Idiosyncratic as it may be, I spend a lot of time imagining life in early seventh century Britain. The heroes who inspired my “Kings of the North” series lived and died then, as did the Anglo-Saxon saint from whose name comes the place name that is my family name.
I have ridiculous fantasies of getting another PhD, this one in early medieval British landscape history, just because I love pondering the little scraps of information left by material culture, works of poetry and history, place names, field systems, church records, parish boundaries, architecture, archeology and whatnot. Then I make up more stories based on what I learn instead of writing journal articles, so I really I don’t need another degree to do that. But I keep reading Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And a lot of other stuff besides.
My thoughts are much on King Edwin of Northumbria these days, as his book is up next. Bede has a great deal to say about Edwin because he was the first Northumbrian king to convert to Christianity. Edwin looms large by virtue of having established some measure of sovereignty over a good bit of what is today England (along with a fair portion of Scotland) and having led the charge for Christ in Northumbria.
It would be, I think, a mistake to view Edwin as any sort of modern-day evangelist. For one thing, Bede tells of him taking a very long time to decide to convert from whatever native pagan tradition he was raised in. In his darkest hour, when his greatest enemy (Æthelfrith, the hero of the first book in my series, Warlord) stood poised to annihilate him, Edwin received a mysterious visit from a stranger who exacted the promise that if there were someone who could save him from betrayal and death, Edwin would offer his allegiance to that lord. Of course this turned out to be The Lord, the Big Guy himself. And even though Edwin was saved, he didn’t immediately attribute that salvation to God. It took some time and another prophesied sign to get him on that path.
Even then, Edwin had to confer with his advisors. Bede would have it that Edwin’s chief priest decided there was no tangible benefit in the old religion. It wasn’t winning them any battles or loot. Therefore, practically speaking, it made sense to jump ship. Then Bede relates his famous ‘sparrow in the hall’ homily, likening the moment of a sparrow’s flight in one window and out another to a man’s awareness of his mortal life. It is but a flash of a much wider reality that is don’t necessarily perceived. Edwin listened to both the pragmatic and the metaphysical arguments.
The final argument, however, sounded all too much like certain hawkish fundies. In the old religion, priests were forbidden arms. So the high priest insisted on being the first to hie himself up on the king’s stallion, grab a sword, cut down the old idols and burn the temple. Bede seems to feel this was noble behavior. I notice that it wasn’t Edwin who did it. He didn’t stop it. But he didn’t do it himself.
Eventually Edwin committed to conversion, was baptized, founded churches and dedicated his daughter to the service of the Church, but my sense is that he did it for political reasons as much as anything personal. Bede’s most glowing praise of Edwin stands out through the many centuries since his life: It was related that there was so great a peace in Britain, wherever the dominion of King Edwin reached, that, as the proverb still runs, a woman with a newborn child could walk throughout the island from sea to sea and take no harm. (Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the British People, Oxford World’s Classics, 1999, OUP, p. 100)
For all that he was a warrior who rode into battle at the head of his army, sword at the ready, Edwin appears to have cared for more than victory and conquest. A peaceable kingdom was no mean accomplishment if word of it survived a hundred years past Edwin’s reign and into Bede’s lifetime. In an age of warrior kings and saints, this detail offers a glimpse into what peace meant in the early seventh century.
It is entirely speculation, but I suspect that Edwin made his choice to convert to Christianity for reasons in which personal faith may have been only a small part. In light of the orderly peace Bede describes, Edwin likely saw Christianity as a means to bring together the disparate peoples of his time. The more numerous British were already Christian and had been from late Roman times. The less numerous Anglo-Saxons were not, aside from the odd king, but as they gained political power, their kings may have seen advantages to be had in adopting the religion of the majority of the population.
They did so in a fractious fashion pitting the authority of the Roman Church against that of the Celtic Church, but behind both iterations of the faith lay similar teachings about the relations between mankind and God. Those could be drawn upon to order the relationships between men and women in communities where the lines of power and authority were shifting. The Good News offered functional templates for everyday life wherein all lives mattered and were worth preserving. The choice of the sparrow in Edwin’s hall is no accident of rhetoric. It highlights the teaching of Matthew (10:29-31) that claims that God knows if a single sparrow falls to earth. If such small creatures have worth and value to God then so should people understand that the worth of a human life is great, as well. This lesson was vital to establishing peace in Edwin’s kingdom.
Life in early seventh century Britain was dicey. Peace was hard to come by. I think Edwin saw a better chance for it under Christianity. I also think history records that he was a charismatic leader, probably more beloved than he was feared. Yet Edwin’s peace did not last long. He ruled Northumbria for seventeen years, and his death ushered in another short period of chaos and conflict that showed how tenuous his peace truly was. But it lived large in the memory of his kingdom and remains a part of the dynamic history of the North.
My New Year begins with thinking about King Edwin and the peace he wrought. By year’s end, I hope to have cast him into war again, and learned what a peacemaking old warrior might do with modern conflicts.
PS: In other news, Staindrop has been renamed Master of My Surrender. Apparently men tend to hear 'Staindrop' and think “Monica Lewinsky” and “dress.” To those of you who went there, all I can say is that yes, I was aware of the connotation, but most women did not go there. They really didn’t. However, I can only take so much adolescent snickers, and in the world of ebooks, it’s an easy fix. To those of you who’ve bought it, thank you very much, and please beware this is the same book you already have.