30 August, 2010

August recipe: Plum and almond tart

Late summer is the season for plums. I’ve previously posted recipes for plum cake and baked plums with blackberries. Here’s another plum recipe, this time for a plum and almond tart.

Plum and almond tart

For the pastry:
8 oz (approx 250 g) plain flour
3 oz (approx 100 g) icing sugar
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
1 egg
Or you can use ready-made pastry if you prefer

For the filling:
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) caster sugar
1 egg
2 oz (approx 50 g) ground almonds
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) plain flour
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) dark rum (optional)
About 6 plums (more if they are very small, fewer if they are very large)

To make the pastry:

Sieve the icing sugar.

Cream the butter and icing sugar until pale and fluffy.

Beat in the egg.

Beat in the flour to form a dough.

This quantity of pastry is enough for three 7-inch tart cases, so divide the dough into three and freeze what you don’t need immediately. (It’s the same pastry that I use for strawberry cheesecake and Seville orange tart, if you want suggestions for what to do with the rest).

Wrap one portion in cling film or foil and refrigerate for about an hour. (If you are in a hurry, you can roll the pastry out straight away, but it will be quite soft if it’s at room temperature so handle it gently).

Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface, and line a greased tart tin about 7 inches (approximately 18 cm) in diameter. Don’t try to roll it out too thin. If the pastry breaks or tears when you lift it into the tin, don’t worry too much. Press the broken edges back together like Plasticene and you’ll probably get away with it.

To make the filling:

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Beat in the egg.

Stir in the ground almonds and flour. Stir in the rum (if using)

Put the almond mixture into the tart case and level the surface.

Halve the plums and remove the stones.

Arrange the halved plums in a pattern of your choice on top of the tart, cut side up.

Bake at about 180 C for about 30 minutes until the filling is set and golden.

Serve hot or cold, with whipped cream if liked.

I generally expect to get about 6 slices out of this recipe, but it depends how large a slice you like.

The cooked tart will keep for 2-3 days at room temperature, if it gets the chance.

25 August, 2010

Afterglow and Nightfall, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1977. Edition reviewed: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402237607. This edition includes all four of the Brothers of Gwynedd novels in one binding. Afterglow and Nightfall, 199 pages. Complete quartet, 782 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet covers the following four novels:

  • Sunrise in the West

  • The Dragon at Noonday

  • The Hounds of Sunset

  • Afterglow and Nightfall

Afterglow and Nightfall is the final instalment in the Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, set in 1278–1283. It completes the story of Llewelyn ap Griffith and his brother David. Most of the main characters are historical figures, including Llewelyn and David, Llewelyn’s wife Eleanor de Montfort and King Edward I of England. The narrator Samson, Llewelyn’s friend and confidential clerk is fictional, as is his beloved Cristin and her husband Godred.

After his brother David’s third and worst betrayal, and the consequent disastrous defeat by Edward I, Llewelyn is left as prince of a much-reduced Gwynedd and forced to swear fealty to Edward as the price of peace (events told in The Hounds of Sunset.) The bitterness of Llewelyn’s defeat is at least partly compensated by the happiness of his marriage to the beautiful and heroic Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort. But no-one with Edward I for a neighbour, or David for a brother, can expect to live peacefully for long. Edward and his officials relentlessly undermine the terms of the peace with injustice after injustice. As Welsh grievances against Edward mount, David is goaded into action. His loyalty may prove more fatal to Llewelyn than his treachery, as he strikes the blow that unleashes Edward’s wrath against the princes of Gwynedd.

With a title like Afterglow and Nightfall, you can probably guess that the history on which the novel is based is not the sunniest of subject matter. If Hounds of Sunset was full of a sense of gathering clouds, in Afterglow and Nightfall the storm breaks with a vengeance. The novel is a beautifully written elegy on tragedy and loss. The lyrical prose that is one of the great beauties of this quartet of novels if, if anything, even more poetic in this final act. It has the rich detail and brilliant colour of a stained glass window.

Narrated throughout by Samson, Llewelyn’s friend and clerk, the story is told entirely from the Welsh viewpoint. Whether Llewelyn was in reality quite as heroic a figure as portrayed here is open to debate, but there is no doubt which side the reader is expected to be on (and will be on, unless you have a heart of stone). Nevertheless, the novel doesn’t slip into one-sided sentimentality. Llewelyn may be remarkably free of flaws, but he is clear-eyed about the limits to Welsh patriotism:

“What they want now is what they wanted then, to preserve their own small rights. […] These are still only a thousand little divided souls clinging desperately to their own privileges and their own lands, and seeing nothing beyond. As they turned from me to Edward, when he seemed best to offer them security, so now they will turn from Edward to me, now they are looking for another saviour. […] There is no salvation there.”

The political and legal machinations that led up to the war of 1282-1283 are clearly set out. For example the Arwystli lawsuit, which can seem an incomprehensible legal quagmire of the sort described by Dickens in Bleak House, emerges here in its full political significance. Its tortuous progress is used as an indicator of Llewelyn’s gradual (and, as presented in the novel, justified) loss of faith in Edward’s honesty. If you have ever been puzzled as to how the war and its disasters came about, this quartet (especially Books 3 and 4) is a good place to start. What is especially impressive is that the political and legal events – which might sound rather dry stuff, on the face of it – are key to the emotional drama. It is these events that force Llewelyn and David to their final agonising choice, and in this novel the reader understands how that was brought about.

Although Llewelyn is the peerless hero of the novel, as throughout the quartet, it is David who is the pivot of the story. Brilliant, ambitious, vibrant and dangerous as ever, it is David’s action that triggers the final act in the drama. His treachery in Hounds of Sunset set the destruction of Llewelyn’s work in train; now that he and Llewelyn are finally reconciled his loyalty proves no less perilous. David has grown in stature over the quartet and is at least as memorable a character as Llewelyn himself – possibly more so because of his contradictions and complexities.

Samson’s star-crossed love for the beautiful and noble Cristin, which has been a constant backdrop throughout the series, is finally resolved in Afterglow and Nightfall. Very cleverly, too, in circumstances that raise intriguing parallels with the greater storyline. ‘Brothers of Gwynedd’ can be taken in more than one way. It also allows the book to end on an uplifting note – a small light amidst the great shadow, as Samson says at the end.

A family tree at the beginning helps to keep the characters straight, though I found the text sufficiently clear that I never needed to refer to it, and a glossary of Welsh terms at the back may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. Readers who like to trace the campaigns and journeys on a map may like to have an atlas to hand, as there is no map in the book (at least, not in the advance reading copy).

Hauntingly beautiful final instalment in the story of Llewelyn and David ap Griffith, the last princes of independent Wales.

17 August, 2010

Old English gods and myths: Eotens

The most famous monster in Old English poetry must be Grendel, the man-eating enemy in the poem Beowulf. The poem mainly refers to Grendel by name as an individual. Grendel is also called an ‘eoten’, e.g. at the climax of the fight with Beowulf when Grendel is struggling to break loose from Beowulf’s grip:

The monster strained away
--Beowulf, line 761, translated by Michael Alexander
Eoten was utweard
--Beowulf, line 761

Eotens in general are also referred to in the poem, sometimes in association with ‘cyn’, meaning something like tribe or kindred:

--Beowulf, line 112

eotena cyn
--Beowulf, line 421

eotena cynnes
--Beowulf, line 884

So eotens were a particular type – the modern term might be something like species – of monster, and Grendel could be described as an eoten. What sort of creatures were eotens thought to be?


From Cain came down all kinds misbegotten
- ogres and elves and evil shades -
as also the Giants, who joined in long
wars with God.
--Beowulf, lines 111-114, translated by Michael Alexander

eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas,
swylce gigantas
--Beowulf, line 112-113

In this list of monsters ‘eotenas’ (here translated as ‘ogres’) are considered by the Beowulf poet to be descendants of Cain, the first murderer. They are clearly seen as one among several types of evil creatures – “all kinds misbegotten”.


The fell and fen his fastness was
The march his haunt
--Beowulf, lines 102-103

... walked nightlong
The misty moorland
--Beowulf, lines 161-162

...up steep screes, by scant tracks
Where only one might walk, by wall-faced cliffs,
Through haunted fens – uninhabitable country
--Beowulf, lines 1410-1411

So Grendel (and presumably other eotens) lived in wilderness and wasteland, including mountains (fells), moorlands and marshes or fens. The kind of country where humans cannot, or at any rate do not, live.

Grendel’s particular home is in an underground cave reached by swimming down through a mountain lake in a swallow hole:

Mysterious is the region
They live in – of wolf-fells, wind-picked moors
And treacherous fen-paths: a torrent of water
Pours down dark cliffs and plunges into the earth
An underground flood
--Beowulf line 1357-1361

Appearance and behaviour

Grendel and his mother are described in Beowulf:

...a pair
Of huge wayfarers haunting the moors,
Otherworldly ones: and one of them,
So far as they might make it out,
Was in woman’s shape: but the shape of a man,
Though twisted, trod also the tracks of exile –
Save that he was more huge than any human being
--Beowulf, lines 1347-1353

There’s no more detailed description in the poem, but this shows clearly that eotens were considered to be approximately humanoid in form but larger than a human.

Beowulf’s wrestling matches with Grendel and then with Grendel’s mother show that eotens were considered to be immensely strong.

Both Grendel and Grendel’s mother only ever come to Heorot by night. During the day they lie up in the cave under the lake. So eotens were considered nocturnal.*

The eotens’ diet consists of human flesh in prodigious quantities, as the Beowulf poet describes in grisly detail:

Grim and greedy, he grasped on their pallets
Thirty warriors, and away he was out of there,
Thrilled with his catch
--Beowulf, lines 122-124

...He set his hands on
A sleeping soldier, savagely tore at him,
Gnashed at his bone-joints, bolted huge gobbets,
Sucked at his veins, and had soon eaten
All of the dead man, even down to his
Hands and feet
--Beowulf, lines 741-745

There is no indication that eotens are superior to humans in cunning, intellect, technology or magic. Grendel and Grendel’s mother do not lay traps or cast spells, they just grab people and eat them. They are formidable because their physical strength is superior to that of the average human warrior. Beowulf is possessed of superhuman strength and overcomes them by physical might, aided by a sword in the case of Grendel’s mother.


This gives a fairly clear picture of eotens – assuming that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are typical of the species – as large, strong, malevolent, nocturnal, roughly humanoid creatures that live in wastelands and like to eat human flesh. They do not appear to make use of technology or magic, nor are they shown as cunning or devious. I don’t think we can tell whether they are thought of as stupid compared with humans, because neither Grendel nor Beowulf tries to outwit the other.

So, what word to use for these creatures (or, more precisely, characters’ beliefs about these creatures) in fiction? I could use the Old English word ‘eoten’ from the Beowulf poem. However, it is no longer in common use in modern English, so not many modern readers are likely to recognise it. I could modernise the spelling to something like ‘ettin’ or ‘etten’, as Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings (“...the Ettenmoors, the troll-fells north of Rivendell…”, as Aragorn says in Book I Ch. 12). But that’s not much more recognisable to a modern reader, except perhaps to Tolkien geeks. The Oxford English Dictionary categorises ‘ettin, eten, eoten’ as obsolete, so the word can’t even be looked up easily unless one has access to a specialist dictionary.

‘Eoten’ is cognate with the Old Norse ‘jotun’, which occurs frequently in the Norse legends and is usually translated into modern English as ‘giant’. However, the Beowulf poet seems to have thought of ‘eotens’ as somehow different from the creatures called by the Latin-derived name ‘gigantas’, since they are given separately in the same list. That could just be elegant variation to fit the metre, or it could indicate that they were considered different types of monster. Another objection is that the Norse jotuns appear to have been thought of as a group of creatures on a par with the gods. In the stories in the Prose Edda, the jotuns fought with the gods, intermarried with the gods, and lived in a world that was either not part of the human world or was separated from it by a major barrier (see post on the Norse worlds). The Beowulf poet may have been familiar with this sort of concept, since the ‘gigantas’ are described as having fought against God. Eotens, on the other had, seem to be a much more earthbound sort of creature, living in unpleasant corners of the same world that humans live in. Grendel’s lair is less than a day’s ride from Heorot, with no major obstacle in the way. So eotens seem to be a sort of step down the supernatural hierarchy from giants.

Grendel is referred to once in Beowulf as ‘thyrse’, line 426. The Old English word ‘thyrse’ or ‘thurse’ is obsolete in modern English but occasionally appears in place names, e.g. Thirlspot in Cumbria. It’s usually translated as ‘giant’ or ‘demon’. Michael Alexander translates ‘thyrse’ as ‘troll’ in Beowulf for the alliteration – “a trial against this troll”. I could use ‘thyrse’ or a modernised version thereof, but that’s no more easily recognisable than ‘eoten’.

I could use ‘ogre’, as Michael Alexander occasionally does in his translation. However, I don’t personally like the word, partly because it conjures up a more fearsome image than I had in mind and partly because it doesn’t have a particularly Old English or Norse feel about it. ‘Ogre’ doesn’t appear to be directly derived from the Old English ‘orcneas’, by the way – the Oxford English Dictionary says its derivation is from Old French in the late twelfth or thirteenth century, and gives its first recorded use in English as 1713, in a translation of The Arabian Nights. I suppose ‘orcneas’ could have lain dormant for several centuries and resurfaced as ‘ogre’ in 1713 without any recorded trace in the intervening period, but this seems rather unlikely.

In the end I settled on the Norse-derived word ‘troll’. ‘Troll’ occasionally appears in place names in areas in Britain with a strong Norse influence, such as Trollers Gill in Yorkshire (Yorkshire was part of the ninth-century Danelaw and later part of the Anglo-Norse kingdom of York), and especially in northern and western Scotland, such as Trollaval on the island of Rum, and Trolla Vatn in Orkney (a name that could have come straight off a modern Norwegian map; it translates as ‘troll water’ or ‘troll lake’). The ‘Troll’ place names presumably came to Britain with the Norse incursions in the ninth century or so. If cultural links with Scandinavia were also strong in earlier centuries there may be a possibility that ‘troll’ could have been present as a regional dialect word in some regions prior to the ninth century, but there is no evidence for this. The Oxford English Dictionary has no record of ‘troll’ in use in English, except as the regional dialect word ‘trow’ in Orkney and Shetland, until it was (re?)adopted into modern English from Scandinavia in the middle of the nineteenth century. Because of this (re)introduction, ‘troll’ is in use in modern English and is reasonably familiar to a modern reader, if only from the Tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Terry Pratchett, or from Tolkien and/or Peter Jackson’s films.

‘Troll’ has roughly the right image to do duty as a translation for Old English ‘eoten’: large, strong, malevolent, roughly humanoid, not conspicuously bright or devious, wilderness-dwelling, nocturnal creatures who eat human flesh. The modern image of trolls perhaps has a more specifically mountainous or rocky association than the eotens in Beowulf, which may be partly derived from Tolkien’s tale in The Hobbit of three trolls turned to stone by sunlight (a fate that befell a dwarf in the Poetic Edda*). That happens to fit quite well in the context of Exile, much of which is set on the moorland of the Peak District where the strange rock formations play on the beliefs held by some of the characters.

Beowulf Old English text, available online
Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1973, ISBN 0-14-044268-5.
Poetic Edda, Alvissmal, available online

Map links
Trollers Gill
Trolla Vatn

*There’s no indication in Beowulf that Grendel or Grendel’s mother would have turned to stone if exposed to sunlight. A story on those lines is told about a dwarf called Alvis in the Poetic Edda who was tricked by Thor into talking until sunrise and then turned to stone. That story may have been what Tolkien had in mind when he created the scene in The Hobbit of the three trolls turned to stone while they were arguing over the best way to cook thirteen dwarves and one hobbit. (Note that Tolkien’s dwarves don’t have a problem with sunlight.)

10 August, 2010

Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, by Ruth Downie. Book review

Penguin, 2006. ISBN 978-0-141-02725-8. 465 pages.

Also published as Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, and the excessively portentous-sounding Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Sometimes the author’s name appears as Ruth Downie, sometimes as RS Downie.

This historical mystery is set at the Roman Army base of Deva (modern Chester) in Britain in 117 AD. All the characters are fictional.

Gaius Petreius Ruso is a surgeon in the Roman Army medical corps. Recently divorced and with an indebted family in southern Gaul to support, he takes up a posting with the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix in distant Britain in the hope of earning some money. He finds Britannia damp, cheerless and unwelcoming, partly because of the climate and partly because lack of funds means he is sharing a condemned house with a tribe of mice, a litter of boisterous puppies and the untidiest medic in the Army. When the body of a local barmaid turns up strangled in the river, Ruso really does not want to investigate. It isn’t his job, and he has far too many other things to do, what with chasing the mice out of the bread-bin, coping with an interfering administrator and a lovesick hospital porter, and treating an injured slave girl he bought against his better judgement and who is turning out to be disturbingly attractive. But no-one else is trying to solve the mystery, and when a second girl from the same bar also turns up dead Ruso feels he has to get to the bottom of it – especially as it seems someone is now trying to kill him too...

A Roman historical mystery investigated by an army surgeon with a complicated personal life, chaotic living arrangements, a wry sense of humour and a slowly developing realisation that he has fallen in love with a tough young woman from a different cultural background – you could be forgiven for chalking this up as a Lindsey Davis clone with a bit of M*A*S*H thrown in. Especially with a tag on the cover proclaiming “As good as Lindsey Davis or your sestercii back!”. Much as I like Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels (see review of The Silver Pigs, I find this sort of blatant association less than helpful, as it sets up an immediate preconception that risks getting in the way of the story. Is this a Roman-set mystery? Yes. Is it a Falco clone? No.

Although the novel is billed as a mystery, the whodunit plot is only one of many things going on in Ruso’s complicated personal life. He has to manage not only his duties at the military hospital, which are more onerous than usual because he and his friend and colleague Valens are covering for the absent Chief Medical Officer, but also his many other responsibilities. Ruso’s father has recently died leaving his two sons to inherit a spendthrift stepmother, a mountain of not-very-well-concealed debts and a farm in Gaul mortgaged well beyond the hilt and under constant threat of repossession. Ruso’s main preoccupation is finding the money to keep the creditors at bay while he earns enough to pay them off, by means of his salary and any other method he can think of. As a result, much of the story revolves around Ruso’s money worries, compounded by a control freak of a hospital administrator who is obsessed with charging for absolutely everything he can think of and apparently determined to channel all the hospital’s resources into expensive schemes for cutting corners and saving money. (Readers may insert the modern parallel of their choice.) On top of this, Ruso also has to find his feet in his new environment, which provides a convenient way for the reader to learn about everyday life in a Roman legionary fortress and its associated vicus*. And there is the developing relationship between Ruso and Tilla, the injured British slave he bought to rescue from an abusive master. With all this competition for Ruso’s attention – and, perforce, the reader’s – the mystery itself is rather on the slight side, though it’s resolved neatly enough in the end.

The best features of the novel, for me, were the characters and the delightfully wry humour of the writing style. Ruso, the central character, is long-suffering, rather put-upon, professional, honest, decent, serious and likeable. Much of the comedy comes from Ruso’s bemusement as he tries to make sense of his chaotic new environment and the baffling behaviour of those around him. His irresponsible, attractive, self-centred colleague Valens is the opposite, always managing to fall on his feet while deflecting any trouble onto Ruso. The amiable and lazy Regional Control Officer – “Show them we take it very seriously but whatever you do, don’t promise we’ll do anything about it” – will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had dealings with an inefficient bureaucracy. Tilla is an enigmatic character, to the reader (at least to me) as much as to Ruso. Her history and the chain of events that led to her becoming a maltreated slave in Deva is only hinted at, leaving plenty of questions that will no doubt be resolved in later books in the series. She distrusts all Romans on principle and at first is inclined to make use of Ruso as an opportunity to escape back to her home, just as she expects Ruso to make use of her by selling her to clear some of his debts. Their relationship develops slowly over the course of the novel, and still has scope for further development by the end.

Delightful historical mystery set in second-century Roman Britain, told with wit and wry humour.

*A vicus is a civilian settlement outside a military base, a sort of cross between a suburb and a shanty town.

03 August, 2010

Early medieval armies: campaigning range

In an earlier post, I reviewed the limited evidence on the size of early medieval armies and came to the conclusion that they appear to have been quite small, numbered in scores or perhaps hundreds.

Small-scale armies might be expected to engage in small-scale warfare, such as internal quarrels or border raids and skirmishes not too far from home. What do we know about the campaigning range of early medieval armies?


The following battles are mentioned in either Bede or Annales Cambriae between 550 and 700, and a location and/or the participants can be identified or inferred.

Battle of Arderydd
Date: 573 (Annales Cambriae)
Known participants: Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio (territory unknown); Peredur and Gurci (territory possibly York, as discussed in an earlier post)
Location: Uncertain, traditionally placed at Arthuret House near Longtown in Cumbria (see earlier post for evidence and discussion)

Battle of Degsastan
Date: 603 (Bede Book I Ch. 34)
Known participants: Aethelferth of Bernica; Aidan mac Gabran of Dal Riada (Bede Book I Ch. 34)
Location: Unknown; however the territories of Bernicia and Dal Riada are a fair way apart (see sketch map).

Battle of Caer Legion/Legacastir
Date: 613 (Annales Cambriae; see earlier post for discussion)
Known participants: Aethelferth of Bernicia (Bede, Book II Ch 2); Selyf ap Cynan of Powys (Annales Cambriae)
Location: Chester

Battle on the east bank of the river Idle in Mercian territory
Date: 617 (Bede Book II Ch. 12)
Known participants: Aethelferth of Bernicia; Eadwine of Deira; Raedwald of the East Angles and his son Raegenhere (Bede Book II Ch. 12)
Location: Probably Bawtry, since the River Idle flows north-south there and hence has an east bank

Campaign of Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria against the West Saxons
Date: 627 (Bede Book II Ch. 9)
Known participants: Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria; Cuichelm of the West Saxons (Bede Book II Ch. 9)
Location: Unknown*; however, the territories of Northumbria and the West Saxons are separated by a couple of hundred miles

Battle of Haethfelth
Date: 12 October 633 (Bede Book II Ch. 20)
Known participants: Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria; Penda of Mercia; Cadwallon of Gwynedd (Bede Book II Ch. 20)
Location: Usually located at Hatfield Chase near Doncaster

Battle of Hefenfelth or Denisesburn
Date: 634 (Bede Book III Ch. 1-2)
Known participants: Oswald of Bernicia/Northumbria; Cadwallon of Gwynedd (Bede Book III Ch. 1)
Location: Near Hexham (Bede Book III Ch. 2)

Battle of Maserfelth (Bede) / Maes Cogwy (Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae)
Date: 5 August 642 (Bede Book III Ch.9)
Known participants: Oswald of Bernicia/Northumbria; Penda of Mercia (Bede Book III Ch.9)
Location: Unknown. Traditionally located at Oswestry on the basis of the place name (“Oswald’s Tree”), though this is not certain.

Battle between Mercia and the East Angles
Date: 635 (Bede Book III Ch. 18)
Known participants: Penda of Mercia, Sigbert and Egric of the East Angles
Location: Unknown. East Anglia and Mercia may well have shared a border by then (depending on the position of the Middle Angles, who occupied a territory between Mercia and East Anglia and who were a sub-kingdom of Mercia in the 650s)

Battle of Winwaed (Bede) / Campus Gai (Annales Cambriae)
Date: 15 November 655 (Bede Book III Ch. 24)
Known participants: Oswy of Bernicia/Northumbria; Penda of Mercia (Bede Book III Ch. 24)
Location: Near Leeds. Penda had campaigned as far as Bebbanburgh in Northumbria some time earlier, as Bede mentions this casually as the background to a miracle story (Bede Book III Ch. 16).

Battle of the Trent
Date: 679 (Bede Book IV Ch. 21)
Known participants: Ecgfrith of Northumbria and his brother Aelfwine; Aethelwald of Mercia (Bede Book IV Ch. 21)
Location: Near the River Trent (Bede Book IV Ch. 21).

Battle of Nechtansmere (Bede) / Lin Garan (Historia Brittonum) / Dun Nechtan (Annals of Ulster)
Date: 20 May 685 (Bede Book IV Ch. 26)
Known participants: Ecgfrith of Northumbria; Bridei king of the Picts (Bede Book IV Ch. 21; the name of the king of the Picts is given in Historia Brittonum Ch. 57)
Location: In Pictish territory. The exact location is uncertain; the two leading candidates are Dunnichen in Angus and Dunachton in Badenoch (see Wikipedia)


Three of the battles in the list were fought at unknown locations (Degsastan, the battle between Northumbria and the West Saxons, the battle between the East Angles and Mercia). The battle between the East Angles and Mercia may have been fought between neighbouring kingdoms with a shared border. If we take the heartland of the kingdom of East Anglia to be King Raedwald’s home near modern Rendlesham in Suffolk, and the heartland of the kingdom of Mercia to be modern Tamworth, they are separated by about 120 miles as the crow flies. If the battle was fought near the halfway point – its location is not recorded – each army would have had to travel about 60 miles. This is a non-trivial distance to walk, or even to ride on horseback, but it isn’t vast. Bernicia and Dal Riada are separated by a similar distance. Northumbria and the West Saxon kingdoms are further apart – York to Winchester is about 200 miles, Bamburgh to Winchester is over 300 miles – so we can reasonably infer that in this battle at least one army had travelled a considerable distance from their home territory.

The battle of the Trent and the battle of Winwaed were fought between Mercia and Northumbria, who may have been neighbouring territories by then (depending on what had happened to the kingdoms that previously occupied the Leeds and North Midlands areas). Northumbria had more or less united Bernicia and Deira by the time of these two battles and so had become quite a large territory, extending from at least Bamburgh in the north to at least the York area in the south, a distance of around 130 miles or so. While warriors from the York area would not have had to travel far to a battle near Leeds (only twenty miles or so) or along the northern stretch of the Trent, any component of the army that had started from Bamburgh would have covered well over a hundred miles, and possibly anything up to two hundred miles from Bamburgh to the middle or upper Trent. From Mercia, the upper and middle Trent is very close at hand, only a few dozen miles from Tamworth, but Leeds or the northern Trent is more like 60 to 90 miles.

Maserfelth may also have been fought on or near a shared border, depending on its location. If it was in the Makerfield area near Wigan it may have been in a border zone between Mercia and Northumbria, although it would still have been 150 miles or so from Bamburgh and something like 90 miles from Tamworth. If Maserfelth was Oswestry, then Oswald of Northumbria was anything up to 200 miles from home.

If Arderydd/Arthuret was fought at its traditional location near Longtown in Cumbria, and if Peredur’s traditional association with York is correct (two ‘ifs’), then Peredur was about 100 miles from home at the battle.

At Caerlegion/Chester, Selyf of Powys may have been on his home ground if Chester was part of the territory of Powys, and in any case had not had to travel far. Aethelferth of Bernicia, however, was nearly 200 miles from the heartland of his territory at Bebbanburgh (modern Bamburgh).

At the battle on the east bank of the Idle, Raedwald of the East Angles was about 130 miles from his heartland at Rendlesham in what is now Suffolk, and Aethelferth was 160 miles from Bebbanburgh. Eadwine of Deira was in exile at Raedwald’s court at the time, so may have travelled to the battle with Raedwald.

At Haethfelth, Cadwallon of Gwynedd was about 140 miles from his territory (taking Degannwy, near Conwy, as the heartland of Gwynedd; the distance is greater if you take Anglesey as the core of Gwynedd).

At Hefenfelth, Cadwallon of Gwynedd was around 200 miles from his territory, and had been in Northumbria for a year according to Bede (Book III Ch. 1). Oswald of Northumbria had been in exile on Iona and had presumably travelled from there, also about 200 miles, to reclaim his patrimony.

Either of the leading candidate locations for Nechtansmere is a long way from home for Ecgfrith of Northumbria; both are about 150 miles from Bamburgh (travelling by land via Stirling).

So, of the twelve battles in the list, we can say with reasonable certainty that in five of them (Caerlegion, the Idle, Haethfelth, Hefenfaelth and Nechtansmere) at least one of the participating forces had had to travel 130 to 200 miles from the heartland of its territory to the battle site. This does not necessarily imply that every member of the army had travelled the full distance, as the distance from the closest region of the relevant kingdom could be a good deal less than the distance from its nominal heartland, and an army might operate in allied or subject territories beyond its own borders.

The battles in the list are most unlikely to be a representative sample. They are those which at least one chronicler thought worth recording and that have come down to us, so they probably represent battles that were considered especially significant or noteworthy at the time. Bede’s casual reference to Penda’s otherwise unrecorded campaign in Northumbria, mentioned in passing as the background to a miracle story, indicates that not all warfare was recorded. Long-distance campaigns may have been particularly worthy of note and thus especially likely to be recorded, in which case this would be a very biased sample. (Not that we are likely to get a better one).

Nevertheless, it does demonstrate that at least some early medieval kingdoms could field an army a considerable distance from their core territories, and in the case of Cadwallon of Gwynedd and his campaign against Northumbria, could do so for an extended time (over a year). It is not possible to say whether this was commonplace, unusual or exceptional, but it was clearly possible.

Sketch map showing the approximate locations of the various kingdoms here.

Map links

Dunachton, Badenoch
Dunnichen, Angus
Hatfield Chase
Longtown, Cumbria

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, available online
Annals of Ulster, available online

*There’s a legend that the battle took place in Derbyshire, but as this location depends on a pun in modern English, I have severe doubts as to its veracity.