Thursday, 15 February 2018

Life in the time of the Bernicia Chronicles post By Matthew Harffy #History #DarkAges #HistoricalFiction @MatthewHarffy

Life in the time of the

Bernicia Chronicles

By Matthew Harffy

My series of books, the Bernicia Chronicles, is set in the first half of the seventh century, a period of history that is commonly referred to as the dark ages. Historians by and large do not like the term. They refer to the period as early mediaeval, which does the job but, for me, is less evocative of a period that is so distant from our own that it can seem truly alien. Ironically, it is the very fact that the term is evocative and emotive that turns off historians to its use!

In many ways, the seventh century is truly a dark age in British history. Great Britain was split into many small kingdoms, each vying for power and dominance over their neighbours. It was a time of violence, when life was cheap and the only way to achieve any semblance of protection from the enemies that surrounded you was to be a member of a tribe. The people that were to be known as the English are referred to in this period as Anglo-Saxon, as if they were one homogenous group, or perhaps, as the name would indicate, two groups: Angles and Saxons. In reality the kingdoms of Britain were made up of different Germanic tribes and the native inhabitants of the islands had their own territories, though of course they also shared the land with the warlike races who had come across the sea from the East and the North. 

Many of the names of the kingdoms from this period are still in use today, and, to some extent, still define the people that live in them. So we have areas and counties such as Sussex (South Saxons), Essex (East Saxons), East Anglia (East Angles) with Norfolk (North Folk) and Suffolk (South Folk), and of course, Wales (derived from the Old English word for foreigner – Waelisc), which was made up of its own old kingdoms like Powys and Gwynedd.

Tribal hatreds stoked the fires of kings’ ambitions and defeated enemies were led away in chains to become slaves. For thralls were commonplace in this time. Much as they had been in the empire of Rome, slaves were used to perform menial tasks and, as in Rome, they could become valued members of a household and could even be freed by their owners.
It was a time long before revolutions of farming and industry and the people were truly at the mercy of nature. If the rains did not fall, or a frost came too early, or a storm destroyed crops, the people would go hungry, and perhaps even starve. It was not uncommon for people who were unable to scrape together enough food, to “place their heads in their lord’s hands”, meaning they were giving themselves as slaves, throwing themselves on his mercy and trusting that he would feed them.
But it was not all doom and gloom. The people of the seventh century suffered great hardship and worked tirelessly to eke out a living from the land, but they also knew how to party!
On feast days they would congregate in their lord’s great hall where they would sit around the central hearth fire, drinking copious amounts of ale and mead, listening to stories and songs of heroes, such as that oldest of English tales, Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxons loved games and would do their best to confound their friends and family with clever riddles such as:

A warrior is wondrously     brought into the world
for the use of lords     by two dumb things;
brightly extracted,     which for his hurt
foe bears against foe.     Strong though he is
a woman binds him.     He obeys them well,
serves them quietly,     if maids and men
tend him duly,     feed him fairly.
He exalts them in comfort     for their joy in life,
grimly rewards one     who lets him grow proud.

Wiga is on eorþan     wundrum acenned
dryhtum to nytte     of dumbum twam
torht atyhted     þone on teon wigeð
feond his feonde     fer strangne oft
wif hine wrið     he him wel hereð
þeowaþ him geþwære     gif him þegniað
 mæcgas     mid gemete ryhte ·
fedað hine fægre     he him fremum stepeð
life on lissum     leanað grimme
þe hine wloncne     weorþan læteð
This riddle is taken from Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (1963), translated by Paull Franklin Baum.

The answer to the riddle is probably “Fire”, the two dumb things in the second line being flint and steel.

The food they ate at these feasts would be in some ways familiar to us, but in others quite different from what we are used to. This was long before Europeans travelled to the New World and therefore there would be no tomatoes or potatoes or other such food we take for granted in the 21st century. In spring, when lambs and calves were killed so that animals would continue to produce milk, meat would have been plentiful. At other times of the year, most of the food eaten, especially by the commoners, would have been seasonal vegetables, supplemented when possible by hunting and fishing. The other time when everybody would have meat would be in November, or Blotmonath as the Anglo-Saxons called it. For this was the month when many of the animals were slaughtered. Much of the meat would be salted or smoked to see them through the winter months but there would always be a feast after the harvest and before winter’s chill hand gripped the land.
In many ways it can be considered a primitive society, warlike and brutal, and yet it is also a time of exquisite craftsmanship with metalwork producing the fine Sutton Hoo helmet and the swords and ornaments of the Staffordshire hoard.

Sutton Hoo helmet

Christianity was resurging across Britain, and with it came the written word and beautiful illuminated scripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were produced probably in the late seventh century.

Lindisfarne Gospels

And so, as with all periods of history, it was a time of juxtaposition, of darkness and light, violence and peaceful meditation, learning and ignorance. It was 1,400 years ago, centuries before industrialised farming and steam power. And over a millennium before electricity, television, the Internet, and social media. It was an age that was truly dark, when the only way to shed light in the gloom of the houses and halls was with the flickering flames of fat-dipped rush lights, candles or the embers on the hearth stone.

But have things truly changed that much? With all our technology and knowledge it seems to me the world is just as divided, with dichotomies just as stark as in the seventh century. The saddest thing is that now, in the enlightened, knowledge-rich 21st century, we have no excuse. We are in a time that should be fabulously light, blindingly bright even. Yet it seems that tragically, despite many striving for the light, much of humankind, as if terrified of what they might see should the shadows be lifted, will always seek out the darkness.


Matthew Harffy

Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria's Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first of them is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, THE SERPENT SWORD.

Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

Matthew loves to hear from readers, you can find him: Website Facebook  Twitter


Warrior of Woden
 (Book five of the Bernicia Chronicles)

AD 642. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fifth instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Oswald has reigned over Northumbria for eight years and Beobrand has led the king to ever greater victories. Rewarded for his fealty and prowess in battle, Beobrand is now a wealthy warlord, with a sizable warband. Tales of Beobrand's fearsome black-shielded warriors and the great treasure he has amassed are told throughout the halls of the land.

Many are the kings who bow to Oswald. And yet there are those who look upon his realm with a covetous eye. And there is one ruler who will never kneel before him.

When Penda of Mercia, the great killer of kings, invades Northumbria, Beobrand is once more called upon to stand in an epic battle where the blood of many will be shed in defence of the kingdom.

But in this climactic clash between the pagan Penda and the Christian Oswald there is much more at stake than sovereignty. This is a battle for the very souls of the people of Albion.

Read the Bernicia Chronicles series today!


  1. Such a fascinating post! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for having me, Mary Anne!

  3. Great post Matthew. Fascinating times, and not as dark as they've been made out to be thanks to authors like yourself!

    1. Thank you! As a novelist, it is pretty hard to steer clear of the dark stuff - it makes for exciting stories! :-)

  4. What a fabulous post. I can't believe there are now five books. I adored Serpent Sword. The problem for writers is finding time to read. I have a huge list waiting!

    1. Thank you, Carol! I know the problem. It is the most painful part of writing. Authors by definition love books, but finding time to read is so difficult!

      By the way, I'm halfway through writing book six at the moment...

  5. This sounds like the series I have been waiting for!


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx