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.

Sep 072013

darling5  darling4

In the early hours of 7 September 1838, Grace Darling, looking from an upstairs window of the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands, spotted the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The Forfarshire had foundered on the rocks and broken in half: one of the halves had sunk during the night. She and her father William determined that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland), so they took a rowing boat (a 21 ft, 4-oar Northumberland coble) across to the survivors, taking a long route that kept to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. Grace kept the coble steady in the water while her father helped four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat. Although she survived the sinking, Mrs Dawson had lost her two young children during the night. William and three of the rescued men then rowed the boat back to the lighthouse. Grace remained at the lighthouse while William and three of the rescued crew members rowed back and recovered four more survivors.


Meanwhile the lifeboat had set out from Seahouses but arrived at Big Harcar rock after Grace and her father had completed the rescue: all they found were the dead bodies of Mrs Dawson’s children and of a clergyman. It was too dangerous to return to North Sunderland so they rowed to the lighthouse to take shelter. Grace’s brother, William Brooks Darling, was one of the seven fishermen in the lifeboat. The weather deteriorated to the extent that everyone was obliged to remain at the lighthouse for three days before returning to shore.

(c) RNLI Grace Darling Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Forfarshire had been carrying 62 people. The vessel broke in two almost immediately upon hitting the rocks. Those rescued by Grace and her father were from the bow section of the vessel which had been held by the rocks for some time before sinking. All that remained at daybreak was the portside paddlebox casing. Nine other passengers and crew had managed to float off a lifeboat from the stern section before it too sank, and were picked up in the night by a passing Montrose sloop and brought into South Shields that same night.

Grace’s achievement was celebrated in her own lifetime: she received £700 raised by public subscription,was awarded a Royal National Lifeboat Institution Gallantry Medal (along with her father), and was catapulted into national and international celebrity. Overnight she became the first Victorian heroine. Lionized by London’s press, royalty, and the aristocracy, her image was everywhere (on soap, annuals, chocolates etc).

darling10  Lifebuoy Soap - Grace Darling

A number of fictionalized depictions propagated the Grace Darling legend, such as Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles by Jerrold Vernon (1839), which gave birth to the legend of “the girl with windswept hair”. Her deed was committed to verse by William Wordsworth in his poem “Grace Darling” (1843). A lifeboat with her name was presented to Holy Island. One of a series of Victorian paintings by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall in Northumberland depicts her rescue.


At Bamburgh, where she was born, there is a museum dedicated to her achievements and the seafaring life of the region. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution Mersey class lifeboat at Seahouses bears the name Grace Darling.

Grace died of pneumonia or tuberculosis in 1842, aged 26.  She is buried with her father and mother in a modest grave in St. Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh, where a nearby elaborate cenotaph commemorates her life. A plain stone monument to her was erected in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel on Great Farne Island in 1848.


One commentator noted that “lots of tosh” has been written about Grace in order to embellish the dramatic aspect of her personal story. The truth is, three months after the rescue she responded to the pressure of fame by becoming a recluse in the lighthouse, where her social position was to do domestic work for her mother and father. She received countless marriage proposals which she ignored.  She had no interest in fame. There is no need to embellish her story; her heroism speaks for itself.


Grace Darling’s feat gives me the opportunity yet again to sing the praises of English regional cooking, this time the dishes of Northumbria.  This is not haute cuisine, but delicious nonetheless – good hearty fare.

From the nineteenth century, Northumberland had a flourishing kipper industry, for which the picturesque harbour of Craster was particularly renowned. The smokehouses at Craster have their own special light cure, based on a technique originally used for salmon, which hasn’t changed much in over a century. The kippers have an appetizing flavor and good, rich color that owes nothing to artificial dyes or additives but comes instead from lengthy smoking over a slow oak fire. One of the best uses for them is to make Kipper Paste or be spread on toast.

dar kippers

Salmon is another fish available locally. In the 18th century Potted Salmon was very popular also to be spread on toast. Cockles are available here and can be made into a delicious Cockle Soup or poached in seawater then doused in vinegar and black pepper. In addition, mussels are popular, as in Northumberland Mussels in Cream.

Bacon is a popular ingredient used in the region’s cooking. Alnwick Stew is made from chopped bacon forehock layered with onions and potatoes, while Bacon Floddies are traditional to Gateshead and served with sausages and eggs as a breakfast or supper dish.

Alnwick Stew

Alnwick Stew

Bacon Floddies

Bacon Floddies

The popular Northumberland supper dish of Pan Haggerty is said to have taken its name from the French ‘hachis’, meaning to chop or slice. Traditionally Pan Haggerty is served directly from the pan in which it is cooked. Another popular supper dish from the county is Celery Cheese. Other dishes use cheese and vegetables such as Whitley Goose, a traditional dish from Whitley Bay which has nothing to do with real geese (it’s made with onions)!

Pan Haggerty

Pan Haggerty

Leeks are popular and are grown throughout the area. There are competitions for growing the biggest leeks and many Northumbrians are passionate about them. Leek Pudding is a suet pudding filled with chopped leeks and sometimes other vegetables, served as an accompaniment to stews.

Leek Pudding

Leek Pudding

One of the most famous dishes from the region is Pease Pudding, which dates back to medieval days. Traditionally it has been eaten with pork. In the nineteenth century ‘Pease Pudding Hot…’ was sold by street vendors – especially in and around Newcastle. It was, and still is, very much a northeastern dish. Another dish made with split peas is Carlings. This dish takes its name from the Old English word for ‘mourning’. It was conventionally served on Passion – or Carling – Sunday, when church altars were draped in purple in mourning for the memory of Christ’s Passion. Dishes containing peas were regularly eaten during Lent, when meat was forbidden.

Newcastle Pudding is a steamed form of bread and butter pudding, flavored with lemon and served with a lemon sauce. Another dessert from the area is North Country Tart, which is an open tart layered with raspberry jam and an egg, coconut, and golden syrup mixture. Another popular Northumberland farmhouse pudding goes Tasty Batter Pudding, something like Yorkshire pudding, but sweet and served with golden syrup.

Singin’ Hinnies are a type of fried scone that gained its name because it ‘sings’ and sizzles while cooking. ‘Hinny’ is a northern term of endearment used especially to children. Similar to Singin’ Hinnies are Northumbrian Griddle Cakes, also known as Gosforth Gridies. Another scone-like bread from the area is Northumberland Threshing Day Barley Bread that is baked on a griddle and made at threshing time.

Don’t EVER tell me that English food is dull and flavorless. You get a two-fer today, mussels in cream sauce and singin’ hinnies, just to drive the point home that I am spoilt for choice when it comes to Northumberland recipes.

dar mussels

Northumberland Mussels in Cream Sauce

6 pints (2.5 li) mussels
2 oz (50 g) butter
2 shallots chopped fine
2 tbsps flour
¼ pint (150 ml) dry white wine
¼ pint (150 ml) milk
¼ pint (150 ml) heavy cream
2 tbsps fresh parsley, chopped
white pepper (fresh ground if possible)


Scrub and wash the mussels thoroughly, discarding any that will not close when tapped sharply with a knife handle.

Take a large saucepan of water, bring to the boil and then add the mussels. Simmer with the lid on for about 5 minutes or until all the mussels have opened. Don’t overcook.

Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon, and keep warm. Let the cooking liquid sit off the heat for a few minutes and then ladle about a cup off the top, being careful not to disturb the bottom where grit will have settled.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and lightly sauté the shallots until translucent.  Do not let them brown.

Stir in the flour to make a blond roux, and then gradually add the wine, milk, and sufficient of the reserved cooking liquid to obtain a thick pouring sauce. Add the cream and half of the parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat the sauce through but do not allow to boil.  Arrange the mussels in 4 large bowls and pour on the sauce. Garnish with the remaining parsley.

You must serve these mussels with crusty bread or hot garlic bread to sop up the sauce.

Serves: 4

darl singing

Singin’ Hinnies


8 oz (225 g) all purpose flour
pinch Salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 oz (50 g) butter
2 oz (50 g) lard
1 oz (25 g) sugar
3 oz (75 g) currants or sultanas
2-3 tbsp milk


Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together into a bowl, then rub in the butter and the lard until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. This can be done by pulsing in a food processor.

Stir in the sugar and fruit and mix to a stiff dough with the milk.

Roll into a ball, then turn out on to a lightly floured surface and flatten into a round cake about ½ to ¾  inch (1 to 1.5 cm) thick.

Lightly grease and heat a cast iron skillet or griddle on medium heat. Lay the hinny on the hot surface.

Prick the top lightly with a fork and cook for 15-20 minutes, turning once, until golden brown on both sides.

Serve hot, cut into wedges and spread with butter.

Yield: 8 wedges