Friday, July 30, 2010

Saxon Shore Forts -- Proof of Invasion?

In my last blog I talked about what I’d learned about Saxon longboats from the fifth and sixth centuries. Rowed and not particularly seaworthy, they were incapable of making the rough crossing over the North Sea. As a result, invaders of Britain would have had to follow Europe’s coast and row across where the Channel narrowed. I also noted that each longboat could carry at maximum 50-60 men, and that the numbers of boats recorded don’t seem the equivalent to invading armies. Only 700-900 men spread out over fifty years!

My memory drifts to Jack Whyte’s wonderful Arthurian novels, one of which is titled The Saxon Shore. If there weren’t invaders, what about the forts along the Saxon Shore? Popular wisdom has that these forts were built by the Romans during the 3rd century to ward off Saxon invaders.

The nine Saxon Shore forts curve around southestern Britain, running from Brancaster in Norfolk to Portchester in Hampshire. The other seven are Burgh,Norfolk; Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex; Reculver, Richborough, Dover and Lympne, all in Kent; and Pevensey, Sussex.

The name given to the forts collectively refers to their supposed supreme commander, the Count of the Saxon Shore. The first (and only) reference we have of him comes from a late 4th century Roman military document known as the Notitia Dignitatum. This is one of the few surviving documents that show how Roman forces were actually disposed. It lists a Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam – a Count of the Saxon Shore in Britain – as well as the officers and troops serving in each of the forts.

This certainly sounds like a defensive line, until you look at the other entries in Notitia Dignitatum. There are two similar strings of forts running around Brittany and Normandy and along the Belgian Coast. The officers in charge there are the Dux tractus Amoricani et Nervicani and the Dux Belgicae Secundae – the Duke/Leader of Amorica and Nervica and the Duke/Leader of Second(ary) Belgica. (Belgium)

Plus there are similar forts in Yorkshire and along the Devonshire and Cornwell shores.

If the purpose of the forts on the Saxon Shore were to keep out Saxon invaders, what are the forts doing on the other side of the Channel? We don’t hear about Saxon invaders there. While Yorkshire is a possible landing place, the approach Yorkshire is through the North Sea. As we’ve seen, Saxon ships would not survive a crossing there. Devonshire and Cornwall, on the other hand, are close enough for Saxon longboats to cross. So why wouldn’t they be included in “the Saxon Shore” if this were a defensive appellation?

Even weirder, some of the maps I have show the source of the Saxon invaders/migrants as the area included in Belgicae Secundae. If these are forts built to keep out invaders, what are they doing with the invaders at their backs?

Doing a bit of digging (metaphorically), I’ve uncovered some interesting stuff.

First, the Latin word “Saxonici” is ambiguous. It can mean either Saxon invaders or Saxon settlers. Hmm. Could there have been Saxon settlers in Southeastern Britain as early as the third century? The army of the late Roman Empire consisted of a lot of soldiers recruited from Germanic areas. When their term of service was finished, it was customary to pension them off with their own lands. Lands in Italy were pretty much gone. Is it possible that they were given lands in Britain?

Second, scholars have put forth a couple of alternative explanations regarding the purpose of these forts. I’ll talk about that next blog.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Saxon Longboats: The Mystery Deepens

Having a time period (late 5th – early 6th centuries) on which to hang my story (if I so choose – at this point I’m still framing it in my alternative 12th century), I’m ready to do research. In one of the early drafts of The Deadly Peace, the first book of my trilogy, one of my critique partners challenged the dragon head on the prow of my Saxon longboat.

“All right,” I thought. “I need to be more careful and make sure I don’t get Saxons mixed up with Vikings.”

The trouble is, the Viking period (roughly 800-1200 AD) is rich in resources. The Saxon isn’t. And the two cultures are very close. I wonder how much writers have borrowed from the Vikings to build their Saxon worlds…

Anyway, I’m off to investigate Saxon longboats.

Of course, the most famous of them is the Sutton Hou burial, but it’s a century beyond my period. Scholar Michael E. Jones, in his book The End of Roman Britain (Cornell University Press, 1996) states Britain’s invaders of that period involved a mix of Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Northern European boats of that period ranged from primitive dugouts to the beautiful lines of ships like that in the Sutton Hou burial. It is the latter which probably would have carried the invaders which I, for convenience, call the Saxons.

Jones describes the characteristics of pre-Viking Scandinavian shipping. They were double-ended and constructed of over-lapping planks of wood which were braced within the hull of the ship, a technique known as “clinker-built”. In this they resembled Viking longboats. But Saxon longboats were different from their Viking cousins in a number of ways:

· They were shorter than Viking vessels. The finds closest to my period were 50-75 feet long.
· They had flat-bottomed keel plank, rather than a pointed T-keel. (I got a chuckle over Jones comment on p.75, “Incidentally, it may seem paradoxical to speak of Anglo-Saxon warships called keels, when they lacked a true keel.”)
· They had no decks. People and goods sat in the hull.
· They lacked a mast and sails, a BIG difference from the square-shaped sail we associate with Viking longboats. The first evidence of sails dates from approximately 800 A.D., 300 years after my target dates.
· Rowing was their sole means of propulsion. They had oarlocks, which implies rowing, not paddling. Finds from my period indicated provision for 20-30 rowers.
· The three vessels discovered in Nydam dating from roughly my period were all narrow-hulled (only one survives today). With narrow beam and flat keel, they would have been susceptible to shipwreck in rough seas.

Experiments with copies of these ships show them unable to withstand the rigors of crossing the North Sea. Jones suggests that invaders would have followed the coast of Europe to the narrow point in the English Channel and crossed there. But rowing from Jutland, for example, to a safe crossing point would have taken 3 to 6 months!

Could these ships have transported an invading army?

Well, first, as I mentioned, it would have been a long trip.

Second, we need to consider the capacity of these ships. Jones suggests that most of the ship would have been taken up with the rowers, leaving little room for passengers (women and children) or troops for an invading army. Remember, they need to carry weapons and provisions for the voyage, too. Jones estimates at most they’d be able to take 20-30 more persons. That’s 50-60 people per ship. If all aboard were warriors, possibly sharing the rowing, that’s 50-60 warriors per ship.

A search of the contemporary accounts of these raids shows that, in fact, not many boats were involved:

· (Gildas pre-497, Anglo-Saxon Chronicles ASC 447.) The “curs” Hengst and Horsa arrive in “three keels”. That would be at most 150-180 men. Hardly an invading hoard.
· Both sources then say more followed, but doesn’t name the number. Although the group is credited with winning some battles, it doesn’t take over Britain, but seems to be confined to the southeast.
· (ASC 477) Aelle and his sons come with 3 ships. Another 150-180 men.
· (ASC 495) Cerdic and Cynric with 5 ships. 200-300 men.
· (ASC 501) Port and sons with 2 ships. 100-120 men.
· (ASC 514) Stuf and Withgar (the Western Saxons) with 2 ships. 100-120 men. This is the last of the “invasions” recorded in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.

Doing the math, that’s a grand total of 700-900 men. Spread out over 65 years! In fact, most of these “invasions” were 10-20 years apart. While 100-300 men may have been enough to conquer one civitas (the late Roman term for a market district), there are still only 5 groups mentioned. While Britain at that time was heavily populated (I’ll get into that in another blog.)

Curiouser and curiouser, Jones notes that none of the contemporary historic documents from the Continent mention any kind of Anglo-Saxon migration.

On the other hand, their long, thin shape makes these vessels much more suitable for being rowed fast than Viking vessels. Contemporary reports usually stress the speed of Anglo-Saxons raids. Could these ships have been used for coastal raids rather than a mass invasion?

In looking for Gildas’s “curs”, are we barking up the wrong tree?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bonus Post -- Great Discussion on Authenticity in Historicals

Last week I came across this amazing discussion on the History Hoydens blog on just how accurate does a historical novel have to be? Check out
The comments go on forever, but they're well worth reading. If nothing else, you'll pick up all sorts of fascinating historical tidbits. I was going to add my own 2 cents about fine wheat, but someone else got in there first. Come to think of it, I don't think anyone mentioned manchet bread...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gildas and Arthur's First Battle

Last post, I talked about the two entries in the Annales Cambria that give us our first information about Arthur. I’d been aware of the entries for a long time – had come across them during my post-graduate work – though I couldn’t remember the dates. (My own work in Medieval Studies focused on the 12th century German writers Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassbourg, who later featured as the heros in an early novel I wrote, one so painfully amateurish it’s long been relegated to the dust bin.) But the words “in which Arthur and Medraut fell” gave me an idea for my trilogy. What if Medraut wasn’t a villain at all? My idealistic hero was born.

I promised I would talk about Gildas…

Our first hint at the Arthurian story comes from a sixth-century monk named Gildas. In his De Excidio Britanniae (On the Fall/Ruin of Britain), he describes a series of battles that culminate with the Battle of Badon. Badon gives a possible date for King Arthur’s life.

Even so, it is hard to put your finger on the exact date. Gildas is both amazingly precise and infuriatingly vague. He tells us that the battle was fought in the year of his birth, exactly 43 years and 1 month before he wrote De Excidio. At last, someone whose parents, at least, would have remembered the battle! But Gildas doesn’t tell us the year in which he is writing! Using a reference from the last paragraph of De Excidio, Mike Ashley calculates Badon must have happened between 492 and 497 AD, which is twenty years before the dates given in the Welsh Annals.

So what I have at this point is a range of somewhere between the last quarter of the fifth century and the first half of the sixth. At least, I’ve got a place to look.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The First References to Arthur

So we’ve got twenty candidates in our search for Arthur. According to Michael Ashley, the “real” Arthur needs to meet the basic criteria of having fought in the Battle of Badon. This is one of the two battles linked to Arthur’s name in the earliest historical references to him: the texts ascribed to Nennius and the Welsh Annals or Annales Cambriae.

Ninth-century Nennius, who may not have existed at all, is highly problematical and leaves more questions than answers. Among other things, the work is full of self-contradictions. In an appendix, the so-called author lists Arthur’s battles. Although Ashley takes the work seriously, Francis Pryor’s (Britain A.D.) references make me think historians have seriously questioned its authenticity. We’ll leave it aside for another time.

The other work, the Annales Cambriae, is easier to deal with. The earliest copy of this text dates to the end of the tenth century – almost five hundred years, we shall see, after Arthur was supposed to have lived – though it is believed to copied from an earlier document, but not Nennius or his sources.

Earlier documents. Hmmm. As a medievalist, I’m familiar with this ploy. Medieval writers, whether of history or fiction, were always conscious of the credibility of their writing. Think our modern obsession with footnotes and bibliography. Anyway, to make their writing more credible, medievals would quote “sources” whom they called “authorities” -- auctoritas (I may not have the spelling right, I don’t have all my old Medieval Studies notes any more) – many of whom they made up, but who have led modern scholars on merry wild goose chases just the same.

So what I am saying is, just because a medieval cites someone else as his reference, don’t trust him unless you have the manuscript in your hand.

OK. We’ve got our first “real” references to Arthur. But four to five hundred years after his death.

The Annals are basically a chronology of events listed by year. The Arthurian references are as follows:

518 The Battle of Badon in which Arthur carries the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britains were the victors.
539 The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was a plague in Britain and Ireland.

Medraut, by the way, later becomes Mordred in the tales. Interestingly, the Welsh Annals also contain a mention of Merlin, in his name’s earliest form: Myrrdin. But this Merlin figure appears thirty-five years – almost two generations – after Arthur’s death.

575 … Myrrdin became mad.

So what can we learn from these two references to Arthur?

518 reference:
• There is no explanation for who Arthur is. He could be a king, a soldier, a priest, a blacksmith (OK, I’m being facetious).
• Most people have considered him a warrior/leader of some kind.
• Scholars think “carries the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ… on his shoulders” is a reference to a shield. I have a problem with this, because the cross on the shield to which they refer is a much later shield, a Crusader shield from the late 11th century onward. Shields of the Celtic and Saxon periods were round and none of the many I looked at had crosses on them.
• If the cross is a reference to a shield, then the battle must have lasted three days. That’s unusually long for a battle in those times.
• Scholars assume because of the juxtapositioning of the clause referring to Arthur and the clause referring to the Britons, that Arthur was a Briton and their victorious leader.

539 reference
• “Fell” could be a reference to their deaths, to their defeats, or both.
• It is not clear whether Arthur and Medraut were allies or enemies. Medraut is a Briton, not Saxon, name. They could have been fighting on the same side.
• Of course, they could have been fighting against each other. However, if you look at other entries in the Welsh Annals and its sister chronicle, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, you’ll notice that neither names the defeated enemy leaders.

So there’s our start. Two ambiguous pieces of information, referring to events four hundred or more years before the text was written.

By now, if you know about the development of the King Arthur legend, you’ll be squirming in your chair saying “What about Gildas?”

In my next post I’ll get to that.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Hunt Begins

First, a litle housekeeping for anyone following me: I can see what people say about blogging taking over your life! Hopefully now that I've got my site set up I can settle back to my writing. I'm planning to post on Tuesdays and Fridays, New Zealand Time (so that's Mondays and Thursdays for most of you in the rest of the world.)

When I decided to research the times of the “real” King Arthur, so that I could create an “authentic” background for my novel (in case my editor didn’t like my alternative 12th century), the first issue was sources. Not an easy task when you live in a somewhat remote coastal town in New Zealand where the price of an ordinary paperback is a whopping $29.95.

I did already in my library have John Burke’s Roman England, a pictorial guide to the main features of Roman-British culture. Plus heaps of novels, a few books on general medieval culture, mostly by the Gies’s, a lot of books on medieval art, and some dictionaries of the medieval versions of modern tongues (remember, I did my grad work in Medieval Studies). Most of the resource materials I’d had from grad school, though, had slowly been culled as I moved from Cornell to Nova Scotia to Florida to Arizona to China to New Zealand. Sigh.

I picked up Mike Ashley’s The Mammoth Book of King Arthur because it promised to be just that: mammoth. Lots of info (I hoped) for a single financial outlay. It didn’t disappoint. Ashley’s work is an in-depth look at all the popular research on Arthur, post-Roman Britain, and the development of the Arthurian legend, right down to modern movies and novels.

That’s where I discovered that there was not one, but about twenty candidates for the historical figure who became the legendary king. They range in time period from second century Lucius Artoris Castor to tenth century Athelstan, grandson of King Alfred. Over half lived in the rough time period (fourth through sixth centuries) that Arthur was supposed to have lived. The exploits of the others reverberate with enough elements of the legend to make some scholars think they may have given rise to it. For every candidate at least one modern scholar has put forth a convincing argument.

Already my idea of an “accurate” cultural background was on shaky grounds. Pick any one of these candidates and you’ve got a different period in history, with a totally different cultural background.

My alternative twelfth century becomes more appealing by the minute…

Thursday, July 15, 2010

King Arthur -- The Journey Begins

Why would anyone want to set a King Arthur story in an alternative twelfth century – the High Middle Ages – when the popular approach these days is to set it in the fifth or sixth, the period in history in which Arthur is supposed to have lived?

When I first started The Dark Edge trilogy, I confess I chose the twelfth century because my images of King Arthur had always been influenced more by Lerner and Lowe and Prince Valiant than Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley (as much as I love them both.) As a graduate student of Medieval Studies, it was the twelfth century that captured my imagination. After all, where else in history could you find real life characters as exciting and intriguing as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, Gottfried von Strassbourg and Wolfram von Eschenbach (and even Wolfram’s ambitious and side-shifting overlord Herman of Thuringen)?

Plus the twelfth century itself was a period of flowering and change. The climate was warming, which allowed previously marginal lands to flourish. Courtly love (in itself a myth), the spread of stone castles, the establishment of massive kingdoms (between them Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine controlled a vast empire from the Scottish boarder to the Mediterranean), the crusades, the spread of trade and luxury goods, the birth of the Gothic style of art and architecture, and totally new styles of literature, not to mention a couple of good heresies, as well. It was a colorful period I knew well.

Just in case my editor thought differently, though, I decided research the fifth and sixth centuries. I’d always known that the identity of the so-called King Arthur was hotly debated over. As I dug deeper, I discovered myths behind the King Arthur myth. Join me as I blog about my discoveries about the “true” Arthur and the period in which he was supposed to have lived.

Here I am

Well, after a bit of a struggle with a different provider, I've decided to move to Blogger. Why? It's so much simpler to use and it's got stuff like "follow me" buttons. So here I am.