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.