A Very Special Baby: Rumwold of Buckingham

Many things have changed since my daughter was a baby. Technology, fashions and trends but the basic care and needs are still the same.  Including the need for anxious parents to believe that their child is ‘advanced’, whether that be walking, talking, sitting up or rolling over. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.

However, if we all knew about Rumwold we would be content knowing our baby was healthy. None of us could compete with his advanced status so, in the interest of looking daft, we would all stay silent.

Rumwold was born in 650 or 662 and the poor mite only lived for three days. But from the moment of his birth he could speak fluently. Not only that, but what he spoke should have taken decades of learning. He was a self-confessed Christian and asked to be quickly baptised into the faith, he knew all about worship and the principles of Christianity. Just before his death he gave a sermon. There is no record of him holding himself up or whether he still had that weak wobbly neck three-day-old babies have, but I suppose that faded into insignificance.

According to eleventh century records, Rumwold was the grandson of my favourite king, Penda of Mercia and the son of a king of Northumbria. There is speculation about who his parents actually were as none of the facts really add up, even Penda was recorded as converting to Christianity although historians generally agree that he did not. Some suggest Cyneburga and Alcfrith. Anyway, the story goes that Rumwold’s mother was a pious Christian married to a pagan and she would not consummate the marriage until her husband converted. As soon as he becomes Christian, she becomes pregnant. Penda calls for the baby to be born at his palace but the child is born on the journey when they camped overnight in a field. As soon as the baby was born he cried out: “I am a Christian, I am a Christian, I am a Christian!” He added that he should be named ‘Rumwold’.

It is said that he was born in Walton Grounds in Northamptonshire, which was part of Mercia at the time. Obviously such piety resulted in the baby becoming a saint and a chapel was built on the very spot of his birth with rumours that the font was the one he was baptised in. Rumwold predicted his own death and said that he wanted to be buried in Buckingham. There are churches named after him and two wells where his relics once lay. There was a shrine for the many pilgrims who visited, largely thanks to Bishop Wulfstan who wrote down the tale.

Boxley Abbey in Kent had a famous statue of the saint.  According to tradition the attempt to lift the statue was a test of a woman’s chastity. In reality, those who paid the priest well could lift the statue easily, while others could not. Upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, it was discovered that the statue was held by a wooden nail.The monks there had a few of these scams going including the supposed cross of Saint Andrew that could talk. This skullduggery only added to Henry VIII’s case that the Church was corrupt and all monasteries should be dissolved.

So us mere mortals with our un-precocious babies should be content that we have them with us at all. Maybe we should buy them something fashionable and advanced on the feast of Saint Rumwold on 3 November. Just a thought.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton

Sin, Immortality and Good Teeth: How Apples Still Drive Us  

How many lunch boxes have apples in them, I wonder. Not as squashy as bananas or plums, not as juicy as satsumas or peaches, apples are the perfect travelling fruit. As children we were told that they kept our teeth clean. Even better than that, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Statistically, that claim has been proven to be true. Though nobody is really sure why, as apples are not the most vitamin-enriched fruits when compared to bananas or oranges. Perhaps they have some divine nutrient.

We are all aware of the apple being the fruit that led mankind into sin when Eve offered it to Adam. The Anglo-Saxons and Norse folk believed in a goddess called Idunn who kept some very special apples. They had the power of eternal youth and the gods needed them to keep alive, as the Norse and Anglo-Saxon gods were not immortal as many other gods appear to be. The god of mischief, Loki, had fun with Idunn and the magic apples, according to the Old Norse manuscripts. Idunn is a major feature in my book The Dark Garden.

26 September is the birthday of another special apple person, a man known as Johnny Appleseed. His real name was John Chapman and for forty years he travelled through America planting apple trees and handing out apple tree seeds. More than this, he continued to take care of the saplings as they grew, pruning and caring for them and helping the new settlers to create orchards. Born in 1774, Johnny Appleseed has become an American folk hero.

In a month’s time we will be celebrating harvest by playing ‘duck-apple’ where we will try to catch floating apples with our teeth – more about that in October. The best thing about apples? Apple pie with custard. Mmm…

The Battle of Maldon

On 10 August 991 a battle took place between the Anglo-Saxons, led by Ealdorman Brithnoth, and Viking invaders: the Battle of Maldon.  The most significant thing about this battle is that there was a poem written about it. Sadly, the beginning and ending are lost and only three hundred and twenty five lines remain. But it gives a great insight to the Anglo-Saxons approach (as it is from their perspective) as well as practices of the times. The Anglo-Saxons were defeated by the Vikings in case you were wondering.

Part I. Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Wilfrid Berridge.


Then he ordered each of his warriors his horse to loose
Far off to send it and forth to go,
To be mindful of his hands and of his high heart.
Then did Offa’s Kinsman first know
That the earl would not brook cowardice,
Loosed he from his hands his darling to fly,
His Hawk to the wood, and to the battle strode.
From that one could tell that the chieftain would never
Weaken in the warfare – when he his weapons seized.
And after him Edric chose his chief to follow,
His friend in the fight – then ‘gan he forth to bear
The spear to the strife – high spirit had he,
So long as he with his hands to hold was able
His buckler and broadsword; his boast he fulfilled
That he by his friend’s side should fight.


Then did Brithnoth begin his men to bestow –
He rode up and counselled them – his soldiers he taught
How they should stand, and their standing to keep,
And bade them their round shields rightly to hold
Fast to their forearms, that they flinch not at all.
And when he had his folk fairly bestowed
He lighted there with his people, where he would liefest be
Where he knew his own troops were most to be trusted.


Then stood forth on the strand and sternly spake
The messenger of the Vikings, delivered his tidings;
He boastfully spoke, for the seafarers
Their sentence to the earl, where he stood on the shore.
“They sent me to thee, those bold seamen,
And bade me to say that thou must send swiftly
Ring-money for pledges. For you were it better
That you buy off this spear-rush with your tax,
Than that we should have so hard a battle.
What need we to vex us, if you will agree?
We will for this gold a sure compact make
If thou wilt agree to it – thou that art strongest.
If that thou be willing thy people to redeem,
To yield to the seamen at their own choice
Tribute for a truce, and so take peace of us,
Then will we with the tax to ship betake us
To sail on the sea – and hold truce with you.
Brithnoth made answer – his buckler he grasped,
Brandished his slender spear – and spoke.
“Hearest thou, sea-robber, what this people say?
For tribute they’re ready to give you their spears,
The edge poison-bitter, and the ancient sword.
War-gear that will bring you no profit in the fight.
Thou messenger of the seamen, back with thy message.
Tell to thy people, these far more hateful tidings,
There stands here a good earl in the midst of his men,
Who will this country ever defend,
The kingdom of Aethelred, mine overlord,
The folk and the ground – but they shall fall,
The foemen in the fight; too shameful methinks
That ye with our tribute, to ship should be gone
Without a blow struck – now that ye have thus far
Made your incoming into our land.
Nor shall ye so softly carry off our riches.
Sooner shall point and edge reconcile us,
Grim warplay indeed – before we give tribute.”
Bade he then to bear the shields, the warriors to go,
So that they on the river’s bank all stood.


Nor could for the water, the army come at the other,
For there came flowing, flood after ebb;
Locked were the ocean-streams, and too long it seemed
Until they together might carry their spears.
There by Panta’s stream in array they bestood,
Essex men’s rank, and the men from the ships,
Nor might any one of them injure the other
Except where from arrow’s flight one had his death.
The flood went out – the pirates stood ready.
Full many of the Vikings, eager for battle.


Then bade the men’s saviour, one to hold the bridge,
A warrior war-hardened, that was Wulfstan hight [1],
Courageous mid his kin – he was Ceola’s son,
Who the first foeman with his spear did fell
That bravest stepped forth upon the bridge.
There stood with Wulfstan warriors goodly
Aelfere and Maccus, high hearted both,
That never at the ford would turn them to flight,
But they steadfastly ‘gainst their foes made defence,
While their weapons to wield they were able.


When they saw that, and keenly espied
That bitter bridge-guardians there they met
Then began they to feign – those loathed guests –
And begged that they might some foothold get,
To fare over the ford – the foemen to lead.


Then did the earl, in his overweening heart
Lend land too much to that loathed people.
Then ‘gan he call out – across the cold water
Brighthelm’s son, and all the band listened.
“Now room is meted you, come swiftly to us,
Warriors to war. Only God knows
Who at the end shall possess this fight’s field”.
Then went the war wolves – for water they recked not.
The troop of the pirates, west over Panta.
Over the shining water they carried their shields
Seamen to the shore, their bucklers they shouldered.
There against the raiders ready stood
Brithnoth with his band, and with the bucklers bade
Form the shield wall, and make firm the ranks
Fast against the foes. Then was fighting nigh,
Fame in the fight – now was the hour come
When that the feymen [2] must fall.

1 ‘hight’ = archaic, literary word meaning ‘named’ or ‘called’

2 ‘feymen’ = ‘doomed men’ destined to die in the battle

Top Ten Facts About August

Top Ten Facts About August by A.J. Sefton

 By A.J. Sefton

1. August is named after Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. It was chosen it as it was the month of his greatest triumphs.

2. Until 8BC, the Romans called August ‘Sextilis’ as it was the sixth month of their year.

3. The Anglo-Saxons called August  ‘Weod-monath’ (weed month) as it is the month when weeds, grasses and other plants grow most rapidly.

4. Often the hottest month of the year, the old saying goes:

Dry August and warm, does harvest no harm,

If the first week of August be warm, the winter be white and long.

5. The first day of August was the festival of Lammas, the start of the harvest. The word came from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlafmaesse’, which means ‘loaf mass’.

6. Eisteddfod is a festival celebrating the arts and culture of Wales and can be traced back to 1176. It takes place every year at the beginning of August, only missed in 1914 when World War One broke out.

7. Trial marriages took place in August. A couple would spend about eleven days together, the time of the Lammas fair. If they did not get on for that period they would part.

8. Farmers gave their workers a gift of gloves. A large white glove on a pole was decorated with flowers to indicate the Lammas fair.

9. The first loaf of bread made after the harvest was allowed to go stale and then crumbled into the corners of the barns to ensure the next year’s harvest.

10. “In August, choler and melancholy much increase from whence proceeds long-lasting fevers and agues not easily cured.” (R Saunders, 1679)

This Sunday is Bilberry Sunday

Bilberry Sunday

There were times during my childhood when we holidayed during the new school term, in September. It seemed to me, as an eight-year-old, that we were indulging in some kind of secret activity. In those days the holiday was in Wales, which still remains my favourite country.

It was different in September. There were no families as the children had to go to school. It was often warmer in September than August. Best of all though, was the abundance of bilberries growing in the poor soil of heathland with heather. They were dark and juicy and unlike any fruit or berry I had seen at home. To me, they were secret, special and must have had magical powers.

Years later I remembered the little berries and researched them in the hope of growing them in my own garden. They are difficult to cultivate so they will remain forever the fruit of the Welsh hills. But I also found out how valuable they were to my ancestors.

The calendar has shifted a bit over the last fifteen hundred years or so, as has the climate. So much so that bilberries were harvested throughout July in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times. It was a job that the children could do, their little fingers could pluck the berries from the low-growing shrubs without crushing them. Quite a tedious job but there were other benefits. Spending so much time in the sunshine hunting for these little jewels often led young people into courtship. The story goes that a young lady would bake a bilberry pie for the young man who caught her eye and give it to him during the celebrations that followed.

On the last Sunday of July a great feast took place where people ate the bilberry produce. Pies, jams, tarts and wine were no doubt consumed as well as the general merriment of the day. On the 1st August the Celtic peoples celebrated their god Lugh, in a festival named Lughnasadh. This was the first harvest festival of the year and the crop of bilberries was said to indicate how well the rest of the crops would fare in their harvests later in the year. During the celebrations, people would climb hills where bilberries grew. I love that.

Bilberry Sunday continued for a few centuries in Ireland, but even that has died out now. However, I am pleased to see that the supermarket Tesco has a bilberry pie recipe on its website. Maybe Bilberry Sunday will be resurrected. It is in my household anyway.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton

Bilberry pie with cream recipe (from Tesco)


  • 250g Tesco lighter ready rolled shortcrust pastry

  • a little plain flour, for dusting

  • 500g bilberries (use blueberries if not available)

  • 150g caster sugar

  • 2tbsp cornflour

  • juice of ½ lemon

  • 1 small egg, beaten

  • 200ml reduced fat thick cream, for serving

Serves 4 * 15 mins to prepare * 1 hr 15 mins to cook * 570 calories per serving * freezable

Combine the cornflour, bilberries, lemon juice and sugar (apart from the 1 tbsp) in a large mixing bowl. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 190°C.

Roll the pastry out on a lightly floured surface to 1cm thickness. Line a 9 inch ceramic pie plate with the pastry, cutting off the overhanging pastry (of which there should be a lot). Gather the excess pastry into a ball and roll out to 1cm thickness roughly and reserve to one side.

Fill the pastry with the bilberry mixture. Cut the pastry into long strips that will act as decoration across the top of the pie. Arrange in a wide lattice pattern making sure each strip of pastry reaches the edge of the pie plate.

Seal well and brush the exposed parts of pastry with the beaten egg. Bake for 45-50 minutes until the pastry is cooked and the filing is glazed and hot.

Remove and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving with a small bowl of the thick cream on the side.

Read more at https://realfood.tesco.com/recipes/bilberry-pie-with-cream.html#4Zgyhero6kotqGz2.99

The Strange Story of the Cheese and the Sword  

 Saint Juthware of Devonshire by A.J. Sefton

You risk being knocked over if you say “cheese” in our house. Our cat will run at great speed from wherever she is to steal the dairy product. A real cheese monster.

Cheese has been part of our diet since before recorded history, so – a long time then. But stranger than my cat’s love of cheese, is the sad story behind the pub sign depicting a headless woman (see above). It is inspired by a young woman who lived in Halstock, Dorset, in the seventh century.

An inn-keeper called Benna brought up his baby daughter, Juthware (pronounced Uth-are) after her mother died during childbirth. After a while, Benna married a widow called Goneril, who had a son, Bana. Oh yes, another wicked step-mother story looms.

Juthware grew up to be a quiet, pious Christian, which, for some reason, really irked Goneril. When her sickly father died, Juthware continued his kind hospitality and was popular with all the travellers who stayed at the inn, sharing stories and serving ale and wine.

We shall never know why Goneril despised her step-daughter, but the story says that their relationship worsened after the death of Benna. Perhaps Goneril wanted the inn for herself and the profits that went with it. Either way, she wanted rid of Juthware.

Not long after the death of her father, Juthware complained of pains in her chest. Goneril said that if she rubbed her chest with soft cheese the pain would go. Not heard that one before. So the young woman put the soft cheese down her front twice a day. Meanwhile, the nasty step-mother  planned the next phase: she slaughtered a lamb in the forest and left it there.

For a pious Christian girl, goodness was everything. Destroying this would surely destroy Juthware. Goneril did this by telling her son, Bana, (and probably everyone else) that Juthware had given birth to a baby in the forest and left it to the wolves. Bana would not believe this of his kind step-sister. What proof was there? Goneril showed him the remains of the lamb’s carcass that had been eaten by wolves.

Still unconvinced, he faced Juthware as Goneril ordered her to remove her underwear. The remnants of the soft cheese were evidence of lactation, Goneril said. No more proof needed.

Bana was horrified and angry. He drew his sword and beheaded Juthware where she stood. But the head called to the body, which jerked slowly but surely to its feet, picked up the head and carried to the church, placed it on the altar and then died.

Juthware soon became a saint and martyr and pilgrims travelled to the village to pay homage. Her feast day is 13 July and she is depicted with rounds of cheese and a sword. The public house that had the sign above is now a guest house, known as ‘The Quiet Woman’ and looks very nice set in the lovely Dorset village.

But before you book, consider this: at one o’clock in the morning on All Saints Day (1st November), Saint Juthware’s ghost is said to return to repeat the incident. It is said that she will be carrying her head as she walks down the lane towards the church…

© 2016 A.J. Sefton

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Awesome post…sheds such light onto the art of the Anglo-Saxons.

British Museum blog

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th…

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