Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Category: Personal Blogs

The Calm Before the Danes

It was 1984. I was in a seminar room in Kentish Town in North London and my tutor, Ann Williams, was talking to us about the 10thc anti-monastic rebellion. Ealdorman Aelfhere, one of the three most powerful noblemen in the country, was the leader of this rebellion, and he was described as the ‘Mad blast’ from Mercia. I wanted to know more about this guy. And I wanted to write his story.

My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. She effectively became ruler of what was by then little more than a satellite kingdom of Wessex, but had originally been a powerful kingdom in its own right. Mercia gave us such great and notorious kings as Penda, and Offa. Now it was allied to Wessex, pledged to fighting off the Viking army.BRAG KDP

The allies were successful, for a while. Anybody who knows a bit about the 11thc will recall that it wasn’t long before the Vikings were not only here to stay, but were running the show. Swein, his son Canute, his sons (briefly), and then William of Normandy who was, to all intents and purposes, ethnically a Viking.

But what happened in between? And why was England so ripe for a takeover bid in the 11thc?

The 10thc is not much talked about. It was a bit, well, peaceful. No Vikings, no wars between the kingdoms, no kings with the epithet ‘the great’.

England in AD956 was, for the first time in living memory, free of the Viking threat. Just as well, because there was a bit of a problem. Kings kept dying, young, without offspring. Athelstan (Alfred’s grandson) had done an excellent job of uniting all the English kingdoms and sorting out the Scots and Irish but he’d not done such a great job of finding a wife and having children. When he died in 939 the crown passed to his half-brother, Edmund. He managed to produce two sons, Edwy and Edgar, but he died prematurely and the kingship went to his brother, Eadred. His most notable act was probably seeing off Erik Bloodaxe and restoring the Viking Kingdom of York to English control. Then he died, too.

In AD955 King Edwy, the eldest of the boys born to Edmund, became king. Unfortunately, not a very good, wise, or chaste king. His brother, Edgar, was sent away to be fostered in Mercia and decided, when he was about 14, that he’d quite like a shot at being king. Trouble was, he was only 14, and he needed a bit of help. Like, maybe, from a newly ennobled earl by the name of Aelfhere (or Alvar, as I call him in my novel, Alvar the Kingmaker.) Alvar had received his earldom from King Edwy, and thus had sworn to serve him, but he knew him to be a fornicator and a fool. He was faced with a difficult choice. And so began his career…alvar-the-kingmaker

I won’t reveal any plot spoilers, but it’s a matter of fact that Edgar died relatively young, although not childless. And this presented a bit of a problem. Because once again, the heirs to the throne were two young boys. This time, however, they were born of different mothers. The eldest boy, Edward, was already famous for having a short temper, and the other was very young.

I have my own theories about how and why the younger son’s temperament developed, but suffice to say he was the youngest of his mother’s four sons. The eldest two were deliberately kept away from her, the third died of a childhood fever. Could she be blamed for being overprotective of her last-born?

This lady, Aelfthryth, whom I’ve called Alfreda, was Edgar’s widow. She was also a consecrated queen and her supporters, Alvar included, felt that her son, having been born ‘in the purple’, was the rightful heir.

Others, including Alvar’s enemies in the Church, thought differently, and crowned Edward.

Edward Murdered at Corfe by James William Edmund Doyle

Edward Murdered at Corfe by James William Edmund Doyle

One night, Edward, he of the famous short temper, went to see Alfreda and her son. There was an argument, then a scuffle. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but the result was that Edward was fatally stabbed. Accusatory fingers pointed right at Alfreda but Alvar managed to quell the disquiet, put an end to the infighting and help to establish the surviving heir as king. It’s just a bit of a shame that the new boy-king’s name was Aethelred. And he did get an epithet, although not ‘the Great’ but ‘the Unready’ (meaning badly-counselled.)

He was not a good king. He was not a wise one. I think he was still a bit of a ‘mummy’s boy’. And somewhere, across the sea, a Danish king knew he could take advantage of this…

[a version of this article originally appeared Here]

Why Not the Anglo-Saxons?

I was privileged to attend a lunch a couple of years ago with, amongst others, Sarah Waters and Fay Weldon. They were kind enough to ask me about my writing and when I told them that my first three novels were set in Anglo-Saxon England, Sarah Waters said she knew little about the period and Fay Weldon commented that their costumes “Weren’t very sexy.”

A dear friend of mine concurred, adding that the Anglo-Saxons all wore brown sacks instead of dresses. She said that when she reads a novel set in Tudor England, she can envisage the scenery and the costumes.


In 2013, the author Sebastian Faulks was publicising the Chalke Valley/Penguin History prize for secondary school children. Youngsters were encouraged to write stories set in the following ‘Periods of importance’ : Norman Conquest to Wars of Roses (1066-1485) The English Civil War and the Restoration (1642-1685) The Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815) The British Empire (1759-1947) and the Cold War (1945-1991)

Now, I’m not going to argue that these periods were not important, but why narrow the field? Taken in isolation, these periods of history mean little. Can one really understand the significance of the Napoleonic period without first studying the preceding years, including the circumstances which led to the French Revolution? Periods of history are only important if you set them in context, if you know what’s gone before.

1066? How can you realise its significance and the changes it wrought unless you know what England was like pre-conquest?

Is it true; does it simply boil down to the fact that it wasn’t ‘sexy’ enough, that it can’t easily be envisaged?

There are stories from the ‘Dark Ages’ that equal anything of later periods: the mighty Godwin family, the frankly feckless Aethelred the Unready and his struggles against the vastly superior Cnut. What about Alfred the Great, and his children, Edward the Elder and my favourite, his daughter, Aethelflaed, subject of my novel To Be A Queen? She ruled a kingdom and fought against the Vikings.

Did she not have a pretty enough dress?


Is it just a case of bad press? Ultimately, the English lost out to the Normans. Does history favour the victor? In which case, why does the story of Arthur still resonate, with fiction and non-fiction books published year upon year; is that down to the seemingly unsolvable riddle of whether or not he existed?


And why, if we don’t care too much about losers, has such a cult grown up around William Wallace? Wasn’t he just a defeated nationalist, like Harold Godwinson? Maybe being hung drawn and quartered is a more interesting way to be the ultimate loser than just attempting to get too close a look at the quality of workmanship that went into the making of a Norman arrow?


The Chalke Valley competition is a good thing – anything which promotes history must be welcomed. Faulks said that “History needs to regain its central place in schools.”

I remember when my own children were choosing their GCSE options, that the school produced a list of subjects, and gave the teachers the chance to ‘sell’ their subject. Each was entitled “What can this subject give me?” Other subjects talked specifics, but history “Gives you everything you need for future study: analysis, argument, memory, understanding.” I can’t argue with that, but within the discipline itself, why are some periods deemed more important, or interesting, than others?

So, why do the poor old Anglo-Saxons not come through history to us as sexy and interesting? As it says in 1066 And All That (W.C Sellar and R.J. Yeatman) the period suffered from a “Wave of Egg-Kings – Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth etc. None of them, however succeeded in becoming memorable, except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish etc.”

Diploma of King Eadred showing some fairly tricky names!

Diploma of King Eadred showing some fairly tricky names!

As I found when writing To Be a Queen, the names are tricky – to spell, pronounce, and identify. Those that survived became old-fashioned, for example, Ethel, Edith, Alfred, Edmund, Mildred, Audrey. They were not associated with the upper echelons of society, and that’s also true of a lot of Old English words. Many of the words for everyday objects came to signify lowly things: a stool became something less than a chair. This idea of being the down-trodden vanquished persists so that today the period remains somewhat drear, uninteresting.

But it is precisely because of that we need to look back and find out what was lost.

The Norman language, despite the lordly overtones, did not take hold; we do not speak a version of French. Nor, according to recent BBC research, did the Norman bloodline. Is is important to know about the Government of the Anglo-Saxons, their administrative systems, their laws and justice? I think so. When university undergraduates debate whether or not the Normans introduced the Feudal system at all, then there is an argument for saying that we should understand what it was that they were trying to replace, subdue, change. It’s worth noting that whilst many people accept the ‘truth’ that in the middle ages, wives were legally beaten by their husbands and treated as his property, the Anglo-Saxon women were not.

So why don’t we know more? Why aren’t we taught more about it? Is it all just too far in the past?

But if that’s true, why is the Roman period so popular?


Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s popular in the sense that there are many books, fiction and non-fiction, and telly programmes (Thanks, Professor Mary Beard!) But it’s still not routinely taught in schools. The Tudors and the Egyptians are. So is the second World War. Diverse topics, spanning great distances in terms of years.

So maybe it really does, as Fay Weldon said, come down to the costumes. In my Ladybird book, The Story of Clothes and Costume, the illustrations lump the Saxons and Normans together. There are no illustrations between  500BC and the Anglo-Norman period, apart from the Romans.  And on the cover? Yes, you guessed it – those wonderfully ‘gussied up’ Tudors …


Maybe those Anglo-Saxons should have designed the bodice – then they could have them ripped!!

[all the images used here are in the Public Domain]

1066 – The Mercian Perspective


In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwinson was declared king. Yet he felt the need to ride north to secure the pledges of the northern nobles, and thought it prudent to forsake his long-term partner and marry the sister of two powerful northern earls. Why?

Let’s go back a bit…

Readers of To Be A Queen will recall that in Aethelflaed’s day, Mercia was still a kingdom in its own right, albeit one which was fast running out of kings. Forty years later, in Alvar the Kingmaker, Mercia has become a powerful ealdordom (later known as earldoms.)

And there is a new problem: the Danelaw.

However much Aethelflaed, her father, husband, and brother fought against them, inevitably some of the Danes who came over in their dragon boats stayed, and settled in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of the Danelaw, as well as the erstwhile independence of Mercia.

Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in the law code known as IV Edgar, or the Wihbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.


King Edgar depicted in the New Minster Charter

It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw. It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig (Edwy.)

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion – his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’ – it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles – Alvar (Aelfhere), already earl of southern Mercia, gained the northern portion when the earl of Chester died – until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms. By the time of Edgar IV, there were three principal noblemen, and in the law code he demands that:

“Earl Oslac (Northumbria) and all the host that dwell in his aldermanry are to give their support that this may be enforced” and that “Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman Aelfhere (Mercia) and ealdorman Aethelwine, (East Anglia) and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [IV Edgar 15. & 15.1]

Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. Edgar was respectful of these regional differences, as his charters show – a land charter of 969 carefully states the ‘boundary of the Mercians’ – but his successors were not.

Edgar was succeeded by his famously ‘unready’ son – who infamously ordered many Danes massacred on St Brice’s day, 1002 – and so there followed a period of Danish rule, most notably by King Cnut (Canute). Long-held separatist and nationalist sentiments remained, and now, as Barlow puts it,

“The Danish rulers having no attachment to any of the kingdoms, widened the concept of England. Cnut’s plan of reserving no English province for his direct rule and his grant of Wessex to the ‘upstart’ Godwine had weakened the position of any successor who had not his ‘quasi imperial’ power.”

King Cnut

King Cnut

How did this situation contribute to the problems faced by Edward the Confessor in his final years?

The three leading earls were Leofric of Mercia, Siward of Northumbria, and Godwine. Of those three, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; he was the son of Leofwine, ealdorman of the Hwicce – whom readers of my novels will know to be the core Mercian tribe. Their centre was Deerhurst and the church there was very important to the Mercians – and he gave, according to Barlow, “loyal and disinterested service.” Siward, meanwhile, with lands bordering Scotland, probably looked more north than south.

The rise of the House of Godwine was phenomenal. Moving from thegn to king in three generations, it proved the theory of upward social mobility which, in fact, most people found impossible to attain, and which might have been denied in this case also had it not been for the reign of Cnut.

I have some university notes in which I quote one of my lecturers: “1066 lasted a whole year.” I followed it with an exclamation mark, but I know what was intended by this seemingly obvious remark. 1066 was not just a battle near Hastings; events took a turn for the dramatic in January when Edward the Confessor died, and culminated with William’s coronation on Christmas Day. But there were more people involved than just Harold and Edward, and the turmoil had really begun as far back as 1051.

Godwin’s meteoric career is for another blog, possibly by a different author, one who knows him better. Suffice to say that such was his influence, he managed to prosper despite his father’s humble origins and the dark stain hanging over him, that of the murder of Edward the Confessor’s brother Alfred, in 1036.

Yet the meteor appeared to crash-land in 1051.

Eustace of Boulogne arrived at Dover to visit his former brother-in-law (Edward) and Godwine was at the wedding feast of his son Tostig and Judith. There was a violent brawl involving the people of Dover and the visitors from Boulogne. Godwin was ordered to punish the people of Dover and he refused. The result of this stand-off was the exile of Godwin and his family, and Leofric of Mercia’s reward for supporting the king was that his son, Aelfgar, was granted Harold Godwineson’s earldom of East Anglia.

The Witan

The Witan

However the northern earls thought Edward went too far by subsequently giving preference to foreigners, thereby tightening his links with Normandy. Thus, in 1052, when Godwin came back, Leofric and Siward remained neutral. London declared for Godwine. His terms were not extortionate and so the neutrality of the northern earls seemed justified, and would explain why Aelfgar, according to Barlow, ‘quietly surrendered’ the East Anglian earldom back to Harold.

But Godwine’s death in 1053 shifted the balance of power and the Mercian house became stronger. Harold succeeded his father in Wessex, but this meant that Aelfgar got East Anglia back. The Mercian family was now spread right across the midlands.

Then in 1055 Siward of Northumbria died, and his second son, Waltheof, was bypassed for Tostig Godwinson. As Richard Fletcher puts it, “There was no love lost between the house of Leofric and the house of Godwin” and Tostig’s was a surprise appointment; it was the first time a southerner had held the post and he was, in Fletcher’s words, “A complete stranger.” Now, Mercia was in the middle of a Godwinson sandwich, with Harold below and Tostig above. They needed to look in a different direction for allies. Aelfgar looked westward, allied with Gruffudd of Wales, and was briefly banished before being reinstated.

Two years later, In 1057, Leofric died. Aelfgar went to Mercia and Harold’s brother Gyrth went to East Anglia. Now the Godwin family was in Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria. Mercia was isolated.

Hardly surprising then that in 1057, Gruffudd married Aelfgar’s daughter, Ealdgyth, and in
1058 Aelfgar was outlawed again for ‘obscure reasons’. He came back with the support of Gruffudd. Kari Maund suggested that the alliance must have begun before 1055 and that’s WHY he was ousted. Perhaps Aelfgar had not so ‘quietly’ surrendered in 1052 after all. Richard Humble suggested that Harold was somehow responsible for Aelfgar’s exile and was behind his second banishment, too.

In around 1062/3 Aelfgar disappears from the record. He was succeeded by his son, Edwin, and it would seem that Harold took advantage of this and engineered the death of Gruffudd.

By October 1065, the Northumbrians had had enough of Tostig and his southern ways and attempts to impose high taxes, and they rebelled, electing Edwin of Mercia’s brother, Morcar, in his place. After the Northumbrian rebellion Morcar was very quick to get there – as if he’d been ready and waiting. As Fletcher puts it: “Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwin.”

The joint northern, Mercian (and Welsh) forces marched south. Whilst Harold attempted to mediate, Edward demanded war. Harold would not fight the rebels to restore Tostig. Edward submitted, Tostig was outlawed, and Edward seems to have gone into a decline, from which he never recovered. Tostig never forgave Harold.

As I sat down to write my story for 1066 Turned Upside Down, it occurred to me that this, then, was the internal situation in 1066:  a  build-up of resentment between noble houses, and a brother with a grudge. Harold had worries long before William landed…

Available 1st August 2016


Further reading:
King Edgar and the Danelaw – Niels Lund, Med. Scand. 9
Anglo-Saxon England – FM Stenton
The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 – Frank Barlow
The Welsh Kings – Kari Maund
Bloodfeud – Richard Fletcher
The Fall of Saxon England – Richard Humble
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – Ed. N Garmonsway

An Author’s Angle on Date Night

I’m going on a date with a handsome man called Alhelm, a real-life 10th century warrior and nobleman, who held lands in the northern area of the kingdom of Mercia. How do I know he’s handsome? Aethelflaed, from To Be A Queen, seems rather taken with him: “His blond hair, recently cut by the look of it, was sticking out at odd angles, where curls had been shorn, but not short enough to subdue them. His blue eyes were so pale that the pupils shone uncommonly black. A sprinkling of freckles spilled over both cheekbones and spread over his nose. He smiled at her … she felt an urge to smile back but also look away, at once a grown woman yet still a foolish child.” This is when she first meets him, and she is smitten.

So I imagine someone who looks a little like this:


Although the reality is probably more like this:


Different language, culture, eating habits – what could possibly go wrong? Find out Over at IndieBRAG

Murder in Mercia

I made a few accusations over on Andrea Cefalo’s blog:

“Breaking News, October 1st, AD 959: King Edwy dies suddenly, aged 19. His younger brother will henceforth be king of the whole country.

Nobody questions. Nobody accuses. This family has a habit of dying young; it’s well documented. The younger brother goes on to reign so successfully that he gains the nickname “the peaceable.” He gets a good write-up in the press and all his favourite churchmen get Sainthoods.

Case closed.

Hmm. Okay. Well, we can’t examine the facts, because that’s all we’ve got – Edwy died. So let’s do a little bit of detective work, because while the chronicles of the time called it death, I like to call it murder…

First of all, let’s take a look at this family of “Ed” kings who had such a propensity to die young:


The tree timeline above illustrates the relatively short reigns of kings Edmund, Eadred, and Edwy.

In 937 Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, had won a decisive victory over the Scots and Irish, but died two years later. For whatever reason, he neither married nor produced offspring. Commentators kindly speculated that this was because he was nobly saving the throne for his brothers, but I don’t think so. They were not his full brothers, and I have reason to suppose that he was not overly enamoured of his half-brothers (but more of that later.)


In 939, King Athelstan died without wife or heir.

Well, whatever the truth of the matter, when he died the throne passed to his half-brother, Edmund. It seemed the royal line of succession was assured when Edmund’s wife bore him two sons. But Edmund died when his sons were aged just 6 and 2 and he himself was only about 25.

Edmund I of England

Since King Edmund’s sons were considered too young to rule at the time of his death, the throne passed to his half-brother.

The boys, considered too young to rule, were overlooked and the crown then passed to another of Athelstan’s half-brothers, Eadred. He managed to chase Erik Bloodaxe, the notorious Viking, out of York, but the effort seemed to have exhausted him because he, too, died relatively young at around the age of 32. He was unmarried and childless.

King Eadred of England

Though King Eadred was successful at keeping Vikings at bay, he, like his half-brother Athelstan, died without an heir.

So the line of succession went back to his little nephews, the sons of Edmund. The eldest of the two, who was by this stage aged about 15, was crowned king. Edwy (Eadwig) was famously good-looking. In fact, he was caught in bed on his coronation night with his wife…and her mother. He was not, it’s fair to say, universally loved. And waiting in the wings was his little brother, Edgar. He actually remained fairly little throughout his life, but being short of stature didn’t stop Napoleon (yes, I know that fact’s been discredited in recent years, but it suits my point).

King Eadwig of England

Since King Eadred died without heirs, the crown was passed to his elder brother’s famously handsome son, Eadwig (pictured above).

A lot of ink has been spilled in the debate over what happened next, but it seems that Edgar rather wanted to be a king and didn’t really want to wait for his brother to die. Edwy tried to ingratiate himself with the nobles by giving away land, but it seems they were not swayed, and in 957, two years into his reign, Edwy’s kingdom was carved up, with his younger brother being declared king in Mercia and Northumbria. Edwy was left with Wessex.

Diploma of King Eadwig 956

King Edwy tried to buy nobles with gifts of land.

So far, so peaceful. After all, it was not unprecedented to divide a kingdom among sons – remember Athelstan? When his father died, Athelstan (his natural firstborn son) was declared king of Mercia, while his eldest half-brother was given the kingdom of Wessex. But … Mysteriously, and extremely conveniently, that half-brother was dead within four weeks, and Athelstan became king of both countries (which at this time, effectively meant being king of the whole of English England.) Now, I’m not accusing Athelstan, (okay, I am!) but I really don’t think he liked his half-brothers overly much!

King Edgar New Minster Charter

During his elder brother’s reign, the kingdom of England was divided and Edgar (pictured above) was named king of Mercia and Northumbria.

Anyway, back to 957, and the two brothers who are sort of sharing the kingship. Edgar, the littlest, holds court in London and Edwy, the elder brother, remains in the Southwest. Yet for some reason, in the autumn of 959, Edwy’s to be found in Gloucester, which is not in Wessex, but the heart of Mercia. And then, on the 1st of October, aged just nineteen, he drops dead. At the time, there was no suggestion of foul play. But there’s something which needs to be borne in mind: Remember Edwy’s bedroom shenanigans on the night of his coronation? After he was chastised for having over-friendly relations with his wife’s mother, he banished Abbot Dunstan, who was subsequently recalled from exile by Edgar and became one of the leading lights of the monastic reform movement, and was eventually canonised. Dunstan’s hagiography was written, like all chronicles at this time, by a monk. Clerics writing the pages of history will tend to write favourably about those who have been generous to them, or who they think have been most pious. Edgar was known for his piety and for his support of the monastic reformers, and there is simply no chance that any finger of suspicion would have been pointed, much less would the accusations have been committed to vellum.

Dunstan Mercia England

Abbot Dunstan, who chastised King Edwy for lust, was banished and later brought back by Edwy’s brother, King Edgar. After his death, the clergy wrote favourably of the abbot.

Yes, the men in the royal family had a habit of dying young. Yes, it’s quite feasible that Edwy choked, or had undiagnosed heart failure, or just had a surfeit of something, which was quite a favourite way to expire among later medieval kings. But add to this the fact that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, a political rival of Dunstan’s, also died in mysterious circumstances that same year, allowing Dunstan to become Archbishop in his place, and it’s starting to add up to something a bit more suspicious. I have no proof, of course, but absence of evidence didn’t help Richard III’s case much, either. Those little boys in the tower could also have died of natural causes. But does anybody believe that?


Here’s that little family tree again, just because those Ed names can get a bit confusing. And a little footnote: See ‘Edward the Martyr’? History sort of repeated itself, because when Edgar died, (aged 32, no foul play suspected) he left two young sons by different mothers. The eldest was crowned, but was murdered, allegedly by retainers of his stepmother, on behalf of his half-brother, who then became king. Sound familiar?

Edward the Martyr Poisoned Chronicle of England

This image from The Chronicle of England (1862) illustrates the poisoning of Edward the Martyr, King Edgar’s son and succesor. Some suspect Edward’s brother and stepmother played a role in his death.

“Edwy’s cause of death remains unknown.” Yep, but I think I might have an idea…

Alvar the Kingmaker

This article originally appeared HERE

B.R.A.G Interview

B.R.A.G. Interview with Colleen Turner

This week I was honoured and thrilled to be interviewed by Colleen Turner on her blog

A Literary Vacation

Because my book To Be A Queen has been awarded an IndieBRAG gold medallion.

Below is the interview in full:

Hello, Annie, and welcome to A Literary Vacation! To start off with, please tell us a little about your book, To Be A Queen.

Hello Colleen, and thank you for having me as your guest. To Be A Queen is the story of Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great. It charts her life, from her childhood living in fear of the Viking invaders, to her marriage of convenience as part of the alliance between Wessex and Mercia, and finally to her years of having to rule Mercia after her husband falls ill and is unable to lead his army against the Vikings.

I love the fact that Aethelflaed was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom and that she was able to rule and lead her adopted Mercian people even when, at least initially, they hated her for being a foreigner. How do you think she was able to do this in a time when it seems so unlikely? Was there anything special about her in particular that you think made this possible?

Aethelflaed had lived In Mercia when she was a small child, but I don’t think this helped her much when she returned there as a bride. There is anecdotal evidence that an attempt was made on her life as she made her way to Mercia after her wedding, and many of the Mercians, fiercely independent and proud, resented the alliance with Wessex. They were running out of kings, and therefore options, but it was still unprecedented to have a woman lead a country at this time. She was royalty, being both the daughter and sister of a king, but even so, she must have had some outstanding qualities – not only did the Mercians agree to her leading them, but her powerful brother, Edward, who succeeded Alfred, also allowed her to rule, rather than taking over himself. Clearly she had strength, but she must have been very charismatic, too, for such doughty old warriors to agree to being led by her.

What drew you to Aethelflaed’s story? How did you first discover this fascinating woman?

The book began, for me, with a single sentence. I was sitting in a lecture theatre as an undergraduate and my tutor was talking about Aethelflaed’s husband, Ethelred. She said, “Nobody knows where he came from.” I had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere, and I was fascinated. I hoped one day to write his story, and years later, when I sat down to begin the research, I quickly realised that, whilst he was an interesting figure, (and I’m still probably a little bit in love with him!) the real story was that of his remarkable wife.

What sort of research went into writing To Be A Queen? Did you do any traveling as part of your research?

Very little has been written about her, so research, initially, was difficult. I started off by reminding myself about her father’s reign before trying to research her life. Ultimately, Mercia was absorbed into Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by Alfred, and it was written by monks from Wessex, so Mercia doesn’t get the greatest press. There are annals which say a little more about her, but some have been discredited, so I really needed to keep my historian’s hat on when appraising the usefulness of those sources. I knew where to find, and how to interpret, such documents but what I didn’t know so much about was how these people lived – what they wore, what they ate, what type of crops they grew. I spoke to a lot of leading academics who helped me enormously, and gradually I was able to piece together a picture, and really begin to think of these people as, well, people. I didn’t travel, (well, not purposely) because there is virtually nothing left of their world. The Anglo-Saxons primarily built with wood, and none of those buildings has survived. I relied on archaeological evidence and town plans which have been drawn up using that evidence. My daughter is currently at university in the heart of old Mercia, but driving through the modern towns and cities I don’t get much feel for the 9th and 10th century settlements that were once there. Even the landscape, right down to the shape of the coastline, has changed so much in the last 1100 years.

Was there anything you discovered as part of your research that you found surprising or shocking?

Without giving too much away, I did discover how explosive flour dust can be! I also realised that Alfred the Great was not quite so successful as we perhaps all assume. Analysing his career, I found that most of his military successes occurred after his alliance with Mercia and once his children joined the fight. As I continued to write and research, I found myself getting quite cross that neither Aethelflaed nor her brother ever got the credit they deserved; their military and strategic campaigns were ultimately much more successful than their father’s.

Historical fiction happens to be my all-time favorite genre and I find myself going back and forth between what periods of history are my favorite to read about. Do you have a favorite time period to write and/or read about, or do you enjoy jumping around as I do?

I always wanted to write about the Anglo-Saxons, and in a way that portrayed them as early medievals, rather than dragon-slaying, magical, mythical folk from a world far removed from ours. But when it comes to reading, I often turn to my second-favourite period of history, the seventeenth century. I’m also drawn to fiction set in and around WWI. But if something catches my eye and it’s a good story, I’ll read it. Sitting on my kindle just now I have a WWII love story, a Victorian thriller and a Tudor mystery!

What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?

My kids have all pretty much left home now, so my life doesn’t revolve round their schedules like it once did. I work part-time as a freelance music teacher, but at the moment all my classes are on the same day of the week. The rest of the time I try to be disciplined and get to my ‘desk’ (the dining room table!) for about 8.30am and, after checking emails, social media etc, I aim to write until 5pm. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s something to shoot for! Often I go out and about, collecting information and taking photos for magazine articles and I have to admit, it is nice to get away from the computer keyboard now and again.

What drew you to independently publish To Be A Queen as opposed to seeking traditional publishing?

When I’d finished ‘Queen’ I felt certain I had a strong story, and a unique one. I wrote off to several agents and one got back to me really quickly. He signed me up on the spot and a day later another agent approached me. I had the luxury of being able to turn down the offer of representation! My agent encouraged me to get working on the next book, which I did. And then I wrote another, all the time naively assuming that my agent was working hard to secure me a publishing contract. For whatever reason, he wasn’t, and, with three completed novels I decided to have a go at publishing independently. I can honestly say I have never regretted that decision – not only has it given me a lot of freedom, but it has brought me into contact with many other authors whose support and willingness to share their experiences and wisdom has been invaluable.

How did you discover indieBRAG and what does it mean to you to have To Be A Queen awarded the BRAG Medallion?
I discovered it through social media, where I kept seeing mention of it. I noticed, on books I’d read, this mysterious little gold medallion on the cover. I began to wonder what it was all about, so I visited the website. I wondered if I could possibly get one of these prestigious medallions, but at the time it was closed to submissions. I put my name on the waiting list and I waited. And waited. I read lots of blog articles and interviews by BRAG honorees and BRAG readers and reviewers and kept hoping … and then the submissions opened up and I submitted ‘Queen.’ I knew the whole review process would take a while and I had almost forgotten about it when I received the email telling me the book had been awarded a coveted medallion. I was thrilled. To me it means validation; the recognition by readers who are experienced and really know what they are looking for, that my book is of a standard high enough to be considered worthy of a medallion. I’m incredibly proud.

Thank you, Annie, for taking the time to stop by and answer my questions!

A Message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Colleen has chosen to interview Annie Whitehead, who is the author of To Be A Queen, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ® , a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as Past Encounters merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.


Find the interview and more about Colleen HERE and find her on Twitter