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Authors: V. M. Whitworth

The Bone Thief

BOOK: The Bone Thief
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About the Book

About the Author

Title Page


Author’s Note

Cast of Characters


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two





About the Book


900 A.D. A time of turmoil. A kingdom in dispute. An unlikely hero....


Edward, son of Alfred the Great, has inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and achieved a precarious set of alliances through marriage and military conquest.  But the alliance is uneasy and the kingdom of Mercia has more reason than most to fear the might of Wessex. Their Lord is elderly and perhaps mortally sick, and his wife fears that she does not have the power to withstand hostile takeover.   She also knows too well what her neighbour is capable of - after all, King Edward is her brother.


The chance to rescue St Oswald’s bones, beloved patron saint, to consecrate her new church and unite the people behind her, is too good an opportunity to miss. But they are rumoured to be buried a long way north - outside Lincoln, deep in hostile territory.  Her secretary, Wulfgar, groomed for the priesthood since he was a boy in the elegant cloisters of Winchester cathedral but naïve in the ways of the wider world - is surprised to be sent on this mission.   It will prove an incredibly dangerous journey, requiring resources and courage Wulfgar did not know he had, and support from surprising allies along the way including a maverick priest and a Viking adventuress whose loyalties are far from clear...


About the Author


V.M. Whitworth is an academic and historian. After reading English at Oxford, an M.A. and D.Phil from the Centre for Medieval Studies in York, V.M. published
Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England
. Having worked as a lecturer, tour guide, artist’s model and EFL teacher, V.M. now lives on a smallholding in Orkney with family, cats, ducks and occasional sheep, planning further adventures for Wulfgar.




Barbara Katherine Lacey. Angela Whitworth.

First readers. Toughest critics. Dearest friends

Author’s Note


The Bone Thief
is set soon after the death of Alfred the Great of Wessex. In Alfred’s lifetime, the ancient English kingdoms had collapsed under the weight of Viking attack. Alfred had held on to Wessex, but the eastern half of Mercia had been lost to the warlords of the Danish Great Army. Western Mercia had been saved with West Saxon help but at a great price – the loss of its independence as a kingdom. When the story opens, the new king of Wessex, Edward, is planning an aggressive programme of conquest that not only involves defeating the Danes but also assimilating Mercia. Athelfled (Fleda), Lady of the Mercians, has to resist him on her own, as her husband is incapacitated with illness. One possible solution presents itself: heavenly protection and earthly inspiration in the form of the bones of St Oswald, the mighty king and powerful saint who had died nearly two-and-a-half centuries earlier.

All this is historical enough. Two manuscripts of the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
refer briefly to St Oswald’s bones coming from
, in modern Lincolnshire, to Gloucester, in Mercia. They give no detail, and while the D manuscript has it happen in AD 906, the C manuscript files it under 909. Tantalising glimpses like this, riddled with contradiction and possibility, are the raw stuff of Anglo-Saxon history. There is no hint in any source – historical or archaeological – of
St Oswald’s bones survived the fall of the monastery at Bardney to the Danes, to reappear over a generation later. Wulfgar and his companions are almost entirely fictional and, given the contradiction in the
own dates, I have taken the liberty of bringing the rescue of the relics back a few years, to the immediate aftermath of Alfred’s death.

It is hard now even for many devout Catholic Christians to understand the fervour with which saints’ relics were venerated in the Middle Ages. Fragments of saints’ bones, their clothing and possessions, objects which had come into contact with the relics, were believed to be imbued with extraordinary power. In a profoundly hierarchical age, God the Father and Christ could seem remote figures. Christ’s mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, was a more approachable figure, however, and the saints, especially the local ones, could feel like personal friends and patrons. Wulfgar, my fictional hero, feels a profound connection with St Oswald.

Wulfgar may be imaginary, but his dilemmas about his future are very real. Priestly celibacy was not the norm at this period, and even many senior clerics had wives and families. There were very few centres of learning left after the Viking depredations. The Anglo-Saxon clergy of 900 bore considerable resemblance to the ‘hunting parsons’ satirised by Anthony Trollope in the 1860s, their way of life differing very little from that of the landed gentry and aristocrats whose kin they were. Anyone whose faith was centred
ideals of scholarship and service would find this a challenging environment.

Athelfled, Lady of the Mercians, is very much a historical character, however. First with her husband, and later alone, she ruled Mercia. The
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
tells us that she won battles and built fortresses. She and her husband founded St Oswald’s Church in Gloucester, and the ruins of her church are still visible, although the relics have been lost once more. Nonetheless, we do not know when she was born, or how old she was when she married, or whether she led her army into battle in person. Any attempt to flesh out her historical bones moves instantly into the realms of the imagination, but we do know that Mercia stands out among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for the number of strong women in its history.

Other elements of my story are matters of historical interpretation. What were relations like, between Mercia and Wessex, once Mercia had been demoted to a lordship rather than a kingdom, particularly after the men who had brokered that deal – Alfred the Great of Wessex and Athelred, Lord of the Mercians – were out of the picture? Many historians see the siblings Athelfled of Mercia and Edward of Wessex as happy partners, united against the Danish threat. But I find it hard to believe that all Mercians readily acquiesced in their subordination, especially as, on several occasions in the later tenth and eleventh centuries, the prospect of Mercian independence was to raise its head again.

In some ways, I have exaggerated existing contrasts for the sake of the story. In Wessex and English Mercia social values are based on family, land, Christianity and tradition. Across the border, in Danish England, loyalties are fluid, a person’s background is less important than his or her actions, wealth is based on portable
, religion is polytheistic and personal rather than institutional. Englishmen and Danes both value silver, but the English want it stamped with the king’s head, whereas a Dane will accept it in any form – Arabic coin, broken jewellery, ingots – then get out his little scales and weigh it.

This is the world of Gunnvor Bolladottir. Most armies attract camp followers and the Danish Great Army was no exception. By the 880s there are references to its soldiers needing to defend their ‘women and children’. Were these women Scandinavian, or local? What can life have been like for those children? We have no answers, but the depiction of Bolli, Gunnvor’s father – coming from Hordaland in Norway in the 860s, making his fortune, his daughter growing up as part of the tough raggle-taggle gang of children trailing in the army’s wake, and then inheriting his ill-gotten hoards of treasure – is at least a plausible speculation.

As is, I hope, is the rest of the story.



NB These ethnic categories blur and overlap. Some people are identified according to where they are encountered geographically in the story, rather than by ethnicity. Historical characters are marked with an asterisk.



Wulfgar of Meon
, known to some as ‘Litter-runt’, a subdeacon trained originally at Winchester Cathedral, now secretary to the Lord and Lady of the Mercians. Son of a king’s thane, a major land-owner with a wergild of 1200 shillings. His friends call him ‘Wuffa’ (Little Wolf/Wolf-Cub)

BOOK: The Bone Thief
4.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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