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Thursday, 25 October 2012

The magic of setting a romance in Anglo-Saxon England

When writing my first historic romance, there were two things I was sure of: that I would set the tale in Anglo-Saxon England, and that the story would center around King Raedwald – the king thought to be buried in the Sutton Hoo burial site near Woodbridge, Suffolk.

I love British history and when I studied Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature at university, the culture and way of life of these periods fascinated me. Contrary to what many might think, there was a vast cultural difference between Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval England. Anglo-Saxons lived in the period before the arrival of the Vikings and, later, the Normans. The Anglo-Saxons themselves had once been invaders – blond bullies from across the sea who attacked, pillaged and burned their way across Britannia before settling it, and pushing the native Celts north and west. Their arrival coincided with the departure of the Romans, who after five centuries, had decided to abandon their northernmost colony.

My story begins in 624 A.D – Britannia was largely pagan at this time as Christianity was in its infancy here. Anglo-Saxons worshipped the likes of Woden, Thor, Freya and the Roman cult of Mithras and lived by the pagan calendar of seasonal celebrations such as Yule and Beltane. They inhabited a violent world and believed that wyrd, fate, ruled the course of their lives. No dungeons or prisons existed at this time – rulers dealt with those who opposed them by exile, maiming, beheading or hanging. It was also a world of mystery and superstition – so it’s not surprising that this period influenced the likes of Tolkien. Although men dominated the Anglo-Saxon world, the women were also a force to be reckoned with and the rules of propriety and courtly conduct that came with the Norman conquest did not exist in Anglo-Saxon England. It was not a classless society, but far less stratified that Medieval England. A man, if favored, could move up through the ranks; or down if stripped of his title.

The history and landscape of Suffolk has always been close to my heart. My mother grew up in this area and I still have many relatives scattered around Woodbridge. Suffolk is a county of huge skies and a gentle, flat landscape. Marshes, woods, farmland and a beautiful shingle coast stretch for miles and, even today, it is a peaceful, forgotten area of England. I visited the Sutton Hoo burial site years ago, and was fascinated by this Saxon longship full of treasures, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet. Many believe King Raedwald, the legendary King of the East Angles, was buried here. Upon visiting the site, which sits close to the banks of the River Deben, I felt my imagination catch fire. What if King Raedwald had a daughter? What if his daughter fell in love with the son of his archenemy? What if the story took place over the last year of Raedwald’s life and culminated with his burial on the shores of the River Deben. The idea for Dark Under the Cover of Night was born.

The Anglo-Saxons were great storytellers, although much of it was oral and told through songs. They loved stories of brotherhood, battles, quests, vengeance and valour – as seen by classics such as Beowulf. They spoke Old English, a lyrical, expressive language, ideal for epic tales. I use many Old English words throughout my story, as there were times when the modern English translation just didn’t do a word justice. The novel’s title Dark Under the Cover of Night is a translation of a line from an Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer: genap under nihthelm.

To give you a final sense of the magic and beauty of this time period - which is why I set my historical romance here - I will leave you with the poem in its entirety:


Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune!
Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære.

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been.

Excerpt from ‘The Wanderer’
Translated from Old English