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.

 

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