[Note: If you don’t know the history of the period and want to remain spoiler-free for Hild II, don’t read this.]
According to Bede, when Hild is recruited to the church in 647 CE she is in East Anglia, and has been for a year. I’m trying to work out why*.
Bede gives no specific dates for East Anglian kings between the death, c. 627, of Eorpwald, son of Rædwald (most powerful king of his era, and voted by most archæologists the likely denizen of the fabulous ship burial of Sutton Hoo) and the death of Anna, 653. That’s a big gap.
Traditionally, East Anglia was divided into the North Folk and the South Folk (still apparent today with the names of counties, Norfolk and Suffolk). Whoever ruled the South Folk, home of the wīc and therefore most of the external revenue, was the King while the other was his subking. (That’s a simplistic way to look at it, but it will do for now.)
Eorpwald was killed by Ricberht—whose antecedents we don’t know. Ricberht was toppled in turn by two men working together: Egric/Æthelric (ruler of the North Folk) and Sigiberht, who was possibly a maternal brother of Eorpwald, that is, a stepson of Rædwald. Sigiberht was exiled for a while to Frankia by Rædwald, I’m guessing because he was older than Rædwald’s own children and so considered dangerous to the succession. But when Ricberht killed Sigiberht’s half-brother and took over the kingdom, the exile returned. He deposed Ricberht (in the usual fatal way) then ruled East Anglia jointly with Egric—who may or may not have been the same person as Æthelric, son of Eni (Rædwald’s brother), who married Hild’s sister, Hereswith, and had a son, Ealdwulf.
Egric and Æthelric. They’re utterly different names. But those who know more about this stuff seem to be okay with conflating the two, so while I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it, I’ve chosen to do so, too, because it makes plotting this huge three-part novel easier. (Believe me, when you’re working with such a complicated tapestry you take any defensible shortcut.) But the more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Egric was Rædwald’s younger brother, or possibly cousin, rather than his nephew. (I’m looking at the naming conventions of the various branches of the Wuffings. More on that another time perhaps.) But, eh, I made that choice in Hild, so now we move on, and from now on I’ll refer to him as Æthelric.
So, anyway, not long after killing Ricberht, Sigiberht abdicated, got himself a tonsure**, and retired to a monastery. Æthelric was now the sole ruler of the North and South Folk, King of East Anglia. But we don’t know when, exactly, he acceded.
What we do know is that it wasn’t long—though we don’t know how long—before Penda got bent out of shape about something, rolled into East Anglia with his warband, and killed Æthelric (plus the hapless Sigiberht, who’d been hauled out of the monastery for the occasion, presumably to hearten the troops). Hereswith is a widow and Ealdwulf has no father.
At some point after this, Anna becomes king. (Was he working with Penda?) Again, we don’t know when, exactly. And around 653 he is killed by Penda and succeeded by his brother—and so another uncle of Ealdwulf—Æthelhere who is also killed by Penda, and succeeded by another brother Æthelwald, who reigned from 655 to 663. When he dies, Ealdwulf finally gets the crown and reigns for a good long time, fifty years in fact: 663 to 713.
Fifty years is a remarkable run for any monarch. For early medieval times, when might was right, it’s jaw-dropping. And it brings me complications.
In Hild, Hereswith and Æthelric have a son, Ealdwulf, in 630. If I follow Bede’s chronology, that makes Ealdwulf 33 when he accedes and 85 when he dies. This is not impossible—Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668 to 690, was 88 when he died (and, Aldfrith, a king of Northumbria, was probably in his early 30s when he acceded and early 70s when he died)—but it is mildly improbable.
Obviously Ealdwulf has to be born at the most nine months after Æthelric and Sigiberht are killed by Penda. And we know that must have been before Anna becomes king. And we know, therefore, that this must have been before c. 645 because Bede tells us it’s Anna who gave the temporarily displaced the king of the West Saxons shelter in East Anglia about that time.
In my opinion Æthelric’s accession comes sometime between 632 and 642, and Anna’s sometime between 636 and 644. I plump for 632 and 636 respectively. Here’s why.
In 632, Edwin is the most powerful king in the land. He would prefer a relative to sit on the East Anglian throne, and Sigiberht isn’t a relative. I can imagine a mix of Edwin pressuring Sigiberht and Sigiberht not really wanting to be king, anyway (bear in mind that at the time being king is dangerous, almost invariably fatal in fact) until someone smart suggests the tonsure. Æthelric is royal, young, healthy, already has an heir who is related to Edwin, and very importantly is on good terms with the people of North and South Gwyre (who could reasonably be expected to form the buffer zone between East Anglia and Penda’s Mercia). In terms of the world of Hild, we know Hereswith’s husband gets on with the people of the North Gwyre because he’s had children with one of their elite women. (Which will become important at the end of Book II and in Book III. I wonder how many people spotted the clues I dropped there…)
So it’s Æthelric who is king when Penda comes roaring in the first time. And that first time will be after Edwin is out of the picture. My guess is that Anna is allowed to become king on condition that he pays tribute to Penda. Mercia and East Anglia would form an uneasy, back-and-forth relationship, with Anna constantly fretting at the yoke and pushing back and making alliances with the Frankish-connected Oiscingas of Kent (more on that another time; I’m still pondering it).
Ealdwulf, then (son of Hereswith and Æthelric, in case you’re getting as confused as I am), is only five or six when his father is killed—obviously too young to take the throne. He’s young enough, in fact, to need his mother. Hereswith, despite the very real possibility that her husband’s successor might have had a hand in his death, will stay with her son under the dubious protection of his uncle Anna. And Anna allows it. She’s a powerful, influential, well-connected woman, handy to have around. However, once her son gets to the age to bear arms, he no longer needs his mother per se, and Anna and his brothers would want Hereswith out of the way so she couldn’t give her son ideas, provide allies, and foment trouble. It’s at this stage, then, that I think she would have left for the safety of a religious life in Frankia; let’s say 645 or 646.
And this is why Hild was in East Anglia: looking after the interests of her nephew, Ealdwulf, because Hereswith can’t. We know Anna had one son, Jurmin, but we don’t know of others, or of any sons of the other two uncles, Æthelhere and Æthelwald. Hild would have argued that having a spare royal around in times of trouble as a backup would be a Good Thing, that Ealdwulf shouldn’t be killed off accidentally on purpose but should remain ætheling, in the line of succession.
But none of this is written in stone, yet. I’d love to get input from others. Like all Anglo-Saxon politics, it gets horribly complicated: East Angles and Middle Angles and Mercians, not to mention the Franks, and then Anna’s alliance with the Oiscingas of Kent (who, in Hild, are in turn related to Ealdwulf through Hereswith)—and how that will feed into the situation in Frankia. And I haven’t even mentioned how the 20 years of struggle between Northumbria and Mercia influences everything.
But I’m not complaining. This is fascinating stuff. I just need help. Anyone?
*It’s possible of course that it took a year to get travel arrangements sorted—passage, food, escorts, that sort of thing—but I don’t think so. Hild was important and influential. I doubt travel logistics fazed her.
** The tonsure, I think, is significant. He’d been living in Burgundy, home of the Merovingian child kings. If they cut their hair, they were considered ineligible for kingship…