Book Review: “The House of Godwin: The Rise and Fall of an Anglo-Saxon Dynasty” by Michael John Key

52652202When we think of the past, especially those close to a thousand years past our current time, we tend to think about kings and conquerors who transformed the political landscape of certain countries. However, kings and conquerors would be nothing more than mere men if it was not for advisors and allies that stood by their sides or against them. For example, for nearly a century, the men and women of the House of Godwin were at the center of Anglo-Saxon politics and helped or hindered the path of those who wished to sit on the throne of England. The House of Godwin might not be a familiar family for those who are not familiar with Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. Still, Michael John Key takes on the challenge to tell their story in his book, “The House of Godwin: The Rise and Fall of an Anglo-Saxon Dynasty.”

I want to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. I have heard of the House of Godwin, but I only knew about some family members, like Earl Godwin and Harold Godwinson, who would become King Harold II. I wanted to learn more about this family and what kind of influence they held before and after the Norman Conquest.

Key begins by showing his readers how Godwin became Earl Godwin through the reigns of Swein Forkbeard, Edmund the Confessor, and King Cnut. Godwin married a Danish noblewoman named Gytha, and they would go on to have at least eight children, the eldest being a son named Swegn; Swegn was seen as the black sheep of the family and caused quite a few headaches for his father. When Cnut died, Earl Godwin helped navigate the succession squabble to get Harold Harefoot to the throne to become King Harold I.

After Harold I’s death, Godwin decided to take matters into his own hands as he proposed a marriage between Edward the Confessor and his daughter Edith. Under Edward’s reign, we see the rise of the eldest sons of Godwin, Harold, and Tostig, but we also see the Godwinson family in exile. Godwin would win his earldom back, but when news reached him that his eldest son Swegn died, he died soon afterward. Harold would become the head of the family, the chief advisor to Edward the Confessor, and eventually the king’s heir.

Since the events of Edward’s succession and Harold’s reign were the catalyst for the Norman invasion, Key spends a few chapters looking into the events that led to the monumental year of 1066. He also looks at critical battles, especially the Battle of Hastings and how they allowed William the Conqueror to become King of England. Key also examines the relationship between Harold and Tostig, which would help bring the Godwinsons crashing down.

I think Key does a decent job of diving deep into the archives as he tries to find the truth of the 11th century. There were points where it was a bit dry for me, but I did appreciate the charts and maps that he included to help illustrate the wealth and land holdings of the Godwinsons. Overall, I think it was a solid yet complex introduction to the Godwinsons and their legacy. Suppose you want to learn more about Anglo-Saxon England and one of the most influential families of that period in history. In that case, I recommend you read “The House of Godwin: The Rise and Fall of an Anglo-Saxon Dynasty” by Michael John Key.

Book Review: “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom” by Annie Whitehead

38243840._SY475_England’s history is full of daring moves and colorful characters, but it is also very ancient compared to other countries. We often considered the “start” of English history in school as the Norman Conquest in 1066. Nevertheless, this was just a stage in the massive story of the island. We have to consider those who called England their home; those who knew England, not as a unified country, but seven kingdoms known as the heptarchy. The most famous of these seven kingdoms was Wessex, the last kingdom, but their mortal enemy had a rich history of their own. Mercia was a thriving kingdom for hundreds of years, with colorful characters that many people are not familiar with. Annie Whitehead has taken the tales of this forgotten kingdom to the forefront with her book, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom.” 

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. I was looking forward to learning about the Mercians and why their stories are significant in Anglo-Saxon England. My knowledge about this kingdom is minutiae, although I know some famous figures, including Lady Godiva, Penda, and Aethelflaed, from other books written by Whitehead. 

Whitehead begins her journey into this kingdom’s rich history with the story of the 7th-century ruler Penda, the Pagan King of Mercia. His tale of surviving savage battles and making Mercia into a powerhouse set the standard for Mercian kings that would follow. His son and successor, Peada, would bring Christianity to Mercia, and the diocese of Lichfield, which still exists today, would be formed shortly afterward. Mercia was a kingdom that fought for survival against the remaining six realms of the heptarchy, especially against Wessex. Of course, it was not just other Anglo-Saxons that the Mercians were pitted against, as we see the rise of the Vikings with their Great Heathen Army and  Welsh princes fight for control of the isle. 

Mercia’s kings would fall into obscurity as Mercia turned from a kingdom to an earldom with the uniting of the heptarchy into one nation under one king. We know about Mercia’s history through scant details included in annuls and accounts written by men like Henry of Huntingdon and Bede and chronicles like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Whitehead has combed every source to give her readers the most comprehensive history of a realm that has been forgotten over time. The very nature is academic, yet Whitehead tries to engage those armchair historians who might be familiar with characters like Godiva, Aethelbad, and Offa with tales of murder and intrigue. My advice for future readers of this title is to take notes as there is a plethora of information, especially royal genealogy. 

Mercia is a bit out of my comfort zone when it comes to my knowledge of its history, but that just made reading this title even more thrilling. If you want a story of one of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, you should check out, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom” by Annie Whitehead. Whitehead has brought the tales of Mercia to a modern audience in the best way possible.