The book takes place between 997 and 1003. It starts with a Viking attack. A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947 and it continued through the eleventh century.
In England the king at the time was Ethelred. Æthelred (c. 966 – 23 April 1016), known as the Unready, was King of the English from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 until his death in 1016.
There are several references to the king’s history. He is mentioned in connection to his ravaging Rochester in a quarrel with Bishop Elfstan. Æthelred laid claim to an estate belonging to the bishopric of Rochester, some violence ensued, and in 986 Æthelred laid siege to Rochester; he was unable to take it, and ravaged the lands of the see.
There is a reference to Ethelred’s brother being murdered when Ethelred was twelve. Edward, Ethelred’s brother, was murdered in the evening of 18 March 978, while visiting Ælfthryth and Æthelred, probably at or near the mound on which the ruins of Corfe Castle now stand.
Ethelred marries Emma of Normandy. Emma of Normandy (c. 984 – 6 March 1052) was Queen of England, Denmark and Norway through her marriages to Æthelred the Unready (1002–1016) and Cnut the Great (1017–1035).
Ragna, the female lead in the book, is from Cherbourg. Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, often known as just Cherbourg, is a commune in the department of Manche, Normandy, northwestern France.
Ragna is called Deborah by the villagers in the hamlet she rules. Deborah was the only female judge of Israel. According to the Book of Judges, Deborah was a prophetess of the God of the Israelites, the fourth Judge of pre-monarchic Israel and the only female judge mentioned in the Bible.
In France the king of the time was Robert II. Robert II (c. 972 – 20 July 1031), called the Pious or the Wise , was King of the Franks from 996 to 1031, the second from the Capetian dynasty.
Aldred, the monk, is an armarius in the abbey, that is, in charge of the Scriptorium and Library. Scriptorium is commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes.
The characters mention Ethelfled, Alfred’s daughter, who ruled the kingdom of Mercia. Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (c. 870 – 12 June 918) ruled Mercia in the English Midlands from 911 until her death. She was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his wife Ealhswith. Æthelred played a major role in fighting off renewed Viking attacks in the 890s.
There are several cases of bigamy in the book. In the Middle Ages, as in other ages, powerful men married monogamously, but mated polygynously. Both laymen and church men tend to have sexual access to as many women as they could afford.
Cwenburg, Dreng’s daughter, ends up marrying Edgar’s two brothers. That is called Polyandry. Polyandry is a form of polygamy in which a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time.
Anglo-Saxon is the language which Ragna learns to speak when she marries Wilf. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest recorded form of the English language, spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages. It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the mid-5th century, and the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century.
The hundred court is referred to in the book. A hundred is an administrative division that is geographically part of a larger region. It was formerly used in England. Over time, the principal functions of the hundred became the administration of law and the keeping of the peace. By the 12th century, the hundred court was held twelve times a year.
When Bod, Dreng’s Welsh slave, escapes, he sends a hue and cry after her. Hue and cry was an early English legal practice of pursuing a criminal with cries and sounds of alarm. It was the duty of any person wronged or discovering a felony to raise the hue and cry, and his neighbours were bound to come and assist him in the pursuit and apprehension of the offender. All those joining in the pursuit were justified in arresting the person pursued, even if it turned out that he was innocent.
Aldred and Edgar notice that the bishop visit Dreng’s Ferry on quarter days, which is suspicious. In British and Irish tradition, the quarter days were the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due. They fell on four religious festivals roughly three months apart and close to the two solstices and two equinoxes. These days were Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas (25 December).
Bishop Wynstan is found counterfeiting money. Before the introduction of paper money, the most prevalent method of counterfeiting involved mixing base metals with pure gold or silver. A common practice was to “shave” the edges of a coin. This is known as “clipping”. Precious metals collected in this way could be used to produce counterfeit coinage. A fourrée is an ancient type of counterfeit coin, in which a base metal core has been plated with a precious metal to resemble its solid metal counterpart.
In Mother Agatha’s nunnery there is a sanctuary stool for those who want to find protection.
In 1001 the Vikings ravage the area around Exeter. In 1001, a Viking force rowed up the river and laid siege to Exeter.
Aldred was first ordained in Glastonbury Abbey and he returns there to ask for a relic for his abbey. Glastonbury Abbey was a monastery in Glastonbury, Somerset. The abbey was founded in the 8th century and enlarged in the 10th. It was destroyed by a major fire in 1184, but subsequently rebuilt and by the 14th century was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England.
When Wilf gets injured, a monk expert on medicine wants to perform trepanning on him. Trepanning is a surgical intervention in which a hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull. The intentional perforation of the cranium exposes the dura mater to treat health problems related to intracranial diseases or release pressured blood buildup from an injury.
Edgar builds a pontoon bridge to make it easier for pilgrims to walk to the abbey. A pontoon bridge uses floats or shallow-draft boats to support a continuous deck for pedestrian and vehicle travel. During the Middle Ages, pontoons were used alongside regular boats to span rivers during campaigns, or to link communities which lacked resources to build permanent bridges.
The characters mention that the Vikings settled on the Isle of Wight after battles. During the second wave of Viking attacks in the reign of Ethelred the Unready (975-1014) the Isle of Wight was often used by them as a temporary winter base, when they were unable to shelter with their ‘cousins’ in Normandy.
The Viking King that Ethered fights against is King Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn Forkbeard (17 April 963 – 3 February 1014) was king of Denmark from 986 to 1014. Sweyn was involved in raids against England during 1002–1005, 1006–1007, and 1009–1012 to avenge the St. Brice’s Day massacre of England’s Danish inhabitants in November 1002.
In the last part of the book Elfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, dies, which is the position that Wynstan wants for himself. Ælfric of Abingdon (died 16 November 1005) was a late 10th-century Archbishop of Canterbury.
His successor was Alphage. Ælfheah (c. 953 – 19 April 1012), more commonly known today as Alphege, was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester, later Archbishop of Canterbury.