The Anglo Saxon Age - An Alternative History of Britain, Timothy Venning

The Anglo Saxon Age - An Alternative History of Britain, Timothy Venning

The Anglo Saxon Age - An Alternative History of Britain, Timothy Venning

The Anglo Saxon Age - An Alternative History of Britain, Timothy Venning

This is part of a series of counterfactual histories looking at different aspects of British history. Here Vennings looks at the Anglo-Saxon age, from the end of Roman rule and the shadowy conquest or settlement period, through the period of competing kingdoms, the unification of England and ending with the events of 1066 and their immediate aftermath.

There are a number of different approaches to counter-factual history. I've recently read books that start with a single big chance (what if Rome hadn't fallen?) and then trace the possible consequences of that single chance over a long period of time, or that focus on one major campaign or battle and examine how it might have ended different. The approach taken here is to start each chapter from the real-world historical position and examine a large number of possible alternatives, normally only looking forward a generation or so. As a result none of the speculations are too wild or based on too many steps. Very few of the alternatives are examined in any great detail, which for me avoids a major pitfall of some alternative history - treating a possible alternative as if there is real evidence that could be examined. Vennings has also avoided the temptation of building a string of alternatives, each relying on a previous change to be possible. The one major exception comes in 1066 where quite a few of the scenarios rely on changes in events up to fifty years earlier, but in this case it does serve more of a purpose, looking at various alternative heirs to Edward the Confessor or different possible outcomes of Cnut's invasion.

This book serves two valuable historical purposes - first to remind us how little we actually know about some of the events of this period, especially the early conquest period, and second to remind us how big an element chance played in the rise and fall of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the eventual unification of England and the various eleventh century conquests. It is also an entertaining read, taking us through nearly seven hundred years of alternative histories at a rapid pace.

Chapters
Chapter 1 - Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms to c.800
Part I: The Setting: An Era of Personal Leadership and Creation of New Kingdoms
Part II: The Kingdoms: Real and Alternative Courses of Development
Chapter 2: The Post-Roman British Kingdoms
Chapter 3: Which Anglo-Saxon State could have Triumphed Long Term in the Seventh to Ninth Centuries
Chapter 4: The Vikings and After: 866 and All That
Chapter 5: The Kingdom of Wessex/ England from the Reign of Alfred
Chapter 6: 1066: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England and its Aftermath

Author: Timothy Venning
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2013



Anglo-Saxons

The Anglo-Saxons were a cultural group who inhabited England in the Early Middle Ages. They traced their origins to the 5th century settlement of incomers to Britain, who migrated to the island from the North Sea coastlands of mainland Europe. However, the ethnogenesis of the Anglo-Saxons occurred within Britain, and the identity was not merely directly imported. The development of an Anglo-Saxon identity arose from the interaction between incoming groups of people from a number of Germanic tribes, both amongst themselves, and with indigenous British groups. Many of the natives, over time, adopted Anglo-Saxon culture and language and were assimilated. The Anglo-Saxons established the concept, and the Kingdom, of England, and though the modern English language owes somewhat less than 26% of its words to their language, this includes the vast majority of words used in everyday speech. [1]

Historically, the Anglo-Saxon period denotes the period in Britain between about 450 and 1066, after their initial settlement and up until the Norman Conquest. [2] The early Anglo-Saxon period includes the creation of an English nation, with many of the aspects that survive today, including regional government of shires and hundreds. During this period, Christianity was established and there was a flowering of literature and language. Charters and law were also established. [3] The term Anglo-Saxon is popularly used for the language that was spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons in England and southeastern Scotland from at least the mid-5th century until the mid-12th century. In scholarly use, it is more commonly called Old English. [4]

The history of the Anglo-Saxons is the history of a cultural identity. It developed from divergent groups in association with the people's adoption of Christianity and was integral to the founding of various kingdoms. Threatened by extended Danish Viking invasions and military occupation of eastern England, this identity was re-established it dominated until after the Norman Conquest. [5] Anglo-Saxon material culture can still be seen in architecture, dress styles, illuminated texts, metalwork and other art. Behind the symbolic nature of these cultural emblems, there are strong elements of tribal and lordship ties. The elite declared themselves kings who developed burhs, and identified their roles and peoples in Biblical terms. Above all, as Helena Hamerow has observed, "local and extended kin groups remained. the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period." [6] The effects persist in the 21st century, as a 2015 study found the genetic makeup of British populations today shows divisions of the tribal political units of the early Anglo-Saxon period. [7]

The term Anglo-Saxon began to be used in the 8th century (in Latin and on the continent) to distinguish "Germanic" groups in Britain from those on the continent (Old Saxony and Anglia in Northern Germany). [8] [a] Catherine Hills summarised the views of many modern scholars in her observation that attitudes towards Anglo-Saxons, and hence the interpretation of their culture and history, have been "more contingent on contemporary political and religious theology as on any kind of evidence." [9]


The Anglo Saxon Age - An Alternative History of Britain, Timothy Venning - History

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Taking a similar approach to his successful If Rome Hadn't Fallen, Timothy Venning explores the various decision points in a fascinating period of British history and the alternative paths that it might have taken.

Dr Timothy Venning starts within an outline of the process by which much of Britain came to be settled by Germanic tribes after the end of Roman rule, so far as it can be determined from the sparse and fragmentary sources. He then moves on to discuss a series of scenarios which might have altered the course of subsequent history dramatically. For example, was a reconquest by the native British ever a possibility (under 'Arthur' or someone else)? Which of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms might have united England sooner and would this have kept the Danes out? And, of course, what if Harold Godwinson had won at Hastings?

While necessarily speculative, all the scenarios are discussed within the framework of a deep understanding of the major driving forces, tensions and trends that shaped British history and help to shed light upon them. In so doing they help the reader to understand why things panned out as they did, as well as what might have been.

This book serves two valuable historical purposes - first to remind us how little we actually know about some of the events of this period, especially the early conquest period, and second to remind us how big an element chance played in the rise and fall of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the eventual unification of England and the various eleventh century conquests. It is also an entertaining read, taking us through nearly seven hundred years of alternative histories at a rapid pace.

History of War website

The author explores the various decision points in a fascinating period of British history.

Forces Pension Society

The author is clearly knowledgeable about the subject matter.

Medieval Warfare Magazine

If this was the only book you read on the Anglo-Saxon age then you would come away with a sound knowledge of the period and with some interesting ideas to raise in debate with friends – such as “if Harold II had won the battle of Hastings, who would have succeeded him?” and “could Northumbria, with a run of good luck, have conquered the whole of England”.

Hexham Local History Society

Timothy Venning is a historian who is fascinated by 'what ifs' and near misses, by those moments when events hung in the balance, and he seeks to explore all the alternatives. This book is part of a series that shows just how many turning points there have been in British history. In The Anglo Saxon Age, Venning looks at the establishment of the early English kingdoms, with the arrival of Germanic tribes in a country where Roman rule had collapsed. The book is full of fascinating arguments and alternatives and ideal for anyone who sees history as a source of intelligent argument.

The Good Book Guide

His (the author's) speculation is interesting, enjoyable and in parts persuasive. This is a book that may encourage some heated debate, some disbelief and some enthusiastic followers.

Firetrench Reviews

About Timothy Venning

Timothy Venning obtained his BA and PhD from King's College, University of London, specialising in Cromwell's foreign policy and is a gifted historian, deep and critical researcher and attractive writer with a wide range of historical interests. He can slip easily from and effectively into early history, the middle ages, the early modern period including Britain and Europe. He combines academic rigour with accessibility for general readers and specialists. Publications include: Dictionary of National Biography (OUP - contributions) Cromwellian Foreign Policy (Palgrave) A Compendium of British Office-Holders (Palgarve) A Chronology of Byzantine Empire (Palgrave) A Chronology of the Roman Empire (Continuum) A Chronology of the Crusades (Routledge) A Chronology of Early Medieval Britain and Europe Ad 450-1066 (Routledge Anglo-Saxon Kings and Queens The Kings and Queens of Wales The Kings and Queens of Scotland Lords of the Isles: Rulers of the Highlands, Hebrides, and Man King-Makers: Lords of the Welsh Marches (Amberley) If Rome Had Survived An Alternative History of Britain The Anglo-Saxon Age The Hundred Years War Norman and Plantagenets The Tudors The English Civil War (all Pen and Sword) plus 8 titles forthcoming including academic titles: Cromwell's Failed State and the Monarchy The Fall of the British Republic and the Return of the King: From Cromwell's Commonwealth to Stuart Monarchy, 1657-1670: plus more Royal Mysteries as above and the pipeline. (All Pen and Sword).


Part I

The Setting: An Era of Personal Leadership and Creation of New Kingdoms

But what if the fortunes of war and politics had turned out differently?

(a) The problem of the sources

It has become the fashion in recent decades to emphasize the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of early England in terms of social and economic factors as opposed to their leadership. The nineteenth century historians’ enthusiasm for history focusing on the lives of ‘kings and queens’ has been downplayed, and in school education the old system of learning the names of rulers by rote has been replaced by ‘empathizing’ with the lives of their subjects – the ordinary peasant-farmers and their families. Assisted by a concentration of resources on archaeology and the excavation of homesteads, the basic details of everyday life have been the mainstay of pre-1066 studies. The complicated details of politics and battles have been neglected, with the additional factor that greater modern understanding of the meagre literary sources poses new questions about them. Just how accurate and reliable are the surviving – often non-contemporary – narratives? To what extent were they written to record details that had been faithfully remembered over generations – and how much were they works of literature and propaganda with a contemporary political purpose?

The issue is particularly acute for the era of ‘conquest’ – itself a problematic concept at variance with basic archaeology – and settlement, the fifth to seventh centuries. The main semi-contemporary British (Welsh) source, the De Excidio Britanniae of Gildas (540s), deals in lurid generalizations of mass-slaughter and polemic about the sins of the British, and its author clearly saw himself as a latter-day Jeremiah inveighing against the moral failings of his sinful countrymen that led to merited punishment. He was not writing as an objective ‘historian’ in the modern sense (or even as a Roman writer such as Tacitus did), but as a polemicist looking to the Old Testament for inspiration. The post-Roman British of his era had lost the greater part of their land to heathen invaders, just as the Jews of Jeremiah’s time had lost Israel and were in the process of losing Judah. The parallel was obvious the cause of this punishment of God’s people must be their sins, and thus Gildas, a devout monk probably writing in southern Britain or Brittany, was bound to play up the extent of the disaster.

But his claims of disaster for the British, with towns sacked and farms abandoned in a systematic and countrywide reign of terror by Germanic invaders, are not backed by the evidence on the ground. The amount of fire-related destruction in towns is limited, and it has been pointed out that not every fire can be attributed to attackers as opposed to accident (which applies to burnt Roman villas too).

Pioneering work on the rural landscape shows a major degree of continuity in occupation from post-Roman to Anglo-Saxon settlement and little sign of devastated farms¹ left vacant for decades.

The first English source, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was written by another monk, the Venerable Bede, in isolated Northumbria c.731 and sought to describe the inevitable triumph of the Roman Catholic missionaries in converting the English. Bede’s monastery of Jarrow on the Tyne in northern Northumbria around 700 was not that remote from events elsewhere despite the geographical location. The kingdom had many contacts with the other English states and bishoprics and the nearer Continent, playing up its role as part of Christendom and its links with the papacy in Rome – particularly under the late seventh century bishopric of the energetic ‘Romanizer’ St Wilfred. Its elite under King Oswy had made a conscious decision to adopt the Roman religious customs (e.g. in celebrating Easter) at Whitby in 664 to fit in with the Continent, and the Church kept up its international links. Indeed, from 669 the Church in England uniquely had a Greek leader from St Paul’s home-town in Cilicia, Eastern Anatolia – Archbishop Theodore from Tarsus. Bede was an assiduous collector of facts and emphasized his use of reliable witnesses. But he had a religious purpose in his writing as much as Gildas had, though he seems to have been less credulous about early history and better informed. His account downplayed both the work of ‘Celtic’ missionaries from Iona – the defeated faction in 664 – in the conversion of northern Britain and the survival of the post-Roman British Church. If he is to be believed, preconversion England was entirely pagan, with no mention of the possibility that Christians using churches (e.g. that of St Martin at Canterbury) had survived in the kingdom of Kent into the sixth century. No Christians were referred to in the British kingdoms of the Pennines annexed to Northumbria in the early seventh century. Nor did he point out that before his hero, St Augustine, and his missionaries arrived from Rome to convert Kent in 597 that King Aethelbert’s Christian Frankish wife already had an attendant bishop, Liudhard.

Both Kent and Northumbria were presented as a pagan tabula rasa when their Roman Christian converters arrived – Augustine in Kent and Paulinus in Northumbria. In secular matters, Bede’s list of the major ‘over-kings’ in England in the seventh century² – the ‘Bretwaldas’ – notably left out the pagan Penda, ruler of the Midlands from c.625 to 655 and probably more powerful than his Northumbrian contemporaries.

The major secular source for pre-900 history, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was not compiled until the later ninth century, 400 years after the early settlements, and concentrates on events in its ‘home territory’, Wessex. It was probably commissioned by King Alfred’s court, at a time of renewed threat from the Vikings, to present an inspiring picture of the struggles of the English peoples against the British (and each other) and to play up the role of Alfred’s own dynasty. Much of its early detail is formulaic, with the sparse account of the conquest of Wessex suspiciously similar to that of Kent. The only other southern kingdom covered in any detail is Kent – and that mainly at the time of its conquest in the fifth century and the conversion in the sixth century. Sussex, adjacent to Wessex, so presumably reasonably well known to the latter’s annalists, is only mentioned during its conquest in the fifth century and later when its history impinges on Wessex. East Anglia – an important realm, holder of the ‘bretwaldaship’ in the 620s and location of the major archaeological find of royal treasure at Sutton Hoo – is hardly mentioned, as is Essex. Mercia, crucial in the seventh and eighth centuries and arguably the most powerful kingdom south of the Humber from its unification c.630, is neglected except when its history impinges on Wessex or Northumbria. As with Bede, the career of the pagan Penda is downplayed compared with that of his Christian foes in Northumbria – because Alfred or other ‘editors’ regarded him with disapproval?

The annals are very much history from a West Saxon point of view – and we must bear in mind that they may have been collected to inspire the readership and listeners about past heroic successes in an era of Viking attacks. As has been pointed out, there is no mention of apparent Saxon disasters such as their defeat by the British at ‘Mount Badon’ around 500. There is merely a suspicious lacuna in the list of Saxon military successes for the period from 491 to 560, except in Wessex. Again, there are contradictions with the archaeological record – particularly over the early settlement of Hampshire,³ the alleged cradle of Wessex. There is no archaeological record of a Saxon settlement in Hampshire around 500, when the ‘founder’ Cerdic was apparently active. The majority of sixth century settlements are in the upper and middle Thames valley, an area whose warfare is not covered in the Chronicle except for a few references in the 570s.

For that matter, even the early Welsh sources have been shown to have contemporary political purposes – as with the History attributed to ‘Nennius’ (c.829), commissioned for a new dynasty in Gwynedd to play up its predecessors’ heroism, and the tenth century Annales Cambriae compiled at Hywel Dda’s court.⁴ Sceptics have accordingly had a field day minimizing the reliability of all these sources and limiting the amount of written evidence for the period that can be deemed reliable.⁵ It is likely that the sources are not as useless as some historians have implied, and that much detail was copied from non-surviving records without much amendation even if a political ‘spin’ was put upon it and inconvenient facts were dropped from the record. But it still provides a major note of caution when any assessment of the era of settlement is considered. And for that matter the first, nineteenth century, modern historians to interpret this evidence had their own agenda too. Great ‘progressive’, ‘Whig’ historians such as Freeman and Stubbs had a motive for presenting a picture of ‘free’, racially Germanic Anglo-Saxons creating a distinctly ‘English’ society, without inconvenient ‘Celtic’ elements. They looked to emulate their nineteenth century German contemporaries across the ‘German Ocean’ (North Sea), whence the Anglo-Saxons had come, and to create a founding saga for the British Empire and its democratic institutions. In this respect, the ‘Celtic’ element in Britain was an irrelevance and any notion of non-Saxon survival in England to be ignored the argument sometimes took on ominous racial overtones about the innate superiority of the Germanic Saxons to other peoples. In this interpretation, the seventeenth century ‘left-wing’ notion of the post-1066 ruling class as alien Frenchmen imposing a ‘Norman Yoke’ on freedom-loving Saxons was revived. A typical interpretation was that of the historical novelist Charles Kingsley of the career of Hereward the post-1066 ‘freedom-fighter’ as ‘Last of the Saxons’, the epitome of manly English resistance to tyrannous French invaders. Kingsley and Freeman were as much polemicists as Gildas or Bede were.

(b) The importance of leadership – and a culture of Germanic military leadership

The various small kingdoms in post-Roman, Germanic England of the sixth and seventh centuries owed their names to the assorted divisions of the ‘Anglian’, Saxon, and Jutish peoples settled in the Danish peninsula and the swamps of north-western Germany in the fifth century⁶ – the three invading peoples of the mid-fifth century as recorded by Bede. In fact, it is not clear whether there was a clear genetic or geographical distinction between them – did the Jutes come from Jutland, and where precisely was the Angles’⁷ homeland? Was it the geographical ‘Angle’ between Germany and the Jutland peninsula, i.e. modern Schleswig-Holstein? What of the sixth century Eastern Roman account that the ‘Frissones’ – presumably from the Frisian islands off Holland⁸ – were involved in the conquest? Was this another name for one of Bede’s peoples, or for those ‘Saxons’ – not genetically or culturally distinct from the mainlanders – who happened to live on the Frisian islands? Were a distinct ‘Frisian’ people ‘swamped’ by numerically superior and more culturally aggressive Saxons and forgotten about by later writers? What of the archaeological evidence of close cultural links between the Jutes of Kent and the Franks, seemingly ignored by Bede?

The question arises of whether the names that we know the new kingdoms by are an accurate memory of the genetic or cultural ‘make-up’ of the inhabitants, or just ‘short-hand’ for the self-perceived allegiance of their leadership. The names may reflect the self-perceived identity of the dominant ‘people’ in an area by the time of Bede, not that of the real-life fifth and sixth century settlers. What he recorded may be myth as much as accurate fact, and at least be distorted by simplification by later generations after the (alleged) settlement. Given the recent discoveries about the makeup of English ‘DNA’, of which more later, the extent of an influx of settlers from across the North Sea has been questioned. So has the dating of any influx of ‘German/Low Countries’ DNA – how much of what has been traced was pre-Roman, from the so-called ‘Iron Age’ when Caesar testifies that some of the tribal ‘Belgae’⁹ from northern Gaul moved into southern Britain.

Did the identity of ‘Angles’, ‘Saxons’, and ‘Jutes’ reflect the chosen ‘creation myths’ of the ruling families of family, as recorded by their poets, at the expense of a more muddled and multi-ethnic origin for their followers? So-called ‘tribal’ identities in post-Roman Europe were sometimes not ethnically monolithic, but consisted of a mixture of warriors and their womenfolk from different regions coalescing around a successful leader – Romans and Germans served in the ‘Asian’ elite around Attila, for example. Did this apply to England too? Were all the emergent ‘kingdoms’ as ethnically muddled as that of Attila, which was once assumed to be monolithically of ‘Mongolian’ stock that had migrated all the way from the borders of China?¹⁰ It is not now certain that they were the ‘Hsiung-Nu’ Mongolian raiders of Han China in the second and first centuries BC, who had been defeated by the Chinese and were assumed to have migrated all the way to the Black Sea by the time they defeated the Goths there in the early 370s.

By the same definition, some of the ‘German’ groups in south-eastern England may have been partly British – hence the Romano-British names of the West Saxon ‘founder’, Cerdic, and some of his kin and of the royal house of Lindsey in Lincolnshire. Both kingdoms had ‘capitals’ – that is, principal royal residences and bishoprics – in former Romano-British regional capitals, Winchester and Lincoln.

Fifth and sixth century ethnicity is a historical and political minefield, and all that can be said is that the initial approaches of nineteenth century historians were too simplistic and were often influenced by their own contemporary notions of nationhood. Indeed, nowadays some historians even think that the long-cherished differences between archaeological finds for ‘Romano-British’ and ‘Germanic’ peoples (grave-goods and methods of burial in particular) reflect cultural fashion as much as ethnicity. Given the likely mixture of ethnic origin for the populace of some kingdoms, were the so-called ‘Saxon’ territories ever settled ‘exclusively’ by people from ‘Saxony’ that is ‘Old Saxony’ in lower north-west Germany? Or the ‘Jutish’ territories from Jutland? And how and why did the name of the ‘Frisians’/‘Frissones’ become submerged in those of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes?

Creating a sense of identity was important, and the emergence of ‘patriotic’ legends of identity focussing on a dynasty can be seen in the example of the most successful people of the later fourth and fifth centuries, the Goths the Gothic History (Getica) of Jordanes reflects their self-image by c.500 and is centred on the Amal dynasty. The semi-Romanized Goths in conquered Italy are the most visible sign of this tendency, but it seems to apply across many other peoples – as in England with the ‘founding myths’ of Kent (centred on Hengest) and the Anglian Mercians (centred on their Continental ancestor-king Offa). Crucially, when all this dynastic mythology was created no ambitious literary ‘spinner’ for a new post-Roman kingship could create a history of ancient ruling royal families who had held power for centuries, giving an impression of antiquity and stability. The post-Roman kingship of the Germanic states in ex-Roman lands was new, and everyone knew it – though some lengthy dynastic ‘history’ was to be created for non-Roman Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus. The creation of any similar ‘foundation myths’ and heroic sagas for the English states is more problematic, but it would seem that Hengest in Kent (not even a definitively historical character) benefited from this (see next section). Possibly the arrival and battles of ‘Cerdic’, founder of the West Saxon kingdom, had a similar heroic saga created about it and this was used by the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nearly 400 years later. Given the limited extent of lay literacy in sixth to ninth century England, these stories may have been orally preserved (and possibly embellished). The contrast between post-Roman Britain and post-Roman Gaul is unclear, but the survival of ‘sub-Roman’ Latinate names for the local Gallic sixth century aristocracy (and its control of Church offices) is apparent. So is literary culture – for Gaul we have the detailed and erudite historical work of Bishop Gregory of Tours but for Britain we have the vague and often obscure ‘jeremiad’ of the monk Gildas (whose personal data and location are uncertain). The degree of historical knowledge of the Later Roman period displayed by Gildas is restricted – he mixes up the time and purpose of the building of Hadrian’s Wall and thinks that Magnus Maximus, the Western Imperial usurper from Britain who was killed in 388, not Constantine III (407) was the man who took the last Roman troops from Britain.

So clearly the degree of survival of literary history books in his region, as opposed to Gregory’s, was limited he had no access in monastic libraries to fifth century Roman sources such as Orosius and Olympiodorus.


The Anglo Saxon Age - An Alternative History of Britain, Timothy Venning - History

Taking a similar approach to his successful If Rome Hadn't Fallen, Timothy Venning explores the various decision points in a fascinating period of British history and the alternative paths that it might have taken.

Dr. Timothy Venning starts within an outline of the process by which much of Britain came to be settled by Germanic tribes after the end of Roman rule, as far as it can be determined from the sparse and fragmentary sources. He then moves on to discuss a series of scenarios, which might have altered the course of subsequent history dramatically. For example, was a reconquest by the native British ever a possibility (under 'Arthur' or someone else)? Which of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms might have united England sooner and would this have kept the Danes out? And, of course, what if Harold Godwinson had won at Hastings?

While necessarily speculative, all the scenarios are discussed within the framework of a deep understanding of the major driving forces, tensions and trends that shaped British history and help to shed light upon them. In so doing they help the reader to understand why things panned out as they did, as well as what might have been.

About The Author

Timothy Venning is a specialist in the English- British Civil Wars and in the history and biography of the 17th century. He has a particular interest in the history of Parliament and also Irish history. He is an established author and has contributed to New Dictionary of National Biography.


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Continuing his exploration of the pathways of British history, Timothy Venning examines the turning points of the Tudor period, though he also strays over into the early Stuart period. As always, he discusses the crucial junctions at which History could easily have taken a different turn and analyses the possible and likely results. While necessarily speculative to a degree, the scenarios are all highly plausible and rooted in a firm understanding of actual events and their context. In so doing, Timothy Venning gives the reader a clearer understanding of the factors at play and why things happened the way they did, as well as a tantalizing view of what might so easily have been different.

Key scenarios discussed in this volume include:

&bull Did the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck ever have a realistic chance of a successful invsasion/coup?

&bull If Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII's illegitimate son, had not died young, might he have been a suitable King or at least Regent on the King's death?

&bull What if Edward VI had not died at 15 but reigned into the 1560s and 70s?

&bull How might the Spanish Armada have succeeded in landing an army in England, and with what likely outcome?

An interesting read that I'm glad to have discovered. I'll definitely be seeking out more by this author.

NetGalley, Claire Meadows

Venning's book is imaginative and unique. His paths to speculation are filled with well-researched information, but also are fun and easy to get into.

NetGalley, Shonda Wilson

This was a fun book to read. Alternate histories are always fun to read, and this one did not disappoint on that front. I liked the writing style of the book. The Tudor era is also a fascinating era in my opinion, so I enjoyed reading it.

NetGalley, Linde Boon

This was a truly fun read for me! I have a fairly decent knowledge of the events of British history--particularly the Tudor period--but not as solid an understanding of the systems and structures of the time. I have often found myself wondering, "what if. " for specific events, such as "What if Henry VIII had not been reconciled to his children before he died?" and while the possibilities are captivating, I have little grasp on how realistic each of the scenarios would be. Enter this book--enjoyable and accessible but well-researched and grounded in a solid grasp of history. It has filled the gap between history and historical fiction. I will certainly be picking up other Alternative History of Britain titles next!

NetGalley, Jess Lafferty

Alternative histories are always fun and there isn’t a historian alive (myself included) that hasn’t enjoyed playing make believe.
As such this book is a fun, lively read. It is well researched and interesting.

NetGalley, Rebecca B

I have always been fascinated by British history, especially the Tudor Dynasty, and this was an interesting read for me. It helped that I was already familiar with them before reading this book, as the details keep right into descriptions, expecting that you already have rudimentary knowledge. The author did an excellent job detailing everything. It was obvious that Mr. Venning is passionate about his subject and is well versed. I loved the concept of the book and the fact that events were described chronologically. A lovely trip through time.

NetGalley, Sheri O'Neill

Timothy Venning masterfully created all hypothetical scenarios at a certain point in the history of Britain's Tudors, stating what would have happened if decisions and responses had been made any other way.

The first thought that sprang to mind was how soap operas are nothing new or invented by someone, but constitute a summary of life and the history of humankind itself from different cultural and/or personal perspectives. The Tudors could have done everything much better and been considerably more strategically intelligent.

Another aspect to analyse from the way in which Vennings tells us this important section of history, I found to be how easy it is for people to establish all possible scenarios for others. We tend to believe we know what is or was best for others, why a certain step they took was a mistake however, we not only have the whole perspective and -as with a piece of art- can see the whole situation from the right spot -or not-, but also see the issue from our own perspective, which is not necessarily correct for the other person.

His sense of humour was finely sarcastic, asking the right rethorical and not so rethorical questions to set on each title and hypothesising about the reasons each royalty member had, to do what they did at a specific point, and which were the consequences of these actions.

A funny and creative way to explain history.

If you're interested in the intricate relationships that made your culture -including gossip- what it is, I would highly recommend to read this book.

NetGalley, Anne Secher

I was always fascinated by the Tudors and this was a perfect read for me!

NetGalley, Lara Belošević

I was seriously impressed by Venning's obvious knowledge of the subject matter. He demonstrated great knowledge of all the different avenues of Tudor history, even those that weren't directly related to English history. I was always very impressed by his ability to take the subject and make it understandable and easy to comprehend.

NetGalley, Maja Hansen

This is a very interesting thought piece. Because, that's what this is. It basically takes you through other alternatives that could have happened in Tudor history. What if Prince Arthur had lived? What if Anne Boleyn had lived or had other kids? What about Jane Seymour or the other wives? Then into the different reigns all the way through to Elizabeth I. I found it really fun and interesting to read! While certain topics were more interesting to me, I still thought it was a fun book and I'd definitely read some of the others in this series.

NetGalley, Caidyn Young

This was very interesting reading. Being a history buff this intrigued me through out and I'm glad I got to read it. Somethings made me question what the truth is but I nevertheless can't rate this enough as an alternative to other books out there if you want to read something new and fresh.

NetGalley, Louise Corrigan

An intriguing and thought-provoking look at the 'what-ifs' of the Tudor reign. As a bit of a Tudor History buff I am definitely going to purchase a physical copy of this to add to my shelves.

NetGalley, Julianne Freer

This was really interesting! I've often wondered what if Henry had died from his jousting accident? What if Katherine's son had survived? So many questions and this looks to review what may have been the alternative if these matters had been different.

Definitely worth reading! Highly researched and thorough alternatives proposed.

NetGalley, Amy McElroy

I read this on the back of reading the Wolf Hall trilogy. It helped sate the book hangover I am currently feeling, missing Cromwells world. A book of what ifs in essence- something’s I have contemplated myself. How would Tudor history have played out if this or that happened- if Catherine of Aragon’s babies had lived, for example. Would Henry have still gone on to so many wives!? A good read and some interesting insights.

NetGalley, Samantha Oloughlin

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Nonfiction is not often a genre of choice, but when I am in the mood there is nothing finer. This book fit the need in the middle of the night when I had insomnia and needed a break from real world drama. I was a history major so the information was not new to me, but nonetheless it was an enjoyable read and refreshed the knowledge.

NetGalley, Tammy Howard

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This was much better than I thought it was going to be and quite intriguing as whole. All the what-ifs gave the reader a lot to think about and contemplate about the Tudor dynasty, in particular King Henry VIII. What if Katherine of Aragon's sons had lived? What if Anne Boleyn's son survived? What if Jane Seymour had lived after the birth of Edward? What if Edward had lived longer? So many questions and more.

I have many books on the Tudor dynasty but never has there been a book of what ifs? Quite fascination actually and a must read if you consider yourself a Tudor dynasty buff. Well written and researched to be historically accurate about all of Henry VIII.s wives.

NetGalley, Lisa Konet

As a major fan of everything-Tudor, I inhaled this book in one fell swoop.

NetGalley, Janet Pole Cousineau

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I have a deep fascination with the Tudor Dynasty. This novel takes an interesting twist. Timothy Venning goes through and step by step explores what might have happened if fate had fallen a different way. Every possible time line is explored. From what would have happened if Arthur Tudor had lived to possible suitors for Henry's daughters. Essentially we get a glance at alternate time lines. For those readers who are not up on their Tudor history this was a great way to learn some history. To explore alternate possibilities you have to have a basic understanding of what really happened.
This was a nice break from all the crime serials and an enjoyably educational time travel experience.

NetGalley, Delia MacDonald

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I really enjoyed how the author gave us all the what ifs version of the Tudor History. I have always been a big fan of the Tudor family. As a fan of history, I have always wondered the same questions. Great read.

NetGalley, Amber Archambault

I found this book to be delightful and a great aid for anyone wishing to write alternate historical fiction for the Tudor period. I highly recommend this book and will be posting it in my group Tudor Books in Every Nook.

NetGalley, Laura Riddling

I appreciated looking at the possibilities of the changes that could have occurred that would have changed how history played out. especially in Tudor England an era in time that I am absolutely fascinated with, this was well written for sure.

NetGalley, Makenzie Erickson

Mr. Venning posits some very valid questions about the Tudor era in British history. His “what if” scenarios ask such questions as: “What if Queen Jane hadn't died in childbirth?” “What if Queen Anne had given birth to a son, or if Queen Katherine's sons had lived?” what about Prince Arthur, Henry VII's eldest son? What if he hadn't died?

He also asks questions about the political machinations of the era such as the closing of the monasteries by Cromwell or the failure of Wolsey to secure a “divorce” thereby allowing Henry VIII to remain in the Catholic Church.

The decisions made by the other rulers, such as King Francis and Emperor Charles cast a great deal of influence on Henry VIII. Politics of the day perhaps prevented Henry making a suitable match for his daughter Mary.

All in all, a very interesting book and I enjoyed it immensely. These are questions that I have pondered myself. Mr. Venning does a very thorough job putting forth his theories and the reasons why he states the outcomes he predicts.

NetGalley, Joyce Fox

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Interesting and extremely factual.

I love the tudors anyway- my favourite part of history and this has been a great read.

NetGalley, Vikkie Wakeham

Overall, I think this book was interesting. It really gives the reader a better understanding of how the Tudors survived during a very precarious time period in order to make England a better place for their people.

Read the full review here

Adventures of a Tudor Nerd

It is a really interesting book and thoroughly recommended as it opens your mind to things you might not have considered before, while giving a comprehensive overview of how things actually played out.

Read the full review here

Tudor Blogger

Timothy Venning has translated his formidable knowledge of the medieval history of Britain into a thoughtful 'what if' series of scenarios. A very credible work.

Medieval Warfare

Useful for the gamer for both general campaign ideas and points of historical departure, and also for more in-depth ideas that could easily translate to the tabletop for certain period events.

Miniature Wargames with Battlegames

About Timothy Venning

Timothy Venning obtained his BA and PhD from King's College, University of London, specialising in Cromwell's foreign policy and is a gifted historian, deep and critical researcher and attractive writer with a wide range of historical interests. He can slip easily from and effectively into early history, the middle ages, the early modern period including Britain and Europe. He combines academic rigour with accessibility for general readers and specialists. Publications include: Dictionary of National Biography (OUP - contributions) Cromwellian Foreign Policy (Palgrave) A Compendium of British Office-Holders (Palgarve) A Chronology of Byzantine Empire (Palgrave) A Chronology of the Roman Empire (Continuum) A Chronology of the Crusades (Routledge) A Chronology of Early Medieval Britain and Europe Ad 450-1066 (Routledge Anglo-Saxon Kings and Queens The Kings and Queens of Wales The Kings and Queens of Scotland Lords of the Isles: Rulers of the Highlands, Hebrides, and Man King-Makers: Lords of the Welsh Marches (Amberley) If Rome Had Survived An Alternative History of Britain The Anglo-Saxon Age The Hundred Years War Norman and Plantagenets The Tudors The English Civil War (all Pen and Sword) plus 8 titles forthcoming including academic titles: Cromwell's Failed State and the Monarchy The Fall of the British Republic and the Return of the King: From Cromwell's Commonwealth to Stuart Monarchy, 1657-1670: plus more Royal Mysteries as above and the pipeline. (All Pen and Sword).


The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England

This is a book that I didn&apost finish. I got as far as Raedwald and gave it up as not being suitable for me. It could be that once you&aposve read a few books on a particular subject it becomes hard to find others not repetitive or not to spot where they are simplistic or in error. I found this book to be a mix of doubtful information and to lack depth.

To begin with, though, it&aposs hard to see who it&aposs aimed at. For the general reader there&aposs not a lot in here you couldn&apost discover online, but for the This is a book that I didn't finish. I got as far as Raedwald and gave it up as not being suitable for me. It could be that once you've read a few books on a particular subject it becomes hard to find others not repetitive or not to spot where they are simplistic or in error. I found this book to be a mix of doubtful information and to lack depth.

To begin with, though, it's hard to see who it's aimed at. For the general reader there's not a lot in here you couldn't discover online, but for the more specialist reader it's too basic. The author is a researcher rather than an Anglo-Saxonist per se and I think it shows. When he talks about Hengist, he briefly refers to the demolition of this story by Dumville (Bassett - Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms), but then continues with the legend anyway and it is the same with the early kings of Wessex. He acknowledges the difficulties that the early entries of the ASC present, but still recounts them as if they are significant for this period, rather than concentrating on the Thames valley Gewisse.

It may be totally fantastic the further in you get, but I lost all confidence when I read the entry on Raedwald and realised that if I did find something new in here, I'd want to look it up elsewhere before trusting in it. This one entry contained four sections that I found questionable. Some of which are arguably picky and may be because I'm not the audience he is aiming at. In particular, his assertion that 600-610 Mercia was not yet a military power – Higham argues most vigorously that it was a military power in An English Empire and even if you don't accept all of his conclusions, it wouldn't have been feasible for Edwin to seek shelter there if Cearl wasn't able to offer some military deterrent to Aethelfrith. He was there long enough to marry and father two kids (Osfrith and Eadfrith), which supports this idea.

Other people may find this a very good book, but it wasn't for me. . more


Timothy Venning, An Alternative History of Britain: The English Civil War (Jasmin Ditcham)

(Pen & Sword, 2015) 285pp. $39.95

The value of the ‘what if’ school of historical research is still much debated among historians and Timothy Venning’s volume belongs firmly in that school of writing. The title of this book is rather misleading, as it suggests that the subject matter is: ‘The English Civil War’ whereas the study covers a much broader area than the now rather old fashioned approach of taking England out of context, as though what happened in Scotland and Ireland had no bearing on the bloodiest wars experienced by these island until modern times. As the volume is aimed largely at the popular market via the ‘Pen and Sword’ imprint, this is perhaps forgivable, but makes one wish that ‘The Wars of the Three Kingdoms’ was a more broadly known usage amongst a popular readership.
The book divides into five chapters, beginning with the countdown to the English war from December 1641 to Spring 1642. This chapter describes the build up to the war and its potential causes and is largely aimed at providing some background for a popular readership. A great plus here in that Venning does give some indication of the importance of religion in the build-up to the conflict, something that the Marxist historical school of the seventies and eighties was loathe to do and something it is important for any modern would be student of the civil wars to understand. The question is asked as to what might have happened had King Charles not been so ill advised as to confront Parliament on 6th January 1642 and then taken to flight when it all went wrong. A good question, but one showing the limitations of ‘what if’ history. If Charles Stuart had not been the man he was- a somewhat shady, untrustworthy character, convinced of his divine right, it is probably that things would never have come to this pass in the first place. He would have needed to be an entirely different person and then, perhaps, he would not have ended his life a self-constructed martyr upon the headsman’s block. He might, perhaps, have delayed things, but by that stage, things in Ireland had descended into rebellion. There appears to be no way that Charles could have regained control any time soon.

The second Chapter poses the question as to whether the Royalists could have won the war quickly and examines the lead up to the Edgehill campaign. We are asked whether the King too weak to fight in 1642. Almost certainly: the navy had gone over to parliament and the King had failed to secure any of the major military arsenals, with Hull standing as a good example of this failure. His raising of the royal standard at Nottingham was also a rather half-hearted affair and with more celerity, the notoriously slow Essex could have ended it there. Edgehill is generally seen as a no score win for the royalist faction and proves yet again that the art of keeping cavalry on the field seems to need to be relearned with every succeeding generation. Turnham Green proved to be a stand-off. The ‘what if’ Charles had kept going and struck for London is an often asked question but the efficacy of the trained bands is now generally thought to have been greater than once believed and against a disorganised Royalist force, the question remains unanswerable.

The third chapter asks if the war could have been ended more quickly and examines Charles’s indecisive nature. Once again, we run up against that fact that the King was who he was which renders any ‘what if’ largely otiose. The possibility remains that the war might have been fought to a standstill which may have encouraged cooler heads to negotiate, but Venning’s long discussion of aristocratic plotting and planning in the background remains unconvincing- the troops were in the field and the war had taken on a momentum of its own by 1643. Venning asks if there was a rising desire for peace but not where it mattered? It is a good question and the answer is almost certainly yes, but it is unlikely that had England stopped fighting, Scotland or Ireland would have done likewise. Were the Royalist advances of 1643 potentially decisive? With able parliamentarian generals like Waller, the younger Fairfax and Jones still in the field, probably not. Again, Venning tends to be willing to look for plots and stratagems in the background where nothing really existed. Gloucester and First Newbury were certainly potential turning points but things fell out as they did. The Scottish campaigns could have made a difference, but Venning places an over enthusiastic value on Montrose’s generalship.

Chapter four asks whether the war was winnable in 1644 without the new modelling of the parliamentary army. Charles appears to have demonstrated his uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after First Newbury and things did appear to stalemate at times- Essex is perhaps another general who need to be a different person for things to have moved differently as can be seen from his idiotic decision to move into the west country against orders and to find himself mopped up at Lostwithiel. Small scale sieges and skirmishes were ongoing, but nothing decisive. Pym and Hampden’s deaths were unfortunate, but cannot really be said to have made much difference to the army in the field. The Scottish army coming over the border and the threat of Presbyterianism could have been used by Charles as could the Irish levies arriving at Chester by Parliament, but nothing was really forthcoming. Missed chances- the Royalists and Cropredy Bridge where Waller was able to withdraw with his force largely intact and Essex’ march on Oxford, which could have finished the war had he been more forthright. I have to take issue with the description of the siege of Lyme Regis as a ‘Parliamentary Stalingrad’. Lyme is now, as then, a tiny seaport town. Venning is rather too fond of comparing it with the Soviet experience of World War Two.

Naseby was undoubtedly the beginning of the end. Was the Royalist disaster Prince Rupert’s fault? Almost certainly not, but he never learned the art of keeping cavalry in the field, which parliament’s horse had by this stage. The same question is asked in 1644 of Marston Moor- the endgame.

The final chapter asks whether Parliament could still have lost the war in 1645. To ask if Cromwell might not have been excluded from the Self Denying Ordinance seems rather odd. Parliament was not going to deny themselves the use of one of its most talented generals The same interference took place in the Scottish Covenanting armies and disaster followed as must surely have been known south of the border? There appears to have been no chance of peace before the New Model took the field and as Venning states, the Uxbridge negotiations were a dialogue of the deaf. I cannot agree that Montrose ever shifted the military balance in the King’s favour- in truth, he was a busted flush by this stage.

Was the Naseby confrontation inevitable? Perhaps not, but there is no doubt that the writing is on the wall by this stage. It is all too easy to clutch at straws (as the King was doing) looking for sources of help which no longer existed. Was Naseby a lost battle? Almost certainly as one would (inevitably) have needed the main protagonists to be different men for things to have turned out differently. Parliament had undoubtedly learned the lessons the Royalists had failed to learn and the New Model was a formidable, if untested, fighting force. Was the war irretrievably lost after Naseby? Undoubtedly. The Scots were tied up in their own ills and there really was no help coming..

Rupert’s refusal to hold Bristol against a Parliament siege and to ask whether he should then have fought the siege to a storm and sack with the predictable massacre in the aftermath is to make him less human than he appears to have been. He would later, perhaps, have nodded knowingly at what happened at Drogheda and Wexford. Charles’s treatment of his nephew in the aftermath really does signal the end for the Royalist cause even without the destruction of Montrose’s forces at Philiphaugh. Venning suggests that foreign aid may have been forthcoming but Henrietta Maria’s brother is dead, European wars are raging and leaders have other things on their mind. Scotland has its own issues and Rinuccini’s absurd posturings across the Irish sea mean that no help is coming from there.

After this, it really is just mopping up and the unedifying spectacle of the King dodging and weaving and a parliamentary realisation that there is no trust in the man and no deal to be brokered with him. Sadly, the rest becomes inevitable.

It has to be said that the book is not aware of some of the more recent research on the topic of the wars there is still a flavour of the outmoded ‘court v country’ in the English aspect and Venning still values the ‘Queen’s Party’ more than is now usual although views of that formidable woman, Queen Henrietta Maria’ now see her as less of an inveterate plotter and more as a: ‘she generalissima’ and successful gun runner. She had much less success is persuading her continental relatives to come over with troops or cash. There were, after all, major continental wars in train- a point that Venning tends to overlook.

There is the usual misspelling of the name of the radical preacher and eventually to be Cromwell’s personal chaplain, Hugh Peter (not Peters as in the oft repeated error here- an argument for a return to primary sources if there ever was one).

The use of ‘Colkitto’ to describe that bloody handed warrior Alasdair MacColla would also now be considered a rather out of date. Venning values Montrose as a general where it is now generally recognised that most of the fighting at the sharp end was undertaken by MacColla’s men and that he had his own motives- the expansion of the power of Clan MacDonald and a long running feud with Clan Campbell.

The book appears to come to a somewhat abrupt halt at this point without any real attempt to pull the threads together and this is somewhat frustrating. Venning’s work suffers from the problems inherent in all such what ifs. One can’t help wishing that he had concentrated on some of the most obvious potential turning points, rather than giving so much time to goings on in the ‘smoky rooms’ of historical legend. This volume tends to rather fall between a serious historical study and a piece of popular reading, although it does assume a great deal of knowledge of the background to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.


Æthelstan, Anglo-Saxon King of England

Æthelstan was the first King of Wessex to bring together all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England. He was well educated, very pious and a collector of saints relics and manuscripts. He was also a formidable warrior. We have considerably more information about Æthelstan’s reign than other Anglo-Saxon kings due to the survival of many charters dating from his time as king and there are references to Æthelstan in foreign sources.

Aethelstan penny – photo by Rasiel Suarez

Æthelstan was born sometime between 893 and 895 AD. His father was King Edward the Elder, the oldest son of King Alfred the Great. His mother was named Ecgwynn and very little is known about her. There is no record of Edward and Ecgwynn being married and Æthelstan’s legitimacy was questioned during his lifetime. It is possible they were married in secret but she did live at court. She also had a daughter whose name we do not know but who would play a role in Æthelstan’s conquest of the island. Æthelstan may have been his grandfather’s favorite because Alfred gave him a scarlet cloak, a belt set with precious stones and a Saxon sword with a gilded scabbard sometime before he died. At the very least, Alfred was making a gesture marking Æthelstanas throne worthy.

Æthelstan is described as being handsome, of medium height and slim. The chronicler William of Malmesbury recorded he had seen Æthelstan’s remains and describes his hair as flaxen with gold threads. King Alfred died in 899 and Edward the Elder became King of Wessex. Either Ecgwynn died or was put aside so Edward could make a more prestigious marriage. He married a woman named Ælflaed. Æthelstan was sent to be educated at the court of his aunt Æthelflaed and uncle Æthelred in Mercia, possibly to avoid conflicts with his stepmother and her children. It is also possible Æthelstan was being chosen as the heir to the kingdom of Mercia.

Not only was Æthelstan educated in Mercia but he was trained in arms and the study of military tactics and warfare by his aunt and uncle who were both experts. He assisted them in the subjugation of the Danes and the building and defending of burhs throughout Mercia. Æthelred died in 911 and Æthelflaed ruled as virtual queen of Mercia until her death in 918. It is possible Æthelflaed expected her daughter Ӕlfwynn to succeed her. But Edward the Elder took control of Mercia upon his sister’s death and expelled Ӕlfwynn. Æthelstan may have served as an underking for his father between the exile of Ӕlfwynn and Edward’s death in 924.

When King Edward died on July 17, 924, it is unclear what exactly happened next. Æthelstan was elected king of the Mercians and the council of Wessex elected Æthelstan’s half-brother Ælfweard king. But Ælfweard died within a month of his father and Æthelstan may have had to fight a civil war to gain the Wessex throne. Æthelstan would have been the preferred candidate to succeed his father as he was in the prime of this life and well-versed in warfare. His surviving stepbrothers were very young. What we do know is Æthelstan finally prevailed in claiming the thrones of Mercia and Wessex and his coronation took place on September 4, 925 at Kingston-on-Thames.

Æthelstan had a very busy first year as king. In the new year of 926, he travelled north to Tamworth and met with the Norse king of York, Sihtric. Sihtric swore fealty to Æthelstan and was married to Æthelstan’s full sister whose name we do not know. Sihtric died shortly after the marriage. Sihtric’s brother Guthfrith came from Dublin to claim his brother’s throne in the name of his nephew Olaf. Æthelstan led his army north and evicted Guthfrith so quickly he couldn’t make it back to Dublin and fled to Scotland.

Aethelstan called together a summit of various leaders of Britain. They included from Wales, Hywel of the West Welsh and Owain of Gwent, along with King Constantine of the Scots and from the northern kingdom based in Bamburgh, Ealdred, son of Eadwulf. They met at Eamont Bridge near Penrith on July 12, 927. These leaders acknowledged Æthelstan as overlord by swearing allegiance. They also promised not to support Guthfrith or other Vikings and to suppress paganism. Guthfrith was eventually captured. Æthelstan entertained him lavishly and then exiled him to Dublin. Æthelstan proceeded to raze the Norse defenses to the ground.

Aethelstan wanted to expand and widen his kingdom so he next turned to the west. He subdued some of the Welsh leaders, forcing them to swear allegiance, pay tribute and agree to boundaries. During Æthelstan’s reign, Welsh leaders were frequent visitors at his court and he treated them with great respect. After dealing with the Welsh, Æthelstan went into Cornwall where there appears to have been an uprising. He now ruled a multi-national kingdom that stretched from the Channel to the Scots border. After this there was relative peace in the kingdom for the next seven years.

Æthelstan’s court was constantly on the move according to where the food supplies were and for the most part stayed within Wessex. The court and the Witan (council) grew much bigger than the small group of advisors to his grandfather Alfred. This was inevitable due to the expansion of the kingdom. The form of universal education begun under Alfred was beginning to pay off by the time of Æthelstan and literacy was quite common. He formed a court school or chapel comparable to his grandfather’s. This school was in contact with the continent and began producing manuscripts and training scholars. This led to many charters which still survive, giving us insight into the reign of Æthelstan and into Anglo-Saxon life in general.

Athelstan, c.895-939. Illuminated manuscript from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert,

Six different law codes date from his reign. He also attempted to reform the coinage of the realm. There was to be one coinage and they were minted only in specific towns. Æthelstan was very devout and generous with his gifts to religious foundations. The one contemporary portrayal of him depicts him giving a copy of Bede’s Lives of St. Cuthbert to Saint Cuthbert himself. He was an avid collector of saints’ relics and books and a patron of poets at his court. Æthelstan loved hunting, falconry and practicing his skillfulness with the sword.

Many European leaders tried to cultivate good relations with Æthelstan. Æthelstan married several of his sisters to continental rulers. Harold Fairhair, the first King of Norway is said to have sent an embassy in friendship to Æthelstan, along with a beautifully decked out ship. The German king Henry the Fowler, who married one of Æthelstan’s sisters, sent him many gifts. They included perfumes, jewels, (especially emeralds), many horses with trappings, an alabaster vase, the Sword of Constantine and the spear of Charlemagne. Many European leaders sent him saints’ relics as he was a renowned collector.

Among others Æthelstan fostered his exiled nephew Louis d’Outremer of Francia, Count Alain, son of Matuedoi of Phor in Brittany and the son of King Constantine of the Scots who was brought back as a hostage from the campaign in 934. He possibly fostered Haakon, the son of Harold Fairhair. Æthelstan gave Louis limited help in reclaiming his throne in 936. He also helped Alain drive the Vikings out of Brittany.

Æthelstan promised his half-brothers the throne as his successors. After Ælfweard died, his brother Edwin survived from King Edward’s second wife. Edwin was to die in mysterious circumstances, apparently drowning at sea in 933. Whether this was by order of Æthelstan or an accident we will never know. Æthelstan had two much younger half- brothers by Edward’s third wife, Edmund and Eadred who actually did succeed him. He showed great affection for these young men and brought them up lovingly at court. His promise to his stepbrothers is sometimes given as a reason for him never marrying. Æthelstan may have also wanted to live a life of chastity.

Interactions with Scotland had deteriorated in 934 for unknown reasons and Aethelstan went north on a well-organized campaign by land and by sea. He was successful in quelling the rebellion but King Constantine went in search of allies to retaliate. The result was the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. King Aethelstan and his brother Edmund along with West Saxons, Mercians, Danes and the Welsh fought against the combined forces of Olaf Guthfrithson, Norse king of Dublin, King Constantine II of the Scots, and Owen I, King of Strathclyde. The battle is mentioned in many sources, including Old English, Middle English, Latin, Welsh, Irish and Icelandic. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle includes a contemporary poem in Old English called “Battle of Brunanburh”.

The battle was very bloody and lasted all day. Most of the combined forces and their leaders were killed. It was a resounding victory for Æthelstan and his men. The exact location of the battle is unknown but the best guess is it happened somewhere in the Wirral Peninsula.

For the last two years of Æthelstan’s reign, he enjoyed immense power. No one dared to challenge him. He was a most effective ruler both at home and abroad. He was to die suddenly, possibly at Gloucester, on October 27, 939 around the age of forty-five. At his own request, his body was taken to Malmesbury and buried there. His death caused a revolt in York which spread to the Danelaw before Edmund could stop it. Æthelstan ’s English kingdom broke apart until it was permanently reunited in 954.

Further reading: “Aethelstan, The First King of England” by Sarah Foot, “The Saxon and Norman Kings” by Christopher Brooke, “The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” by Pauline Stafford, “The Warrior Kings of Saxon England” by Ralph Whitlock


Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Anglo-Saxon England was early medieval England , existing from the 5th to the 11th centuries from the end of Roman Britain until the Norman conquest in The Anglo-Saxons were the members of Germanic-speaking groups who migrated to the southern half of the island of Great Britain from nearby northwestern Europe.

Anglo-Saxon Britain wasn't ruled by one person and the Anglo-Saxons were not united. They invaded as many different tribes and each took over different parts of Britain. Each group of Anglo-Saxon settlers had a leader or war-chief. A strong and successful leader became 'cyning', the Anglo-Saxon word for 'king'. Each king ruled a kingdom and led a small army. From time to time, the strongest king would claim to be 'bretwalda' , which meant ruler of all Britain.

Our history of the kings of England starts with the Anglo-Saxons, at the beginning of the 9th century. Because it was so long ago, the dates, and even the years are uncertain. At this point in time, England, as you know it, doesn't exist yet. The land is divided into several small kingdoms, and the people who live there are called Anglo-Saxons. It was during this time, around the year , that the Vikings realized that England was a very interesting country to loot and plunder. Between and they came by more and more often, much to the dismay of the people living there. In these Vikings formed a "Great Army".

But how much do you know about the Anglo-Saxons? Who were they, where did they settle and what religions did they follow? Here, Martin Wall brings you the facts…. The Roman period in Britain is often said to end in the year when the Roman emperor Honorius supposedly told the Britons to look to their own defences because Rome itself was beleaguered by barbarian attacks. Certainly around that time, Roman rule in Britain faltered, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by incomers arriving from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia.


Watch the video: Anglo-Saxon Britain