Today is an anniversary for 2 Anglo-Saxon kings, Æthelred of Mercia (d. 911) and Oswald of Northumbria (c.604 – 642) – who are, coincidentally, (very) tangentially related to one another. Æthelred along with Edward the Elder of Wessex defeated the last major Danish army to raid England at the Battle of Tettenhall on this date in 910, and Oswald died on this date which became his feast day after he was canonized. This coincidence gives me a chance to talk about Anglo-Saxon history in general along with Æthelred and Oswald in particular.
I was not really taught all that much about Anglo-Saxon England as a boy. It was generally regarded in schools back then as something of a throwaway subject as a prelude to the obviously much more “important” history of the Norman monarchs which ineluctably guides us to such “greats” as William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, Elizabeth I, Victoria, and so forth, in turn leading us onward to the great and glorious present day. The period between Roman Britain and the Norman conquest got short shrift, relegated in my minimal history lessons on the subject to cute legends about Alfred, Canute, and the like under the general rubric of the Dark Ages. The word “Dark” conjured up an image of a period of ignorance and superstition, made “Light” by the Normans who launched the “High” Middle Ages in England, giving way to the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and so forth. This vision of history, especially of Anglo-Saxon England, is incredibly annoying to me. The idea that history can be broken into episodes is unbelievably stupid in itself, and the idea that one episode is more important than others is, likewise, moronic. Care to tell me what era we are living in now? Say “post-modern” and I’ll brain you. History is a river, not rungs on a ladder.
If we want to use the term Dark Ages at all (which I don’t), we should use it to mean that we know precious little about them. They are certainly dark to us, but they were not to the people living in them. Furthermore, it’s a gigantic mistake to think of Anglo-Saxon England as politically, religiously, or culturally homogeneous as so many amateurs are wont to do as they seek to create “pagan” or “Druid” practices of old. Anglo-Saxon England lasted for around 500 years and was subject to all manner of internal divisions and external invasions. Contemporary written sources are sparse and frequently unreliable, sometimes written a century or more after the events that they describe. In addition, we seldom have multiple sources to corroborate events. Archeology is making a dent in adding information about the period but it’s rather hit-and-miss with a preponderance of burial sites over other situations (mostly because potentially key sites have been built over, and are only discovered by accident in the course of renovation).
Oswald of Northumbria was born to Æthelfrith, ruler of Bernicia, who later became king of Deira, uniting the two kingdoms into what became the kingdom of Northumbria. His mother, Acha, was a member of the Deiran royal line whom Æthelfrith apparently married as part of his acquisition of Deira or with a view to consolidation of power there. Bede says that Oswald was killed at the age of 38 in 642, so he would have been born around 604. Æthelfrith was eventually killed in battle around 616 by Raedwald of East Anglia at the River Idle, and Edwin (Acha’s brother), became king of Northumbria. Oswald and his brothers fled to Scotland where he spent the remainder of his youth and converted to Christianity.
After Cadwallon ap Cadfan, the king of Gwynedd, in alliance with Penda of Mercia, killed Edwin in battle at Hatfield Chase in 633 (or 632) Northumbria split again into the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Oswald’s brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he was killed by Cadwallon in 634 (or 633). Subsequently, Oswald, at the head of a small army, met Cadwallon in battle at Heavenfield, near Hexham. Before the battle, Oswald had a wooden cross erected. He knelt down, holding the cross in position until enough earth had been thrown in the hole to make it stand firm, and then prayed, asking his army to join in. In the battle that followed, the British were routed despite their superior numbers and Cadwallon himself was killed.
Following the victory at Heavenfield, Oswald reunited Northumbria. Oswald seems to have been widely recognized as an overlord in his time, although the extent of his authority is uncertain. Bede makes the claim that Oswald “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain” which, as Bede notes, was divided by language between the English, Britons, Scots, and Picts. But Bede also mentions at another point in his history that it was Oswald’s brother Oswiu who made the Picts and Scots tributary.
Oswald apparently controlled the Kingdom of Lindsey, given the evidence of a story told by Bede regarding the moving of Oswald’s bones to a monastery there; Bede says that the monks rejected the bones initially because Oswald had ruled over them as a foreign king. Oswald seems to have been on good terms with the West Saxons: he stood as sponsor to the baptism of their king, Cynegils, and married Cynegils’ daughter.
Although Edwin had previously converted to Christianity in 627, it was Oswald who did the most to spread the religion in Northumbria. Shortly after becoming king, he asked the Irish of Dál Riata to send a bishop to facilitate the conversion of his people, and they sent Aidan for this purpose; initially, the Irish sent an “austere” bishop who was unsuccessful in his mission, and Aidan, who proposed a gentler approach, was subsequently sent instead. Oswald gave the island of Lindisfarne to Aidan as his episcopal see, and Aidan achieved great success in spreading the Christian faith; Bede mentions that Oswald acted as Aidan’s interpreter when the latter was preaching, since Aidan did not know English well and Oswald had learned Irish during his exile.
Bede puts a clear emphasis on Oswald being saintly as a king; although he could be interpreted as a martyr for his subsequent death in battle, Bede portrays Oswald as being saintly for his deeds in life and does not focus on his martyrdom as being primary to his sainthood—indeed, it has been noted that Bede never uses the word “martyr” in reference to Oswald. In this respect, as a king regarded as saintly for his life while ruling—in contrast to a king who gives up the kingship in favour of religious life, or who is venerated because of the manner of his death—Bede’s portrayal of Oswald stands out as unusual. Bede recounts Oswald’s generosity to the poor and to strangers, and tells a story highlighting this characteristic: on one occasion, at Easter, Oswald was sitting at dinner with Aidan, and had “a silver dish full of dainties before him”, when a servant, whom Oswald “had appointed to relieve the poor”, came in and told Oswald that a crowd of the poor were in the streets begging alms from the king. Oswald, according to Bede, then immediately had his food given to the poor and even had the dish broken up and distributed. Aidan was greatly impressed and seized Oswald’s right hand, saying: “May this hand never perish.” Accordingly, Bede reports that the hand and arm remained uncorrupted after Oswald’s death.
It was a conflict with the non-Christian Mercians under Penda that proved to be Oswald’s undoing. He was killed by the Mercians at the Battle of Maserfield on August 5th 642, at a place generally identified with Oswestry and his body was dismembered. Bede mentions the story that Oswald “ended his life in prayer”: he prayed for the souls of his soldiers when he saw that he was about to die. Oswald’s head and limbs were placed on stakes.
Bede mentions that Oswald’s brother Oswiu, who succeeded Oswald in Bernicia, retrieved Oswald’s remains in the year after his death. In writing of one miracle associated with Oswald, Bede gives some indication of how Oswald was regarded in conquered lands: years later, when his niece Osthryth moved his bones to Bardney Abbey in Lindsey, its inmates initially refused to accept them, “though they knew him to be a holy man”, because “he was originally of another province, and had reigned over them as a foreign king”, and thus “they retained their ancient aversion to him, even after death”. It was only after Oswald’s bones were the focus of an awe-inspiring miracle—in which, during the night, a pillar of light appeared over the wagon in which the bones were being carried and shone up into the sky—that they were accepted into the monastery: “in the morning, the brethren who had refused it the day before, began themselves earnestly to pray that those holy relics, so beloved by God, might be deposited among them.”
As we shall see more in a minute, in the early 10th century, Bardney was in Viking territory, and in 909, following a combined West Saxon and Mercian raid led by Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, St Oswald’s relics were translated to a new minster in Gloucester, which was renamed St Oswald’s Priory in his honor. Æthelflæd, and her husband Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia, were buried in the priory, and their nephew, King Æthelstan, was a major patron of Oswald’s cult.
Oswald’s head was interred in Durham Cathedral together with the remains of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (a saint with whom Oswald became posthumously associated, although the two were not associated in life; Cuthbert became bishop of Lindisfarne more than 40 years after Oswald’s death) and other valuables in a quickly made coffin, where it is generally believed to remain, although there are at least four other claimed heads of Oswald in continental Europe. One of his arms is said to have ended up in Peterborough Abbey later in the Middle Ages. The story is that a small group of monks from Peterborough made their way to Bamburgh where Oswald’s uncorrupted arm was kept and stole it under the cover of darkness. They returned with it to Peterborough and in due time a chapel was created for the arm – Oswald’s Chapel. This – minus the arm – can be seen to this day in the south transept of the cathedral.
After successful raids by Danish Vikings in the 9th century, significant parts of North-Eastern England, formerly Northumbria, were under their control. Danish attacks into central England had been resisted and effectively reduced by Alfred the Great, to the point where his son, King Edward of Wessex, could launch offensive attacks against them.
The Vikings quickly sought retaliation for the Northern incursions of the Anglo-Saxons in the early 10th century. In 910, the Danelaw kings assembled a fleet and transported a Danish army, via the River Severn, directly into the heart of Mercia. There they ravaged the land and collected plunder, but quickly sought to return north rather than be trapped in hostile territory. However, an army of West Saxons and Mercians caught them at Wednesfield, near Tettenhall, on this date (anniversary of Oswald’s death at the battle of Maserfield) and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle defeated them and inflicted losses of many thousands including two or three kings. The Chronicle gives no details of the battle other than that “many thousands of men [i.e. Danes]” were killed, and that they were unable to retreat. With the Northern Danes subdued, the forces of Wessex and Mercia could be focused against those who had settled further south. It was also the defeat of the last great raiding army from Denmark to ravage England. With allied strength rising, England was able to be united under one domestic monarch – Alfred’s great aim achieved by his son and successors.
Historians will probably continue to quibble about details and names, but in my ever-so-humble opinion, there seems little doubt that England was a single, united, Anglo-Saxon kingdom more than a century before William the Bastard sailed from Normandy in 1066. Sure, 1066 was an important date but we need to be more measured than seeing it as THE GREAT DATE (sorry Sellar and Yeatman). History is a river, not rungs on a ladder. If you lived in England at the time, my guess is that you wouldn’t have said, “The Norman era, starts now” although you might have said, “[Anglo-Saxon expletive deleted] more bloody foreigners coming to rob us.” The reason that the following century seems so Norman is because there’s almost nothing about the period written in Anglo-Saxon, not that Anglo-Saxons stopped existing or contributing to culture (and history). We just don’t know about it. The next king of England to speak English as his first language was, the now much maligned, John (unlike his brother Richard who spoke French and spent all but a few months outside the country). The early Norman kings did NOT unite England. They took over an already united country and treated it as a province of Normandy, rather than as a separate independent nation. The pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon kings deserve much more credit, and should be accorded greater place in the history books.
Just as Anglo-Saxon England was not a monolithic culture, nor was their cuisine I strongly suspect. I imagine it was as regionally distinct in the Middle Ages as it is today, so I’m not going to give you a made up “Anglo-Saxon” recipe and claim that it represents ALL of England of the time. Let’s have a contemporary Northumbrian recipe to celebrate the continued regional diversity of English cuisine. I’ve mentioned pan haggerty before. Time for a recipe for this classic Geordie dish. Mature Cheddar is the most commonly used cheese but there are Northumberland artisanal cheeses available if you know where to look: http://northumberlandcheese.co.uk/cheese/Northumberlandia%20Cheese A heavy, cast-iron skillet is essential.
1 lb/450g potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
4 oz/125g butter
8 oz/250g onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 oz/115g melting cheese, grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C
In a cast-iron skillet melt 1 ounce of butter and gently fry the onions until they are soft. Remove the onions and reserve.
Melt half the remaining butter in the pan, remove it from the heat, and arrange a layer of potatoes in the pan, then a layer of onions followed by a layer of cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then repeat layering, finishing with a layer of potatoes.
Put the pan on medium-high heat and cook until the bottom layer of potatoes is brown. Dot the surface of the potatoes with the remaining butter and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and raise the oven temperature to 425°F/220°C.
Sprinkle the cheese over the top of the potatoes, return the pan to the oven and cook for a further 15 minutes.
At the end you should have a single potato cake. Loosen the edges of the cake from the frying pan with a spatula, flip the pan over on to a plate and cut it into wedges. Serve hot, immediately.