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Penda: Fictional and Historical ‘Hero’ – A guest post from Annie Whitehead

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A fabulous treat for you today, as two great authors delve into the world of Anglo-Saxon England with their latest works, and the wonderful Annie Whitehead has agreed to guest post here as part of their blog tour. Annie is a writer with a focus on, and a tremendous knowledge of ‘Dark Age’ Britain. I’ll be back here next week with something of my own, but I leave you in very capable hands now.

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I’m delighted to be on Simon’s blog today, as part of the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour with Helen Hollick.

When I was an undergraduate, studying all periods of history but choosing more and more to focus on pre-Conquest England, I ‘met’ many historical figures whose stories – I felt – were perfect for historical fiction; Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians was an obvious one, but there was another who, at first glance, might seem a surprising choice.

Penda of Mercia was, apparently, a vicious pagan marauder who attacked his enemies for no reason and was generally a thoroughly bad egg. So where was the appeal?

Well, I remember feeling that he kept having to defend his kingdom when one northern king after another tried to annex his lands. He was described as an aggressor, yes, but in fact we only have the word of Bede for that. Bede, of course, was a northerner himself, writing effusively about those northern kings. Indeed, there’s a rather ambiguous statement in another work, the Historia Brittonum, which suggests that Penda was in the business of liberating Mercia. “He first separated the kingdom of the Mercians from the kingdom of the Northerners.” Was Penda, in fact, just fighting back? He’s often been described as ‘energetic’ and when we take mix-ups with dates into account, it seems he was still taking to the battlefield at the age of fifty. I found him intriguing.

We don’t have a Mercian equivalent of Bede, mainly because at this time Mercia was, indeed, pagan and literacy comes with Christianity. But what we do have is Bede’s very interesting comments on a man who as far as the writer was concerned was a savage, yet intriguingly a savage with some rather redeeming characteristics.

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For a start, whilst he chose not to embrace the new faith himself, Penda did not forbid Christians from preaching in his lands. His children not only converted, but at least two of his daughters fully embraced the religious life. So it seems he was a religiously tolerant savage.

There are also hints in Bede’s history of Penda’s attitude towards his female kin folk. We are told that he went to war against a king of the West Saxons because that king had ‘divorced’ Penda’s sister. The first king of Northumbria with whom Penda had less than cordial dealings also married, and put aside, a kinswoman of Penda’s. There were other factors which caused the battles between these two kings, but I couldn’t help thinking that Penda was in part motivated by the lack of care taken with his precious family. 

For I do believe he was a family man.

Elsewhere Bede mentions Penda’s wife by name, calling her Cynewise. She is mentioned because she was entrusted with a high status hostage, no less than the son of the king of Northumbria. The impression is very much that while he was away on campaign, Penda was happy to leave his wife as regent of Mercia.

But there’s something else which speaks to me of his loyalty. Penda and his wife – his only wife, as far as I can tell, which puts him very much in the minority in this period – had a great number of children. One of those children was called Merewalh and his name has been the subject of much debate. It’s possible that he was Welsh, or part Welsh, and some historians think that he might not have been a relative, but a subordinate rewarded with land after a campaign. But there is another school of thought, which is that Penda adopted Merewalh who may have been the son of Cynewise by a previous husband. 

This scenario is not without precedent as we know that, across in East Anglia, the mighty King Rædwald also fostered a son who was not of his issue. If Penda took on the child of another man and raised him as his own, this gives us an insight into the kind of man he was.

He was a warlord, certainly, but who wasn’t at this time? Bede wrote of King Edwin of Northumbria that he made his lands so safe and secure that a person might walk from one coast to the other i.e. from East to West, without fearing robbery or murder. Yet Edwin waged wars and subjugated a number of previously independent British kingdoms. So Penda was not unusual for having a penchant for battle.

I think, though, that he might have smelled a certain amount of hypocrisy. He must have seen these kings converting to Christianity (and in the process setting aside their first wives) and wondered why this new religion, which split up families, was worthy of consideration. And yet he did not issue a ban on anyone who wished to preach the Word, nor did he prevent his many offspring from converting. While other kings put aside their wives, he remained loyal to Cynewise, even entrusting his kingdom into her care.

The fact that we learn almost all of this from a writer who was his natural enemy, speaks volumes to me about the kind of person he was.

There’s just one more tantalising detail about Penda which actually had not come to light when I initially began writing about him. In 2009 the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered and it was quite the archaeological event. Even now, the experts are not sure what it is (almost all the pieces are of a military nature and yet so beautifully bejewelled that it’s hard to imagine they were used in battle) and no one is yet sure why it was gathered or, indeed, why it was buried. But it can possibly be dated to around the time of Penda’s rule, and it was found within his territory. This was a gift to me as a writer of historical fiction and I devised my own theory as to how it was collected and how it came to be buried…

(Image courtesy of http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/explore-the-hoard/stylised-horse#1)

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FOLLOW THE TOUR HERE:
https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/p/follow-tour-and-step-back-into-saxon.html

About Annie Whitehead

Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month.

As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.

Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.

Connect with Annie:

http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead

https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/

https://twitter.com/AnnieWHistory

https://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk/

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

Written by SJAT

October 13, 2020 at 9:00 am