Annie Whitehead on research roadblocks, and writing history when the evidence is elusive.
I spend my life writing about the characters who inhabited ancient Mercia. The history of this Anglo-Saxon kingdom is full of colourful characters, some familiar – Lady Godiva and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians – and some not so well-known, but no less interesting.
As a novelist, I’m selective about those whose stories I tell. But when it came to writing a history of the kingdom, I wanted to do something which has rarely, if ever, been done before, and that was to take the story beyond the point at which Mercia ceased to become a kingdom. Thus my new book, Mercia, the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, goes right up to 1071 and the last ditch attempts by the men of Mercia to reverse the outcome of the battle of Hastings.
But how to research this story, when the place had already been consigned to history by even the earliest chroniclers? Those who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for Alfred the Great already knew that Mercia was an ex-kingdom.
There is a dearth of primary source material for pre-918 Mercia. The Mercian Register, a small section incorporated within the body of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, still only documents the years 902-918. Post-918 it is difficult to pick out details for Mercia because of the heavy emphasis on the West Saxons, the descendants of Alfred the Great.
Luckily, once we know the bias of the primary sources, it’s easier to pick between the lines.
When Bede, a Northumbrian monk writing an ecclesiastical history, praises the pagan Mercian enemy King Penda, we should take the compliment seriously.
With the later sources, stories of lechery, witchcraft, poison and murder abound, but we soon see that the accused – some kings, but often queens or noblewomen – had disputes with the Church or had claims on abbey lands where the stories originated.
Charter witness lists help to establish whether people were present at certain times and what their status was.
But when there’s a single mention of a king, are we to assume a palace coup, or a scribal error?
There are tantalising legends to unravel – was Edwin, last ever earl of Mercia, related to Hereward the Wake? – and some which need less exploration, such as Lady Godiva’s horse ride through Coventry with nothing but her long hair to cover her modesty. But there was still a charge of theft of her property, levelled against her grandsons, and a small matter of forged documents regarding the foundation of Coventry Abbey.
Sometimes it is necessary to note what wasn’t said. Early in his career, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, is mentioned by name in the annals, working alongside Alfred the Great and his son, Edward the Elder. Later, his name disappears from the record, even though we know he was still alive. There are enough descriptions of fighting involving Mercian troops and in Mercian territory for us to conclude that he had fallen ill, and that someone else – most likely his wife, Æthelflæd – was in charge at this point.
Some reigns are better documented than others, but even those kings about whom we have a decent amount of information can still elude the researcher. I was able to gather plenty of source material concerning Offa, particularly his dealings with the Church and with the emperor, Charlemagne, but I sometimes struggled to ‘know’ him. The correspondence between these two great kings reveals much about their operations, and it’s easy to deduce that Charlemagne thought himself superior, while Offa behaved as if he were the emperor’s equal, and yet we don’t have Offa’s voice. We can see his actions, we can guess at his motivation, but he remains largely off-stage, spoken about by others.
Another difficulty is location. I was able to visit certain places where the link to the Anglo-Saxons is tangible. One such is the crypt underneath St Wystan’s Church in Repton, Derbyshire, where a number of the Mercian kings are said to have been laid to rest. But battle sites, even when identified, are now no more than fields.
It is hard, too, to time visits while archaeological digs are ‘live’. When I went to Repton, the trench revealing Viking burials had only recently been backfilled, and the team was due to dig again later that year.
Much of the archaeology has been revealed, only to disappear again. The Anglo-Saxon watermill discovered at Tamworth shone valuable light on the way such workings were constructed but although it was excavated in the 1970s, the site has now been built on.
Winchcombe Abbey features heavily in the book. It was a royal minster, and its abbess, Cwoenthryth, was accused by later chroniclers of having murdered her young brother, so that she could secure the throne of Mercia for herself. It’s a fabulous tale, of a dove dropping a note on the altar at St Peter’s in Rome, alerting the Vatican to the whereabouts of the murdered child’s body, but there is no truth to the story. It can’t be a coincidence, though, that Cwoenthryth inherited her father King Cenwulf’s long-running argument with the archbishop of Canterbury. The church chroniclers would have had no reason to record a favourable history of her life.
On a trip to Gloucestershire, I visited Winchcombe. Alas, the abbey is no more. Stones from the building were used in the construction of Winchcombe Village, but when directed to a pub said to have some of those stones incorporated into its fabric, I couldn’t identify the stones.
Further down the road, at Sudeley Castle, I did come across a collection of materials rescued from the abbey ruins and these, sadly, are typical of what the historian finds when setting out to locate Anglo-Saxon buildings.
Researching this rich history is not impossible though. Gathering the documentary and archaeological evidence, and reading what other historians think, I was able to chart the rise and fall of this once powerful kingdom and fill the book with stories of its remarkable characters. And if, in the process, I fell down the odd research ‘rabbit hole’ well, that’s where historian becomes detective, and it’s fun. And very satisfying.
Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Mercia, and she was the winner of the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition in 2017. You can read her winning story here. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom will be published in Sep 2018.
- Godiva Statue, author’s own.
- Detail of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, from a 13th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).
- Æthelflæd Statue, author’s own.
- Winchcombe Abbey stones, author’s own.