When I first started studying history, one of the things I loved about it was that it was known. The past is unchangeable, written in stone. Sure different historians could highlight different things but the facts were the facts. Uh, no. Not when you go back to the early Middle Ages.
The history of the early Middle Ages is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing, and those which remain are mainly sky, sea and grass. To add to the complications, other people in earlier times might have invented their own jigsaw pieces and crammed them in. Disentangling those pieces can be an impossible task. For example, Sir Walter Scott romanticised the legend of Rob Roy. He did do some research and spoke to various people. Scott also didn’t get Gaelic humour. When he was told that Rob Roy’s arms were so long that he didn’t have to bend to put on his stockings, he duly reported it, rather than asking if it was a tall tale or exaggeration. Or Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote her Eagle of the Ninth about a missing British legion (wonderful book btw). The only trouble is that the so-called missing legion turned up in Germany afew years later when other excavations took places.
Sometimes we genuinely do not know. Take for example 7th century Northumbria and its first Bretwalda or over king of Britain Aethelfirth. How many times was he married? Bede mentions him. He mentioned that he was married to a Picticsh princess and then a Deirain princess called Acha. He takes over Deira and rules fothere for 12 years. All well and good except towards the end of his reign, a major fort gets renamed after his queen Bebba. Who is Bebba (the modern day Bamburgh)? Is she the Pictish princess who bore him his eldest child? A third wife? Was he married to both at once? Bede doesn't mention two concurrent wives but Aethelfirth was pagan and so there is no reason why he shouldn't have had two wives. There again that sort of gossip about pagans is exactly the sort of thing Bede would have passed on. The answer is we just don’t know.
Also why did Bamburgh stay as Bamburgh or Bebba’s fort. It becomes the royal residence so why take the name of this queen. Amd it should be a great queen or at least the mother of a great king. The most influential king of the period was Oswui. He reigned for 40 years and was the only one to die in his bed.
Acha’s son Oswald wins a victory over the pagans, restores his kingdom and brings Christianity to Northumbria. His brother Oswui secures the throne after Oswald’s death in battle. Oswui then marries the daughter of the former King Edwin who also happened to be Acha’s brother who disposed his father. If you think Oswui is Oswald’s full brother, then he and his wife are first cousins and the Church at the time was generally against consanguinity. Oswui like his brother had become a Christian on Iona. If Oswui had another mother (perhaps Bebba) then it explains in part why he might have married Eanfled. Except Eanfled does a memorial to Acha at Whitby Abbey, not to Bebba.
Does anyone have any suggestions? Because apparently nobody genuinely knows, people are just making best guesses.
The only answer is to write fiction because the facts do not give us a definitive answer. It is part of the fun of studying history.
In other news:
My trio of Victorians are released today as e-books in the North American Market. Victorian history is slightly easier than the 7th century but no less fun.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances in a wide range of time periods. You can find out more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk