Where Were You When…? – Remembering 1066

Nearly 1,000 years have passed ….

In October 2016 I began a series of posts in memory of 1066, arguably the most important year in the history of England. Interestingly enough, while I enjoyed history, this era was not always my favored, as it once seemed so complicated and intimidating; my memories of studying it in school were filled with details I didn’t really understand, or there were so many layered on top of each other they seemed to crush me.

Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf persuaded me out of my comfort zone, the Wars of the Roses period, and when I began to see the era as populated by people rather than a series of dates (as I was able for the fifteenth century), plus the greater significance of exactly what had happened–what I only partially appreciated during my school years–I was hooked.

A couple of years after, I read Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen, which was poetry in prose and simply unforgettable. Whitehead’s examination of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, indeed the Lady herself, impressed upon me our great heritage of language, literature, spirituality and yearning for freedom–plus the willingness to fight for it. While I certainly admire other historical figures and groups, the Anglo-Saxons have to greater effect shown me the importance of remembering, thus this series for them and the freedom they fought to keep for us. Unfortunately, they did lose the most important battle and the end of their era arrived, but their legacy lives on.

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Today, five years since this series, we once again mark another anniversary of Hastings, so soon after Stamford and the great hope that Harold Godwinson would drive the invading Normans from English shores. Alas, it was not to be, and the years that followed birthed more stories and writings than most modern people have ever heard of, though it’s always a good time to look into our past: where we came from, who influenced us and, indeed, the invaders. Below are just a few pieces/works for or about this dramatic period that changed the course of history, and you can also find articles about Harold Godwinson and other 1066-related topics at Murray and Blue.

hastings
By image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Sons of the Wolf (Updated) (October 14, 2016)  Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 14, 2016) Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: Sons of the Wolf (November 5, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “Senlac Ridge” (Ian David Churchward) (November 12, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: The Wolf Banner (November 20, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “One Crown, Four Claimants” (G.K. Holloway) (November 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Poet Post: “Prayer to Woden” (Rob Bayliss) (November 26, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: The Wolf Banner (December 11, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Marching Toward 1066 (Annie Whitehead) (December 19, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (December 25, 2016)

950 Intermission: Recording History in Film (December 31, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Bastard of Normandy v. the Golden Warrior (Paula Lofting) (January 16, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Alvar the Kingmaker (January 23, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Between Two Worlds (Annie Whitehead) (January 28, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss) (February 9, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview: Paula Lofting (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner) (April 1, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Price of Love and Loyalty (Annie Whitehead) (May 13, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview (Glynn Holloway) (September 25, 2017) Anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, September 25, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Secrets Through a Tapestry of Time (October 14, 2017) Final installment, marking the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

#iHeartAngloSaxons

Another series that may be of interest,

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen

Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (Blog that led to the series) (July 22, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Book Review: To Be A Queen (September 13, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Interview with Author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (September 20, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Guest Post: Invitation to the Past (September 27, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Excerpt: To Be A Queen (October 4, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Cover Crush: To Be A Queen (October 11, 2016)

#iHeartAngloSaxons

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

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Marching Toward 1066 (Annie Whitehead)

Today author Annie Whitehead joins us with some fascinating background into the kingdom of Mercia, following the eras in which she writes, those of King Alfred the Great and its succeeding generations with Æthelred and Æthelflæd (Lord Ethelred and Lady Aethelfaed), and Edgar, all of whom appear in her award-winning novels, To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker. Earls Edwin and Morcar, too, spoken of below, are the focus in “A Matter of Trust,” the author’s contribution to 1066: Turned Upside Down. Though even the latest of her characters lived a century before the Conquest, Whitehead succinctly illustrates the interconnectedness of their lives to the drama and horror of the invasion and its aftermath.

In so doing they connect to us, we who look back upon those who conquered and those subject to the calamity and tragedy of these events that had their roots in episodes long before the arrival of the year 1066. As we  peer back into history, we wonder what they saw when they did the same, these individuals and groups simultaneously forced to stare into the future within events of their present. We know a bit of what they did, though of course they knew much more, most of which has been lost to us, or buried as it awaits re-discovery and the brushing off of earth, of questions triggered by connections here too, between what is known and that newly found. Today Annie Whitehead connects for us many of these puzzle pieces into a broader image that brings greater understanding of how the inhabitants of 1066, how their history mattered to them, and their personal experiences matter to us.

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Marching Toward 1066 by Annie Whitehead

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_Abbey
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, as depicted in the chartulary of Abingdon Abbey (British Library, Online Gallery) (click image)

Mercia. Once a kingdom, now a distant memory, preserved only in certain names: The West Mercia Police, the West Mercia Primary Healthcare Trust, and although it is now slowly dying out, the dialect of the ‘Black Country’, which is based on the old Mercian language, and is widely regarded to be as close to Old English as it is now possible to get.

At its peak, it was ruled by such famous people as Offa, who was considered an equal to the Emperor Charlemagne. As readers of To Be A Queen will know, it was indispensable during Alfred the Great’s battles against the Viking invaders, when first the Lord Ethelred and then his wife, Aetheflaed, daughter of Alfred, fought the invaders, and built strategically important ‘burhs (fortified towns).

But yes, sadly they were Lord and Lady of the Mercians. Mercia had run out of kings.

It emerged, briefly, as a significant force during the middle part of the tenth century. A succession of West Saxon (Wessex) kings had died young and/or childless. In 955, when King Eadred died, the throne passed to the eldest of his two young nephews, sons of the previous king.

The first of these boys was Eadwig (Edwy) who started off his reign by rocking the nation with a scandal, having been allegedly caught in flagrante delicto on his coronation night with his wife. And her mother! For many reasons he was not a popular king, and his younger brother, who had grown up in the house of the powerful earl of East Anglia, hankered for a kingdom.

new_minster_charter_966_detail_edgar-copy
Detail of miniature from the New Minster Charter, 966, showing King Edgar (Wikimedia) (click image to see the king flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. Peter)

This younger brother was Edgar, and at around the age of 14, he rose up in rebellion against his brother. He had the backing of the East Anglians, and now he needed the help of the Mercians and the Northumbrians. Much as the Lord and Lady of the Mercians had fought them off, inevitably some of those invading Vikings had stayed, and settled in these midland and northern kingdoms. Edgar was canny, enlisting their support and allowing them to live according to their own laws. For two years there were two separate kingdoms, until Eadwig died suddenly, aged 19, and Edgar became king of all England. Mercia was once more relegated to being simply an earldom, albeit a powerful one. At one point Edgar made direct reference in a law code to his three leading earls, and Alvar was one of those men. Mercia and the north maintained a sense of separateness from the south, a partisan sentiment that was to mar relations even as far as 1066.

Mercians made their mark on history after the period which I wrote about in Alvar the Kingmaker. Most people have probably heard about Lady Godiva, for example. Perhaps less so the rest of her family, who found themselves, 100 years after the time of Edgar and Alvar, in direct conflict with the powerful Godwin family. Godiva’s son, Aelfgar, was twice driven into exile because of them, and Aelfgar’s daughter was widowed when Harold Godwinson caused the death of her Welsh husband. When Aelfgar’s sons, Edwin and Morcar, became earls respectively of Mercia and Northumbria, the family was in the ascendant.

“Here sits Harold King of the English” Scene 37 from the Bayeux Tapestry (Wikimedia) (click image)

In 1066 Harold Godwinson felt it necessary to ride north and ask for their support for his kingship, even taking their sister, the woman he had widowed, as his wife. Edwin and Morcar were, seemingly, unassailable.

But they lost the battle at Fulford, just outside York, when they were overpowered by the forces of Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, and got to the south too late to enjoin with Harold at Hastings. And so they needed to make their peace with a certain William of Normandy.

Was it so easy? Were they really willing to capitulate to the Conqueror?

Apparently not.

In 1068 a series of rebellions began, of which Edwin and Morcar were leading members. William had not managed to assert his royal authority in Mercia and Northumbria and it took a royal campaign into Mercia to secure a surrender. The brothers were restored to favour. But the events of 1068 were merely a ‘prologue’.

In January 1069, a Flemish appointee of William’s, Robert of Comines, was murdered in Durham, along with perhaps as many as 900 of his men. English exiles at the Scottish court came south and attacked York. William also had to deal with rebellions breaking out in other parts of the country – in Staffordshire and Shropshire in Mercia, the outlaw Eadric the Wild, along with Welsh allies and men from Chester, attacked Shrewsbury. Similar attacks in the north, and in the southwest, meant that the Norman hold on England was being severely tested. Severely, but not successfully. York was recovered, and it seems that Edwin came to an ignominious end; having played no active part in the great uprising, Edwin nevertheless fled from the court and was betrayed by his own retainers whilst trying to make his way to Scotland. (An interesting side note for me is that Edwin’s lands in his brother’s Northumbrian earldom were given to Alain Le Roux in 1071, and the district was renamed Richmondshire. Alain is said to be my family’s ancestor.)

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Duke William, and Count Robert of Mortain (Wikimedia) (click image)

Eadric the Wild was pardoned, and Morcar retreated, along with that famous man from folklore, Hereward the Wake. But Morcar fared less well than Hereward. William launched a campaign into the Fens and Morcar surrendered. He was incarcerated in Normandy, and it’s likely that he died in prison.

The brutal putting down of the English rebels came to be known as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North. And that was the end of Mercia.

Of course, the place itself still exists – and is rich in historical sites. Little survives of the Anglo-Saxon era, but in this it is no different from anywhere else. The Saxons favoured wooden buildings, which don’t survive. These days the medieval ruins are of the stone buildings of the conquest, built to intimidate.

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Click here for 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 been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.

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 recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker are both B.R.A.G. Medallion recipients, with Queen claiming the additional prize of Chill With a Book Award, and appearing on the long list for Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year, 2016.

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, 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.