You might be aware that I've written a few times about Æthelflæd, in fiction and in nonfiction - and she'll feature again in my new book due out next year. So whilst I didn't read this book necessarily expecting to find anything new, it's always a joy to be introduced to new ideas or research and it's always interesting to know how other writers/historians perceive her.
This book is simply wonderful. The author begins not, as might be expected, with Alfred's reign, but gives a more detailed and perhaps relevant background, covering the history of Mercia from the earliest Anglo-Saxon period. This is done with skill and precision and Clarkson makes this difficult history easy to understand. I had to stop and think about this, actually, because I do know and understand this complex period, but no, I am sure that anyone new to the history of Mercia will find this accessible.
I especially like the way the book is laid out. It's chronological, but each episode is taken and dealt with separately. Every so often there are panels, too, which give additional information. The maps are frequent and informative.
Clarkson makes some intriguing suggestions, for example the idea that Edward the Elder's final marriage, to the daughter of a Kentish nobleman, was more linked to Kentish insubordination at the battle of the Holme than might usually be supposed.
He also offers interesting insights: when discussing Edward's motive for taking over control of London and Oxford he offers alternative theories which are entirely plausible.
There is good analysis of the more florid (usually later, Anglo-Norman) sources and the author takes the time to examine them thoroughly to see if there might be kernels of truth lurking there. He applies skilled and informed logic.
Whenever alternative theories or explanations are offered, the points are never laboured, rather the arguments and/or opposing viewpoints are presented with clarity, we are offered the possibilities, they are discussed intelligently, and then the narrative moves on.
The book provides a thorough overview of the period. It's accessible for those new to the subject but gives plenty for scholars to get their teeth into. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the possible locations of the unidentified burhs.
Rather than examining the life and career of Æthelflæd merely by presenting her as the daughter of Alfred, Clarkson gives the Mercian context and even suggests that she might have been working more towards furthering Mercian interests than in the common cause of English v. Danes. As I've often remarked, Mercian nationalism never really died, and there is a wonderfully dry observation that the nationalist fervour so stoked up by the Lady's translation of St Oswald's bones to Gloucester rather glossed over the fact that it was their own resolutely pagan king who had dispatched the saintly Oswald in the first place!
The book doesn't end with Æthelflæd's death but discusses her daughter's brief career and what happened to Mercia after Edward the Elder's death. It then goes on to discuss Æthelflæd's legacy. I began this review by mentioning how often I've written about Æthelflæd myself and I was completely surprised and rather overwhelmed to find a paragraph about my own novel in that section. It's gratifying to know that someone as knowledgeable as this author has such nice things to say about my work.
I really can't recommend this book highly enough.* It's beautifully laid out, it's clear, it presents all the facts and arguments in an extremely readable fashion and won't 'bog' anyone down, even those who are completely new to Anglo-Saxon history.
It's always good to know of historians who have the knack of being able to convey complex ideas and present history in a seemingly effortless and readable way.
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*(There's only one point on which I disagree, and that's the identity of Æthelflæd's maternal grandmother. Her name was Eadburh but I disagree that she was King Offa's daughter. Asser, Alfred's biographer, gave her name and said that she was a notable woman who remained a chaste widow. Of Offa's daughter by the same name, he was scathing, giving the story of how she accidentally poisoned her husband and was banished.)
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