Posted by: kljolly | March 20, 2014

Happy St. Cuthbert’s Day


Today is a propitious day to return to blogging, even as I realize my last post was over a month ago.  March 20 is St. Cuthbert’s feastday, and Lent as it is, we can celebrate his ascetic life and legacy.

I have hit a writer’s wall (partly built from semester teaching duties) in my effort to place the 19-year old Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.  I am stuck at the place where the battle itself is beginning and how to visualize what Aldred would experience as a non-combatant.

BranaghHenryVWithout experience of such violence myself, and with a strong antipathy to graphic realism in film and print, I am not sure quite how to proceed.  In some ways I am writing against the glorification in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem about the Battle of Brunanburh, and leaning more to the heroism and sadness found in the tone of Beowulf.

On the other hand, my mind’s eye recalls the realism of the battle of Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V:  some scenes are so graphic I turn away, but at the end, the ironic (to me) singing of the Non nobis (not to us, O Lord, but to you be the glory) while walking among the dead, dying, and grieving is what I am picturing for Aldred.  Before that point, I am not sure where to place him in relation to the battle, which goes on all day, sunrise to sunset according the sources, and is the bloodiest on record.  Perhaps assisting clergy with the dead and dying, on one side or the other (or both).


  1. How about having him wait it out at a nearby abbey? Close enough to get reports from the battle (perhaps praying for an outcome) but to not actually see it. Maybe even the king sets up his prayer warriors (soldiers of Christ) to pray for the battle. He could then go out with other monks to care for the dead and dying.

  2. I do have him dithering in an empty prayer tent after everyone else marches off, since he does not think either side is right, but now have him skirting around the battle looking for the injured and dying to bring some comfort.

  3. Hi Karen
    I have a closely related problem that is sort of structural to my whole novel. I think those were very violent times; violent men were running things and violence was both celebrated and rewarded. But like you, I hate violence and avoid watching violent films etc. I am quite stuck with the writing because I have lost confidence in the value of writing a story that is not violent. How can it do justice to the period? but I am certainly not about to write battle scenes. What do I know about battles? Only what i have read and seen on film, so anything I put down would be derivative and probably full of cliche.
    What you could have Cuthbert doing is expressing his horror at what he sees (and trying to help). I have experienced that shiver of revulsion/fear when confronted with wounds, but then gone ahead and treated them anyway. What do you think?

  4. Thanks, Sally, for the encouraging words: I am glad to hear it is not just me as writer/reader struggling with depictions of violence. I am planning to have Aldred walk through the battlefield at end of day, looking for his old family servant and companion who has unwillingly been dragged into the battle.
    In some cases, those who have experienced violent warfare do not speak of the horrors–C.S. Lewis, for example, never really discussed his WWI experiences, although his generation (including Tolkien) were deeply affected by it (a fact overshadowed in our minds by WW2).

  5. This article may be useful. Hooper suggests one role of non-combatants at this time was holding the horses. Hooper has also edited a collection of essays on all aspects of A-S warfare. I’ll see if I can track it down.

    • Another helpful essay, thanks! I am placing Aldred behind the battle lines with the servants, healers, and priests who presumably assisted those coming off the field of battle and after.

      • Karen, the book of essays – which I found invaluable – is ‘Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England’ ed. S.C.Hawkes (Oxford, 1989). Full of insight, detail and information on tactics, organisation, weapons etc.
        A couple of other points. The reference to the length of the battle in the OE poem probably includes the pursuit. Medieval warfare was physically exhausting and you can only wield a sword, shield and heavy spear effectively for a relatively short time.
        Both armies appear to have been arranged in two divisions or ‘battles’ – fairly typical. Swords were expensive prestige items and the commonest weapon among the front-line heavy infantry would have been an ash spear, 8-9 ft long used as a pressing or thrusting weapon by a dense phalanx of men. Other, lightly armed troops would have had a variety of weapons including javelins and farm implements and with no armour, shield or protective head gear.

  6. Regarding the Agincourt Non nobis – a nice touch in the Branagh movie to rival Men of Harlech in Zulu – I read somewhere (in EHD perhaps?) that after Brunanburh the English sang the Te Deum.

    • Some interesting stuff in this very short piece on Athelstan –
      The royal standard was almost certainly the white or gold dragon (Wyvern) of Wessex.

    • I just ordered the Hawkes book through Interlibrary Loan. Thanks for the insights on the course of the battle and weapons–I should put in more spear wounds, something about the pursuit, and also maybe the Te Deum.

      • Perhaps one approach to writing of the battle might be to have your narrator discussing the OE poem and contrasting its account with his own recollections? Just a thought.

      • I do have a section with the older Aldred, thinking back about the battle, commenting on the poet’s glorification of what was a horrific scene, as well as Aldred’s own Northumbrian view of the situation. I am also working on getting Earl Oswulf in the battle, sort of.

  7. Oswulf’s participation or non-participation at Brunanburh (along with the same question regarding the Danes of the Southern Danelaw and of York and the Welsh kings, Hywel Dda and Idwal Foel) is a fascinating topic. The OE poem refers only to West Saxons and Mercians in Athelstan’s army although this may not be conclusive. The Earls of Bamburgh are in a difficult position with the rising powers of Alba and Strathclyde to the north and west, the ever-present threat of Viking incursion through the Solway and the possibilities of a renewed Viking dynasty in York. There is, I think, some charter evidence of land grants by the English to the earls which may have been to try and keep them onside. Against this is the loss of independence and diminution of status they suffered under Athelstan’s imperium. Relations with Constantine seem not unfriendly. There is also the references in the Latin poem in Malmesbury that ‘At the will of the King of the Scots the northern land lends a willing assent’ and in Egils that when the Scots king invaded Northumbria ‘a great many important men joined him.’ My own view is that on balance he kept out of active participation but probably jumped through many diplomatic hoops! If he did fight I would place him with the coalition but in a very unenthusiastic way and even possibly like Stanley at Bosworth?

  8. Yes, this is what I am currently trying to do with Oswulf: have him on the coalition but ambivalent, then a no-show on the battlefield itself.

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