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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

Fire and Steel

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Now here’s the thing. The Dark Ages bore me. As a historical period I find it generally mundane and uninteresting. As the subject for books and movies it holds little more interest. Not, for some odd reason, Vikings, by the way. Vikings oddly interest me. But all the thousand mud-dwelling peoples that flit around NW Europe between 410 and 1066? Yawn.

Saying that, every now and then there’s something set in the era that interests me.

Fire and Steel manages – and this is critical for me – to avoid the pit falls and cliches that plague the era. And, given the fact that the book references both Arthur (as in KING Arthur) and Beowulf, it’s pretty impressive managing to stay on track and not make me run for the hills. The Arthurian and Beowulf connections are very subtly handled.

The story is interesting in that it tells the tale (or at least the first part of the tale) of the Angle invasion that to some extent creates a unified English identity and helps forge a nation out of a land that has erstwhile been just fragmented tribes. Apparently this is a spin-off from another series, with one of that series’ side characters as its protagonist, but it’s kind of hard to tell. It works well on its own and while there are moments where the background is probably better fleshed out if you’ve read the others, it is well enough covered that you do not strictly need it.

The battle scenes are well written. Detailed without being ‘info-dump’, graphic without being offensively so. In fact, the latter part of the book is more or less one great battle, with several different scenes. This is portrayed nicely and quite cinematically. The characters are believable and maintain a camaraderie that allows the reader to bond with them. In particular, I was impressed with the naval scenes, right down to the terminology and the clear knowledge behind them. The plot moved along at a good pace, never managing to get bogged down and, if I had a complaint about any of the above it would be that it ends rather suddenly. Not on a cliffhanger, just sort of ‘here’s the army all ready for war. See you next week on Dark Age arse-kickers.’ I guess that will probably niggle me into reading book 2 when it comes out, mind.

My only real trouble with the book is the same one I have with nearly all works set in the Dark Ages. With the exception of the main half dozen characters, I was a little confused about who was being referenced at all times (not the fault of the book, you’ll note, but of me for my inability to cope with Dark Age naming.) Similarly, I was befuddled with the locations and geography to the extent that for a while, during the fighting in Denmark I was under the impression we were in Britain. Again, that’s me. Oddly, I can cope with modern geography (it’s one of my strengths) and I can transpose that very well into and out of Roman geography and Latin naming, but when I get to the Germanic-influenced centuries in between I get lost easily. And I zipped to the maps a few times to try and orient myself, but you know what it’s like on kindle, a bit of a pain in the but flashing back and forth. So that’s my complaint with the book, and you can clearly see that I’m following the age-old rules of breaking up: ‘It’s not you, darling, it’s me.’ So those of you who don’t suffer my utter bewilderment with the Dark Ages will presumably be fine.

Written by SJAT

March 21, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Warriors of the Storm

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For years friends of mine have raved about Cornwell’s Uhtred novels, and I have intended to read the series at some point, but never seemed to find the time. For the record the last Cornwells I read were the Sharpe series back in the day and, though I think I tired a little of the series towards the end, I remember the earlier ones as some of the absolutely best novels I have ever read.

So when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the new Cornwell, I had to say yes, didn’t I. I did wonder whether I would really be able to get into the novel, being as it’s book #9 and I have yet to read 1 to 8. No need to worry. From the very first page I remembered why I loved Cornwell’s writing. Warriors of the Storm opens straight to the action, dragging the reader right in. It is filled with the smooth, almost effortlessly absorbing prose that I remember being Cornwell at his best. The descriptive is full and rich, the moments of light-hearted humour beautifully worked.

Set in the early 10th century, the Last Kingdom series is a strange milieu to me. The Dark Ages is a curious era, full of change and uncertainty. A mish-mash of cultures struggle to dominate Britain, from the Saxons and Danes to the Celts and the Scandinavian vikings, many of whom are by this time based in Ireland and Scotland. As a Roman historian, I am to some extent at a loss with 9th-10th century Britain, so this is fresh unfamiliar ground.

However, the bulk of this tale is based in an area I know quite well, that being Chester, the Wirral and surroundings, and to rediscover a place with which I am so familiar (I spend quite a bit of time reenacting there now and research a lot into Roman Deva), thjough in a whole different era, is fascinating.

The book opens as a norse lord (Ragnall Ivarson) who has long been an enemy of Uhtred’s begins an attempt to conquer parts of England. Driven out of his previous territory, this lord and his army sail into the Mersey, which is held by Uhtred, and begin to move inland making a play for invasion and control, holding an ancient hill fort and bridging the river into Northumbria, where a vast supply of potential manpower awaits. Cue a desperate campaign to counter the growing strength of Ivarson, who is related to the English hero through his brother’s marriage to Uhtred’s daughter, so yes, politics is inevitably going to play as much a part here as battle.

My friends rave about Uhtred. This is my first outing with him and, while he is a traditional hero with a particularly nice turn of phrase at times, I wouldn’t say there is much about him that makes him outstanding to me. That didn’t matter, though, because the supporting cast were so vivid and fascinating that I could deal rather easily without a deep fascination with the hero.

Aethelflaed, the daughter of King Alfred who rules Mercia and Wessex, is impressive and powerful, with flaws and uncertainties that make her a far more vivid character than Uhtred. The priests Ceolnoth and Ceolberht were fun and memorable for all their small role, the bishop Leofstan was simply superb, and of Uhtred’s own cadre of warriors, the Irishman Finan was one of the most interesting.

Of course if there is one thing for which Cornwell is noted it is his battles. He has a long pedigree of writing warfare across many eras, and this has over time granted him the ability to do so with pace and panache, never having to linger too much in the gory detail while delving deep enough to hook the reader and really create an impression of the horror, glory, and above all desperation of combat.

The upshot? Great characters, well-written prose, fascinating locations and excellent battle scenes. The plot might have benefitted from a few extra twists and turns, but that is merely icing on a well-made cake. Warriors of the Storm dragged me in and kept me glued to the end. Well worth a read, and now I am shuffling books 1-8 back up in my pile.

Written by SJAT

October 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

Hereward: End of Days

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I have to say, of course, that I review this – even after three books on Hereward – as something of a layman. It’s not an era I am familiar with, and I know little of Hereward other than vague connections between the name and rebellions in the days of the early English. By the time I got to the 3rd book, though, I have to admit it was pretty obvious that the series could not have a happy ending. Though I don’t know the history of Hereward, I do know that William the Conqueror founded a dynasty of Kings and his rule passed from his hands into other legitimate successors, not the bloodied ones of East Anglian rebels. So to some extent the ending was a foregone conclusion.

That doesn’t necessarily matter, of course. Gladiator is a great story. We all knew it had a doomed ending, but that made it no less poignant or exciting. Braveheart was a foregone conclusion, but still stirred the blood. The story of Spartacus can hardly have a happy ending, but that didn’t stop Ben Kane writing a damn good tale about him. Because sometimes the doomed hero is the best tale.

Hereward book 1 was a strong story, and only dropped a star on my review due to the almost superhero-powerful nature of the protagonist. However, it was still a storming tale, and book 2 only improved matters, deepening the character and the plot together. Book 3 concludes the tale of Hereward’s resistance to the Normans in great power, style and character. Indeed, by this time, the hero is such an excellent character and so absorbing for the reader that we truly care about him, which makes the doom of the ending we know is to come all the more powerful.

Despite going into the book with a sense of gloom as I thought I knew what must happen, I was constantly surprised by the fact that the English actually were winning! Hereward and his chums were bloodying the nose of the Conqueror and winning the fight. I had one of those moments where I wondered whether Wilde had diverged from clear history and done a Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds thing, having Hereward somehow win! And then everything went piriform as I expected it to from the start, but only due to unforeseen (and also unreported due to spoilers) circumstances. And even though towards the end of the book, it was once more obvious things could not end all hunky dorey, still Wilde had a number of surprises for me. Indeed, the ending really came at me out of the blue. Unexpected. And fab.

Basically, by this book, Wilde’s writing style has really hit the perfect stride and his characters are now well rounded and believable, even the new creations. And that leads me to Deda. ‘Nuff said. Deda should have a book of his own, James, as should Kraki. Bear that in mind, when thinking of your next project.

End of Days is full of action and bloodshed, subterfuge and trickery, murder and flight, treason and negotiation. Grit your teeth at the action in the swamps (as superb as it was in book 2). Wonder at the power of the Conqueror, who is every bit the match for Hereward. And love the book for what it is: a superb conclusion of a tale that should have been told long ago. It is, in short, a bloody marvel.