Blame it on Petrarch.
The Italian scholar (1304-1374) is credited with coining the phrase “Dark Ages” to describe the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the early Renaissance. The idea of “dark” (backward and violent) contrasted with the “light” of his own day. The term was especially popular during the so-called Enlightenment (roughly the 17th-18th century) which gave us both great learning and the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It’s at least arguable which era was actually the darkest (and none of them may hold a candle to the death, destruction, and violence of the 20th century).
Historians today generally avoid using the term “Dark Ages,” but it persists in popular culture. In Britain, the period includes the departure of the Romans (about 400 A.D.), the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the Viking invasions, and the Norman Conquest, to about the time of Chaucer (14th century). Some of the most familiar icons of British and English history were created during this period, including the Tower of London, the monumental castles, and the great church buildings like Westminster Abbey and the numerous cathedrals.
It’s this era that historical fiction author and historian Annie Whitehead has focused upon for her books. Her novel To Be a Queen is set in the 870-918 A.D. timer period. Her history of Mercia is about one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that dominated England for a few hundred years. She writes with deep insight of the era and the people, making extensive use of both the original documents that exist and scholarly research.
Based on that same kind of in-depth research, Cometh the Hour tells the story of four kingdoms in the seventh century A.D. – Mercia, Bernicia/Northumberland, Deira, and East Anglia. And while it is largely a story of kings and their struggles against each other and often their own siblings, it is also a story of the women, who often had to run kingdoms while their husbands were off fighting (and the husbands are often off fighting). The various kingdoms in this period (and there were more than these four) seemed to stay in almost constant warfare, with a few brief years of peace in between.
|England about 600 A.D.|
The major characters in the story are all historical figures. Because the story and the interaction between the characters is complex, Whitehead includes a helpful royal genealogy for each of the four kingdoms and a list of the major characters. She’s telling four primary stories; how they merge, diverge, interweave, and sometimes abruptly end are what make the genealogies and character lists so helpful.
And what stories she tells! Princesses used as political pawns, revenge for the deaths of fathers and sons, double-dealing and treachery, and the occasionally real love story all make for an absorbing read. This is also the period during which Christianity was making major inroads among the various Anglo-Saxon tribes, and Whitehead tells that story, too. Favorite characters are Penda, king of Mercia, and his wife Derwenna. Penda resists Christianity to the very end, even though he doesn’t oppose his subjects hearing and accepting the message, but he behaves as more of a Christian king than most of his believing peers in the other kingdoms.
Of particular note are the battle scenes. This author knows how to write a vivid, realistic battle scene. She does it so well that you find yourself ducking to miss the swing of a sword or an ax.
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 non-fiction work, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, was published in 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.
Cometh the Hour is fiction, yes, but it is fiction that provides a factually based understanding of what actually happened during this period of English history. By the story’s end, you’ll come out with a deeper understanding of the times and a deeper appreciation for just how well Whitehead told her story. These ages won’t remain dark while we still have such great storytellers.
Top illustration: A stained glass window in Worcester Cathedral depicting the death of Penda at the Battle of Winwaed is 655 A.D., via Wikimedia Commons. Map of England in 600 also via Wikimedia Commons.