Hello and welcome one and all to my blog as we forge ahead on the Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. If you have missed the previous stops, you will find them on the banner at the end of this post.
I am very please to be able to present to you a review of Ms Whitehead’s latest book. As an Anglo-Saxonist myself, the topic of the book is very dear to me. I can honestly say that my expectations of reading this book was very much lived up to.
First of all, I must introduce the author to those of you who are not familiar with Annie, or her works. Annie is a competent historian and historical fiction writer who has written three novels based on the lives of certain historical characters and another non-fiction, about Mercia. You can find more about Annie’s books on her website here .
So, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England.
The beauty of this work is it concisely brings together almost everything that was ever believed about the early medieval period – or the Dark Ages, and turns it on its head in the shape of its females. Annie Whitehead certainly does shine a light on the women of this era, not just a light but a huge great spotlight. Although there are many facts that cannot be possibly known about these ladies in detail, such as their character, what they liked, and who they loved, the author picks through the threads and meticulously gives us enough glimpses of their lives for us to feel some empathy and attachment. For example, Queen Edith who preferred to sit at the feet of her husband, Edward the Confessor, or the noble woman searching on a battlefield for the mutilated corpse of her husband, or the girl and her mother found in bed with a young king on his coronation celebration!
We also hear their stories as told through the chroniclers such as Bede:
We have wild tales even about those revered as pious nuns – of escape from hot ovens and down sewers, of women bringing animals and even themselves back to life, all of which seem fantastic, but were told to serve a purpose.
What I enjoy most about these books about the historical female, and with this one in particular, is the finding out that there is a lot more written about these women than previously I believed, especially by the monks in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period who seem to have been fascinated by them. And the weirder the tale, the more interested they were. A lot more seems to have been available than in the mid to later period when the monks seemed to share a dislike of women in power. Take Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and Alfgred the Great’s daughter, for instance, of whom very little was recorded by the West Saxon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, but whose achievements are lauded by Anglo-Norman Chroniclers after the conquest and only elements of the Annals of Æthelflæd are incorporated into the other chronicles.
Another pleasant surprise was that for many years I have been trying to find evidence of how the Anglo-Saxon women would have been able to see their reflections, and there on page 7, we find that a pope sends one of our ladies an ivory comb and a silver mirror to aid her personal care. Imagine how excited I was to find this little fact, as it is often believed that such items were not available to the people of this period as there is little evidence that there was. I am sure however it was a high status possession and not open to women of all classes, but nonetheless I am overjoyed at this snippet of information.
Another interesting observation I was able to gleam how much more interested the church seemed to have placed on women of religious orders rather than their secular counterparts, and it was almost as if a woman was only worthy if she had spent most of her life in chastity, for example Ælfthryth, who married King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and managed to remain a virgin, happier founding monasteries than giving her husband heirs, and became a saint because of her piety and unwillingness to give away her virginity. One wonders though, how much of this was true!
For me, as I turned the pages of this outstanding book, I found the content of the book was wholly satisfying. It covers a range of women in the period as early as the 6th century, and ending with the last prominent Anglo-Saxon women before the Norman invasion. I was pleased to see that several of the women featured were from my period of interest, the 11th century, including Emma of Normandy, Aldith, Queen to both a Welsh and an English king, Edith Godwinson, wife of Edward the Confessor, and Eadgifu the fair, handfastened wife of Harold Godwinson – or Edith Swanneck as she is commonly, though wrongly known as. (Her name seemed to change when the writer of the Waltham Chronicle, some time in the 11th century mistakenly referred to her as Edith, which is not a derivative of Eadgifu which are two different names.)
For a fellow Anglo-Saxonist, this is one of the few books written about women in the period, and it is, for me, a newly-acquired treasure. It truly brings these women to the fore and as one reviewing author emphatically states, it puts the women firmly back in the history where they should be, highlighting their true nature of what it meant to be a noble woman in these times. It describes to us of their existence, their roles, both religiously and secularly, in not just the lives of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sisters and children, but the lives of those who praised, castigated, and wrote about them.
It does not seek to prove the high status of them in comparison to the women of post conquest England, nor does it seek to prove that they were far more powerful than their status allowed them to be. Instead, we are treated to a rare glimpse of the opportunities women were, if in the right place at the right time, gifted with, and their importance in the eyes of those they held power over or from, or with. Their stories are endowed upon us within a variety of themes: roles as mothers, wives and consorts; nuns and abbesses. We also see what gave them their power, such as their bloodlines and the changes that the shifting sands of time wrought upon them, bringing them to and then from exultation to women condemned. And if you are anything like me, your imagination will run wild.
Annie Whitehead is an exemplary historian and writer of history who is not afraid to delve into the past head first to bring us such a jewel in this enchanting and immersing panoramic vision of historical women. It is every bit as fascinating, if not more so, as any other historical tome about the female figure of any particular time zone. The language is not laborious and it flows from one subject to the next seamlessly and what I can conclude from this is that the noble Anglo-Saxon woman was fierce and independent when she wanted to be, gentle and pious when society dictated, steadfast and loyal when needed, and as ambitious as any man of any era.
About Annie Whitehead
I am an historian and author. As an undergraduate I studied under the eminent Anglo-Saxon historian, Ann Williams, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been accepted as a member of the Royal Historical Society. I’m also a member of the HWA (Historical Writers Association).
My passion is for all things Anglo-Saxon, and Mercian in particular. I’ve written three novels set in Mercia, featuring the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, King Edgar, and King Penda, as well as contributing a Mercian story to a fiction anthology about 1066. My non-fiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, was published by Amberley Books in September 2018. My latest non-fiction book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020.
I’m an editor for and contributor to the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog, and a member of the HNS (Historical Novel Society) 2018 Short Story Competition judging panel. The winner of the New Writer non-fiction prize in 2012, and the recipient of two Mail on Sunday Novel-Writing awards, I was also the winner of the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition in 2017.
My first two novels, To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, are set in the later (9th & 10th centuries) Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. My third novel, Cometh the Hour goes back to the seventh century. A follow-up novel is in the planning stages and it’s hoped it will be released sometime in 2021.
In 2016, I collaborated with eight other authors to produce a collection of short stories, re-imagining the event of 1066. 1066 Turned Upside Down is available as an e-book.
And don’t forget you can enjoy all of the other blog stops here below.
Women of Power is published by Pen and Sword Books. Check out their books here