Mastodon The Writing Desk: Book Review: Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, by Annie Whitehead

29 August 2018

Book Review: Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, by Annie Whitehead

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

I admit to knowing little about Mercia until I read this much-needed new book from Annie Whitehead. I don't think I'd have liked to be King of Mercia. If you weren't misrepresented by later chroniclers, you might be murdered by your own subjects or join the list of forgotten kings. 

It must have been like putting together a jigsaw puzzle while knowing several pieces were missing, yet Annie does some clever detective work to provide us with what I suspect is one of the clearest pictures of the Mercian kingdom so far.

Drawing from a wide range of sources, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and  Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, we are taken through the complex and sometimes obscure world of a kingdom which has had a profound impact on English history, yet few people are aware of.

I particularly liked learning about the 'elusive' King Æthelbald of Mercia. I previously thought Æthelbald was King of Wessex - but confusingly, this is another (arguably more important) king of the same name. It seems I am not alone, as Annie Whitehead describes Æthelbald of Mercia as. 'one of the most successful kings of whom few people have heard'.

This Æthelbald was ahead of his time in trying to control the vast wealth and lands of the monasteries. Assassinated in 757 by his own bodyguards, Æthelbald failed in the one duty of a king, to have a wife to give him an heir (although he was accused of fornicating with nuns). Offa, grandson of Æthelbald's cousin Eanwulf, seized the throne and then I was on more familiar ground, although I now realise I why I know little of the details of King Offa's life. 

Annie Whitehead notes that, 'Resserching Offa it is hard to get a sense of the man. It is as if reading a novel where the main character is other talked about by other characters and we don't really see him in action.' This problem seems to apply to all the Mercian kings, yet this book will change your thinking about the kingdom of Mercia. Scholarly and readable, I'm happy to recommend it.

Tony Riches
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About the Author

Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and in October 2017 she won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and To Be A Queen was voted finalist in its category in the IAN (Independent Author Network) Book of the Year 2017. Find out more at Annie's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @AnnieWHistory

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