The First Kingdom by Max Adams – New Release alert – historical non-fiction

Now, confession time, I’ve not quite finished reading yet, so my review is ‘pending,’ but it doesn’t matter. I’ve read enough to know this book is fantastic, and so I’m going to shout far and wide on its release day.

Here’s the blurb;

“The bestselling author of The King in the North turns his attention to the obscure era of British history known as ‘the age of Arthur’.

Somewhere in the dim void between the departure from Britain of the Roman legions at the start of the fifth century and the days of the venerable Bede, the kingdoms of Early Medieval Britain were formed. But by whom? And out of what?

Max Adams scrutinizes the narrative handed down to us by later historians and chronicles, stripping away the most lurid nonsense about Arthur and synthesizing the research of the last forty years to tease out strands of reality from myth. His central theme evolves from an apparently simple question: how, after the end of the Roman state, were people taxed? Rejecting ethnic and nationalist explanations for the emergence of the Early Medieval kingdoms, Adams shows how careful use of a wide range of perspectives from anthropology to geography can deliver a picture of the emergence of distinct polities in the sixth century that survive long enough to be embedded in the medieval landscape, recorded in the lines of river, road and watershed and in place names.”

To give you a taste of what you might find within the pages of The First Kingdom, I’m going to share my review for Ælfred’s Britain, another truly fantastic, and incredibly accessible and readable book.

“Aelfred’s Britain is an excellent book, not confining itself to the period of Alfred’s rule but comprehensively offering an account of England from the reign of Alfred’s grandfather to the end of the reign of his youngest grandson (King Eadred) in 955. This makes it much more than a book about Alfred and rather a book about Britain and the Vikings just before, after and during The First Viking Age.
Instead of focusing on England and the Vikings, the book covers the actvities of the Vikings in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, in a very similar vein to the wonderful book by Claire Downham ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014’, along the way noting events on the Continent and in the homelands of the Vikings and Danes.
This is an important development in the history of the period and a step that should have been taken long, long ago. There is little point in knowing events in England in isolation during this period – a wider view point should and must be adopted.
The author also employs an enjoyable and enlightening look at the ‘map’ of Britain – offering something of a handy guide to the various ‘stopping-off’ points available to the men and women from Scandinavia along the coast and riverways.
Some may find the author’s naming conventions a little annoying – but it seems to me that all historians have a preferred naming convention and insist on sticking to it no matter what – and it is only a slight bug-bear but that is because I know much of the period well.
This is a far more ‘historical’ book than The King in The North (which I always felt was too much like a travel guide for comfort) but it is, at heart, a book by an archaeologist, and this means that the archaelogy is used to ‘clothe’ the ‘known’ historical facts and vice versa. Yet, and I must applaud this, the author, while relying on some slightly dubious ‘primary’ sources, does ensure that the reader is aware of this – and the reader would do well to heed the warnings.
Overall a very enjoyable book, filled with fascinating insights that adopts a view point that has been a long time in being applied to this time period.”

Hopefully, this sets the scene for the direction taken within the pages of The First Kingdom.

The First Kingdom is released today in ebook, hardback print book, and audio book, and you can purchase it here;

On a side note, I’ve just noticed that The King in the North is on special offer for just 99p as an ebook. You won’t be disappointed with this detailed analysis of the seventh century, and at times, you will truly be walking through the Northumbrian landscape.

Watch this space for my full review of The First Kingdom, which I’ll write as soon as I’ve finished reading. I’m savouring this one because it is just so good.

(This post contains some Amazon affiliate links)

Book Review – Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead – non-fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.

Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.

Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.

From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.”

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is an ambitious project, on a scale that few may truly appreciate as it covers over 600 years of Early English history. That’s even before factoring in just how fragmented the surviving sources are, and how complicated they can be and how many languages are involved. Or the fact that the majority of such sources were written by men, and not just men, but men in holy orders. As someone who has written about some of these fabulous women, I know just how difficult and complicated a task it is, and just how far you have to go in order to tease out the smallest details.

It is for this reason, that the book can feel a little unwieldy in places. I think that people new to the subject matter and to the time period might well struggle with the first section of the book on Pioneers in Northumbria. In an effort to include every woman, of whom so little is known that sometimes it is just a name, it can feel a little bit like a long list of women who you might not be able to fully grasp their importance in the events of the period. There might also be some frustration that the women could only be powerful because of who they married, gave birth to, or were born to. This, however, can’t be avoided. It is the nature of the sources.

And I must urge people to continue reading as the author soon lands on more solid ground (because there is more information available and the women feel more fully formed.) The chapters on Mercia and Wessex are a much easier read, and by the time we reach the chapters on Serial Monogamy and Dowager Queens, the women feel ‘real.’ Again, this is because of an increase in the source material, and potentially, because readers will know more about the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The author manages to cover an extraordinary number of women over the long centuries of the Early English period, and if there are moments where I might have included different information, or rejected some of the Saints Lives and Anglo-Norman historians from the narrative, this is a personal choice, based on my own research methodology which does seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

I confess, the book would have benefitted from a chronology for each chapter, and perhaps a slightly different format (I read an ebook so this might display differently in the paperback), but overall, I am in awe of the author’s ability to hold the narrative together and to produce something that I hope will encourage people to further research these wonderful characters who should be just as well known as their male counterparts.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Women of Power is released today, 30th May, and is available from the publisher as well as on other sites, although it is showing as a preorder.