Any writer of historical fiction will emphasize the importance of research – a lot of research. Once the research is done, assuming it’s ever really “done,” the temptation becomes trying to pack too much of the research into the story. Even in historical fiction, the story is paramount.
In To Be a Queen, the historical account of Aethelflaed or the “Lady of the Mercians,” author Annie Whitehead gets the balance of research and story exactly right. And what a story she tells!
Aethelflaed (ca. 870 to 918A.D.) was the daughter of Alfred the Great, King of the English based in Wessex. The most significant fact of this entire period was the repeated invasions by and battles with the Vikings. The Viking threat framed Aethelflaed’s life, as it did the lives of her father, her brother Edward, her husband Aethelred, and the entire people of the British Isles.
Aethelred, lord of the Mercians, becomes allied with Alfred to fight the Vikings. They’re successful, and to cement the alliance between Wessex and Mercia, Alfred gives his daughter Aethelflaed in marriage to Aethelred. Whitehead creates a love interest for Aethelflaed, one closer to her age, but the young girl knows what her royal duty is. Her considerably older husband is aware of her love for another man, but wisely bides his time.
In the story, Aethelflaed eventually comes to love her husband deeply and earns the respect of the Mercian people, to the degree that they accept her as their ruler when Aethelred is struck down by illness and later dies. She holds the distinction of being the only woman ever to ruled an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
The heart of the story is in its details – the accounts of day-to-day activities (royal women worked, often just like non-royal women), the love stories Whitehead builds, Aethelflaed’s many miscarriages, and the personalities of the characters themselves, including the heroines, heroes, and villains. What makes this historical novel even more interesting is that what is known of the Mercians is what was written down by their enemies and allies; no first-hand, Mercian accounts of their rulers and history exist.
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). She has also published the non-fiction work Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (2018). 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.
To Be a Queen is a rousing story, well researched and expertly told, of a woman who served and ruled in a perilous time.
Top illustration: a 13th century representation of Aethelflaed, found in The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdom Abbey (1220 A.D.).