Saturday, 22 December 2018

Mercia - Annie Whitehead

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom
Annie Whitehead
Amberley Publishing, 2018

From the publisher:
“Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past.

Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands. 

Historically, the records are in two halves, pre- and post-Viking, in the way they have been preserved. Pre-Viking, virtually all the source material was written by the victims, or perceived victims, of Mercian aggression and expansion. Post-Viking, the surviving documents tend to hail from places which were not sacked or burned by the Northmen, particularly from Wessex, the traditional enemy of Mercia. The inclusion of those records here allows for the exploration of Mercia post-924.

Mercia ceased to be a kingdom when Alfred the Great came to power, but its history did not end there. Examining the roles of the great ealdormen in the anti-monastic reaction of the tenth century, through the treachery of Eadric Streona in the eleventh, and the last, brave young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror, this book shows the important role the Mercians played in the forging of the English nation.”

Annie Whitehead, a member of the Royal Historical Society, specialises in the 'Dark Ages'. She has written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia; “To Be a Queen” (2013) tells the story of Alfred the Great's daughter; “Alvar the Kingmaker” (2016) features Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century;  “Cometh the Hour” (2017), the first of two volumes set in the 7th century telling the story of the Iclingas, the family who ruled Mercia. Annie Whitehead is also a regular contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site; Casting Light upon the Shadow. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley, 2018) is her first full-length nonfiction book.

Whereas there are ample books on Anglo Saxon England, there is a dearth of books on Mercia, with just a handful of popular accounts, including: Ian W Walker - Mercia and the Making of England (Sutton, 2000); Sarah Zaluckyj - Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England (Logaston Press, 2011); John Hunt - Warriors, Warlords and Saints: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia (West Midlands History, 2016); and Chris Peers - Offa and the Mercian Wars: The Rise and Fall of the First Great English Kingdom (Pen & Sword, 2017).

Before Whitehead's latest offering, perhaps the most thorough examination of the Anglo Saxon kingdom was Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (Continuun, 2011), a collection of academic papers edited by Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr.

Owing to the lack of primary source material for pre-918 Mercia, for the Anglo Saxon period most books tend to focus on Wessex using the primary text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the so-called ‘A’ text, written in Winchester and detailing Alfred the Great’s defence against the Viking onslaught.

Mercia added to versions of the Chronicle that were continued in the Midlands but most of what has survived on Mercia was written by its enemies, such as The Venerable Bede, in his record of the ‘Golden Age’ of Northumbria. And of course Welsh poetry writes of many conflicts with their English enemy. Today the kingdom is probably best remembered for the earthwork separating it from Wales, the dyke said the have been constructed by King Offa.

As Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr write in their introduction:

“There is a mystique associated with Mercia which is almost semimythical and of the sort which often surrounds lost kingdoms. Unlike the other major Anglo-Saxon successor states, there is little recollection of this former contender within the current regional topography of England.”

“The Mercian heartland has been largely overtaken by the visible legacy of the Industrial Revolution and King Offa has come to occupy a role in popular imagination as a shadowy warlord, notorious for his brutality and attributed with the construction of an enigmatic earthwork, Offa's Dyke, which, like its Roman precursor, Hadrian's Wall, is chiefly famed for the popular footpath which follows it.”

In Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom Whitehead attempts to redress the balance and write a history of the Midland kingdom.

Mercians Arise
Some historians see the kingdom of Mercia as starting with the shadowy Creoda, but he is never given the title of king and owing to the lack of source material his very existence is doubted by many. Whitehead commences her story with the emergence of the mysterious Penda, the pagan king responsible for the death of the kings of several rival Anglo Saxon Kingdoms, particularly as a result from the wars with Northumbria. The author discusses the origins of Mercia and the meaning of the name from the Old English ‘Mierce’; to the Northumbrians these were the people south of the Humber.

Mercia was one of the great seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, alongside East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. Based around the Royal palace at Tamworth and its homeland around the upper Trent, Mercia went through rapid expansion from the foundations laid by Penda in the 7th century, through the reigns of Wulfhere, Aethelred and Aethelbald to become the dominant Anglo Saxon kingdom under Offa, a prince from the Hwicce, who took Mercia to its greatest achievements in the 9th century.

The historian Frank Stenton termed this period the ‘Mercian Supremacy’, between 600 AD and 900 AD, when the kingdom went on to dominate the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy and effectively achieved the unification of England south of the Humber.

The Fall
Whitehead then charts the decline of Mercia from its golden age under Offa to its last independent king Burgred who was driven from the kingdom in 874 by the Great Heathen Army who had pillaged the kingdom and burnt the Royal palace at Tamworth. The Vikings installed Ceolwulf II as a puppet king over Eastern Mercia while in the West, English Mercia, Æthelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians emerged as ruler. Æthelred recognised Alfred of Wessex as his overlord and cemented the alliance by marrying his daughter Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. After Æthelred’s death in 911, Æthelflaed ruled the kingdom alone.

But where most commentators see an independent Mercian kingdom ending with King Edward’s deposition of Æthelflaed’s daughter Ælfwynn in 918, Whitehead takes the story up to 1071 and the last ditch attempts by the men of Mercia to reverse the outcome of the battle of Hastings and the young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror.


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