Today’s guest is a person I admire greatly. I love how deftly she weaves history and plot together, how gently she breathes life into her characters. I cry when I read her books. I smile. I experience smells and sounds and sights. More than anything, I become utterly submerged in a world that lies more than a millennium in the past. Add to this that Annie also makes me laugh at least once a day with one of her medieval Bob tweets and it is no wonder I just had to invite her to join this little blog tour.
Now, Annie may come across all soft and sweet, but like our guest Nicky some weeks back, she is no retiring violet. Oh, no: Annie does kick-boxing for fun (in itself a contradiction, IMO) and is also technically a witch. Well, that’s what she says, referring to the fact that she is left-handed and has a black cat. As our Annie also has a witch mark on her body (as do I, dear peeps) best beware should she lift her hands and start mumbling incantations.
Annie does her writing sitting on a pink exercise ball. That somehow mitigates the dangerous witch persona somewhat, doesn’t it? Had Annie been living in her favourite period, there would have been no exercise ball to sit on—but then, chances are Annie wouldn’t have known how to write either. We tend to forget that writing was until relatively recently a skill only very few had. During the medieval period, it was a very, very small minority who could set quill to vellum and jot down their thoughts. And just like that, we’ve segued into the period for the day, so without more ado, allow me to welcome Annie to my blog. It is great to have you here, Annie. Tell us, why did you end up stuck in the medieval period?
Annie: I love all history (well, most of it). Why medieval? I think it stems back to childhood, when fairy tale illustrations usually depicted that period. I learned the Tudors so many times at school that as I took my studies further I wanted to learn more about an era that wasn’t generally taught in schools. I also had one of those teachers – well, tutor actually – at uni who totally inspired me. I love to cross the huge barrier that straddles history, 1066, and go back to the pre-Conquest period. I learned French from a young age – my mum taught it – and I have a peculiar interest in sounds, and German is more attractive to my ears, perhaps because it was ‘new’. So it’s perhaps understandable that I prefer the Saxons to the Normans? I also love periods of long hair, for example the Cavaliers who were ‘wrong but wromantic’ (Yeatman/Sellar 1066 And All That) and so again, maybe the Norman haircuts are a bit too severe! (Anna: Okay, okay: We must just grind to a halt here: The Cavaliers were “wrong but wromantic”? OMG, are you too a closet Prince Rupert fan???? *mimes slashing my chest with a sword* Right: feel better now, let’s move on…)
Seriously though, the Anglo-Saxon period is peppered with interesting characters. Women had more rights than we might realise and boy, did some of them use them! One queen was an advocate in legal disputes. Another burned a town to the ground and got her servants to trash the royal hall just to make a point to her husband. If you want a romantic figure, how about Penda, the king who went to war because his womenfolk had been mistreated? Or Edmund Ironside, who rescued a widow imprisoned by his father, and then married her? (Anna: I am rather fond of Edmund. Now THAT is romantic, never mind how he wore his hair) Or the abbess ‘captured’ by Swein Godwinson, who lived with him for a year. It seems she may not have been held against her will…
Anna: Is there a particular event or person that/who has inspired your writing?
Annie: That would be Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She was one of a very few women of the pre-Conquest period who ruled a kingdom in her own right, and she passed that baton, briefly, to her daughter. A woman didn’t succeed a woman again until Tudor times. Æthelflæd commanded armies and won the respect of the Mercians, as well as being instrumental in pushing back the Vikings. I’ve written about her in fiction and nonfiction and given several talks about her remarkable life.
Anna: Tell us a bit about your medieval books!
Annie: To Be A Queen is my novel telling Æthelflæd’s story, from her early childhood, through her marriage and to the years when she ruled alone. It examines her relationship with her brother, Edward, which was to become so pivotal in their fight against the Vikings, and charts her loves and losses, and shows her character developing as she deals with her biggest fear, the unseen enemy. My other novels are also set in Mercia. Alvar the Kingmaker features the descendants of characters in To Be A Queen, and features another strong woman, a queen who was accused of murder. Cometh the Hour is set earlier, and tells the story of Penda, the last great Pagan king. I’ve also had two nonfiction books published, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. (Anna: I think I’ve already expressed how much I enjoy Annie’s writing. So if you haven’t read anything by her yet, do so! ASAP!)
Anna: Not only are you very focussed on the medieval period, but you’re almost an ambassador for Mercia that was! I’m assuming you’re planning on revisiting this time period, right?
Annie: Yes, absolutely! I’m currently writing the sequel to Cometh the Hour, and am planning another story set in Æthelflæd’s time. I also have a proposal for another nonfiction book.
Anna: Just like all my guests, Annie maintains a blog on the side where she shares her various posts. These are a couple of her posts – and for those who labour under the misconception that medieval women were relegated to wallflower role, I really recommend the post about the “Evil” women!
The ‘Evil’ Women of Mercia: https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/2020/04/the-evil-women-of-mercia.html
Research Trip: Finding Æthelflæd: https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/2018/06/research-trip-in-search-of-thelfld.html
On Anglo-Saxon Marriage: https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/2017/05/on-anglo-saxon-marriage.html
Annie has chosen to share an excerpt from her book, To be A Queen :
Coming to the edge of the encampment she saw the gates of the town hanging open, one almost off its great hinges. Beyond the open gateway, the Danes, surrendered and surrounded, had been herded together. A Mercian banner fluttered from the watchtower. A thegn on the tower pointed his sword at her and began a victory chant. It was taken up by those below, who all joined in, shouting their triumph in the name of their lady. But Æthelflæd was looking at Frith, who walked towards her with his sword still in his hand, hanging low, dragging. He had blood on his face and his long hair was matted. He had his mail coat on and she gave thanks for his innate tendency to be sensible at such times. But he walked like a wounded man, though she could see that he was whole.
He bowed on one knee before her. “Lady, Derby is yours.”
She put a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me. Who do we mourn?”
His blond brows came together to form a single line above his eyes. Beneath those blue-grey eyes, dark shadows of exhaustion robbed him of his beauty. Careworn, fatigued, speaking carefully through a cut lip, he could give her no more than a list of names. “Helmstan, Ælfric, Eadwine, Wulfwine.”
The rest of her personal guard.
She opened her mouth but stood, gaping. What did she think to say? No? You are wrong? I misheard you? Of course he was not wrong; he would not break his own heart with lies. He struggled to his feet and she squeezed his arm. Nodding towards the inner courtyard she said, “Do what needs to be done here. I will speak to Elfwen.”
She found her daughter in her tent. She wished that she could be like Frith, and give Elfwen a moment more of the world when it was right, before she plunged her into a deep lake where there was no light, only despair. But she knew that her face told Elfwen all that she needed to know. “Daughter, the town is ours. But many men died in the taking of it. Among them was Eadric.”
Elfwen gasped but shook her head, believing as her mother had not, that the news was false. “No, that cannot be.” But as she spoke, the words, having hit her ears as lies, must have come into her mind as truth, and she fell face down onto her bed and wept.
Æthelflæd stood still and let her cry out the initial pain, knowing that there would be more, for days, weeks, mayhap even months to come.
When the first waves had left her body and the sobbing subsided, Elfwen sat up. “How can you stand there like that? Do you not care?”
Æthelflæd flinched. She thinks I do not care because I do not weep. Once, many years ago, I would have thought the same thing. Dear Lord, I have loved and lost so often that I have forgot what the first time feels like. She took a step forward.
Elfwen put out her hand. “No. Do not come near me. You are heartless.”
Æthelflæd lifted her chin and let her head fall back. Her mouth opened and a strange animal cry came forth from her. It rose from within her core, and shocked her with its force. She looked her daughter in the eye and said, “Oh God, if I had opened my heart upon every death and cut out the part that died with them, it would not have the strength left to carry on beating.” She left Elfwen alone with her tears. The girl would have to learn the hard way. There was no other.
Annie studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors.) All her novels have won awards, and To Be A Queen was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies, including 1066 Turned Upside Down, and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS Short Story Competition. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is published by Amberley Books and the paperback edition will be out on October 15th 2020. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020.
Connect with Annie!
Amazon Author Page (http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead)
If you missed last week’s post by Helen, catch up with it here! Next week, we’ll have EM Powell join us. Don’t miss it!