A modern look at ancient places in England.
Britain has changed beyond recognition since the days of the Venerable Bede, the eighth century historian and monk. But there are a few remains of Anglo-Saxon England if you know where to look.
In this wonderful non fiction book, written by an Oxford historian, we are taken on a journey through the ancient seven kingdoms: Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Kent and Wessex, where we see the churches and monuments that somehow have survived the wars, destruction and weather of the last thousand years.
And I swear that George R. R. Martin found the inspiration for his books series A Song of Ice and Fire from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and later Wars of the Roses. But that's another story.
For anyone interested in this period, or history in general, this book is a refreshing look at the evidence of the past societies. I find it rewarding and enjoyable as well as useful research to see the actual places I write or teach about. SO the peoples and their ways no longer exist, yet there is some fragment of their workmanship, their faith, their toil. As the blurb says "this is an invaluable window into the world of the author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People". Most of what we know about Anglo-Saxon England comes from Bede.
The book directs us to amazing examples Dark Ages England, indexed with plenty of photographs and maps. One example is Breedon-on-the-Hill, in Leicestershire, which seems once to have been one of the most impressive settlements in Mercia, the kingdom which covered the whole of the Midlands between the Thames and the Humber and is my current 'home' kingdom. The church (pictured) was built during Bede’s lifetime on the site of an Iron Age fort atop a large hill, offering commanding views of the countryside in all directions. It is an imposing site as you drive past even today.
The building standing there now is entirely post Anglo-Saxon, but the architects took care to safeguard a collection of extraordinary carvings, described by one expert as ‘a stone equivalent to the Lindisfarne Gospels’, created during the eighth and ninth centuries when Mercian power was at its peak.
Too many books about this period are aimed at academics, which is a pity. This is not one of those. It is accessible, easy to read and serves as a great introduction to the 'Dark Ages' period. One reviewer referred to this book as "more like a travel book about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms rather than a history." It was meant as a criticism, I feel, but not everyone needs a history book. I have many academic studies and sometimes I want to visit an historical site as a tourist as well, and hope that my family enjoys my research as much as I do.
Published by Head of Zeus 16 July 2015.