A Puff on Wuffings

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A few months ago it was announced that Rædwald’s home had been found – exactly where it should be, at Rendlesham.   It is always remarkable when archaeology follows ancient sources, especially when those ancient sources postdate the actual events by a good century.  Perhaps the dig at Rendlesham hasn’t revealed a new Mycenae or Troy, but just like the discovery of those once thought to be legendary places, it adds credence to the stories of Rædwald and Edwin.  Of course, we know these people existed as there was no reason for Bede to make people up in his history, just as we have no reason to invent Charles Darwin or Queen Victoria – and Edwin’s palace at Yeavering was found 65 years ago by aerial photography.  But did Rædwald actually have anything to do with the village found at Rendlesham?  Was this where the events recounted in Bede where Edwin takes refuge with the East Anglian king and is oh-so-nearly betrayed?  Is this the place where Rædwald had his shrine to the Christian God and to ‘devils’ – probably Woden, from whom his family, the Wuffingas, claimed descent?

Bede doesn’t say so – what a spoilsport!  Bede talks of Rædwald’s royal vill, but not of Rendlesham.  That comes later, when the mission of Cedd is taking place that results in the conversion of the East Saxon (Essex) king Swidhelm in the mid 7th century, about 40 years after Rædwald died.  But the newly discovered settlement does date back to the early 7th century, when Raedwald was king.  It is also close to St Gregory’s church, long thought to be the site of Rædwald’s famous altars, and to the all important river Deben that would have linked the settlement rapidly with the outside world – and also links the settlement to the burial grounds at Sutton Hoo.  I’m a storyteller – so I would like to believe that this was Rædwald’s home.

It’s probably fair to say that these days Rædwald tends to get more press than most of the early Anglo Saxon kings, even outside of East Anglia.  He is helped by ‘his’ costly burial and also by the high profile visitor attraction that is Sutton Hoo these days.  But in East Anglia in the Wuffings have been well and truly embraced.  From the Eastern Angles production in 1997 to the Wuffings Studio project in Bury, to Wuffings Wood near Flixton to even a twenty20 side the name is used with pride.

Who were the Wuffings?  No – they aren’t people volunteering on organic farms … that’s woofing.  Don’t even think about dogging…  Dr Sam Newton’s site http://www.wuffings.co.uk/ gives full details of the family and reveals the exciting link with the poem Beowulf.  We know a fair bit of what the East Anglians thought about their royal heritage through royal kinglists, that trace the kings back to the first person in the line.  The first East Anglian king was Wehha, followed by the eponymous Wuffa, but before that, back in the old country, we discover a Hrothmund – the same name as the younger of Hrothgar’s sons in Beowulf.  In the poem, the two sons are still boys, even though Hrothgar is an old man.  Could the East Anglian royal family be related to the Danish king?  Was Rædwald a descendent of Hrothgar – and with Rædwald all the East Anglian kings up to Edmund?

After Beowulf had gone home to his own land, the land of the Geats, we learn that there is civil war in Hrothgar’s kingdom between the king and his son-in-law Ingeld.   The old king and his nephew Hrothulf (Rolf!) defeat Ingeld, but shortly after Hrothgar dies.  As Hrothulf is an adult, he takes the throne – but what happens to Hrothgar’s young sons?  Hrethric is killed – but Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s widow, and her younger son escape.  Sam Newton in his book The Origins of Beowulf: And the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, 2004, explores this potential relationship in great detail, and suggests that not only did the East Anglian kings believe they were descended from this Danish royal line, but also that Beowulf may have been composed in East Anglia.

It’s a glamorous notion – the young exiled prince fleeing with his mother and a group of trusted men and possibly women and children, and maybe crossing the North Sea to the place where everyone was going – Britain.  There may have been a struggle to establish rule, or maybe there was a settlement on the other side of the sea as Hrothmund’s ‘grandson’ Wehha, the ‘father’ of Wuffa, is considered to be first king of East Anglia[1].

Were these real people?  We can never know, but the fact that Hrothulf and co. are mentioned not only in Beowulf but in many Scandinavian sagas suggests that they might well be based on real people.  Going back a bit further in the king list we get to someone who definitely was a real person – but definitely wasn’t related in any way to Rædwald!  The name Caser is used – we know him better as Julius Caesar.  Now, Caesar didn’t have any children with Danish women that we know of, but that wouldn’t be important to the compilers of the kinglists.  Rather, making a link to the Roman Empire implies that the Wuffings have a right to rule, and have imperial ambitions – as shown by Rædwald becoming the Bretwalda, or overlord, of the Anglo Saxons.  It shows too the way that these Christianised Anglo Saxons looked outside their own indigenous culture to the wider world.

But the East Anglian kinglist ends with the usual suspect – Woden, the head god of the Saxon pantheon.  We know him better as the Scandinavian version, Odin, but they are much the same.  Most of the kinglists we have (Essex is the most striking example) end with or include Woden.  Wessex goes further – all the way back to Adam.  Rather needlessly, one suspects, as we are all descended from him in the Christian view of the world, but definitely thorough!

This then is Rædwald’s background – descended from kings, emperors (well, almost) and gods, he is declared as fit to rule by his ancestry, and his continued veneration of Woden in his temple is a form of ancestor worship that would be difficult to give up in a still pagan society that recognises his kingship through his descent from the god.   If St Gregory’s is indeed the site the of Rædwald’s temple, then it makes a lot of sense to place it there both from the usual Christian point of view of supplanting the heathen idol with the ‘true’ god but also from the point of view of authority and lineage – by worshiping Christ in the same place that the ancestor Woden was venerated the East Anglian kings might be saying that there is a link between Christ and Woden, and thus a link between them and Christ, reinforcing their authority to rule.  One hopes that there are more discoveries to made so that slowly we can join up our own fantasies about the kingship of Rædwald’s time with the reality of what lies beneath the ground at our feet.

Image © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

[1] I’m using the inverted commas as we don’t truly know what relationship these men were to each other – early medieval kingship isn’t nearly as easy to follow as the later rule of primogeniture, and may rest rather on suitability – such as being an adult! – and suitability than on direct descent from the previous king.

Sutton Hoo Part 1: the Importance of Place

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How important is the place to the story?  With local folk tales, it can be everything.  Just as in the Australian Dreamtime where locations are mapped and explained through the stories, so in folk tales the place often dictates the story, and the story gives the place a distinctness that once known, can’t be forgotten.  Can you pass the place where Black Toby was killed without a shudder?  I know I can’t, now – which is a shame as it is very close to where my parents live, on the A12 near Blythburgh.  I can’t see Orford Castle now without thinking of the Merman.  And Sutton Hoo – well, the very name conjures up another era, of warriors and gold, of monsters and heroes, of poetry and silent ships slicing along the Deben.  Does the place match up?  And can you now experience the story of the place – and the story of Rædwald, King of East Anglia and Bretwalda of all the Anglo-Saxons – in the landscape?

The first time I went to Sutton Hoo I lost a button.  I was really cheesed off – I loved that coat, and it had good buttons with fake Roman emperor heads on them.  It was Christmastime, and in my memory the mounds were dusted with a light sprinkling of snow.  My friend ran up and down the mounds.  I didn’t.  I was sulking about the lost button.  This was in the days before the visitor centre and the tours, the café and costumed warriors.  There was, if I recall it correctly, only the mounds and a signboard.  Thrills.

But I should have been more thrilled. I had just finished an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100.  My friend was in the throes of her dphil, also about early Medieval stuff (pesky Vikings), having also done said MA.  Not only that, but I had had a truly thrilling Sutton Hoo experience whilst doing my masters.  Our tutor had been one of the main players in the dig at the site in the 80s, and when he arranged a trip to London to the British Museum he made sure we were given very preferential treatment.  I work in a museum now – I now realise just how preferential this was.

Our little group, all studying Anglo Saxon Art and Archaeology, were invited into a room with a large table on which were shown various pieces of the famous Sutton Hoo treasure.  One of the shoulder clasps was passed around, and I got to put the pin into the loops to join the two halves together.  You have to be very impressed that I managed to type that without putting it in capitals.  It was amazing.  A really key moment in my life, up there with seeing the Grand Canyon, living in Venice, the bliss of swimming in the sea in Greece and standing in MoMA surrounded by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Sunflowers, I and the Village and The Sleeping Gypsy. The jewels are stunning in a display case – but how much more beautiful when held in your hand so you can see the perfection of the cloisonné and the delicacy of the filigree work on the pin?  The sense of connection I felt with both the goldsmith and with the wearer was one of the most intense I have ever felt – the chance to handle the real thing.  Walter Pater talks of objects have an ‘aura’, and having worked in museums for over two decades now, I believe strongly that that is true – but often you need both the story and the object to get that numinous feeling of connection.  William Wordsworth’s pen without Wordsworth is just a pen.  But these ancient things stir you even without a named owner – but you need that hint of story, a story imparted by the boars and the knotwork and the gold of the shoulder clasps, and by our knowledge of Norse gods and Beowulf.

But what about the place now?  These two trips just described took place in the mid-1990s. Sutton Hoo now is a much more exciting experience.  Of course – it is now an ‘experience’ and thus you have to pay, but my feeling is, that in this case, it’s worth it.  I don’t always think that – I still don’t think they have things quite right at Stonehenge.  Unlike Stonehenge and Newgrange, the mounds are a quick walk from the visitor centre.  Hardly anyone visited before.  I was in my early 20s before I first went, and I didn’t go back until after the visitor centre was built.  Mum and I proved how quick a walk it was on one of the field trips for the book, as it was bloody freezing when we went, so a route march around the mounds taking record shots was undertaken, pretty much alone as the biting wind and spitty rain assailed us.  Hey ho – not one of my most exciting trips, though atmospheric!  Too atmospheric…

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I really like the visitor centre.   The temporary displays – well not so much!  Come on British Museum – lend some of the good stuff!  Oh no – you can’t can you? – you’ve slapped it all into your shiny but sadly rather dull display in London.  I love that you can walk right into the replica burial chamber and see all the things laid out.  It’s interactive in the best way – it puts you in the story in your imagination.  But, no longer can you go out onto the mounds to conjure up the spirits of the dead into a procession of warriors carrying the body of their beloved king up the hill from the river and across the graveyard to the ship that has been prepared to take him to the next world, there to either feast with his fellows  in Valhalla or, possibly, go to singing the praises of the Lord for eternity.

I should have been more alert when I visited with my friend back in the 90s.  Because now, like at Stonehenge, like at Newgrange, your visit is a managed experience with interpretation and guided tours giving you the received wisdom on the site.  But half of the pleasure of going on field trips for this project – as well as the previous ones over in the west – is using the imagination to conjure the scene for yourself while stripping back the centuries to try to reveal how the landscape looked when the story took place.  At Sutton Hoo now it is more difficult to tell the story to yourself, and for many people that’s fine as they wanted to gain information about the site and the people who are – were – buried there.  But it’s difficult to experience the unique atmosphere of this estuarine hillside, shrouded by tall trees when you are listening to a guide.  Difficult too to fully experience the site without the guide as you can no longer get onto the mounds without one…

Some of the most magical field trips for this project were in forgotten places – a snowbound wood next to Pin Mill’s Butt and Oyster, searching for dragons on a hot hillside, poking about the farm near my old home in Layham, exploring a hidden Ipswich.  But I’m lucky – I went with information and knowledge already locked in my head.  And I know Rædwald well – I’m both a historian and a storyteller.  Guides and interpretation are good – just let us have the personal experiences as well.

Images © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012

A Mess of Saints – the battle to be England’s patron saint.

So who should be patron saint of England? St George? St George is fine. And very popular: many countries around the world have adopted him as their patron saint, just as England did. But I wanted to use St George’s Day as the springboard to bring back England’s neglected first patron saint: Edmund. Edmund was made patron saint of a newly united England, and remained so, alongside the later Edward the Confessor, until Edward III officially made St George our saint in the mid 14th century. For over ten years there has been a drive to reinstate St Edmund, and it’s a fun idea. It’s all too easy, though, to see the drive to reinstate the (possibly) local English-born Edmund over the Palestinian/Turkish/Greek George as an exercise in jingoism – out with the foreigner, bring back the native born son! So we need to tread carefully. St George has wide appeal and everyone knows about the dragon killing and the princess rescuing (though that’s a bit non-PC in my book!) though fewer I suspect know about the story of his martyrdom at the unwilling hands of Diocletian, who knew him, respected him and had been a friend of his father.

Of course, George does have a claim to Englishness. There are those who say that he was born in Coventry – and died there too – but this derives the legend of the seven champions, recorded in England as The Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom by Richard Johnson in 1596. This wacky series of tales about some of the most popular saints in Britain at the time (including all our patron saints: Patrick, Andrew, David and George, as well as those of Spain, France and Portugal, James, Denis and Anthony of Padua) are romances in which the hero-saints win fair maidens, fight enchantments and the enemies of Christendom. They were very popular and bear very little reference at all to the lives of the saints themselves: St Andrew, for example, delivered six women who had lived for seven years as swans and all of the saints were put into an enchanted sleep in the Black Castle. These tales inhabit the worlds created by Sir Thomas Malory and the other, earlier Romance writers – it’s easy to see why they were so popular. Be warmed, though! They are super racist and sexist… A product of their time.

What about Edward the Confessor? His reign was free from war, so he was called the ‘Peacemaker’. He was canonised in 1161, and was regarded as a patron saint to England until, again, St George was brought to the fore. Whether Edward was truly worthy of his title is a matter for debate, especially as after he died in 1066 a furious battle for England began between the claimants to the throne resulting in the Norman Conquest, the results of which, I might argue we still feel today… His canonisation may owe more to the ambitions of the clergy of Westminster Abbey than to any actual holiness! However, a legend says that when he was in the last year of his life he gave a ring to a beggar who had pleaded to him in the name of St John the Evangelist, and subsequently St John assisted two English knights lost in the Holy Land because of what Edward had done and instructed them to go back and tell Edward that in six months he would be waiting to escort Edward through the pearly gates. He was also supposed to heal the sick within his own lifetime, starting the tradition in England of kings having the healing touch. For information, his saint’s day is 13 October – easy to remember, as it’s the day before the Battle of Hastings…

Unbeknownst to me, apparently we had a third patron saint as well: St Gregory the Great. Gregory is honoured because he sent the first mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons: he’s the one who made the witty comment about some Anglo-Saxon slaves he saw in a market in Rome. Finding their appearance unusual: ‘fair complexions, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair,’ he enquired after them. It was explained that they were pagans from the island of Britain. Gregory was disappointed that ‘such bright-faced folk are still in the grasp of the author of darkness’ and asked the name of their race. The slaver replied: ‘They are called Angles.’ Gregory came back with the retort ‘Non Angli sed angeli,’ – not Angles but angels. He then continued punning on discovering that they were from the province of Diera (which then stretched from the Humber to the Tees), saying that ‘they shall indeed be rescued de ira (from wrath) and called to mercy of Christ.’ On hearing that their king was Aelle, he then punned on that, saying that it was right that their land echoed with the word to praise God, Alleluia…(1) What a wit! He acted immediately to beg the then pope to send a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons, but only achieved this when he himself became pope. He has the saint’s day 3 September.

And then St Edmund the Martyr, our East Anglian saint. During his lifetime – or just after – there is one mention of him by name from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as it describes ‘a great heathen force’ arriving in 866 when Edmund is referred to as making a peace with them in East Anglia, though not by name, through to 870: ‘The force went over Mercia to East Anglia, and took winter quarters at Thetford. In that year, St Edmund the king fought against them and the Danes took the victory, killed the king, and overcame all the land.’(2) From this the familiar legend grew of the death of Ragnar, the revenge of Ivar, Edmund’s devoted Christianity, the wolf’s head and so forth. You can find the whole tale, taken from many sources around Suffolk, in my Suffolk Folk Tales. Within 20 years of Edmund’s death a memorial coinage was being issued, already marking him as a saint, and in Asser’s Life of King Alfred, written in 893, more biographical detail is given of his coronation and death. He is said to have been an inspiration to Alfred as he too fought against the Danes a few years later in the late 870s. His saint’s day is 20 November.

I’ll be blogging more on St Edmund, and the Vikings in his story: Ragnar Hairy Breeches and Ivar the Boneless, as well as the various revenges of the saint on various unholy royals and council planners (and his nicer catalogue of saving children!) but today I wanted to put to you: who should be England’s saint? Well, why should we have to choose? Why not have the lot? Many countries have multiple saints – according to Wikipedia, France has seven, Germany has nine, and India and Japan have four and two respectively! So – shall we go back to having lots? Four saints? And maybe – can we have four bank holidays too?

References:

1. Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Books, London, 1990), pp. 103-4
2. Savage, Anne (trans.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (CLB Publishing Ltd., Godalming, 1995), p. 92

 

 

Vikings and holy wells – an exercise in how difficult it is to find the ‘truth’

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It was a freezing cold day when we rocked up at Holywells Park in Ipswich to try to find the ‘hermit’s mossy cell’ as described by Elizabeth Cobbold in her poem ‘Holy Wells’ that inspired my Legend of the Holy Wells. Snow lay everywhere around, and children were racing while chilly parents followed them. It wasn’t easy to see what we were looking at, but it certainly showed what a vibrant place the former grounds of Elizabeth’s house has become.

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Why is it called Holywells? Well, shh, let me tell you a secret … it was called Hollow Wells (1) before , and our romantic 19th century citizens changed Hollow to Holy – maybe Elizabeth herself coining the term. The place does have a religious history, however, as it was owned by the Bishops of Norwich. There may possibly have been a residence for the bishops, and potentially a small chapel – but the idea of a Bishop’s Palace may well also have been concocted by Elizabeth! She seems to have been a woman after my own heart – keen to enchant, or re-enchant the landscape around her.

Is there any possibility that Elizabeth’s story has a grounding in history? The importance of the water on the site doesn’t seem to have been celebrated until the Cobbold’s came along to use it in their beer making in the 17th century. But there have certainly long been rumours of something holy happening at Holywells. Was it a guardian of the wells? A guardianship handed down from father to son over the generations? Had there, in fact, been a guardian there since the Iron Age and the time of the druids? A friend of Boudicca, maybe? We’ll never know – unless archaeology does turn something up in the future.

But, what about those Vikings? They were there, right? Oh yes. On the 5 May in 1010 there was a battle at Nacton, and indeed there is a snippet of folklore about the area. The Seven Hills mounds at Nacton – there are actually eight, and there were thirteen or fourteen once – by the A1156 are supposed to be the graves of the Saxons who fought under Ulfcytel Snillinge, or the Bold, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and who were killed by the invading Vikings under Thorkell the Tall (2).

In the saga of St Olaf, the Heimkringla, East Anglia is Ulfketel’s Land. He seems to have ruled from 1002 until his death in 1016. He may have been married to a daughter of King Ethelred. The Saxon forces in the battle at Nacton did not cover themselves with glory however. Thorketel Mare’s Head ran away, taking his force with him, and only the men of Cambridgeshire held firm. The Vikings then sack Ipswich, and raid the region.

But there are Vikings on both sides. This is a war for the rule of the country, not random raids to take plunder. Ulfketel and Thorketel are Scandinavian sounding names, and fighting on Ethelred’s side was also St Olaf, Olaf Haraldsson, the king who brought Christianity to Norway. And it’s complicated. The ‘enemy’ is Sweyn Forkbeard, and one of the reasons he felt able to invade was that his sister Gunhilde was said to have been killed as part of the St Brice’s Day Massacre on 13 November 1002, when Ethelred ordered all Danes (Vikings!) in England killed as he was afraid they might come after his throne – he was afraid that the Danes were ‘sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat’. Of course, his plan backfired and led to his overthrow, not once, but twice – badly counselled indeed! And an early indicator of the effects of an intolerant political agenda towards migrants. The Danes in Oxford, for example, sought refuge in a church, and were burnt out and killed. Who is the bad guy here? Can we tell? Can we judge – I doubt they could judge at the time, and I doubt we can judge now even with hindsight.

The battles continued. The same year at Rymer in Suffolk (seven miles south of Thetford, near RAF Honington and indeed another Seven Hills with mounds…) there was another battle in which St Olaf fought alongside Ulfketel:

To Ulfkel’s land came Olaf bold,
A seventh sword-thing he would hold.
The race of Ella filled the plain —
Few of them slept at home again!
Hringmara heath
Was a bed of death:
Harfager’s heir
Dealt slaughter there.

From Hringmara field
The chime of war,
Sword striking shield,
Rings from afar.
The living fly;
The dead piled high
The moor enrich;
Red runs the ditch.(3)

Ethelred won this one, and Ulfketel attempted to make a truce with Sweyn, but he broke it and tried to sack Thetford. This jockeying went on until St Edmund (allegedly) killed Sweyn in 1014, revenging himself on the Danes who had taken his life, and perhaps incensed that Sweyn had chosen the same day to get crowned as himself – Christmas day. But that’s another story for another blog. His son Cnut took the throne in 1016, after the battle that killed Ulfketel. It is said that he was killed by his nemesis at Nacton, the Jomsviking Thorkell.

A complex tale indeed, and who’s to say that two wounded Vikings didn’t make their way to Ipswich and that one found his long lost Saxon father and stayed as a hermit guarding the holy well…

There is a certain irony to all this, though. Because there is a Viking age holy well in Ipswich. A boundary charter of 970 records a haligwille near the Stoke area on the other side of the Orwell, probably where Fir Tree Farm was, and where the Chantry Estate now is. The well was already well enough established to be used as boundary marker:

The aforesaid land is bounded this way and that by these limits : ‘These are the boundaries (landgemaera) of the 10 hides at Stoke. The first of these is a hythe and along the midstream at Ashman’s yre and so forth into the middle of the stream it comes to brunna and so forth to Theofford and from there to Haligwille to Healdenesho and so to Pottaford to Hagenefordabrycge from Hagenefordabricgeto Horsewade to [into] a merscmylne from merscmylne to the bridge In the year of the Lord’s incarnation the nine hundred and seventieth was this charter written.’(4)

It may have been in use for a long time before, as it is close to the place where a cache of Iron-age gold torcs was found in 1968 – a ritual offering? The mystery deepens…

Notes:
1. http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/English%20sites/4278.html
2. Actually Bronze Age bowl barrows…
3. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/ The text of this edition is based on that published as “Heimskringla: A History of the Norse Kings” (Norroena Society, London, 1907, and edited, proofed, and prepared by Douglas B. Killings, April 1996
4. Fairclough, John ‘The Bounds of Stoke and the Hamlets of Ipswich’ in Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History Volume XL, part 3 (2003), pp. 262-277

To an exceptional woman of Ipswich – prequel to the Legend of the Holy Wells

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In 1818 the Reverend James – John – Ford published The Suffolk Garland, a miscellany of items he had gathered over the 10 or so years he had been the perpetual curate at St Lawrence’s on Dial Hill in Ipswich. In the collection are several poem by a Mrs J Cobbold, who John Ford must have known. She was Elizabeth Cobbold, the second wife of John Cobbold, the brewer, a match that made her stepmother to no less than 14 children – and mother to another 7! Regardless of all these charges, Elizabeth, as a wealthy woman, had plenty of time to indulge her love of the arts, history and science, as well as fostering it in her many charges. She had published her first collection of poems at 18, and went on writing and publishing throughout her life, including the two volume romance The Sword: or Father Bertrand’s History of His Own Times. She describes herself in a poem to a friend,

‘A botanist one day or grave antiquarian
Next morning a sempstress or abecedarian
Now making a frock and now marring a picture
Next conning a deep philosophical lecture
At night at the play or assisting to kill
The time of the idlers with whist or quadrille
In cares or amusements still taking a part
Though science and friendship are nearest my heart’

She organised many literary, artistic and musical gathering at Holywells, the Cobbold family home, including her famous Valentine’s party where she would try and match-make for the town through the writing of around 80 valentines that were selected randomly to encourage people to talk and get to know each other. Time for a revival?

She supported local talent, encouraging and promoting – and in some cases arranging publication – and, as was to be expected in a woman of means of her time, she also promoted charity in the town, starting, for example, the Society for Clothing the Infant Poor in 1812 – it is noted that by 1824 it had clothed over 2000 children. She was also fascinated by natural history, and corresponded with Sir James Smith, the President of the Linnean Society, and after submitting useful information and a lot of fossil shells for James Sowerby’s Mineral Conchology of Great Britain she even had a fossil named after her, Nucula Cobboldiae (or Acila Cobboldiae, apparently – not being as knowledgeable as Mrs Cobbold I have no idea why!) – Sowerby says that she collected with her children and step-children ‘with great industry’ and that in them she ‘delighted to inspire with a love for the works of nature from the crag pits of her own estate’ showing, he says, ‘a degree of taste and zeal seldom met’.

An extremely gushing memoir was compiled after her death in 1824, aged 57, with poems celebrating her – the memoir was written by Lætitia Jermyn, a butterfly collector, who went on to be the wife of James Ford!

There is one thing that Lætitia doesn’t mention: the infamous Margaret Catchpole was Elizabeth Cobbold’s servant, and she assisted her throughout her trails, imprisonment and transportation to Australia…

To celebrate the exceptional Mrs Cobbold here is her Sonnet to Spring,

Breathe, gentle gales, that round my hawthorn play,
And blythe, in wanton pastime, scatter round
White blossoms, fragrant on the dewy ground,
A mimic snow upon the breast of May.
I feel your balmy health-bestowing pow’r,
With ev’ry breeze successive pleasures rise,
Bright curls the wave, clear spread the azure skies,
And op’ning roses deck my tranquil bow’r.
Still’d is the soul, wild passion hush’d to rest;
The regulated pulses gently move;
And blameless friendship, peace, and hallow’d love,
Hold their bland empire in my quiet breast.
Then, vernal gales, your sportive flight pursue,
And reasons pow’rs, with nature’s charms, renew.

From: Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold a Memoir of the Author (J Raw, Ipswich, 1825)

Vikings in Suffolk – part 1: who do they think they are?

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I know, it’s been ages since my last post – a legacy of mad hecticness in my other life as a museum curator that has lasted from June last year until now! But, celebrating the 1st anniversary of the publication of the book (well, nearly), off we go again! And back, eventually, to Hadleigh, from where the first photo comes, and where I went to school as a child, living as I did a few miles away in Lower Layham.

I visited the new Vikings exhibition at the British Museum this week, and although the exhibition itself wasn’t all that exciting, it did set me thinking about how we think about Anglo Saxons and Vikings. A slightly depressing 20 years ago this autumn I started an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100 at York, so you can see that I am a bit keen on this period, and have been for a very long time… Feeling old! But it was a treat to go back to those roots when looking at the Viking material in the exhibition, so I’ll be posting a few blogs about this topic over the next week or so.

There are two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales that directly involve Vikings: King Edmund and The Legend of the Holy Well. In both stories I hope I have painted an ambiguous picture of the Northmen. Certainly characters like Ivar the Boneless and his brothers Hubba and Halfdan are vicious and bent on revenge, but they have come to avenge the great wrong they believe Edmund has done to their father Ragnar Lothbrok. But in fact, in the story, Edmund welcomed and befriended the lost Viking, and their shared culture allows Ragnar to slip into life at Edmund’s East Anglian court with ease. In the Holy Well story things are more complex. The early 19th century poem on which this story is based is itself based on a real battle at Nacton, near Ipswich, in the year 1010 between Ulfketel the Earl of East Anglia, and Thorkill the Tall, a Swedish Jomsviking. This was at the time at Sweyn Forkbeard was making a play for the English throne – on which more in the next blog! – but the names of the protagonists give it away. Thorkill was from Scandinavia, but Ulfketel is a Scandinavian name. Was he a Viking too? And, by the 11th century, after a century of intermarrying among the nobility – and likely below as well! – could you tell who was who, even if you wanted to?

Viking settlement in East Anglia begins after Edmund’s death in 869, in theory. But in fact it was another Englishman – the West Saxon King Alfred – who starts it in earnest. After subjugating Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and Mercia (877-9) Wessex was the next prize on the Great Heathen Army’s list, but, so the story goes, Alfred the Great rose up and defeated the Dane, Guthram at the Battle of Edington in 878 and Guthram, defeated, became a Christian. Triumph to the Saxons! And if you’d like to read that story, then check out my other Folk Tales collection, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Triumph to the English? Well, yes and no, as my (Scottish) Grandad would say.

What happened to Guthram after that? It’s a Suffolk story, after all. Guthram, by becoming a Christian with the nice new English name Athelstan, was now Alfred’s ally. They divided up their joint spoils between them, Guthram taking East Anglia, Essex and Eastern Mercia. Guthram seems to have taken his oaths seriously (this time!) and lived and ruled in the region, dying in 890 and being buried in what was presumably a royal vill, Hadleigh. Interesting aside – the Hadleigh Historical Society say in their timeline that Guthram killed Edmund. If true, it would an ironic full circle, given how much Alfred admired Edmund…

In the Vikings exhibition there is one really shocking thing (well, apart from some of the way the exhibition is designed, but that’s another story!). By the longship there is an assemblage of skeletons, heads separated from bodies, clearly hacked about – one hand has been cut through as the man was resisting even as his head was cut off. Here we are in a Viking exhibition. Clearly this is an atrocity by Vikings against the innocent English, isn’t it? Well, no. This was war. These men’s DNA has been traced back to Scandinavia. They are Vikings. Raiders? Warriors attacking from the Danelaw during wars between Alfred’s son Edmund the Elder and the Vikings over Mercian land? We can’t know. But it illustrates that there wasn’t a hair between the English and the Vikings – both were warrior cultures, keen to defend their own self-interest.

I’ll be blogging next time about the remarkable woman who wrote the poem that inspired the Legend of the Holy Well, and also Ulfketel and Thorkill, and about Sweyn Forkbeard and Edmund’s revenge, hopefully providing a small window into a time that must have been unsettling and difficult for the ordinary folk who lived in East Anglia – whether English or Viking.

Images: © Kirsty Hartsiotis

1. St Edmund’s head held by the wolf – a bench-end in St Mary’s

2. St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh: Guthram was buried in an earlier church probably on this site

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Malekin, the poltergiest of Dagworth and a damned Norman lord

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I have to confess that I had not heard of the hamlet of Dagworth before I started researching these tales. It wasn’t even a place name on a sign, like Langham. But in the 13th century it appears to have been a place of note – or at least known to Ralph of Coggeshall. He sets the story of the changeling child that we began in Langham in the previous blog there. Dagworth is near Haughley, whose castle, at the time that Ralph’s story takes place, would have been a burnt out ruin from the recent troubles that had beset East Anglia thanks to the ambitions of Hugh Bigod. Ralph sets his tale of supernatural goings on in the reign of King Richard, which means it has to be in the 1190s.

I was wrong to think that Dagworth wasn’t famous though – only last year, in 2012, it was featured on national television, the BBC no less in Michael Wood’s Great British Story, which brought the story of Dagworth’s lost English lord, Breme, who fell at the Battle of Hastings. After that Dagworth’s story was told through Norman lords. Today Dagworth Manor is divided in two, and earlier this year I missed the chance to buy the east half – as you will see from this article in the Daily Mail, it was a little beyond a jobbing writer’s budget! There is a great website on the history of the village for more detail.

What Dagworth was really like in the 12th century is hard to guess, but we do have the Doomsday book data. The manor house must have dominated the village, and we know there was woodland where pigs rootled in the undergrowth. We know there were ploughmen, and meadowland, and that people kept cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Then as now it was probably marshy, with a stream dividing the settlement. At some point there was a fishpond nearby, and hops and osiers grown – the map names these still. The manor house would have had a chapel – there is no church in the village. Though Chapel Hill on the other side of the railway line is suggestive that there was a chapel there … but the parish church is in Old Newton a couple of miles away.

At that time, Dagworth manor was held by Osbert Fitzhervey. Osbert had connections with the great and the good, and was connected with royalty through his uncle Ranulf de Glanville. Ranulf founded Leiston (originally at miasmic Minsmere) and Butley abbeys, and was related to the Bartholomew de Glanville who figures in another Ralph tale, the Wildman of Orford – a fact which is almost certainly no coincidence. Osbert was born at Dagworth, it seems, around 1160, married Margaret Fitzroscelin of Linstead. He became a royal judge, serving three kings, and died in 1206. His son Richard was born in 1184, which makes him about the right age to experience the ghostly goings on in the early 1190s.

The thing is, Ralph doesn’t like Osbert. It seems possible that he knew him personally as Osbert had ties with land near Coggeshall, at Bradwell only three miles from there. Setting a poltergeist story of a changeling at his house might seem bad enough – but maybe Ralph felt that someone as corrupt as Osbert would attract such uneasy spirits. In his Vision of Thurkill he singles Osbert out for special treatment. Thurkill was a peasant granted a vision of both hell and heaven in 1206 in Stisted, close to both Bradwell and Coggeshall, and he seems to have a vision of Osbert who died that same year – it’s worth quoting in full:

But now Thurkill sees a notable figure, who has to act sins that have been committed in a high station. All England knew the man once, as one of the Chief Justiciaries; most profound in law, most eloquent in speech, but most corrupt in his dealings. He died this very year, suddenly, without a will; and all his ill gotten wealth has been dispersed and squandered. He is placed on a mock tribunal. The Fiends flock around him, pleading a cause, and urging it with statement and counterstatement. He shifts from right to left, listening, noting, taking money from both sides, and fingering and counting the bribes incessantly. But the coins glow in his clutches, and he is forced by the Fiends to cram them down his greedy throat. Then they roll and iron cartwheel up and down his back, pounding him with the massive studs upon it, till he disgorges what he has swallowed. And at a sign the Fiends pick up the coins, and keep for another time.

Ralph certainly has it in for him!

But what about the spirit? Is she a changeling trapped in between this and the Otherworld? Or, is there a hint that she might be a more troubled spirit? Could she be a poltergeist? The text says, ‘He laughed wonderfully … and acted and spoke, also showing himself often through other clandestine acts.’ What were these ‘acts’? The child only shows herself to one person, a maid; otherwise her antics are invisible. The first mentions of poltergeists seem to appear in Roman times, when someone is possessed. Josephus, the Jewish historian speaks of a bowl being turned over by itself as sign that a spirit has been expelled. In the Eyrbyggia Saga from Iceland, a fish is torn apart by unseen hands. Closer to home, St Godric, who was a hermit at Finchale in County Durham (though he was actually from Walpole in Norfolk) in the 10th century who was tormented by a spirit that constantly threw things at him. These visitations are almost always scary and unsettling to these who experience them, but Margaret Fitzroscelin and her household were made of sterner stuff. Ralph goes on: ‘the wife of the knight and the entire household were at first very scared by her talk, but soon her words and ludicrous acts became familiar, she spoke confidently and familiarly to them and was often questioned by them.’ They even left food out for her.

These tales of Ralph and other 12th and 13th century chroniclers often have strange little details that seem to reveal them as truth – such as the chest with the food in it that Malekin takes. But you can also pick up the political mores of the time as well – Malekin is gifted with languages, and can speak Norman-French and Latin – and even ‘English the second language of that region’. Ralph, a Norman himself, is happy to put us English folk in our place, and all his three Suffolk tales deal with the great and the good like Osbert Fitzhervey – even if Ralph didn’t think he was very good at all!

Folk and Fairy Tales from England, their history and meaning. By Kirsty Hartsiotis.

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