Shortlisted for Book of the Month
8th - 11th Centuries
Not that anyone will, but I do hope no one ever asks me to write a serious factual history book. The research involved must be phenomenal. Continuously checking and cross checking the sources, the difficulties of conflicting 'evidence' and how much can a known spurious source be relied upon? Not to mention indexing or going to some remote place to photograph a field that was once important but few people today are aware of its existence, let alone its significance.
These will have been just some of the difficulties that Annie Whitehead must have experienced whilst compiling a much needed history of one of our greater Dark Age kingdoms. Just why there are few histories of Mercia is quite simple; there is little written that could be termed 'contemporary' and many documents still extant were written by 'enemies' of Mercia, most notably Mr Bede, of whom every school child knows. Sorting wheat from chaff, however, is the lot of the historian – and make no mistake that for all her fame as a writer of historical fiction, Annie Whitehead is a genuine historian – and the author manages to present the evidence with no hint of bias and without reaching conclusions to suit any personal theories.
Beginning in the 7th Century with Penda, Ms Whitehead takes us through the major and minor kings of Mercia as well as just how and when Mercia ceased to become a kingdom but slipped into being 'just' an earldordom. Thus we are able to meet the great king Offa, Æthelred and Æthelflæd ('The Lady of the Mercians') and through to the notorious Eadric Streona and the last Mercian earls, Leofric and Edwin. The subtitle is The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and in this telling we can see quite clearly how this is appropriate to Mercia. The might of Penda challenged the territories around and he expanded the Mercian borders; Offa took the kingdom to its greatest heights but then it began to founder with the emergence of Alfred and Wessex. It is perhaps ironic that Mercia was forged in war yet split apart by peace and marriage before the final coup de grace delivered by the Normans.
The prose is quite readable and, more to the point, fascinatingly interesting. History books can be 'stuffy' or hard to follow, but I did not find this here. The arguments are presented based on what is known or surmised and, where the source (William of Malmesbury or Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example) is known to be questionable, an informed examination and comparison with other sources follows.
This is a book that should be on many bookshelves both domestic and public. Libraries in the areas once part of this ancient kingdom should be falling over themselves to get hold of a copy, and students of this time of English history will welcome the straightforward and honest approach that the author gives.
© Richard Tearle
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