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.

Book Review: “Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England” by Annie Whitehead

51256446 (1)When one studies English history, many people tend to focus on the year 1066 with William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest as a starting point. However, just like any great civilization, others formed the foundation of English history; they were known as the Anglo-Saxons. What we know about the Anglo-Saxons come from the records of the kings of the different kingdoms of England, which paints a picture of harsh and tumultuous times with power-struggles. However, every strong king and gentleman of the time knew that to succeed, they needed a woman that was equally strong with a bloodline that would make them untouchable. The stories of these women who helped define this era of Anglo-Saxon rulers in England have long been hidden, until now. In her latest book, “Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England”, Annie Whitehead dives deep into the archives to shed some light on the stories of the formidable women who defined an era.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I was not familiar with this period so I thought this would be a good book to dive into. This is the first book that I have read that was written by Annie Whitehead and I was thoroughly impressed with her passion for this subject.

Whitehead begins her book by explaining the rights that women had and how they could accept or deny a marriage, which seems like they had more rights than medieval women who I normally study. These women were queens, princesses, saints, regents, abbesses, a former slave, and some were accused of murder. To understand the significance of every woman, Whitehead organized her book not only in chronological order (covering several centuries worth of stories) but by the kingdoms which they called home. They had to deal with fluid family dynamics, dramatic dynastic feuds, vicious Vikings and other invaders, and monastic reform. To read most of these tales for the first time was invigorating and truly changed what I thought the lives of women were like during Anglo-Saxon England. Myths and legends circulated figures, such as Lady Godiva and Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, but Whitehead has taken the time to separate fact from fiction.

If I did have a concern with this book it would be that I did get a bit confused with family connections. The family trees at the beginning of each chapter did help a bit, but when different men and women from the same family shared the same name, it was a challenge to tell them apart. Although I did take a copious amount of notes, I did find myself rereading passages so that I could figure out the significance of the person that Whitehead was discussing in certain passages.

I think this book is intriguing as it explores women who have stood in the shadows for centuries. Whitehead’s passion and her elegant writing style bring these Anglo-Saxon women to life. I would say that if you are familiar with this time period, you might understand the significant figures and events a bit better than someone who is a novice in this era. If you want to learn more about Anglo-Saxon women, I would suggest you read, “Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England” by Annie Whitehead.

“Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England” by Annie Whitehead will be available in the United States starting on September 16th.

Book Review: “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest” by Sharon Bennett Connolly

51uoBkbUhLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_There are quite a few events that one can name that radically shaped the course of British history. None more so than the events of 1066, the year that saw Norman, Breton, Flemish, and French forces, led by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded England in what we know today as the Norman Conquest. Most history books tend to focus on the men who lived before, during, and after the Norman Conquest: Aethelred the Unready, Edward the Confessor, Cnut, Harold II, Harald Hardrada, and of course William the Conqueror just to name a few. What the history books tend to gloss over is the strong women who stood by their husbands, brothers, and sons during this conflict. Who were these women? What were their stories? How did they help their families before, during and after 1066? These questions are answered in Sharon Bennett Connolly’s delightful book, “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest”.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing and Sharon Bennett Connolly for sending me a copy of this book. It has been a long time since I personally studied the Norman Conquest, so I found it rather enjoyable to read about a subject that I really don’t know a lot about.

Connolly explains in her introduction why she wrote this particular book about these extraordinary women:

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II, to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, we will trace the fortunes of the women who had a role to play before, during and after the momentous year of 1066. Throughout these tumultuous times, women played a prominent part, in support of their husbands, their sons and of their people, be they English, Norman, Danish or Norwegian. Their contributions were so much more than a supporting role, and it is time that their stories were told, and the influence they had on events, was examined in detail. …My intention is to tell the story of the Norman Conquest, while providing the women with a platform for their stories, from the dawn of the eleventh century to its close. (Connolly, 13-14).

The story of the Norman Conquest does not start or end in 1066; 1066 is the climax of the story, which is why Connolly explores women from before, during and after 1066. Women like Lady Godiva, whose story many people think they know, but the story of her infamous ride is more fictitious than fact. Emma of Normandy, the wife of both Aethelred the Unready and King Cnut,  who used her political influence to protect her sons. Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, who helped her husband as regent of Normandy while he was in England. St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, who helped reform Scotland and bring it into the Roman Catholic faith. Edith, Gytha and the wives of Harald Hardrada who followed their husbands into the battlefield. 

These are just a handful of the stories Connolly explores in this wonderful book. Connolly has meticulously researched the men and women who were all part of the events that led to and after the Norman Conquest. I took ample amounts of notes on this particular book, which to me was rather enjoyable. Connolly makes the rather daunting subject of the Norman Conquest and makes it so even a novice on the subject can understand it. If you are interested in the Norman Conquest, especially about the women during this time, I highly recommend you read, “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest” by Sharon Bennett Connolly.