Writers of Anglo-Saxon literature: Annie Whitehead

Today I’d very much like to welcome fellow Anglo-Saxon nut, Annie Whitehead, (sorry Annie!) to my Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature series. Here she is talking about her beloved Mercia, and the characters that inhabited that world in the not so Dark Ages.

If you’re here reading Paula’s blog, then you probably don’t need to be told how interesting and exciting Anglo-Saxon history is. Despite the epithet, these times weren’t really the Dark Ages. There’s a wealth of documentary and archaeological evidence and an abundance of tales about characters who are too interesting not to write about.

It wasn’t deliberate, but I seem to write almost exclusively about the inhabitants of a particular Anglo-Saxon kingdom: Mercia.

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Map – Heptarchy (image attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:England_green_top.svg)

Why Mercia in particular? Well, I happen to think that some of the most charismatic characters came from there or operated within its borders. More of them anon.

We don’t know precisely where the Mercians came from, or how they ended up where they did, or even what their name means and whether that’s what they called themselves.

Theories abound. Some say they migrated from the eastern settlements, some say there’s no evidence for this. Some think that they were Angles rather than Saxons, and most agree that their name, Myrcne, means the Marcher, or Border, People. So straight away they’re marked out as different; not named for who they were and where they came from – unlike the West Saxons, (Wessex) or the North Folk (Norfolk) – and we’re not even sure which border is being referred to. Was it the border with the Welsh? The Northumbrians? Or even the West Saxons?

It gets even more complicated when we realise that they weren’t even one kingdom, but more like a confederation of states. These smaller kingdoms gradually merged, or got consumed by Mercia proper, but their administrative organisation bore traces of those early kingdoms, and tribal identities remained, even into the eleventh century. (They almost toppled Edward the Confessor, too, but I’ll come back to that.)

At crucial times, their backing of a particular candidate for the throne was pivotal. Athelstan was first declared king in Mercia, and just as well, because he had a little difficulty shoring up his position in Wessex, initially. There was a small amount of trouble from a half-brother who was elected king in Wessex but died just a couple of weeks later, and then another half-brother who was implicated in a rebellion and was put to sea, where he drowned.

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Athelstan with his aunt, Æthelflæd – author’s photo

Later on in the tenth century, a fairly feckless young king, Eadwig, failed to bribe enough noblemen to support him – not for lacking of trying; in his short reign he issued over sixty charters, attempting to buy support in return for land – and the Mercians elected his brother, Edgar, as their king. There were two courts for a while, until Eadwig, like so many before him, died a convenient death at aged just nineteen. Edgar was keen throughout the rest of his reign always carefully to acknowledge the debt he owed to the Mercians and what by then had effectively become the Danelaw, in fact if not in name.

So, for me, they’re a little bit different. A little bit unconventional. And the people who led them were fascinating.

Any history of Mercia has to start off with Penda, the pagan warlord. Official line: he made war on Northumbria for no reason, burning, pillaging and generally behaving in an unsportsmanlike manner. But a chance remark by his sternest critic, the Venerable Bede, informs us that at one point he went to war because the king of Wessex had repudiated his sister. Vicious pagan he may have been, but I’d want him on my side if I ever got ‘dumped’.

At one point, the kingdom of Mercia stretched from the Thames to the Humber. Mercian kings were at various points overlords of most of the smaller kingdoms of the south and east. Their downfall though came in part because of their make-up. Having started out as a confederacy of separate kingdoms, they retained a tribal element and often their ealdormen weren’t elected by the king, but served in government because they were, effectively, tribal chiefs. This meant that an awful lot of successions to the kingship were contested, by rival claimants from various families. This might not have mattered so much had it not been for two things: the coming of the Vikings, and the fact that Wessex started getting its act together and established a strong dynasty of its own, the most famous member of that family being Alfred the Great.

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Æthelflæd (Public Domain image from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

Still, the Mercians remained quite cheerful, putting their weight behind a lady of whom you might have heard: Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred. She was half-Mercian anyway, but her strategic burh-building meant that, in partnership with her brother, the boundaries of the Danelaw were pushed back and important territories regained. Her daughter succeeded her in Mercia for a short while. They weren’t queens, but they were accepted by the Mercians in a way that the West Saxons never accepted women leaders.

Still, after a brief spell as leader, this daughter was removed by Alfred’s son, Edward, and Mercia was governed from then on by Wessex.

They weren’t for giving up their national identity though, as we’ve seen; twice they were instrumental in electing West Saxon kings. And in the eleventh century, their identity was still discrete from Wessex. It doesn’t cast them in a positive light, but when their ealdorman, Eadric Streona, was accused of fleeing the battlefield, it was said that he took with him the men of the Magonsæte, one of the original kingdoms which had made up the Mercian confederacy.

Later in the eleventh century, when politics was dominated by the machinations and ambitions of the family of Earl Godwin, the Mercians had a part to play. When the northerners rebelled against Tostig Godwinson, Mercian brothers Edwin – Earl of Mercia – and Morcar – newly-elected earl of Northumbria – led the northern earls in a deputation which very nearly ended in outright rebellion, causing Harold Godwinson to ride north with all due haste and negotiate with them. It might even have been at this point that he arranged to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar. Not bad work for Mercian brothers who were probably still only teenagers at the time.

When you consider that such lively characters as Offa and Lady Godiva were also Mercians, the question for me isn’t Why Mercia, but Why Not?

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Bio:

Annie is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, chronicles the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and her second, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, Cometh the Hour, charts the life of King Penda. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down. She is the recipient of various awards for her novels and has also won awards for her nonfiction essays. She won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in Sep 2018.

Links:

Website: http://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk

Blog: https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anniewhiteheadauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ALWhitehead63

Paula Says

Thank you so much, Annie, for coming on my blog today. I’ve learned so much about Mercia already! I think the explanation for the name of Mercia being derived from the marches or borders is a good one myself, and quite reasonable. They were bordered on all sides as you say, so perhaps there is some truth in that. Perhaps they were a mixture of Britons, Saxons, and Angles, which could explain why they were never known as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

I agree that the Mercian characters are a fascinating bunch. I wonder how different things might have been had they ended up being the more dominant kingdom instead of Wessex. One of the most interesting things I find was their links with Wales, and how sometimes they were allies and sometimes they were enemies – I noticed you didn’t mention that old rebel, Alfgar, whom i happen to think of as one of the most interesting Mercians of the mid 11th Century apart form Leofric and Godiva, his parents. I’d love to know what it was the recalcitrant son of Godiva blurted out before he could stop himself that got himself exiled on two occasions!

As for Æthelflæd, she is my darling. I love your portrayal of her in your book To Be A Queen . For me she is the kick ass woman of the Dark Ages. If only we knew more about her life, her appearance and her character. Thank goodness that we have authors like yourself who bring these characters to life.

Which leads me to heartily recommend Annie’s books and her recent non-fiction book about MERCIA which currently awaits my hungry little eyes and fingers on my book shelf.

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Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature: Mercedes Rochelle – Researching Godwine

 

I’m giving away my age by admitting this—not to mention the length of time it took to write this book—but my research on this period began before the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Way before. In fact, I began my research in my college years while I was living in St. Louis, MO—a very nice town but far from the libraries I needed. I went to every university library in the city; luckily they were free to all comers. But I could only get so far. If the book I needed wasn’t in the library, I was out of luck. In fact, I didn’t even know what to look for! Imagine, you young ones, not being able to do a search for all available sources. If the book wasn’t in the card catalogue, it might as well not even exist. Even for me, it’s hard to conceive not being able to find what I need, and I went through it.

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New York Public Library Reading Room. Source: Wikipedia

So, like any warm-blooded researcher who didn’t have a family to take care of, I pulled up stakes and moved to New York. The day I discovered the New York Public Library my life changed forever! The wealth of information at my fingertips had just grown exponentially. Merely thumbing through the card catalogue was enough to make my heart palpitate. You couldn’t browse the shelves and had to request books then wait about twenty minutes, but it was worth the effort. I discovered authors I never knew about, and finally got my hands on my first copy of Edward A. Freeman’s “History of the Norman Conquest of England”. I thought I had gone to heaven! In six volumes he wrote about every aspect of Anglo-Saxon England I could possibly think of. (These days Freeman is somewhat out of fashion, but he’s still my go-to when I need to look something up; he has never failed me yet.) Copy machines were available for ten cents a page, but as much as I needed to copy, I’d be better off buying the books—if I could find them. A couple of years after I moved to New York, I took a book-buying trip to England and discovered Hay-on-Wye. A breakthrough! Those were the days (the late ’80s) when old used hardbacks were still easy to find, and I discovered my very own set of Freeman which I gleefully brought home. That was the original basis of all my research.

I wrote two books (at least the first drafts) before a crushing disappointment and my own thin skin caused me to put my manuscripts on the shelf for twenty years. When the time came for me to blow the dust off my copies, everything had changed. Old books were harder to afford, but search engines had come into their own and the world was at my fingertips. What a difference.

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Holy Trinity Church in Bosham, home of the Godwines

This brings me to my hero Godwine. We know he was a commoner; as for his origins, historians have relied on guesswork and the occasional contemporary document. However, Godwine was a common name as well as Wulfnoth (his father), so we can only assume we have the right man when we put the clues together. Freeman gave us a multi-page assessment of Godwine’s origin in an appendix to Vol. 1 with all the permutations. He favored the story I ultimately used, which was derived from the 13th century Knytlinga Saga (The Saga of Cnut’s Descendants), problematic though it was. It wasn’t until many years after I finished my book that I discovered Ian Walker’s “Harold, The Last Anglo-Saxon King”, where the author concluded that Godwine served first Athelstan then Edmund Ironside before he went over to Canute (or Knut, or Cnut). Both historians’ explanations were pretty convoluted (there were two Wulfnoths in question as far as Freeman was concerned; Walker didn’t go there); nonetheless, these were totally different origin stories. It certainly emphasized the difference between pre- and post- internet. Ultimately, had I known about the other version I still might not have changed anything (I love the saga account), though in essence, I’m glad to be spared the decision!

When it came to Godwine’s marriage to Gytha, I had little to work from. We are told that Canute gave her to him in marriage. That’s about it. As we know, women had little say in the matter, but theirs was an unequal match. This was early in Godwine’s career; he may have been an earl by then, but he couldn’t have moved far beyond his common origins at this point. And she was a noble woman; her brother Ulf was a Danish Earl and her father was a chieftain. I can see the potential for stress! On the other hand, they had lots of children together, so there must have been some attraction between them.

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Godwine embraces Edward’s brother Alfred; Alfred is brought before King Harold Harefoot, Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fo. 11v

But more to the point for me: why did Swegn turn out to be such a bad egg? Any why did Godwine support him so loyally despite his transgressions? He was the firstborn; the Godwines were wealthy and powerful; his future was guaranteed. I’m not a believer that people are born evil—especially characters in a novel. Something must have happened to sour his personality. Then it came to me in a flash: why not have Swegn be conceived in this environment of stress and antagonism? If he was born before Godwine and Gytha were reconciled, it’s very possible that she could reject her unwanted child. And so the troubled Swegn grew from bad to worse. I could see that Godwine might feel guilty about his neglected son and would feel the need to make up for his unhappy childhood. Thus, all the pieces fell into place.

Other events required more guesswork. Was Godwine responsible for the death of Alfred the Aetheling, or was he a victim of circumstances? That’s a big question. No one has agreed on his guilt, from contemporary writers to the present. That’s where history ends and speculation begins, and of course the historical novelist gets to call the shots!

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About Mercedes

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Born and raised in St. Louis MO, Mercedes Rochelle graduated with a BA in English Literature from University of Missouri. She learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. Her first four books are historical novels about 11th century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy starting with “A King Under Siege” about Richard II and the first ten years of his reign. Mercedes now lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.

 

The Last Great Saxon Earls series on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B06XP6BGJT
Links:
Blog: http://www.HistoricalBritainBlog.com
Facebook: http://www.MercedesRochelle.net
Webpage: http://www.MercedesRochelle.com
Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/authorRochelle

 

Paula says: 

Thank you so much for coming onto my blog to talk about this very favourite era of mine! As you know Mercedes, I am also a fan of the Godwins, though perhaps more favourable to his son, Harold. But its hard to deny Godwin’s achievements which were pretty formidable when you consider he came from obscurity, though I’m not so sure I would consider him a commoner, he was the son of a thegn who was a king’s naval commander, as I believe, and not the ‘other’ Wulfnoth that Mercedes mentioned. But I guess it depends on what you call a commoner in those days. Thegns made up a broad grouping of middle nobility with some holding vast areas of land and wealth and some only the mere minimum.

I have to say that I totally buy your version of why Swegn was a troubled son. We know today that those raised in non-validating dysfunctional environments often have issues when they are older and I’m sure it was the same back then and throughout history. The terminology ‘black sheep’ has often turned up in throughout the historical narrative. I am slightly on the fence here about theories that have been expressed about Swegn, Cnut and Gytha, but I can also see a possibility that perhaps Gytha and Cnut might have had a relationship before her marriage to Godwin and she might have been pregnant at the time of her wedding to Godwin. Perhaps these ‘rumours’ might have been what Swegn, looking for something to blame his behaviour on, might have jumped on when he put it about that he was not Godwin’s son, but the true son of Cnut, which Gytha had to call for supporters to swear for her before a council of important women to prove her innocence. I’m sure that deeply hurt Gytha. Still, we can only speculate and historical fiction writers are allowed to interpret these long dead people’s actions in order to explain them.

As for the Alfred scenario, my feeling is more in line with Godwin being caught between a rock and a hard place. He was Harefoot’s sworn man, he had to obey orders or he was dead meat himself. I think he had to detain him, was probably going to deliver him to Harefoot, when he was intercepted by his henchmen and had to hand him over. However, we wont really ever know, will we? But as an historical fiction writer, looking at Godwin’s career, he was not known for his ruthless treatment of others. If he was more involved than he’d admitted, it was a one off, most likely. And I can’t see Godwin having anything to do with the blinding of Alfred, that does not seem to have been his style.

Thank you again Mercedes for a very interesting post. I’ve read Mercedes book The Sons of Godwine and recommend it to those interested in this family and period.