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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

Poseidon’s Spear (Long War 3)

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So where can Cameron take us? Arimnestos of Plataea is a grown man now, fully trained and experienced. He has fought in and won one of the greatest battles of the age. But after Marathon, the world has changed, and so has our hero. Life as he has known it has gone.

It is all too wasy for a writer with a series to fall into a rut. Too easy to just keep telling the same story over and over again with minor variations or just to continue to tell a saga in fairly repetitive chunks. A few authors will, once their series is settled, run off at a tangent to explore new ideas and new themes and styles. It can be a gamble, as some readers will always just want more of the same. But if it’s done right it can invigorate and frshen an ongoing series. Sort of like a sorbet palate cleanser between courses. With Poseidon’s Spear, Cameron has done just that.

This is not a tale of war or family. It is not a tale of Greeks and Persians. This is the very spirit of adventure. A series of events conspire to see Ari at sea once more, where he falls foul of the powerful and dangerous Carthaginians and finds himself a slave, tortured and tested to the limit of his endurance. Really, there is too much in terms of twists and turns, changes and stories in this tale to relate them individually, and that would just ruin the book for you. Essentially, once he is freed from the clutches of the unpleasant Carthaginian ‘Dagon’ he sets off on his greatest adventure, collecting new friends on the way, including other former slaves.

The Carthaginians control the trade in tin, which is needed by smiths and armourers across the Mediterranean world, and Ari and his friends soon form a plan to secure tin and make themselves rich. Not through trade with Massalia or Carthaginian Spain, but by going directly to the source: a misty, cold semi-mythical island far to the north that one day will be Britain. Of course, to get there by ship requires that a sailor pass the Pillars of Hercules and sail out into the great western ocean. In those days, with the ships of the Greek world, such a journey was all but impossible and only legendary sailors of myth had done so comfortably.

This begins a journey that will see Romans and Africans and Greeks and Gauls sharing ships, making and losing fortunes, finding and losing loves, all as they journey in search of the source of tin. In the process, Ari will pick up an Illyrian prince (whose own fate forms the last part of the book), become a hunted man and an enemy of Carthage, shed his preconceptions of the non-Greek world and open himself to the great wealth of experience that is the west.

For the reader, seeing the Pre-Roman west through the eyes of a wonder-filled Greek is a fascinating process, and it certainly made me wish I could go back and rewrite some of the Gallo-Roman work I have penned with one eye on this fascinating portrayal of the world.

As always, Cameron’s experiences with the military and reenactment inform his text and give everything a realism and accuracy that few could match. But what came across more in book 3 was the surprising level of knowledge the author seems to have concerning the world of ancient ships and sailing. I can only assume that among his talents and experience, Cameron has also sailed ships somewhat. And I am quite stunned by his portrayal of pre-Roman France, Spain and Britain, considering Cameron’s Canadian residence and American nationality. It feels accurate and immersive.

All in all, a departure for the series, a wonderful palate cleanser, and yet at the same time a great continuation of the saga of Arimnestos of Plataea. Oh, and the conclusion? Well Ari has now a new and great enemy out there somewhere we know will come up again, but also the end scenes come as something of a surprise, and set up the opening of book 4 beautifully. So drop by tomorrow for the review of The Great King