Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead
Writing an account of the history of Mercia from c. 605 to 1071 was not without its challenges. The primary sources are scant, often contradictory, and many were lost during the upheaval of the Viking raids. But it is possible to piece together the story of the ancient kingdom through careful examination of the sources. Anglo-Saxon England is a long way from us, however, not just in terms of time, but because a distinct line was drawn with the Norman conquest of 1066.
This marker is most obvious when one looks at the landscape of England, for with the Normans came the castles, the rebuilt churches; the wooden halls and smaller Saxon churches disappeared in the main. Visiting locations with a palpable connection to Anglo-Saxon England is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the historian.
But it is still possible.
For a stunning example of a Saxon Church, one need look no further than Escomb in County Durham. Built of stone, it probably dates to the late seventh century. Why did it survive? It is thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham were not interested in building a bigger/better church in such a tiny village. In other words, it has probably – ironically – survived because of a lack of interest. The bishops of Durham, whose official residence is still at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, became virtually autonomous and wielded extraordinary power. Little Escomb Church was in all likelihood a beneficiary, in a strange way, of their almost regal status.
Escomb is a delight, but it doesn’t have the connections to the people about whom I’ve written. Luckily there are such places, and one of these is St Mary’s at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. It is not a ruin, nor a shell, but a working church where services have been held since Anglo-Saxon times. It retains many of the original Saxon features. Another such place is the Anglo-Saxon crypt in St Wystan’s Church at Repton in Derbyshire.
Repton had strong associations with the royal family of Mercia.
Saint Guthlac, who was said to be related to the royal family, began his monastic life there and King Æthelbald, who had been a friend of Guthlac’s, was buried at Repton. A later king, Wiglaf, was buried there, too, but the church is named after his grandson, Wigstan, or Wystan. He was allegedly murdered during a dynastic dispute and he was said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandfather. The original crypt is still intact and can be visited. It was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. Standing here, one feels very much closer to history, knowing that there is no ‘possibly, maybe’. These kings, or at the very least their bones, were interred here.
At Repton, too, there is a Viking burial ground. It is still being investigated and new findings were published whilst I was writing the book. The archaeologists are now reasonably certain that the burial pit dates to the time of the Viking occupation in the 870s, when Burgred, king of Mercia, was driven out of the country.
But perhaps the place where I felt closest of all to my subjects was in Gloucester. A short walk from the cathedral are the remains of St Oswald’s Priory. Originally this priory was dedicated to St Peter, but the name was changed when the relics of St Oswald were translated there from Bardney in Lincolnshire. They were moved on the instruction of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and she was buried at the priory, as was her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.
Æthelflæd is something of an anomaly; one of the very few women to lead an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and yet she was never a queen. The only time she is given this title is in the Irish and Welsh annals; some of the English annals hardly mention her at all. Yet she was instrumental in the fight against the Viking invaders, building fortified towns in strategic areas which enabled the English to arrest the incursions and ultimately to force the invaders into submission. Shortly before her death, she was approached by the men of York who sought her protection and assistance against the Norse raiders too.
Æthelbald, Wiglaf, Wigstan, Æthelflæd and Æthelred: all feature prominently in the new book, and whilst many Mercians I’ve written about have statues to commemorate them – Cenwulf, Godiva, Wulfrun, and Æthelflæd too – I’m pleased that I was also able to visit locations which brought me closer to the real people.
Annie Whitehead's new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available for purchase now.