I first came across Eigon, the historical heroine of The Warrior's Princess, when my father bought a cottage in the parish of Llanigon some forty years ago. Who, we wanted to know, or what, was Eigon? The church guidebook answered our question. But only sort of. There are two theories. Either he was a bishop or she was the daughter of the great Welsh hero, Caratacus. Obviously I preferred the second option.
But then came the $64,000 question. If Caratacus had a daughter called Eigon and if she was taken to Rome as a captive as history records, how would she have ended up as the patron saint of an ancient church in the Welsh borders, 300 years before the official conversion of Britain to Christianity? This was the question which inspired this book. My curiosity was further piqued by a splendidly framed engraving of Fuseli's painting of Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome, which has hung for years in the hall outside my study. In the picture Caratacus is portrayed as the noble warrior, his fists clenched in iron manacles, his moustaches to the fore, his brow steely. His daughter and his wife and even the Empress Agrippina are depicted as respectively, wilting, fainting, theatrical and buxom. The picture is I have to admit not really to my taste, but for us it is doubly interesting, firstly for its depiction of Eigon and the obviously dramatic story it tells and secondly, because the engraver was my great, great, great grandfather, Andrew Birrell. I had to find out more.
Caratacus, the warrior king and opposer of the invading Romans was the son of Cunobelinus (or Cymbeline), king of the Catuvellauni. We know a great deal about his opposition to Rome, his battles, his defeat. We know he was taken with his family to Rome, made the famous speech to the Emperor as they stood facing an almost certainly horrific death and won the Emperor's approbation by the brilliance of his address, whereupon he was pardoned.
This much is described by the Roman historians, principally Tacitus. There is however another Caratacus, or Caractacus, or Caradoc. Here he is a legendary and mythic hero, the father of many children, the descendant of gods and from the novelist's point of view it is the many gaps and inconsistencies in all the information and misinformation that have come down to us about this period that are interesting. Here we are at the cusp between history and legend and it is from this mixture that I have teased out the single thread of my story.
I asked myself: how and why could Caratacus just disappear from history? Where did he live in Rome? Why did he not immediately plan to return to Britannia to continue his fight? Surely so great a hero cannot have been seduced by a Roman retirement plan. The only reasonable explanation was that he died. If so, what happened to the daughter who was taken with him to Rome?
To call Eigon herself shadowy is an understatement; what we know of her is full of inconsistency. `Caratacus's daughter' disappears from history after the great set piece speech in Rome. But then we have her mysterious reappearance as a saint in the foothills of the Black Mountains.
So, if Eigon existed at all, was she as she is depicted by Elgar in his cantata Caractacus, where she is old enough to have a lover, and in the painting by Fuseli, where she is a full-grown woman at the time of her capture? Or was she a child? The latter would, I thought, make more sense as she was still with her mother on campaign.
Then I wondered where Christianity came in and that at least was obvious. The Rome to which Caratacus and his family were taken was the Rome of St Peter and St Paul; if they survived they would have been there at the time of the Great Fire of Rome and the Christian persecutions under Nero and they would almost certainly have met up with Pomponia Graecina while there; her arrest and the charge that she was following a foreign religion is recorded, again by Tacitus. Some say she had been influenced by Druidry during her time in Britannia; some by the new Christianity. I have covered my options by making her interested in both.
It seemed to me a good guess that Eigon eventually returned to the country of her birth and, if she is remembered here as a saint, then she must have returned as a Christian. In the early Celtic church the term saint meant someone who served God and lived a holy life. The Llan in Llanigon (still spelt Llaneigon in Victorian times) did not imply that this ancient place was originally a parish or even a church. Llan came to mean both those things in later Welsh but in the original meaning the term referred to a small religious community or centre, focused around a particular spiritual person, which would fit in with it being the place where Eigon chose to settle down. She was actually there. In person.
Thus from very slender threads I have woven her story. I can't claim it to be history but I feel I have given a good guess.
That leaves me with one last mystery which Caratacus has bequeathed us. Where did that last great battle take place? It seems strange, but no one knows for sure. There are many places which claim to be its site. In the end I invented one of my own. My Valley of Ravens does not exist as such! If you are interested in finding out more about some of the possible locations for the battle please look at my website (barbara-erskine.com) where I have listed some of them and posted some of my own photographs.