Monday, November 5, 2018

“Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom” by Annie Whitehead

It was the “kingdom of the midlands” in central England. At its peak, its territory included Birmingham and London. It faced internal discord, war with adjacent kingdoms, and Viking invasions. But it became part of the heart of the country we know as England today.

Mercia also a kingdom whose history was written largely by its enemies (and victims) or by the historians of areas that survived the Vikings; at least, that’s the history that’s come down to is. It lasted roughly from the 7thto the 10thcentury A.D., before becoming an earldom subservient to other kingdoms and then absorbed into the Norman Conquest after 1066. It was one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms carved from Britain after the migrations of the Angles and Saxons.

In Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, historian and author Annie Whitehead tells it story. But to do that, she has to examine what is known from historical records like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, lives of saints, and other sources, and tease out what is known and not known, what is implied and what can be inferred, what is left unsaid or is hinted. She speculates with a keen researcher’s and historian’s eye, but she always makes it clear what can be known and what must be guessed. And she includes extensive documentation and footnotes.

Whitehead begins her story with Penda, the so-called “pagan king,” who ruled Mercia from about 626 to 655. Penda seems to have at war with his neighbors more often than not and may have been closer to what we think of as a warlord. She looks at how Mercia came to be created, Penda’s sons and heirs, Offa the Great (ruled 757-796), some of the forgotten kings, and then the last kings, before Mercia came under the control of others. Mercia was fading as “England” was forming.

Annie Whitehead
Whitehead, a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Writers Association. She has published three novels set in Mercia: To Be a Queen (2013); Alvar the Kingmaker (2016); and Cometh the Hour (2017). Her books have won a number of prizes and recognitions, and she is a frequent contributor to anthologies on English history and a lecturer. She blogs at Casting Light upon the Shadow and Time Traveler.

Interest in Anglo-Saxon history is enjoying a resurgence, and Mercia fills a gap, in that no previously published single book told the complete story. And the subject of the medieval kingdom is as fascinating as watching how Whitehead undertakes what can only be called informed and intense detective work to tell that chapter of English history.

Top illustration: King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757-796), from Matthew Paris’ tract.

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