The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history and the Old English language. This post is the first of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.
Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England
Doctor Who is a science-fiction television programme, running from 1963 to 1989 and from 2005 to the present day. The programme revolves around the adventures of a mysterious ‘Time Lord’ who is known only as ‘The Doctor’, travelling through time and space in his TARDIS (which looks like a police box). In addition to his time travelling skills, the Doctor is also able to regenerate his body when near death, which explains why twelve different actors have been able to play this role in the TV series so far. Aside from time and space travel, the series is best known for its range of aliens and its horrible special effects. Incredibly popular, Doctor Who has become a significant part of British culture and has produced various spin-offs, in the form of magzines, novels, comic books and action figures.
Originally, Doctor Who was meant as a children’s TV show that would teach British history in a fun and entertaining way by bringing in aliens. What I am planning to do in the next few blogs is to use the series as it was intended: as a flashy guide to history; in my case, Anglo-Saxon history and culture. In order to do so, I have tried to locate TV episodes, comics and short fiction stories that feature the Doctor travelling to Anglo-Saxon England (my overview is unlikely to be complete, given the ever-growing Doctor Who franchise; recommendations are welcome, so please leave comments). We will see that the Doctor was present at many pivotal moments in Anglo-Saxon history; met various historical individuals; and, on occasion, prevented history from being changed forever. The current post deals with the Doctor’s encounters with Vikings and Anglo-Saxon celebrities; the second post will deal with King Alfred the Great and the third and last post will focus on the Doctor’s involvement in the Norman Conquest.
Doctor Conkerer: The Doctor in fifth-century Britain
The story of Anglo-Saxon England usually begins in the fifth century, when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated to Britain. Naturally, some of these fifth-century invaders had a run-in with a blue police box, as is revealed in the comic strip ‘Doctor Conkerer’ in Dr. Who Magazine, no. 162 (July 1990):
In this comic, the seventh Doctor is playing a game of conkers (for which you need the seed of a horse-chestnut tree on a string – a conker). After he has run out of conkers, the Doctor decides to make a short stop to gather some more. The TARDIS lands in fifth-century Britain and the Doctor chances upon some ruffians shouting “YAARR!” and “RAAHH!”. Rather than meeting the Angles, Saxons or Jutes, as we might expect, he meets another group of Germanic invaders: the Vikings, some three hundred years before they actually set foot in Britain! Be that as it may, the Doctor witnesses these anachronistic Vikings capture a British boy and decides to come to the rescue. He burns the longships of the Vikings and knocks out Viking leader Olaf with a well-aimed strike of a conker:
The Doctor frees the British boy and brings him back to his village. Upon leaving the scene, the Doctor says to himself “Brilliant game, conkers. Wonder who first came up with it!”. This turns out to be the boy rescued by the Doctor, who is seen explaining the game to his mates. This first visit of the Doctor to early medieval Britain is slightly disappointing in terms of its educational value, if only because of the anachronisms (aside from the anachronistic Vikings, the game of conkers dates back to the 19th century).The next visit of the Doctor to early medieval Britain brings us into the territory of legend:
Shock reveal: The Doctor is Merlin!
According to the early medieval chroniclers Gildas (c. 500-570) and Bede (672/673-735), the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had been invited to Britain by the British King Vortigern, who required mercenaries to fight the invading Picts. A reference to this Vortigern is found in the TV episode ‘Battlefield’ (S26E01; 1989) of Doctor Who, in which a spaceship (containing the body of King Arthur and his sword Excalibur) is found on the bottom of Lake Vortigern…
Like Vortigern, the legendary King Arthur is also associated with the invading Anglo-Saxons. Later medieval writers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, have assumed that it was King Arthur who led the Britons in the fight against the invaders from the Continent. This British resistance is one of the reasons why it took the Anglo-Saxons at least 150 years to conquer the area that is now known as England.
As legend would have it, King Arthur was aided by a mysterious man who could predict the future: Merlin. ‘Battlefield’ reveals that this Merlin is none other than a reincarnation of the Doctor, as becomes clear when the knight Ancelyn flies through the roof of a hotel and recognises the seventh Doctor:
ANCELYN: Merlin. Against all hope.
ACE: You’ve got it wrong, mate. This is the Doctor.
ANCELYN: Oh, he has many faces, but in my reckoning, he is Merlin.
DOCTOR: You recognise my face, then?
ANCELYN: No, not your aspect, but your manner that betrays you. Do you not ride the ship of time? Does it not deceive the senses being larger within than out? Merlin, cease these games
There you have it, the British resistance against the Anglo-Saxons may have had some extraterrestrial help!
Woden’s Warriors: The Doctor meets some real Vikings
After the Anglo-Saxons have migrated and conquered most of what is now known as England, they are converted to Christianity. These events, however, seem to have gone by unaffected by the Doctor. His next visit (aside from a picnic with Bede, see below), takes place when the Anglo-Saxons themselves are faced with an invasion: the Vikings (for real, this time).
In ‘Woden’s warriors’, published in TV Comic Annual 1976, the fourth Doctor and his companion Sarah Jane accidentally land in Viking Age Britain. As they wander about, they suddenly hear the sounds of a horn: the Vikings have found the TARDIS and they think it is a gift from Woden. In order to find out whether that is truly the case, the Viking leader Heekon sets fire to the police box and, noting that it does not burn, he is convinced that this ‘magic box’ will aid them in their battle against the (Anglo-)Saxons:
The tide is not turned in the Vikings’ favour, however. The Saxons are prepared, since they have been forewarned by the Doctor and Sarah-Jane. The Vikings are put to flight and their boats are set aflame! Next, the Saxons celebrate their victory in ‘traditional style’, which means that Sarah-Jane is not allowed to eat before the men have finished. The Doctor chuckles: “Yes, there is a lot to be said for the Saxon view of a woman’s role”:
I, for one, am not aware of any such rule having been in place in Anglo-Saxon England; likely, this little scene is an attempt to show that rules that undermine a woman’s rights are ‘medieval’ and old-fashioned – Sarah-Jane’s repulsion seems in line with the second-wave feminism of the Seventies…
Who’s who in Anglo-Saxon England: The Doctor and Anglo-Saxon celebrities
Throughout the Doctor Who franchise, there are frequent references to historical figures that the Doctor had supposedly met. Some of these figures belong to Anglo-Saxon history. A prime example is the Venerable Bede (672/673-735), who once shared a salmon with the Doctor, as the fourth Doctor relates in the TV episode “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (S14E06; 1977):
I caught a salmon there [the River Fleet] once. Would have hung over the sides of this table. Shared it with the venerable Bede, he adored fish.
One wonders what Bede, a Northumbrian monk who probably never went far beyond the confines of the monasteries in Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (now: Bede’s World), was doing in London at the time! Anyway, Bede’s predilection for fish may explain why the monk felt it necessary to point out that Britain “is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels” (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. 1, ch. 1).
Another Anglo-Saxon celebrity known to the Doctor was King Athelstan (c.894–939), whose coronation in 924 is referred to in the 2009 TV-special “The Planet of the Dead”. Here, the tenth Doctor finds out that Lady Christina de Souza has stolen the precious ‘Cup of Athelstan’. This cup, we are told, was a gift from Hywel (c.880-950), King of the Welsh, to Athelstan upon the latter’s coronation in 924 as “the first king of Britain”. Even though Athelstan wasn’t really the first King of Britain, he was indeed crowned King of the Anglo-Saxons in 924. He became the first King of the English in 927, after he conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom of York. The Welsh kings did indeed submit to him, but he never really had the title of ‘first king of Britain’. Ah well, I suppose one can forgive a reincarnating, time and space travelling humanoid alien for not always having his facts straight!
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This blog post focuses on one of the most extensively illustrated books from the Middle Ages: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV). A unique picture book from early medieval England.
The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch as a picture book
Thirty-three goats, twenty-six sheep, thirty-one camels, thirty cows and twenty-nine asses. The artist responsible for the illustrations of The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch made a valiant attempt to match the numbers of livestock mentioned in Genesis 32:13-14 as having been gifted by Esau to Jacob (“Two hundred she-goats, twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams, thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and twenty bulls, twenty she-asses, and ten of their foals”). His efforts exemplify the great ambition behind this unique manuscript: to fully illustrate an Old English translation of the fist six books of the Bible. These efforts resulted in one of the most important examples of Anglo-Saxon art, with over four hundred illustrations.
The illustrations accompany the texts of Genesis through to Joshua, translated into Old English from the Latin Vulgate. This translation has been partially attributed to the famous homilist Ælfric of Eynsham, who was responsible for the translation of Genesis up to 24:22, the second half of Numbers and the book of Joshua. The rest of the translation was made by one or more anonymous translators. The text survives in seven other manuscripts , but Cotton Clauius B. IV is the only one to be illustrated (Barnhouse and Withers 2000: 2-3). Most of its illustrations are original and were made especially to conform to the text of the manuscript: “In other words, the artist was not copying the pictures of a remote and long-forgotten age; like other creative artists he was thinking in terms of his own life and times” (Dodwell and Clemoes 1974: 71). As such, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch is a unique, Anglo-Saxon picture book, that not only illustrates the text of the Old Testament, but also provides a glimpse of how an inhabitant of early medieval England imagined these events.
Sample: Sodom and Gomorrah and the seduction of Lot
To give you an idea of the joy of reading The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, here follows the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the seduction of Lot (Gen. 19:24-33). The text was edited by Samuel J. Crawford in 1922:
God sende to þam burgum ealbyrnendne renscur mid swefle gemencged 7 ða sceamleasan fordyde. God towearp ða swa mid graman ða burga, 7 ealne ðone eard endemes towende 7 ealle þa burhwara forbærnde ætgædere, 7 eall ðæt growende wæs, wearð adylegod.
[God sent to the towns an all-consuming shower, mixed with sulfur, and destroyed the shameless ones. Thus, God then destroyed the towns with rage, and all the land he cast down likewise, and he burned all the citizens together, and all that was growing, was destroyed.]
In the illustration below, note the rather anachronistic architecture!
Þa beseah Lothes wif unwislice underbæc 7 wearð sona awend to anum sealtstane na for wiglunge, ac for gewisre getacnunge.
[Then Lot’s wife unwisely looked back and was immediately turned into a salt-stone, not because of sorcery, but as a certain sign.]
In the added illustration, one of Lot’s daughters seems to be making a facepalm!
Lot and his daughters then find their way to a mountain, were the daughters plan to make him drunk:
Ða cwæð seo yldre dohtor to hyre gingran swyster: Vre fæder ys eald man 7 nan oðer wer ne belaf on ealre eorþan, ðe unc mage habban. Vton fordrencean urne fæder færlice mid wine 7 uton licgan mid him, þæt sum laf beo hys cynnes. Hi dydon ða swa, 7 fordrencton heora fæder
[Then the elder daughter said to her younger sister: ‘Our father is an old man and no other man is left in the whole world, who might have us. Let us quickly make our father drunk with wine and let us lie with him, so that there may be an heir of his kin.’ Then they did so and made their father drunk.]
The image below suggests that the artist deemed four drinks enough to get Lot drunk enough to sleep with his daughters – on the right we can see a happy Lot sharing a blanket with one of his daughters (with untangled hair!))
How to illustrate a medieval manuscript? A five step guide
One very interesting feature of the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch is that some of its scenes were left unfinished, allowing us to reconstruct the various stages of the illustration process. Johnson (2000: 175-176) has identified the following five stages:
- Outline sketches (often no longer visible)
- Added blocks of ground colours for bodies, surfaces of rivers, etc.
- Confirmed outline sketch by adding outlines of heads, feet and hands in red ink.
- Fill in facial details (nose, eyebrows, hair)
- Added shading and highlighting for draperies, hair and shoes
These five stages are illustrated below:
Twitter Project ‘Old English Hexatweets’: Tweeting the Old English Hexateuch
The above has hopefully convinced you that the Old English Hexateuch deserves to be more widely used and enjoyed. To ensure this and to give myself something to tweet about, I will start tweeting one image of the Old English Hexateuch a day, along with an accompanying Old English citation from the edition of the text by Crawford (1922). If you would like your daily fix of Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination and Old English prose, follow me on Twitter.
Works referred to:
- Barnhouse, Rebecca, and Benjamin C. Withers (eds.). The Old English Hexateuch: aspects and approaches (Kalamazoo, 2000).
- Crawford, S. J. (ed.). The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, Ælfric’s Treatise on the Old and New Testament and His Preface to Genesis. Early English Text Society OS 160 (London, 1922).
- Dodwell, C.R., and P. Clemoes (eds.). The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B. iv, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 18 (Copenhagen, 1974).
- Johnson, David. A Program of Illumination in the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: “Visual Typology”, in Barnhouse and Withers 2000: 165-200.
Not much is known about Benjamin Thorpe (1782-1870), yet he was one of the first scholars to publish voluminous editions and translations of Old English texts. This blog provides an overview of Thorpe’s works on Anglo-Saxon texts and also reveals how his reputation was almost ruined because of faulty reprints of his Beowulf edition.
Benjamin Thorpe: A demanding stepfather and a humble translator
Little is known about the background and youth of Benjamin Thorpe; his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that he “is of obscure origins” (Seccombe 2014). In 1826, at the age of forty-four, Thorpe studied early English antiquities at the University of Copenhagen, under the guidance of one of the most prominent philologists of his day: Rasmus Rask (1787-1832). A good working knowledge of ancient tongues and literature was not the only thing Thorpe picked up in Copenhagen: he also married Mary Anne Otté and adopted her daughter Elise. A eulogy written on the latter’s death in 1904 reveals that Benjamin Thorpe had been a demanding stepfather who eventually drove his stepdaughter to flee to Boston, USA:
Apparently aided by his talented stepdaughter, Thorpe started to earn his living as a translator of, mostly, Anglo-Saxon texts – according to Niles (2015), he may be regarded as “the first professional Anglo-Saxonist”, since his income mainly consisted of the stipends he received for his books.
A glance at Thorpe’s activities as an editor and translator (a full overview is provided below) shows an admirable range: from poems to law texts, psalms, chronicles and homilies. Thorpe also strikes as a humble man. His humility, as well as his intended purpose for most of his books, are made clear in the preface to his Analecta Anglo-Saxonica (1834), a student anthology of Old English texts:
Like the generality of first attempts, [this work] is, I am too well aware, extremely defective both in plan and execution, and has large demands to make upon the indulgences of its readers; but I shall not regret having sent it forth to the world, if, by its publication, the study of the old vernacular tongue of England, so much neglected at home, and so successfully cultivated by foreign philologists, shall be promoted in the land where it once flourished. (Thorpe 1834, A2)
He was also humble enough to indicate when a text had proven too difficult for him to translate. Of the Old English Riming Poem, for instance, he remarked: “My endeavours to give a version of the “Riming Poem” have failed.” (Thorpe 1842, ix). The Exeter Book Riddles also caused him trouble:
Of the “Riddles”I regret to say that, from the obscurity naturally to be looked for in such compositions, arising partly from inadequate knowledge of the tongue, and partly from the manifest inaccuracies of the text, my translations, or rather attempts at translation, though the best I can offer, are frequently almost, and somtimes I fear, quite as unintelligible as the originals. Though they have baffled me, yet as they will now be in the hands of the Public, a hope may reasonably be entertained, that one more competent will undertake their interpretation, and with a more favourable result. (Thorpe 1842, xi)
These two failed attempts notwithstanding, it would be hard to find a person “more competent” than Thorpe – Niles (2015) rightly notes that “no human being past or present has ever read more lines of Old English manuscript text than Benjamin Thorpe, word by word and letter by letter” (p. 229).
Editions and translations of Old English texts
Thanks to the Internet Archive, it is now possible to not only make a complete list of Thorpe’s editions and translations of Old English texts, they are all freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Anglo-Saxon England; Thorpe also translated the Elder Edda, a Latin chonicle by Florence of Winchester and historical works by J. M. Lappenberg; he also wrote multiple works about Northern mythology):
- A grammar of the Anglo-Saxon tongue : with a praxis (1830) – The Old English grammar of Rasmus Rask, translated by Thorpe.
- Caedmon’s metrical paraphrase of parts of the Holy Scriptures in Anglo-Saxon (1832) – edition and translation of the Old English poems in the Junius manuscript: Genesis A, Genesis B, Exodus, Daniel and Chist and Satan.
- Analecta Anglo-Saxonica : a selection in prose and verse, from Anglo-Saxon authors of various ages; with a glossary (1834) – a student anthology of Old English texts, ranging from the Old English Gospels to the poem Judith; no translations provided.
- The Anglo-Saxon version of the story of Apollonius of Tyre (1834) – first modern edition and translation of the romance of Apollonius of Tyre in Old English.
- Libri Psalmorum versio antiqua Latina; cum paraphrasi Anglo-Saxonica (1835) – first modern edition of the Paris Psalter, which contains a prose translation of the first fifty psalms and a verse translation of psalms 51 to 150; no translation provided, prefatory material and notes all in Latin.
- Ancient Laws and Institutes of England (1840) – a two-volume edition of law texts from Æthelbert of Kent (d. 616) to Henry I (d. 1135). The collection includes both secular and ecclesiastical laws, in Latin and Old English; only the Old English texts have been translated. Regrettably, only the second volume is available via the Internet Archive.
- Codex exoniensis. A collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, from a manuscript in the library of the dean and chapter of Exeter (1842) – first modern edition and translation of all the Old English poems of the Exeter Book.
- Đa halgan Godspel on Englisc: The Anglo-Saxon version of the Holy Gospels (1842) – The Gospels in Old English; no translation provided.
- The homilies of the Anglo-Saxon church: The first part, containing the Sermones catholici, or Homilies of Ælfric (1843-1846) – first modern edition and translation of the two series of Catholic Homilies by Ælfric; for as far as I know, Thorpe’s is still the only Modern English translation available. Second volume.
- The life of Alfred the Great (1852) – translation of the German biography of Alfred the Great by Reinhold Pauli; also contains edition and translation of the Old English Orosius.
- The Anglo-Saxon poems of Beowulf, the Scôp or Gleeman’s tale, and The fight at Finnesburg; with a literal translation, notes, glossary, etc.(1855) – edition and translation of Beowulf, Widsith and the Finnesburg Fragment.
- The Anglo-Saxon chronicle, according to the several original authorities (1861) – edition of manuscripts A to E of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; translation provided in Volume 2.
- Diplomatarium Anglicum Aevi Saxonici (1865) – edition of various legal documents in Latin and Old English; only the Old English texts are translated.
While generally overshadowed by his contemporary John Mitchell Kemble (1807-1857), Thorpe has certainly left his mark on the developing profession of Anglo-Saxon studies.In addition to his publications, Thorpe was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and became a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Munich (Germany) and the Society of Netherlandish Literature in Leiden (The Netherlands). Benjamin Thorpe died in 1870, aged eighty-eight years old.
A reputation nearly ruined by reprints?
While Thorpe’s works generally enjoy a good reputation, some nine years after his death, a Dutch student of Old English found reason to complain about Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf. This student, G. J. P. J. Bolland (1852-1922), wrote the following to the Professor of Germanic Philology in Leiden, P. Cosijn (1841-1899), on October 10, 1879: “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“. Bolland provided a number of errors in the first thirty lines of Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf and scornfully remarked: “Here’s the work of a member of the Society of Netherlandish Literature at Leiden!”
The errors noted by Bolland are accurate: “eyren-þearfe” for “fyren-þearfe” (Beowulf, l. 14); “eþ” for “þe” (Beowulf, l. 15); “fæt” for “þæt” (Beowulf, l. 22); etc. In Thorpe’s defense, however, these errors are not found in his first edition, published in 1855; they are only found in the second edition of his work, published in 1875 (five years after Thorpe had died). Apart from this scornful letter of a Dutch student to his professor, the errors in the the second edition of Thorpe’s Beowulf appear to have gone unnoticed, since they are retained in the third edition of 1889:
When it came to his Beowulf edition (for which he is generally praised), it seems Thorpe is lucky that first impressions are indeed more lasting – the errors in the posthumous reprints of his works have not affected his reputation, although at least one Dutch student despised him for it!
This is the first in a series of blogs related to my project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English.
Texts referred to:
- John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- Thomas Seccombe, ‘Thorpe, Benjamin (1781/2–1870)’, rev. John D. Haigh, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27375, accessed 8 April 2016]
As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on Aragorn, who shows some parallels with the Anglo-Saxon kings Oswald of Northumbria, Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor…
Aragorn and Oswald of Northumbria (604-642): Exiles reclaiming their throne
Two years ago, the Daily Mail ran an article with the following headline: “Amazing story of the Anglo-Saxon warrior saint whose struggle to claim his rightful place as king inspired Tolkien’s Aragorn”. That Anglo-Saxon warrior saint was Oswald of Northumbria and, indeed, there is at least one striking parallel between Aragorn and Oswald: they were both kings in exile.
Long story short: Aragorn belonged to the line of Isildur, High King of Gondor and Arnor; Isildur’s brother Anarion inherited Gondor, while the line of Isildur continued to rule the Northern kingdom of Arnor; Arnor eventually falls into ruin and the descendants of Isildur become kings in exile; the line of Anarion dies out and the stewards (like Denethor) take over Gondor. In The Return of the King, Aragorn returns to Gondor to take up the crown, defeating the evil forces of Sauron in the process.
Oswald of Northumbria’s story is equally heroic. He had spent most of his youth in exile in Scotland, where he lived from the age of twelve. His exile began when his father Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria (or: Bernicia and Deira) had been killed and his uncle Edwin had taken to the throne of Northumbria. Only after his uncle Edwin and his brother Eanfrith were both killed by the pagan Cadwallon, did Oswald return to Northumbria in 634 to claim his birthright: the crown of Northumbria. He erected a wooden cross in a field near Hexham (now Heavenfield) and vanquished Cadwallon and his pagan army. Oswald is remembered as a saint because he was instrumental for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the North (granting the isle of Lindisfarne to the Irish missionary Aidan). He would die eight years later, by the hand of the pagan Penda in the year 642.
So is there any truth to the title of the Daily Mail’s headline? Yes: both Aragorn and Oswald were exiles reclaiming their thrones, but Oswald was by no means the only Anglo-Saxon king in exile. In fact, Aragorn shows more parallels with two other ostracized early medieval English kings: Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor.
Aragorn and Alfred the Great (849-899): Meeting up at a stone
As user Giaconda commented on my blog The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power, there is an interesting parallel between Alfred the Great (849-899) and Aragorn, which concerns meeting up at a stone.
In 878, Alfred, king of Wessex, was forced to flee into the Somerset marshes, after having been ambushed in Chippenham by the Vikings. A few months later, Alfred rallied a great force of Anglo-Saxon warriors, whom he met at Ecgbryhtesstan (Egbert’s Stone), somewhere near Edington. The battle of Edington was gloriously won by Alfred, forcing the Danesto accept a peace treaty. Egbert’s stone bears the name of Alfred’s grandfather Egbert, king of Wessex (802-839).
Aragorn, prior to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (where Théoden gets killed by the lord of the Nazgul), ventures onto the ‘Paths of the Dead’ to recruit the Oathbreakers (a.k.a. the King of the Dead and the men of Dunharrow). These men had been cursed by Aragorn’s forefather Isildur, because they had broken their vow to aid Isildur in battle against Sauron. That particular vow had been made on..dum-dum-dum…the ‘Stone of Erech’, which had been brought to Gondor by Isildur himself. It is at this very ‘Stone of Erech’ that Aragorn meets the Oathbreakers, who then help Isildur’s heir to destroy the ships of Sauron’s allies from the south. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Aragorn and Edward the Confessor (1003-1066): The hands of a king are the hands of a healer
Another exiled Anglo-Saxon king to whom Aragorn bears some similarity is Edward the Confessor.
Edward had spent much of his life as an exile at the court of Normandy, since a Viking king named Cnut had killed his half-brother Edmund Ironside and had occupied the throne of England between 1016 and 1035 (to add insult to injury, Cnut also married Edward’s mother!). Still, Edward was able to reclaim the throne of England,even though the manner in which he did so was not particularly heroic: he was invited back to England by Cnut’s son Harthacnut in 1041 and, when Harthacnut died a year later (he reportedly drank himself to death at a wedding!), Edward became king of England in 1042. Soon after his death in 1066, Edward the Confessor was revered as a saint and it was claimed that he had ‘the royal touch’: the ability to cure people by touching them with his hand (e.g., the eleventh-century Vita Ædwardi Regis relates how the water with which Edward had rinsed his hands restores a blind man’s sight).
Guess who also had ‘the king’s touch’? That’s right: Aragorn. When Aragorn enters Gondor after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he visits the Houses of Healing. One of its nurses remembers an old saying “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known”. Aragorn arrives just in time to tend to FaramirFaramir and Éowynn, both suffering from the Black Shadow. He heals them both with the help of his hands and some crushed and boiled Athelas or Kingsfoil, revealing that he is the rightful king.
Aragorn may be the rightful king of Gondor, he certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in Anglo-Saxon England!
[in retrospect: the Daily Mail article dealt with a new biography of Oswald of Northumbria, entitled “The King in the North” and, no doubt, the title’s reference to Game of Thrones and the article’s link between Oswald and Aragorn were intended to boost sales!].