The Anglo-Saxon Period
Northumbria was governed, under the King, Ethelred II, by an earl named Uhtred. He belonged to one of the great magnate families of northern England, had held his office of earl for at least ten years, was famed for his military prowess, and was the lord of extensive acres and many retainers. What is more, he was connected by marriage to the royal family: his third and current wife, in 1016, was a daughter of King Ethelred II. Earl Uhtred was, thus, a figure of immense wealth, power and prestige; quite simply, the most important man in the north of England. It was essential for Canute to secure his submission and gain his loyalty.
Earl Uhtred came to the meeting accompanied, as a great nobleman should be in a display of status, by an escort of military retainers – forty of them, we are told, and though the figure be both round and biblical we are not required to disbelieve it. As befitted a ritual exchange of peace, and given the guarantee of safe-conduct, weapons and body-armour would have been left with the horses outside, in the care of grooms and servants. Uhtred and his men entered the hall and stood in a body before Canute. If it were one of those brightly sunny days that you sometimes get in northern England in early spring they would have needed time for their eyes to accustom themselves to the gloomy interior.
Treachery was afoot. Another northern magnate, an old enemy of Uhtred’s named Thurbrand, had prepared an ambush with Canute’s connivance. Suddenly, armed and mailed men sprang out from concealment behind the hangings and slaughtered Uhtred and his men, every one. After a desperate and bloody mêlée which lasted perhaps only a few minutes, forty-one corpses lay among the rushes on the floor.
This act of treachery and slaughter set in motion the chain reaction of counter-violence and yet further violence, a bloodfeud that lasted for three generations and almost sixty years, which is the subject of this book.
This book is ostensibly about Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, son in law of King Ethelred II and “most important man in the north of England”, but like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, it is really a history of a place and period made more accessible (more reader-friendly) by focussing like a biography on one key figure. That key figure, Earl Uhtred, was treacherously murdered in 1016, setting in train a bloodfeud that spanned the closing years of Anglo-Saxon England and the early years of Norman rule.
The first chapter explains exactly what a bloodfeud was and was not, setting it in context as something familiar and normal and “right” in an age when “justice” was hard to come by. This is followed by the best brief history of Anglo-Saxon England I have ever read, taking us from the original settlements to Alfred and Wessex and the Danes, the emergence of the Wessex dynasty as Kings of all England, and so to the great King Edgar (excellently depicted, by the way, in Anya Seton’s Avalon).
The focus then switches to the north and the history of Northumbria and the northern context before returning to the south and Edgar’s son Ethelred the Ill-advised (more often known as the Unready, but Ill-advised is a better translation) and Athelstan and Edmund Ironside, and how the situation in which Canute was able to demand the attendance, unarmed, of such a man as Uhtred, came about.
It is not just a story of a bloodfeud, it is a whole history of the period up to the Conquest by one who, again like Barbara Tuchman, is both an entertaining and fluent writer and an historian with an intimate knowledge both of his chosen period and of the man and the sequence of events that in his view best represent and embody that period.
Highly recommended both to those already hooked on the Anglo-Saxon period and to newcomers.