Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me tell you a story...
Once upon a time, before the Normans came to England, the land was full of elves, and dragons, and people who cast magic spells from their castles, but who also lived in mud huts and wore shabby brown clothes. They used a lot of bad four-letter words and their culture was so poor that they were said to live in the Dark Ages…
Well, all the best fairy stories begin with ‘once upon a time’ and usually they are not true.
In fact, Anglo-Saxon England was no more mythical and magical than any other era, they had access to high-quality dyes which produced fabrics with incredibly bright hues, (the richest even wore silk) and their weapon and jewellery-making skills were so accomplished that we’re not even quite sure how they did it without power tools (think Sutton Hoo or Staffordshire Hoard).
As for those four-letter words? The bad ones aren’t from that period. They didn’t live in castles, but nor did they live in mud huts. And some of the finest illuminated manuscripts come from that period. Women weren’t viewed as chattels and had many rights - to marry whom they chose, to hold land in their own name - which diminished with the arrival of the Normans.
They had among their number some wonderful characters - Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Lady Godiva, Edmund Ironside, Harold Godwineson…
I was lucky enough, when I was a history undergraduate, to have the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams as my tutor and found myself taking more and more ‘Dark Ages’ and Medieval modules over the three years. The stories of these fascinating characters stayed with me. And when I began writing I wanted to spread the word about these people and to show them inhabiting a world not of monsters and magic spirits, but of culture, politics, war, and yes, a little bit of romance.
My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and she came to rule a kingdom in all but name, successfully holding back the Vikings. I’ve explored her life for fiction and nonfiction and I still consider her somewhat of a paradox. She ruled a country - almost unheard of during this period - but barely got a mention in the sources. Was her story, as some think, deliberately suppressed, or did they not think it especially significant that she was a woman? In the novel, it is her strength of character, and not her gender, that makes her special, and I think that’s not far from the truth.
Another Anglo-Saxon who fascinated me was Ælfhere of Mercia, who got a really bad press in the chronicles for attacking monasteries. I wrote about him for one of my finals papers, and the truth is not that simple. My second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, charts his story and it is, in fact, one of a man who was instrumental in steadying a monarchy rocked by scandal and murder. Yes, he clashed with the Church, but there was a reason for that…
Penda, a seventh-century king of Mercia, was also misrepresented by the chroniclers. He had the temerity to be a pagan at a time when England was converting to Christianity, and to have a few run-ins with the Northumbrian kings, who not only had converted, but had the Venerable Bede to write about them in glowing terms. Again, sitting in lectures and learning about this man, I felt that he was not given a fair hearing, so my novel, Cometh the Hour, attempts to put his side of the story.
There’s so much that hasn’t been said about this period, and the Mercians in particular, that I was thrilled to be given a contract to write the history of that erstwhile kingdom. There were so many larger-than-life characters, and so many of them female, that I realised there was another book crying out to be written. I looked up every reference I could find to named Anglo-Saxon women, and put their stories into my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. All the women you’d expect are in there - Æthelflæd, Lady Godiva, Queen Emma, St Hild - and many that you wouldn’t, including a queen who razed a town to the ground, a queen who tricked a king into giving her land, and a ‘slave’ who ended up as queen of a foreign land…
So, no fairies, but plenty of tales!
Annie's new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is out now.
Her history of Mercia is available for pre-order in paperback
And you can find all her books HERE
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