Elen of the Hosts: What’s Fact? What’s Fiction?


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In my research for “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” I encountered a fascinating fourth century character, Elen of Caernarfon.

According to the “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” in The Mabinogion, the strong-willed Elen was married to the titular character, also known as Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. She ruled with him and had roads built throughout Britain by men loyal to her. While I believe Elen existed, the poem is fiction, and the reality is more complex and more tragic.

Visit English Historical Fiction Authors for my post about who the real Elen might have been.

14th century manuscript

14th century manuscript (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


The Legendary Siegfried


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The story of Siegfried is part dragon slayer and part tragic soap opera, and it’s deeply ingrained in the Germanic psyche. You only need drive along the Rhine and encounter Drachenfels, the high hill where he slew the beast, and Worms, the city where he was betrayed and murdered.

The roots in history are tenuous. Part of Siegfried’s story might be based on a fifth century slaughter of rebellious Burgundians by the Romans, and a supporting character has a similar name to the Burgundian Gundahar. But we don’t know if Siegfried or someone like him existed. Nevertheless, he captured the Frankish imagination, and the story spread to the north, where Siegfried is called Sigurd. In the 19th century, Wagner gave the tale new life in his Ring Cycle operas.

Like any legends, there are variations, but here are the basics. Siegfried, the son of a slain warrior, forges a sword from the pieces of his father’s blade, one that can split anvils. At the instigation of the dwarf Regin, he goes after a giant-turned-dragon, guarding a cursed, stolen treasure.

The hero has one chance. He digs a ditch and lies in it. When the dragon goes for a drink, Siegfried stabs it in the soft underbelly. The dying dragon warns him that Regin plans to kill him.

Siegfried slays the dragon

Regin emerges from hiding, cuts out the dragon’s heart, and begs Siegfried to roast it. While it’s on the fire, Siegfried burns his fingers and sticks them in his mouth. He understands the speech of birds, who also tells him of Regin’s treachery. This time Siegfried listens and kills Regin. He bathes in the dragon’s blood, which makes him invulnerable except for where the linden leaf falls between his shoulders.

His next quest: Rescue a maiden in an enchanted sleep. She isn’t the stereotypical Sleeping Beauty. She’s Brunhild, a warrior queen who will marry only a man who must prove he knows no fear by riding though a fire that surrounds her.

Siegfried makes it through the flames and cuts off her too tight armor, which revives her. They fall in love. If only the story ended here, we’d have a happily ever after and could forget about the curse on the treasure. But the story continues, and we come to the part that resembles a soap opera.

When Siegfried leaves to do heroic deeds, Brunhild pledges her troth, and he promises to remain faithful.

Siegfried and Brunhild

Siegfried arrives at Worms, and that’s when his troubles really begin. There, he meets the lord, Gunnar (one of two or three brothers), and his sister, the beautiful Gundrun (also called Kriemhild). Siegfried drinks a potion that makes him forget Brunhild and then marries Gundrun.

Then it gets more complicated. Gunnar wants to marry Brunhild, but he can’t get through her wall of fire. The solution: he and Siegfried change forms, then Siegfried rides through the flames and claims Brunhild on Gunnar’s behalf. Fooled by the ruse, Brunhild reluctantly agrees to marry Gunnar. Siegfried removes the ring he originally gave to her and replaces it with a ring from the hoard.

And this could have been a happy ending for both couples, sort of, except for one problem. Brunhild learns the truth. When the women were about to bathe in the river, Brunhild refuses to be downstream from Gundrun, claiming a better father and husband. Gundrun can’t stand it and tells her Siegfried was the one who braved the fire. Then, she shows her rival a ring—the original token of Brunhild’s betrothal to Siegfried—as proof.

This becomes a matter of honor of Brunhild. She can’t be married to two men and plots with Gunnar and his brother to kill Siegfried. While they are hunting, the hero is stabbed in his only vulnerable spot, between the shoulders.

Brunhild is overcome with remorse, stabs herself with a sword, and pleads to burn with Siegfried on his funeral pyre. The grieving Gundrun lives only for vengeance, one with betrayal, murder, and cannibalism.

Public domain images by Arthur Rackham via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally published Dec. 17, 2014, on Unusual Historicals.


The Nibelungenlied, translated by Daniel B. Shumway (Houghton-Mifflin Co., New York, 1909)

Why was Abbess Cwenthryth Defamed?

While researching a different post, I stumbled upon the story of 9th century Mercian Princess Cwenthryth and her brother, Cynehelm. It’s got a lot of juicy stuff: lust for power, sibling rivalry, murder, and gruesome divine justice. And it’s simply not true.

Cwenthryth wasn’t a meek woman. In fact she defied a male authority. But she certainly wasn’t a killer.

Who was the real Cwenthryth and why was she maligned? Those are the questions I try to answer in my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Saint Kenelm

Cwenthryth’s sainted brother, Cynehelm (or Kenelm) (Image by Sjukmidlands, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Why Was Queen Ælfflæd a Bride Worth Killing Over?


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Likely middle-aged, the widowed 9th century Mercian Queen Ælfflæd attracted a suitor, but there was one problem. Her son Wigstan, who gave up the throne for a religious life, forbid the marriage because of consanguinity—that she and the wannabe bridegroom were too closely related. Or Wigstan persuaded his mom to refuse the offer for that reason. Wigstan paid a high price as a result.

The story got me wondering about Ælfflæd and her circumstances and inspired a blog post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Crypt for the Mercian royal family in Repton

9th-century burial crypt for the Mercian royal family in Repton (by James Yardley, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Curses and Cures: Where Christian and Pagan Beliefs Intersect


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An eighth-century pilgrim on his way to pray before the relics of a saint might recite a charm to protect his horse from injury. A midwife might whisper spells in an expectant mother’s ear to hasten the birth, and if she feared the newborn was near death, she baptized the child. Such was the blend of Christian and pagan practices in the Dark Ages.

My Christian characters would insist the charms and spells were white magic, nothing to do with paganism, which they equated with devil worship. They weren’t cursing their neighbors with illness or inducing storms to destroy crops. Their intentions were good. They wanted a sick child to be cured or their fields to yield an abundant harvest.

Officially, the Church preached against magic and the people who practiced it such as enchanters, dream interpreters, and fortune tellers. But to the populace, magic was a tool that could be used for good or evil.

The penalty for magical bad deeds was high. In the Carolingian era, witches and sorcerers were sealed in barrels and thrown into the river, or they were stoned to death.

Medieval Phylactery

This phylactery (amulet) is from the 13th century, but they were commonly used in the centuries earlier for protection (public domain image provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Walters Art Museum).

However, the most popular uses of magic were beneficial and sometimes profitable. Amulets and their religious cousins, phylacteries, were sold to anyone who wanted to buy them. In Rome, the heart of Christianity, women tied phylacteries to their arms or legs.

Despite Church teachings, even clerics might ask an expert to interpret their dreams, or a manuscript copied by monks might contain a square to predict the course of an illness with the letters of the patient’s name and the number of the day they got sick.

Magic was so much a part of daily life that the Church realized it needed to take a different tack. If you can’t beat them, co-opt them. Want rain? Don’t use an incantation. Say a prayer instead. If you need to recite something while gathering medicinal herbs, try the Pater and the Credo.

Still, I can imagine desperate parents of a sick child praying to a saint and giving alms, then taking the child to the peak of the roof, where herbs were cooked while a spell was recited. Perhaps, they were appealing to any supernatural power who would listen.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

“Capturing the Wandering Womb” by Kate Phillips, The Haverford Journal, April 2007

This post was originally published Nov. 18, 2014, on Unusual Historicals.


Abbess Ælfflæd Might Have Been the Lucky One


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As I wrote my post about Ælfflæd, dedicated to the Church when she was a baby, I came to the realization that this 7th century royal family didn’t have a lot of luck with marriages.

One sister, wed to the son of her father’s enemy, might have played a role in her husband’s death. Another was murdered by her royal husband’s noblemen. Two brothers had wives who ended the marriage and took the veil.

Ælfflæd, on the other hand, went on to become an abbess at a center for learning—and she influenced Church and royal affairs. For more about her, see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey, where Ælfflæd was abbess (by David Stocks, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Help Wanted: Blurbs for ‘Queen of the Darkest Hour’



Let’s say an author has spent about 100,000 words give or take to tell a story about her favorite 8th century dysfunctional royal family and now must distill it to a heck of a lot less than that. This has been my task as I get Queen of the Darkest Hour ready for publication this summer. I’ve come up with a few options.

Short version for Amazon listing and my homepage (no tagline)

Option 1 (78 words, about 63-66 will show on a laptop, even less on a smartphone)

Francia, 783: As wars loom, Queen Fastrada faces a peril within the castle walls: King Charles’s eldest son, Pepin. Blaming his father for the curse that twisted his spine, Pepin rejects a prize archbishopric and plots to seize the throne. Can Fastrada stop the conspiracy before it destroys the realm?

Based on historic events during Charlemagne’s reign, Queen of the Darkest Hour is a story of family strife endangering an entire country—and the price to save it.

Option 2 (92 words, again about 63-66 will show on a laptop)

Francia, 783: Haunted by the Saxons’ attack on her home fortress, Fastrada marries Charles, king of the Franks. As more wars loom, Fastrada’s greatest peril lurks within the castle walls: her stepson Pepin. Blaming his father for the curse that twisted his spine, Pepin rejects a prize archbishopric and plots to seize the throne. Can Fastrada stop the conspiracy before it destroys the kingdom?

Based on historic events during Charlemagne’s reign, Queen of the Darkest Hour is a story of family conflict endangering an entire country—and the price to save it.

Longer version (with tagline, for website and maybe other places, like the back of the book–128 words total)

Family Strife Imperils the Realm

Francia, 783: Haunted by the Saxons’ attack on her home fortress, Fastrada obeys her father and marries Charles, king of the Franks and a widower with seven children and an eighth on the way by a concubine. As more wars loom, Fastrada’s greatest peril lurks within the castle walls: Pepin, son of Charles and the first woman he divorced. Blaming his father for the curse that twisted his spine, Pepin rejects a prize archbishopric and plots with his uncle and mother to seize the throne. Can Fastrada stop the conspiracy before it destroys the kingdom?

Based on historic events during Charlemagne’s reign, Queen of the Darkest Hour is a story of a family conflict endangering an entire country—and the price to save it.

I would love to know what you think. The top question: Do you want to read the story after reading a few words?

19th century illustration of court ladies

From Braun and Schneider’s 19th century History of Costume (public domain image)


Five Fascinating Facts about Charlemagne’s Francia


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Charlemagne’s personal life rivals a soap opera. In 773, the beginning of my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, he is twice divorced, married to wife No. 3, and about to go to war with his ex-father-in-law, the king of Lombardy, who is threatening Rome. I didn’t make any of that up. Oh, and his first cousin, the duke of Bavaria, is married to the sister of wife No. 2. And Charles had two sons named after their grandfather Pepin (the younger originally called Carloman).

But wait, there’s more. After Hildegard, wife No. 3, died, Charles married Fastrada, the heroine of the forthcoming Queen of the Darkest Hour. In 792, his eldest son, Pepin (also called Pepin the Hunchback) rebelled, planning to kill his dad and three half-brothers (the sons of Hildegard), and at least one scholar has speculated that Pepin’s mother, Himiltrude, wife No. 1, might have been involved. Spoiler alert: When caught, Pepin and his coconspirators blamed Queen Fastrada’s unspecified cruelty. Considering that Pepin had other reasons, like not receiving a subkingdom as his baby brothers did, one may rightly suspect Fastrada is being made a scapegoat.

After Fastrada died, Charles married Luitgard, probably after dating her for two years. Luitgard did not bear Charles any children, and that was probably why he married her. At the time, the emperor had three grown sons, each of whom expected a kingdom. If he had any more sons born in wedlock, it could lead to civil unrest. And that’s probably why he did not remarry after Luitgard died. Instead, he had several mistresses, who bore children. Those mistresses proved Charles’s virility and thus his physical perfection, a qualification for a king to rule. Physical abnormalities were believed to be a sign of God’s anger.

Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian I

Antoine Vérard’s 15th century Charlemagne and the Pope (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain image)

When a Frankish king died, each son born in wedlock got a kingdom. Although aristocrats did try to divorce childless wives, there was also such a thing as having too many sons as Charles’s son Louis the Pious found out the hard way. Louis’s first wife bore three healthy sons, and he divided his kingdom among them. Unfortunately, she died, and he could not remain celibate. So he married a girl half his age. The problem: she was fertile. And when she bore Louis’s fourth son, he had to find a way to accommodate the prince. One of the three older sons did not want to give up his land, and that led to civil war, the very thing Charles was trying to avoid later in his life.

Early medieval women were not delicate flowers awaiting rescue. Here are just a few examples. In the 770s, Charles’s mother, Bertrada, was a diplomat working to ensure peace between her sons, both of whom were kings, as well as Rome and Lombardy.

When Frankish King Carloman died, Charles seized his younger brother’s lands. But the widowed Queen Gerberga was not about to let her young sons lose their inheritance (or give up her power as regent) without a fight, even if it meant forming an alliance with the Lombard king, Charles’ ex-father-law angry over the divorce from wife No. 2.

Queen Fastrada was influential. A surviving letter from Charles to her implies that he counted on her to make sure the litanies to ensure God’s favor in a coming war were performed, very important in an age that believed in divine intervention.

A 14th century manuscript depicts the “Chanson de Roland.”

The historical event that inspired The Song of Roland was not written down for decades. Many of us are introduced to Roland through the 11th century epic poem, but it is a form of historical fiction, light on the history and heavy on the fiction. For one thing, the perpetrators of the massacre were Christian Gascons (Basques), not Muslim Saracens. While researching what really happened during the 778 ambush at Roncevaux for The Cross and the Dragon, I found the earliest accounts were written a few years after the emperor died in 814. In fact, Charles’s official record says everything went well. So this massacre must have been traumatic to him.

Medieval people bathed. Aristocrats would take a bath once a week. OK, that is not as often as most of us in 21st century America, but it is more frequent than my teachers led me to believe.

Baths were a requirement for palaces, and bathhouses contained hot and cold pools. The bathhouse at the Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French) was spring fed and could accommodate up to 100 bathers. Abbeys also had baths for the residents, guests, and the sick.

Some people abstained from bathing but that was to atone for sin, similar to fasting.

Originally published Aug. 27, 2013, on Unusual Historicals.

The Frankish Warrior’s Version of Play with a Purpose


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Eighth-century Franks had their own version age appropriate, educational toys and games, especially for boys born to noble families.

At age 3, they were given wooden swords, with the expectation that they would wield iron ones in a few years. And I do mean a few years, if we are to believe the annals. Childhood did not last long.

Wooden Longsword

By Historicarts (CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Charlemagne was 13 during his first campaign against Aquitaine in 761 with his father, King Pepin. His son Charles (called Karl in my books) was about 11 or 12 in the 784 battles against the Saxony, and as part an effort to intimidate the duke of Bavaria, Charles’s son Pippin of Italy (spelled this way in self-defense) was about 10 when asked to march an army to Trent in 787, although he did not accompany the soldiers all the way to Balzano. The boys probably led the forces in name only, but taking them even near the battlefield isn’t exactly keeping them out of harm’s way.

So I can imagine medieval fathers taking their sons hands and saying, “Hold the hilt like this” and “Move your feet like the way you dance.”

As noble boys got older, their games included archery and simulated combat. To learn to hit a target correctly they aimed a lance at a manikin with a shield. If the blow was not true, they’d been smacked with a bag of flour.

When it came to the pastime of hunting, young boys wanted to be part of the dangerous sport. In 826, 3-year-old Charles (named after grandfather Charlemagne) imitated his father, Louis. When the child spotted the prey, he called for his horse and a quiver of arrows. His mother and tutor had to literally hold him back. Never fear, though. The young animal was caught and brought to the prince, says the poet Ermold, and “he seized weapons of his own size and struck the trembling beast.”

Toy Knight

Walters Art Museum (Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

Even indoor forms of play served a purpose. Toy soldiers made of silver, gold, or bronze and board games similar to chess and backgammon were both good at developing strategy. Aristocratic boys were going to grow up to lead common soldiers, conscripts who would get most of their training on the battlefields. The future lords needed to know how to think.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riche, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, John J. Butt

This post was originally published Dec. 23, 2013, on Unusual Historicals.

Coppices: Materials for Home and Heat in the Dark Ages


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An early medieval commoner might chop down a young willow for timber, but that was not the end of the tree’s usefulness. Far from it. A peasant could use the shoots emerging from the stump to build a home or heat it.

Coppicing—cutting down a tree and harvesting the shoots from the stump four to eight years later—goes back to the Neolithic, about 10,000 years. The practice allows people to take advantage of a tree’s established root system to produce timber rather than starting all over from seed. In the forest, coppices coexisted with standard trees and other flora and fauna. Woodlands could be coppiced for hundreds or thousands of years. With the added sunlight, plants and animals that typically lived at the forest’s edge would have a little more space.

Sweet chestnut coppice

Sweet chestnut coppice (by Clive Perrin, CC BY-SA 2.0,  via Wikimedia Commons)

Coppicing reminds us of how resourceful our ancestors were. While it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the discovery of coppices as accidental, the folks’ lack of education as we know it was not a lack of intelligence, skills, or discipline.

Not all trees made good coppices, but ash, oak, hazel, birch, and willow were among the species that were used. Some coppiced trees, like hazel, live much longer if their shoots are collected on a regular basis.

Early medieval Britain especially needed resources close to home, like coppices. With the departure of the Romans around 410, the economy had collapsed. Instead of growing food and making factory goods for export to customers throughout the empire, Britons needed to become self-reliant. The forest had a lot of resources such as food and herbs, acorns for pigs, and lumber.

Coppices provided raw materials for wattle-and-daub houses, barns, and sheds. Wattle-and-daub has been around for 6,000 years, and its materials were free and easily acquired in Britain and on the Continent. Stone, by contrast, was expensive and required workers for a quarry. If stones were scavenged from an abandoned structure, transporting them far from the site would be a challenge.

Wattle and daub hut

By Jiel Beaumadier (CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

For a wattle-and-daub shelter, the builder could weave coppice shoots between stakes and create rigid wattle panels for the walls, supported by posts. Timing was essential. The best season to cut coppice shoots was winter, when the wood had less sap and was less susceptible to insects and fungi. But the builder need to use the shoots before they stiffened and would snap when bent. Warming the shoots over a fire would soften them.

Hazel shoots that had grown for six to 10 years were supple and a popular choice. Willow, which can be harvested every one to three years, was another possibility as were slender rods of birch and ash. The woven wooden rods—called withies—would have been one-half to one-inch thick.

Once the panels were in place, a builder could push handfuls of daub—a mix of earth, clay, sand, hay, and dung—into both side of the wattle. People could patch the cracks in the dried daub with more of the mixture (perhaps making the structure less drafty than a stone building) and finish the walls with a limewash (a paint from limestone). Thatch was often used for the roof, and strips of hazel could secure it to the dwelling.

The people living in those homes required fires for cooking and to keep warm in winter. They could use the sticks, twigs, and branches from the forest floor, but charcoal was a better fuel, burning hotter and slower than ordinary wood. Again, the folk looked to coppices, even though the process to convert a freshly cut shoot to charcoal was long and complicated.

The shoots need to be dried for six months, not an easy thing in early medieval Britain, where the climate had turned cooler and wetter. Perhaps oiled, tanned skins protected the shoots.

Kilns often were often built near coppices. Using the same site for repeated firings improved the ground foundation and made the kilns work better. When the shoots were dry enough, they were cut into three- to four-foot lengths and packed tightly around a central timber in a mound or cone, about 10 feet in diameter. The mound was covered with dirt, with a few vents in the bottom. The charcoal-makers removed the central timber and dropped a hot ember into the space, which formed a chimney.

Charcoal kiln

(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The trick was to keep the fire burning for several weeks, using as little air as possible while it extracted the moisture, saps, and resins (a byproduct was tar). Some kilns were shielded by wind breaks. Still the kiln needed constant tending to ensure it remained intact and the fire was just the right temperature. The wood inside the kiln would be charred but not burned. An experience charcoal burner could gauge the process by the smell. Medieval people often made charcoal for their own homes, but by the early modern period, this craft had become a specialty, and it was easier to buy the product, rather than make it.

Charcoal had more uses than warming homes. Iron smelters relied on the fuel for fires hot enough to extract iron from rock. Smiths need the fuel to create weapons and tools.

Coppices supplied wood for other needs. The shoots could be made into stools to furnish the home. Supple wood could be woven into fences. Thin strips could be made into baskets.

With changes in forestry, agriculture, and river management, coppices fell out of favor in the 20th century and have become neglected. In many modern eyes, a stump with emerging shoots doesn’t seem to be good for much. Our ancestors would beg to differ.

This post was originally published at English Historical Fiction Authors.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd 

Ecology and Management of Coppice Woodlands, edited by G.P. Buckley

Wattle and Daub: Craft, Conservation and Wiltshire Case Study,” by Tony Graham