AW: Welcome to the blog, Christine and congratulations on the release of your new novel, Bright Axe. I see it's a sequel, so without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a little about the first book in this series?
CH: The first book in the series, Bright Sword, starts with Byrhtnoth at the age of seven. His father disappeared when he was a baby and his mother has recently died. He has been sent to the royal court at Winchester to be trained with a group of other boys to become a warrior. At the age of twelve he is called home (a village in the fens near Ely) and shown a sword, his father’s sword which will become his when he has become a man. The book, and series, is about his search for the sword, and his father.
AW: I love that you've personalised his story, and that there is a quest involved! I can see the attraction of the 'Dark Ages', but why particularly did you choose to write about Byrhtnoth?
CH: I joined a writing class. During various exercises, I found myself using the Battle of Maldon, which was not far from where I grew up, as a subject. Since Byrhtnoth was old when he died in the battle, (in his sixties, which I personally don’t consider old!), I wondered what had brought him to that point. I discovered that there was not much known about his early life and I had the subject of my book.
The mid tenth century is not as popular with writers as, for example, King Alfred a couple of generations earlier.
AW: You're absolutely right, although perhaps we are a select group, for I too have written about this period, with a novel about a contemporary of Byrhtnoth's. So I know that research for historical novels can often be difficult. What skills from your experience as a family historian were you able to use to track down the details of Byrhtnoth's life?
CH: The original aim of joining the writing class was to write about some of the characters I have come across in my family history research, in particular a sailor who was hanged as a pirate. I have since made a start on this project and found it difficult to detach myself from the actual facts.
Byrhtnoth is not a relative, although I have roots in Essex, so you never know! I am used to using more modern sources, parish registers, census etc, or wills and chancery documents at The National Archives. I don’t know Latin and have definitely not studied Old English, so any information about the period comes from secondary sources.
I knew little about Byrhtnoth when I started writing and not much more now, apart from some basic facts: his father’s name, who he married, the name of his daughter (perhaps) and which kings he served. I have tried to stick to what is known about the period: when kings died, any battles, and embroider Byrhtnoth’s story into the gaps.
I think my family history interest come out in trying to work out the family relationships; who was connected to whom and how that influenced their lives. The series is about Byrhtnoth’s search for his father, which I suppose is what family history is all about.
AW: A search for family, or for identity, is something we can all identify with, I think. I suppose, though, that Byrhtnoth is most famous for his heroic stand at the battle of Maldon. Have you visited the site, and can you tell us about the problems faced there by the armies because of the terrain?
|The battlefield from the air - Terry Joyce|
terry joyce / Northey Island / CC BY-SA 2.0
CH: I have visited Maldon several times, mostly for a walk along the prom and a drink in the pub, or an ice cream.
1991 was the 1,000th anniversary of the battle and there was a big event and re-enactment, close to the actual site. I attended and walked along the causeway where the battle took place.
Vikings had been raiding along the coast. They sailed up the River Blackwater and landed on Northey Island, just downriver from Maldon. Byrhtnoth was Ealdorman of Essex, the king’s representative for the area so it was his responsibility to deal with the problem. He called out the local fyrd and arrived to confront the invaders.
The island is joined to land by a narrow causeway, only accessible at low tide. It was easy to defend but it was not Byrhtnoth’s intention to drive away the Vikings; they would only leave and attack elsewhere. Although outnumbered, he must fight and defeat them. He let the Vikings cross the causeway and the battle took place on flat land nearby.
There has been a lot of discussion about whether he made the right decision. The poem speaks of his "ofermōd" which can mean "pride" or "excess of courage" but also "recklessness". Byrhtnoth was killed and most of his supporters with him, fulfilling the ancient ideal of men dying for their lord. It is one of those heroic failures of which the British are so fond.
The Vikings left, taking Byrhtnoth’s head with them. They were perhaps encouraged by the payment of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver by King Æthelred (the Unready) The first of many payments of danegeld in this period.
AW: I can just imagine the shivers you felt, visiting the site, and walking in the footsteps of your character. When I do that, it feels like making a real connection with the characters and getting close to history. Thanks so much for telling us about Maldon, and for chatting today. Before you go, can you tell us whether book #3 is in the pipeline? Do you have a title, and will it be the last in the series? Can you tell us anything about it?
CH: Yes, book 3, Bright Blade, is mostly written and I hope will be published later this year. It includes a fight with Erik Bloodaxe. There will definitely be a fourth. After that, it will be a case of whether I have more ideas – after all Byrhtnoth had a long life.
AW: He did indeed and I'm sure readers will be keen to dive right in to his story. Thanks again for taking the time out of your busy writing schedule to chat today.
Christine can be found on Twitter, on Amazon, and on her Blog.
And I'm delighted to say that she is offering a giveaway of the first in her series, Bright Sword, to UK readers. To be in with a chance, simply leave a comment, your contact details* and your preference for paperback or e-book. Giveaway will close at 10am BST Monday May 20 2019
* If you prefer not to leave your contact details, please do check back in a week's time to see if you are a winner!