With Aethelflaed in Tamworth

I have never been to Tamworth before. I don’t know why, it’s only about 30 miles away, straight up Watling Street. Perhaps because I’ve never had a reason to go. This weekend, there was a very good reason, it was Aethelfest. This was a celebration of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who died in the town 1100 years ago, in 918.

I’m not sure why a town would celebrate the death of a famous visitor – not exactly good publicity. Although it can happen (Maldon, 991?).

So who was Aethelflaed? For anyone who has missed all the publicity, she was the daughter (and eldest child) of Alfred the Great and like him, she fought the Danes, driving them out of Mercia. She was not a Queen, because her husband, Aethelred (no, not that one!) was not a King. Who he was is a mystery and one of the subjects that was covered at the event, organised by Tamworth Literary Festival – Aethelflaed and Women’s Worlds: Reconstructing Early Women’s Voices.

Statue of Aethelflaed and the young King Athelstan by Tamworth Castle

I had seen this advertised some time before and had been attracted by the fact that two very good authors were taking part, both of whom have written about “my” period. Since it was held only a few days after my birthday, I knew I had to go.

I allowed plenty of time for the journey, and arrived an hour early, finding a car park right next to the venue. Plenty of time to have a look round the town. There were plenty of boards so I learned something of the history of the town and ended up at the castle. unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit but wandered round the Castle Grounds where there was an Anglo-Saxon encampment and the display of a colourful Aetheflaed mosaic.

Aethelfest Mosaic

Entrance to Tamworth Castle and floral Anglo-Saxon warrior

The Castle was Norman but Tamworth was important long before, as the capital of Mercia, home of King Penda and King Offa. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and rebuilt  and fortified by Aethelflaed in 913. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I had to get back for the main attraction.

After an introduction by Dr Sara Read, the speaker was Annie Whitehead. Annie has written several books, one, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, actually includes a character I have written about – although from a vastly different viewpoint. Today she was talking about Aethelflaed, whose life she has written about in “To be a Queen”. She told us about Aethelflaed and how little information there is actually is about her. Was it because she was a successful woman in a man’s would, or was it for political reasons? The Kings of Wessex were eager to take over Mercia and when Aethelflaed died, leaving only a daughter to succeed her, she was quickly “rescued” by Aethflaed’s brother, King Edward and never seen again.

Annie has cleverly taken what is known and woven it into a plausible story, interpreting the facts to fit what might be what happened. I recommend her latest book “Cometh the Hour” about King Penda, an interesting view of a king who is usually the antagonist in other books set in this earlier, 7th century, period. It provides an explanation of the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard. Annie also has a non-fiction book coming out in September, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom“. I look forward to reading it.

The second speaker was treading on dangerous ground. Marianne Whiting is a Viking – or perhaps I should say a writer about Vikings. Born in Sweden, she was captured by a local while on a course at Birmingham University and has been held hostage ever since. She explained how the Vikings were not (just) the rapists and pillagers we know and love, but traders, merchants and innocent settlers. She described the difficulties of writing about writing in a time when beliefs and customs were very different from today. Should she leave out descriptions of animal sacrifice that might shock the modern reader? She doesn’t and her books, the Shieldmaiden Viking Trilogy are all the better for it. We are immersed in ordinary farming life of settlers in the English Lake District. Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter is a shieldmaiden. She fights for her land, her family and her honour. Politics intervene, her uncle is Eirik Haraldson (Bloodaxe) sometime King of Jorvik over the period of the books. I had read the first two, “Shieldmaiden” and “To Save a Kingdom” and was particularly interested to buy the third “Honour is All” as it deals with the same period, and some of the same characters, that I am struggling with. I have read and finished it (which is why I didn’t write this blog yesterday) and it was everything I wished for, with a wonderful ending.

The third and final speaker was Dr Jennifer Evans talking about medical treatment of medieval women.  Her speciality is the Early Modern Period but she spoke to us about a little known woman called Trotula said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, who wrote a textbook on women’s medicine. This was a very amusing talk about some of the “cures” for various ailments, mostly of women but sometimes men. The main method of administration was by fumigation, which meant that the doctor didn’t need to look at or touch the woman at all.

The speakers were followed by questions and then a buffet lunch. There was plenty of time to chat and buy books.

Viking and Saxon in harmony. Marianne Whiting and Annie Whitehead signing books.

It was an entertaining and educational  event. I wish I had made more of an effort to investigate more of the whole Aethelfest experience, but it was just too hot. I retired to my air conditioned car and returned home, to read my books in the garden. Thanks to the authors for giving up their time and the Tamworth Literary Festival for organising it and of course Tamworth Borough Council for organising Aethelfest

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Book Review – Alvar the Kingmaker

Writers often say you shouldn’t read other writer’s books about “your” period, as it will influence your own writing. Perhaps I’m not a proper writer yet, but when this book came out, I had to read it.

I had already bought the first book by Annie Whitehead, “To Be A Queen” about Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great, but haven’t yet got around to reading it. My list of books to read gets longer as every day passes.

Alvar the Kingmaker, coverThis book though, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, was about people I am writing about. Alvar, or Elfhere as I know him (Ælfhere as he should be), was Ealdorman (or Earl) of Mercia. He was a contemporary of “my” Byrhtnoth. I was interested to find out how Byrhtnoth was seen by another writer. To my disappointment (or perhaps relief) Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned at all. Perhaps he was not needed to tell this story.

The author has made an interesting decision about names, using more modern alternatives, nicknames or titles.  I can understand why. If you are new to the Anglo-Saxon period, names can get a bit confusing. For example the Half-king and his sons, Elwood, Brandon and Thetford are easier to keep track of than Æthelstan, Æthelwold, Æthelwine, and Ælfwold (another son Æthelsige is omitted from the story!). If you already know the names, it becomes more complicated. Not that I’m familiar with these names, but I might be if I get to a second book about Byrhtnoth – I’ve only got to the year 946 so far. It’s something I’ll have to think about.

The book starts in 956, at the coronation of King Edwy, called Fairchild. Alvar is awarded his earldom by the king, but changes his allegiance to Edwy’s brother, Edgar. This betrayal, as he sees it, changes Alvar’s life forever. He will serve his country, whoever is King, for the rest of his life.

Alvar is so busy defending Mercia that he can never find the time to marry, or perhaps it is because he loves two different women. Both are unavailable to him. One is powerful, dark and sexy, the other provincial, fair and shy. Will he ever find happiness with either of them?

Alvar was a powerful man, politically and militarily, but in this book he is rarely seen doing anything. The book shows him arriving home from some fight in the North or Wales, or having to rush off to deal with a crisis. The King never listens to him and most of the time Alver is outmanoeuvred by (Saint) Dunstan and other churchmen. Probably this is true historically, but it doesn’t make for an exciting read.

If you want a well written, well researched book about life in the second half of the 10th century, this is the book for you. I learned a lot from reading it.

I’m afraid I prefer something with a bit more action. Something that keeps you up in the early hours, turning the pages, to find out what happens.

Finally: I noticed one minor error. At one point Alvar is returning from the Vale of York to his home.
” The route would eventually take them down the old Foss Way, bearing south until Alvar could link up with another great road cut by the Romans, following Watling Street to the west to get back to his own house in Gloucestershire.”
I usually take the Foss Way south to the Cotswolds – if Alvar went north on Watling Street, he was taking a (very) long way home!