On To the Best of Our Knowledge I'm "Getting Medieval" with fellow writers George R.R. Martin, Karen Joy Fowler, and Bruce Holsinger, weapons expert Kelly DeVries, and more! To coincide with this weekend's premier of Game of Thrones Season 4, it's a whole hour of conversation about why we're so interested in the Middle Ages.
However, if you're in a hurry you could just listen (stream or download for later) my 11-minute segment about Hild.
Sunday, April 6, 2014
On To the Best of Our Knowledge I'm "Getting Medieval" with fellow writers George R.R. Martin, Karen Joy Fowler, and Bruce Holsinger, weapons expert Kelly DeVries, and more! To coincide with this weekend's premier of Game of Thrones Season 4, it's a whole hour of conversation about why we're so interested in the Middle Ages.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
|Original art by Anna and Elena Balbusso, original design by Charlotte Strick, UK design by Sian Wilson|
Also, in case you missed it, I did a TV interview on PBS (a bit like BBC 1). And coming soon is a radio interview on NPR (the equivalent of, hmmm, Radio 4)*. That's not due out til April 6 so to whet your appetite, here's the NPR review of Hild.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Over on my personal blog I've followed my annual tradition of filming the destruction of our Christmas tree. However, I thought photon torpedoes might not be the thing for medievalists. So here's something just for you:
Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Two pieces of news.
On Wednesday, the twentieth anniversary of our first (not legal) wedding, Kelley and I got married in the eyes of the US government.
Some more nifty blurbs for Hild:
"You will never think of them as the Dark Ages again. Griffith's command of the era is worn lightly and delivered as a deeply engaging plot. Her insight into human nature and eye for telling detail is as keen as that of the extraordinary Hild herself. The novel resonates to many of the same chords as Beowulf, the legends of King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones—to the extent that Hild begins to feel like the classic on which those books are based."
— Neal Stephenson
"A book that deserves a place alongside T.H. White, to say nothing of Ellis Peters. Elegantly written—and with room for a sequel."
"You could describe Hild as being like Game of Thrones without the dragons, but this is so much deeper than that, so much richer. A glorious, rich, intensely passionate walk through an entirely real landscape, Hild leads us into the dark ages and makes them light, and tense, and edgy and deeply moving. The research is pitch perfect, the characters fully alive. If it wasn't like this, it should have been—and I'm sure that it was!
— Manda Scott
Friday, July 12, 2013
I've been posting chunks of early reviews etc. on the Hild page of my main blog but thought I'd include a few snippets here to whet your appetite:
"What a fabulous book! ... I fell into this world completely and was sorry to come out. Truly, truly remarkable." — Karen Joy Fowler
"Vivid, vital, and visceral, Hild's history reads like a thriller." — Val McDermid
"The historical setting feels so real that it seemed that I was walking across the living landscape of seventh-century Britain... Brilliant stuff!" — Tim Clarkson
"Hild is not just one of the best historical novels I have ever read—I think it's one of the best novels, period." — Dorothy Allison
"Griffith goes boldly into the territory, lingering over landscape, indulging the senses...in a sweeping panorama of peasants working, women weaving, children at play, and soldiers in battle." — Publishers Weekly
Sunday, May 26, 2013
History, I realised, was real. Built by real people with their own dreams, disappointments, and dailyness. Not at all like the stories I’d read growing up in which people behaved as though they knew they were part of momentous events.And later in the interview, I explain why I was afraid to begin this book I knew I'd been aiming for my whole life:
I didn’t want to write about the restrictions of gender. Domesticity makes me claustrophobic. Hearth and home are all very well, but I love an epic canvas: gold and glory, politics and plotting.
To avoid that, I was tempted to take the easy way out and make Hild so singular that the restrictions didn’t apply to her. I tried everything I could think of; at one point I even had her learn and use a sword...
It didn’t work: History is made by real people; the rules always apply. I despaired of being able to reconcile that reality with what I wanted, what somewhere inside I knew was possible.Also, I give a shoutout to some of my favourite medieval websites and blogs, including The Heroic Age, The Medieval Garden Enclosed, Unlocked Wordhoard, Heavenfield, A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, Senchus, Magistra et Mater and Carla Nayland.
In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged. And I discovered what poets have known for millennia, that constraint is freeing. I had nothing to lose, so I committed. The words came. It felt like magic. It was Hild’s voice.
Monday, April 15, 2013
Many of them are already spoken for but I have a handful extra. So who wants one?
If you're a loyal reader, I'll be doing a random giveaway later just for you, just because. I'm saving two copies for that purpose. But the rest of the non-earmarked ARCs are for Influential Book People: reviewers, book and feature editors, producers, booksellers, librarians and professional readers with a blog and/or big following on some a book-friendly social media platform. Sorry to be blunt but these puppies are expensive to produce and I've promised to distribute wisely.
So if the Influential Book Person label fits you, and if for some reason you don't plan to get hold of an ARC through the usual channels, i.e. Farrar, Straus and Giroux's sales and marketing department, my agent (Stephanie Cabot, The Gernert Company), or my publicist (Kathy Daneman, FSG), read on.
Please fill in the nifty Google Docs form below. There are only eight questions. (All responses will come directly to me and will be completely confidential; you won't be added to any lists.) I'll let you know in a week or ten days if you're going to get an ARC.
And as a reward for filling in the form, or as consolation for not being eligible at this time**, enjoy these photos.
** But everybody will be eligible for the giveaway in a few weeks. And I mean everybody. I'll pay for shipping to Russia, or China, or Australia—though it might travel slowly, and if you're on the International Space Station we'll have to get creative...
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Coming 11.12.13Hild (available for pre-order) which will be published in the US on 12 November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (When I know UK and other publication dates I'll post them.)
I love it. It's not perfect.
First, what I love. As this is a JPEG, the colours are not entirely reliable. But the physical object will be stunning: uncoated, textured coverstock with the main title in gleaming gold. Drop-dead gorgeous. The artists, twin Italian sisters called Anna and Elena Balbusso, have done some award-winning covers for classics by writers such as Pushkin and Atwood.
I love the way Hild looks directly at her audience, utterly self-contained. I particularly admire the Botticelli-like face, and her hair, which is the exact shade of chestnut I'd imagined.
So, as I say, I love it. I do have two quibbles. The seax should hang horizontally, parallel to her belt. And I'm pretty sure there weren't any chainmail coifs in early seventh-century Britain. (Even if there were, Hild would not have worn one. Constrained, remember?)
Monday, March 4, 2013
|detail from the cover of Hild *|
So it was oddly satisfying to get tagged five years later for another meme just after I finished working on the copyedits of that novel, Hild.
Here are the ten meme questions and my answers.
1. What is the working title of your book?
The final title is Hild. But it began as Beneath (I wanted to turn over all the early medieval stones and look at what was wriggling on the underside). As I progressed the working title morphed from Light of the World to God in the Nettles to Butcher Bird to As It Must. But in the end my agent said, "Why don't you just call it Hild?" And I couldn't find a good answer: the book, after all, is about the formation and rise of Hild, a child and then woman with a matchless mind who was at the heart of the changes that made England.
2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
From my publisher's catalogue copy: "A brilliant, lush, sweeping historical novel about the rise of the most powerful woman of the Early Middle Ages: Hild."
But I started off with a question: "In a time of warlords and kings, when might is right, the three year-old Hild, along with her mother and sister, is homeless, hunted, and without material resources. Yet by the end of her life she is the first great abbess of the north, teacher of bishops and counsellor to kings: universally revered. How did she do it?" In other words, I built the seventh century then grew Hild inside to see what would happen. That's what I do: I write to find out.
3. Where did the idea come from?
On some level I've been working towards this since I began my very first novel. Hild is the sum and summit of all I know—in terms of writing and life. But I can tell you the exact moment I became aware of Hild's existence.
In my early twenties, I was living in Hull, a depressed (and depressing) industrialised city on the river Humber (the southern boundry line of Deira, which became part of Northumbria). For a break, my partner and I went north up the coast, to Whitby.
The first thing I saw at Whitby was the ruined abbey on the north cliff. It's an astoundingly gothic silhouette, mesmerising. I didn't wait to unpack but climbed the hundred and ninety-nine steps with my gear on my back. It's difficult to describe how I felt when I first stepped across the threshold of the ruin abbey. It was as though the history of the place punched up through the turf and coursed through me. I knew my life had changed, I just didn't know how.
After that, every year, sometimes twice a year, I visited Whitby. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey. I started picking up brochures and leaflets and imagining how it might have been long, long ago. Even after I moved to the US and started work on what would become my first novel, I came back once a year.
On one visit to England, I picked up a battered 1959 Pelican paperback edition of Trevelyan's A Shortened History of England. I started reading it on the plane on the way back. I read about the Synod of Whitby in 664 and, frankly, don't remember the rest of the flight. This, I thought. This Synod was a pivot point in English history.
Two or three years later, I stumbled across Frank Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England. And I was off. For the last twelve years I've been groping my way through ever more modern scholarship. I've been reading bilingual versions of Old English and Old Welsh poetry, absorbing the latest translations of Isidore's Etymologies, thumbing through translations of Bede, thinking, thinking, dreaming in the rich rolling rhythms of another time and place.
4. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Three or four years.
5. Who or what inspired this book?
Hild herself. Plus I was born about three miles from where I imagine Hild spent her very early childhood. I grew up where she grew up—in what was Elmet, a part of Yorkshire. As a child I might have walked the hills she walked, climbed trees in the same valleys, poked sticks in the same streams, watched the same shaped clouds, listened to the same seas on the same coast. It felt inevitable.
6. What genre is it?
Literary fiction. Epic page-turner. Historical fiction. Bildungsroman. Political thriller.
7. What other books would you compare yours to?
I was born in Yorkshire in the twentieth century, but as a teenager I rode the stony slopes of Mary Renault's Macedon in winter and gazed out over the fjords of Sigrid Undset's Norway in summer. Alongside Alexander I led bronze-age cavalry and clashed with my father; with Kristin Lavransdatter I managed a fourteenth-century household and refused to behave. I lived their story as deeply as I lived my own; their lessons were my lessons. And from the moment I realised I would write about Hild, I wanted her story to be as powerful to readers as Alexander's and Kristen's had been for me. I wanted readers to live and breathe the seventh century, to reach the end of the book and nod: Yes, that's how it was.
8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book is represented by Stephanie Cabot of the Gernert Company and will be published November 12th by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (In hardcover for $28—according the very nifty app isbn.nu—and, I assume, in a variety of digital formats. No info yet on audio or foreign editions.) Publishing-wise, this has been the best experience of my life so far. At FSG I feel part of a smart, agile, committed team. Everyone is behind the book. It's deeply exciting. This is how publishing should be.
9. Which actor would you choose to play your character in the movie?
I haven't a clue. Several actors would be needed to play Hild. The book opens when she's three and closes when she's nineteen. But—and it's probably heresy to say this—I think the novel is too long for a movie. It might make for a splendid premier cable series though: murder, intrigue, starvation, religion, war, sex, love, betrayal, lust, ambition, change...
10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Here's my hope: that Hild will do for Saint Hild and seventh-century Britain what Hilary Mantel did for Cromwell, and Mary Renault did for Alexander—bring a whole world to life for the reader through the lens of a singular character who changed history, one who did so by acting at the very limits of the constraints of her time.
Also, I like to think admirers of British nature writers—Roger Deakin, Rupert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey—might find something to enjoy.
A handful of people have already read it:
"Nicola Griffith is an awe-inspiring visionary, and I am telling everyone to snatch this book up as soon as it is published. Hild is not just one of the best historical novels I have ever read—I think it's one of the best novels, period. It sings with pitch perfect emotional resonance and I damn well believe in this woman and every one she engages. I finished the book full of gratitude that it exists, and longing for more." — Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller
"An enthralling tale from an extraordinarily talented writer. It drew me into the volatile, dangerous world inhabited by the real Saint Hild fourteen centuries ago. The historical setting feels so real that it seemed that I was walking across the living landscape of seventh-century Britain. The characters are utterly believable in their time and place. Historical accuracy alone would make this novel a remarkable achievement, but the author has given us a thrilling story, too. Brilliant stuff!" — Tim Clarkson, author of The Picts (2010), Columba (2012) and other works.
"What a fabulous book! Hild has all the joys of historical fiction—transportation into a strange, finely detailed world—along with complex characters and a beautiful evocation of the natural world. But the tensions of the gathering plot make Hild feel like a quick read—too quick! I fell into this world completely and was sorry to come out. Truly, truly remarkable." — Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book ClubThe book is available for pre-order.
* More on the cover later this week.
** My editor and publicist turn pale when I say this.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
This is the seventh draft of Hild. It is the version you will read (after some copyediting). It will be published in the US on 12th November by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
At this stage I don't know when it will be published in the UK, or by whom. I'm guessing I'll have a notion of that in three or four months. Stay tuned.
Hild is a big book: 207,000 words. Depending on book design and typeface that could translate to anything from 650 to 800 bound pages. Just the thing to curl up with before the fire and lose yourself in Hild's world as the wind howls and the hail beats on the window. That's my goal: an immersive read that is so physically, emotionally, and intellectually convincing that you feel as though you've lived another's life alongside your own.
I can't wait to get it into your hands. I'll keep you updated every step of the way.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
After discovering the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture I've been playing with Photoshop, imagining what Hild's grave marker might look like. (This is just a first pass. It will end up looking much better when I've futzed with it.) This is adaptated from the Hildithryth stone found at St Hilda's in Hartlepool.
My dream is that one day someone will find Hild's grave. That, using shotgun proteomics, we can find out how she died (my guess: malaria). Using strontium analysis we can figure out where she was born, where she spent various stages of her life. (I don't think she spent any time in Gaul--or Gwynedd, or Ireland--but what if she had?)
I wonder if she'd be buried with jewellery (which raises the possibility of mineralised textiles), or perhaps a book? (That would be amazing.)
I'll just have to keep dreaming...
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Monday, September 3, 2012
In terms of writing fiction, Irish has been the bane of my life. It's my own fault; I'm lazy--or perhaps impatient is a better word--when in the grip of the work.
Twenty years ago, when I was writing Ammonite, I created an isolated tribe based on the Mongols. I was hot on the trail of the story, and used placeholder proper nouns based on Gaelic vocabulary. I meant to do the necessary research later and swap out the placeholders for the real words.
But here's the thing about fiction. It doesn't always work according to plan. The characters took on the attributes of their names. I couldn't change the Echraidhe to, say, the Buriyads, or Uaithne for, oh I don't know, Miroslava. It was too late.
Reading through Hild again, I've discovered I'm about to commit the same mistake. Early on in the book, when Hild is about ten, she encounters an old and damaged Irishman who speaks very little Anglisc (Old English). In a cursory online search I couldn't find the Old Irish I needed so I scooped up a hodge-podge of Irish words of dubious provenance, plunked them down, and surged on.
Here's how that passage reads:
The water slapped, the canes rattled, and man, girl, and dog all looked at the sky--clouds piling together, no longer tin but lead--then each other. Hild, encouraged, stood, came closer--oh, her shoes were more mudcake than leather now--and pointed at the willow man, at his white crinkly hair, and said one of the Irish words she knew, "Bán."
And he laughed toothlessly, then loosed a torrent of Irish at her. His accent was strange. She understood three words of it, cailín, maid, Sasanach, Anglisc, and ocrach, hungry, and shook her head. "Go mall," she said, slowly, and "le do thoil," please, and he said it all again. "Go mall," she said again, "lo do thoil." And Madra tilted his head and whined, and then Bán spoke one more time in a jumbled Anglisc/British/Irish mix, and Hild listened with her whole skin, the way she listened to rooks in the field or wind in the trees. She understood, she thought. He was asking her if she was hungry.
She sat in the mud--Onnen would scold her raw--offered a fist to Madra, the first dog she had allowed near her since she watched Od eat the guts of Osric's man, and repeated back to Bán as well as she could, with the words he had used, that she, the Anglisc maid, whose name was Hild, was hungry, a little, but that when she returned she would be very well provided for. And he nodded, but shook his fingers dismissively in that Irish way, just like Fursey, and tutted, and unfastened the sack at his waist and offered her half his cheese and a bite of onion, and a dip in the coarse grey salt collected in the seam of his sack.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Just got back from a lightning visit to the UK. I spent a lot of time here:
Those of you who travel to conferences will probably recognise it. If I could have delayed my trip by ten days or so, I could have met some of you.
It'll happen one day. Really. Perhaps next year? Or, hmmn, damn, I'm Guest of Honour at a venerable SF convention over that weekend next year. Gaaargh!! It'll have to be 2014 then. But it'll happen. It'll most definitely happen.
Monday, May 14, 2012
|Bamburgh, painted by Norman MacKillop, used by permission|
Seventh century Britain is in transition. Small kingdoms are dissolving and merging. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, and belief. Into this world of war and wyrd is born Hild, king's niece: a child with a glittering mind, powerful curiosity, and will of adamant. Edwin is cunning and ruthless, but Hild is matchless. She carves herself a place as his advisor, a young woman at the heart of the violence, subtlety, and mysticism of the early medieval age. But kings don't trust anyone, even nieces. And at this level, the stakes are life and death.There's a lot to be done before publication. But that's work for the future. For now, I am happy. Hild is the best thing I've ever written. I can't wait to put it in your hands. Cheers!
|Beer + Joy = Satisfaction|
Thursday, May 10, 2012
I visited the UK in February and took the opportunity to fossick about in places Hild would have known.
Whitby Abbey, of course, has been familiar to me for years. Sadly, when I was there this time, it was shut (no doubt as a result of this). No way in. Even the cliff was fenced off. I held my phone up over the wall:
And retired, grumpily, to the pub...
...which, as it was off-season, wasn't serving any food. But, hey, the beer was tasty, and it was right opposite the harbour:
And that was it for Whitby. I hope to get back to the UK soon to try again.
On this visit, I spent most of my time in the part of Yorkshire known in Hild's time as Elmet. This is where I grew up. Most of the places I visited, therefore, were old haunts. One, though, was new to me: Aberford. In the novel, Hild visits Aberford two or or three times. This is one of the places she camped.
A few years later, many Great Events occur here--more specifically, at/in Cock Beck, which, as Hild observes in the novel, is like a fish weir for armies: funnel them into the gap between the beck and Becca Banks and pick them off at your leisure. It was mostly private land, though, so I couldn't get down into it. I took this photo from the bridge over the beck (and edited out the rubbish in the water and the Private: Keep Out! notices nailed to the trees):
I've decided that Edwin built his Elmet vill on the site of what had once been the hall of Ceredig, king of Elmet. The books opens in the heart of Ceredig's territory, in Loidis, what is present-day Leeds. But Leeds is a big place. I had to narrow it down. I chose a site on the north bank of the River Aire, where Kirkstall Abbey now lies in ruins. Why? Because I know that patch of the river, I remember how it sounds and smells--and I remember it in childhood terms. I remember with the bone-deep familiarity I needed to conjure Hild's first memories.
Here's what the Abbey looks like now:
But I spent most of my time with my back to the ruins, looking south at the river, as Hild might have done:
Hild would have climbed every single one of these trees and fished for perch at their roots.
Sunday, May 6, 2012
This paper offers two new sightings...an early-Anglo-Saxon settlement (6-7th century) from just outside the city, and an extension to the Anglo-Saxon settlement (7th-9th century) already known at Fishergate. Both these settlement occupy the same gravel terrace and are only 2km apart.I've marked them on the map below, along with the site of the previously discovered eighth-century helmet, Coppergate.
Spall and Toop suggest that:
Heslington Hill appears to represent a small rural farming community that had settled on the closest upland to the Roman city by at least AD 550 and remained there into the 7th century...However:
The best evidence for subsequent Anglo-Saxon occupation (7th-9th century) has emerged outside the fortress, on the eastern bank of the River Ouse at Fishergate. Excavations undertaken by York Archaeological Trust in the 1980s...encountered remains of a settlement of late-7th to 9th-century date: boundary ditches, postholes, stakeholes and pits... The interpretation is of a pre-determined organised settlement, with rectilinear, post-built structures, property divisions and a possible road with evidence for municipal maintenance.Fishergate is on the east bank of both Ouse and Foss--and so just outside the area I'd marked out for Edwin's wic:
In Hild (my novel), I assume that Edwin used the Roman fort as one of the stops in his peripatetic perambulations from one royal vill to another. I assume that the hinterlands of the city supplied food for him and his entourage; that occasionally he left the fort lightly garrisoned when he was not in residence; that the city only began to be more populated on a year-round basis once Edwin had been baptised, and Paulinus urged him to consider the symbolism of investing a Roman edifice with Christian ritual and buildings.
I've imagined the wic coming into being after a visit to Gipswic, Eorpwald's East Anglian trading settlement (as part of a royal progress with double purpose: enhance his status as overking--Eorpwald's lord--and hand over his niece, Hereswith, in marriage to Æthelric, a prince of East Anglia) . Edwin saw the money Eorpwald was skimming from the operation and wanted some of that. So he fostered trade in textiles, and centred it on York.
That all collapsed, for a while, after Edwin's death and Oswald's accession. Oswald was far less influenced by Rome; he would have been content to follow his northern heritage and instincts: to avoid ruins and build afresh. Besides, no doubt he would have to spend time consolidating power, not fussing with things like his trading network.
In some ways Spall and Toop's thinking is similar to mine.
This interpretation emphasises the planned nature of the settlement and sees it as a royal centre established de novo on the banks of the Ouse, thriving as part of a polyfocal network of power, with political and ecclesiastical nuclei postulated in the legionary fortress (in the form of Edwin's church near the Minster...)Though they differ in that they interpret this as
...inextricably linked to wider process of social change...with the concomitant increase in social stratification...
It is particularly significant for the settlement sequence at York that Heslington was abandoned at the same time as the establishment of a new settlement on the bank of the Ouse, less than 2km to the west.I think they have a point. Most big changes comes from a series of smaller, organic changes at the wider cultural and social level. But I'm writing a novel. It makes better story sense to funnel events through the lens of a Great Man--or, rather, from the perspective of named people, in this case a Great Woman (and her mother, and her uncle, the king). I do, of course, spend a lot of time on this notion of inexorable and organic social and cultural change. Because change is what this book is about: change and the woman at its heart.
* Thanks to Sally Wilde.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God...This is the essence of Hild: the ability to name that which others either don't recognise or are afraid to articulate. Language is her weapon of choice. Naming is her superpower--or one of them. John would have been her Gospel of choice.
The book is now owned by the British Library which has agreed to a co-custody arrangement with Durham University and Durham Cathedral. I hope to see it one day soon.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Potentially the most significant finds are two nondescript round holes, with groundwater bubbling up through the mud. They are post holes that could date from the time of the earliest Christian church on the site [...]
Ian Milsted, of York Archaeological Trust, who is leading the excavation, downplays the significance of the post holes: the timber rotted away centuries ago, and they have found no dateable evidence, not a shard of Anglo-Saxon pottery. But his colleague Jim Williams cannot restrain his excitement: the pits are evidence for very large posts, far too big and using too valuable timber to hold up the roof of a pigsty or a hen house, just outside the walls of the Roman basilica. "I think they've got to be evidence for a significant structure – and from a period when any evidence is incredibly rare and precious."If Williams is right, this could be the place Hild was baptised by Paulinus in 627 CE. It also means the bones found in situ might belong to some of her relatives. To me, this is all so thrilling I can hardly stand it. I'd give a great deal to be there right now, to look at the pit, to touch those bones, to know, deep down, that Hild really did exist.
Friday, March 16, 2012
I imagine most people have heard by now that archaeologists from Cambridge's Newnham College have discovered a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon burial site at Trumpington Meadows (on the southern city limits of Cambridge, see map), with remains dating from the mid 7th century:
The girl, aged around 16, was buried on an ornamental bed – a very limited Anglo-Saxon practice of the mid to later 7th century – with a pectoral Christian cross on her chest, that had probably been sewn onto her clothing. Fashioned from gold and intricately set with cut garnets, only the fifth of its kind ever to be found, the artefact dates this grave to the very early years of the English Church, probably between 650 and 680 AD.
This mystery woman (already dubbed by the Independent, in an otherwise very nicely detailed piece, a 'princess'; the Guardian is more, well, guarded) was buried with three others, "an unsexed invididual in his or her twenties and two other slightly younger women."
The find is exciting for a variety of reasons. One, it's a high-status bed burial, which is rare. Two, the woman/girl in the bed was wearing a gold and garnet pectoral cross, which is very rare. Three, it's possible--given the style of the cross and the sex of those buried--that this is a monastic burial, that is, an indicator of a high-status religious foundation that no one knew about until now.
But here's a nifty video that will tell you more:
Apparently the skeletons and teeth are in relatively good shape, so my hope is that strontium analysis will follow shortly. With luck, there will also be some DNA to play with. Between the two, we might be able to learn whether the people are related and where they grew up. If we're extraordinarily lucky we might find out if they died of plague. (The dates make it possible that they were caught up in the plague of Justinian, c. 664.) Plague would offer one explanation for the death of such young women without obvious wounds. (Sixteen is a little young for death in childbirth. Not impossible, just not, in my opinion, hugely likely.) Another possibility, of course, is malaria: Trumpington isn't that far from the marshy goodness of the Wash.
But who might this woman have been? Well, she could have come from almost anywhere--which is why I'd love to see the strontium data. But if I had to guess (and I'm a novelist so, hey, that's what I do) I'd say she was either a) an oblate given into the care of a foundation as a baby (note the wear on the cross) by a king of, say, East Anglia, or b) a royal daughter of one of the minor, semi-independent groups being absorbed by said East Anglians and made unavailable for marriage (and therefore alliance-building) by tucking her safely away in a church.
What interests me most about this burial is the mix of grave goods: pectoral cross and girdle gear. This makes it an early burial; in my opinion, closer to 650 than 680. It might also argue for this young woman being in the line of succession for the religious house: wearing instruments of temporal power (chatelaine), wealth (bed) and piety (gold and garnet cross).
What does all this have to do with Hild? Perhaps not much. Perhaps a great deal. Until we get more information there's no way to know. So now I'm moving into purely speculative mode.
If these women, as suggested by the Independent, died during the first sweep of plague (c. 664), Hild would have been hosting and facilitating the Synod of Whitby even as they gasped and died. If it happened before that, it's remotely possible that this young woman was Hild's niece: Hild's sister Hereswith married into the royal house of East Anglia. (In my novel I put that marriage at c. 625, though most might argue for it to be a little later.) We don't know the name/s of Hereswith's daughter/s, if any, but I gave her one, born in 627 and called Æthelwyn--Noble Joy. Perhaps when Hereswith left for Faramoutiers (or whatever foundation Bede meant by 'Cale'--I don't think Chelles had been founded), Æthelwyn had to be left behind as a hostage for good behaviour. In which case it would make perfect sense for her to be hustled into the care of the church while her brother was groomed for the throne and their mother was shunted aside by men with powerful interests.
If this young woman (let's call her Æthelwyn; it's as good a name as any), was a nun, it's extremely unlikely she died as the result of childbearing. (Yes, nuns do sometimes get pregnant, but in such a case I doubt she would have been buried with full honours.) So I'm plumping for some infectious agent. The two most obvious culprits are either plague, in which case this isn't Hild's niece, or malaria, in which case she could be.
I'm really looking forward to more information. Perhaps we should take bets: malaria or plague?