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Review: To Be A Queen, by Annie Whitehead

A novel about the Lady of the Mercians

One of the things that happily occupies me at any time, and certainly during this strange pandemic isolation time, is reading. Books have always been a place of comfort to me. They have also been a wonderful source of education, and I’m always on the look out for a book that will both entertain and educate. Therefore I was very thrilled to discover To Be A Queen, by Annie Whitehead, a novel about Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. I eagerly dove into it as perfect pandemic distraction reading.

Of course some may prefer other types of “fluffier” distraction reading other than the story of a long-ago princess, daughter of Alfred the Great and a warrior queen in her own right. But for me, it was perfect.

To Be A Queen is set during the time of the Danelaw, in the 9th-10th century when the Vikings have invaded England and there are only two English kingdoms left who have not been conquered by the invaders: Wessex and Mercia. King Alfred of Wessex has fought bravely against the Vikings, and has had some successes here and there. But he needs the combined might of both Wessex and Mercia to finally roust the Danes.

Alfred has carefully been cementing ties with Mercia, taking a Mercian wife, Ewith, and sending his sister to be married to the Mercian king, Burgred. He then sends his first-born, his daughter Æthelflæd, to the Mercian court to be cared for while he fights the continual wars against the Danes. To Be A Queen opens in AD 874 when Æthelflæd, nicknamed Teasel, is five years old. In that year the Vikings deposed Burgred in favour of Ceowulf, who makes some alliances with them, and Burgred is forced to flee England. Teasel is sent back to Wessex for her safety.

But once she is a woman grown (in those days, around 16 or 17) she is given in marriage by Alfred to Æthelwald, called Ethelred in this book, who is a sub-ruler under the overlordship of Alfred of the western portion of Mercia, the eastern part having been lost to the Vikings. Ethelwald proves to be a formidable warrior and together with Edward, Æthelflæd’s brother, they manage to keep western Mercia out of the hands of the invaders. However Ethelwald’s health declines (in this book he has a stroke which weakens him) and Æthelflæd is given more and more responsibilities as leader of the kingdom. In AD 899 Alfred dies and his son, Æthelflæd’s brother Edward, becomes ruler of Wessex. After Ethelwald dies in AD 911 she succeeds Ethelwald as ruler, and she and Edward work together to continue to fight the Danes and build a strong English presence in both Wessex and Mercia.

Aethelflaed is played by Millie Brady in the series The Last Kingdom. A little more of a Hollywood version than Whitehead’s Aethelflaed! Image from BBC.com

From historical records we know that Æthelflæd was admired by her people and directed her army against the Vikings; it is even possible that she fought alongside them. She was a unique figure in Anglo-Saxon England in that she ruled as a queen and even had her daughter Ælfwyn (called Elfwen in the book) as her successor. This marks the only time that the headship of a kingdom passed from one woman to another in early medieval England. Alas, Ælfwyn only rules for a few months before her uncle Edward deposes her and she is sent to Wessex, where she effectively disappears from historical record. It is supposed that she took holy orders. It is certain that Ælfwynn did not have the same support of the Mercian nobles as her mother enjoyed.

To Be a Queen is Annie Whitehead’s first book, published in 2015. She has two books published after this one. Both are also historical fiction and are set in Anglo-Saxon England. This author is a historian, and is a member of the Royal Historical Society of England. She certainly has the historical knowledge to back her fiction, and this novel shows it. Whitehead also has a new book coming out in September, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, a non-fiction book featuring Æthelflæd as well as other women of influence in that time, such as abbesses, queens, and mothers of kings. I’m very much looking forward to that one, too!

I really enjoyed the depth of the historical details in this book. The world of tenth-century Mercia comes alive, with all its terror and delights. The book opens with four year old Æthelflæd in danger from the Vikings, and it is this danger that haunts Æthelflæd her whole life. The book’s portrait of this time of fear from the Norse invaders gave a good picture of what it would have been like to live at a time when the invaders could attack at any time.

It’s very difficult to write a historical novel from the point of view of someone who lives in that era, because the author really has to immerse themselves in the worldview of a people who lived so long ago. But I think that Whitehead does a good job of this. She gives us a sympathetic portrait of a woman of royal blood who accepts her duty and fulfills her responsibilities, even though she may not always want to do what is required.

In particular, Teasel does not want to marry the older Ethelred, but the handsome Alhelm (his “real” name in historical records is Ealhhelm), who has caught her eye since she was very young. Throughout the book she carries a torch for Anhelm, but never to the extent of doing more than pining for a lost love. I appreciated this portrayal of a woman with conflicting loyalties. Too often we get historical fiction that would treat this very differently, for example show Æthelflæd and Anhelm as having an affair. I liked that Whitehead gave Teasel this extra “love interest” but did not go down that route.

I also liked the way she portrayed Teasel’s slow acceptance of Mercia and its people, and their equally slow acceptance of her. She was not Mercian-born, she was of the Wessex royal house, and her marriage very much a political one. But in the book (and in real life) she truly becomes a beloved leader of her adopted people, the Lady of the Mercians who advances the cause of Mercia while at the same time partnering with her brother Edward to ensure the defeat of the Danes.

Whitehead includes a lot of historical detail on the life and times of the people of 10th century England. It’s a fascinating glimpse of what daily life was like. At times I will admit that the volume of historical detail once and while overbalanced the plot, which can happen in historical fiction. But overall I think she got this balance right and for the most part I enjoyed getting this detailed picture of the times through Æthelflæd’s story.

The one “complaint” I would have about the book is more of a preference of mine and so I mention it with a lot of caveats. I often struggle with books that cover a long period of time. Simply because I prefer to really get engaged with a character, and I find that when a book tackles a long period (in this book, from AD 874 when Teasel was four years old, to AD 918 when she dies at age 48) I can get disoriented by the time gaps. Perhaps disoriented is the wrong word, but I find that I just get settled into a time period and understand what is going on, and then the time shifts and I have to get reacquainted again with the characters and all that is happening.

This is purely a personal preference, but I mention it in case there are others who feel that way, so they are forewarned. Realistically, though, it’s the only way an author can tackle a character over a lifetime and still make the book manageable enough to read, so this is not a criticism of the author. In fact I found the writing itself well done, and even with the skips in time, the story flowed well enough that it wasn’t too confusing.

Teasel herself emerges on the pages as a well-rounded, sympathetic character, with hopes and fears of her own, along with struggles that she has to overcome. This book is a fascinating account of her life, and I highly recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction, and especially to those who have an interest in this crucial period of England’s history.


Note: The Mercians had more than one strong female leader whose names and histories have been passed down to us. If you want some more information on another one, check out my post on Cynethryth, Queen of Mercia!


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