The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff was first published in 1956 and I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw it fairly recently in a secondhand bookshop in St Andrews, but it turned out to be great read – as Sutcliff’s books generally are.
The setting is the English Lake District, a place that I’ve enjoyed visiting quite a few times, but the next time I visit I’ll be looking at the landscape in an entirely different way, imagining all the things that were going on there as those of Viking descent who had settled there fought the Normans over a thirty year period or more. The Normans who had fairly easily overcome the inhabitants of the southern half of England in the softer landscape found it to be a much more difficult task in the northern wilds of the Lake District which seemed to be sheltered by a ring of mountainous terrain.
I must admit that I had no idea the famous Domesday Book that we hear about so often stopped short of the Cumberland Fells so there is no mention of Lake Land at all. I can imagine that it must have been one of those areas that on old maps would have been marked – HERE BE DRAGONS.
The book begins with the not quite five year old Frytha witnessing the burning of her village by Norman William’s men. Frytha had been out and about in the woods with Grim her father’s shepherd/man of all work, when they realised that the woodland around them felt different. The birds and animals had fallen silent because the Normans had arrived and were busy slashing and burning. Grin knew there would be no survivors so he took Frytha further north into the Lake Land where she was quickly adopted by a local family. It’s the last stronghold of the Vikings who are constantly honing their battle skills to ward off the Normans who have built a stronghold at Carlisle.
Frytha quickly finds a friend in Bjorn who is just a few years older than she is, it turns into a great relationship with the two of them facing danger together in later years as they team up to do their bit to help out their community agains the Normans.
Rosemary Sutcliff was such a lovely writer of well researched books, and I certainly always learn new things of interest in them.
If you are visiting Lindisfarne Castle you should be warned that you have to be fairly fit to get up to it, there’s a very steep hill and the pathway has been made with rounded cobblestones which aren’t that easy to walk on, even if you’re wearing trainers or completely flat shoes. The priory is much easier to get around though, and that bit interested me most – I do love a good ruin.
These ruins date from the 12th century and they are looked after by English Heritage.
Strangely the graveyard seems still to be in use with some fairly modern headstones, presumably the villagers can be buried there.
Irish monks settled on Lindisfarne in AD 635 which is the time of the Northumbrian king Oswald. He asked a monk from the Scottish island of Iona to settle at Lindisfarne and founded the monastery. In the 670s Cuthbert went there as a monk and he eventually became the most important saint in northern England.
Lindisfarne became an important centre of Christian learning, but where there was Christianity there was silver and gold – those pilgrims have always meant good business for churches, so the Vikings were drawn to such places for the easy pickings. On the 8th of June 793 the Vikings made a raid on the island, the first of such in western Europe but certainly not the last.
It was murder and mayhem and Saint Cuthbert hadn’t helped them so it was psycholgiclly devastating to the believers and most of the survivors ended up leaving Lindisfarne, taking Cuthbert’s body with them and settling inland. The modern sculpture below is of Saint Cuthbert, it’s not really to my taste.
You might have heard of the Lindisfarne Gospels – an illuminated book of the four gospels which was created on Lindisfarne around the year AD 700. If you click the link and then click on the image you can see 21 photos of some of the pages.
I really enjoyed seeing the ruins, it’s quite easy to imagine how it must have been in its glory – and the visitations of the Vikings too!
The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson is a Scandinavian classic and was first published in English in 1954, translated from Swedish to English by Michael Meyer. This is a great read which combines Viking raids in various countries, slavery, conversion to Islam under duress, escapes, fights and battles a-plenty, romance and details of domesticity in the late 10th century. There’s quite a lot of humour too, with the whole idea of men going ‘a-viking’ apparently coming about because the men were tired of listening to their women’s sharp tongues over the long dark winter.
This is a real page-turner with the action beginning in Skania (southern Sweden) where a young man called Orm has been left behind with the women while the men go a-viking. Orm had been rather mollycoddled by his mother after his older brother Are had left home and never come back again, presumed dead. But Orm ends up being abducted from his own doorstep and so begin his adventures which end up with him becoming a leader of men. But it isn’t all about fighting men, there are plenty of good, strong female characters in this book.
This book does seem to be historically correct and it details how Christianity was spread throughout Scandinavia, something which seemed unlikely given that the Vikings were so keen on raiding holy islands and murdering monks and priests.
Frans Bengtsson was a poet and biographer and The Long Ships was his only novel, it’s a great Viking saga.
This year I intend to try to read quite a lot of European books in translation, this one counts towards that personal challenge.