Mists of Time: 23rd April

There’s lots at the moment about Shakespeare, today being the 400th anniversary of his death.

But his was not the only important death on the 23rd April. (I’m not sure about ‘important’. Significant, maybe, or interesting. Are death-days important? Or just morbid? Anyway…)

From my medieval mindset, I tend to start with it being the death-day of two Aethelreds, the first being the elder brother and predecessor Alfred the Great in 871, and the second being Aethelraed the Unready in 1016. Of the two, this year is the greater anniversary for the second, since it’s the 1000th anniversary.

Aethelraed the Unready’s death led to the accession of his son Edmund Ironside. Not that Edmund lasted very long, splitting England with Knut of Denmark following the Battle of Assandun on 18th October 1016, and then dying himself at the end of November that year. Knut took Wessex and crowned himself King of England.

On 23rd April 1014, it was the day of the Battle of Clantarf in Ireland, when Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig (Brian Boru to most of us), High King of Ireland, led a force against an Irish-Norse alliance, and had a good’n’bloody fight (tens of thousands dead kind of thing), ostensibly victorious, although since he also died, along with his son and grandson, that’s a matter of opinion.

For the literary, and more modern, world, William Wordsworth snuffed it on this day in 1850, and Rupert Brooke, a WWI war poet, in 1915, of a sepsis complication following a mosquito bite.

And for the interested, 9 years ago, in 2007, Boris Yeltsin, First President of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, died.

But Shakespeare. Let’s return to Shakespeare and his literary mark on the world. The Guardian have a piece today suggesting that if he were alive today, he’d be a crime novelist. Admittedly this piece was written by a crime novelist (with a book out), but do you agree? Would he still be a poet and playwright, or would he be doing something else? Literary or otherwise…

Mists of Time: The Viking Age

As a reader, the most important part of any novel is the story. A character or two for whom I can feel some sort of emotion (other than complete loathing) comes a close second in the list of priorities for choosing what to read.

As a writer, that story and those characters can come from anywhere.

I tend to find History to be full of both. There have been many, excellent, stories over the centuries. Leastways, I think so, and given the number of historical novels, apparently so do quite a few others. Anyway, as a step along my path, rather than just reading history and occasionally making notes in one of my many notebooks, I’m going to start sharing some of those stories here.

But first, I shall explain a little about the Viking Age. I’ve been doing that quite a bit recently – part of explaining my CV and background as a Viking Studies graduate.

The Viking Age is a very specific period. It is usually taken to begin with the attack on Lindisfarne at the end of the 8th Century, in 793, and the normal end-date of the period is 1066, with the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the death of the Last Viking, Harald Hardrada, at the hands of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England Harold Godwinson (well, OK, his army). Harold didn’t last much longer, dying at Hastings a few weeks later, leaving England in the hands of William of Normandy.

Actually, the Viking Age lasted a bit longer in the peripheries – in Scotland and Ireland – and had long since ended in mainland Europe and Byzantium.

After a bloody Ninth Century, Charles the Simple of France signed a treaty with Rollo the Viking in 911, offering him land in northern France in return for protection from other Vikings. Rollo said thanks, and proceeded to spread his wings a bit further along the French coast, with the Duchy of Normandy being established a couple of generations later, under Richard the Fearless (942-996).

In Byzantium, Vikings went from occasional raiders to Imperial guards, when Basil II formed the Varangians in 988. He decided he couldn’t trust his own people and recruited from the Northmen. Before he became King of Norway, Harald Hardrada was a very successful leader in the Varangian Guards.

To go ‘a-viking’ was something of a rite of passage for young male Scandinavians. Norwegians and Danes tended to west, towards the British Isles and mainland Europe; Swedes went east, down the rivers of eastern Europe towards Byzantium. Along the way, they also helped to establish Kiev and Russia – they were known as the Rus.

And that’s it briefly. I’ve glossed over it, and not talked much about Ireland and Scotland, but there will be more details when I’m talking about more specific people and not simply being brief.