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When medieval chroniclers have nothing to report: The years 190-381 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a fascinating collection of Old English annals that survives in multiple manuscripts and manuscript fragments. This blog post demonstrates that the manuscripts show a fascinating variety even in those annals for which there was little to nothing to report.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: From Julius Caesar to William the Conqueror and beyond

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle starts its history of England in the year 60 BC, with the failed invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar. Annals that follow report on the arrival of the Germanic tribes, led by Hengest and Horsa, genealogies of various Anglo-Saxon kings and the battles between the Vikings and Alfred the Great. It was probably at the behest of Alfred that the first stretch of annals (from 60 BC to 892 AD) was composed and this ‘Common Stock’ is found in all extant (complete) manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, each manuscript version of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells a unique story, having been copied in different places and at different times, leading to scribes adding, altering and omitting information in the transmission of the text. One manuscript (the Peterborough Chronicle) continues the annals up until the year 1154. The relationship between the manuscripts and related (Latin) chronicles is highly complex as the following diagram from a great article by Simon Keynes demonstrates:

Overview of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from Simon Keynes, “Manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, I: c. 400–1100, ed, Richard Gameson, 537–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

The contents of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is fascinatingly varied, ranging from relatively dry information (this king died; that king died) to exciting heroic narrative (the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard), impressive genealogies (often including the names of people from Germanic Legend) and actual Old English poetry (e.g., The Battle of Brunanburh). In previous blog posts, I have dealt with two remarkable events recorded in these Old English annals: #NotMyConqueror: Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon Women’s March against William the Conqueror and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671. In this blog post, I want to call attention to the years 190 to 381, during which, according to one manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, literally nothing happened.

Manuscript B: Nothing to see here!

Annals 190 to 381 in manuscript B of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

AN. CXC, AN. CXCI, AN. CXCII, AN. CXCIII, AN. CXCIIII, AN. CXCV, AN. CXCVI, etc. We have to admire the diligence of the scribe of MS B of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle who wrote these ‘entries’ for the years 190 to 381. Apparently, there was nothing to report for these years, but the scribe did feel that it was necessary to write out the full numbers and the abbreviations “AN.” for “anno” 191 times. This must have been a tiring task and we can see that the scribe actually noticed a mistake along the way: he had copied the year 356 twice and found out when he had reached 360. At this point, he went back to correct the second 356 to 357 by adding a little I above the last Roman numeral CCCLUI; he did the same for 358 and 359 and erased whatever stood between 359 and 360. That is dedication! Regardless, one mistake was left unnoticed: for the year 379 he accidentally left out a C [AN. CCCLXXUIII, AN. CCLXXIX, AN. CCCLXXXI], but can we really blame him?

Mistakes in the annals in Manuscript B of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Manuscript A: Room for ‘exciting’ additions!

The same range of annals (190 to 381) looks a lot more impressive in the Parker Chronicle (manuscript A):

Admittedly, the way that the scribe of manuscript B handled this series of annals is more economical, but manuscript A at least allows for some room for potential additions. The additions that were made within the range 190 to 381, however, are not the most informative ones: for the year 200, someone added “twa hund gæra” [two hundred years] and for the year 300, the same person added “þreo hund gæra” [three hundred years] – great facts, guys! For the year 283, the death of St Alban is reported: “her þrowade sanctus Albanus martyr” [in this year, the martyr saint Alban suffered].

Manuscript C: Colour patterns!

Manuscript C follows Manuscript B in not reporting anything of note in the range 190 to 381 and, instead, just lists all the years + AN. To make the page still somewhat exciting, the scribe uses a different colour ink for every line:

But even the neat colour patterning did not withhold this scribe from making an error: the pattern breaks when he accidentally copies out two lines in red, which he then follows up by two lines in black, before returning to one line of red:

Manuscript D: Parchment to spare

Whoever was responsible for the layout of manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had parchment to spare: rather than writing out all the years consecutively, like MSS B and C, or writing out the years in two columns like manuscrpt A, Manuscript D gives the years in one column. As a result, the range 190 to 260 alone already spans three pages. The next folios have been lost and they are replaced with 16th-century ‘supply-leaves’ (giving the text of folios that are now missing):

The sixteenth-century hand, belonging to John Jocelyn (1529-1603), seems to have taken some effort to reproduce all the year numbers, although he gives up at the year 286, for which he now gives the death of St. Alban “Her ðrowade santus Albanus martyr”.

Note also the original scribes colour patterning, using blue and red ink.

Manuscript E: A creepy little hand

Manuscript E brings us back to the two-column layout of manuscript A. This is combined with different colour ink for the year numbers and the textual entries. It seems as if this copy of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had some more things to say for the years 190 to 381, but they still look like two boring centuries:

Clearly, the death of St Alban (here in the year 286, as in Manuscript D, but unlike Manuscript A which had it down in 283) was considered the most important event, since it is called attention to by a little hand (manicula) with a creepily long and wavy index finger:

Manuscript F: The years are fading away!

There is not much to say about manuscript F of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle other than that its bilingual nature (it gives the text of the entries in Old English and Latin) did not affect the way that the year numbers are presented on the page – manuscript F follows B and C in writing the year numbers consecutively, even if this scribe did not bother to copy out the abbreviation “AN.” 191 times! Unfortunately, red ink was used for the year numbers and this has all but faded away. For the ‘textual entries’, the scribe used black ink, which means we can still read the entry for the death of St Alban, which, in this manuscript, appears to have taken place in the year 287, unless the scribe copied the year 286 twice.

The death of Saint Alban, reported in Old English and Latin. The year number above Latin “hic” is clearly CCLXXXV (285); a year number is started to the right of it (286); and another is found before the black “Her” (287? or 286 again).

Looking back at this blog post, we can draw two conclusions:

1) Even for stretches of time in which almost nothing happened, the manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicleshow a fascinating diversity.

2) Nobody knew exactly when St Alban died. Manuscript A has 283; D and E opt for 286 and F seems to put it at 287. Wikipedia (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the modern age) suggests the death of St Alban either happened in c. 251 or 304 – so I guess we still don’t know.

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#NotMyConqueror: Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon Women’s March against William the Conqueror

The newly elected president of the United States has triggered over half a million women to march in a political protest against the new leader of their country. While this Women’s March was record-breaking, a report in an eleventh-century manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that it may not have been unprecedented. This is the story of Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon rebellion against William the Conqueror. #NotMyConqueror

A Women’s March to Flat Holm in 1068

The entry for the year 1067 in manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes a number of events that took place in the two years following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Most of the executive orders by the new king William  are described in a rather negative manner, such as his imposing a heavy tax on the “earm folc” [poor people] and his siege of Exeter in 1068 (“he heom wel behet, 7 yfele gelæste” [he promised them well and he performed evil]). The annalist is more positive about a curious journey by Gytha, mother of the deceased King Harold Godwinson (d. 1066), who was joined by other women of good standing:


Entry for 1067, manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fols. 81v-82r

7 her ferde Gyða ut, Haroldes modor, 7 manegra godra manna wif mid hyre, into Bradan Reolice, 7 þær wunode sume hwile, 7 swa for þanon ofer sæ to Sancte Audomare.

[and in this year Gytha, Harold’s mother, went out and many wives of good men with her, to Flat Holme, and remained there for a while and thus from there over sea to St Omer (France)]

Gytha’s ‘Women’s March’ is part of the English rebellion against William the Conqueror and probably followed the Siege of Exeter in 1068, in which Gytha played an important role.

Gytha and her sons: Breaking their mother’s heart three times over.

Much of what we know about Gytha (fl. 1022-1068) derives from sources post-dating the Norman Conquest. According to the Domesday Book, she was one of the greatest women landowners in the year 1066 (Stafford 1989), She owed much of her wealth and status to her marriage to the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex (d. 1053), whom she bore many sons and daughters. Most of her sons became powerful earls and one of them even became king in 1066 (Harold Godwinson). While their careers may have made Gytha proud, some of her sons’ actions may have broken her heart.

Sweyn Godwinson, earl of Herefordshire (d. 1058), for instance, shocked his mother by insisting that Godwin was not his real father. Instead, he claimed to be the son of Cnut the Great (d. 1035). Sweyn’s claim was recorded in the late eleventh-century Cartulary of Hemming (a collection of charters and lawsuits regarding lands in Worcester). Hemming also included Gytha’s reaction:


Hemming’s Cartulary. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.xiii, fol. 129v

 Quam nimie arrogantie vanitatem mater illius, conjunx videlicet prefati ducis Godwini, exhorrescens, multis ex occidentalium Saxonum parte adductis nobilibus feminis, se matrem illius, et Godwinum patrem ejus esse, magnis juramentis et illarum probavit testmoniis.

[His mother, the wife of the aforesaid Earl Godwin, horrified by his excessive arrogance and vanity, brought together many noble ladies from the West Saxons, and proved by great oaths and their testimony that she was his mother and Godwine was his father.]

Sweyn disagreed and Hemming reports that while Cnut and Sweyn may not have shared blood and genes, they did share certain shortcomings, such as pride and excessive lusts of the flesh. To illustrate the latter, Hemming narrates how Sweyn had once abducted the abbess of Leominster and had kept her as a wife for a year. He had returned the abbess after threats of excommunication by the  bishop of Worcester but had then retaliated by stealing some estates from the diocese of Worcester. Clearly the black sheep of the family, Sweyn was exiled on various occasions and died in 1052 after returning from a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Sweyn certainly did not make his mommy proud!

Her two more famous sons, Tostig (d. 1066) and Harold, did little better. In the year of the Norman Conquest, Tostig had rebelled against the English throne and had sided with the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (d. 1066). In the Battle at Stamford Bridge, brother fought brother and Tostig was killed. Following the battle and his brother’s death, Harold hears the news that the Norman fleet of William has landed and Harold wants to rush south. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis (d. c. 1142) writes how Gytha, having just lost Tostig, feared for Harold’s life and tried to dissuade her son. Harold not only refused to listen to his elderly mother, he gave her a kick to boot: “[Harold] even forgot himself so far as to kick his mother when she hung about him in her too great anxiety to detain him with her” (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 482). Ouch!


Battle of Stamford Bridge by Matthew Paris. © Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fol. 32v

Gytha’s fear became a reality and Harold did die at the Battle of Hastings. Orderic Vitalis reports how the grieving mother had asked William the Conqueror for the body of her son:

The sorrowing mother now offered to Duke William, for the body of Harold, its weight in gold; but the great conqueror refused such a barter, thinking it was not right that a mother should pay the last honours to one by whose insatiable ambition vast numbers lay unburied (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 488)

Another twelfth-century chronicler, William of Malmesbury (d. c. 1143) supplies an ‘alternative fact’: “He sent the body of Harold to his mother, who begged it, unransomed; though she proffered large sums by her messengers” (trans. Giles, pp. 280-281).

Whatever may have happened to Harold’s body, Gytha had every reason to detest William and she, a well-connected and wealthy noblewoman, became the focal point of resistance against the new Norman overlord.

Gytha and the Siege of Exeter in 1068

It is generally assumed that Gytha was involved in the resistance offered by the city of Exeter in 1068. Orderic Vitalis records how Exeter was the first city to fight for its freedom. The townsfolk barricaded the city walls and claimed “We will neither swear allegiance to the king, nor admit him within our walls; but will pay him tribute, according to ancient custom” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, p. 15). #NotMyConqueror. William gathered 500 horsemen and marched on Exeter. He besieged the town for eighteen days and committed various acts of cruelty, including the blinding of one the hostages. William of Malmesbury related William’s ferocity to an intriguing action by one of the Exeter townsfolk:

Indeed he had attacked it with more ferocity, asserting that those irreverent men would be deserted by God’s favour, because one of them, standing upon the wall, had bared his posteriors, and had broken wind, in contempt of the Normans. (trans. Giles, p. 282)

That’s right, it seems as if someone farted in the king’s general direction! After eighteen days, Exeter capitulated, but Gytha had escaped and began making her way to Flat Holm.


“I fart in your general direction!” Monty Python quote may be based on Siege of Exeter in 1068.

 A Women’s March or a Women’s Flight?

The Siege of Exeter was a definite blow to Gytha and her rebellion. However, her march might still be regarded as an act of defiance against William, if only because a group of travelling noblewomen was sure to draw the people’s attention. It certainly made an impression on the annalist of annal 1067 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  Whereas he had denounced William’s actions following the Norman Conquest (see above), the annalist writes approvingly of Gytha’s going out, noting how the women who joined her are the “wives of good men”. Orderic Vitalis, generally more appreciative of William the Conqueror, is more negative about Gytha’s retreat to France. After going over how various English uprisings were justly put to rest, Orderic describes how Gytha “secretly collected vast wealth, and from her fear of King William crossed over to France, never to return” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, pp. 23-24).

So, was it a women’s march or a women’s flight? Much depends, it would seem, on the political stance of the person bringing the news – a notion that still very much applies to this day and age.


Group of women in the Old English Hexateuch – Pussyhats added © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 92r

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Stafford, Pauline, ‘Women in Domesday’, Reading Medieval Studies 15 (1989), 75-94
  • Forester, T. A. (Trans.), The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis (London, 1853-1854)
  • Giles, J.A. (Trans.), William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the English Kings (London, 1847)


An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a self-made cartoon. In this post, I deal with the remarkable story  of a battle of birds in the year 671.

A battle of birds in England, 671

In the thirteenth-century historiographical work Flores historiarum [Flowers of History], Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) collected all sorts of events that caught his interest whilst reading the chronicles of other historians. Interestingly, he notes that he collected these stories for entertainment, as well as (intellectual) ‘profit’:

…that which follows has been taken from the books of catholic writers worthy of credit, just as flowers of various colours are gathered from various fields, to the end that the very variety, noted in the diversity of the colours, may be grateful to the various minds of the readers, and by presenting some which each may relish, may suffice for the profit and entertainment of all (trans. Giles, p. 2)

Among his bouquet of historical anecdotes is a peculiar fight among fowls in the year 671:

“In the year of grace 671, there was an extraordinary battle in England among the birds, insomuch that many thousands were found killed, and it seemed that the foreign birds were put to flight.” (trans. Giles, p. 100)

Xenophobic, English birds ousting foreign fowl…imagine if they had made a tapestry out of that battle!


Birds Tapestry – inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry (see and compare for yourself)

Chinese whispers from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum

The first reference to bird-activity in the year 671 is found in various manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (initiated during the reign of Alfred the Great [d. 899]):

671: Her wæs þæt micle fugla wæl. (Manuscripts A, B, C and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available here)

[671: In this year was a great mortality of birds]

While the Old English word wæl is often used to denote dead bodies after a battle, it is more likely that the word here refers to the death of birds following a natural disaster. This interpretation seems supported by the Latin chronicle of Æthelweard (d. c.988), who reported a foul smell caused by the dead birds:

Itaque post decursu anni unius facta est auium magna ruina, ita ut et in mare et in arida spurcissimus foetor uideretur tam de minutis auibus quam de maioribus.

[After the lapse of one year (i.e. in 671) a great mortality of birds occurred, so that on sea and on land a very foul stench was noticeable from the <carrion of> small birds and larger ones.] (Ed. and trans. Campbell)

Since Æthelweard was writing in the tenth century, he is unlikely to have remembered the smell himself: he probably used a now-lost Old English manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that contained this extra information about the event of 671. The chronicler John of Worcester (d. 1140) also seems to have interpreted the event of 671 as stemming from natural causes and spoke of an “[a]uium strages” [destruction of birds]: the same phrase he used for the deaths of birds caused by a harsh winter in 1111:

Hox anno hyemps asperrima, fames ualida, mortalitas hominum, pestis animalium, agrestium simul et domesticorum, stragesque auium extitit permaxima.

This year there was a very harsh winter, a serious famine, mortality of men, disease among animals, both wild and domestic, and a very great destruction of birds. (ed. Darlington & McGurk; trans. McGurk and Bray)

So far, the most likely interpretation of what went on in 671 is a mass mortality of birds, caused by some disease or harsh weather conditions. So what about Roger of Wendover’s battle?

         Matters appear to have gone astray when Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088–c. 1157), in his Historia Anglorum, tried to make sense of annal 671 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He erroneously translated Old English wæl with Latin pugna ‘battle, combat’:

Precedenti autem anno fuit maxima pugna uolucrum in Anglia.

[In the preceding year (671) there was a very great battle of birds in England.] (ed. and trans. Greenway)

Henry, realizing that a battle of birds does not sound very likely, then defended himself by relating that a similar fight had broken out in his own days, one with a symbolic meaning:

This seems more credibly because it also happened in Normandy in our own time, in the reign of King Henry. He was the first king of England of this name. This is specified because in the future there may perhaps be another so named. The birds fought openly at Rouen, and thousands of dead birds were discovered and the foreign birds were observed being driven off. This was a sign of the battle that was fought between Henry, lord of England and Normandy, and Louis, king of France, son of Philip. In this battle the strong King Henry emerged the victor and the defeated Louis fled away. (trans. Greenway)

Now it becomes clear what has happened with regard to the Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover: Roger had read Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum but shortened the text in such a way that the details of the battle of birds in 12h-century Rouen were  transposed to the English event of 671. Regrettably, then, we must conclude that in the year 671, in all likelihood, no battle of birds took place in England and that no foreign birds were put to flight that year; some of the flowery anecdotes of the Anglo-Saxon past, it appears, are merely the result of an intriguing game of Chinese whispers!

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Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • Campbell, A., ed. and trans. The Chronicle of Æthelweard (London, 1961)
  • Darlington, R. R. and P. McGurk, eds., P. McGurk and J. Bray, trans., The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450-1066 (Oxford, 1995)
  • Giles, J.A., trans. Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History (London, 1849)
  • Greenway, D. E., ed. and trans., Henry Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum. The History of the English People (Oxford, 1996)