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


Dinas Powys Hillfort: A Dark Ages Trading Center


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When the Romans abandoned Britain around 410, an economy based on mass production and export collapsed. But international trade did not die. From the 5th through 7th centuries, the inhabitants of Dinas Powys hillfort might have enjoyed olive oil, spices, and other imports.

Southwest of today’s Cardiff, Wales, the hillfort is a treasure trove for anyone interested in post-Roman Celtic life. Anglo-Saxons (a catchall term for Germanic tribes who migrated to England) didn’t conquer Wales. The site probably was abandoned around 700, but a nearby village of the same name exists today.

Cadoxton River

The Cadoxton River, near Dinas Powys hillfort (by Jaggery, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 410, Britons might have thought themselves freed from Roman occupation. Still, they needed to rely on resources close to home for survival, and they faced the constant threat of invasion from opportunistic Irish, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons.

When Dinas Powys, the setting for “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” was thriving, it was home to a petty king and his family, along with household servants, weavers, and metalsmiths. The property is about one-fourth of an acre, about the size of a good-sized lot in the United States.

Two stone buildings apparently sat at right angles to each other. One was a 600-square-foot hall, a place for feasting. The meals often included meat, particularly pork, but the livestock was likely raised elsewhere and bought into the fortress. The second structure, about half the size of the first, might have been used for storage or slave sleeping quarters. I can imagine it as a treasury.

The hillfort was in a forested area about 1.5 miles from the sea, a good location to trade with merchants who sailed from far-away lands.

Whoever chose the hillfort’s site had defense in mind. The fortress was on a ridge, with steep slopes to the north and west. Over ensuing decades, its rulers constructed a series of ramparts and ditches on the southern part of the area, and they employed smiths to smelt and craft iron, essential for armor and weapons.

The defenses served other purposes. Commoners did the actual building, probably as a service to their king. This reinforced the social order—peasants served their lord, and their lord protected them from enemies. Bulwarks and ditches were also a show of wealth—that the family had possessions worth guarding.

The kings were indeed protecting their source of wealth, much of it not from Britain. Archeologists have found North African and Mediterranean amphorae that could have contained olive oil or wine. The family might have also bought spices, dried foods that didn’t grow in their climate, or textiles.

Amphorae Detail

Detail from illustration by S. Martin-Kilcher CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the kitchen, servants used unglazed, undecorated, and unpainted course ware from western Gaul. Made on a wheel, jugs, jars, and bowls were light brown to grey but could also be red, black, or cream. Hard and gritty, the surface looks like someone had wiped or sponged it while it was still wet.

At the table, visitors would have seen imported pottery, a better quality than vessels made by Britons. Plates, bowls, cups, and mortaria (bowls with flanges and embedded with sand or grit to pound and mix food) from the Bordeaux region would have greyish-black slip, and the bowls featured rouletting and stamp decorations.

Host and guests might have drunk that imported wine from a Kentish blue-glass squat beaker, similar to one in an Anglo-Saxon princely burial, or glass bowls. Apparently, the Celts and Anglo-Saxons weren’t always fighting.

What the kings at Dinas Powys traded for these goods is open to speculation.

They probably didn’t pay with money. The system of exchanging coins for products went away with the Romans.

So the kings needed commodities worth a long and hazardous voyage from the Mediterranean. The fortress could produce cloth, furs, and leather, and it had hearths for melting copper-alloy, silver, gold, and glass, and making the materials into jewelry. Bronze Roman coins might be worth more if they were melted and shaped into a brooch.

The kings might have been something of middlemen, too, trading goods made elsewhere in Britain with merchants from overseas. At their feasts, they would give and receive presents. Perhaps, they exchanged some of those gifts—say an Anglo-Saxon glass claw beaker—a few amphorae of wine.

The finds at Dinas Powys show us Britain was not completely isolated from the rest of the world after the Romans left. Those discoveries also cut into a few stereotypes about the Dark Ages. Although life in early medieval times was far from ideal by 21st century Western standards, it was not all poverty and war.

This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors.


Dinas Powys in Context: Settlement and Society in Post-Roman Wales by Andrew Seaman

Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, by Geoffrey Ashe

“Early Medieval E Ware Potter: An Unassuming but Enigmatic Kitchen Ware?” by Ian W Doyle, Fragments of Lives Past: Archeological objects from the Irish road schemes

“Mediterranean and Frankish pottery imports in early medieval Ireland” by Ian W. Doyle, The Journal of Irish Archaeology, Vol. 18 (2009)


Roman Invaders’ Exit Shakes the British Economy


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In the West, it’s hard to imagine an economy without money. Five slips of paper is worth a good stout from the local brewery. We often don’t bother with the paper. A swipe of the plastic card and those five dollars go from our account to the tavern’s, which uses those dollars to buy grain to make more beer.

The Romans also believed in money, in very tangible coins. That’s how Rome paid its soldiers, including those in faraway Britain. The warriors then spent those coins on food, drink, and whatever else they needed.

Roman money

Photo by Sailko, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With their vast empire, the Romans also introduced Britain to a system of mass production and export. Farmers grew grain that could feed distant cities. Pottery made in British factories could be shipped elsewhere in the empire.

When the Romans left Britain in 410, it was liberation or abandonment, depending on your point of view. But no one could deny the economy changed.

Now that Britain was no longer part of the empire, making products on a mass scale and growing crops strictly for export didn’t make sense. Climate change and cooler and wetter weather had already made agriculture more difficult, with fewer places to farm and shorter growing seasons.

The system of money was another casualty. The system works when people believe the coin is worth something more than the metal. Without a Roman government to back it, the value of the coin often was the metal itself.

Britons needed to become self-reliant and turn to resources closer to home. My characters in “Betrothed to the Red Dragon” are no exception.

But as you will see soon, international trade did not die.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Cats: Who Domesticated Whom?


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There are times when Ellie the cat (1995-2015) would remind me of ancient Egypt. When she sat upright, I thought of a statue of the goddess Bastet.

This comes to mind as I write about cats in Arthurian Britain for English Historical Fiction Authors. Cats in 5th century Britain weren’t that different from the felines who hunted mice in granaries 10,000 years. The friendlier ones decided to hang out with the humans who fed them table scraps.

My reasoning comes from something that happened in 1996. A year-old stray approached my husband while he was in the garage, and he gave her cat food. The next morning, I almost tripped on the dead mouse she left on the doormat. It was intact—perhaps her way of thanking us.

Of course we took her in and named her Ellie.

Ellie the cat



Released to public domain by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons