4 January 2021

Guest Post by M J Porter, Author of Lady Estrid: A Novel of Eleventh Century Denmark

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Daughter, Sister, Duchess, Aunt. Queen. United by blood and marriage. Divided by seas. Torn apart by ambition. Lady Estrid Sweinsdottir has returned from Kiev, her first husband dead after only a few months of marriage. Her future will be decided by her father,
King Swein of Denmark, or will it?

Letter writing in the Eleventh Century

In trying to bring together the narrative for Lady Estrid, I faced a bit of a problem, that of the vast distances involved. Lady Estrid had family in England, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, many of them she may never have met in person.

Today, we might pick up the phone, or have a quick look on the internet, but in the eleventh century, how would people have communicated?

And so to letter writing. There are two surviving letters from the eleventh-century that were sent by King Cnut, Estrid’s brother, to the English, when he was absent from his newly conquered country, in AD1020 and AD1027. I give a small example below.

“Be it known therefore to all of you, that I have humbly vowed to the Almighty God himself henceforward to amend my life in all respects, and to rule the kingdoms and the people subject to me with justice and clemency, giving equitable judgments in all matters; and if, through the intemperance of my youth or negligence, I have hitherto exceeded the bounds of justice in any of my acts, I intend by God’s aid to make an entire change for the better.”

(From Cnut’s letter to the English from AD1027.)

These might well have been an exercise for Cnut in asserting his authority over the English, and giving his regents a little bit of extra support, but they open up the possibility of just who else was busy writing and sending letters to one another.

There’s always the assumption that unless you were a holy man, you perhaps couldn’t read or write, and in fact, in one of the books I referenced for Lady Estrid, I found a fascinating chart detailing people who are known to have been used by the ruling family of Normandy as messengers, another way that messages could be sent between people. But surely, sometimes, it was just better to write everything down, that way nothing could be lost in translation.

Without the possibility of Lady Estrid ever meeting some members of her family, using letter writing allowed me to artificially create conversations between the characters, and while it might not have been the ‘norm’ it was certainly something that happened.

Indeed, three centuries earlier, there’s a great wealth of information to be found in the letters of Alcuin of York (c735-804), so it wasn’t as though it was a new thing. With Denmark’s conversion to Christianity, there would have been a ready selection of scribes just waiting to note down Lady Estrid’s frustrations and complaints, even if she didn’t pen them herself.

M J Porter
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About the Author

M J Porter is an author of historical novels set in Seventh, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh-Century England, and now also a little further afield, in Viking Age Denmark, and Tenth-Century East and West Frankia.
M J Porter also writes fantasy based on Viking Age Iceland, and fantasy as J E Porter. M J Porter can also be found reviewing books and sometimes the odd film at earlofmercia.wordpress.com. Find me at www.mjporterauthor.com and @coloursofunison

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