Stepping Back into Saxon England: Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?

I am so pleased to have been asked to host a stop within the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour from authors Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick. Anglo-Saxon England is a fascinating place to explore, and there is never a shortage of amazing figures, events – even understandings –  to discover and wonder about.

Today Annie Whitehead focuses on Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, a mysterious individual who seemingly comes from nowhere to occupy a powerful position and secure his place in history.

Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
by Annie Whitehead

My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, whose life was extraordinary. Only one other woman in Anglo-Saxon times ruled a kingdom, and she was ousted after a year at best. So to have led a country in times of war for nearly twenty years, Æthelflæd must have been an incredible woman.

Statue of Æthelflæd, erected in 1913 to commemorate her fortification of Tamworth. She is shown with her nephew, Æthelstan.

Her husband, though, was equally interesting. And the fascinating thing is that although he was a crucial ally for Alfred the Great, no one knows for sure where he came from or how he came to be in a position of such great power. Between them this couple fired my imagination.

So who was Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians? Certainly he was someone very different from the man portrayed in The Last Kingdom. For a start, he wasn’t a king. So where did he come from, and how did he get to be ruler of a kingdom?

Tracking down pre-Conquest people isn’t easy, and we rely heavily on the charter witness lists. If an authentic record exists of a certain land grant, then we can look at the witness lists to see who was there at that particular meeting. And since the names go in strict pecking order, it’s possible to see folks – men, usually – rising up through the ranks over the years until they reach the top slot. So it should be easy enough to check Æthelred of Mercia’s progress up to the point where he became Lord of all Mercia, right? Actually, no. He simply cannot be identified on any charters.

It’s thought that he might have been associated with the Hwicce, a people whose territory sat mainly in modern-day Gloucestershire. We first hear about them from an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the record for 628, when the king of Mercia fought the West Saxons and it’s assumed that at this point the area around Cirencester, that of the Hwicce, came under Mercian control. Whether it had hitherto been independent, or whether it just swapped one overlord for another, is hard to tell. But the Hwicce had their own kings and we know that the royal line continued into the 780s. 

It’s not certain where the name itself came from, although there might be links to the landscape around the valley between the Cotswold and Malvern Hills, and a ninth-century charter refers to woodland in the west of the region called Wychwood Forest (Huiccedwudu). They were described by one chronicler as ‘the people who live beyond the River Severn towards the west.’

So we know where they were, but can we ascertain who they were? Bede tells us that they had their own bishopric, so even if they were subordinate to, or dependent on the support of, the Mercians, they clearly had their own territory, their own diocese and their own royal house.  

We know the names of several of their kings and one, Osric, ruled in the 670s but, while in a charter relating to him he is called rex, he is acting with the consent of the king of Mercia, so already there is a sign of subjugation. Osric is associated with the founding of Gloucester Cathedral, although in those days the foundation would have been an abbey. In the eighth century, a leader of the Hwicce attested a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia only as a subregulus. Although Æthelbald referred to the ‘not ignoble royal stock of the Hwiccian people’ it is clear that by his reign (716–757) the rulers of the Hwicce were no longer kings, but subkings of Mercia. 

Their status further diminished to that of nobleman, and in the very beginning of the ninth century we hear of an ealdorman of the Hwicce, Æthelmund, who was killed attacking the people of Wiltshire at Kempsford in 802. Æthelmund was described by King Ecgfrith of Mercia merely as a faithful princeps.

The name did not die out though. 

A charter of King Edgar’s dated 969 demonstrates an awareness of the distinction between Mercia proper and the territory of the Hwicce, and between 994 and 998 King Æthelred the ‘Unready’ had only five ealdormen witnessing his charters, and one was Leofwine of the Hwicce, although it’s likely that given the small number of ealdormen at this time, Leofwine was responsible for the whole of Mercia.

Let us go back, though, to the incident in 802 when Æthelmund ‘rode from the province of the Hwiccians across the border at Kempsford.’ He was met by an ealdorman of Wiltshire and a ‘great battle’ ensued. Why were two ealdormen fighting? Well, it coincided with the death of the king of Wessex, and may offer a glimpse of the kind of turmoil which could occur around a succession, with loyal armed men ready to defend the status quo, or perhaps even to take advantage of the uncertainty.

In Wessex, ealdormen were appointed by the king, and not necessarily given titles over their local area. In Mercia, which grew up out of a federation of various tribes such as the Hwicce, the political set up was different and it seems that the ealdormen were the chiefs, or members of the erstwhile royal families of these smaller subkingdoms. Looking over the Mercian regnal lists, we can see that sons hardly ever succeeded fathers, and if they did, they often didn’t survive for very long.

And by the height of the Viking raids, when Wessex badly needed allies, Mercia had pretty much run out of kings. Alfred’s sister was married to a Mercian king, but he had fled when the Vikings overran part of Mercia and his rival and successor had a short reign. So, seemingly out of nowhere, a man named Æthelred, with no previous record of government and no royal links, is suddenly the man to go to for an alliance and, oh, he’s deemed worthy of marrying Alfred’s firstborn daughter, too. 

Historian Barbara Yorke has suggested that he was, in fact, descended from that ealdorman who rode out at Kempsford in 802. If so, it’s likely that he was therefore one of those ‘tribal’ leaders who formed part of the witan as ealdormen. It doesn’t explain his absence from the records up to this point though, nor how he came to be leader of a kingdom. But he must have been a man of exceptional qualities to have been elected. He’s mentioned by name in the records as part of the campaign against the Vikings, fighting alongside Alfred and Alfred’s son Edward. 

Æthelred is a figure not soon forgotten.

For these reasons, I suspect that he was a lot older than his wife. He had proven himself militarily and must have had a track record for the Mercians to have elected him as leader. Some think he was Alfred’s puppet, but I think not.

In my novel, I gave him boundless energy, with a mantra of ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, but also moments of self-doubt. He was a clever strategist, giving (if we believe the Irish annals) his wife clear and detailed instructions about how to oust the Vikings from Chester, and happy to work in concert with her at a time when women, though they perhaps had more freedoms than their later medieval counterparts, still were not considered strong enough to rule. 

Deerhurst is a tiny place in the heart of the Hwicce homelands, and there is a church, St Mary’s, which retains much of its Anglo-Saxon architecture. It’s still in use, so has seen well over a thousand years of continuous worship. I set a couple of scenes there, knowing that it would have been a spiritual centre for Æthelred and when I visited, I got a real sense of the past, sitting quietly on my own knowing that there was every likelihood that my characters had actually been in the same building. If Æthelred really was associated with the Hwicce then he’d have rightly been fond of this lovely church. Whoever he was, wherever he came from, I think he was a canny military leader, and a good husband. A perfect partner for the Lady of the Mercians.

About Annie Whitehead

Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month

As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.

Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.

Connect with Annie at ~
Amazon
Casting Light Upon the Shadow
Twitter
Annie Whitehead 
Facebook 

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

“Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past. Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands…”  …but there is now!
Available in paperback from 15th October or pre-order now!

Follow the tour:
joint venture with 
Annie Whitehead
and
Helen Hollick

1st October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Helen Hollick
Lady Godiva – Who Was She, and Did She Really?
Let Us Talk Of Many Things

2nd October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Nicola Cornick
Why Do We Do It?
Word Wenches

3rd October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Lisl Zlitni
Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
Before the Second Sleep

4th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Tony Riches
Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?
The Writing Desk

5th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Pam Lecky
Murder in Saxon England
Pam Lecky

6th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Derek Birks
King Arthur? From Roman Britain To Saxon England
Dodging Arrows

7th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson
Æthelflæd’s Daughter 
Samantha Wilcoxson

8th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Cryssa Bazos
An Anthology Of Authors
Cryssa Bazos

9th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Elizabeth St John 
Anglo-Saxon Family Connections
Elizabeth St. John

10th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Judith Arnopp
Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.
Judith Arnopp

11th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Brook Allen
Roman Remains – Did the Saxons Use Them?
Brook’s Scroll

12th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Amy Maroney
Emma Of Normandy, Queen Of Anglo-Saxon England – Twice
Amy Maroney

13th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Simon Turney
Penda: Fictional and Historical ‘Hero’ 
Books & More

14th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Annie Whitehead
The Battle Begins…
Reads Writes Reviews

15th October: A joint post hosted by both of us
Annie – Casting Light Upon The Shadow
and 
Helen – Let Us Talk Of Many Things

We hope you will enjoy
Stepping Back Into Saxon England’ with us!

All images courtesy Annie Whitehead

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, 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.