By Kim Rendfeld I would love to believe “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” in The Mabinogion. Elen of Caernarfon and her husband, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), have a happy ending, ruling the Roman Empire.
In the legend, our hero, the emperor of Rome, marries the woman of his dreams—literally. He sends messengers all the way to Britain to find her, and when they do, Elen tells them if Macsen is really in love with her so much he will make her his empress, he can come to Britain himself and tell her to her face. Macsen does, and they marry. He loses the throne after being absent for too long but regains it with help from Elen and her brothers. Elen (also known as Helen Luyddawc, or Elen of the Hosts) had roads built throughout Britain—the men would not have constructed them for anyone but her.
From a 15th century Welsh language version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The reality for this fourth century power couple is sadder. Is “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” a story of a sovereignty goddess common in Celtic lore? A tale with based in history? A bit of both?
If we are to believe Lives of the Queens of England before the Norman Conquest by Mrs. Matthew Hall—my instinct tells me to take what it says with that proverbial grain of salt—Elen was the only child of Eudda (also Eudaf or Octavius) and his wife, Gula, and they were seeking a husband for her. She was quite the eligible bride and heiress. Gula’s dowry was the kingdom of North Wales, and Eudda was the duke of the Wisseans and son of the duke of Cornwall.
Eudda wanted to make sure his daughter was settled before he died and called a council. After some debate, Magnus Maximus, a Spaniard and kinsman of Roman general Flavius Theodosius, was chosen. At the time, he was likely a commander of a Roman garrison in Britain and had already seen battle in Britain and Mauritania.
Marriage at the time was a political arrangement rather than a love match. If husband and wife happened to like each other, great, but the alliances forged by the marriage took precedence over sentiment.
From a political vantage point, Elen’s marriage to Maximus made sense. Another element that boded well for the couple was that both Elen and Maximus were pious. Elen would become a patroness of Welsh churches. Maximus was Orthodox, following the Nicene Creed.
Maximus was not content to remain in Britain. He apparently did not like Emperor Gratian. It could be that Maximus thought he deserved a better rank. Perhaps he resented the execution of Flavius Theodosius, done in Gratian’s name when the emperor was an infant. Or perhaps his army goaded him into seeking the throne for himself (a rather popular and remarkably convenient reason).
In 383, apparently after many years of marriage, Maximus was proclaimed emperor of Britain and traveled to Gaul with an army to confront Gratian. After a few battles, Gratian’s soldiers deserted him. Gratian was killed at Lyons. Maximus claimed not to have ordered it. Still he ruled part of the empire, Britain, Gaul, and Hispania. Gratian’s 12-year-old brother Valentinian ruled Italy and Africa (in name), and Theodosius rule the East, recognizing Maximus on the condition he not bother Valentinian.
Elen accompanied her husband on his conquest. They settled in Trier, which had served as the capital for Gratian’s father. The couple had five children. Their son Victor accompanied his father on his campaigns. Another son, Publicius, became a cleric, and a church at Segontium was dedicated to him. Their third son, Cunetha, apparently remained in Wales.
Apparently all was not well between Maximum and Valentinian. In 387, Maximus decided to cross the Alps and invade Italy. Maybe he wanted to make Valentinian a puppet, or he simply thought war was inevitable and decided to strike while he had an advantage. Italy fell, but Valentinian and his mother escaped and fled to Theodosius. In 388, Theodosius struck back. His generals trapped Maximus in Aquileia. Maximus surrendered, but the generals executed him. Victor was captured in Gaul and killed.
Elen and her daughters were in Trier at the time and taken prisoner. I wonder what Elen said to her captors or what people said about Elen. Theodosius showed some mercy. He released them to the care of a kinsman and provided a pension. Cunetha would inherit his mother’s lands in Wales, and his children would go on to rule.
Perhaps, the emperor believed Elen and her surviving children weren’t a threat. Maybe he thought harming the widowed empress and her family would cause him to lose support. Another speculation: Elen was still popular in her homeland and hurting her would cause a lot more trouble among those troublesome Britons than it was worth.
“The Dream of Macsen Wledig,” The Mabinogion The Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer Lives of the Queens of England before the Norman Conquest, by Mrs. Matthew Hall "Magnus Maximus," by R.S.O. Tomlin, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography “Elen of the Ways” by Judith Shaw, Feminism & Religion ~~~~~~~~~~
Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in 8th century Europe, and a third, Queen of the Darkest Hour, will be published August 7. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon). Her short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on Amazon. Queen of the Darkest Hour is available for preorder on iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
A Wiltshire clerk listing members of parliament (and evidently thinking that his job could be more interesting if he used a little creativity) after the first eight names included the following: “Adam, Belle, Clyme, Ocluw, Willyam, Cloudesle, Robyn, hode, Inne, Grenewode, Stode, Godeman, was, hee, lytel, Joon, Muchette, Millersson, Scathelok, Renoldyn.” This was in 1432, and it is the first known textual mention of the outlaws Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley.
While Robin Hood stood in the greenwood of Sherwood Forest with Little John, Much the Miller’s son, Scarlok, and Reynold, we hear of the first three outlaws listed as members of parliament standing in Inglewood, a forest in Cumberland spanning from Penrith to Carlisle. Carlisle is where William of Cloudesley’s wife, Alice, and their three sons live. When he ventures into the city to visit them, he is betrayed by the old wife to whom the family has shown charity, having her live with them. The sheriff and justice assemble men to capture Cloudesley. Alice defends their door with a poleaxe as Cloudesley shoots from a window. The house is set on fire, and Cloudesley is at last captured. He will be hanged the next day. However, a swineherd’s boy, a friend of Cloudesley’s, runs to the forest and finds Adam Bell and Clim of the Clough.
These two outlaws rush to Carlisle, arriving on the morning of the execution, and tricking the porter at the gate into believing that they bear the king’s seal. When he permits them to enter the city, Bell and Clim wring the porter’s neck in two, taking his keys and tossing him into a dungeon. Heading to the marketplace, they string their bows, shooting and killing the sheriff and the justice. Cloudesley is freed, and the three friends fight their way out of Carlisle to reunite with Alice and the children in Inglewood.
The three outlaws then race south to crave pardon from the King before he hears of their fresh crimes. The King intends to hang them, but the Queen intervenes in her role as peace-weaver, and convinces her husband to grant the desired pardon. This done, the King receives a letter telling him that Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley have just battled their way out of Carlisle, slaying more than three hundred men. Cloudesley shows the King his skill at archery, first by splitting a hazel wand four hundred yards distant, then by cleaving an apple on top of his seven-year-old son’s head with a deadly broad arrow. Cloudesley is made the King’s bow-bearer and chief rider, his wife the Queen’s chief gentlewoman and governess of the nursery, and Bell and Clim yeomen of the Queen’s chamber. The former outlaws make confession and are absolved of all their sins.
This story is perhaps the most similar to Robin Hood’s in outlaw literature, and both likely grew out of the early to mid thirteenth century. The earliest surviving versions of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley are in print, and no handwritten manuscript has been found to predate them (just as with A Gest of Robyn Hode). Possibly the oldest fragment dating from 1536, the earliest extant complete version comes from London, about 1560. The story was well-known in the early modern period, and Dobson and Taylor note that it was referenced in plays by William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
While J. C. Holt, the world’s leading expert on Robin Hood, does not rule out the possibility that Robin was based on a historical figure, he opines that the tale of Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley is entirely fictional. The events – betrayal, capture, rescue, archery, and royal pardon – are shared by medieval tales of Robin Hood, and many details are similar. Bell’s plot is most alike to Robin Hood and the Monk. Monk is one of the five surviving “ballads” of Robin Hood from the medieval period. In it, Robin and Little John quarrel over an archery contest and part ways. Robin then goes to St. Mary’s in Nottingham to pray, where a monk informs the sheriff of his presence. Robin kills twelve men before being captured. To rescue him, Little John and Much the Miller’s son intercept the monk travelling to the King. They kill the monk and his young page, going disguised to court in their places. Returning to Nottingham, they use the King’s seal to free Robin. Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley receiving pardon from the King is more like fytte seven of A Gest of Robyn Hode, another of the five surviving medieval “ballads,” when the King pardons Robin and his men. Robin agrees to serve at court, bringing along seven score and three of his men.
The characters also share similarities. A. J. Pollard points to Bell’s opening stanzas, where the three protagonists are named immediately after a description of the occupation of a walking forester. Throughout the medieval ballads, Robin touts his status as a yeoman. In fytte four of Gest we are given greater insight into the type of yeoman he was during a run-in between Little John and a monk. (Some have theorized that the latter could be the same one who turns Robin over to the sheriff in Monk.) When the monk hears that Little John’s master is Robin Hood, he calls the outlaw a strong thief. Little John objects, calling Robin instead “a yeoman of the forest.” This is not meant to be simply a euphemism, but a complete juxtaposition. “Yeoman of the forest” is a term meaning forester, and it is the foresters who enforce the forest law. Little John is essentially saying that Robin Hood is not a criminal, but a cop. This is attested to by the way in which Robin carries out his “crimes.” He does not steal, but rather exact payment, part of his duty as a forester. The monk might be forgiven for his mistake, as Robin’s exactions were overly zealous, and often not made within the confines of a forest, which was where forest law was supposed to be enforced. Robin, like Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley, is a northern outlaw and, though he visits Sherwood, he is based in West Yorkshire at Barnsdale.
Two of the most significant differences between the two legends are that William of Cloudesley is married and has children – a theme entirely missing from the surviving medieval Robin Hood stories (killing the monk’s page boy is about as close as it gets) – and the ubiquitous retelling of shooting an apple off someone’s head. The latter is most commonly identified with the legend of William Tell, but also present, Maurice Keen notes, in the Scandinavian stories of Weland the Smith and Hodr, as well as the German story of Dietrich von Bern, among others. Yet before Cloudesley orders that his son be tied to a stake in order to facilitate this feat, he has already won the King’s admiration for cleaving a hazel rod at four hundred paces. It is similar to when we hear in fytte seven of Gest of Robin twice cleaving a wand before the disguised King, who declares the mark too far away by fifty paces; or in Robin Hood and the Potter of the outlaw splitting a prick into three pieces before the sheriff. Skill at archery was essential for foresters. During the Hundred Years’ War, they were desirable recruits, as the English army depended upon good archers. William of Cloudesley and Robin Hood both show discernment in their tackle, Cloudesley choosing a bearing arrow for the hazel rod, better for distance, and a broad arrow for the apple, wide enough to split the fruit, and at one hundred twenty paces not too cumbersome to handle for a skilled archer paying attention to the wind. Meanwhile, in Potter, Robin is able to pull the string of the best bow amongst the sheriff’s men to his ear, proclaiming, “This is but right weak gear.”
There was ample reason for the Wiltshire clerk to think of Robin Hood and his men when he thought of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley. A number of writers have sought to bring their legends closer together over the centuries, from the early modern ballad of Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valor and Marriage, to Paul Creswick’s 1902 The Adventures of Robin Hood, to my new novel The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood. These two groups of outlaws share more commonalities than differences.
A. E. Chandler holds a Master of Arts with Merit from the University of Nottingham, where she wrote her dissertation on the social history behind Robin Hood. When not teaching or volunteering with the Glenbow Museum’s military collection, she writes historical fiction as well as contemporary fiction concerning history. Chandler has had stories, poetry, and articles published, in addition to a book of collected non-fiction entitled Into the World, and her new novel The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood.
Given the important role a male heir played in a landowning family’s life, it is hardly surprising that the birth of son, especially a first son, was often more welcome than the birth of a daughter. In the case of the birth of an heir to a great house, the birth might be celebrated throughout the region.
This is not to say the birth of a girl was not welcome. As the Georgian era came to an end and into the beginning of the Victorian era, children were increasingly perceived as not just potential heirs and marriage partners to provide family connections, but as emotional resources for parents, particularly mothers. (Lewis, 1986) Daughters might be welcomed for the affection and companionship they brought to their parents, even if those same parents were also apologizing for their predilection toward sons.
Unfortunately in that era, many children did not live past the age of five. (Laudermilk, 1998) The typical illnesses of childhood illnesses, accidents, unpurified water and consumption (tuberculosis) claimed many young lives. Because of the high infant mortality rate, it was critical that a clergyman be on hand to baptize a child as soon as possible. The Common Book of Prayer of the era specifically required newborns to be baptized before the second Sunday passed.
Three godparents, (preferably two of the same sex as the child) were required by the Church of England. They were often chosen in the hope that they would provide assistance—social and/or financial—as the child grew. They might also be potential guardians for the child, should the need arise.
What Happens Next?
In the modern mind, what happens next is fairly clear. After birth, baby would be fed, either nursed by the mother or given specially prepared infant formula and take their place in the family unit. This was not necessarily the assumption during the Regency era.
Not unlike today, conflicting views argued both medical and moral grounds for the best way to feed and care for an infant. Some asserted the process of breastfeeding was so intimate that it was hard to imagine any woman of proper feeling allowing the task to be fulfilled by a wet nurse. The argument went so far as to imply that mother's milk provided more than physical sustenance. The intellectual climate of the times assumed that the additional properties were of a moral nature. (Collins, 1998)
On the other side, however there were those who claimed that raising a baby ‘by hand’ (feeding an infant on animal milk or some other mixture) was a healthier option. From the late 18th century various types of feeding vessels were used, including animal horns, spoons, boat-shaped sucking bottles and upright pots with spouts, but sterilization was unheard of, causing exactly the sorts of problems one might expect. (Adkins 2013) In 1700, less than half of English babies were breast-fed, by 1800, the number approached two-thirds. (Gatrell, 2006)
Women opted to nurse their babies for a wide variety of reasons, many which are still influential today. Some believed that it was healthier for the baby—and in many ways it was, if only considering that feeding equipment was never sterilized and might only have cursory washing. Food-borne illness was a major contributor in the mortality of ‘hand raised’ infants.
Others chose to nurse for more emotional reasons. Family pressure influenced some, as did the desire to avoid another pregnancy. Some women felt a sentimental devotion toward their infants that encouraged nursing. Still others had a distaste for the lower classes from whom wet nurses were recruited. (Lewis, 1986)
Various taboos and inconveniences convinced some women not to breastfeed. Beliefs that interfered with successful nursing included: the belief that mothers should be churched (four to six weeks after giving birth) before breast feeding; colostrum or ‘first milk’ was harmful to babies; and that babies should be purged and given other liquids for the first few days after birth including wine, sugared water, or butter and honey. (Adkins, 2013) Needless to say, some of these beliefs resulted in serious health complications including infant starvation and milk fever in the mother.
Another potential discouragement to nursing: nursing normally lasted twelve to eighteen months, during which the mother would stay home with the baby, since nursing in public was simply not done. So, for women with active social roles, nursing could represent a serious hardship.
A third option presented itself for affluent women of the era. A significant number employed the services of a wet nurse throughout the first half of the 19th century. (Lewis, 1986) Some women saw it as an ideal means to avoid to avoid the inconvenience or indelicacy of nursing or to save their figures. The desire, or even the need to become pregnant again soon could also make this a desirable option. Even if pregnancy was not specifically desired, husbands might push for wet nursing because many believed that sexual excitement in a nursing mother spoiled the milk. As late as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft still thought that desire for sexual relations by the fathers was the main reason for the survival of wet nursing. (Stone, 1979)
During the regency era, most believed that infants required no more than to be kept reasonably clean, warm and well-fed until their intelligence showed itself. (Tomalin, 1999) Babies were handed about freely without thought toward the modern concepts of parental bonding or abandonment. It should come as some relief that wet nurses often chosen for their patience and loving nature. However, this came more from a belief that a woman’s milk was endowed with the characteristic of its provider than a desire to provide a warm, maternal environment for the infant. (Watkins, 1990)
Wet nurses were usually married working-class women, capable of producing milk, often because they had lost a baby or recently weaned one. Some worked for many continuous years. Not only did wet nurses feed the infants, they took over all aspects of infant care. Often, babies were moved into the homes of wet nurses, especially if those women lived in the countryside and the alternative was to keep the infants in a disease-ridden town. A country wet nurse could earn about 2 shillings and sixpence a week. (Tomalin, 1999) In 1813 in Ireland, a wet nurse for a countess cost £26 a year. (Stone, 1979)
How long a child might remain in fostering with the wet nurse varied, sometimes lasting as long as five years. The process came under attack during the eighteenth century, but it continued for some time.
Mrs. Austen (the mother of Jane Austen) followed the custom of putting out her babies to be nursed in a village cottage. The infant was daily visited by one or both of its parents, and frequently brought to them to the family home, the parsonage. The wet nurse’s cottage was the infant’s home though, and must have remained so till it was old enough to run about and talk. (Day, 2006) Not all parents were as attentive to visit their infants as the Austens were. Some paid little attention to their children during their nursery days.
Adoptions, guardians and godparents
Even though a child might survive into adulthood, nothing guaranteed that the child’s parents would survive to see it. Wardship was common legal instrument since many children lost both parents while still in their minority. Though a child would certainly feel the death of either parent, it was the death of a father that would most influence who had custody over the child. Women had no custody rights over their children who were effectively property of the husband (who was assumed to be the father since there was no DNA testing to prove paternity.)
At the father’s death, children usually went to the nearest male relative, often a grandfather or uncle. In some cases, children might be split up along gender lines. Male children might go to the father’s family and female children to the nearest male relative on the maternal line. (Spence, 2003) In either case, the mother had little or no influence on where the children would go nor any legal right to even visit the children.
Guardians exercised all the legal rights of parents until the child reached the age of majority, twenty- one. They controlled any finances of the child and could influence, though not mandate personal matters, such as the choice of a spouse. Girls could consent to or reject a marriage proposed by a guardian, and (at 14 years of age) even petition for a particular guardian to be appointed for them. So guardians had to exercise some delicacy in the performance of their role. (Byrne,2005)
Though adoption as the practice is known today did not actually exist in the era, childless relations commonly ‘adopted’ a relation’s child to serve as their heir. (MacDonagh, 1991) Sometimes wealthy branches of a family might ‘adopt’ a child of poorer relatives, bringing them up with their own children. Whether or not that child enjoyed all the privileges of wealth or was treated as a poor relation surely varied from family to family. Such was the premise of Austen’s novel Mansfield Park in which a daughter, instead of the expected son, was sent to live with wealthy relatives.
All of this suggests that the structure of families during the era was as variable as they are today, though the actual process of rearing infants and children might look very different.
Adkins, Roy, and Lesley Adkins. Jane Austen's England. Viking, 2013. Brander, Michael. The Georgian Gentleman. Farnborough: Saxon House, 1973. Buchan, William. 1838. Domestic Medicine: Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines: with Observations on Sea-bathing, and the Use of the Mineral Waters. To which is Annexed, a Dispensatory for the Use of Private Practitioners. J & B Williams, London. Byrne, Paula. “Manners,” in Jane Austen in Context, edited by Janet Todd, p. 297-305. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Collins, Irene. Jane Austen and the Clergy. London: Hambledon and London, 2001. Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998. Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Day, Malcom. Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David and Charles, 2006. Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London. New York: Walker &, 2007. Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989. Lewis, Judith Schneid. In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986. MacDonagh, Oliver. Jane Austen: real and imagined worlds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House. London: Hambledon and London, 2004. Shoemaker, Robert Brink. Gender in English Society, 1650-1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? London: Longman, 1998. Pearson Education Limited Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007. Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: a life. New York: Random House, 1999. Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Watkins, Susan. Jane Austen's Town and Country Style. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.
After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.
In my previous post on a possible historical basis for the Robin Hood legend, I looked at Robert Hood of Wakefield; a man with the right name who lived in the right period within an arrow’s flight of Barnsdale (the main stomping ground of Robin Hood in the ballads). But there was one other figure of an earlier generation who, despite his name bearing no resemblance to Robin Hood, lived a life with several striking parallels to England’s famous outlaw.
Roger Godberd hailed from Swannington in Leicestershire and the records of his life come from a number of court rolls. Several people have tried to construct his biography from these tantalising scraps but the most readable is David Baldwin’s(1).
The first mention of Godberd is in 1250 where he makes a complaint that his mother and stepfather cut down sixty oaks on his land. He is noted as being underage at this time which would make his year of birth 1229 at the earliest. He appears to have later had a daughter called Diva who is mentioned in a court case in 1258 over disputed land.
Swannington was part of the manor of Whitwick until it became a manor in its own right in more recent times. There is evidence of a moated hall north of the village dating to the 12th century. Godberd appeared to be in charge of Swannington by 1259 as he is recorded handing it over to Jordan le Fleming for a period of ten years but then forcibly booting him off it a year later.
Godberd was a tenant of Robert de Ferrers, the 6th Earl of Derby. De Ferrers – a hot-headed and quarrelsome man – came of age in 1260 and immediately began a campaign to take back his lands which had been held in wardship by the Lord Edward (Longshanks, later to become Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’). One of these properties was Nottingham Castle of which Roger Godberd was a member of the garrison.
Roger seems to have run into some legal trouble during his time at Nottingham as a record included in The Sherwood Forest Book (a collection of legal documents from various sources) tells of an episode in 1264 where Roger and several companions are accused of poaching deer in Sherwood Forest(2). That this accusation arose in 1287 – twenty-three years after the fact – is perhaps indicative of the efficiency of the medieval judicial system.
The delay may have been partly caused by the outbreak of the Second Barons’ War; a civil war in which the barons, under Simon de Montfort, attempted to establish a parliament more sympathetic to their demands. Robert de Ferrers threw himself into the conflict but was more interested in pursuing his personal vendetta against the Lord Edward than supporting the baronial cause. He ultimately missed out on the Battle of Lewes which saw the barons’ victory over King Henry III.
With the king and the Lord Edward under house arrest, Simon de Montfort became ruler of England in all but name. But while squabbling broke out amongst his supporters, Edward escaped custody and rallied an army to his father’s cause. The resulting slaughter at the Battle of Evesham spelled the end for de Montfort’s movement (not to mention his life) and his followers found themselves disinherited.
The ruins of Kenilworth Castle; once one of England's strongest medieval fortifications and the site of one of the longest sieges in English history
Pockets of resistance held out; rebels entrenched themselves on the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire and at Kenilworth Castle which endured one of the longest sieges in English history. Roger Godberd was apparently financially desperate and appears in the Close Rolls of 1266 for forcing the Abbot of Garendon to hand over the charters for the lands he had leased the abbey.
In October, 1266, Godberd was granted safe passage to attend the Dictum of Kenilworth; the king’s offer to the rebels to buy back their lands at rates according to their level of involvement in de Montfort’s rebellion. Eventually pardoned, Godberd appears to have moved north to begin a life of crime with his brother Geoffrey and others.
When he was finally brought to trial in 1276, the charges against him vary from burglary, homicide, arson and robbery in Leicester, Nottinghamshire and Wiltshire, the most heinous of which was the robbery of the monks of Stanley Abbey in 1270, one of whom was killed.
Reginald de Grey, Justice of Chester, was given money from Nottingham, Leicester and Derby to raise an army to hunt down the outlaws who were running rampant in those counties. De Gray had recently held the position of High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests (Nottingham didn’t get its own sheriff until 1449). Interestingly, de Grey was also one of the accused Sherwood poachers of 1264 alongside Roger and Geoffrey Godberd suggesting that they had previously been comrades in the Nottingham Castle garrison and now operated on opposite sides of the law.
All this about Nottingham and Sherwood may sound more like the Robin Hood of later tradition, not the outlaw of Barnsdale in the earliest ballads. But even in those stories, it is the Sheriff of Nottingham who plays the part of the chief villain despite the fact that he would have been out of his jurisdiction pursuing outlaws in Barnsdale. Not only does this suggest that there were once two separate traditions – a Nottinghamshire one and a Yorkshire one that got blended at some point – but one of the first stories of Robin Hood includes an episode that bears a striking resemblance to what Roger Godberd did next.
In the ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin and his companions befriend a knight called Sir Richard who shelters them at his castle from an assault by the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Calendar of the Close Rolls of Henry III show that a knight called Richard Foliot was accused of sheltering Godberd and his companions at his castle of Fenwick. Richard was eventually forced to hand over his castle and son Edmund to the Sheriff of Yorkshire as surety until he stood trial for harbouring outlaws.
There is also a record (unfortunately undated) in the Hundred Rolls of Edward I showing that Godberd and a number of his followers were captured at a grange owned by Rufford Abbey in Sherwood and imprisoned at Nottingham Castle. The man who captured them was Hugh de Babington, undersheriff at this time to Walter Giffard, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire etc. and also Archbishop of York. Another record of Godberd’s capture has Reginald de Grey take him at Hereford before conducting him to Bridgenorth. This second arrest suggests that Godberd escaped custody (possibly from Nottingham Castle itself) only to be recaptured by de Grey.
While Godberd spent the next few years in various prisons, his followers remained active. There was an attempt to rescue him from Bridgenorth and Godberd’s brother Geoffrey attacked the servants of Lucy de Grey (Reginald’s step-mother) while they were en route to Leicester.
Stays at Hereford and Chester gaols are also recorded before Godberd was incarcerated at Newgate and brought to trial at the Tower of London in 1276. Inexplicably, King Edward I pardoned him and Roger Godberd wandered off the map of history.
So, we have a rebellious outlaw operating from Sherwood, robbing the clergy and defying the sheriffs and justices. He was sheltered by a knight called Richard and eventually pardoned by a king called Edward (just as Robin was the Gest ballad). Robert Hood of Wakefield may be an interesting candidate but there is no denying Roger Godberd’s possible influence on the legend. That the ballads alternately switch between Barnsdale in Yorkshire and Sherwood in Nottinghamshire suggest there may have been more than one source for the legend. Perhaps Godberd provided one part of the tale while another outlaw in Yorkshire provided the rest.
My recent novel Lords of the Greenwood focuses, in part, on the exploits of Roger Godberd and the Second Barons’ War. It also deals with Robert Hood of Wakefield who is outlawed a generation later and, inspired by tales of Godberd told to him by an old beggar who used to be one of Godberd’s band, sets up his own band of robbers who operate in Barnsdale.
1. David Baldwin. Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked. 2011
2. Boulton, H. E. (ed). Sherwood Forest Book. Thoroton Society Record Series Volume XXIII. 1964
Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer of historical fiction, horror and fantasy. His early short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Moon Digest and American Nightmare. His first novel under his own name was A Brother’s Oath; the first book in the Hengest and Horsa Trilogy. He also writes under the pseudonym P. J. Thorndyke.
His recent novel, Lords of the Greenwood, blends history with medieval ballads. This is the entwined saga of two men, separated by a generation and united by legend, who inspired the tales of England’s famous hooded outlaw. Lords of the Greenwood is available through Amazon.
Mention women in the early middle ages and one often thinks of women wearing long silken head-rails with long braids, ribbons intertwined, but mention the dark ages, and it conjures up women with free-flowing locks that fly like banners behind them as they ride their chariots, pulled by wild, dark age ponies. This might have been so in pagan times, but even then, women would have worn some sort of head covering, especially for practical uses, like when working. These were times when long hair, if not contained, might cause life or death situations, like having your hair catch aflame when leaning over the cooking pot. I can imagine as it is now, finding long strands of hair in your stew would not have been very appealing. It was also a way of avoiding lice or getting other creepy crawlies caught up in it. However, it wasn't unknown in Christian times, when it was considered unseemly to have one's hair uncovered, to find images of unveiled women. Below is a reconstruction of Pictish stone carving with a high-status woman riding side-saddle, her hair uncovered.
Photo Originally uploaded by Deacon of Pndapetzim CC BY-SA 2.5
We know that in Europe, in the medieval period, women did cover their hair, and that the origins of the moral code behind it lay in the early Christian church. This whole thing about women having to cover their hair for moralistic purposes within monotheistic religions, began in the middle-east. But what of the western nations who had only just adopted the monotheist ideology? Did they directly attempt to replicate the women of the eastern countries, or was there some other philosophy that women should cover their hair to the western provinces of the developing Christian world?
If we look back through history, the earliest documentation of the code seems to have first been promoted by St Paul. Paul, who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen, is thought to be the first apostle who spread the teachings of Christ throughout Asia Minor and Europe. He preached that women should cover their hair as submission to their husbands and when praying in church. In a letter to Timothy, he stated that women should dress modestly and not with 'broided' (meaning twined, braided) hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array. But Paul was not the only one who lectured women on their modesty. Tertullian, a theologian writing in 200 AD, wrote that St Paul was not just referring to married women, but 'all women of age', most likely meaning those who had reached puberty. He admonishes those women who do not cover the whole of their head, leaving their ears and neck exposed. It seems that in covering the whole of one’s head, women were avoiding being gazed at, and were also encouraged to be ‘entirely’ covered, unless they were at home. Thus, it was the responsibility of women to ensure that they did not fall prey to sin, or to the lust of men, not the other way around, as according to the writings of Clement of Alexandria.
Alaric enters Rome [Public Domain]
The middle ages, it seems, started post the destruction of the Roman empire, so early 5thc, and ends, roughly, and depending on whose school of thought you prefer, the battle of Bosworth. Nice tidy dates there to follow without any blurring of boundaries. A sure beginning can be put in 410 AD, and the end, August 22nd 1485. I like those dates. So, what was happening in Britain at that time? According to the annals, Rome advised the administrators their most northern province, to look to their own defences, when they asked for help against invaders. Rome had left Britain’s shores for the last time, and they were not coming back. The barbarian was at their door. So those left behind would have been a mixture of British and Roman stock, but those Romans could have come from anywhere. They might have been retired legionnaires, settled, and married to British women. But just because a new epoch was about to start, didn’t mean that Roman life disintegrated overnight. Roman life in some semblance still continued into the 6thc as archaeological evidence shows.
When the exact date was of the arrival of Christianity in Britain, is not known, however, it is apparent both in archaeological and textual sourced that it was well established by the 5thc. Literature suggests that Roman women were required to cover their hair in public when walking out, but the evidence of images at this time in Britain suggests otherwise. Perhaps if the doctrine of hair-covering for modesty had reached these shores, it was not fully enforced.
The Pictish Hilton of Cadbol stone, in the picture above, which dates to around 800AD, has a Christian cross on one side of it, and a secular riding scene on the other, with a high-status lady riding side saddle, her hair uncovered. This is a reconstruction of the stone to show you clearer detail of what she is wearing and how her hair looks. It is not known who she is, but on her right are a mirror and a comb, indicative of her gender. It looks very much like a hunting scene, and the fact that she is riding side-on is intriguing, but the main delight is the way her hair is depicted in cascading waves down her back. It is fascinating, that even as late as this time, the Christian doctrine of wearing veils for modesty was not necessarily in play this far north, though it could be artistic licence. And it does not mean that the rule for church did not apply when it came to prayer time.
Reenactor, Rhydian Jones states, “If you’re on the east coast north of the Forth prior to 850 AD (ish) and doing Pictish (reenactment), the majority of evidence is that women wore their hair uncovered, and frequently wore a large cloak/shawl fastened in the centre of the chest with a penannular brooch… The bigger the brooch the posher you are.” The lady on the stone does seem to have a very large brooch. This cloak could have been pulled up over her head to provide extra warmth in inclement weather. Also, seperate hoods have been indicated also.
A cap showing the Sprang technique used by Germanic women Photo by Lyllyundfreya CC By-SA 30
In looking at the evidence for headdress in early the middle ages, in what was later to become England, it seems that the evidence, both archaeological and documented are scarce and what evidence there might be is debatable. That’s not to say that veils weren’t worn, just that there is a paucity of evidence. As I have said earlier, I believe that women wore head-coverings of some sort even in pagan times for the reasons I had previously mentioned, and not just for modesty. Among the dubious evidence found are small rings that might have been used for braid fasteners, but generally the consensus is that these are not practical for such a purpose. Gold brocaded fillets have also been found, but it is not known if they were worn to secure a veil, or worn without the veil.
To find evidence of what women in the British Isles might have worn on their heads, we need to look to their counterparts abroad: It is known that Germanic women in ancient Scandinavia wore caps, samples from bronze and iron age have been found to be woven in sprang, an ancient technique used in Denmark and other parts of the ancient world that made them look like hairnets. An example was found on the body of a girl recovered from the Arden Mose wearing hers over 2 coiled plaits of hair.
There is no evidence of sprang technique being used by Anglo-Saxon women though the technique was known in Britain. Drawstring-style caps were found to be worn on the figures of women wearing a Menimane Rhineland costume dated from the 5th/6th centuries. It is likely that these types of caps might have been worn in Anglo-Ssxon areas at this time.
Women in Iron Age Denmark regularly wore scarves. A bog body was found wearing a scarf at Huldremose, 1.37 metres long and 49 cm wide with fringed ends. Anglo-Saxon women may have worn similar types of veils/scarves and tabby-woven material has been found on the backs of brooches. The Merovingian queen, Arnegundis, was found in her tomb with a long red satin veil, secured by two small pins at her temples. This long veil was quite common in this period. Arnegundis seems to have favoured a longer, elaborate veil that might have been crossed over the breast and pinned, and hung over an arm. A parallel for this veil was found in the grave of the woman at Mill Hill, in Deal, Kent. Two clips have also been found like the Merovingian woman at the sides of a woman’s head in Cambridgeshire, showing that the fashion might have travelled to south-eastern parts of England. To view an reconstruction of Arnegundis' burial outfit, check this link
There is a considerable amount of linguistic evidence for head gear in Anglo-Saxon:
Haet, - AS for hat. Cuffie - a loose fitting hood. Scyfel - a hat or a cap with a projection. Binde – a fillet. Binde may have been the name for the gold-brocaded fillet that a very few 6thc c women wore. Cloth ones would have left no trace. Snod – Snood in AS in Old Norse - hofuthbond
So, in summarising, where the western world is concerned, it seems the nearer to Rome and the Orthodox Christian region, the more likely that head-covering was worn, mostly in respect of church teachings. We have seen that there is less evidence for wearing head-coverings than there is for not, and less archaeological evidence than documented or art. But we cannot discount the wearing of headwear for practical reasons, such as for work or for hygiene as opposed to following a religious moral code, but this does not increase the lack of finds.
The next post in the Wimples, Veils, and Head-rails, we venture down our time tunnel to focus on the centuries between the late 7th – 9th centuries. Please join me in this fascinating adventure to find out what we can about women in this time of so-called darkness, and shine a light on their lives.
Tertullian, The Veiling of the Virgins, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.4 pp27-29,33.
Clement of Alexandria.
Owen-Crocker G.R. 2004 Dress In Anglo-Saxon England The Boydell Press, UK.
Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane
It will come as no surprise that I loved doing the research for my book 'In Bed with the Georgians - Sex, Scandal & Satire' - never more so than when I was putting together biographies of some of the leading courtesans of the 18th Century. They were the stars who lit up the demi-monde, achieving a fame which is impossible to imagine today. Think reality TV stars, think Footballers Wives - think of all the Hollywood leading ladies all merged into one. That was the unassailable popularity and fame enjoyed by the whores at the top of the tree - and one of the first to make it to the top was Fanny Murray. Fanny Murray had an unpromising start in life – she was born in Bath around 1729 to the wife of an itinerant musician called Rudman. Both parents were dead by the time she was twelve and she eked a living as a flower-seller on the streets of Bath near the Abbey and outside the Assembly Rooms.
She was an attractive young girl and unfortunately she caught the eye of a philanderer called Jack Spencer. He was the grandson of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough - and no doubt he saw the seduction of a twelve-year-old orphan as a bit of fun. He had his wicked way with her, and promptly left. His place was taken by a Captain in the army, but he too deserted her, leaving her at the mercy of all the unscrupulous rakes and pimps about town. Enter a rather strange hero – none other than the ageing roué Beau Nash, the Master of Ceremonies at the Assembly Rooms. No matter that at sixty-six he was over fifty years her senior – he invited her to become his mistress and for a couple of years she was his devoted help-mate. He gave her polish and a taste for the good life – and I suspect that she gave him …… a big smile on his face.
She then moved up to London, securing a place in Harris’s List (a fascinating directory of whores operating in the area around Covent Garden). This described her as ”a new face… Perfectly sound in wind and limb. A fine Brown girl, rising nineteen next season. A good side-box piece, she will show well in the Flesh Market”.
She rocketed to fame and by the end of her teens was widely acknowledged as the ‘Toast of the Town’- so much so that she is widely credited as being the inspiration for Fanny Hill, the central character in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure published in 1749.
Fanny-mania took hold – she was always in the news. Mezzotint prints of her portrait were bought by the thousands and became the first ‘pin-ups’ – literally, because they were pinned up on walls of countless homes.They represented the first time fashion prints had been produced. The courtesans were, after all, the height of fashion, and what Fanny wore one day – a special hat, a gown, a different hair style – would quickly be copied by all the fashionable ladies. Men would cut out her likeness and insert it between the outer and inner layers of their pocket watch so that they too could ‘have a piece’ of a woman who was utterly unattainable to all except the very, very rich.
Fanny became the mistress of John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and he introduced her to other members of the Hellfire Club, which met at Medmenham Abbey. Here Fanny would take part in orgies in her capacity as a ‘nun’, which was the term given to females attending the club.
Aged 27 she had run up immense debts and was in dire straits. Her youthful good looks were fading, her creditors were pushing for payment, and her gallants deserted her in her hour of need. She was carted off to the sponging house (a temporary holding place for debtors) and her inevitable downward spiral into poverty and degradation must have been staring her in the face.
But fortune favours the brave, and she decided to pen a letter to the son of the man who had first debauched her. The young Mr Spencer was exceedingly honourable and generous, settling an annuity of £200 on Fanny. He also did her the great favour of introducing her to a friend of his, an actor called David Ross. The two fell in love, and to the amazement of everyone, got married. Fanny really had turned over a new leaf. She led a blameless married life for twenty years before dying at the age of 49. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Mike Rendell has authored several books, including In Bed with the Georgians, on Amazon, and Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man's World, also on Amazon. Both books are also available from Pen & Sword Books.
Much has been written on the possible historical basis of the Robin Hood legends and the search is problematic to say the least. Even if we accept the idea that England’s famous forest-dwelling outlaw was a real person and not a literary character or a mythological archetype, the name Robin/Robert Hood was hardly an uncommon one in medieval England. To even be in the same ballpark we need to look for specific Robin Hoods whose lives bear at least a passing resemblance to the figure of the legends. And the search has turned up some interesting candidates.
First of all we need to reacquaint ourselves with the Robin Hood of the medieval ballads in which he makes his first appearance. Forget Prince John trying to usurp the throne while his brother King Richard the Lionheart is a prisoner on his way home from the crusades. The only king mentioned in the early ballads is an unspecified King Edward. There were three Edwards who ruled in succession in the Middle Ages which indicates a timeframe of 1272 to 1377; a good hundred years after the Lionheart’s reign. Sherwood Forest also has to go. The stomping ground of Robin Hood in the ballads is Barnsdale which once took up a sizable portion of West Yorkshire.
With the aforementioned facts in mind, a possible candidate has been put forward in the form of Robert Hood of Wakefield who lived during the reign of Edward II. Aside from his name and era, there is one other thing about him that makes him a possibility; his hometown.
Wakefield was a manor ruled by Earl John de Warenne until around 1317 when Earl Thomas of Lancaster took it from him as a result of a bitter feud. The previous spring Lancaster’s wife, Alice de Lacy, was purportedly abducted by de Warenne’s men (although rumour had it that she and de Warenne were lovers). Immensely powerful and more or less ruler of the north, Lancaster also had a falling out with his cousin, King Edward II. Lancaster drew support from the Marcher Lords who resented the king and his relationship with the hated royal favourites; the Desepnsers. What began as an attack on the Despensers’ lands soon turned into open rebellion and ended with the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 and the subsequent execution of Lancaster for treason.
It is interesting to find a Robert Hood living in Wakefield at this time because the forest of Barnsdale encroached upon that very manor and was a natural hiding place for any outlaw on the run. The antiquarian Joseph Hunter was the first to put Robert Hood forward as the real Robin Hood and his findings were largely culled from the Wakefield Court Rolls(1). Subsequent historians like J. W. Walker(2) and J. C. Holt(3) found additional entries and bolstered his brief biography. What follows is a basic outline of Robert Hood’s life according to Hunter, Holt and Walker.
On Jan 25th, 1316 Robertus Hood, son of Adam Hood (who hailed from nearby Stanley and was a forester for Earl de Warenne) and his wife Matilda gave 2 shillings for leave to take one piece of the lord's waste on Bichill (the market place in Wakefield) between the houses of Phillip Damyson and Thomas Alayn.
In 1316, Robert Hood's handmaid was fined for taking wood from Old Park. In the same year, Hood himself was fined 3d for not obeying Earl de Warenne’s summons to join the forces of Edward II's Scottish invasion.
After the Battle of Boroughbridge and Lancaster’s execution in 1322, his followers were outlawed and their properties seized. One property seized in 1322 was a ‘building of five rooms of a new construction on Bichill, Wakefield’.
Hunter’s hypothesis is that Robert Hood was outlawed after taking part in Lancaster’s rebellion against the king and fled to nearby Barnsdale to begin his life of crime. But that’s not all. Hunter also found a ‘Robyn Hode’ serving in the chamber of King Edward II not long after. That these two people could be one and the same sounds highly unlikely were it not for the events in the earliest ballad; A Gest of Robyn Hode. In this story, King Edward travels to Nottingham and, furious at the poaching of the deer in his royal parks, tracks Robin and his companions down. Impressed by his honour and skill, the king takes Robin into his service where he remains at court for ‘twelve months and three’. Then, longing for the greenwood, Robin returns to Barnsdale and lives there for a further twenty-two years until his death at the hands of the treacherous Prioress of Kirklees.
King Edward II did indeed tour the north of England after the defeat of Lancaster’s rebellion and was particularly interested in the state of his forests such as Pickering and Knaresborough which had seen many trespasses during the war. He stayed at Nottingham in November, 1323 and Hunter remarks that from April, 1324, several payments were made to a porter of the chamber named Robyn Hode. On the 22nd November, 1324 – a year after the king visited Nottingham – Hode is given five shillings as a gift because he is ‘no longer able to work’ and nothing further is heard of him.
Later research by J. C. Holt shows that Robyn Hode was already in the king's service from June 27th, 1323, a good five months before the king arrived in Nottingham. This has weakened Hunter’s hypothesis in the eyes of many but it is interesting to note that on June 27th the itinerary of King Edward II places him at Chapel Haddlesey; a village roughly ten miles east of Barnsdale.
Hunter calculated the year of Hood’s death as 1347; twenty-two years after he left the service of the king. Interestingly there is a grave at Kirklees Priory (in the Wakefield manor) inscribed with Hood’s name and the date of 1247; exactly a century earlier than Hunter’s prediction. The grave is a relatively recent replacement for a previous monument and its inscription makes it clear that Robin Hood of legend is meant. That the date is a century earlier than Robert Hood of Wakefield’s death (according to Hunter) either means that the Robin Hood buried at Kirklees is not Robert Hood of Wakefield or, it is and a scribal error was made on the part of the engraver.
It’s tempting to consider Robert Hood of Wakefield (and possibly Robyn Hode of the king’s chamber) as the real life Robin Hood. After all, he has the right name and lived in the right place at the right time. However, not only is it pure conjecture that Robert Hood of Wakefeld and Robyn Hode of the king’s chamber are the same man but there is also no evidence that either were ever outlawed. Nevertheless, of all the possible candidates for the historical Robin Hood, Robert Hood of Wakefield provides both name, location and a tantalising correspondence to the Gest ballad in the appearance of a similarly named man in the chamber records of King Edward II who is also known to have been in the area at the right time. Coincidences maybe, but intriguing ones at that.
In my recent novel Lords of the Greenwood, Robert Hood of Wakefield, or more correctly, his son (also called Robert), is the Robin Hood of legend. Robert Hood the Elder (the one who was married to a Matilda in the Wakefield court rolls) was killed by the Scots at the Battle of Myton as a result of Lancaster’s treachery. His son, Robert the Younger, finds himself outlawed for murder and has only his bitter enemy Will Shacklock for company in the woods of Barnsdale (the Wakefield court rolls show a Schackelock family living at nearby Crigglestone at this time(4) and the name bears a similarity to the variants of Will Scarlet’s original surname in the ballads). Robert and Will learn to put aside their differences and begin recruiting a band of outlaws fleeing the chaos of Lancaster’s rebellion. Their actions eventually draw the attention of the king himself who comes to them with a proposition… Sources
P. Valentine Harris. The truth about Robin Hood : a refutation of the mythologists’ theories, with new evidence of the hero’s actual existence. 1952
Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer of historical fiction, horror and fantasy. His early short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Moon Digest and American Nightmare. His first novel under his own name was A Brother’s Oath; the first book in the Hengest and Horsa Trilogy. He also writes under the pseudonym P. J. Thorndyke.
His recent novel, Lords of the Greenwood, blends history with medieval ballads. This is the entwined saga of two men, separated by a generation and united by legend, who inspired the tales of England’s famous hooded outlaw. Lords of the Greenwood is available through Amazon.
Sutton Hoo is one of the most important historical sites of Great Britain. The name derives from the Old English (Sutton = South farmstead and Hoo = someone who lives on a spur of a hill).
Sutton Hoo is situated near the village of Woodbridge on the River Deben in the county of Suffolk, the southern part of East Anglia. The history of the place can be split into two distinct eras: recent (from 1930s to the present day), and early medieval (from the early seventh century).
Mound 2 at Sutton Hoo
Before the owner of the house at Sutton Hoo, Mrs Edith Pretty, invited local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to dig into the many mounds that dotted an area of her land, there was nothing much to make Sutton Hoo stand out from a historical point of view. But, as the archaeologists dug into the sandy soil in 1939, uncovering perfect lines of rivets showing the shape of the overlapping planks of a great clinker-built ship buried beneath the largest mound, it quickly became apparent that Sutton Hoo had a historical importance none had imagined before then.
The village of Woodbridge and the river Deben in the distance (viewed from Sutton Hoo)
All of the mounds had been disturbed over the centuries and most of the treasures that lay within had been stolen. But amazingly, although the largest mound (known as Mound 1) had suffered from the attentions of grave robbers in the sixteenth century (possibly the infamous Dr John Dee, who obtained a royal permit to dig for treasure in burial mounds in East Anglia), Brown found in 1939 that the main burial chamber that had been erected over the ship was largely undisturbed.
Reconstruction of the inside of Mound 1
At least it had not been disturbed by men; the earth had fallen in centuries ago, crushing the items stored within and damaging many of them. And of course, the passing of time had wreaked havoc with the organic materials and iron. However, the treasures that were pulled forth from the earth showed that the man buried in the ship was hugely wealthy, a pagan and almost certainly a king.
Basil Brown during the dig of Mound 1 in 1939
The most recognisable artefact is of course the Sutton Hoo helmet, the remains of which are now on display in the British Museum. Time has taken its toll on the helmet, but when we see a replica showing it as it would have been when worn and buried with its owner, we can but marvel at the workmanship and artistry.
Replica of the Sutton Hoo Helmet (by Ivor Lawton)
There were many other important pieces that came from the grave, each providing invaluable insight into the customs of the time and the identity of the man buried.
Among many other items of value, the following are a few of the most important finds from Mound 1:
a large Byzantine silver bowl, which had travelled over 1,500 miles to reach its resting place
thirty-seven gold coins
an ornate golden belt buckle
Replica of the gold belt buckle
two gold and garnet shoulder clasps
a whetstone sceptre
Replica of the whetstone sceptre
a shield with intricate gold fittings
Replica of the shield and gold fittings
The excavation of the mounds was halted during the Second World War, but since that time the investigations of the site has continued to the present day, first under the direction of Rupert Bruce-Mitford (1965-71), then Martin Carver (1983-92). In subsequent digs since the war, many other graves have been found in the area around the mounds. It is believed that these newly-discovered bodies, which were buried with no grave goods, in shallow graves are from a later time. Looking at the evidence, they were probably criminals who had been hanged from a gallows near the highway that ran past the mounds.
The mounds at Sutton Hoo
Other mounds have also been excavated, shining more light into the darkness of the time when these mounds were erected. A young warrior is buried alongside his horse in Mound 17 and Mound 14 probably held the body of a woman, given the grave goods found.
Replica pattern welded sword
We will almost certainly never know who each of these people were due to the period when they were buried and the lack of documentary evidence in what is commonly known as the Dark Ages.
Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to pinpoint the age of the ship burial of Mound 1 as between 590 and 640. Weighing up the finds of such riches, along with the location of the mounds, only four miles from Rendlesham, where Bede says the King of East Anglia had his great hall, and the fact that the burial is pagan, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo is the ship burial of the great King Rædwald of East Anglia, who died in 624 or 625.
Artist's impression of King Rædwald
This of course takes us into the second historical era of Sutton Hoo. The early seventh century, when Christianity had yet to be adopted by all the kingdoms of Britain. A time when warrior kings of the Angles and the Saxons held sway over retinues of thegns and vied for power and territory with neighbouring kings in a way that could be compared to the gangs of modern-day cities or the cattle barons of the American West in the nineteenth century.
Such a man was Rædwald, ruler over East Anglia, one of the richest kingdoms of Britain. He had supposedly converted to Christianity when visiting Kent, but apostatised once more on his return to East Anglia where, instead of destroying the shrines to the old gods, he built new Christian shrines alongside them. Claiming Woden as one of his descendants, as did all of the Anglo-Saxon kings of the time, he would have worn the great helmet that was buried with him into combat, not only as protection but as an indication of his wealth and extreme power.
Artist's impression of the interior of an Anglo-Saxon great hall
Rædwald’s power stretched well beyond the borders of East Anglia. When the young Edwin of Deira fled from his enemies in Northumberland, he ended up finding a safe haven in the hall of Rædwald. Edwin’s sworn enemy, King Æthelfrith, would rather avoid a war with a king as mighty as Rædwald but he clearly believed that the King of East Anglia could be swayed by gold. For we are told in Bede’s History of the English Church and People that Æthelfrith sent Rædwald increasingly large bribes in the form of coins in exchange for Edwin. It seems Rædwald was tempted by the offer until his wife famously told him that it was “altogether unworthy of so great a king to sell his good friend in such distress for gold, and to sacrifice his honour, which is more valuable than all other adornments, for the love of money”. And so, listening to his wife and recognising the wisdom of her words, Rædwald not only rejected Æthelfrith’s offer but instead lent his aid to Edwin and marched with him northward where together they defeated Æthelfrith. Thus Rædwald installed Edwin as King of Northumbria.
The National Trust Exhibition Hall at Sutton Hoo
Visiting the site today and seeing in the National Trust Exhibition Hall the stunning replicas of the grave goods that were buried with Rædwald to be carried into the afterlife in his great ship, one gets an idea of the powerful hold this man must have had on his people. And I think we must consider ourselves extremely fortunate that after 1,400 years and numerous attempts to rob the graves of Sutton Hoo, these most fabulous, iconic artefacts have been recovered and kept safe, allowing them to be witnessed and studied by history lovers for generations to come.
All photos copyright Matthew Harffy, unless otherwise stated. The image of the 1939 dig is by Harold John Phillips - Screen capture of image from home movie, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14677136
Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The latest book in the series, Warrior of Woden was released on 1st April 2017.