15 November 2016

Location, Location, Location

with fabulous Saxon-era author Annie Whitehead

Annie Whitehead
“How extensively do you travel for your research?” I was asked this question a while ago, and my answer was “Hardly at all.” 
Now, I should make it clear that I do an extraordinary amount of research, but mostly from the comfort of my own home.

Many of the Anglo-Saxon charters and law codes are now available to read online, as are seminal works such as Asser’s Life of Alfred. No longer does the Anglo-Saxon author have to schlep down to the British Library or order obscure books with phenomenal price tags. (Although I often do!)

I still have all my notes from my degree course, plus copies of numerous papers and ‘text’ books, yellowed and dog-eared as they are. I have my student copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and tattered old photocopies of the Encomium Emmae Reginae. (Possibly the earliest example of ‘spin’.) I also have my Dictionary of Dark Age Britain, which will cost you a fortune to buy, if you can find a second-hand copy. So I’m set up, in terms of academic references and primary source evidence.

But location research? There’s little point.

Anglo-Saxon buildings, on the whole, were made of wood. And wood simply doesn’t last. Archaeologists can tell us how the buildings might have looked, but they base most of this on the discovery of ‘post holes’ - literally holes in the ground where wooden posts once held up great halls and other buildings.

Lots of scenes in my books are set in Mercian locations like Tamworth, Gloucester, and Worcester, but try to imagine Godiva’s supposed procession through the streets of modern Coventry! Even standing on the famous ‘Spon Street’ where all the oldest buildings to survive the city’s bombing in WWII were relocated, one cannot look out on anything that would have been familiar to that notorious lady. (Side note - no matter which Coventry postcode you enter into your Sat Nav, it will take you to Spon Street. That’s the voice of bitter experience talking!)

Spon Street, Coventry
Even if one were to visit locations specifically noted for their role in Anglo-Saxon history, they are not the places they once were - Bamburgh Castle, whilst having recently been the subject of some extensive archaeological investigation, remains a much more modern, stone-built structure, while, across the water, Lindisfarne, so crucial to the establishment of English Christianity, bears no trace of the original wooden monastery. Corfe Castle, scene of the murder of Edward the Martyr in 978, is a ruin, but by Anglo-Saxon standards it is a modern ruin.

And the landscape has changed so much in the last 1000 years that it is difficult to get the ‘feel’ of the place. Coastlines have changed, topography is different - Ely was an island (its name meaning the ‘Isle of Eels’, according to Bede.) Bawsey in Norfolk, some several miles from the port of King’s Lynn today, was then on the the coast. Many Anglo-Saxon structures are technically still visible, but walk along any part of Offa’s Dyke or the remains of Alfred’s walls at Wareham and you will not gain any understanding of the height or appearance of the originals.

Bawsey, Norfolk
But it is staggering to think that there were things which they looked upon which we can still see now - Stonehenge, for example, or the stone circle at Avebury, and the nearby Silbury Hill.

And some sites do give the sense of treading where the Anglo-Saxons walked, particularly Sutton Hoo, which I’ll discuss in more detail in a moment. Others give an idea, and the reconstructed village at West Stow is a must-visit location if one wants to learn more about how the settlements looked and how people lived and worked in them. But, it must be stressed, this is a reconstruction, albeit on a site which was occupied for most of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Sutton Hoo
There are a few buildings scattered about which genuinely date back to the period -
Escomb Church near Bishop Auckland in the North East was founded c.670-675 and is one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon churches still surviving. St Laurence’s Church, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire has no medieval ‘add-ons’ and All Saints’ Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire is un-modernised, apart from its tower and spire. The chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex also dates from the 7th century and has no surrounding buildings, giving a little idea of what it must have looked like when it was first built. The tower of All Saints’ Church, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire dates from c970, and St Mary's Priory Church, Deerhurst, near Gloucester, contains Anglo-Saxon carvings and still has the original Saxon windows, and is the setting for several poignant scenes in To Be A Queen. To know that my characters in all probability saw these same carvings and windows sends a little shiver down my spine.

Escomb Church
All of these churches are beautiful, but of great halls, there is no trace. They were built with wood, and simply did not survive. Wood rots away - usually all that is ever found of shields (made traditionally from linden - lime - wood) are the metal bosses, the central conical piece.

Sometimes, though, wooden items do survive. Recently, at the Must Farm excavation in Cambridgeshire, a 3000 year-old wooden wheel was unearthed. It’s a big thing when something wooden survives - like the two coffins which I was recently privileged to see in Durham Cathedral. In their ‘Open Treasure’ exhibition, they have on display many stone crosses and ‘hogback’ grave stones. But, wrapped in plastic and awaiting conservators in London to tell them how they can possibly display them, are two ‘log coffins’.

And there are some exquisite artefacts which can be viewed - the Libraries Officer at Durham told me that in their 2017 St Cuthbert exhibition there will be some embroidered linen - the oldest to depict human figures. (They are still in the process of designing the display cases, which have to be temperature/humidity-controlled.) And for embroidery that’s a bit more modern, one can always visit the Bayeux tapestry.

There is jewellery and metalwork, which of course does stand the test of time. At Bamburgh, the ‘beast’- a small brooch depicting an animal - is on display, along with a beautiful pattern-welded sword. The finds of the Staffordshire Hoard have been cleaned up and are currently on a tour, and my favourite, a ring of Queen Aethelswith, the aunt who fostered ‘my’ Aethelflaed, is on display at the British Museum.

The Bamburgh 'Beast'
So we can get a good sense of how the Anglo-Saxons lived, but not really where they lived. Sutton Hoo came closest for me; because of where it is, it has been preserved - more by luck than judgement, because it happened to be on private land and was never developed - and I could easily imagine the procession from the settlement at Rendlesham to the mound site when the famous ship was buried there.

Churches get extended, villages become towns, burhs (fortified towns) become cities. To wander round modern day London, or even Gloucester, or Tamworth, whilst diverting, is pretty meaningless in terms of research or even soaking up atmosphere.

West Stow
But, as with the church in Deerhurst, there is one other place where I can ‘catch’ one of my characters... Even though there is nothing much of Saxon age still there, it made me shiver, when I first began thinking about my second novel: Clynnog Fawr, in North Wales. Nothing remains of the original monastery building, but, standing in the church, in a village where I know my main character had been in 978, I was able to say yes, right on this spot, here he was. Aelfhere of Mercia (Alvar in my novel) is known to have been here in alliance with a Welsh prince. Tudor historians can go to Hever Castle, Hampton Court; Ricardians can stand amid the ruins of Middleham Castle. Rarely can I do the equivalent, but the feeling, I’m sure, was the same. Alvar woz ‘ere. Such a rare moment for an Anglo-Saxonist, and I’m happy to have experienced it.

Clynnog Fawr
Annie's Books:


Chill With A Book Award
by Pauline Barclay

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  1. Thanks so much for inviting me onto the blog, Helen. Perhaps I should have pointed out that none of the above challenges puts me off my era - if anything, it makes it more exciting!

    1. you're welcome Annie. I find the research as fascinating as the writing.

  2. Helpful interview. I'm writing a book with Viking roots that means physical research is difficult. Luckily some of it is outside the Viking Age so that makes it easier. (But I'm in a wheelchair so guess my days of visiting archaeological sites are over - having ticked off places like Tintagel, Avebury, Akrotiri and Hattusas.)

    1. I can't get around as much as I used to either Roland - very frustrating when the heart and head's willing but the old legs aren't!

    2. Thanks Roland, I'm glad it was helpful. Some historical sites are more accessible than others - I believe Harlech Castle is now accessible for wheelchair users where it certainly wasn't before. Ultimately I suppose we have to use a mix of one-part fact: 2 parts imagination, so as long as we can picture how these places might once have looked, we can let the fiction part of 'Historical fiction' take over :)

  3. Harlech Castle is indeed accessible now - by a large metal and glass bridge that looks...well, inappropriate. Watched it being built, but by time it was we were getting ready to move from Harlech to US. So had to spend two years seeing the siege views of the castle ;-)

    1. My best memory of Harlech was about 18 years ago, we were looking down from the ramparts and someone in the baiey outside the castle started playing a harp. Lovely!


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