Review and Author Post | Discovering Anglo-Saxon Women of Power

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reviewing Annie Whitehead’s seminal work, Women in Power in Anglo-Saxon England, and was bowled over by the scope of her research, and the readability of her book. Today, I’m thrilled to announce it is now available in the US, and would encourage anyone who has an interest (either as a reader or a scholar) to pick up a copy. Annie explains what captured her interest in these long-lost, but now not forgotten, women. (And what history fan can resist that opening to your post, Annie!)
Goodreads Review

Scrolling through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is something I do regularly, and it’s a great resource. Most of the time, anyway. (One entry forgets to tell us who won a major battle, but does report that marvellous adders were seen in one part of the country.) Often, we get pages and pages of information and then occasionally we get things like this: ‘Queen Æthelburh demolished Taunton, which [King] Ine had built.’ Wait, what? There must be such a story here and yet the entry is casual, throwaway, as if the event was barely worth mentioning. If you were to ask me why I wrote my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, there’s the reason. Pre-Conquest history is loaded with such stories and I wanted to dig up the detail and bring them into the light.

Stories such as that of Judith, a teenager when she married Alfred the Great’s father, and still a teenager when she then married her own stepson. When she was widowed a second time her father put her under the watchful eye of a bishop, who clearly blinked, because she then eloped and married for a third time. Her son subsequently married Alfred’s daughter. Working that complicated relationship out quite made my head hurt!

There is also a tale of a nun escaping down a sewer to evade the clutches of a libidinous king, and of another who was put into a hot oven when she refused to marry. Yet another abbess spent a year living with Harold Godwinson’s brother and the sources are ambiguous regarding whether or not she was with him through choice.

But not all of these stories – many of them fanciful embellishments by later Anglo-Norman chroniclers – are so salacious.

How about Hild, princess and abbess, who educated no fewer than five future bishops? And her kinswoman Ælfflæd, whose testimony decided the outcome of a succession dispute? Whitby, their abbey, was a centre of learning where beautiful books were produced. Hild also encouraged her herdsman to write, and thanks to her we have Cædmon’s hymn, thought to be the earliest English verse.

And then there are the women who ruled countries in all but name. I don’t just mean the most famous, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians, either. When King Cnut conquered England, he had the foresight to marry the previous king’s widow, Emma. But he did not repudiate his first wife, who is known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. Not only did he not put her aside, he sent her to be regent of Norway on behalf of their son. I found quite a few instances of these queen-mother-regents and yes, it seems likely that the woman who torched Taunton was fighting on behalf of a son who had not yet reached his majority.

When King Cnut died, both his ‘queens’ had adult sons and the women waged a propaganda war as clever and nasty as any modern political campaign. Both lived to see their sons on the throne but one 20th-century historian was in no doubt that in Ælfgifu’s case, it was she and not her son who was in charge for his short reign.

Even the strongest, fiercest women faced tragedy. Some lived to see all their adult children die before they did, while some lost many children in infancy. The very fact that these infant deaths and stillbirths were recorded shows how devastating they must have been.

This is probably the main notion my research gave me, that these women went through so much that was relatable. I sympathised with those who had to travel huge distances in order to marry, and those who were caught up in bitter rivalries and feuds. What on earth was the human story behind the incident where one of Æthelred the Unready’s sons-in-law killed another? How did the two sisters get along after one’s husband had murdered the other?

As I researched and wrote, I was of course reading the history of men, of kings, of battles. But always I kept in mind the women’s experiences, reminding myself in one instance that when the chronicles talked of a king’s body being taken to an abbey for burial, it was his mother who was abbess there. I knew this, the chroniclers knew this, but for me the book became an exercise in ‘joining up the dots’. How must she have felt, receiving her own son’s body for burial?

I’ve long believed that history before 1066 is fascinating, vibrant, and filled with stories of interesting characters. After researching and writing this new book, I’m even more aware of the people who inhabited that world and especially the women who enriched every aspect of it.

My Review: 
Women of Power is an apt title for this absorbing volume of research, speculation, and postulation that comprises Ms Whitehead’s fascinating new release. But in this break-through study, there is a huge bonus for those of us not deeply familiar with this period of history. For behind the records lies something even more tantalizing — the whisper of legends that have grown up around powerful women in Anglo Saxon England, perpetuated by later chroniclers and extant in mis-information and myths.
Ms Whitehead’s grasp of family relationships is impressive, and the minute details of her research a powerful catalyst propelling the narrative forward. And yet, for me, the stories within the details are what enthralled. A record of a woman’s right to receive goods, cattle, and the residual of estates, hinting at a full life well-lived. An illustration of how a simple action of defense could be twisted by future chroniclers into a full-out war, with women as the hapless antagonists. And, perhaps the most poignant of stories, how the discovery of blue lapis lazuli in the mouth of a woman’s remains led to the conclusion that female scribes were not only in the monastery scriptoriums, they were entrusted with the most precious of volumes. In between her illustrations, she must have been licking her paintbrush.
The depth of research and breadth of detail in Women of Power is articulated on every page; family trees and carefully planned chapters help navigate us through these centuries of oral and recorded history, and Ms Whitehead’s steady hand on the wheel steers us through known and unknown territories. Her conversational style brings the records to life, and her inclusion of the personal details ensures the extraordinary, powerful women are not consigned to the shadows, but shine as personalities within their own right. Highly recommend for researchers, historians, and those genuinely interested in enjoying learning more about this formative time in English history.

Author Chats is back after a summer holiday

Today, I’m so excited to host Kathleen Marple Kalb and her fabulous Ella Shane history mystery series. Her newest novel, A Fatal First Night, will be publishing in early 2021. Kathleen grew up in front of a microphone, and a keyboard.  She’s now a weekend morning anchor at 1010 WINS New York, capping a career begun as a teenage DJ in Brookville, Pennsylvania. She worked her way up through newsrooms in Pittsburgh, Vermont and Connecticut, developing her skills and a deep and abiding distaste for snowstorms. She, her husband the Professor, and their son the Imp, live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat. Come join us for a cuppa and a chat!

Author Chats | Paula Scott’s Lyrical New Release | Leaving Lonesome

I’ve been a fan of Paula’s writing for several years, and I’m delighted to invite her to Author Chats to celebrate RELEASE DAY for her newest novel, Leaving Lonesome.
A family torn apart by war. A love affair that reaches to the sky. And a secret with the power to redeem or destroy them…
Sutter County, California 1972
John Reno returns from Vietnam a disgraced army helicopter pilot wracked by guilt and grief. Homeless and alone he makes his way from one crop-dusting job to the next until he reaches the woman who can grant him redemption or ensure his damnation.
Swampy Callohan is a young widow barely holding on to her crop-dusting company. She flies her trusty old Stearmans from dawn until dusk, desperate to make it in a man’s world of faster, more efficient ag cat planes, but time, technology, and a family on the brink threaten to destroy her.When John Reno—the best pilot she’s ever seen— arrives one fateful afternoon, she believes Callohan Dusters can be saved. And maybe her heart will be reborn as well. Reno becomes her saving grace until the day she discovers he harbors a secret that just might shatter her whole world.

Author Chats | Andrea Zuvich’s Sexy New Release

Today I’m thrilled to invite The Seventeenth Century Lady Andrea Zuvich to tea on Author Chats, to talk about her newest release, Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain. A foremost authority on the seventeenth century, Andrea also has a place in my heart for creating “Stuarts Saturday” on Twitter, one of the highlights of my social media week. She also happens to enjoy a good strong latte, and a favourite book of mine – Possession by Anita Byant. Join us for more!

Author Chats | Andrea Zuvich

Author Chats | Charlene Newcomb tells of Medieval Knights

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time researching medieval and early Tudor times, and it’s perfect timing to invite Char Newcomb onto Author Chats. Her acclaimed series, Men of the Cross, is set in the 12th Century and is filled with intrigue, war, treason, revenge – and forbidden love. Today, learn more about how Char writes, what music she enjoys, and why she researches every day.

Author Chats | Nicola Cornick’s New Release | The Forgotten Sister

The fascinating story of Amy Robsart, first wife to Robert Dudley and rival to Elizabeth I for his affection is retold in Nicola Cornick’s brilliant new release, The Forgotten Sister. Join us as we chat about literary pilgrimages (Haworth, for one) the special inspiration of walking in Amy’s footsteps, and Nicola’s favourite books.

New Release | Henry, the King’s Cavalier

Thrilled to release the latest COUNTERPOINT Novelette this weekend, a companion book to Written in Their Stars.
A man may think his life is only measured by battles fought for the king. Until he meets a woman worth fighting for.
Henry Wilmot. Cavalier. Seasoned soldier. Grieving widower. On the eve of battle he is sent by the king to requisition arms. What he did not expect was that the supplies were a gift from a feisty and attractive widow who was hiding her own Royalist beliefs in plain sight. Even more alarming was that his quest took him into the heart of an enemy Parliamentarian household. Will Henry survive the fight of his life? And will Nan remember him if he does?
A counterpoint is a melody played in conjunction with another, or an opposing viewpoint in an argument. Our lives are complex, and each one of us carries within us a counterpoint to another’s story.
Here is a counterpoint to Nan Wilmot, from Written in Their Stars.

Crusader’s Path | A journey with Mary Ann Bernal

Today on Author Chats, I’m delighted to welcome Mary Ann Bernal, whose work spans some of the more fascinating periods of history – from Vikings and the dark ages, to the knights templar and the crusades. Discover more about Mary Ann’s research, the kind of music she listens too (very atmospheric, I must say) and the writing of Crusader’s Path.