Aug 052017

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.[24] 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:  A heavy, cast-iron skillet is essential.

Pan Haggerty


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.

Nov 132016


I would have thought that the name World Kindness Day is self explanatory. It’s actually St Brice’s Day as well, but I think this is just a coincidence. It would be nice if there were no need for a special day for people to be kind on. This site lists the member nations of the World Kindness Movement which seeks – vainly I imagine – to promote kindness in the world:  The impression I get is that the “member nations” are not really governments who have signed on to pledge being kind in the world, but, rather, organizations within various nations who are dedicated to spreading kindness. This endeavor is, in my estimation, the foundation of Christianity, which appears to have been forgotten by the bulk of people who claim to be followers of Christ.


So . . . before I go on to talk about St Brice’s Day and its associated activities let me exhort you to go out of your way today to be more than usually kind to people around you – not just friends, but strangers as well. Jesus told us to love our enemies. That’s probably pushing it for most people. Being kind to strangers is at least a step in the right direction. It beats the rudeness and selfishness I see daily. Let someone ahead of you in line, give up your seat to someone on the bus or subway, hold the door for someone with a big package . . . you know the drill. You don’t have to spend a fortune, or even spend anything at all. The point of the day is to shift your consciousness from one of looking inward to one of looking outward.


I’m assuming Brice of Tours, whose celebration is today, was a kind man. Not much is known about him. Brice (Bricius) – c. 370 – 444 –  was the 4th bishop of Tours, succeeding his mentor, Martin of Tours, in 397. According to legend, Brice was an orphan. He was rescued by the bishop Martin and raised in the monastery at Marmoutiers. He later became Martin’s pupil, although the ambitious and volatile Brice was rather the opposite of his master in temperament.

As Bishop of Tours, Brice performed his duties, but was also said to succumb to worldly pleasures. After a nun in his household gave birth to a child that was rumored to be his, he performed a ritual by carrying hot coal in his coat to the grave of Martin, showing his unburned coat as proof of his innocence. The people of Tours, however, did not believe him and forced him to leave Tours. He could return only after he had travelled to Rome and had been absolved of all his sins by the Pope.

After seven years of exile in Rome, Brice returned to Tours when the administrator he had left in his absence died. Apparently he was a changed man. Upon returning, he served with such humility that on his death he was venerated as a saint. His memorial day is noted for two things: the St Brice’s Day massacre in England, and the running of the bulls in Stamford in Lincolnshire.


The St. Brice’s Day massacre was the killing of Danes in the Kingdom of England, ordered by King Æthelred the Unready on 13 November 1002. It’s not possible to ascertain now the extent to which this order was carried out. Æthelred the Unready, or Æthelred II (Old English: Æþelræd),was king of the English from 978 to 1013, and again from 1014 to 1016. His modern sobriquet, Unready, is a misreading of the Old English unræd (meaning bad-counseled), a twist on his name ” Æþelræd”, meaning “noble-counseled”. It should not be interpreted as “unprepared”, but rather “ill-advised”.

From 991 onwards, Æthelred paid tribute, or Danegeld, to the Danish king. England had been ravaged by Danish raids every year from 997 to 1001, and in 1002 the king was told that the Danish men in England “would faithlessly take his life, and then all his councillors, and possess his kingdom afterwards”. In response, he “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England”.


There was certainly significant loss of life but the extent of the slaughter is unclear. Among those thought to have been killed is Gunhilde, who may have been the sister of King Sweyn I of Denmark. Her husband Pallig Tokesen, the Danish Ealdorman of Devonshire, may also have died in the massacre although, according to a different version, he was killed while defecting to join raiders ravaging the south coast.

The massacre in Oxford was justified by Æthelred in a royal charter of 1004 explaining the need to rebuild St Frideswide’s Church (now Christ Church Cathedral):

For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me.

The skeletons of 34 to 38 young men, all aged 16 to 25, were found during an excavation at St John’s College, Oxford in 2008. Chemical analysis carried out in 2012 by Oxford University researchers suggests that the remains are Viking; older scars on the bones provide evidence that they were professional warriors. It is thought that they were stabbed repeatedly and then brutally slaughtered. Charring on the bones is consistent with historical records of the church burning.


It seems unlikely that Æthelred directed his edict towards all Danes in England, including the inhabitants of the Danelaw, because the latter were numerous and well armed. More likely it was confined to frontier towns such as Oxford, and larger towns with small Danish communities, such as Bristol, Gloucester, and London. In response to the massacre King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England in 1003. Æthelred fled to Normandy in 1013 and was replaced by Sweyn. He returned as king, however, after Sweyn’s death in 1014.


The Stamford Bull Run was a bull-running and bull-baiting festival held on St Brice’s Day in the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire, supposedly for almost 700 years, until it was abandoned in 1837. According to local tradition (with zero primary evidence), the custom dates to the time of King John (1199 – 1216) when William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey, standing on the battlements of the castle, saw two bulls fighting in the meadow beneath. Some butchers came to part the combatants and one of the bulls ran into the town, causing a great uproar. The earl, mounting his horse, rode after the animal, and enjoyed the sport so much, that he gave the meadow in which the fight began to the butchers of Stamford on condition that they provide a bull, to be run in the town every 13 November, for ever after. Typical invented story. There are solid references to the custom in the 17th century continuing into the 19th century. That’s about par for the course for calendar customs that are purportedly “ancient.” The town of Stamford acquired common rights in the grassy flood plain next to the River Welland, which until the last century was known as Bull-meadow, and today just as The Meadows.

The event was officially opened by the ringing of St Mary’s Church bells at 10.45 am, announcing the closing and boarding of shops and the barricading of the street with carts and wagons. By 11 am crowds had gathered and the bull was released, baited by the cheering of the crowd. It was then chased through the main street and down into the Welland River, where it was caught, killed and butchered. Its meat was sometimes sold to the poor supported as a charity by donations.

Local archivists in the 17th century described how the bull was chased and tormented for the day before being driven to the Bull-meadow and slaughtered. “Its flesh [was] sold at a low rate to the people, who finished the day’s amusement with a supper of bull-beef.” Given that the custom occurred around St Martin’s Day (11 Nov.) when Martlemas beef was a customary celebratory dish around England, I’d surmise a connexion somewhere.


The event was a time of general drunken disorder and was abandoned in the 19th century after a campaign by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the intervention of special constables, the military and police brought in from outside put a stop to it – although it took several years. Some Stamford residents defended their ancient custom as a “traditional, manly, English sport; inspiring courage, agility and presence of mind under danger.” Its defenders argued that it was less cruel and dangerous than fox hunting, and one local newspaper asked “Who or what is this London Society that, usurping the place of constituted authorities, presumes to interfere with our ancient amusement?”

The last bull run was in 1839. The last known witness of the bull running was James Fuller Scholes who spoke of it in a newspaper interview in 1928 before his 94th birthday:

I am the only Stamford man living who can remember the bull-running in the streets of the town. I can remember my mother showing me the bull and the horses and men and dogs that chased it. She kept the St Peter’s Street – the building that was formerly the Chequers Inn at that time and she showed me the bull-running sport from a bedroom window. I was only four years old then, but I can clearly remember it all. The end of St Peter’s Street (where it was joined by Rutland Terrace) was blocked by two farm wagons, and I saw the bull come to the end of the street and return again. My mother told me not to put my head out of the window – apparently because she was afraid I should drop into the street.


Nowadays Stamford has a quasi-revival of the bull run as part of its Georgian Festival in September. They construct a bull in effigy which they parade through the streets (participants dressed in Georgian costume), and set light to it with fireworks in the meadow in the evening.


You could reprise spiced beef from my Martin of Tours post, if you like. That seems fitting. Or you could try pork haslet. Pork haslet is an old traditional Lincolnshire dish that is certainly also suitable for today. Lincolnshire pork sausages, as well as haslet, are noted for their prominence of sage. Haslet is a classic meatloaf that is usually served sliced cold as a sandwich filling along with hot English mustard, or with sliced tomatoes and green onions. The latter usage is one of the memorable tastes of my childhood.


©Lincolnshire Haslet


1 lb/450 gm  pork shoulder
1 onion, peeled and quartered
5 oz/150 gm  breadcrumbs
sage leaves
salt and pepper
melted pork lard


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Run the pork, onion, and sage leaves (to taste) twice through the coarse blade of a grinder (or pulse in a food processor). Add the breadcrumbs and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and mix well. Grease a loaf tin well with pork lard and fill it with the pork mix.

Place the loaf tin in a larger pan of water so that the water comes about halfway up the side of the loaf tin, and bake in the oven for 90 minutes.

Cool the loaf tin on a wire rack until it is cool enough to handle, but still warm to the touch. Unmold the haslet on to a plate and let cool completely.

Slice thickly and serve with mustard, or use as a sandwich filling with tomatoes and green onions. Wholewheat bread is a must.

In honor of World Kindness Day it would be a nice gesture to make haslet, or anything for that matter, and give some away to a stranger.