The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste | http://www.thebookbag.co.uk
As one of the generation who was introduced to English history by the ‘Kings and Queens’ principle, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I have long since regarded the centuries between the Roman invasion and the Norman conquest as a bit of a blur. For me it is a rather ill-defined area, punctuated by the likes of Hengist and Horsa, Alfred the Great and Ethelred the Unready, not to mention the Athelstans, Edgars, Egberts and others who are so often little more than names. In order words, what exactly did they do, and what was their impact on the land they ruled? This admirable title in Amberley’s exemplary series has helped to bring it all into focus.
Martin Wall takes as his starting point the origins of the Anglo-Saxons, who did not originate in England but came from four Germanic tribes. In 100 facts, or rather short chapters which are never more than two pages long, he takes us on a lively journey through the six centuries or so from the time the 5th-century warlord Vortigern, King of the Britons (although it appears that he had no real power), when he called Hengist and Horsa to England in order to help expel the Picts from his kingdom.
There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from these pages. As legends have abounded from the chronicles of distant times It is inevitably often difficult to separate fact from fiction, although we recognise that it was often a violent age and that the winner invariably took all while the loser might be destined for agonising captivity followed by death. King Offa of Mercia is one of the few monarchs whose name is remembered by most who have any knowledge of the period. He is noted as the builder of a 149-mile-long dyke dividing English and Welsh territory, much of which is still visible today – and also for the savage execution of King Aethelbehrt of East Anglia, seemingly for no greater crime than for having issued coins bearing his own image, presumably to demonstrate that he did not acknowledge Offa as his overlord.
The achievements of Alfred the Great, who took on the Viking invaders and after initial defeat won the war, are justly celebrated. What you may be interested to discover – as I was – is that he was a disabled polymath, a man who was battling piles and possibly Crohn’s disease for much of his life, and when not at the head of his army (or letting somebody’s cakes burn), he was translating books by some of the outstanding contemporary theologians and philosophers. Once we get past Alfred, we are on slightly more familiar ground – or at least this reviewer was – with the saga of the ill-fated Ethelred the Unready, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ or Massacre of St Brice’s Day in 1002, and the comings and goings of Cnut. Wall also corrects us on the truth about the legend of said monarch and the waves; far from attempting to tell them to roll back and leave him alone, he was apparently trying to demonstrate to his courtiers ‘how vain and worthless is the power of kings’. We end inevitably with the reign of Harold, his death at the battle of (or rather near) Hastings, and the first few years after the Norman conquest.
Before you think this is all terribly serious and learned stuff, let me assure you it is not. The author dispenses his scholarship in a lucid yet often lighthearted style, with one or two homely or amusing touches as he goes. We are told that the age-old English love of horses goes back to early Anglo-Saxon times, and at the risk of going along the road of trivia, that Nottingham was founded by a leader called Snot and – you guessed it – originally called Snottingham. Another revelation is that the old market or trading centre of London was at what is now Aldwych, outside the old Roman city walls.
I thoroughly enjoyed this volume. It is genuinely history without tears, and a very entertaining as well as an informative read.