The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Cover Crush: To Be A Queen

This week’s entry concludes our series, “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen,” with a cover crush of this multiple award-winning novel’s front image. It has been my pleasure and privilege both to work with author Annie Whitehead and also write on—and therefore learn more about—the amazing and inspiring woman that was Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has carved a spot for herself in my heart. 

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to-be-a-queen
To Be A Queen is the recipient of the HNS’s Editors’ Choice Award 2015 and a B.R.A.G. Medallion, and was long-listed for the HNS’s Book of the Year 2016.

Occasionally I marvel at the phrase warning readers not to judge a book by its cover because despite the truth of this caveat, the reality is that a cover image speaks to readers—or doesn’t, as the case may be—nearly as much as the story inside does. It gives one a “visual” into the world of the pages within, and a really great jacket design matches some element or aspect of the narrative: perhaps it depicts a crucial scene or the novel’s background is discernable within its layout.

When first I took in the cover for Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen, I saw its strength went one step further by including the title in its mood, in a skillfully subtle manner. Now this is no image simply to match a “thing” in the title, for it doesn’t contain a random noun, but rather a mood in itself.

My initial thoughts upon seeing the cover drawing were of longing and perhaps loss. Placing myself in the scene would put me near the tree; it occupies the foreground and I could reach out and touch it. Farther away lie the ruins of what once was another world, and so the loss shows itself: the structure has crumbled and the world it once occupied has slipped away from us through time.

I felt these sentiments when I spoke the title aloud, and to me they seemed to carry the weight of a melancholy, perhaps a wistfulness in memory of letting go. After reading the book I mused on how well the cover did its job, for indeed the novel’s titular character had long contemplated what it means to be a queen, while knowing from childhood she would never be one. The circumstances of this knowledge are mixed: in Æthelflæd’s native Wessex, women are by law not entitled to be called queen; in her adopted land of Mercia the office has fled with her auntie, who once occupied it. No matter the courage she displays, the fights she will endure, how many enemies she chases from her people, to be a queen is not in her cards, and she has known it all along, as long as the Vikings have chased her away from security, comfort, digging in of roots—and that has been her entire life.

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_AbbeyA haunting statement uttered by her auntie early in the story later reveals itself to Æthelflæd as she contemplates the loss suffered by that queen, who knew it even then to be so: “What can I tell a five-year-old who will grow up to forget that I ever lived?”

Perhaps it would be a comfort to Æthelflæd, as she contemplates her loss of Æthelswith, or herself from the world in the fate of being forgotten, that even the grief of loss requires a memory. She may be in that unreachable part of the landscape we stepped into in order to examine our cover image, though, bittersweet as it is, she lives on as long as we remember her.

The tree we are so near to, reminiscent of the genus pink weeping willow, also lends to the cover’s mood, with its drooping demeanor and symbolism of death. However, it also lends strength for, even in its solitary nature, as weeping trees tend to be, its frame stands tall over time, overlooking the world we cannot quite reach, perhaps carrying memories of its own of a world it once observed.

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About the author …

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 Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

whitehead-author-picHer new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. 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 B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

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.

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Related post: “Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.”

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Stay tuned for my review of Alvar the Kingmaker.

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The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Excerpt: To Be A Queen

Excerpt from To Be A Queen

Outside the walls of occupied Derby, AD917

Æthelflæd’s forces are determined to take back control of a strategic Mercian town

She slept, but only in short bursts. She would turn, and wake, remember that Wulfnoth stood guard outside her tent and lie down on her right side to drift off for a while, only to wriggle onto her left and wake up again. The noise from the walls was ever present, like bird song. For weeks she had lived with the shouting, hammering, scraping and banging. Shouts to muster were common-place, as were the yelled curses in the foreign tongue from within the walls. As with the dawn chorus, it would wake her once in a while, she would acknowledge it for what it was, and sleep on again through the disturbance. She had lain on top of the bed, too hot to sink under the covers, and now, having slept for a while, she woke up feeling chilly. Grabbing at a blanket, she settled down again, not yet refreshed enough to consider rising. She lay down and closed her eyes once more. Then it came to her. There was no battle noise, no sound of machinery. Trundling cart wheels, digging spades and thudding boulders; all had stopped moving.

to-be-a-queen
To Be A Queen is a multiple-award winning novel: the B.R.A.G. Medallion and two Historical Novel Society honors (click image)

She sat up, pulled on her boots and left the tent. Wulfnoth had disappeared. She was not concerned; he would not have left her unless he knew it was safe to do so. With a growing sense of hope, she walked through a camp which was now near deserted. Dear God, they must have breached the walls, or the gates, or both. Coming to the edge of the encampment she saw the gates of the town hanging open, one almost off its great hinges. Beyond the open gateway, the Danes, surrendered and surrounded, had been herded together. A Mercian banner fluttered from the watchtower. A thegn on the tower pointed his sword at her and began a victory chant. It was taken up by those below, who all joined in, shouting their triumph in the name of their lady. But Æthelflæd was looking at Frith, who walked towards her with his sword still in his hand, hanging low, dragging. He had blood on his face and his long hair was matted. He had his mail-coat on and she gave thanks for his innate tendency to be sensible at such times. But he walked like a wounded man, though she could see that he was whole.

He bowed on one knee before her. “Lady, Derby is yours.”

She put a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me. Who do we mourn?”

His blond brows came together to form a single line above his eyes. Beneath those blue-grey eyes, dark shadows of exhaustion robbed him of his beauty. Careworn, fatigued, speaking carefully through a cut lip, he could give her no more than a list of names. “Helmstan, Ælfric, Eadwine, Wulfwine.” The rest of her personal guard.  “Eadric.”

She opened her mouth but stood, gaping. What did she think to say? No? You are wrong? I misheard you? Of course he was not wrong; he would not break his own heart with lies.

He struggled to his feet and she squeezed his arm. Nodding towards the inner courtyard she said, “Do what needs to be done here. I will speak to Elfwen.”

She found her daughter in her tent. She wished that she could be like Frith, and give Elfwen a moment more of the world when it was right, before she plunged her into a deep lake where there was no light, only despair. But she knew that her face told Elfwen all that she needed to know. “Daughter, the town is ours. But many men died in the taking of it. Among them was Eadric.”

aelfwynn
Ælfwynn succeeded her mother after Æthelflæd’s death, though remained in power for only a short time, after which there are no definitive records of her.

Elfwen gasped but shook her head, believing as her mother had not, that the news was false. “No, that cannot be.” But as she spoke, the words, having hit her ears as lies, must have come into her mind as truth, and she fell face down onto her bed and wept.

Æthelflæd stood still and let her cry out the initial pain, knowing that there would be more, for days, weeks, mayhap even months to come.

When the first waves had left her body and the sobbing subsided, Elfwen sat up.

“How can you stand there like that? Do you not care?”

Æthelflæd flinched. She thinks I do not care because I do not weep. Once, many years ago, I would have thought the same thing. Oh, Dear Lord, I have loved and lost so often that I have forgot what the first time feels like. She took a step forward.

Elfwen put out her hand. “No.  Do not come near me. You are heartless.”

Æthelflæd lifted her chin and let her head fall back. Her mouth opened and a strange animal cry came forth from her. It rose from within her core, and shocked her with its force. She looked her daughter in the eye and said, “Oh God, if I had opened my heart upon every death and let out the part of me that died with them, it would not have the strength left to carry on beating.”

She left Elfwen alone with her tears. The girl would have to learn the hard way. There was no other.

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This scene occurs towards the end of the novel. Æthelflæd is exhausted, having just come from campaign in Wales. No longer a young woman, she has endured years of fighting and worry about the Viking threat and what it means to her homeland and family. Long absences from home have affected her relationship with Elfwen, and shaped the girl’s character. Æthelflæd knows that she is repeating history – her father was largely absent from her own life – but she also understands that she must continue to put duty beyond all other considerations.

Leaders, and especially women leaders, must harden their hearts, and leave no room there for sentiment. She has learned the hard way, through loss, and the wisdom gleaned from heartache. Is the accusation of heartlessness justified? Æthelflæd would understand the modern phrase “Fake it until you make it” because this is exactly what she has had to do. Now, she is frightened; that if she acknowledges her emotions she will be swamped, engulfed.

Ethelred, her husband, once said to her that he would only have time to rest once he was dead. In a similar way, she cannot stop to entertain her emotions until the job is done. She sees the damage left in its wake, but she must carry on, observing the fallout, but unable to divert from her task.

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” concludes next week with a cover crush for Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen.

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About the author …

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 Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

whitehead-author-picHer new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. 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 B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

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.

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Related post: “Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

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Stay tuned for my review of Alvar the Kingmaker.

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The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Guest Post: Invitation to the Past

Today Annie Whitehead, award-winning author of To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, takes up the reins with a lovely guest post, giving us a bit of background as to how she came to the world of the Mercians ….

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In the last piece, I was ‘chatting’ to Lord Ethelred of Mercia, and he asked me how I first ‘met’ him and his wife.

To Be a Queen came about because of a single sentence. My university tutor said of Ethelred of Mercia that “Nobody knew exactly where he came from.” I suddenly had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history out of some unknown hinterland. I wanted to write his story and, in a way, I have. Although of course the real story was that of his wife: daughter of a king, wife of a man with the powers of a king, a woman who led her army into battle against the Vikings.

aetheflaed-big-image
Statue of Æthelflæd with her nephew Æthelstan, son of Edward the Elder (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

Aethelflaed was born around AD869 – we don’t know where – and was the eldest child of Alfred the Great of Wessex, and his wife, who was a Mercian princess.

Firstly, how does one pronounce her name? Some say Ethelfled, some say Athelflat. To be honest, I’m not sure, and there are other names in the book which are equally hard to pronounce and pretty difficult on the eye. So I changed a few of them, and gave others nicknames – like my heroine, who is called ‘Teasel’ by those who know her. Why? Ah, that would be telling. And it leads to some confusion early on, when her husband misunderstands…

It’s thought that Aethelflaed spent some of her early years in Mercia. At this time there were essentially four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: two of them, Northumbria and East Anglia, had already been overrun by the Danish Vikings and now those invaders were pushing at the borders of Mercia in the midlands. Mercia could not hold them off, caught as it was in a succession dispute.

Onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere, rode a nobleman called Ethelred, who was determined to re-establish Mercian independence.

Ethelred entered into alliance with Alfred of Wessex who gave him his eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, in marriage, probably around AD887. Although we don’t know the precise age of either of them, it is safe to assume that Ethelred was the elder of the two, by some distance. This cannot be imagined as anything other than a political marriage. Aethelflaed was a ‘peace-weaver’, and this could so easily have been another tale of a woman, married off, and quietly slipping between the pages of the chronicles.

The alliance between Mercia and Wessex held but, from AD902 onwards, Ethelred is no longer mentioned riding out into battle. We don’t know why; he continued to witness charters, so something was stopping him from fighting, but not from leading.

Closeup of Æthelflæd and Athelstan. (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)
Closeup of Æthelflæd and Athelstan (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

AD907 found the Mercians defending Chester from a Viking siege. It was not another lord who took Ethelred’s place, but Aethelflaed who directed proceedings. An Irish chronicle has her fighting back with swarms of bees, which is more than likely  just a tale, but fun nonetheless. The Irish came to regard her as a queen, as did the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh chronicle.

After Ethelred’s death, no new male ruler was appointed. Edward (Aethelflaed’s brother, who was by this time king of Wessex) allowed his sister to retain control of Mercia.

Let’s consider what a unique story this is. In a time of almost perpetual warfare, a country and its neighbouring king were content to allow a woman to lead, even into battle. Whether or not she actually wielded a sword in anger, this is still remarkable. And yet, it was not remarked upon.

There are many stories to be found within Anglo-Saxon history. This was a society which produced the most exquisite artwork – the Lindisfarne Gospels – and the most intricately worked jewelled weaponry – the Staffordshire Hoard – hundreds of years  before the period in which Queen is set, and had a sophisticated system of government. My characters are not the inhabitants of Middle Earth. They are not mystical, magical or mythical, but rather they are medieval.

The Anglo-Saxons were very real, but I still needed to know how they lived. I immersed myself in my Early Medieval world, finding out about looms, textiles, cooking methods, flour production, and I even learned how flammable flour dust can be (a fact which served me well in one particular passage in Queen).

But research isn’t the only thing required: you have to decide where along the historical time-line to begin and end your tale. I decided that I needed to tell Aethelflaed’s whole life story; I think we are all a product of our childhood experiences, tempered by the wisdom gleaned from experiences as an adult, and I felt that we needed to know about her upbringing and the times she’d lived through if we hoped to understand how she came to be famous, and yet, bizarrely, forgotten.

It appears that the Mercians were happy to let a woman lead them, and not even a native one at that, so it must, in part, have been down to her personality.

She was a special woman. So why is she not better known?

I think there are two reasons: in fiction, the Anglo-Saxon age has suffered a little on account of those unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names. In terms of non-fiction, history is written by the victors. No, not the Vikings, but the kingdom of Wessex. Mercia  ran out of kings and, after Aethelflaed’s ‘rule’, a merger was inevitable. Our greatest source of information, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was commissioned by Alfred the Great and written by monks of Wessex. Mercia was never going to get top billing.

But Aethelflaed is remembered fondly by some. There is a statue of her in Tamworth, the ancient Mercian capital, which was re-dedicated in 2013, 1100 years after she fortified the town, and where they still refer to her as “The Lady of the Mercians.”

commemoration
Base of the Æthelflæd statue, erected in 1913 to commemorate her fortification of Tamworth (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

Still, I had to make sure not  to place my modern values on my character; she needed to live and work in her own world. Aethelflaed is a strong-minded woman, yes, but in writing her, I had to keep her firmly rooted in her early medieval environment. She’s a woman in a man’s world, but she’s not what we would recognise as a feminist.

Shortly before her death, delegates from the kingdom of York made an appeal to her for aid against the Norse armies of Ragnall. They had heard, as we do in the book, of her steely determination and single-mindedness.

In AD915 we not only have her location but the exact date – June 19th – when she took an army into Brycheiniog in Wales to avenge the killing of an abbot who was dear to her. And in AD917 she was in charge of the siege which resulted in Derby being returned into English hands. (As one of the ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw, it was strategically and symbolically an important victory.)

But, although she wouldn’t recognise the phrase, there is no gain without pain. Next time, an excerpt, from that siege at Derby…

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with an excerpt from Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen.

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About the author …

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 Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. 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 B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

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.

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Related post: “Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

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The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Interview with Author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians

I am so very excited to announce: Since last week’s installment of “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen,” it has been announced that Annie Whitehead’s second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, has been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion. Another well-deserved honor for this fantastic author! (And I get to add it to her bio below!)

Congratulations, Annie Whitehead!!!

Interview between author Annie Whitehead and

Ethelred, Lord of the Mercians

The author (Annie) and her character (Ethelred, Lord of the ancient kingdom of Mercia) are seated in the great hall at Worcester. He is nursing a gold cup which we assume is filled with wine, while she, having a 21st century palate, has declined to drink, finding Anglo-Saxon wine too sweet for her taste. They are discussing someone whom they both know very well – Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians.

Annie: I suppose the thing that binds us is that we both love and admire her?

Ethelred: I didn’t know her like you knew her, not in the early days. Where did you find out about her character, where did that come from?

Annie: It wasn’t easy. A great deal has been written about her famous father…

Ethelred: My ally, Alfred the Great.

Alfred the Great took back the city with the aid of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (Image courtesy Annie Whitehead)

Annie: Yes, except the historians didn’t see you so much as allies, more that you were subservient to him.

Ethelred: I wasn’t a king.

Annie: Exactly. And Alfred was a king who valued literacy. He commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and much was written in them about him and his reign. Less so about his daughter, and even less about her early life. But I pieced it together – In Asser’s Life of Alfred, it is implied that she grew up away from the Wessex court.

Ethelred: In Mercia. At least until the Vikings came banging on our door.

Annie: I never did find out much about your early life, but I guess that you, being older, had your part to play in fighting off those attackers.

Ethelred: I didn’t make that part easy for you, did I? And you know that I don’t like to talk about those years.

Annie: Aethelflaed’s attitude to you changed when she found out, though, didn’t it?

Ethelred: It brought us closer, yes.

Ethelred pauses. He takes a sip of his drink, and twirls the goblet in his fingers before he continues. The author knows that he is a man of few words, and that this episode is painful to recall. He changes the subject, but not to a happier story.

Ethelred: She loved another. When she wed me, her heart was with him still.

Annie: Yes.

Ethelred: You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?

Annie: I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have been doing my job as a storyteller if I had revealed everything.

Ethelred: You told the readers.

Annie: Yes, but I couldn’t tell you. Would it have made any difference? Would you still have married her?

Ethelred: Yes, I would have married her, I had to. It was a seal on the alliance. In any case, it didn’t take me long to guess. She did not have the maturity to hide her true feelings, not then. But I felt for her – it was difficult for her, I know, to love one and be wed to another. And to be sent away from her home. I admired her courage.

Annie: You were patient, and you taught her well. Surely you will take some credit for that?

Ethelred: I think that she had an enquiring mind. And she lived with a fear, that drove her actions, always. She knew that she had a duty, to her people, and to do whatever it took to keep the invaders away. How was it for you – writing her from a child to a woman? She changed a lot.

Æthelred is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great
Æthelred is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

Annie: You’re avoiding the question. Yes, she grew up. I dug deep, researched thoroughly, and put as many obstacles in her way as I could. I like to think I encouraged her to learn from her mistakes. I had a sense that I knew what sort of person she would be, based on her life experiences and her actions as an adult.

Have you heard that advice about how the time comes to put away childish things? No, of course you haven’t, that was written much after your lifetime. But that’s what she did, you know, she put away her childish notions. And she watched you, very intently. Did you ever feel her scrutiny?

Ethelred: Sometimes I caught her looking at me. I thought it would be wise to stand back, to wait for her to settle down to her new life. At times I despaired, but I had a job to do, and that distracted me. Then, when I was ready to give up hope that she could ever care for me, she came to me, offered me her support. And her love. Although, sometimes, there was doubt…

Annie: How was it for you, having to hand over the reins? You had to give a warrior’s worries to a woman.

Ethelred: Strange question. Ah well, I suppose that to you it was unlikely – yes, she was a woman, but it was the obvious choice to us in Mercia. You see, she had already done her share of fighting; she had fought to win over the people, to make them accept her, and they loved her for never giving up on them. We were a team by that point. She was the right person to lead in my stead. And she still came to me for advice, you know. Even after…

It seems like neither the author nor the character wish to think about the end of that sentence. So the author sits forward and smiles.

Annie: It was nice for me to travel with her from her childhood all the way to when she became, frankly, a tired and grumpy woman who began to lose her patience!

Ethelred: You see? You wouldn’t have got that from a man – she had such inventive ways of dealing with the enemy! I bet you had fun researching those stories?

Annie: I did, as a matter of fact. Those who did write about her furnished me with a lot of anecdotes.

Ethelred: I watched her grow, too. From quite a petulant girl, albeit with justification, to a loving and courageous woman. I can’t believe though that at first you had intended to write my story, rather than hers.

Annie: It’s true though. You were a hard one to track down. Where did you even come from? I think I should leave you to your wine – you probably have an evening of feasting and riddle-solving to look forward to – and I’ll tell the tale of how I met you and your wife in the next part of this series.

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with author Annie Whitehead’s discussion on how she became acquainted with the Mercians and their world. 

Upcoming: My review of Alvar the Kingmaker

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About the author …

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 Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. 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 B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

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.

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The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Book Review: To Be A Queen

To Be A Queen: The Lady of the Mercians

by Annie Whitehead

Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice Award Spring Quarter 2015

Long listed for Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year 2016

and

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

Daughter of Alfred the Great. Sister to Edward the Elder. Joined in marriage with Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Æthelflæd was many things to many people, though today she is little known even by any status she held solely by being related to someone in power, including her much-revered father, who defeated the Vikings in the 878 Battle of Edington and began the drive to unify England into one country. With To Be A Queen, Annie Whitehead tells Æthelflæd’s story—how she distinguishes herself by winning the loyalty of her adopted homeland as Lady of the Mercians and the only woman to lead an Anglo-Saxon army and kingdom—restoring her to the annals of those who fiercely defended freedom for herself and her people.

to-be-a-queenBorn to the West Saxon King Alfred and Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Æthelflæd spent her childhood on the run from Vikings, whose invasions at that time had reached their peak. Her parents were likely married as part of an alliance between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, as she later would be when wed to Æthelred. In childhood, though, she had been sent to be fostered at the Mercian court, where her auntie, Alfred’s sister, had been married to Burgred, also as part of an alliance.

Whitehead opens the novel with a haunting passage depicting the five-year-old Æthelflæd woken by a nightmare, only to realize her serving-woman is stowing all her belongings. She seeks out her auntie, also engaged in frenzied nocturnal packing, and learns she is being sent back to her native Wessex to escape the approaching Vikings, while her uncle and auntie prepare to flee over the sea.

Here Whitehead engages Catheresque symbolism within the child’s understanding of the north, where she once ran through the delicate carpet of bluebells, now being violently ground down by serpent-dragons, once again becoming part of the earth’s design. It is also significant that Burgred’s wife remains nameless, as she herself acknowledges when she presents a hypothetical to the little girl: “What can I tell a five-year-old who will grow up to forget that I ever lived?” Here is born within Æthelflæd’s being the understanding of what it is to be a queen, a legally unattainable or politically unsustainable status, and the ache of lost memory that her auntie has already realized, in all senses of the word.

England at the time of Æthelred (Wikimedia Creative Commons, courtesy philg88) (click image)

Following this our story skips ahead a few years when Æthelflæd is dubbed “Teasel” by her Uncle Wulf, after the plant of the same name. There is more flight from and armed conflict with Vikings, but the narrative settles down significantly, and as the girl grows, we witness her infatuation with a man to whom marriage becomes a lost dream when Alfred marries Teasel to Æthelred (Ethelred), the much older and somewhat distant Lord of the Mercians. Despite her maternal connection to Ethelred’s homeland, the people do not take to Teasel and for quite a while she remains stuck in a cycle of self-pity and determination to bear her misery in order to please her husband and win the affection for her she believes might flower within him.

I was intrigued to read through their first and subsequent evenings together, written without any of the “typical” love scenes readers have come to expect—for better or worse—in historical fiction. Avoiding potential pitfalls of the union between the self-assured man considerately teaching his timid new wife how to engage—and even that of the progressive royal husband immediately spilling state information to his bride, facilitating reader response to include the notion that medieval men aren’t so bad after all—Whitehead chooses instead to develop their relationship over time and via dialogue that reveals her mastery in writing complex characters.

Medieval miniature of Æthelflæd in Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England, 14th century (Provided by author, Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

In one of Whitehead’s finest passages—and this is a difficult choice, given the immense dexterity she wields with words—her characters’ actions, contemplations and dialogue illuminate identity and misunderstanding of it, along with the struggle to communicate effectively. At Ethelred and Teasel’s wedding banquet, the pair are next to each other, but Teasel elects to play “the game” as she sees it, whereby she is “but one of the prizes, a token to be held up and admired … [therefore] she was not surprised to find herself virtually ignored[.]” She asks her husband’s permission to donate leftover food to the poor, admires his responding smile as he acquiesces, and then turns to her mother, a few moments later hearing Ethelred resume his conversation with Alfred. As this is a marriage of alliance, she believes her husband uninterested in affection, thus “free to journey with her thoughts and speak only when spoken to.”

The author then moves readers to observe circumstances from the eyes of Ethelred, a spot where, as a novelist the opposite sex to the character, things could get tricky. However, Whitehead shows once more her ingenuity in being an observer of people as she brilliantly speaks for a man and pulls it off, not only with the amusement of a joke about an ugly princess and gratitude that his own wife is attractive, but also revealing in plausible fashion that he too longs for more than mere beauty: a connection, “[a] warm presence by the fire on a cold night and a companion to talk with was no less than any man’s basic desire.” Ethelred encounters Wulf, who seems to read his mind.

“So, you will take her back to Gloucester and hope she warms to your ways, eh?”

 Ethelred grunted. “It does not seem likely. It was a fitting name that you gave her, for she is, indeed, prickly.” He nodded back towards the hall. “She spoke to me but once in there and that was only to tell me that she was not hungry.”

 Wulf stroked his beard and frowned. “Prickly? I do not …” He slapped his forehead and laughed. “I see, I see. No, you have it wrong. I named her Little Teasel for she would always come to sit upon my lap, and there she would comb my beard for me. And what is another name for a teasel? Wolf’s comb.” Now he was laughing so violently at his own joke that he had to lean forward and rest his hands on his knees. “My friend, you will have to find another reason for her lack of warmth towards you.”

Not long after, Teasel speaks with Alhelm, the man she had loved and hoped to marry, revealing her great unhappiness in all she has lost to make the move to Mercia for her arranged marriage. “It is not what you have lost,[”] he counsels her,”] but what you will not give up which might hinder you in the days to come.”

While admittedly a longer than usual review space given to one segment in a novel, this juxtaposition of perspectives, more deeply demonstrating distinctive awareness and how it affects each individual, bears telling and (hopefully) does justice to what it aims to reflect: Whitehead’s patient combing through of the knotted threads of relationships and illumination of the psychology of communication. That she does it so seamlessly is the first marvel, the next is how she winds the smoothed-out threads in and amongst documented historical reality, what is likely to have been the case, and her own imagination, in itself far reaching and brilliantly colored. Moreover, there are many more marvels to encounter as Teasel’s story continues.

One such is Whitehead’s charming and exquisite application of words: to tell a story, certainly, though it goes far beyond mere employment. We learn of Teasel’s growth and begin to trace the threads of her childhood as they tie together into the adult she becomes. Having spent her childhood running, with the Vikings—as her brother Edward will later complain—defining their lives, she recalls the nightmares and flight of her auntie, who, indeed, she barely remembers. Is this to be her fate, and that of her people? To be overrun by serpentine invaders who mingle with her kin until they are wiped out not only by bloodlines, but also from memory? She contemplates once more the status of queen: her auntie once occupied the spot she now does, as queen, though Teasel herself is a queen in all but name. She thoughtfully considers what it means to be a queen and the importance of the duties, not only the title that goes with it.

Charter S 221, dated 901, of Æthelred and Ætheflæd, rulers of the Mercians (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)
Charter S 221, dated 901, of Æthelred and Ætheflæd, rulers of the Mercians (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

Whitehead’s battle scenes are often drawn for readers by the characters themselves: in discussion and questioning their own and others’ ideas; direct hits and grotesque mistakes; action depicted in a manner that facilitates reader visualization of events as they occur; and her word choice—I remembered once more how it was I fell in love with the art of battle as I lived these scenes, dodging harrowing moments and contemplating “the sparkling clash of metal meeting its own kind.” I heard the ting ting, felt the swoosh of air to the side and my heart raced, as did my eyes, across the pages, in part to escape heated combat and also in my anxiety to see how it all plays out.

The effect of many passages within To Be A Queen also mirrors that one experiences when reading poetry—an awe at how an emotion is expressed or event depicted: few words, often subtle, paired with prose that may seem unlikely yet reverberate. There were many times within when I stopped to re-read passages, even instances of grief, owing to the manner of presentation. It truly is magnificent when a writer can elicit in readers the desire to experience the passage again, especially if it depicts the grievous:

[His] withered chest rose up with a struggle one final time, gasping the air in, rasping it out. The silence that followed was an unwelcome peace for those still breathing and they all gave expression to their grief, filling the air with the sounds of the living.

Knowing how few records still exist regarding Æthelflæd and her time, Whitehead’s dexterity with the smoothing of historical facts, the reconciliation of imagined motives, events, responses and alliances is impressive indeed, and readers drink up the richness of the period detail with a thirst created by the very narrative that quenches it. I do not tend to employ phrases praising authors’ historical research, typically because as a non-historian I cannot verify its veracity. However, upon doing a bit of reading and research of my own on Æthelflæd, it certainly comes out winning. Everything I could find matches all of Whitehead’s possibilities, and that I was moved to do this in itself is a testament to her ability to write characters readers care about. In the end it matters to us that Æthelflæd be brought from the shadows of time, and her rightful place established.

For a very few it was never lost. The historical figure of Æthelflæd is remembered today, though on a more local level, a reality Teasel herself might find stinging as she recalls a long-ago comment made by a woman she has largely forgotten, even while the statement may have instigated her drive to become who she is. As the historian in the author tells Teasel’s story, the artist in her sprinkles imagery through the novel in the form of bluebells, which speak of everlasting love, found in Teasel’s dedication to her people and their future.

These people remember her with gratitude, as did others before them, as a queen, even though the historical Æthelflæd was never officially styled as such. Nevertheless, her devotion to and defense of the Mercians, before and after Æthelred’s death, including up against her own brother, earned it for her. Moreover, even the Irish and Welsh annals refer to her as a “renowned Saxon queen.” And, as the author points out, Æthelred and Æthelflæd also signed charters in their own right. Monarch Æthelflæd may not officially have been but, as Whiteheads’s title points to, her entire life was driven by the strictures and responsibilities of what it means to be a queen.

Thoroughly accessible, To Be A Queen is entertaining, poignant, masterful and a work of art about a remarkable woman readers will never forget, from an author we’ll long to hear from again.

Gold finger ring that belonged to Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia and 's auntie. (Courtesy British Museum) (click image for further details))
Gold finger ring that belonged to Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia and Æthelflæd’s auntie. (Courtesy British Museum) (click image for further details)

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with an interview between the author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians

Upcoming: My review of Alvar the Kingmaker

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About the author …

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 Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. 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.

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, TwitterFacebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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The blogger was supplied with a copy of To Be A Queen in order to provide an honest review. 

Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

On this Friday evening I’m pleased to announce a new feature to the blog: “Image of the Week.” I do confess this is inspired by a book I recently read (more on that in an upcoming post), though ideas for future images might spring from a variety of sources.

I’ve got two motives in mind, one being my desire to immerse myself more in photography, even if at this point it’s on a seriously amateur level. While today’s image is not a photograph from my own hand, it is intriguing in its appearance as well as subject. Also, the reading experiences I have enjoyed with small and independently published authors have been so rewarding because they’ve brought me to far more worlds than I believe I might ever have visited had I not discovered (or been led to) and pursued these novels, and I’d really like to share them and the personages within.

Since we all know this is a great big world and anything at all might capture one’s imagination, it will be inspiring to see what might pop up during any given week.

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Today we have a look at this image of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and later to be known as Lady of the Mercians. Born (c. 870) to the West Saxon King Alfred and a Mercian mother at the height of the Viking raids against England, Æthelflæd spent her childhood on the run from the invaders’ long reach.

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_AbbeyMarried by her father to Æthelred of Mercia, she left her native Wessex for her new court. Upon her husband’s death in 911 she led her adopted land to freedom from years of Danish onslaught. Together with her brother, known to history as Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd understood that defense of England required unifying the land rather than fighting the enemy with smaller armies without cohesive organization. Her plans to defeat the Vikings were cunning and even the Danes recognized her value as a military strategist. Her death was mourned by friend and foe alike.

While I learned a bit about Alfred the Great at school, this era later had the same effect on me as did 1066: I was intimidated by the immense detail and perhaps also the amazing import of it upon later times, including our own.

Having now been persuaded out of my “historical comfort zone,” I began recently to read of Æthelflæd and was absolutely captivated. I’ve always understood that love of freedom and a willingness to fight to the death for it isn’t a modern phenomenon, and earlier instances of it solidifies our fight for it today. It isn’t a fly-by-night concept; we fight for something humans have demanded through history, and won even when far less equipped as we are today. There is admiration, even pride, for what was achieved against the odds.

There also is an innate human desire, nay, need, to know from where we come. This is why societies make record of what happens in their time, who they want those to come to know about. Images, engravings, coins, these and more are created and develop, and individuals continue to make new and different works of art, but also consistently return to the previous, for study as well as expansion. What do we see in these images? What was the artist thinking or how do his techniques mirror the times?

This portrait of Æthelflæd, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220, obviously dates from much later than her lifetime, but a few details might tell us a bit about her status even so many years later. An image found at the British Library’s Online Gallery is accompanied by a caption informing readers that most cartularies have minimal or even no decoration. That this one does makes a statement, and though characterized by its medieval style lacking depth, it nevertheless translates high regard by placing Æthelflæd on a throne and showing her positioned as if issuing directive. Straight backed and regally attired, she is a figure of force even to the modern eye, which on occasion tends to perceive such images as less than serious. There are certainly many more details to be interpreted by eyes more well-versed in art than mine, though my hope is that even this small amount of discussion will spur interest in others about these figures who really are people so like us, and though they lived in such a distant time, they are ours, and we are theirs.

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Sources:

Æthelflæd: Her World: Warring Kingdoms and Viking Raids.” History’s Heroes? East of England Broadband Network, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Johnson, Ben. “Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.” Historic UK. n.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Queens Æthelswitha and Æthelflæd, in the Cartulary and Customs Of Abingdon Abbey.” British Library Online Gallery. The British Library Board, 26 March 2009. Web. 22 July 2016.