Having previously looked backward into history as part of our examination of 1066, multiple award-winning author Annie Whitehead now brings us into even closer focus as we seek to make sense of this Conquest and all it has wrought. In so doing, we find we are not the only ones weighing the flood of events, actions, loyalties, what we say and what we do not. Could something have changed this deluge, could we have prevented it? Might we have escaped paying a price while remaining true? Or was it fated to happen, that we be swept up and carried along in meandering history, so like the wildest river Alvar speaks of with King Edgar?
If we were to spy upon King Edgar, look at him from a (very) long-distance viewpoint, we would notice that, even compared to his contemporaries, he is short of stature. Perhaps his reputation is a little unremarkable, too. In a list of kings which featured Alfred the Great and Aethelred the Unready, Athelstan, he would barely stand out.
Yet in many ways, he was the most successful king of the tenth century. Respected, loved, he never had to fight, not on the battlefield, anyway. He and his brother were orphaned at a very young age, when their father the king died and was succeeded by his brother, who then died young, and childless. The teenage boys grew up separately. One of them, the eldest, was profligate, and louche, and was deeply unpopular. The other was Edgar, who grew up in the house of the powerful earl of East Anglia, where he developed ambition, and learned the art of politics. He saw how to harness the power and strength of other men, and he decided he wanted a kingdom for himself.
And since we’re having a peek, let me introduce Alvar (Old English name ‘Aelfhere’). He was Edgar’s right-hand man, helping him to secure a throne, and, much later, helping his son to secure one, too. He and his king are thinking about the years they spent together, when Alvar was earl of the powerful erstwhile kingdom of Mercia, dependent on Edgar for his position, while Edgar was dependent on the loyalty of Alvar, and the folk who lived on his lands.
Edgar: You broke an oath to serve me.
Alvar: I did. And it has been a cross to bear. But I saw a strength in you that I had not seen in your elder brother, whom I had sworn to serve. Some said his morals were lax, but my lord, I could say the same about yours. He was a weak man, and although it wasn’t fair what they did to him, it’s true that he was not fit to rule. He tried to buy the nobles, by giving them land. You seemed to understand what was required of a king. You respected the people you sought to rule. That was important to me.
Edgar: Ah yes, the Mercians. A proud people.
Alvar: Rightly so. Look what we achieved…
Edgar: Let me stop you before you give me a history lesson. You begin to sound like your faithful man, Helmstan. Always talking about Mercian independence…
Alvar: But you recognised it as fact.
Edgar: I did. I was nothing if not prudent. The Mercians and the Northumbrians were mainly of Danish stock by the time I came to the throne and I would have been mad not to acknowledge that. I knew I had to win their support against my brother, and I had to repay the debt. My policy was to keep everyone happy, with no reason to rebel. It worked. You all loved me.
Alvar: We did. We didn’t love each other though, that was the problem. We, the lords, and your bishops, well, let’s say we found ourselves with different ambitions.
Edgar: I held you all together, didn’t I? Between us all, look how we even managed to arrange that all the kings of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man bowed down to me. Now that was a team effort. I even ignored the rumours about you and my wife…
Alvar: There was only ever one person who believed those rumours, and she should have looked at the evidence.
Edgar: When you say ‘she’, do you mean my wife, or Helmstan’s wife?
Alvar: You knew? Please say you never told him. I was never disloyal. I kept it secret, or so I thought.
Edgar: You were never disloyal to anyone, and that was your failing, really. You served me and mine well and faithfully. I know how much you sacrificed to help me take the throne, to help me keep it, and I know how hard you fought for my son.
Alvar: There was nigh-on full scale civil war, you know? At first, I was merely fighting for your son, as rightful heir, and then the tide of Mercian resistance seemed to sweep me along. It carried me to some dark places. Things were done…
Edgar: But even if they were done in your name, they were not done by you. Some of your enemies could have said the same thing, could they not?
Alvar: Ah, now here is where I must beg to differ. I did all I could to prevent what happened. Had I arrived just a few minutes sooner, I could have averted a killing. Dunstan, on the other hand…
Edgar: Shall we speak of him with full honour, and accord him his title of Archbishop of Canterbury?
Alvar: If you insist. The archbishop knew of many things, some done in his name, some done for his cause, about which he should not have kept silent.
Edgar: Hmm. Perhaps you are right. So how would you sum up our story?
Alvar: It is a story of kings, murdered. It is a tale of Mercia – a once proud kingdom, with nationalist feeling still running high. It is a love story, and love, as we know, never takes the straight course but meanders like the wildest river. The key word of this tale is loyalty. We are all bound by it, we all makes mistakes because of it. Some of us die for it…
Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s (HNS) Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.
Her newest release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion.
She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.
Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066: Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.
You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.
For links to previous entries in our “950: 1066 Remembered” series, including reviews for To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, click here.
“Thin place” photo courtesy Annie Whitehead.