Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I love Early Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Denning

The time period about which I write - the decades around the year 600 A.D. - is one of the most obscure and confusing of Britain’s long history. The reason I write about them is that these times are critical. These are the birth pangs of the British nations we know today when the English, Irish, Welsh and Scots emerge, clash, amalgamate and go their separate ways on and off for centuries. These climactic times shatter forever the remnants of the Roman Province of Britannia and forge a new land. Britain at this time was indeed a divided land.
The period of history following the departure of Roman troops from Britain in about the year 416 and lasting until the reign of Alfred the Great almost five hundred years later, represents the most poorly documented in the history of Britain. Enormous changes overtook the Island. Large parts of the country passed from the domination of one race to a completely different one. Place names, history, culture and language were swept away. Invasions, battles and wanton destruction raged across the land as never before, or since.
In this time, there would have been heroes and villains. Legends would have arisen. Folk would have spoken with familiarity of battles and warlords, as we today talk of celebrities and sports teams. Amongst all this, normal people lived normal lives. People were born and died. They lived and loved, as we do today.
And yet, we know almost nothing of this time. Most records that do exist date from a period decades or even centuries after the events they record. The greatest record of the age, The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, was probably started by Alfred the Great. Some of the events mentioned in it occurred five centuries earlier. That is like a modern man writing an account of the Battle of Bosworth or the Spanish Armada. Clearly, the monks who wrote the Chronicle referred back to earlier manuscripts that do not now exist, but we have no idea how authentic they were.
We begin to emerge from this dark cloud into a period we are more certain about as we move on towards the mid-7th century. But my books refer to events that occurred in the last quarter of the 6th century and the first quarter of the 7th - right in the middle of the darkest part of the Dark Ages. I wanted to bring this critical period to life, to find out more about it and to discover as much as possible about the lives of the men and women who lived in these moments.
What fascinates me about this period is that it is by no means certain that the Britain we know today would have come to exist. I am a believer in the big man theory of history. For whilst the background tidal movement of history might well be at play, I feel that it was the actions, the plots, the deeds and the heroism of in some cases a small number of individuals that led to history unfolding the way it did. It is more fun that way anyway!
Nations and peoples are in conflict but so too are religions. The Welsh/British and Irish/Scots are Christian but the English are still pagan (the Roman church not sending missionaries to England until almost the end of the 6th century and the Celtic church more or less ignoring the English). Thus the Anglo-Saxons believed in the same gods as the Vikings and other Germanic peoples - in Thor (or Thunor as they called him) and Odin (Woden) along with 40 or more others. That clash and the gradual conversion of the English nations for mostly political reasons forms a back drop to the era and at times is critical to the politics of the time.
Another interesting facet of this era is that the focus of power in the land swings away from the South and for a century or more the Kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia vie for power. It is they, not Wessex or Kent that are the thrones of the Bretwalda or overlords of the English speaking people. It is true that the existence of the England we know today is strongly and rightly linked to the victories of Alfred the Great and his Kingdom of Wessex over the Vikings in the ninth century. Yet, three hundred years before Alfred’s time, it was the creation of the powerful kingdom of Northumbria and its emergence as the dominant power in Britain for about a century, where we can see the roots of that England.

This was the Kingdom of Bede, the great chronicler of the late 7th. and early 8th. centuries and author of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum: ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. It is also the land of the great kings, Edwin and Oswald, as well as the location of the Council of Whitby that established the form that the Christian Church in England would take: a form that lasted − more or less unchanged − until Henry VIII broke away from Rome some 900 years later.

One day, the Vikings would sweep it all away, but by then the mark left on the history of England by the golden age of Northumbria and the Old North, could not be erased.

It is a vibrant and colourful, if at times dark and terrifying, time and these are the reasons I love it.
I am writing two series about these times. The Northern Crown historical fiction series, beginning with The Amber Treasure follows these climatic times as seen through the eyes of Cerdic a young noble man growing up at the time. He, like the land around him will experience betrayal and treachery.
My other historical fantasy series, The Nine Worlds series which begins with Shield Maiden is about children growing up in Saxon Times surrounded by the monsters and magic the early English believed in. This is the world as it might have been had those stories been true…

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