get the picture: 'Anglo-Saxons' is an invention by archaeologists to simplify our ancestors' history for the masses... As if it was too much for most of us to understand, it's about as patronising as 'Auntie' BBC! (for our friends across the 'Pond' or the English Channel and elsewhere who've never been here, that's the British Broadcasting Corporation).
So whereas the Angles might have grabbed the kingdom and the language, the Saxons clutched at the naming of our boroughs and smaller communities, for example on the North Yorkshire Moors - close to my stamping ground - on the O.S. map you will see 'Bloworth' near 'Blakey Ridge', to a Yorkshireman that's 'Blowath' near 'Blakey Rigg'. A 'wath' is a shallow ford named thus by our Anglo-Danish forbears, as 'rigg' is a ridge. A name is a name, after all and don't tamper with it!
So, let's get down to sources...
The land we live in, for better or worse...The inward migrations
Starting with 'Beowulf' - not so much a legend as a way of looking on the world
Between Beowulf and Eadward
Between Beowulf and Eadward, son of Aethelred 'Unraed' came several hundred years of Christianisation of the Angles and Saxons in Britain. The Beowulf saga was Christianised in its re-telling by an East Anglian scribe, nevertheless keeping the mythical spirit with Grendel and his mother as well as the dragon that Beowulf fought to the bitter end. Seamus Heaney's translation of the original is peerless, with the often missing passage on the 'Fight at Finnsburh', a revenge raid by the Danes for destruction caused by Frisian pirates on the Danish coast.
The books, the knowledge:
'A GUIDE TO LATE ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND' by Donald Henson, publ. Anglo-Saxon Books reprinted 2002, ISBN 1-898281-21-1: Gives the names of the kings as in the Saxon Chronicle, their reigns and their achievements from Aelfred 'the Great' of Wessex in 871 to Eadgar 'the aetheling' (who reigned for a brief spell in 1066) returning from Flanders in 1074 via Scotland to make his peace with William I - includes maps, family trees and thorough-going historical appendices;
'ANGLO-SAXON THEGN AD 449-1066' (Warrior series) by Mark Harrison, publ Osprey Publishing 1993, ISBN 13-978-1-85532-349-0: maps again with origins, b&w and colour photographs and illustrations leading up to the Conquest - suitable also for historical modellers;
'EDWARD THE CONFESSOR' (above right) by Frank Barlow, publ Eyre Methuen h/b 1970 ISBN 0-413-27830-1, p/b 1979 ISBN 0-413-45950-0: Takes the reader from before the time of the Danish invasions after the St Brice's Day Massacre in Aethelred II's time to canonisation - however the book reveals an all-too-human personality surrounded by powerful men such as Godwin, Leofric and Siward who are also only too willing to drive the young king in the direction of their choice - includes maps, family trees and notes in 373 pages of very thorough-going historical analysis;
'1066 - THE BATTLES OF YORK, STAMFORD BRIDGE BRIDGE & HASTINGS' by Peter Marren (Battle Background 1066 series), publ Leo Cooper 2004, ISBN 0-85052-953-0: The narrative takes the reader from an overview of the major players, Harold II, Harald Sigurdsson and William (fitzRobert) via an analysis of the weapons and fighting technologies of the combatants to the aftermath and outlook over the battlefields, with maps and b&w images and a list of the fallen at Hastings;
'HASTINGS 1066 - The Fall of Saxon England' (Campaign series) by Christopher Gravett, publ Osprey Publishing 2000, ISBN-10: 1-84176-133-8, ISBN-13: 978-1-84176-133-6: The book takes you with the use of computer-generated colour maps and b&w/colour images from the background to the invasion to the site of the battle today, chronology, glossary, bibliography and a list of places of interest to visit in connection with the campaign;
'THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS' by Jim Bradbury, publ Sutton Publishing h/b 1998, p/back 2005, ISBN 0-7509-3794-7: takes you from Aelfred to the Conquest, the reign of Eadward and Normandy before 1066 to the year and time of the battle - with sources, notes and bibliography, line diagram maps and b/w photographs;
'THE ENIGMA OF HASTINGS' by Edwin Tetlow, publ Peter Owen 1974 ISBN 0-7206-0003-0:
Along with '1066 - Hastings...' (three entries above), this is the book that set me on my writing trail. The book sets off the era, describes the protagonists and those on the sidelines and relates what happened to each in the run-up to September/October 1066, ending with the battle at Caldbec Hill above Hastings - there is a surprise link between Harold and Elizabeth II by way of Russia, Denmark and North Germany - b/w images;
'THE 1066 MALFOSSE WALK' by Neil Clephane-Cameron, Joanne Lawrence and David Sawyer, publ Battle & District Historical Society 2000, ISBN 1-903099-00-5: smart little booklet of fourteen pages with select bibliography, fold-out walk map and short back- ground history, buy it at Battle Abbey's bookshop ;
'CAMPAIGNS OF THE NORMAN CONQUEST' by Matthew Bennett in the Essential Histories series by Osprey Publishing 2001, ISBN 1-84176-228-8: Takes you from an overview of the Danish, English and Norman succession, the battle at Caldbec Hill, Hastings, the invasions, aftermath of Hastings then the struggle between the combatant parties from 1066 until Norman entrenchment after 1071 - when Hereward left England - and William's campaign against Malcolm II 'Canmore' of Scotland;
'THE LOST KING OF ENGLAND' by Gabriel Ronay, publ Boydell Press first 198 h/b ISBN 0-85115-541-3 , in p/b 2000, ISBN 0-85115-785-8: Mr Ronay takes us from the time of King Eadmund 'Ironsides' fought against Knut after the death of Aethelred, of Eadmund's sons Eadmund and Eadward being taken by their carer to Sweden, on to Novgorod and Kiev and growing up with Prince Andrew of Hungary before accompanying him to be crowned as King Stephen's legitimate successor - the next stage was being given land in western Hungary, of Eadmund's tragic death and Eadward coming on his royal namesake's request to England in 1057 with his young family. Eadward dies suddenly, before meeting the king his namesake and the king 'adopts' the youngsters, giving their mother Agatha a place at court... After Hastings we have a victorious battle at London Bridge against William and five hundred mounted knights - no infantry back-up - but the Witan still abandons Eadgar 'the aetheling' for fear of losing their titles and lands on being threatened by William. Years of fruitless wandering between England, Scotland and Flanders, struggles and flight from the CIonqueror lead to them being reconciled... Eadgar makes friends with William's son Robert 'Curthose', and goes on Crusade with him. The aetheling died finally at the time of Henry I in 1125;
'THE ENGLISH RESISTANCE - The Underground War against the Normans' by Peter Rex, publ Tempus Publishing 2004, 2006, ISBN 0-7324-3733-X: Begins again with the three battles of 1066 and works through imposition of Norman rule via several un-concerted rebellions all across the kingdom between 1067 and 1071, touches on Hereward and Eadric 'the Wild' and pursues the Hereward link - with maps, genealogies and b/w illustrations;
'OLD ENGLISH' [Teach Yourself' series] by Mark Atherton, publ Teach Yourself 2006 UK & US 978-0-340-91504-2 (also available in CD/book pack): Ever wondered what the printed form of Old English looked like? Check up the 'Beowulf' Saga in its original form at the British Museum, reading and underatanding it is something else again, and this book goes some way to helping towards that aim with examples from texts in OE literature, a grammar and short dictionary helps with line drawings to help recover after ploughing through this work, basic rules for pronunciation get you gargling like a 'good 'un' ( just about everybody in Britain gargled their way through life then, now it's only the Gallic and Gaelic speakers (Welsh, Scots and Irish).
A late addition, bought from Foyles on Charing Cross Road after Christmas:
'THE GODWINS' by Frank Barlow, publ. Pearson Education Ltd. 2002, 2003, ISBN 978-0-582-78440-6: An appraisal of the origins and career of Godwin Wulfnothsson, Earl of Wessex to three kings, his offspring - notably Svein, Harold and Tostig - and short exile 1051-52. Black & white images, famly trees and sources. Godwin trod lightly in the years between the death of Eadmund 'Ironsides' and his own return from exile in Flanders in 1052. There were too many ways to trip him, there were many enemies and his path of service to four kings was strewn with political boulders. Harold succeeded him in 1053, his own might waxing during England's 'golden years'. Successes in handling repeated invasions from the north and west ended in premature death on Caldbec Hill above Hastings, all his brothers bar Wulfnoth gone before him. Was he a schemer, an accusation levelled at him by his enemies, or the efficient saviour of the kingdom overtaken by fate? History is written by the victor, and sources on the Godwin clan are hard to come by. Nevertheless we give Harold the benefit of the doubt, as we did Godwin - despite a preference for his spolit sons Svein and Tostig - and Wulfnoth before him who was accused of piracy and treason by Aethelred.
'THE BURIAL OF HAROLD AT WALTHAM', William Winters, a slender paperback republished by Waltham Abbey Historical Society 2005, 2008 & 2011 - Whichever version you believe, him being taken to a Sussex retreat, being rescued by a Saracen woman and living as a religious recluse near Chester or being buried near the high altar at Waltham, Mr Walters covered them all but the most convincing is the last. There's another version I've heard, that he was interred at Bosham (West Sussex). Obtainable from the bookshop in the crypt at Waltham Abbey Church.
'CNUT, ENGLAND'S VIKING KING 1016-35', M K Lawson, publ. The History Press, 1993, 2011, 2014, ISBN 978-0-7524-6069-7, 241 pp including genealogical tables - no maps, no illustrations, but what is on offer is a thorough-going account of pre-Cnut English history that details how Aethelred came by the throne and why he was unsuited to the kingship. Cnut was nobody's fool, and his fellow rulers around Europe and Scandinavia were aware of that. When he left on pilgrimage to Rome halfway through his reign the kingdom was still intact when he returned, such was his imprint on his deputies. His laws and his coins were still in use long after his premature death in 1035 (aged 36). His grasp of state affairs saw him rule even-handedly from Winchester and Roskilde. He was fair-minded, but those who knew him knew not to cross him!
To be consistent I should add a few slender volumes on the subject of Beowulf (pron. Byovulf):
BEOWULF - A Verse Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland, publ. Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-283320-4: This edition includes the Fight At Finnsburh, the raid by the Danes on the Frisians to avenge deaths in Denmark to Frisian pirates. A time chart is included, family trees, a map and a Who's Who of the world of early Mediaeval Denmark and the neighbouring Geats, or Goths. This translation is close to the original pre-Christian understanding of the saga, except for words like 'citadel' for 'garth' (fortress). Nevertheless enjoyable in its grasp of early mediaeval Scandinavian life.
BEOWULF by Seamus Heaney, first publ Faber & Faber 1999 in hardback, paperback 2000 ISBN 978-0-571-20376-5/ISBN 0-571-20376-0: Notes on names, family trees and translated text with notes in the margins to show what happens in the text. A scholarly approach but without the essential Fight At Finnsburh that gives the initial context - that the Danes would fo to the ends of the earth to avenge their dead (e.g., Ragnar Lothbrok's sons taking over half of England to avenge the killing of their father in King Aelle's snakepit at Bamburgh).
BEOWULF, An Adaptation by Julian Glover of the verse translations of Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan, Forward from Julian Glover, artwork by Sheila Mackie and introduction by Magnus Magnusson. Full colour and black & white artwork offsets the text translation with excerpts from the A.S. manuscript using the spelling from the original text as set down by the monks. There is a definite Christian slant in the language
Got that lot? I'm not repeating it, so print it and keep it safe for a rainy day!
Donald Henson's 'A Guide to Late Anglo-Saxon England' - it sounds ambitious, what it does is take you through the kingships from King Aelfred 'the Great' of Wessex to the uncrowned Eadgar 'the aetheling', who ruled very briefly after Harold fell on October 14th, 1066 until Duke William bullied the Witan into accepting him as Eadward's heir. The book outlines the kings' lives, the salient points in their reigns, their offspring and/or wives (or in the case of Aethelstan those around them) and what they achieved. Provides some useful research for study or writing (I've had a copy for some time now), or just as reading material for the curious
HERITAGE - 2: EARLIEST ENGLISH - Closest to Old Norse or Low Saxon;
HERITAGE - 3: DANISH MADE SIMPLE - Just add English
A couple of Hub-pages to get you scratching your head, wondering about your background. Even the Normans who came in 1066 had gone through enormous cultural changes since leaving their native Scandinavia in order to 'fit in' with their Frankish overlords. English was revived as a culture when our Norman overlords grew fed up with being teased by their continental cousins about their archaic French, and kings of England became English kings from the time of Edward III and Geoffrey Chaucer. It was Chaucer who began to write for the court in the vernacular and English underwent several shifts between then and the present, the biggest gap in continuity being between 1066 and the mid-14th Century before Chaucer took up writing in his own particular form of English (a hybrid of Old English and Old French).
From Migrants to a Conquered Nation... Down, but not out
See also: WHAT IS ENGLAND - or even English
© 2011 Alan R Lancaster