Midwinter: York to Whitby

Augustinian mission—Eburacum and Eoforwic—Anglian tower—York Minster—Edwin and Constantine —old times—Stamford Bridge—Thixendale—Wharram Percy—ancient farmers of the Wolds—Grimston’s font—Malton—Deira and Derwent—West Heslerton Anglian settlement—Pickering—Lastingham—geography of monastic power—North York Moors—Danby Dale Vikings—midwinter’s day—Whitby—synod—days as dark as night




IN THE DARKEST days of winter I took a short trip through space and time: eighty miles and forty years, from York to Whitby; from 627 to 664: following the northern English from pagan wannabe Romans through the birth pangs of conversion to a Christian state integrated with Europe for the first time in two hundred and fifty years.

English narrative history begins with a convenient date: 597, the year when Pope Gregory sent his mission to the Angles and Saxons, led by St Augustine. That mission, derailed comprehensively by Augustine’s faux pas with the indigenous British church (see pages 86–7) and stalled on its metropolitan launchpad by the apostasy of its patron kings in Kent, Essex and East Anglia, hung by a thread after its first quarter century. In the year 617, twenty years after the mission’s arrival, there was no Christian state among the Anglo-Saxons. Canterbury’s then archbishop all but packed his bags and set off for Rome; his two bishops fled to the Continent. The British church, as Bede tells us, made no attempt at all to convert the pagan English (he may not be telling us the whole truth, but that’s another story). The two peoples were, if we believe the historical propaganda, sworn enemies.

Archbishop Laurence, admonished for his cowardice both by the Pope in Rome and by a visionary dream in which he was scourged, changed his mind: he rallied, and succeeded in converting Eadbald, the apostate king of Kent whose father Æthelberht had indulged, then sponsored, Augustine.

Enter stage-left Eadbald’s sister, Æthelburh, and her priest, Paulinus, a survivor of the original mission. Kentish princesses were a valuable political commodity: savvy, educated, sophisticated; in marriage they bought kudos and the rewards of alliance with the traditionally senior kingdom of the English. When Edwin of Deira slew his brother-in-law Æthelfrith at the great battle on the River Idle in 617 and became overlord of the northern Anglian kingdoms, Æthelburh was a natural choice as his queen. Negotiations were opened with the convert Eadbald, who insisted, however, that Edwin undergo baptism and a Christian marriage ceremony (a form, if you like, of political submission). Edwin demurred until such time as his own political position in Northumbria was secure. For a few years he was busy expanding his realms through conquest and tribute, reconstructing dormant networks of patronage and forging new ones. He subdued the Isles of Man and Anglesey and took tribute from them, acquiring huge political capital in the process.

The time came when he had to decide his own and his people’s spiritual and political future. But one imagines a deeply conservative aristocracy, suspicious of what must have seemed the inflexibility and fanaticism of the monotheistic Christian faith and concerned at how its adoption might affect their lines of patronage. Pagan priests and churchmen were competitors for the attention and generosity of their secular lord. Edwin’s decision was delayed; more years passed.

Bede constructs the story of Edwin’s conversion as a series of providential, semi-miraculous tales through which it is possible to glimpse complex political and personal motivations, even angst; but the critical, precipitating event seems to have been a double trauma. At Easter 626 an assassin came to Edwin’s court from the king of the West Saxons. He killed Edwin’s bodyguard, a thegn named Lilla, with a murderous thrust from a sword tipped with poison; the same blow penetrated the king’s flesh and he lay ill for some time before recovering. That same night his Kentish queen gave birth (perhaps prematurely) to a daughter. Edwin promised Paulinus and his queen, Æthelburh, that should he successfully wreak revenge on the West Saxons he would undergo conversion and offer his new daughter, Eanflæd, to the church. A year later, having slain five West Saxon warlords in the course of a punitive campaign, he was baptised in York: the first Christian king of the Northumbrians. Over the next year the warrior elites of Deira and Bernicia followed suit, enthusiastically or otherwise.

York is almost painfully familiar to me. I spent my undergraduate years here and know its streets and buildings, names and ways. Leaving the station on a morning that barely emerged from twilight, and crossing the river, I found myself walking almost thoughtlessly through streets thronged with Christmas shoppers and lined with associations from my own past. Here was the manhole through which, as students, we were allowed to enter the bizarre world of the Roman city’s sewage system; there, I remember, I dug as a volunteer on an emergency excavation ahead of building works. On Parliament Street I looked in vain for a landmark that goes unnoticed by most tourists: two Regency buildings leaning away from one another because they sit astride the Roman city wall many feet beneath. Eventually I got my eye in; the gap has been filled and painted over.

In the gardens of the Yorkshire Museum I paid a visit to two upstanding monuments: the indomitable Multangular Tower, with its striking courses of red brick, built probably in the reign of Emperor Constantine (306–37) and perhaps under his personal supervision (he was practising for a larger project on the shores of the Bosphorus); then to a more secret, intimate, tragic structure, in an out-of-the-way shadow of the medieval stone ramparts: the Anglian tower. It is a much more modest, stunted affair made of scavenged, undressed stone with a low, round-arched doorway, now fenced off to deter drug-users from entering. Its original height is unknown. It may have been built in the reign of Edwin as he set about reconstructing the defunct Roman city for his new capital; if so, it is the only monumental structure to survive above ground from any Northumbrian secular power of the seventh century: evidence of Edwin’s imperial Roman fantasies, perhaps. After about 900 it was buried beneath the earth ramparts of Viking Yorvik. It has a dark secret, darker even than the miserable cold, leaden day when I remade its acquaintance. Excavating it in July 1970, archaeologist Jeff Radley was killed when the earth walls of his trench collapsed and buried him. This was the archaeologist’s nightmare in the days before steel shoring became mandatory in excavations below four feet deep. The plaque which once commemorated him has been removed. As a teenager I allowed myself to be persuaded to descend into a slit trench fifteen feet deep, unshored, in the shadow of another great church, the cathedral at Orléans. The thought makes me shudder. The only thing holding that trench together was the city’s Roman wall, still standing, buried almost to the full depth of the hole.

Almost for the sake of it, I made a partial circuit of York’s walls, themselves a patchwork construct of Roman and medieval pride and insecurity, and of Victorian nostalgia. The city’s roofscape, beneath which it is in a constant flux of shifting businesses and populations, was unchanged: orange pantiles, jagged roof lines, soft red and brown brick, a Giant’s Causeway of individual buildings and lives as it has been for a thousand years and more. I remembered the tropes that first-time visitors to York are treated to: that a Scotsman may be shot by a bow and arrow if caught within the city walls after dark; that here the streets are called gates, the gates are called bars and the bars are called pubs. York can sometimes seem too self-consciously like a theme park; but its roots are sunk very deep and from them grows a tree, a national sense of continuity.

I paid my respects to the Minster, which sits directly above the principia of the Roman legionary fortress built very nearly two thousand years ago. The vast church survives through a combination of luck and determination. In 1829 the ranting Methodist schizophrenic Jonathan Martin (brother of the apocalyptic painter John), attempted to burn it down and very nearly succeeded. In 1984, when I was living just up the road in Bootham, a lightning strike caused another conflagration, this time in the south transept. In its undercroft, excavated in emergency so that engineers could shore up the sagging piles of its colossal gothic superstructure in the 1970s, are Roman walls, now much tidied up; artefacts from two millennia of accumulating rubbish; and a story of engineering triumphs and disasters. On a small ceramic slab is scrawled a chi-rho, the early Christian symbol of sacrifice. It became fashionable during the fourth century after Constantine, declared Emperor here in 306, used it on his army’s shields in battle. He proclaimed a policy of religious freedom, including toleration of Christianity, in 313 in the so-called Edict of Milan.

Edwin of Northumbria, under instruction from his priest, then bishop, Paulinus (incidentally the first man in our history to have a pen portrait written, so that we actually know what he looked like: dark, saturnine and with a pronounced hawk-like nose) is likely to have been coached in the story of Constantine’s journey to enlightenment through victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Even before his conversion, perhaps, Edwin began, self-consciously, to model his own kingship in imitation of an idea of empire provided by that legendary forebear and by his queen, bigging up the political and spiritual advantages of buying into Roman orthodoxy. Somewhere on the Minster green, just to the north of the medieval cathedral, Paulinus constructed a wooden church in which the king and his children were baptised among the ruined columns and paved streets of the former legionary headquarters, surrounded by the works of the Giants.

At the beginning of Edwin’s reign there can have been no functioning civic society in this once grand, northernmost city of the Empire. A garrison without soldiers, fortress without a commander, Eburacum was conquered not by barbarians but by the forces of nature and the failure of its engineers to combat rising water levels—or perhaps just their apathy. It straddles the River Ouse at the centre of the Vale of York, a great flat, low-lying glacial plain that has always been prone to flooding and was particularly vulnerable during the cool, wet centuries of the mid-first millennium. The Ouse (a Brythonic name) drains the waters of the Pennine Rivers Nidd, Swale and Ure at the head of Humber’s watershed. I well remember being cut off on its south side during the extraordinary winter of 1981/2, when the Ouse flooded to record heights (16 feet 7 inches above normal) and then froze. People walked across the ice; some fool rode a motorbike beneath one of the bridges. We huddled by a pathetic gas fire in our squalid student flat in Bishophill, not many yards above the chaos of the inundated riverbank.

After an afternoon’s tramping around old haunts I reminisced about that time over dinner with archaeologist and friend Mark Whyman, with whom I’d shared that flat. Bishophill, somewhat swankier now than it was in our day, sits in what was once the Romancolonia: a plantation of retired legionary veterans designed to imprint the frontier zone with a small but significant outpost of the mother city; to remind the new citizens that their sponsors and overlords were the greatest military power in the world. In my mind’s eye I pictured another walled colony, Derry/Londonderry, in the seventeenth century, and conjured up a much vaguer idea of New Delhi or one of those enormous American overseas military bases (Diego Garcia; Bagram?) that are or were miniaturised states of the Union.

We fell to talking about York (by then called Eoforwic) in Edwin’s day. Mark is a veteran of excavations at Fishergate, where a later seventh-century emporium sprang up in the decades after Edwin refounded it as a royal centre. At his death a stone church, constructed under the supervision of Paulinus and Æthelburh, remained unfinished, to be completed by his rival and successor Oswald. Bishop and queen fled south in fear of the new regime. One gets the feeling that life crept back to York, slowly, over decades. Its greatness as a city was not restored until it became capital of another kingdom, ruled over by Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries when merchants and craftspeople, evidenced by the celebrated Coppergate excavations of the 1970s and 1980s, forged a critical mass of expertise and energy equal to anything engineered by their Anglo-Saxon antagonists.



After dinner and a beer I got my maps out and we pored over landscapes of our youth, when we lived our undergraduate summers digging: at Wharram Percy, high in the Wolds; at West Heslerton on the edge of the Vale of Pickering (when I wasn’t in Dorset. . . or Hertfordshire). It seemed, looking back, that we must also have spent most of our term-time weekends on field trips in the back of our professor Philip Rahtz’s Land Rover or in the company of other lecturers, steeping ourselves in a culture of fieldwork, of vernacular and church architecture, the rhyme and metre of road, lane, field, boundary and standing stone. We graduated, semi-fluent, in the language of landscape. I wonder, thinking of it, whether that itinerant excavators’ lifestyle before, during and after university had not set me on the road to periodic nomadism, to a perpetual desire not to go back but always to look to the next horizon. Maybe that’s why spending time in York makes me feel uneasy. Reminiscence is a record with a B-side.

On a morning of inexpressibly dismal murk, I set out from Colliergate clothed against rain and wind. Automatically, almost, I turned right into Goodramgate, noticing the presence or absence of pubs or cafés once frequented where I had met so-and-so that time, had said something stupid or laughed like a drain with mates. Out of the city, then, through Monk Bar, where a model shop has stood since well before my time. I passed a small development of houses and flats on Monkgate, new since my day; and I had to think for a moment to get my bearings, until I realised that this was where, in 1983, I worked through the winter on an excavation, supervising unemployed youths in work experience while attempting to salvage the medieval archaeology of the suburbs. Mud, ice and good craic are what I remember.

Across the River Foss I navigated the suburban roads of Layerthorpe (a Viking name, the Thorp element denoting a village or farm), Heworth and Tang Hall, with the school run, almost the last of the year, in full swing. This was new territory for me: no memories of this part of town where the houses are too comfortable for students to afford. I found the end of Bad Bargain Lane (which would have made a great address for rack-rent student flats) and, despite the discouraging name, followed it out into the flat, washed-out fields of Osbaldwick (Old English: Osbald’s farm) and across the A64, the road to Scarborough and the North Sea.

I cut across country through back lanes whose right-angle turns were a dead giveaway to old country routes diverted by the process of enclosure; but the names—Holtby (a Danish village in a small wood), Warthill (a lookout point) and Gate Helmsley (the road at Hemele’s island) speak of its Early Medieval past. The English live among Dark Age landscapes in Dark Age villages. The road in question, when I came upon it, was Roman, and it heads not for the sea but directly up onto the Yorkshire Wolds. Before that it must cross the River Derwent at Stamford Bridge, where I took shelter from squally, biting rain and treated myself to a warming coffee and a bun. Stamford Bridge is one of those evocative locations that summons images of Britain’s violent, epic history. Here, in the late summer of 1066, King Harold Godwinson of England fought the Norwegian army of Harald Hardrada, one of the legendary warrior lords of the Viking Age.

Hardrada had invaded in early September with a large force, perhaps as many as fifteen thousand men in hundreds of longships. He had for an ally Earl Tostig, exiled brother of Harold and former Lord of Northumberland. At Fulford, just south-east of York, they defeated an English force under two earls, Edwin and Morcar. York surrendered. Harald’s army marched from their base camp at Ricall, close to the Ouse, where they had left the bulk of their fleet, towards the strategic crossing of the Derwent at Stamford Bridge, to receive hostages and prepare an administration to rule the North. King Harold arrived with his army the same day, 20 September 1066, marching through an undefended York and determined to meet Harald for a decisive encounter.

The Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson has left us with a dramatic account of the first sighting between the two armies:

…as they approached the town they saw a large force riding to meet them. They could see the cloud of dust raised by the horses’ hooves, and below it the gleam of handsome shields and white coats of mail. King Harald halted his troops and summoned Earl Tostig, and asked him what this army could be… the closer the army came, the greater it grew, and their glittering weapons sparkled like a field of broken ice.90

When it came to preliminary parleys, the English king is said to have offered his Norwegian counterpart seven feet of English soil—or as much more as he was taller than other men. Despite a heroic defence of the bridge by a single berserker warrior, and tremendous aggression on both sides, the English held the field; Hardrada was cut down and the last Scandinavian invasion of England ended in victory for Harold. If it had not been for the little matter of his defeat by Duke William of Normandy three weeks later, the action at Stamford Bridge might still be hailed among the English the way that Bannockburn resonates north of the border.

The wooden bridge is long gone; its stone replacement is a busy choke-point for trucks and cars. Today’s Stamford Bridge is not somewhere—just a small place on the way to somewhere. I took a back road heading south-east, rising gradually out of the Vale, and then cut east through the small village of Full Sutton, whose maximum-security prison houses an A-list of celebrity nasties. The filthy day suited its grim outlines. It was not a place to dwell for long and, besides, I only had about three hours of daylight left. I quickened my pace, tracing a muddy path out of the back of the village, crossed the Roman road again and headed up the less confrontational valley of the Skirpen Beck, a tributary of the Derwent whose otherworldly gentility was a world away from razor wire, floodlights and slamming cell doors. Skirpen and Beck are both Old Norse names; in this case they indicate a seasonal stream; not surprising, since the Wolds are chalk uplands whose valleys, with few exceptions, are dry during the summer. East Yorkshire abounds in Scandinavian place names whose northern limit, more or less, is the valley of the River Tees; there are virtually none in modern Northumberland; few in Durham. No one is sure whether the Vikings thought conquest of the lands to the north a game not worth the candle or whether there were only enough of them to fill Yorkshire.

The next village on my route towards the Wolds, now just a shade north of east, was the equally Norse-sounding Bugthorpe. It was an easy climb—in fact, barely perceptible; gradually the land falls away to the north and to the beck, while to the south narrow wooded denes cut into the soft edge of the Wold plateau and a much steeper route up Garrowby Hill is taken by the uncompromising Roman road (I had a sudden memory of my awful old motorbike stalling halfway up it on a winter’s day much like this). I stopped at Bugthorpe, contemplating its empty rectangular green where a man sat in his car making a phone call and two women passed by on horses; otherwise it might as well have been deserted. I had a bite of lunch on a churchyard bench, checked the map and then moved on, keeping to the south side of the valley. The stream changed its name to Bugthorpe Beck and then to Salamanca Beck (it sounds as though it has been renamed after a Peninsular War battle; there is also a Waterloo Beck near by: perhaps the local squire came back with trophies of fallen Frenchmen and tales to tell of daring deeds on the Continent: a latter-day warrior thegn?). Where it emerges from the head of the valley the spring is called Chalybeate, a name indicating the presence of iron-rich minerals.

At Kirby (Old Norse: ‘village with a church’) Underdale, tucked into the side of the valley and nestling on the edge of its own beck, I stopped for a look inside the church, which boasts a decorated Romanesque doorway at the west end. This is matched by a taller, simpler and more imposing round arched doorway to the bell tower, and by a solemn chancel arch. Inserted into an interior wall was a much-weathered relief carving of a naked warrior, horned and wielding a spear. The plaque hanging next to it suggests that it is the Roman god Mercury; but the same figure adorns Anglo-Saxon brooches (this time playing the part of Woden) and earlier carvings of native British gods such as Mars Belatucadros: the symbol of vital, virile warrior manhood has a common root in the European pantheons. This version was found in the Rectory garden in 1916, evidence perhaps of a local temple. It’s not exactly a comfortable orthodox Catholic image; but it is surprising just how many of our medieval churches contain distinctly pagan motifs.

I made a steep ascent from Kirby Underdale up along a ridge that led to the Wold top at about seven hundred feet. Here I crossed another Roman road that once patrolled the west edge of this unique upland landscape harbouring its own distinct accent, attitudes and sense of identity. If I was oppressed by York and the flat, wet Vale, my spirits were lifted now, just as they were the first time I ever came up here, by a feeling that I was floating on a magnificent vessel in the clouds, riding a green, undulating swell of grasslands which, even in their state of winter undress, seduce the eye. I was happy to be back; even so, the light was failing and a dark cloud that had trailed me up the valley was just about to unleash its meteorological dogs of war. Looking back across the grainy sweep of the Vale, I fancied I could see the faint silhouette of the Minster’s twin towers, seventeen or so miles away, burned against the retina of the sun’s weak, solstice eye as it snuck offstage having cast no warmth on winter’s bleak fields. I did not hang around, but took a small road north-east towards Thixendale, dipping down out of the wind and knowing that the Cross Keys pub, my refuge for the night, lay just over the hill.

Even a cursory glance at the Ordnance Survey map shows that the Wolds are crowded with the remains of ancient cultures. Thousands of tumuli lie apparently scattered like broadcast seed, just as they do on the downs of Wessex. Chalk and limestone uplands were cleared of their trees very early by Neolithic and Bronze Age livestock farmers exploiting the bounties of transhumant summer pastures: this has been an open landscape for five thousand years. The seeming randomness of the burials does not stand up to scrutiny. The natives interred their dead under mounds of soil and stone, often on the skyline from where the ancestors could look down on them and intercede with the fates, reinforce their ties to a mythological dreamscape past and remind others whose land it was. Joining the dots of these blips on the map reveals that they also functioned as markers, for they often lie on the edges of territories that later became our parishes. They took the natural lie of the land, its watersheds and ridges, and drew onto it an idea of belonging and owning: they are proprietorial. Many parts of the Wolds are also delineated by linear earthworks which seem to indicate the boundaries of what archaeologists have sometimes called ranches (evoking cowboys). Sometimes these earthworks enclose ridges and headlands, sometimes they run right across valleys and often along the contours of valley sides. Some are very substantial; others may have been little more than hedge banks, keeping cattle on or off seasonal pastures. Beneath them all are the invisible remains of many more complex land divisions, burials, the traces of forgotten settlements and enclosures and the routes taken by ancient peoples onto and through this naturally bounteous geological citadel.

Very early on the second morning, before light, I hit the trail again after a stout breakfast. I had not been to the Cross Keys at Thixendale for many and many a year; but the landlord had been here since my undergraduate days and knew some of the colleagues and friends with whom I had dug near by. I was interested to know how the village and its few businesses were surviving an age of austerity. Just, was the answer. One of the locals sitting at the bar the previous night was about to leave: forced to give up his driving licence because of failing eyesight, he was having to leave the community that had been his home for more than half a century. Most of those who came to live in the village these days worked in Malton, Driffield or York; almost none of them ever came to the pub; and the Post Office was now closed, replaced by a mobile service whose social functions could not possibly match those of the local store. The village seemed no longer to function as a community. Families with children lived here; but not grandparents, the guardians of continuity and identity. The ancestors are nowhere to be seen; their voices silent.

It was cold; I was the only soul about, just me, the sheep and the crows. As I climbed out of the dale and back onto the Wold top I was bathed in the heatless glow of an orange sunrise. The land glistened and shivered with me; a maize crop, unharvested and brittle, rattled in the breeze and from it came a squawk as pheasants broke cover. Bare hawthorn hedges and gorse bushes in improbable yellow bloom might have offered a little shelter had I been in their lee. Seasoned walkers, once they have gained height, try to keep it; but I had a rendezvous with the past.

Over the next ridge from Thixendale lies the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, whose name alone is enough to suggest that it once formed part of the lands of the Dukes of Northumberland. Britain’s longest-running excavations took place here, from 1950 until 1990. It was first identified by Maurice Beresford, a pioneer in the study of deserted villages, and excavated under his and John Hurst’s direction. When Philip Rahtz arrived in York to become its first Professor of Archaeology, Wharram seemed a natural place to take his students for their excavation training; so we spent two summers here, tackling what became known as the North Manor. There was nothing quite like Wharram: more than a hundred and thirty people lived here during those summers, camping in the empty fields of the old village with the Victorian cottages down in the hollow acting as site offices and canteen. It was the sort of transient community, annually reassembled, that must have been familiar to the ancient pastoralists, bringing tribute to their lords at Beltane or Midsummer, reviving and forging relationships, feasting and coupling.

Oddly, I had never seen the place deserted: it now seemed creepy, with the roofless skeleton of the church poking up from the hollow of Deep Dale, the empty cottages beyond and bare flanks of the valley sides giving on to tidy grass humps and bumps that tell a story of double desertion: once by its medieval farmers and lords; and then, half a millennium later, by its archaeologists. My head buzzed with a score of half-remembered conversations and incidents (feasting; coupling). More nostalgia; more ancestors; more giants. Beresford, Hurst and Rahtz have all passed away. There is no dinner bell to sound, or scrape of trowel, only wind and birdcall. Villages need people, not ghosts. I hoped I was not looking at Thixendale’s future. I had to orient myself for a few minutes before I was able to identify the site of ‘our trench’. I could not stop here, but walked along the lane that is Wharram’s only access to the outside world, and climbed back up onto the Wold top.

At North Grimston I went into the church to have a look at the font. Grimston is a place name for academics: formed by a Scandinavian personal name and an Anglo-Saxon suffix, it is the type-name for a large group of settlements called the Grimston hybrids (it sounds like an alien plant dreamed up by John Wyndham), which seem to tell of a Norse warrior elite buying or marrying or arrogating their way into the English squirearchy of the ninth century, perhaps by means of marriage to the lord’s daughter (or widow). When people think of immigration they often think in genetic terms: a functioning, breeding family moving into new territory and producing offspring representing 100 per cent immigrant genes, perhaps diluted in the next generation. But a man or woman arriving and breeding with a native produces offspring carrying only 50 per cent immigrant genes to the next generation, genes likely to be diluted again and again. Our Grims will be represented by only half of their children’s DNA and since we expect that warrior elite to be, by its very nature, small in numbers, the Norse genes would get swallowed up after only a few generations (although Grim might, admittedly, be sowing his oats more widely). (And see Postscript: Who are the British?—pages 423–6) More important for archaeologists and societies is whether the incomer assimilates or imposes their culture. One man’s invasion and rapine is another’s commercial and domestic opportunity in a new setting. But the Norse seem to have embraced the culture, including Christianity, of their adopted lands. The names that survive in the English landscape which seem to echo successive waves of immigration may exaggerate their genetic and cultural impact.

The font at North Grimston is a marvel of Early Medieval sculpture. Its date is not agreed by scholars; it could have been carved just after, or before, the Norman Conquest. It depicts Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper; a continuous frieze is completed by a crucifixion scene and a portrayal of an indulgent bishop. It is wonderfully affecting and a reminder, perhaps, of vernacular sensibilities underlying and reinforcing the Gospel message. The top of the font is a ropework cable twist; beneath that, the Mona Lisasmiling heads of the disciples line up in military rank, seated at the eponymous meal, behind a table which bears bowls, fish and round loaves with crosses incised into them. Most disciples hold a knife; several hands clasp what look like books to their breasts; their tiny feet poke out from beneath skirts like chair legs, seeming to prop up the massive stone cylinder. Seated slightly apart, Christ, a blazing solar halo behind him, holds his hands in an offertory gesture; his skirts look like the plumage of a giant raptor; his feet rest on the stretcher of a stool. Next to him is carved in a separate panel the figure of a bishop; perhaps St Nicholas, to whom the church is dedicated. In the crucifixion scene he is held up, like some tragic skeletal Punch, by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, head hanging lifeless on shoulder; again, the blaze of heavenly glory behind him. The apparent crudeness of the carving reinforces the starkness of the message and the boldness of the execution. I wanted to take it away with me. Pevsner called it ‘mighty and barbaric’. Its rustic sensibility is enhanced by the presence of a Victorian single-furrow plough which sits behind it against the wall. Outside, the walls bear carvings—a pair of beasts cavorting; and a Sheela na gig, one of those crude, vulva-displaying depictions of female fertility and lust that adorn Norman churches in various parts of Britain but which do not seem to have iconographic roots any further back.



Tempting as it was to traverse the ocean of the high Wolds which lay to the east, my route could do no more than skirt them. Two miles north of Grimston I passed through Settrington, which marks more or less the north-west corner of the massif, and came down off the chalk. From here the view opens out onto Malton and the Vale of Pickering, with Ryedale beyond and the Howardian Hills encroaching from the west. Somewhere near here, I believe, is the site of the Deiran kings’ summer palace, their equivalent of Yeavering in Bernicia. Bede sites Edwin’s hall, the location of the attempted assassination of Easter 626, standing by the River Derwent, whose line I could trace below me. The Derwent ought to flow towards the coast; but it actually rises at the far east end of the Vale of Pickering, close to the sea, and flows inland, fed by springs from the North York Moors and the Wolds, until it joins the Ouse south-east of Selby and flows thence into the Humber, Deira’s and Northumbria’s southern border. Deira is named from the Derwent: perhaps the ‘land of the river of oak trees’, or the ‘land of the waters’; there is no agreement among experts. Either way, the Derwent, its vale and the Wolds form the core of the southern Northumbrian kingdom, the Deirans’ ancestral homelands. Very early in the post-Roman period, the Wolds hosted a distinct culture reflected in large cremation cemeteries whose bespoke black decorated urns bear overtly Germanic cultural affiliations. The Anglians of Deira are also known to have reused ancient barrows to inter some of their elite, tapping into an idea of belonging and memorial that seems to appropriate, or reinvent, ties to the prehistoric ancestors, the Giants of the Early Medieval imagination.

Malton is a curiosity: to the south and east of the river it is called Norton; across the river it has two parts: Malton and Old Malton. Old-fashioned butchers and ironmongers, market pubs and rundown townhouses give it a sense of having been somehow left behind, although its position at the junction of Ryedale and the Vale of Pickering astride the A64, its status as a livestock market and its quaintness ought to ensure that it thrives. England has lost many villages over the centuries; it has lost few settlements as large as this. Malton will endure. I took my lunch sitting on the damp ramparts of Derventio, the Roman fort planted here in the late AD 60s to control this vital landscape pivot, to subdue the Parisi of the Wolds and the Brigantes of the Pennines. There is a strong temptation to suggest that, just as I had seen at Wroxeter and the Wrekin, there may be more than coincidental association between Roman fort and later ancestral seat. Was Edwin’s palace, wherever it lay, a successor to the Roman fort as a seat of military power and patronage? Was the fort itself sited near some earlier, as yet undiscovered stronghold of the Iron Age tribes? There are no hill forts, as we traditionally recognise them, near by; but then, Yeavering only revealed itself by chance and aerial photography.

Edwin’s Christian kingdom did not long survive his conversion and the grudging assent of Deiran and Bernician gesiths.91 He was defeated and killed in battle in 632 or 633 by a combined army under Kings Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd, whom Edwin had unwisely allowed to survive exile on the island of Priestholm off Anglesey (see page 249). Edwin’s legacy was not, in the end, to bequeath a Christian state in the north: such were the Dark Age fates. But he had consolidated and reinforced Æthelfrith’s power and maintained Northumbrian dominance as the most powerful warrior kingdom in the island; his ambition had briefly led to the revival of an idea of Roman imperium; and Bede cites as perhaps his greatest achievement the striking image that ‘there was so great a peace in Britain, wherever the dominion of King Edwin reached, that, as the proverb still runs, a woman with a newborn child could walk throughout the island from sea to sea and take no harm’.92 The king, we are told, even set up posts with bronze drinking vessels at springs along his highways (the Roman roads?) so that travellers might be refreshed; and no one had ever stolen one of these vessels. This was not just imperial hubris; it was an idea, apparently novel, of the king’s peace. The modern traveller could do with some such conveniences: public drinking fountains, or at least a safe means of negotiating busy A-roads.

How far can we believe Bede’s portrayal of Edwin as a force so powerful that he could impose domestic peace while at the same time conjuring an image of the horned, spear-wielding embodiment of tribal virility and martial brilliance? Eight miles east of Malton lies the tiny village of West Heslerton, where a paradoxically huge campaign of excavation has revealed the most complete example yet found of a settlement contemporary with the Golden Age of Northumbrian kings. Dominic Powlesland has been excavating and surveying this part of the Vale of Pickering since my time as an undergraduate. In those days Dominic was living an attractive, chaotic hippyish lifestyle in a house in the middle of the vale whose origins lay in a medieval abbey (there was a gothic arch in one of the bedrooms). His idea was that landscapes must be understood on the grand scale; when he excavated he had machines strip topsoil by the hectare; his geophysics team maps by the square mile. He was a pioneer of computerised on-site recording (I remember the night when he inherited his first computer from his father: an ancient Wang that he learned to programme from scratch). It was a colourful, exciting time; Dominic hardly ever seemed to sleep.

The Anglian village at West Heslerton is the most fully understood settlement of the period. Others of the same era—Mucking in Essex, West Stow in Suffolk, Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire—have only been partially recovered. Most Early Medieval settlements are inaccessible to archaeologists: they lie beneath contemporary towns and villages, a sign of the continuity our landscape has enjoyed for the last fifteen hundred years. Philip Rahtz used to say that nothing much has changed; the peasants pay their taxes and it doesn’t much matter to whom they pay them.

If the traditional Bedan story of the coming of the English is to be believed, then West Heslerton ought to be a new settlement of the fifth century, contemporary with the pagan burials of incomers on the high Wolds. But that is not the case. The site was occupied in the late Roman period when a shrine was constructed around a spring that emerges from the north scarp of the Wolds along a stratum of clay. Earlier Roman and Iron Age habitation has been found by geophysicists in a strip of so-called ladder settlements that runs parallel with the north edge of the Wolds, but lower down in the Vale, closer to the rising water table. It was a densely settled landscape. The axes of many of the territorial boundaries here show that each community benefited from a strip of land extending from the river up through water meadows to arable fields to pasture, to the transhumant summer grasslands of the Wold top. As the water-table rose, settlements withdrew to slightly higher, drier ground. A string of villages like West Heslerton grew up on this line; the shrine perhaps reflects the preoccupations of a people whose water meadows had become too watery. The idea that the water of life flowed from the hills where the ancestors lived and died must have given many springs a sense of the sacred. From the Roman shrine, where there were bread ovens and scatters of food rubbish, including oysters—where there are pilgrims there is always trade—the settlement expanded into what we would recognise as a true village: houses, craft and industrial areas, pens for livestock; butcheries; perhaps even orchards, features that would be familiar if not to today’s commuter villagers then to Thomas Hardy’s Woodlanders.

Focus was maintained on the shrine; but despite the advent of Christianity West Heslerton survived until the ninth century—a half millennium of continuity. And it was never defended; there was no rampart or wall, no sign that the village was ever attacked or destroyed by fire. Micro-analysis of a staggering quantity of material retrieved from the excavations—still to be seen in final published form—has allowed specialists to look at very detailed levels of domestic life in an age which could not, here at any rate, be called dark. The complexities of animal husbandry are revealed in the species raised (sheep, pigs, cattle, goats) and in their management; wild food is found: fish and birds; there are beaver, deer and whale bones. It is tempting to match these finds with the evidence of contemporary food renders, of which the best source is the Laws of King Ine, which required a ten-hide estate to provide annually 10 cow hides, 10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ambers of ale and 30 of clear ale; 2 cows, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, an amber of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds of fodder and 100 eels.93 Weaving was a principal activity; there were workshops where tools and devices were forged and maintained. Barley was malted for beer and, perhaps, winter fodder. A mill probably stood on the banks of the stream channel fed by the spring: a case of baking one’s cake and eating it. Glass, pottery and lava querns from Europe are among the imported material found here. Most striking is the evidence of organisation, collective action and the hand of a planner—a lord who, living away from the village in a grand hall, exercised management of his dependent farmers and craftspeople. Here is a stable, organised social and economic landscape, successful by any standards, which shows that through political turmoil, famine and plague, ordinary indigenous people survived the Early Medieval period doing what people do: getting on with life.

Heslerton is the ‘place of the hazel’; a reference, perhaps, to hurdle fences in the village which may have been its distinguishing characteristic for neighbours and visitors. A little to the east, the village of Sherburn has revealed evidence that suggests it was a major estate centre on this side of the Vale. The cemetery which belongs to West Heslerton has also been excavated—another unique feature of the project. Some at least of the individuals interred here seem to have come from outside the immediate locality—possibly Germanic or Scandinavian Europe, but not inconceivably western Britain—but if real cultural identity is defined by behaviour, they seem to have merged seamlessly into the native population. The proliferation of sunken-floored buildings—known asgrubenhäuser or grub huts, they were once seen as a marker for Germanic peasant immigrants—is now thought to be an adaptation to a new sort of estate management. During the Roman period taxation seems to have been direct; but in the centuries of the Early Medieval period, of barn-conversions like those at Birdoswald and Wroxeter, renders such as ale, grain, dried meat and so on might have had to be stored on site before being taken to the vill or estate-centre at specified seasons. The so-called grub huts are larders or miniature barns; and so mature and effective was the economic and social model of the settlement that it was not forced to reinvent itself periodically. It worked and continued to work. That is a remarkable record of social and economic success and archaeologists are being forced to recognise that West Heslerton may be the norm for the Dark Ages, not the exception.

Old Heslerton is buried beneath hillwash and drifting wind-blown sand; today the village is a more modest affair. A church and pub, a small school and the grand house of the inheritors of its lordship survive. The former railway station house survives too; but trains pass it by at speed. The boundaries of the parish, formed as a territorial unit in the late Bronze Age and still partially traceable on the ground, are a legacy of the Giants and a continuous line of ancestors stretching back across the millennia.

My route lay to the west. From Malton I struck out through the Vale’s bleak carrs,94 crossing the River Rye before cutting across country along trackways that followed a co-axial mesh of drainage ditches and long lines of poplars. At Kirby Misperton (‘church village by the medlar tree’), more or less at the dead centre of the Vale, I paused to check my map. The village is on a slight rise, a glacial moraine that protects it from inundation, and it may have been an Early Medieval estate centre or the site of a monastery, protected on all sides by marshes. The sense, in the fading afternoon light of a milky, flat day, that giants had been here before me was heightened when I looked south-west towards a dying sun and saw the outline of the Flamingoland theme park rides silhouetted against the purpling sky, skeletal and otherworldly. A last few kilometres of trudging along flat, straight, empty tarmac roads brought me to the edge of Pickering where I saw a second reverential depiction of St Nicholas in one day: a semi-detached house ablaze with Christmas lights, Santas, snowmen and reindeer.

An idea that the Vale of Pickering was the core of the Deiran homelands seems at first to be reinforced by its resemblance to the Magh Tóchuir of North Inishowen (see page 304). The remains of prehistoric land management look down on three sides. At its northern and western edges, just above the water margins, lay early Christian centres whose siting and deployment reveal the economic and social organisation of the landscape just as surely as West Heslerton does. Two years after Edwin was slain at Hatfield in what is now South Yorkshire, the Bernician exile Oswald reclaimed the Northumbrian kingdom in his father Æthelfrith’s stead. Baptised and perhaps educated on Iona, he founded the monastery on Lindisfarne, completed Paulinus’s church at York, and instituted an English Christian state which has survived ever since. His reign was short; his legacy lasting. After his death in 642 at Oswestry (see page 75) his brother Oswiu took up the reins of Christian kingship in imitation of the Irish church; but his politics were blended with those of his wife, Edwin’s prodigal daughter Eanflæd, who had been brought up in exile at the Frankish court. A remarkable woman, her fingerprints are all over Oswiu’s domestic policies, ensuring that they were informed by a more than parochial interest in missionary priests. Their combined strategy had a distinctly European flavour.

Oswiu maintained his family’s patronage of the Lindisfarne community but, having married a Deiran, he recognised the need for a hearts-and-minds diplomatic initiative. Besides, his queen had her own lines of patronage. When a collateral member of her family, Oswine, sub-king of Deira, rebelled against the king and was then betrayed and murdered by one of Oswiu’s thegns, Eanflæd persuaded her husband to found a monastery close to the site of the murder in expiation, and to appoint as its first abbot her kinsman Trumhere. Reading between the lines, we can see this as an attempt to avoid an otherwise inevitable blood-feud. There are two candidates for the site of the monastery, which Bede names as Gilling: Gilling West, near Scotch Corner, is a plausible option; but it might alternatively have lain on the very western edge of the Vale of Pickering at East Gilling, which lies on the line of a Roman road called the Street that runs up Ryedale from Old Malton.

In later years, when Oswiu was severely pressed by the predations of Penda of Mercia and was forced to give up an incalculable treasure to the Mercian king to ward off further invasions (the episode is a historical possibility for the origin of the Staffordshire hoard),95 Oswiu promised his God that should he be victorious in battle he would give his daughter Ælfflæd and twelve estates to the church, six of which would be donated from lands in Bernicia, six in Deira; they were to be of ten hides (or family farms) each: modest in size, if one remembers the ten-hide render cited in Ine’s Laws. After Oswiu’s dramatic and decisive victory over Penda and his allies at the Battle of the Winwæd in 655, he duly delivered. The archaeologist Ian Wood has suggested that several of the Deiran monasteries can be identified around the Vale of Pickering: at Hovingham (which also lies along the Street) and Stonegrave, perhaps at Kirkdale, Coxwold and Crayke. In all of these places there is evidence for an early foundation.

The politics are suggestive: a Bernician king alienating core Deiran lands from potential rivals to his overlordship; the planting of a monastic colony to match those north of the Tyne and to give opportunities for non-martial careers among the Deiran royal family; the beginnings of a capital landholding system and an idea of a literate elite. This is not mere largesse: it is the politics of a rational attempt to construct a state. It must be read alongside the evidence from West Heslerton of a thriving rural population whose graft and economic success were capable of supporting the elite (warrior or monk) from their surplus. Above all, and taken with the Early Medieval penchant for interring aristocratic bodies in prehistoric burial mounds (and some of these overlook Ryedale and its Roman road), it suggests a collective sensibility to the ancestors and their landscape, an acknowledgement that they still felt the Giants watching them from the heights of the Moors and Wolds: sitting in judgement.

If the Dark Ages began at Birdoswald, their mutation into a new era can be traced here. But the Magh Tóchuir analogy cannot be taken too far. Oswiu was no fool: there is no evidence that he gave away, or allowed to be given away, any royal estates in the Wolds or along the southern edge of the Vale, the older territories of the Deiran homeland. That seems to have remained a secular, ancestrally potent landscape.

In any case, Oswiu’s six new monastic estates were not the first footprints of this new venture. His nephew, Oswald’s son Œthelwald, whom he had favoured with an appointment as Deiran sub-king and who repaid him with rebellion during the Penda campaigns, founded a monastery at Lastingham under the rule of Cedd, former bishop of East Anglia and one of four priestly brothers of Northumbrian stock. Lastingham lay:

amid some steep and remote hills which seemed better suited for the haunts of robbers and the dens of wild beasts than for human habitation.96

When I walked into Lastingham village, on the southern edge of the North York Moors, during the morning of my third day, I had already passed a party of tweed-clad hunters, with their Labradors, out pheasant shooting. These are no longer the haunts of robbers or very wild beasts: this is rich farming country. The splendid, basilica-like church at Lastingham sits on a knoll overlooking a huddle of elegant houses at the centre of the village. The springs that rise here, now regarded as holy wells, might have been a focus for animist veneration and divination long before Cedd, who is said to have had to cleanse the place from the ‘stain of former crimes’. Cedd spent his last years there, dying in an outbreak of the plague against whose virulence even Lastingham’s celebrated remoteness was not proof. The first church built here was wooden, in the Irish tradition. It was later replaced by a stone church which may not have survived the depredations of the ninth-century Viking invasions. It was not refounded until the eleventh century, when the crypt that survives was constructed as a shrine to venerate its first abbot. I stood before the altar and was tempted to ask the verger about the symbolic irony of having a decorated Christmas tree in there (all very pagan), but bit my lip and instead descended to the crypt. It is every bit as evocative of the seventh century as if it had been built in the years after Wilfrid, Cedd’s successor, constructed his stone crypts at Hexham and Ripon. It is part mausoleum, part chapel with a foot in the pagan underworld and another in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Rome. The low lighting and ceiling, the Romanesque sweep of the vaults and round-arched windows are a world and more away from the Gothic elaborations upstairs.

In Œthelwald’s donation one can trace the origins of a competitive element in monastic foundations, the starting gun for several generations of entrepreneurial patrons. Monasteries attracted wealth, particularly if they possessed saintly or royal relics. Senior appointments tended to be kept within discrete family lines. The community, in recognising the founding gift, supported and legitimised that patron and his or her descendants (if they continued to favour that church with gifts of land, relics and other treasure). Oswiu’s founding of no fewer than six monasteries in one fell swoop might be seen as a competitive Bernician response to the patronage of sub-kings and other great lords of Deira.

The transition from a psychological landscape of animism, wooden idols, auguries, fragile temporal kingdoms and customary laws into the rational, state-based, stone-built book-keeping world of Bede’s day could not be recorded more emphatically than here. A hundred years after Edwin’s conversion, King Wihtred of Kent made it explicit, enshrining the basic guiding principles of medieval Europe in his first two decrees:

1. The church [is to be] free from taxation

1.1 And the king is to be prayed for97

From Lastingham a path led directly up onto the moors, a horizon-stretching, heather-bound, treeless plateau deeply incised by valleys. Its southern edge lies on limestone, but from here upwards the massif is sandstone. There is no shelter: cold as it was, I was lucky to be crossing on such a pure sparkling day of blue sky, green and purple moor and dry, sandy path. I was alone, an icy wind pressing me on. Cedd’s monks must have grazed their sheep up here and taken their hives out into the flowering purple of its summer blossom. In winter they might have made this same crossing, on the way to Whitby, very much the senior house of the Deiran kingdom. With wolves, lynx and bears still roaming the wastes, it must have been a hazardous undertaking. Here and there lie the remains of more ancient burials and standing stones, reminders of earlier generations of pastoralists, and markers for travellers in an otherwise featureless upland plain.

At Rosedale Abbey (a Cistercian priory once stood here; virtually nothing remains of it) I came off the moor, hoping that the village store might sell me a pasty, or one of its cafés provide a life-giving cup of tea. But all was shut, even on a Saturday. I perched on a bench munching oatcakes and cheese and then, too cold to sit still, was on my way again, up the other side of the dale and onto Rosedale Moor at nearly fifteen hundred feet. Here, old iron workings, standing stones and weather-worn crosses jostle for attention at crossroads or the heads of valleys. As the sun crept towards the horizon I came down into Danby Dale and out of the wind.

Danby Dale is a curiosity. Bronze Age cairns look down on it like a frown. Not much more than three miles long, it runs directly north from the moors and opens onto the west–east-running Eskdale at Castleton. The village which gives the dale its name lies a couple of miles east of that. At the head of the dale a hamlet called Botton thrives improbably, cut off from the outside world. There is a sawmill here, an active school and a strong sense of communal pride in the place. It boasts a self-supporting community of vulnerable adults and their carers, a fragmentary survival of what seems like a lost sense of belonging.

What strikes the archaeologist, looking at a map, is the number of farms strung out on both sides, at identical heights, two thirds of the way up from the beck and lying just below a fringe of stone-walled meadows that have been carved out of the rough hillside where the valley sides become too steep to cultivate. The farms are linked, like a festoon of lights, by a single continuous track and they are spaced as regularly as if they had been planned. Each farm seems to own a strip of fields either side of the house, running up from the beck to the scarp so that each has a section of beck-side meadow, gently sloping arable fields and then pastures (a Vale of Pickering in miniature). Given the name of the place, which means ‘valley of the village of the Danes’, I am tempted to suggest that here is evidence of the landnam parcelling out of defeated territories by the Viking warrior King Halfdan among the veterans of his invasion army of the 860s. In 875, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Halfdan ‘shared out the lands of the Northumbrians and they were engaged in ploughing and making a living for themselves’. As if to add circumstance to my nice theory, at the back of the otherwise unprepossessing church that stands at the centre of the dale are two Anglo-Saxon stone columns, half-hidden behind later walls. It was now too dark for me to nose around the churchyard for Scandinavian surnames like Anderson or Larson; I must come back again, perhaps to get a closer look at the farmhouses and ask the locals if they know anything of its early history. For now I had my mind set on a hot shower and food in Castleton.

On midwinter’s day I set off long before dawn on the last leg of my journey to Whitby. In a swallowing, hungry darkness I followed the edge of the high ground along the north side of Eskdale, looking across at the gaping mouths of valleys which bite, one after the other, deep into the high moors: Danby Dale; Fryup Dale; Glaisdale. Some time after nine it looked as though the sun might rise over the distant coast: the sky was a rippled purple, iridescent and supernatural. But that was the most I saw of it. The day never got much lighter.

Once I dipped down to cross a small beck by a footbridge, and the path led up through hazel coppice and oakwood before dodging around a farm. At Egton I hoped I would find somewhere open for breakfast; or at least a shop. But there was only a pub, and no signs of life. I took a small lane that climbed back to the edge of the moor, whose sheep must by now have been brought down onto lower, more sheltered ground for the winter. The odd burial mound caught my eye, a pimple against the purple-grey skyline. Far to the south-east, monstrously disproportioned, an immense concrete monument to Cold War paranoia, a scaled-up tumulus from the nuclear era, beat the landscape into submission on Fylingdales Moor. At Aislaby I came down to the banks of the River Esk, and followed the main road that I knew must lead to Whitby, and the sea.

Whitby (Old Norse: ‘White settlement’), Bede’s Sinus fari (‘Bay of the Lighthouse’) and, most historians agree, the Streanæshalch of the famous synod of 664.98 After his defeat of Penda, his only serious external rival, in 655, King Oswiu increasingly spent his political capital on extending the influence of the church and exploring its potential as an instrument of state. He sponsored alliances with Mercian royalty (a wedding and conversion ceremony at Newburn). He maintained Ionan influence at the community of Lindisfarne. At times he found himself outflanked by Deiran subkings, his cousin Oswine and his nephew Œthelwald both attempting rebellion. His son Alhfrith (by his first queen, Rheged-born Rieinmelth) set up a rival seat of ecclesiastical power at Ripon under the arch-entrepreneur Wilfrid. Wilfrid had been to Rome, was a zealous proselytiser on behalf of the orthodox and an enemy of both the British church and of Iona and its schismatic practices. It does not take the refined sensibilities of a political historian to appreciate that not only were these Deiran princes potential threats to Oswiu’s idea of a unified Northumbria; they were threats to the future prospects of his son by Eanflæd: Ecgfrith. If Oswiu thought he could keep all the interested parties happy by allowing collateral members of the family to experience vice-regal power in Deira, he was being naïve; his queen was under no such illusion. Alhfrith was a problem requiring a solution.

The crisis came in 664 when the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit (the first native-born holder of that office) forced Oswiu’s hand. Bede tells us that the royal household had fallen out over their alternative celebrations of Easter. More prosaically, in order to have influence, as overlord of the English kingdoms, on the Pope’s next metropolitan appointee, Oswiu must consider accepting papal and Roman authority. Wilfrid had succeeded in nurturing Romanist ideas in Alhfrith and might have played on the queen’s orthodox upbringing to further pressurise the king. If Alhfrith were to make a military move, Deira and Bernicia must split, forcing a rift at the heart of Oswiu’s new state project, not to mention in the royal bedchamber.



Oswiu called a synod to Whitby, whose abbess, Hild, is an outstanding figure of the age. This was a matter of state; and the state would decide in conference. A great-niece of Edwin and kinswoman of the queen, Hild hosted the synod. Her sympathies were Irish, like the king’s and those of the abbot-bishops of Lindisfarne. On the Roman side, Wilfrid acted as spokesman (and agent provocateur) for the senior orthodox bishop, the Frankish Agilbert—and for his royal sponsor, Alhfrith. One of the most impressive aspects of the synod is its administration: if one thinks of the complexities of organising, hosting and feeding conference delegates today one’s head spins. Whitby must have been planned ahead; extraordinary renders must have been forced on surrounding estates; envoys must have been sent by land and sea; temporary accommodation must have been constructed.

Oswiu’s consummate outflanking of his opponents by agreeing that the English church must accept orthodoxy was a masterstroke of political subtlety that, perhaps more than any other contemporary development, shows the maturity and breadth of vision that the Oswiu/Eanflæd marriage had produced just a generation after the apostasies of the first quarter of the seventh century. Alhfrith was never heard of again (there is said to have been a fatal battle near Pickering, but Bede is silent). Eanflæd’s son, the ill-fated Ecgfrith, who would come to grief in Pictland, eventually succeeded to the kingship. Wilfrid continued to be a thorn in the royal side for another forty years. But the English kingdoms were united in their orthodoxy and the Pope’s eventual appointee to Canterbury, Theodore, proved to be a gifted reformer, administrator and educator who succeeded in resolving dangerous conflicts between the Christian English kingdoms. Only the Irish party lost out: many disillusioned monks returned to their native land. Even so the influence of Irish and Columban Christian culture did not end: it pervaded Northumbria’s Golden Age and invigorated the conversion of northern Europe during the eighth century. In 670/1 King Oswiu was the first of his line to die in his own bed.

I had booked a room in a noisy town-centre pub, where Sarah was to join me for the evening. As the shortest day of the year merged imperceptibly with the longest night, I sat in the bar and witnessed a fight between two football fans infuriated by a goal they had just seen on the big screen TV from a local derby fifty miles away. That evening Sarah and I walked up through Whitby’s narrow, Christmassy streets to the abbey on the headland, the sea a dark stain in the east and the lights of the town playing on the sheltered waters of its harbour; behind us the jagged ruinous outline of the successor to Hild’s abbey, now a moody gothic ruin and mecca for Dracula fans mostly unaware of an earlier, dramatic catharsis between opposing moral forces played for the highest stakes.

Christmas 2014. Seamus O’Kane’s bodhrán arrives and gets its first run-out at a gig. It is sensational. In the news is the most exotic delivery in history: a ratchet spanner is emailed from Earth to the International Space Station where it materialises in a 3D printer. Another import: the first Ebola case arrives in Britain from Sierra Leone. Some clever engineers are about to start work on a tidal barrage in Swansea Bay, reinventing seventhcentury technology. Elsewhere, the winter mood is reflected in strife and disaster: tensions in eastern Ukraine and a plummeting oil price bring the prospect of civil war in that country and instability in Russia; millions of Syrian refugees face a winter in temporary camps; migrants trying to cross from Africa to Europe are abandoned at sea by their ship’s crew; an Indonesian AirAsia flight from Surabaya crashes off Borneo, killing everyone on board; a ferry sinks—more deaths in the Adriatic Sea; soup kitchens and food banks ply their trade on the streets of Britain and hospitals overflow.

Ann. MMXIV Dies tenebrosa sicut nox.

Days as dark as night.

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