The Anglo-Saxon Age: The Birth of England by Martin Wall
Reviewed by Sean Barrs | http://www.thebookbag.co.uk
The Anglo-Saxon age was one of turbulence and constant bloodshed, but there was more to it than this. Central to it was a dream, a dream of England in which a united land existed under one absolute sovereignty with no foreseeable rivals. Many would share this idea, whether Saxon or Dane, and many more would die for it. But it wouldn’t be until the Norman Conquest that such a thing was fully achieved.
That came much later though. The early stages of Anglo-Saxon age began with the decline of Roman power, and the opportunities it afforded those looking for new lands. The remaining natives were completely vulnerable, so the slow conquest began as the years elapsed; it became an almost forgone conclusion as Wall recognises here. What he also does, which I think helped to illustrate his ideas, is quote fictional literature at length. He references ideas Tolkien drew upon from the age, and uses Beowulf as an example of historical detail relevant to the period. For me, this helped to contextualise some of the points. Showing the history thematic in literature is always a strong device.
Indeed, the detail in this book was very high. It even shows rough outlines of the early territory divisions in England along with images of the ruins of the more noteworthy places discussed here. The index was very extensive, which will be of interest to scholarly readers. The tone is also very conversational making the facts accessible. Not only is this a history book, but it’s also one that depicts the author’s personal journey. In the introduction he states his reasons for writing: to help illuminate a period that remains shrouded in mystery. This fits in with his research into the Staffordshire Hoard, and his attempts to discover the secrets behind it.
I read a lot of historical fiction in this era, so reading about the actual history behind some of the figures was informative and enjoyable. Of particular note for me was the chronicling of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok and how one of the most famous, Ivar the Boneless, got his nickname. In addition to this, there was a plenitude of information on Alfred and his relationship with his brother Aethelred. Most fictional accounts tend to brush past this aspect of the soon to be king’s life, and focus on the more dramatic details of his reign instead. To understand a man’s history we need to know fully where he came from. Such a thing comes with the socio-political climate depicted here.
So this is a sweeping overview book, one that covers almost four hundred years of history. If at times some sections lapsed into brevity, it was only to ensure that as much of the history could be covered through the book. If you want specific facts about a particular century you may wish to look elsewhere or, if like me, you want to know more about the history of Anglo-Saxons as a whole then this is a good book to start with.
If you want to know more about the history of England, then it’s worth checking out A Short History of England by Simon Jenkins or The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris if you want to read up on the events that led up to the end of the Saxon age. Alternatively 1066: What Fates Impose by G K Holloway provides an excellent fictional account of the same events.
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