‘To leave it on the long finger’ is an Irish phrase which means to keep delaying something. This was writing prompt homework from my local writers’ group around the end of February, and as it was the 29th I wrote a piece of short fiction called ‘Leap Years’. If a lady may only propose marriage on the 29th February, it may be better not to delay.
In May the writing prompt from the Telegraph Creative Writing Group was ‘Bravery‘. I had been thinking a lot at the time about early history, fascinated by St Michael’s Line and then by the Staffordshire Hoard. The Hoard, which I was once fortunate enough to see in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, is a real puzzle: no-one knows why so much gold, mostly ceremonial decorations from weapons, was found near Watling Street and on the west side of Lichfield, the Cathedral City that was once the capital of the kingdom of Mercia.
The first image that came to my mind was of people burying this wealth to hide if from invaders. But the hoard is thought to date from about 700 AD which was not a time when Mercia was invaded. The Mercians themselves would have been unlikely to bury this treasure in that obscure place – if the gold had been loot from a robbery one would have expected coins and other jewellery to have been amongst it. About 80 swords are represented in the Hoard and apart from some golden crosses and what might have been the corners of a Bible there are no other non-military items. The gold sword ornaments were heirlooms which would have had huge symbolic value as well as being exquisite workmanship, some of which was up to 200 years old at the time it was buried. These would have been the property of royalty or nobility.
This made me think of a troop of fighting men dressed for ceremonial purposes. Not going to war – 80 is too few, and who would use their best sword on the battlefield where the soft gold ornamentation would easily be broken off? So going perhaps to a state function, and what more likely than a marriage ceremony between nobles, intended to forge an alliance?
Next, who would have approached Lichfield from the west? Not the Welsh, who were already part of Mercia and likely had no kings to send. The West Saxons’ capital was Winchester, from which the most likely route would have been the Fosse Way which would then bring them into Lichfield from the east. But they had a recently established see in Sherborne, and conceivably a junior member of the family, like a prince, might have a seat there. Travelling from Sherborne one could use the Fosse Way, but an alternative would have been to go north to the coast of the Bristol Channel and then follow the course of the River Severn northwards. This would have afforded a plentiful source of water and places to re-victual for a large group of men on horseback. Near what is now Telford in Shropshire, at Shifnal, the Severn comes close to Watling Street. From here Lichfield is a short journey. This would then have brought them in to Lichfield from the west.
On the west side of Lichfield, near where the Hoard was discovered, was a long established stopping place at the junction of Watling Street and the Ryknield Way (Icknield Street), now Wall, dating back to the Romans. If the party had camped there on their last night before entering Lichfield, and had met with some treachery which caused them to strip their gold from their weapons in order to fight, and to bury the gold where no one could find it…
If the hoard was buried around 700, then the king of Mercia at the time was Coelred, who had a poor reputation in history, and the king of Wessex was King Ine, who had a long and just reign, but doesn’t seem to have had any surviving heirs.
Finally I had to invent a way for a written account of the events to be preserved for centuries. I thought of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells which were produced at around that time. Lichfield Cathedral had its own set of Gospels, the St Chad’s Gospels, of a similar era, which were broken up during the English Civil War and the 4th Gospel, of St John, went missing and has never been recovered.
The rest…is fiction: The Lost Vellum
The Inevitable March of Time is memoir from the COVID-19 pandemic, describing life under lockdown and working in an Irish district hospital.
No. 13 is short fiction on the theme of ‘Omens’.