Athelstan

athelstan
Athelstan, Tom Holland, Penguin, 2016

Last week I posted on the most popular names among baby boys in England. The name Athelstan, one of the great Kings of England, was not one of them.  I’ve never met an Athelstan, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone of the name. The fact is, you rarely hear Anglo-Saxon names at all. I have an old school friend called Edwin, though we usually shortened this to Ed, and another friend whose great shame was his middle name – Edrick – the name of an 11th century rebel against Norman rule. There seems to have been a trend in England in the seventies for reclaiming some of these old Anglo-Saxon names as opposed to the Biblical names that had dominated since the Norman conquest, and a parallel movement in Wales with old Welsh Gruff, Rhys, Rhodri and the like. But most Anglo-Saxon names sound rather clumsy on the modern English tongue: Edred, Ethelweard, Osric, for example, more so, strangely, than their mellifluous Celtic counterparts; and that is why you will meet more Connors, Calumns and Morgans in an average English primary school than even Edmunds, Oswalds or Edgars. (Talking of Celts, however, there are two notable Scottish poets of the 20th Century called Edwin. I wonder why. Could it be because the realm of the Northumbrian King Edwin encompassed much of the south east of present day Scotland, and he can thus be considered a kind of honorary Scot? Probably not…)

There are exceptions to this Anglo-Saxon name cringe, however. Two in particular are Edward and Alfred. Edward was the name of a number of Anglo-Saxon kings, but has survived to the modern age because of the Plantagenets: Henry III was a devotee of Saint Edward the Confessor, and named his son after him – that was Edward I, (who was, of course, not really the first) the warlike king who kick-started a line of three Edwards in a row, with England racking up seven in total across the centuries. So it is thanks to a French speaking descendent of the Normans who displaced the Anglo-Saxon kings that Edward sounds like a ‘normal English name’, and has remained in popular usage. Alfred is of course the one pre-Norman king that everyone knows, and his name has deservedly survived 11 centuries or so. Most people of my parents’ generation could tell you at least one thing about him: he once burned some cakes! And many would know that he once camped out in the marshes of Somerset at the lowest ebb of his campaign against the Vikings.  More importantly, some might have been able to tell you – though these things are barely taught nowadays – that Alfred was resolute in Christianising Wessex and Mercia, and that his reign turned the tide against the Vikings and began the process of turning the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms into the single realm of England.

But the war against the Danes, the union of the Kingdoms and the Christianisation of the realm was not the work of a single reign. Alfred’s reign had seen the first major pushback against the Vikings, and the beginnings of cross-country cooperation between the different kingdoms of England. But at the end of Alfred’s reign, the country was still divided between a resurgent Wessex (which had swallowed up Sussex and Kent), combined with a tenuously English chunk of western Mercia, which stood against a huge ‘Dane Law’ stretching across eastern England from the Tees to the Thames. The lands north of the Tees were, like Wessex, ruled by the English – Angles rather than Saxons – but seem to have been under a kind of Danish suzerainty, and London at that period, though large and important, was no English capital, but rather a kind of giant Anglo-Danish border town. Far from being the first part of an inevitable roll out of English power across the land, Alfred’s successes were hard-fought, and could be easily reversed – in fact there were those even in Wessex who would work with Alfred’s enemies to try to do just that.  Alfred’s son Edward, the real Edward I, later dubbed Edward the Elder, did much to consolidate his father’s wins, bringing London, East Anglia and much of eastern Mercia into the Wessex camp. His son, Athelstan (sometimes written Aethelstan) took the fight to north of the Humber to the heavily Danicised lands of Viking Northumbria (modern day Yorkshire and most of Lancashire), and even to bring the non-Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of the far north under heel. It was he who faced a decisive battle at Brunanburgh to make his own kingdom of England the dominant power of the whole island of Britain, defeating a coalition of Gaelic-speaking Scots, Welsh speaking Strathclydians and Norse Vikings invading from Dublin.

Athelstan should really be a more widely-known name, even if it is unlikely to catch on in 21st century England. He can credibly be described as the first king of the whole of England, perhaps even the first overlord of the whole of Britain. It is for this reason that Penguin start their Penguin Monarchs series with him. The writer, Tom Holland, starts with a lurid description of the battle of Brunanburgh, before tracing back the roots of the Wessex resistance and the gains made through Alfred and Edward’s reigns, describing Athelstan’s own trials growing up in Wessex and Mercia and finally the great challenges of his own reign. During the first chapter, about Brunanburgh, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the book – Tom Holland has some literary talent, I think, besides his merits as a historian, but if he had kept up this sort of throughout the whole book, it could have got somewhat wearying:

Beyond the world of men, in skies and lonely forests, the shudder of the looming battle was also being felt. As the King of the English rode northwards, the number in his train swelling with his advance, ravens and warriors began to follow in his wake. The birds were notorious creatures of ill omen: clamorous, untrustworthy, hungry for human flesh. (page 6)

Actually, the more fantastical descriptions are used sparingly, but are entirely appropriate to describe an age with few written sources, which takes a little more imagination to evoke than better recorded eras. In any case, Holland adopts a more relaxed (and more strictly factual) style for most of the book and ably weaves the complex infightings of the house of Wessex and the relations between the kingdoms of Britain into a compelling narrative, while exploring in surprising depth (for such a short book) the running of his kingdoms, including his far-reaching foreign policy.

I came away from the book with a great appreciation of the achievements of Alfred, Edward and Athelstan. They were masters not just of war, but statecraft too – England was, in a way, their own creation. England was not a homogenous entity that, save for the interference of outsiders, would inevitably and naturally coalesce into a single realm. Even before huge swathes of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria became effectively Anglo-Danish, the Kingdoms that would comprise England had been separate entities – Wessex, Essex and Sussex were Saxon; Kent and the Isle of Wight were Jutish; East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria were Anglian – all with varying admixtures of Celtic and Roman blood and cultural influences . Northumbria and Kent had been most resolutely Christian, with pagan elements stronger the further one travelled from Canterbury or Lindisfarne, Mercia being the great backslider. These Wessex kings’ England was a resolutely Christian one – their view of Kingship was formed as much by the examples in the Bible, some of which Alfred translated into Old English, as in the stories of their pagan forebears. And, as Holland details, Christianity informed Athelstan’s kingship in very significant ways – he was the first ruler to bring in a kind of poor law, forcing the better off to provide for the poor to prevent starvation; and, inspired both by Old Testament Law makers and the words of Jesus, he took frequent measures to reduce murder and robbery in his realm, while acting with clemency towards criminals, the young in particular. These kings’ strong faith tied them to what was, geographically, the furthest English realm from Wessex. One of Edward’s most significant acts was the capture of the relics of the 7th century Northumbrian King and saint, Oswald, from Danish territory to be interred reverently in Wessex-controlled Gloucester. Oswald was a king reared in the far northern Gaelic kingdom of Dal-Riata, before returning home to reign Northumbria, a realm recently made from the joining together of Deira and Bernicia. He was killed by Mercian pagans, and so it is significant that he could still be revered by an army that included many Mercians. Certainly kinship was one of the elements of this imaginative forging of the English nation, but Christianity, not ethnicity, was the glue that bound that glorious past to the present and the kingdoms of the north to those of the south.

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Oliver, Harry and Muhammad

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Oliver Cromwell, aged 2 (no warts at all)

The ONS published the most popular baby boys’ names of 2016 a week or so ago, and, in fitting with this blog’s interest in history, I thought it interesting to speculate on some of the historical echoes of the most popular names.

Oliver was the most popular baby boy’s name of 2016 in England and Wales as a whole, and in seven out of ten regions – that is the south-west, the south east, the east Midlands, East Anglia, Yorkshire, the north west and Wales.

I think the most famous English Oliver, at least for educated people is the 17th century politician, victorious Civil War general, king-killer and Lord Protector (i.e. dictator) of England, Oliver Cromwell. I might be wrong, but let’s run with that, and assume that most parents who chose the name either knew of and admired Cromwell, or don’t dislike him enough not to choose the name.

If you have a significant strain of Irish blood in you, you would surely think twice before naming your son Oliver. During the Civil War, Cromwell would not afford “Irish troops” the same courtesies as he did his English enemies, and would slaughter captured prisoners after defeating them. Actually, there were very few Irish soldiers in the English Civil War because the parliamentarian-supporting navy successfully stopped them reaching Britain, but both English troops fighting in an Irish regiment (i.e. English troops who had been occupying Ireland) and Welsh fighters were often assumed to be Irish and killed accordingly. Cromwell’s actions in Ireland itself, particularly the slaughter of the populations of Drogheda and Wexford are infamous to this day. Any Catholics in fact – “papists” as they were known – were often afforded the same treatment, even in England.

The Scottish fought hard with the Parliamentarians against the Royalists – without them, Cromwell’s victories at York and Naseby would have been scarcely possible, but there was a great atmosphere of mistrust between them. When they grew disenchanted with the extremism coming from their English colleagues and turned against Cromwell for the King and his heir, Cromwell defeated them definitively. During his reign, he subjected Scotland to a level of English domination the reach of which had simply been unknown in earlier eras.

It was Cromwell who broke the taboo of (non-royals) killing a king – indeed he pushed the act to do so through a parliament that had been denuded of all moderates and had little of the accountability to the public that had provided the parliament with their casus belli in the first place. No Royalist could truly admire Cromwell, and nor could any traditionalist for the way that he set about liquidating the last vestiges of Merry England – from Maypoles to Christmas celebrations – that he thought remnants of popery and paganism (and that were welcomed back so gladly at the Restoration). On the other side of the fence, those who see in the parliamentary cause and its more radical fellow travellers the beginnings of the left as a force in England, must recognise Cromwell as the man who defeated and killed the king, only to rule with little regard for parliament and who cast aside the egalitarian concerns of the Diggers and the Levellers he had fought beside. So, by my count, those of Irish, Welsh, or Scottish descent, Catholics, Royalists, democrats, Jacobites and radicals should have second thoughts before choosing Oliver as their son’s name.

By all accounts Cromwell was a great general – as able as Napoleon, though fighting on a smaller scale. And even I (a half-Irish, baptised Catholic with Jacobite tendencies) am always struck by the great power and eloquence of the man’s words. So I am not saying there was nothing noble about Cromwell, only that, given his controversial legacy, it is surprising that so many people would choose his name for their son.

So maybe they’re not thinking of Cromwell at all… Perhaps the real inspiration is Jamie Oliver and parents are subconsciously yearning for a son who will cook them something nice every so often. God knows my poor old mum has had nothing fancier from me than spag bol or shepherd’s pie.

I am happy to report, however, that my own region was one of the three in which Oliver did not prevail. Harrys, in the north east, outnumbered Olivers. Harry began life as a nickname for Henry, and so many of our eight King Henrys were, in the reigns or afterward, known as King Harry. Among them were usurpers (VII and IV), tyrants (at least I,II VII and VIII), one befuddled weakling (VI) and one wife-killer and despoiler of abbeys (VIII), but nowadays most of them are remembered as Henry. The one who is, thanks to Shakespeare, remembered as Harry – Hal for short – is Henry V. Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V tell the story of a carousing prince with the common touch – Prince Hal – who so nobly vanquished the great northern Harry – Harry Hotspur – and grew up into that flower of chivalry, Henry V before defeating the French at Agincourt, and then dying young without ever soiling his legacy. He has from his own era to our own stood as the symbol of an almost perfect English king (notwithstanding our current friendship with France!), all the more likeable for his wayward earlier days – perhaps this figure lives on in our own Prince Harry.

Could it be that in a nation of republicans, the north east remains fiercely loyal to their sovereign? Or is it rather that we have been enchanted by childhood visits to Alnwick Castle to name our children after Harry Potter? It surely can’t be because of that handsome young cherub, Harry Styles, can it?

Harry has only the one region to its name, mind. The most popular name in the west Midlands and London, reflective of the ethnic mix in England’s two biggest cities, is Muhammad. There is no question of who this name refers to – it is the name of the founder and sole prophet of Islam. And it is certain that the parents of these boys feel a stronger attachment to the figure of Muhammad than other parents feel for Oliver Cromwell, or King Harry, or Harry Styles. There has of course been no major figure in British history with the name Muhammad; although, given the demographic shifts that these statistics portend, perhaps there one day will be.

The Conqueror

william the conqueror

William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin Monarchs): Marc Morris

Is William the Conqueror one of the villains of English history?

The case for the prosecution goes something like this. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they were being true to their barbaric Viking roots, however their long tenure in northern France had inured them to the more civilised ways of the countries to the south: the Norman invasion of England, though justified by a dynastic claim (itself won through an act of extortion), was another Scandinavian raid inspired by lust for land, gold and power. William, the brutal duke of Normandy, a bastard son of the last duke, had maintained his title through violence and intimidation; often achieving his conquests through the razing and pillaging of enemy lands, the taking – and where necessary murdering – of hostages, and the execution or mutilation of those who had crossed him.

Once he had won his battle – rather fortuitously, given that he was facing an English army tired out after repelling a vicious and unexpected invasion of Norwegians in the north, he was brutal and merciless with the defeated English, stripping most of the higher classes of their land and parcelling it out among his Norman and Breton followers, who then constituted an alien occupying power that was consolidated into a new ruling class, speaking a different language from the inhabitants and treating them as inherently inferior. Indeed, it was centuries before the kings of England spoke English as a second language again, by which time the language of the occupiers, Norman French, had changed the vocabulary and grammar of Anglo-Saxon into an entirely new language. The aristocracy and much of the gentry of England were of Norman descent for centuries after the conquest, and it is at least arguable that the stratified classes of modern England can be traced back to the conquest. It’s a bit more of a stretch, but it can also be argued that the expansionist ambitions of the English state and its aggression towards its Celtic neighbours is at root Norman.

The greatest stain on the conqueror’s reputation is the so-called ‘Harrying of the North,’ a sustained and brutal campaign to put down resistance in the restive north that would not accept his kingship, and that actively plotted with Scandinavian rulers to bring him down. So devastating was the campaign of reprisals and destruction, that the region was said to have lost a great proportion of its inhabitants – perhaps more than half. So great was the devastation on the region that when the Domesday Book was compiled at the end of the conqueror’s reign, many areas of Yorkshire were designated simply ‘waste’, while the lands north of the Tees were not even included in the survey.

All put, that’s a fairly convincing case for William the Conqueror – the Bastard, as his enemies termed him – being designated a villain, especially to an Anglo-Celt like myself, born and raised in the north east of England.

Nevertheless, reading Marc Morris’s William I in the Penguin Monarchs series, has very slightly increased my sympathy for the first Norman King, or at least lessened my dislike for him – and it has certainly enriched my understanding of the conqueror, his motives and his methods. Of the ‘case for the prosecution’ put above, much, perhaps most, is true, but needs to be understood in an eleventh century context, and there are some things about the Normans, and even about William himself that we should be thankful for.

He really was a bastard. This, it is explained, was not looked upon as a great problem in Norman culture, but was sniffed at in the rest of France and across Europe, including England. This aside, however, William the conqueror was not very much like the Viking warlords (and his own Norse ancestors) who had conquered and brutalised much of Western Europe over the previous two centuries. He was motivated by a genuine belief that he was the rightful heir to the throne of England, and that he had been cheated out of it by Harold. Harold, nominated heir by the previous king, had apparently promised the throne to William, under somewhat straitened circumstances. He was anxious to win papal backing for his enterprise, and keen to be acting properly according to Norman law and, once he was king of England, English law.

He was brutal, and often merciless, bit not more than the other rulers of his age, and, as Morris points out, he was never described as cruel. In his personal life he was more chaste than most contemporary and later monarchs. Even in his violence, he was certainly no worse than the Danish and Norwegian raiders who threatened to return England to Viking rule, and he was probably not much more brutal than the English themselves.  In one way, he was certainly an improvement: it was William and the Normans who ended the practice of slavery in England, and in Wales too, most likely at the urging of his archbishop, Lafranc.

Marc Morris’s short biography of the first Norman King is focused and well-paced. The sources for the era are somewhat sparse, but Morris always informs the reader of the likely bias of the source, and we get a good sense of the king as a ruler and a man. Morris himself seems perfectly unbiased – whatever your opinion of the conquest, you can enjoy the book. For all Morris’s qualifications, I still rue the conquest and dislike the king. My favourite parts of the book are the coronation of the king and, particularly, his death, both grotesquely bad augurs of his reign and legacy. When the king died, ‘the great men who had been at his bedside rode off to protect their own lodgings. When the monks and clergy of Rouen eventually arrived […] they found the king’s naked body lying abandoned and half naked on the floor.’ At the funeral ‘the king’s body turned out to be too big for its sarcophagus and the monks’ attempt to force the issue caused his swollen bowels to burst, filling the church with such a stench that once again all except the officiating clergy fled.’

 

Your Grace

Holbein's Henry VIII
‘That’s Your Majesty to you!’

‘You’re talking to the King of the Seven Kingdoms – you’ll address him as ‘Your Grace’

I love it when Sir Davos says that to John Snow at the end of series 4 of Game of Thrones, with Liam Cunningham (actually an Irishman) doing that great Geordie accent of his. There is something very appropriate about the accent, given his strangely touching loyalty to Stannis and the traditional loyalty of Newcastle to their sovereign, especially to Charles I, during the English Civil War. One of the theories behind the name ‘Geordie’ is that it was given to the inhabitants of the city for their loyalty to King George during the Jacobean rebellions – though I don’t believe that. I think it came from the commonness of the name George – diminutive form Geordie – among working class men there, much the same way Scottish men became ‘Jocks’, that being the diminutive form of the name John north of the border. It’s an odd thing the way Johns became Jockos in Scotland and Jackies in the North East.

Why, however, does George R.R. Martin have his kings styled Your Grace rather than Your Majesty?

Actually, Your Grace is the older usage – and its use in A Game of Thrones certainly fits with the mediaevalish setting. Your Majesty is a post-reformation formulation. So the question is really, why did we start saying Your Majesty rather than Your Grace?

Charles V started it early in the 16th century. As Emperor of Spain, Austria, the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire (which abounded with minor princes, dukes and palsgraves) as well as, effectively, most of South and much of North America, he felt like Your Highness or Your Grace didn’t quite do him justice. He became Your Majesty, and so as not to look inferior to him Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England swiftly followed suit.

It is an example of the lengths kings would go to to promote and maintain their sense of greatness. In Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy, a Bishop uses the term when talking to an audience gathered for an execution – the audience must be quickly told who is referred to lest they imagine another power than the king’s is being invoked.  It also comes up in Sovereign, the third (and, of the three I have read to date, the best) of Samson’s Shardlake series. Shardlake is told to use the correct term when he meets the king.

In Sovereign, Shardlake travels to York to help the Law commissions there. The King is visiting the north for the first time since the uprising – known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. In the Pilgrimage of Grace, the north rose to demand a return of the country to Catholicism, which they naively imagined the king would fondly welcome, having been tricked into making England protestant by his evil counsellors. They were defeated through a combination of force and trickery, and the reprisals for those involved were devastatingly bloody. But Henry pursued a policy of reconciliation alongside the retribution, and the main part of this was a massive effort to redress a backlog of local grievances in time for his visit to York, the capital of the North – and the centre of the rebellion, York. It is for this great legal project that the lawyer Shardlake is brought to the north. Of course, once he gets there, there are a couple of murders he must solve – this is a crime novel after all.

By far my favourite scene in the book, is the king’s appearance at York, where he appears to hear his terrified subjects’ official apology for their recent rebellion. It gives the reader a vivid sense of what it was like to be in the presence of a powerful monarch, back when people really did believe in that a king was the next thing down from a God.

‘Men of York, I will hear your submission!’ The voice that came from that enormous figure was oddly high-pitched, almost squeaky. Looking sidelong, I saw Recorder Tankerd, crouched on his knees, unroll a long parchment. He looked up at the king and took a long, shuddering breath. He opened his mouth but for a long, terrible second, no sound came. That moment’s silence was utterly terrifying.

(From C.J. Sansom, Sovereign, Chapter 17)

The majesty of Henry VIII exists to a great degree in the minds of his subjects. This is sustained by the conventions of royal protocol – particularly how people are discouraged from looking at him directly, thus letting the images in their head prevail over the reality. But there are, in Samson’s descriptions too, some discordant details – glimpses of the sordid reality peaked through the illusion of majesty – his strangely high-pitched voice and, a little later, the stench of the king’s gout-ridden leg as Shardlake approaches him.

Dragon Fire, Greek Fire, Dark Fire

I notice dragon’s fire has played a major part in recent episodes of Game of Thrones, but this article is about dragon fire, the mysterious substance Tyrion discovered hidden in the vaults under King’s Landing.

You’ll remember dragon fire from the dramatic finale of series two, when Stannis’s invading fleet is repelled by Tyrion’s deft tactics and Littlefinger’s diplomacy in making sure the troops of Highgarden rally to the Lannisters’ cause. The decisive blow to the fleet was the use of dragon Fire, an ancient weapon stored deep in the vaults of King’s Landing.  You’ll also remember it from the giant green explosion that wiped out the Sept, the ancient temple of the Gods, in Kings Landing at the end of series six.

Before the Battle of Blackwater, dragon fire had not been used in Westeros since many generations past, and had been dormant until Danaerys hatched her dragons on the other side of the world… The Lannisters knew nothing of this, of course, but happily reaped the benefits.

Dragon fire was surely inspired by the mysterious antiquity / early mediaeval weapon, Greek fire. Greek fire was a weapon that the Byzantines used in their battles against the invading muslims, a rushing liquid fire. Actually, Tyrion’s other successful ploy, the spreading of a grand chain across the river, is also a tactic that the Byzantines used against the Turks (in their case, unsuccessfully). Martin has obviously done a bit of reading around Byzantine history – and indeed the visual style chosen for King’s Landing in the series owes a lot to the Byzantines.

Greek fire disappeared from history for the rather prosaic reason that people seemed to lose the recipe. The attempted recovery of the formula is at the centre of the plot of the second of C.J. Samson’s Shardlake mysteries, Dark Fire. Thomas Cromwell has fallen from favour at court, having set up Henry VIII with the disastrously plain Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by the Howards, who seek to undo the reforms of Cromwell and Cranmer, agitate for Cromwell’s downfall. When Cromwell catches a whiff that someone in London has cracked the ancient formula of the ‘dark fire’ of the Greeks, he gets Shardlake on the case, hoping to recapture the king’s affection through the discovery.

Naturally, Shardlake has to solve some murder’s on the way, this being a detective story. We know of course, that Cromwell won’t succeed, because of course, no one ever did manage to recreate Greek fire, but that doesn’t stop it being an absorbing story. Somewhat as in Game of Thrones, there is an ancient flask or two of the ancient substance hanging around, which lets Samson describe what it might have been like – ‘alive with fire, brighter than a thousand candles’…not quite as dramatic as dragon fire, but still…

Andals, Vandals, Visigoths and Vicissitudes 

In Westeros, the Andals are the people who, in ancient times came across the narrow sea from Essos, and settled the Seven Kingdoms. They were not the first people to populate the continent, however – there were earlier peoples, who were subjugated or pushed to the fringes of the continent.
There is a lot of the early history of England in this. In the early dark ages, during what historians call the great migrations, the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from Denmark and Northern Germany and settled the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, subjugating or pushing the Celtic and Pictish inhabitants to the fringes, or intermingling with them, depending on which historian you ask.
But the word ‘Andal’ brings to mind another germanic tribe of the great migrations era, one who travelled somewhat further afield…
The Vandals were first recorded living in Poland, but during the great migration worked their way down to Spain. I guess you could think of them as the dark ages equivalent of those sun burnt North Europeans who leave the cold north for the sun and sand of the Costa del Sol, except with swords. Given that their name has become synonymous with thuggery and destruction, we can take it that they didn’t rub along especially well with the Latins, Basques and Phoenicians who already inhabited the Iberian peninsula.
The Vandals then moved on to North Africa, where they were a force to be reckoned with for some two hundred years. It was Vandals who were besieging Algeria when Saint Augustine died, and it was in a daring sack of Rome that their reputation for cultural destruction was sealed. They conquered Sicily and Sardinia, and a good strip of what is now Tunisia. The decaying Roman Empire had to make peace with them and accept them as a regional power, but they eventually met their match in the great East Roman General Belisarius, who won their territory for The Byzantium Empire and took their men for galley slaves.
Robert Graves, who covers this episode in his (much recommended) historical novel Belisarius, depicts the Vandals as rather louche, having grown comfortable on the relative luxury of the south. They must at least have been very good warriors, and decent seafarers too. But it is true they left no lasting legacy or cultural achievements.
Another group of southward bound germanic invaders, the Visigoths, who stopped in Iberia for good, adopted the local lingua franca – Latin – and turned it into the tongue that would become Spanish. One linguistic legacy of the Visigoths was the loss of ‘f’s from some common Latin-origin words – apparently they had trouble with the consonant, and that’s why Latin facere became faire in French, and Facir in Italian (and gave English the word facility among others), but became hacer in Spanish.
Some years ago I spent a year teaching English in a town in Andalusia. One of the students in my class was blonde, and could easily have passed for a Dutch or English woman. She explained that in her village, up in the mountains, a lot of people were blond, and local lore had that down to them being the descendants of Visigoth sheep herders, while the darker skinned lowlanders were of a Latin-Moorish-Jewish stock.
But could her ancestors have been Vandals? One of the few contemporary descriptions of the Vandals, from the Roman historian Procopius, reads ‘they all have white bodies and fair hair, and are tall and handsome to look upon’ – a tribe of blonds, then. And Andalusia, after all, was named, by the Moors, after the Vandals. Andalusia or Al Andalus should properly be Vandalusia or Al Vandalus, but the Moors or the Visigoths they conquered lopped the ‘v’ off the name.
Perhaps George Martin thought about all this and realised that the back formation from Andalusia is the Andals, and thought it a cool sounding name. Or maybe it is just a linguistic coincidence – but it’s a good excuse to tell the story of history’s best known property damagers.

You Know Nothing, Angela Merkel

As last week, I looked at the similarities between Daenerys and George Bush, this week I have some thoughts on another unlikely comparison between a Game of Thrones character and a contemporary political figure. No season six spoilers here, by the way, but if you’re not up to date with season five, stop reading now!

When the men of the Night’s Watch stabbed Jon Snow, and left him to bleed to death in the snow in the court yard of Castle Black, it broke many a heart, typically a female viewer’s heart. But the traitors had their reasons. To them he had broken the most sacred of his duties when he let the Wildlings cross the wall and settle in land to the south. They believed their duty was to protect the realms of civilised men from the barbarians to the north. He saw his mission as more universal: to protect mankind itself from a more sinister threat still – the daemonic white walkers and their army of dead.

To Snow, who has experience of that evil force, not to mention a certain sympathy with the Wildlings, the Night’s Watchmen’s hostility to the Wildlings is narrow and self-defeating, born of their ignorance and irrational fears.

On the other hand, the Wildlings have a history of aggression towards the southrons, and a nasty habit of raiding and pillaging. Many will have lost friends fighting the Wildlings. Snow’s steward, Olly, watched his family being killed by them. It’s no wonder he’s the one who lays the trap for his would-be mentor. To the men of the Night’s Watch, Snow’s decision to let the old enemy through the walls, and grant them territory is simply an incomprehensible betrayal.

Back in the real world, there are many who find equally incomprehensible Angela Merkel’s broad welcome to the hundreds of thousands of migrants flowing over Europe’s borders over the last few months. The unspoken code that she has broken is this: that the primary duty of any leader is towards their own countrymen, the defence of a nation’s borders and the survival of its people and culture. By letting in a huge number of migrants, she has put the safety and survival of strangers ahead of her own people’s (and, as her country is the leading country in the EU, that of the continent as a whole.)

But to Merkel and her sympathisers that is the whole point. Her duty – our duty – is to the whole of humanity, not to one section of it. The people crossing the borders of Europe, so this argument goes, are not ‘strangers’ at all, but our fellow human beings, whom we have a moral duty to house and feed – and to let settle in our lands. This kind of universalist thinking is very popular these days, in theory, but only a few Western European nations seem to actually be putting it into practice enthusiastically, notably Germany and Sweden, although not all the people in those countries are quite so blithe about the wisdom of the open borders policy.

In Game of Thrones, whatever sympathy one might have for Olly, even for Alliser Thorne, and co, the principals for which Jon Snow was martyred will most likely be proved right. The Wildlings, after all, will come in useful when it comes to the expected apocalyptic showdown with the White Walkers from the icy wastes of the far north.

Alas, in the real world, things are more complicated. A great number of the migrants pouring into Europe are not, as was previously assumed, refugees from Syria, and a large proportion are fit young males, some of whom have been involved in sexual assaults of the kind made infamous in Cologne on New Years Eve. Among the migrants too, ISIS terrorist cells have slipped into Europe, including some individuals involved in the terror attacks in Paris late last year. We expect more attacks to come, though hope they don’t. Then there are the great long term challenges of assimilating huge numbers of migrants into European societies – and unlike the Wildlings, the real migrants just keep on coming. Against all that, whatever the strength of the humanitarian arguments, it is hard to see Merkel being vindicated the way Snow will be.