Warriors, Warlords and Saints, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia.

BY JOHN HUNT

166 pages, 69 illustrations,13 maps, 2 family trees.
Hardback
£24.99

Dr John Hunt is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham. He is also a member of the Centre for West Midlands History.

As soon as I started to read this book it felt strange, then the penny dropped, the preface apart, it is typeset in columns rather similar to a magazine. I suppose that fact alone highlights the nature of the book. As Hunt admits (p13) this is an introductory book into the story of Mercia, attempting to present a coherent narrative of the kingdom.

Many will have heard of Mercia in connection with the Staffordshire Hoard a collection of scrap gold and precious stones that was found in that county in 2009. It had been buried according to research in 650-670 AD. Just because it was buried in Mercia does not mean it was made in Mercia, Hunt is at pains to make this point. Much of the Hoard definitely was not made there. Also we might consider the age of the hoard we can only say it was not later than 670.

Anglo-Saxon when was it and for how long? So who or what were the Mercians and Mercia? The Anglo-Saxon period last from the late 5th century up to The Norman Conquest. That is longer than the period from Elizabeth 1 to the present day. Mercia was one of the five great kingdoms of that age. The others being Northumbria, Southumbria/ East Angles, East Saxons (around Kent), West Saxons. At its peak Mercia was roughly square and stretched from Immingham on the Humber to Carlisle to Bristol to what is now the West End of London. Hunt tells us that the Mercians were Angles who came from an area that is now Schleswig-Holstein. They intermarried and interbred with the resident British population to a greater or lesser extent somewhere between 10% -40% depending on the region. Hunt is of the opinion that is remarkable that in such a demographic, an English culture and an Englishness, emerged as dominant. I wonder if that is correct. The resident population would to a great extent retain their Romano-British characteristics, the invaders were somewhat small in number and Mercia was a great diverse area.

Dr Hunt examines Mercia as it wax and wanes throughout the ages, both in size and importance. It lost the eastern half of its territory to the Vikings and became subservient to the kings of Wessex. While Mercia lost much territory to the Vikings it never surrendered its heartland, the area roughly bounded by the river valleys of the Trent, the Severn and the Thames. It also retained a presence in the western part of London thus providing it with an important trade route to the Continent, it had lost Ipswich. Hunt looks at its kingdom builders, its saints and the Church, trade especially with the Frankish Empire, and Art and Society.

Personally I would have like to have seen more on the people, especially the lower classes and their society. Dr Hunt devotes a scant eleven pages towards the end of his book on People and Settlement in Anglo-Saxon Mercia hardly enough to cover some five centuries in a dynamic country. Mercia covered a large area and Hunt notes the topography of the region. It contain great forests, the suffix ley shows this fact, parts were fertile lowland and thus ideal for arable farming, while parts were upland suitable for pasture, sheep especially their wool was important, the Europeans loved English wool and woollen cloth. There again the book is an introduction so perhaps it will wet the readers appetite. To my mind Dr Hunt has a tendency to paint a somewhat rosy picture of life for the Mercians especially for the peasants both free and unfree. Lets be honest, life in Anglo-Saxon times was pretty dire, being of a somewhat Hobbesian nature, especially with it being ‘…nasty, brutish and short’. As Hunt notes (p.31) “Warfare was not a ‘last resort’ for early kings like Penda it was part of the fabric of elite Anglo-Saxon society…”. Quite so and guess who were in the thick of things.

Hunt produces a nice chapter on the Church noting that Christianity in some form was present in Mercia and indeed Britain before the advent of the Anglo-Saxons, it was probably the only institution to survive the Romans withdrawal from Britain. He notes the arrival of Augustine in Kent in 597. Augustine’s primary task was to found the Roman Catholic version of Christianity, in the process he would convert the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelberht. Hunt misses out on noting that Aethelberht’s wife Bertha was already a Christian before Augustine’s arrival. All this is important because as we know the Church was to play an important role in British history.

So overall what are my impressions of Dr Hunt’s book? It is not an academic tome, a single page of endnotes shows this. There again it doesn’t pretend to be. It is enhanced by the comprehensive list of ‘further reading’ and a glossary. The salient points of the narrative are emphasised at the top or bottom of the page, useful if one intends to dip in and out of the book as, I suspect, will many readers. It has many illustrations, there is no list of illustrations so I had to count them. The family trees are most useful. When it came to names the Anglo-Saxons had the nasty habit of keeping a stem and then adding a suffix. Thus many names were similar and it was easy to lose track, having an Aethelberht of Kent and an Aethelberht of East Anglia did not help. I wonder at the book’s intended readership. Not one for the serious Anglo-Saxon scholar obviously. It puts me in the mind of a school text book, do they still have text books or is everything cut and paste from the internet? Perhaps with so many people visiting heritage sites, Hunt quotes seventy percent of adults visit over a year, it is intended to be sold in the shop. If so I feel its price (£24.99) is against it. Should West Midlands History Ltd bring out a paperback at no more than a third of this price then there might be a ready market. There should be because Dr John Hunt’s Warriors, Warlords and Saints will give many a great introduction into a significant area in an important age.

Don Vincent
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