A-Z Challenge -Ultan of Ardbraccan

My daughter had to go to hospital for major surgery. Naturally, as a parent, I was very worried about her. What if something went wrong? Of course I trusted the doctors, surgeons and other medical staff. I knew that they were the best in their field. But I needed more than that. I needed some kind of special divine power to intervene.

Then I heard about Ultan of Arbraccan, the patron saint of paediatricians. All his life was dedicated to caring for children and he founded a school to educate and feed the poor children. There were a lot of orphans then, too. Despite the hardships of Early Medieval life, the seventh century suffered bouts of Justinian’s Plague, which seemed to affect many more adults than children. Ultan took them in and created his version of cows’ teats (bottles I suppose we’d call them now) to enable the very young children to drink milk, according to Katherine McCormack  in The book of Saint Ultan.

Ultan was also known as Ultan the Scribe. This was because he wrote hymns and collected the writings of his niece, Saint Bridget. He copied them out and decorated them with wonderful doodles. In those days, doodling was called illuminating.

As all great saints and healers have, there is Ultan’s holy well inside church grounds. After the First World War a hospital was built in Dublin to care for the high number of sick children. Women doctors were concerned about the level of infant mortality at this time and named the hospital Saint Ultan’s. Unfortunately the hospital closed in 1984. We can take from this that children’s health had improved by then.

As for my own daughter, her operation lasted more than five hours but it was successful and she made a speedy recovery. So for her, and all the other sick children, I remember the seventh century saint on his feast day, 4 September. As he sort of invented the milk bottle, I celebrate by having some milk pudding. Seems right.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton http://www.ajsefton.com

Emperor Qianfei, the Dark Stain on China’s Golden Age

While it seemed that Europe was in the Dark Ages, for China it was certainly a golden age. But that doesn’t mean that China wasn’t touched by darkness.

Emperor Qianfei was an emperor of the Chinese dynasty Liu Song. He was born in 449 and he became emperor when he was aged fifteen. He had a difficult childhood. He was imprisoned by his uncle when he was only four. However, his father killed the captor and he was released and made crown prince. In his new role, Qianfei made many mistakes. These did not impress the current emperor, his father, and resentment built up.

When he became emperor he demanded all his father’s portraits be given a large ugly nose. He also repealed all his father’s laws at once, throwing the country into chaos.

It’s never a good sign when a mother’s last words are, “Somebody bring me a sword and cut me open to see how this animal came out of me.” Qianfei killed nearly everyone in his family, starting with his brother. He left some of his uncles alive, but caged them and put them on public display. One nobleman who plotted against him got his eyes scooped out. Qianfei put the eyes in honey and called them pickled ghost eyes.

When he wasn’t busy murdering folk he engaged in sexual depravity and incest. If anyone refused, he killed their family. One aunt did not refuse, and started an affair with Qianfei. When her husband objected, Qianfei faked her death by killing a servant and sending the husband the mutilated body. And he killed the husband. And he killed the general who suggested that he not kill the husband. As Qianfei’s paranoia increased, he slaughtered anyone who even looked like a traitor. Once he killed a servant because she looked like a woman who had told him, in a dream, that he would be killed. Oh, the irony.

Unsurprisingly, Qianfei was murdered by his attendants after ruling for only one year. But the damage ran deep and the dynasty of Liu Song was destroyed too.

It’s just like reading Game of Thrones. Now I really do need a nice cup of tea after all that.

            © 2016 A.J. Sefton.   http://www.ajsefton.com

A-Z People of the Dark Ages: Edward the Confessor


Sometimes nice people really mess things up. The simple act of being inoffensive can cause so much irreversible  damage that it would be better if they had avoided diplomacy in favour of a whole load of aggro. Much better in the long run.

One such man was King Edward III. He was such a nice guy that his nickname was ‘The Confessor’, as in a priest who takes confession. A softly spoken, pious man, everyone loved Edward. He spent almost twenty-five years in exile in France as his father, King Ethelred the Unready, was faced with Viking attacks in England. After the rule of several Danish kings, the people of London really wanted Edward and cheered on his return. He became king of England in 1042

Being a nice man, Edward’s life was not full of extravagance and this resulted in low taxes for the ordinary people of England. The country benefitted from improved agricultural technology and a new prosperity. He had no military experience and therefore was not a warmonger. So far, so good.

However, Edward’s upbringing in Normandy did not please everyone. Some people believed that he showed favouritism to Norman nobles. He probably did. Earl Godwin of Wessex gathered an army made up of Mercian and Northumbrian nobles. Edward banished him from the country.

But then, being that nice man, he tried to build fences with Godwin’s son, Harold. Harold became Edward’s military leader. Chances are, given the lack of natural-born heirs, Edward promised Harold the crown on his death. Only, he promised it to the WIlliam, Duke of Normandy, too.

We are not really sure who Edward promised the crown to, but personally I think he named both men. Nice people like to make other people happy. They don’t want to offend anyone. Ironically, England was to change forever because there was no clear heir and battles broke out in Stamford Bridge (the Viking Danes thought they had a right to the English throne too) and at the Battle of Hastings. 14 October 1066. The most famous of English dates.

After the Duke of Normandy defeated Harold (see my post about Harold next week) the culture, language, government and just about everything else changed, including hunting and the role of women.

See what being nice and inoffensive does.

 See the rest of my A-Z entries at http://www.ajsefton.com

 Edward the Confessor. Feast day is 13 October.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton http://www.ajsefton.com

A-Z People of the Dark Ages: The Venerable Bede

I don’t know where I’d be without the Venerable Bede. He, along with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is one of the major resources for my Dark Age novels.

He was a great historian who recorded events in Anglo-Saxon England from the departure of the Romans until his own death. His essential book, as far as I’m concerned, is  Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. You can tell from the title that it is written from a Christian perspective. What that means is that pagans, such as King Penda of Mercia, are not portrayed as heroes or good men and Christians, no matter how nasty, are.

Bede was an eighth century monk who lived in Jarrow, Durham, in the old kingdom of Northumbria. As a monk, he spent many of his days copying out passages of the Bible into wonderful illuminated manuscripts.There was a great library at his monastery, understandably. He was also a great scholar,singer, linguist and translator and said “study, teaching and writing had always been my delight”. My kind of guy.

He has written over sixty books, mainly educational and they all survive today. One was designed to teach grammar, another about time, De temporibus, another was about astronomy. Clever man. His contribution to our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon seasons and celebrations  I cover in my post The Anglo-Saxon Calendar.

Bede died on 25 May 735 and this became his feast day when he was made a saint. A museum in his home town of Jarrow explores his work and demonstrates Anglo-Saxon life. See a video of the place here.

For me and all of us, the Venerable Bede really did illuminate the Dark Ages.


This blog was part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge

 © 2016 A.J. Sefton