A Guest Post from Nils Visser
Saint Lewinna, also known as Leofwynn of Bishopstone, is a 7th century female Sussex saint. She was active in Sussex in her early teens, around the time St Wilfrid arrived to bring Christianity to the South Saxons. Lewinna met a rather gruesome Pagan response to her faith. She was martyred sometime around 675 – 690 AD, possible by having her skull struck by an axe. There are different accounts as to who was responsible for the gristly deed. Some say Viking raiders, others South Saxon Pagans.
The accuracy of these records are disputable. One account of St Wilfrid, for example, claims that the South Saxons living in the seaside settlement of Selsey were so dim the Yorkshireman had to teach them how to fish. No doubt this was considered a small miracle, but I have some reservations about coastal residents (settled there for a quarter of a century) not having a single clue that the sea contains fish which can be caught for food.
What can be concluded to be likely is that a young girl named Lewinna/Leofwynn lived around this time, met an untimely, violent death, and became part of the county’s history. Not only is Lewinna the first named female in Sussex historical records, she is also Sussex’s first and only female saint.
In contrast to St Wilfrid, who has attained some fame, St Lewinna is almost totally unknown and largely forgotten. It’s not inconceivable that this is because of Lewinna’s gender, considering the male-orientated past and present.
There have been attempts to revive interest in St Lewinna in recent years. In 2011, a spokesman of the Society of Saint Lewinna reported in the West Sussex County Times that the response from “some C of E circles was not encouraging. Many would just as soon leave Lewinna where she is – forgotten.”
The spokesman lamented that: “If ever there was a ‘Saint for our times’ it is Lewinna: a young woman prepared to give everything…in the face of a violently aggressive paganism and in a male-dominated world.”
If the “violently aggressive paganism” can be exchanged for “violent aggression,” I wholly agree. Unfortunately, the number of female role models for children is still vastly outnumbered by male heroes, a running theme in my Wyrde Woods books, and also the reason I prefer female protagonists.
For a novelist pursuing this theme in a Sussex context, a historical female character of whom little is known and more has been forgotten, forms a wonderful temptation and I duly appropriated Lewinna for the Wyrde Woods: A young woman prepared to give it her all in a male-dominated world in which disagreements are still settled by the edge of a sword or axe.
In Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd, Lewinna is presented as one of the Wyrde Wood’s dragon slayers. In a Christianized version of the legend (author’s invention), a mail coated St Lewinna fights a local Sussex ‘knucker’ (dragon) armed with a sword and her faith in God, the latter of course being what allowed Lewinna to emerge from the fight victoriously.
However, in Forgotten Road, we hear a different version of the story. Local lass Joy Whitfield tells her friend Maisy (a wartime evacuee new to the Wyrde Woods) that the Christians have stolen Lewinna’s story. Joy suggests that Lewinna fought dragons on more than one occasion. She also scoffs at the notion that Lewinna was a Christian, claiming that the nuns of St Dunstan’s Priory tricked Lewinna into baptism when the Saint was on her deathbed. Lewinna was famed as a local hero and Joy claims the nuns hoped to profit from association which would lead to pilgrimages and the income thereof. There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever for this, as this is one of my retellings, but the appropriation of such local heroes/tales is not unknown, the graves of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey a prime example.
I was rather pleased by this arrangement of two contrasting renderings, because stories do change over the years, are adapted for various purposes, or simply retold to fit the spirit of whatever age has newly dawned. Everything is usually best taken with a pinch of salt, as well as a bit of faith that there are probably some grains of truth concealed within tales handed down over the generations.
My version of Lewinna now features as the protagonist in a 100-page novelette entitled DRAKA RAID. The story deviates from the versions discussed above, reflecting the reality of story evolution. However, in contrast to the other tales told about Lewinna, this one is written in the present tense on events as they are unfolding, so there should be a sense that this is the real McCoy.
In this version, we discover that the ‘dragon’ fought by Lewinna, is a figurative one, and actually consists of several Danish ‘dragonboats’ appearing on the coast, with the crew intent on creating havoc and plundering local settlements. The Anglo-Saxon word for dragon is ‘draca’ which I changed to ‘draka’ because that looked more menacing somehow.
The story draws on old Sussex folklore about Kingley Vale, in the west of Sussex. Kingley Vale is a deep and narrow valley, much of it covered by yew woodland. It has several yew groves at its centre containing some 40-60 ancient yew trees, all well over 1,000 years old, my guess would be closer to 2,000 years old. It is whispered that the trees come to life at night, and there are occasional Pook sightings. The sense of sanctity is overwhelming, and one poet described the grove as a cathedral of trees.
Local legend has it that Kingley Vale was also the location of a battle between Danish raiders and local Saxons (there’s also talk of buried treasure, in case anyone is in dire need of a chest of silver and gold).
There could be some truth in the folklore, because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a battle in this area between the local fyrd (militia) and a Danish raiding party in 894 AD. The Chronicle remains vague on the battle’s location, other than mentioning the vicinity of Chichester. Since that that applies to Kingley Vale, it is a possible source for the legend.
There are various versions of the folklorist tales concerning this violent encounter between Danes and South Saxons. My favourite is the one that claims the Saxons made use of sorcery to…..SPOILER – CENSORED.
I took a lot of liberties in my own retelling of these events in DRAKA RAID.
Firstly, I placed the story in 878 AD, sixteen years earlier than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s reference. This because that was the year that King Alfred emerged from the Somerset marshes and summoned all the men of the Kingdom of Wessex to fight the Danes at Edington, including the Sussex Lords and their huscarls (personal retainers) and fyrds. This conveniently left the Wyrde Woods bereft of its fighting men, leaving Lewinna to face the Draka with only a few greybeards, a handful of youths, and the women and girls of the Wyrde Woods to help her.
Those sixteen years pale into insignificance compared to the two-hundred-and-some years that I casually moved Lewinna forwards in time. Hey ho, poetic license and all that.
In another feat of distortion for the narrative’s sake, I transferred Kingley Vale from the west of Sussex to the Wyrde Woods, much further to the east of Sussex. By the way, like many in our county, I refuse to use the purely bureaucratic designations of East Sussex and West Sussex. Tis Sussex, and anyone who claims otherwise is a middling chuckle-head who ate the wrong kind of pookstools, unaccountable as that be, surely.
Last-but-not-least, my Lewinna in DRAKA RAID is anything but a Christian Saint. She worships the old gods, and in her behaviour is anything but ladylike, having learned some of her speech from her father’s Huscarls. Be prepared for gleeful use of the words ‘aersling’ and ‘skitte’, for which I don’t provide a translation, assuming the reader will gather the meaning from context, if not vague resemblance to modern English.
When the story opens, we see Lewinna making her way through the male world of her tribe, frustrating for an intelligent and ambitious young woman as I’m sure you can imagine. At this point the reader may be forgiven for assuming that they have accidentally strayed into one of Bernard Cornwell’s swash-buckling tales. I will happily admit to having devoured his Warlord Chronicles and being a fan of The Last Kingdom TV series based on those books, so yes, this was an influence. However, Cornwell’s style and mine soon diverge when Lewinna enters the female domain, in the very heart of the Wyrde Woods where men never venture: The clearing around the Heorttreów tree. At this point it also becomes evident that Lewinna intends to use her people’s magic, the Wyrd, to combat the Draka, as told in the version of the Kingley Vale legend that has my preference.
As for the rest of it, well, you’d have to read the story to find out (he says with an evil smile).
DRAKA RAID is a standalone story and can be read as such without having read any other Wyrde Woods books. For those who have read the other books, you will find many winks and nudges, points of recognition, clues to questions raised in the other books, and perhaps even a familiar face or two. The story is also a short one, being novelette-length, so not requiring a great deal of time investment. Nor financial investment for that matter, the Kindle version will set you back 99p. Both kindle and paperback are available on Amazon COM, Amazon UK, and various other international Amazon pages (enter ‘Draka Raid’ as search).
For more information on the other Wyrde Woods books, please visit my website: www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk