Wednesday 16 January 2013

Detecting the Dark Ages, by Sue Purkiss

At one point when I was researching Warrior King, my book about Alfred the Great, I was trying to nail down his brothers. Not literally, you understand: the Vikings may have gone in for that sort of behaviour, but not me - and anyway they lived (approximately - very approximately) eleven hundred years ago.

Alfred the Great
I was trying to pinpoint how old Alfred was when a particular incident was said to have occurred. Alfred had four older brothers. Their mother had promised a book to the first one of them who could learn how to read it. Alfred couldn't read at all, but he wanted that book: so he persuaded a monk to help him to learn it off by heart - and he got it  The story is told to indicate his determination, a certain degree of cunning, and his love of learning.

But there are all sorts of problems with it. Alfred was born in 849. In 851, his second oldest brother, Aethelbald, (he had four older brothers altogether) was fighting a battle against the Vikings alongside his father. Is it feasible that his mother would have issued such a challenge to a toddler and to grown men - fighting men? Just how old were all these brothers? How did they die? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is vague about such details. For that matter, when did Alfred's mother die? In 855, when Alfred was six, his father, Aethelwulf, married Judith Martell, a Frankish princess, but the chronicle doesn't tell us when he lost his first wife.

This all seemed rather untidy, and so I got in touch with an academic historian who knew a good deal about Alfred - up until I'd begun researching this book, I had known virtually nothing about him. Alfred's brothers were giving me the runaround, I told her. Could she tell me when, precisely, they were born? No, she couldn't, she said cheerily. My guess was as good as hers. But, she pointed out, as a novelist, that gave me a good deal of freedom. Facts were few and far between, so what could I do but make the rest up?

Just recently I've returned to the Anglo-Saxon world. In Warrior King, Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed (I called her Fleda for short, and to have one less Aethel-whatnot cluttering up the place) was the viewpoint character for two thirds of the book. It ended with Alfred defeating the Danes, but I knew that in later life, Aethelflaed had married the Lord of the Mercians, and after he died, was chosen by her people to be their leader - in battle as well as at home. She was named Lady of the Mercians, and, with her brother Edward, Alfred's successor as King of Wessex, she carried on Alfred's work; she was clearly a remarkable woman.

Now, I've come back to this part of her life. There's very little about her in the Chronicle, although she's mentioned in the Annals of Ulster as a great and revered queen. After all, she was only a woman - presumably the monks who wrote up the Chronicle weren't very interested in women.

But now I've got hooked on the mystery surrounding the fate of another woman. In the summer of 919, Aethelflaed died. Her daughter, Aelfwynn, succeeded her - but only for a few months. Just before Christmas, the Abingdon version of the Chronicle tells us: ...the daughter of Aethelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex... And that's it. Aelfwynn disappears into the mists of history. The best guess seems to be that she spent the rest of her life in a nunnery.

Aethelfled and Aethelstan
But why? Did her uncle, Edward, think that she wasn't strong enough to hold Mercia against the Danes? Or id she defy him - had she 'gone native', become too Mercian, refused to remain a junior partner to Wessex?

And then again - Edward had sent his oldest (though possibly illegitimate) son, Aethelstan, to Mercia to be brought up at Aethelflaed's court - presumably to bind the two kingdoms even more closely together. So why not marry Aethelstan to Aelfwynne, thus making the bond pretty well indissoluble?

So much room to speculate. And in the end, I suspect that the real reasons for what happened must lie in the characters of the participants in this drama. History books research meticulously a network of cause and effect. What novelists can do is to fill in the vast empty spaces between.


Joan Lennon said...

Looking forward to what you make of this fascinating stuff!

Anonymous said...

A great post which pinpoints the fascination and frustration of writing historical fiction! It's the shadowy characters who flit in and out of a story who raise questions and spark our imagination. Or if we home in on a figure who has left a big footprint, the problem is when to cling to the facts and when to let go.
Ali B

Penny Dolan said...

Oh no! To be first reminded of the almost-forgotten Alfred & the Book story, and then to hear it is an unlikely one!

There's a Lady Aethel-somebody mentioned in The Morville Hours. I will go and find out if it is she. So sensible to convert her name to Fleda in your book.

Annie Whitehead said...

How wonderful to come across this post! My novel, To Be A Queen is the story of Aethelflaed - I gave her a nickname, to get round the whole Aethel business - and I rarely come across anything written about her, fiction or non-fiction. My book was recently long-listed for the HNS Indie book of the Year 2016 and was very conspicuously one of only two set in the so-called Dark Ages, and the other was about a man! I'm so glad to know that other people are interested in this remarkable lady too!