A Brief Guide to the Dark Ages
Background reading for my Dark Ages series
At school I remember learning about the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes but as I grew up I forgot about the Jutes and where they lived. Well into adulthood and research, they came back to me. They were the folk who inhabited the first 'Anglo-Saxon' kingdom (although they were not from the Angle nor Saxon tribes!)
The story is wrapped in legend but elements, as always, will probably be true. The Briton King Vortigern was struggling to fend off enemies, such as the Picts and Scots, so invited the Germanic brothers Hengst and Horsa as mercenaries. Their reward would be the south east corner of the land: modern day Kent. The newcomers became known as the Cantware (sometimes Cantaware) and Kent is a derivative of that name. It can also be seen in the old capital, Canterbury.
Kent became a strong independent kingdom and is traditionally included in the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. Their peak was in the late sixth century, as following that Kent was often subject to takeover by other kingdoms, notably Offa's Mercia in the eighth century.
Wulfhere of Mercia
Anything valuable should be kept safe. And so it was with Wulfhere, one of the younger sons of King Penda of Mercia. When Penda was killed in the Battle of Winwaed in 655, Wulfhere and his younger brother were hidden away in a very safe place. Usually, royal children were fostered by other royal households, but there is no evidence where Wulfhere was taken.
He was still a boy when Penda died and his older brother, Paeda, ruled as a puppet king to the Northumbrian who killed his father, Oswiu. But when Paeda was murdered by his wife (it is thought), the Mercian nobles decided that Oswiu would not be the one to take over the Midlands realm and make it part of Northumbria. The new king would be Penda's boy, Wulfhere.
After his father's defeat, all but the very core of Mercia was lost. Wulfhere intended to regain all of the territories and then some. He married a daughter of the Kentish king in a clever political move and became a devout Christian, patronising churches, cathedrals and monasteries. His daughter was Wurburgh.
He achieved all he set out to do and died at age thirty-five. His son was a child then and therefore could not take the throne, which went to Wulfhere's youngest brother, Ethelred. There are a couple of dubious myths about him...see my version in Teon.
Wulfhere is one of my favourite kings and features as a central character in my book Teon He is immortalised on Lichfield Cathedral, which is very close to my home town, so I see him often.
It is the death of Harold that he mostly remembered for. Harold II, or Harold Godwinson, was shot in the eye with an arrow, legend has it, mostly because of the depiction from the Bayeux Tapestry, at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. Arguably the most famous date in English history. Certainly for school children anyway.
However, the most important fact is that Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king. When he died, Anglo-Saxon England was gone forever.
The victor was William the Conqueror from Normandy. He changed England by introducing a new language, a new system of government, a new way of administering justice and a new way to worship.
But what of Harold? What happened to his body?
The Song of the Battle of Hastings is the earliest known written account of of the battle, and says that William had Harold's body wrapped in purple linen and taken back to the base camp. His mother, Gytha, “in the tolls of overwhelming grief, sent to the Duke and prayed him to surrender to her” and offering to pay its weight in gold. William refused and said that he would rather “put him in charge of the shore of that very port – under a heap of stones”. If this is to be believed, then Harold was buried under William’s instructions with the inscription: ‘You rest here, King Harold, by order of the duke, so that you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.’
Ivar the Boneless
A giant of a man, reported to be around nine feet tall, Ivar was the son of the Danish Viking leader Ragnar Lodbruk. He headed up the Great Heathen Army (or Great Viking Army) intent on invading and conquering England in the ninth century. Records suggest that he died in Dublin in 873.
Obviously, with a name like that, legend surrounds him. The story goes that his parents consummated their marriage before they should have and their baby (Ivar) had a curse put on him - namely that he had no bones. Difficult to imagine a great military leader having no bones. Theories have been that perhaps he was disabled and therefore carried around. It was thought that his body was buried in Repton as their is a very large skeleton in an important coffin dated to the time of his death. He has legs and there is no evidence that they didn't work properly.
There are lots of tales of battles with English leaders, but the one where the Vikings were defeated (against Alfred of Wessex) Ivar did not take part.
The Great Heathen Army landed at East Anglia and Edmund, the English Anglo-Saxon king, came to meet Vikings. There are different stories about this but suffice to say that Edmund was beheaded and/or shot to death with arrows. For a while, Edmund was England's patron saint and had one of the most popular pilgrimage sites until it was destroyed during the Reformation. The Heathen Army went on to fight Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria while Ivar joined forces with the Scots before moving to Ireland.
Ivar the Boneless is mentioned in my book Growing in Damp Places.
Deusdedit of Canterbury - there was a solar eclipse on 1 May 664. This was quickly followed by a plague and Deusdedit, the first Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, caught it and died. Around the time of his passing, the clergy was discussing the finer details of Easter, such as how to date it. The Roman Catholics and the Celtic Church met at the Synod of Whitby and the Roman Church won. Read more about this in my novel Crushed.
Deusdedit was born in Wessex and his Saxon name was Frithona. The other five Archbishops of Canterbury were either of French or Celtic heritage, so he was noteworthy as the first Saxon.
Deusdedit is said to have hallowed Wulfhere's church Medehampstede (Peterborough) in Mercia. The charter, dated 657, contains his signature, although some historians argue about dates, as they do. I do not cover this event in Teon, but you can read about Wulfhere's early days in this gripping tale.
The other significant feature about him is that he died of the Yellow Plague, which ran throughout England and Wales during 664. Many clerics died from it and some monasteries were left with no survivors at all.
There is very little known of Deusdedit's early life, but after his death he was made a saint. His feast day of 14 July was designated a major feast day, so that should tell us how revered he was. He was buried in the church of Saint Augustine in Canterbury and his remains translated to the new abbey church in 1091.
There may have been a cult surrounding him, maybe not, but his shrine survived until Henry VIII decided to dissolve the monasteries in the 1530s. That Tudor king has a lot to answer to.
Modwen, Patron Saint of Burton-upon-Trent - her feast day is 29 October. She is honoured as having brought Christianity to Burton by building a small chapel on a tiny island on the River Trent. She is also a significant character in my novel Gulfyrian. The image of the swan seen in Stapenhill Gardens, as school and football team emblems is down to Modwen's legend. Not least for the many great tales about her miracles, such as how she brought a swan back to life after it had been cooked and partially eaten! (Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of Saint Modwenna,Oxford University Press.) There are other stories as well - but can we trust them as true?
Because so little of the Early Medieval period was recorded, part of Modwen's problem is that her life and stories are jumbled up with Modwenna of Ireland in the ninth century and another saint from Scotland called Modwenna. Who knows.
Oswiu of Northumbria
Oswiu was a pivotal figure in the history of England and features in two of my novels (Gulfyrian and Teon). As king of Bernicia and then Northumbria, he had plans to rule over all the English kingdoms. The king of Mercia, Penda, had other ideas though. And hereby lies my dark tales...
His brother, Oswald, ruled before him and was killed by Penda in a very brutal fashion, in 642 during the Battle of Maeserfield. The Mercians thwarted Oswiu's attempts to become overlord of the English kingdoms over many years until finally he defeated and killed Penda in 655 at the Battle of Winwaed. Before this, however, Oswiu was rumoured to have been involved in assassination plots and underhand dealings. He married often and gained territory as reward. Nice man.
11 February is the feast of Cadmon, known for his hymn which came to him during the night in a dream. Very impressive. He lived during the time of my book Teon, in late seventh century England. He looked after the animals at Whitby Abbey under the guidance of the Abbess Hild, and at this point knew nothing about songs or poetry.
The story about him comes from Bede (Ecclesiastical History of the English People). One night, says Bede, the monks at the monastery of Whitby Abbey were having one of those famous Anglo-Saxon feasts with lots of food, drinking and singing. In later times monks were forbidden to carry on in this way but the post-Roman Christian revival was in its infancy and needed to be popular. However, Cadmon was not keen on this partying as he did not know the words to any of the songs. So he took himself off to sleep outside with the animals.
In his dream someone asked him to sing, and he refused. But then he produced a poem in praise of God. When he awoke the next morning he remembered his dream and the poem and developed it into quite a substantial one, later to be known as Cadmon's Hymn. He was taken to the abbess who tested him by giving him a challenge to create another religious poem. When he provided it by the next day, Abbess Hild believed that Cadmon had seen a vision from God and had been blessed with this gift. He took his monastic vows and learned lots of Christian texts in order to make more poems, which he set to music to form hymns. From then on he led a pious life and had a premonition of his death. Despite living like a saint, Cadmon was never recognised as one.
Historians are divided on whether the story is true or not, as with many people and events of the Dark Ages there is little evidence to prove it. But I like this story and have included Cadmon in my book Teon, as one of his influences and guides. Not that Cadmon and Teon are in any way alike other than their career. Teon is a feckless travelling scop, only concerned with himself and an easy life.
Bilberry Sunday - The calendar has shifted a bit over the last fifteen hundred years or so, as has the climate. So much so that bilberries were harvested throughout July in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times. It was a job that the children could do, their little fingers could pluck the berries from the low-growing shrubs without crushing them. Quite a tedious job but there were other benefits. Spending so much time in the sunshine hunting for these little jewels often led young people into courtship. The story goes that a young lady would bake a bilberry pie for the young man who caught her eye and give it to him during the celebrations that followed.
On the last Sunday of July a great feast took place where people ate the bilberry produce. Pies, jams, tarts and wine were no doubt consumed as well as the general merriment of the day. On the 1st August the Celtic peoples celebrated their god Lugh, in a festival named Lughnasadh. This was the first harvest festival of the year and the crop of bilberries was said to indicate how well the rest of the crops would fare in their harvests later in the year. During the celebrations, people would climb hills where bilberries grew. I love that.
Bilberry Sunday continued for a few centuries in Ireland, but even that has died out now.
May Day celebrations have taken place for thousands of years, particularly in the northern European countries. Remnants of the old Beltane celebrations still exist, including the Maypole dancing and the selection of the May queen. Beltane was the Celtic and Gaelic festival of summer - bearing in mind the shift of two weeks in the calendar would make a difference to the weather and it was likely that it was quite warm by then, certainly the tree blossom would be out in all its glory. Cattle would be put out to pasture (cows were producing more milk at this time too) and the Beltane festival would include rituals to protect the beasts from disease, which involved decorating the animals with flowers. The festival folk also asked the gods to help with fertility of the cattle, crops and people. Incidentally, it coincided with the Roman festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers and so the customs complemented each other with lots of flowers around.
When Christianity took over, Beltane, like many other pre-Christian festivals, became re-branded as a Christian celebration. In this instance Beltane became May Day - Mary's Day. Added to the fun was traditional English morris dancing, fetes and craft stalls.There were often visits to wells, which were sacred and connected to many saints, including Saint Modwen (read about her in Gulfyrian). In modern times there are often parades and home-made maypoles and the dance around the main Maypole that left an intricate weaved pattern of ribbons. In some places festivities include well-dressings. A May queen is chosen to symbolise purity and youth and she starts the celebrations.
And like all good traditional festivals, Oliver Cromwell banned May Day when England was in its brief state of being a republic. Not that anyone took any notice of that. In the twentieth century May Day became associated with labourers and was declared a bank holiday in many countries to honour the workers.
But whatever the reason, I enjoy the celebrations especially as there involves a holiday in England. This year I have my own Maypole to dance around, too. I'm wishing for a good summer with lots of flowers, apples, tomatoes and peas. And tassels and streamers.
Wassail - For the ordinary people of the Dark Ages, twelfth night fell on 30 December and there was often another ritual slaughter to mark this. Although the aim was to appease the gods, thank them for that year's harvest and ask them to help the success of the next one, the sacrificial beasts also enabled the people to have food to see them through the winter. The main time to sacrifice ox, pigs and sheep was in November, Blot month, Blot meaning 'blood'. The blood was offered to the gods by means of feeding it to the ground while the carcass was cut up and salted.
Another way to serve the gods and tree spirits was to prepare a warm drink made from apples, honey and spices. This was poured on the roots of apple trees when they were leafless and dormant (December) to chase away the bad spirits and awaken the good ones, thus bringing the trees into life again. I cover this in my book The Dark Garden. The drink varied from region to region but was similar to mulled wine or cider. After serving the gods and trees, people toasted each other and wished them good health. The lords or thegns of Anglo-Saxon villages would welcome the new year by shouting 'good health' to his villagers. 'Waes hael' was what he actually would have said. Over time this has changed to wassail and usually refers to the drink itself instead of the wishing of good health bit these days.
In some areas this tradition has been revived and people go door to door 'wassailing' after Christmas Day, often on Boxing Day, New Year's eve or twelfth night. Here they offer the wassail or mulled wine updated with exotic fruits like oranges and lemons and spices such as cloves and cinnamon. Often folk share festive food, such as mince pies. This goodwill was believed to ensure good fortune during the next year. A nice tradition to maintain.
The Anglo-Saxons and Norse folk believed in a goddess called Idunn who kept some very special apples. They had the power of eternal youth and the gods needed them to keep alive, as the Norse and Anglo-Saxon gods were not immortal as many other gods appear to be. The god of mischief, Loki, had fun with Idunn and the magic apples, according to the Old Norse manuscripts. Idunn is a major feature in my book The Dark Garden. Apples were also saved for the drink and festival of Wassail.
In Cornwall the festival of Allantide took place on 31 October and included the giving of Allen apples. Before the end of October Allen markets would sell the special red, shiny apples so folk could give them as gifts. Lovely tradition. Evolved into the modern Halloween apple eating games of today.
Lammas - an ancient festival connected to harvest, which became Christianised (loaf-mass) when the first harvest of wheat was taken into church, often presented in a decorative wreath. Originally the festival was held on 1 August in honour of the Celtic god Lug, or Lugh and the first harvested wheat was made into bread, which was broken into four pieces and placed in the barn to bring a good harvest the following year.
Harvest Festival - has ancient roots, too. Celebrated on the Sunday nearest the Harvest moon, which is the first full moon following the autumnal equinox in the middle of September. There is plenty of praying and people bring in to church (or the sacred place) offerings from their harvest. These were shared out and the lord or landowner would provide a feast for his workers.
Halloween - the Celtic peoples of Britain, Ireland and northern France, had a festival called Samhain, which heralded the end of the year after the harvest. On that night, 31 October, the spirits of dead ancestors came to visit. It wasn't a spooky or scary time, though. Lighted lanterns (made from turnips as pumpkins were from the Americas) lit the way so the spirits could get back to their graves before dawn. The festival had bonfires and celebrations led by the priests, who were known as druids.
Mead: A Drink for Kings
It's strange to think how a sticky, sweet substance made by insects can wield so much power.
I was sad to hear reports about the rapid decline in bee populations here in Britain. So we (my family) thought we'd do our bit by planting up a bee garden. This consists of flowers bees like to collect pollen from and some places for them to hide or nest in. It's coming on a treat, I'm pleased to say.
Bees are essential for pollination but they also make honey. There has been evidence of human use of honey going back thousands of years - prehistory even - and in particular the use of the sweet substance in making honey wine, or mead.
It has been said that the ancient Greeks referred to mead as the drink of the gods, and called it Ambrosia. Arguably mead was the first alcoholic drink known to man, who probably stumbled upon it accidentally. Given the sweet taste, golden colour and the intoxicating effects it's easy to see how many thought it was sent from the gods. Certainly a heavenly drink. And of course, anything belonging to the gods will possess divine powers. The Greeks believed that mead would prolong life, and bestow health, strength, virility, wit and poetry. Bring on the mead then.
In the Early Medieval period, (Anglo-Saxon and Viking times in other words or Dark Ages) mead became the drink of kings and warriors.The Norse god of poetry, Brage, is said to have drunk mead from a Brage-beaker, later called the bragging cup. Boasting of the heroic feats took place in the great halls, which were also known as mead halls. For those who did not live to boast their own tales they could sup mead in Valhalla, the reward in the afterlife.
Anglo-Saxons believed that mead was the bestower of immortality, poetry and knowledge. The perfect drink for kings then. Some of the mythology of mead still exists in our culture today. The term “honeymoon” comes from the tradition of giving bridal couples a moon's worth of honey wine, or mead. This was thought to ensure a fruitful union. The payment to the meadmaker was often increased if a son was born within nine months of the marriage.
In southern Europe, grapes were easy to grow and wine production was much quicker than that of mead. Wine, therefore, became the drink of the Romans and those who lived in the Mediterranean region. When the Roman Empire was at its peak, wine was consumed throughout Britain. The grapes withered on the English vines though, so the Anglo-Saxon kings drank mead even though it was a costly process. It showed the peasants who had the wealth.
Eventually mead production fell by the wayside. However, bees were thought to be messengers of gods and as such were treated with venerance. According to the poem Georgics by Virgil, bees fly in the sky in order to honour the goddess Aphrodite, for example. Mead and honey were used in rituals and ceremonies in many temples while people stuck to drinking the cheaper (and less holy) drinks of wine and ale. As churches began to make candles out of beeswax the status of the bee remained.
My bee garden is not aimed at honey production for my own benefit. I will buy mead, for research purposes you understand, from my local supplier. World Honey Bee Day is on 19 August and I shall drink to that. Mead Day is on the 5 August. I shall drink to that, too. For research purposes.
Happy Mead Day.
Pudding? One of the sweet foods I often find during my research is a type of cake made from oats. The result of these cakes would be a cross between a cake and a flapjack. Other ingredients included honey, which was the source of sweetness as sugar was unknown in Britain at that time. There was also chopped fruit such as apples and, for the rich people, imported spices like cinnamon.
Trade with merchants from the far east was buoyant. It was surrounded in exotic mystery and no ordinary person understood the secrets of the foreign lands. The travellers would tell tales collected from their journeys. There would be magic and stories of strange beasts. Cinnamon, for example, came from the weird and wonderful Cinnamon bird. The birds made their nests from the twigs of the Cinnamon Tree and the spice sticks were collected from the nests. At the risk of losing one's life to the fiery dragon protector, no doubt.
But for most people the cost of cinnamon would have been beyond them. Instead, their puddings would have relied on native fruits such as apples, pears, currants, strawberries, bilberries, cherries, plums and gooseberries, served with honey or cream. Baked apples were popular and I love these too, especially when they are cooked with currants stuffed inside. Mmm... Other puddings were shortbread, soft cheese pastries and fruit crumbles.
Dark Age Comfort Food
In these cold winter nights I often look forward to having something hot to eat. Yes, there is such a thing as comfort food. Did people from the past have the same yearnings? Of course they did.
In Anglo-Saxon times most 'dinners' were variations of thick soups or stews, or briw as they were called. These were simply vegetables and grains boiled in a cast-iron cauldron or earthenware pot over a fire or sat in the hot ashes. Archaeological evidence has shown that this pottage was a staple food from Neolithic times to the Middle Ages across Europe.
For most people, meat or fish was not the main feature of their meals. If it was used at all, it would have been used as flavouring although herbs were abundant as well as salt and pepper. There were no potatoes in England then, which seems odd having a stew without them, but there were plenty of other filling vegetables around.
Recipes did not exist in written form as nothing was written down then but evidence of what folk ate has been found. The recipe I use is taken from the British Museum Cookbook.
Sausages: An Ancient and Wonderful Food
Most weekends we have sausage toasties for breakfast. Other times we have bangers and mash or sausage casserole. And of course, the classic full English breakfast. Sausages. They are so terribly British.
They are convenient ways to eat meat and cereals, in skins and are accommodating with their shape. Sausage shape. They can be made from pork, beef, veal, soya, Quorn or blood, padded out (in most countries) with breadcrumbs, rice, barley or rusk. They can be flavoured with tomatoes, herbs, garlic and other spices. Each country or region has its own version and is proud of it, from the German all meat dried variety, to the fat, long-linked Cumberland sausage. Above all, children think they are great.
Sausages have been around since forever - evidence suggests at least the Bronze Age. The word comes from the Latin 'salsus' meaning 'salted'. Later the French referred to the tasty little dish as ''saussiche', which is close to the name we use today in English. Sausage making and curing meats was a way for people to preserve meats before the time of refrigeration, so sausages were probably one of the best winter foods for centuries.
The first written reference to sausages appeared in a Greek play in 500 BC, which was called The Sausage. There is evidence that suggests sausages were a popular food throughout the Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires. It was associated with the festival of Lupercalia where evil spirits were chased away and the city of Rome was purified. However, it was not to last. In 320, because of their association with pagan festivals, Roman Emperor Constantinus I and the Catholic Church made sausage eating a sin and their consumption was banned. This led to sausages going underground until the ban was lifted. Rebel food indeed.
In Anglo-Saxon England it is believed that the sausage was introduced by the Romans. The poor folk relied on sausages for their meat consumption along with chicken and bacon. Other types of meat was for the nobility so most Anglo-Saxons had a vegetarian diet - except for sausages. As with everything Dark Ages, there are very few resources, although the Bayeux Tapestry does show cylindrical things being served.
There is a scene in Teon where the main character obtains some sausages from people cooking them outdoors. Make him sick. Hopefully that won't happen to me when I have my toasties in the morning. Well, they are sinful, so it's a bit of a worry.
Aeftere Giuli - Yuletide, late Yule or January, which was the first month of the year
Solmonath - month of cakes (or mud) - February
Hrethmonath - month of the goddess Hretha – March
Eosturmonath - month of the goddess Eostre – April
Thrimilci - month when cows were milked 3 times a day – May
Erra Litha - the season when the sea was calm enough to travel on – June and
Aeftere Litha - July
Weodmonath - month of weeds, probably meaning plant growth – August
Haligmonath - holy month - September
Wintirfyllith - winter-full - October
Blodmonath - month of blood (when animals were killed for sacrifice and food) – November
Erra Guili - Yuletide – December (then January again) early Yule
Sometimes I sit and wonder at how amazing and advanced our medicine is. At other times, when I have a cold and it seems that nothing can cure me, I conclude that nothing has changed since the Dark Ages.
In many ways the ideas of the ancient Far East, Greeks and Romans have stood the test of time. Back then they knew the importance of a good diet and drinking plenty of fluids and their holistic approach of bathing, saunas and meditation is really quite a trendy medical phenomenon.
Sadly, some of the more unsavoury and unsympathetic theories to illness are also still with us. Only a few years ago, some people blamed the severe floods in England on homosexuality. The devastating tsunami that occurred on Boxing Day in 2004 in the Indian Ocean was thought by some to have been God's punishment for the sins of people. A manager of England's national football team claimed that disabled people were born that way because of their own bad deeds in a former life. And so it goes on. (This is an idea I cover in Crushed.)
This attitude stems from the fact that nobody knows why these natural disasters happen. In the same way, for thousands of years, no one was sure what caused disease. Bacteria and viruses were undiscovered until the late nineteenth century and so different causes had to be explained. The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were keen to develop medical knowledge and made great strides in these areas. But the growth crumbled along with their empires.
We are all well aware that the Egyptians thought of cats as gods while the late Medievalists thought of them as witches' familiars. But what about the Early Medieval period - Anglo-Saxon England? What side did they take then?
For the cats, any human settlement means scraps of food, warmth, shelter. Wherever a farming community sets up, cats will move in. Crops provide food for rodents as well as people, so cats were - are - always valuable pest controllers. Archaeological evidence has shown where people gather, so do cats. But during the Dark Ages was this symbiotic relationship welcome?
Kristopher Poole, from my old university, the University of Nottingham, carried out research into this topic and published the findings in 2014. Cat bones were found in York and the evidence suggests that the cats were skinned indicating that there was some who used cat fur. Poole says, “It would therefore seem that there was at least some commercial exploitation of cat furs in towns, although exactly how extensive this was is uncertain. Notably, none of the cut marks on cat bones from this period indicate that the cat was seen as a food source.”
Cats being cats they ensured that humans didn't have it all their own way. Poole says, “There are clear examples of cats acting in ways which conflicted with human desires. In some cases, the cat may be involved in the ‘theft’ of food. Irish law codes from the seventh to eighth centuries mention the recompense a cat’s owner must pay to another human if their animal had stolen their food. Equally, in a situation familiar today, cats could defecate in unacceptable places, such as on the rushes of a floor. This was also dealt with under seventh to eighth century Irish law, with the cat owner having to compensate the landowner.”
Of course, cats have an appeal to many people and they were kept as companions or pets. We know this from texts written at the time, such as the poem Pangur Bán, attributed to a nameless Irish monk about a cat called White Pangur, that cats were given names presumably because they were kept as pets.
The Yule Cat is a huge and monstrous cat from Icelandic folklore, who eats people who have not received new clothes before Christmas eve. Horrific. Children would be terrified of being eaten by the cat on Christmas eve. So they made sure all their chores were done before then so they could wear their new clothes. Oral tales about the fearsome cat have been around for centuries. His alleged owner is the giant Gryla who was mentioned in the thirteenth century Prose Edda, a book that also holds the earliest written stories of Valhalla and the Norse gods. However, the first written records of the Yule Cat only appeared in the nineteenth century from the poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum.
The concept of not having new clothes comes from the tradition of farmers using the threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat as an incentive for the workers to finish processing the wool before Christmas. When the work was completed the farmer gave his staff new Christmas clothes. This idea was taken and used against children like a 'naughty or nice' thing.
The Prose Edda is held at Iceland's National Museum along with other primary sources about the Yule Cat and Christmas folklore.
The Loch Ness Monster
I, like most other people, stopped believing in dragons, elves, giants and fairies before I hit double figures. They just didn't make sense, there was no real evidence to support these things. Show me a photograph and I will believe the monsters existed. There were no photographs, so I stopped believing.
Except for one. The Loch Ness Monster.
For this creature, there is evidence.There have been many photographs and film footage over the years. The most famous was taken in 1933 and appeared in the newspaper The Daily Mail. The following year another photograph appeared from a different photographer. Stories of sightings increased from the 1930s following the building of a road, thus more visitors. Some of those who reported seeing the monster (or 'Nessie' as it was affectionately known) were respectable people, such as Doctor Robert Wilson whose picture became known as the 'Surgeon's Photograph' and film footage from a South African tourist, G. E. Taylor, an aeronautical engineer, and laboratory technician Gordon Holmes, among many others.
Battle of Hastings
Hastings was not simply the site of a battle. It was the place where the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms disintegrated alongside the nobles, the culture and the language. It was the end of Dark Age England.
Saturday 14 October 1066. William the Conqueror and his Norman armies defeated the king of England, Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king. Alongside him, his brother, Leofwine, also lost his life as well as all of the senior ealdormen and nobles.
William gave great chunks of England to the lords who helped him win. The official language became French and it remained French until Edward I decided that it should be English in the thirteenth century. The food changed and the names for it; lamb became mutton, hog became pork, mead drinking was replaced with wine.
Castles sprang up everywhere at an alarming rate. No one could ignore the Norman presence. Christianity was enforced with a new, severe God-fearing mentality alongside new laws and new churches. And William sent his knights all over the country to make sure everyone knew who was in control with pledges of loyalty. Not forgetting taxes.
Battle of Winwaed
15 November is the anniversary of the Battle of Winwaed, fought in 655 AD (some historians claim it was 654). This is the final battle in Gulfyrian. It is the test of Gulfyrian's prophecy that the world will end and his brother, King Penda, will lose his life. Ironically, November was referred to as Blood Month by many Anglo-Saxon people at that time.
The location is thought to be around Leeds and the River Winwaed probably no longer exists, or perhaps it was the River Went. But at that time it was a very watery place, the north east of England. There had been lots and lots of rain, many rivers in that area had burst their banks. The victory was expected to be Penda of Mercia's as their army was three times the size of Northumbria's. But that rain kept falling. More men lost their lives through drowning than on the battlefield. With a few betrayals and dirty deeds to add to the Mercian army's woes, nothing went their way. The skills of the highly trained army were futile against the weather.
Obviously, the world did not end that day. England did change though. To find out more you need to read Gulfyrian!
There is a housing estate in Leeds called Penda's Fields, built in the 1980s, and a former railway station was named after him too. A few street names, such as Penda's Way, are around as well. These are not memorials but hints of where the battle may have taken place. One of the most popular theories is that it was fought at the stream known as Cock Beck and a pub stands there now.