English Origins: A selection of new books on Saxon and Viking England
Perhaps it is coincidence or perhaps it is because of the political questioning of what it means to be English that has led to a recent surge in books about England's origins in the so-called Dark Ages.
I am often asked, 'what is your favourite period of history?' My usual politician style answer is 'whatever I am teaching at the moment'. But if you ask me as a student of history, rather than as a teacher of history, then the answer could well be the Saxons. I was first introduced to this period at the age of 8/9 by my fabulous Prep School history master, Michael Cork. Michael had made a special study of the Saxons as an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 19th century. I was first attracted, as all small boys were, to the battles and the unlikely names. Subsequently it has been Saxon culture that has intrigued me and the fact that so much of what makes the English English is rooted in our Saxon past, from our shires to our monarchy, from our language to our love of our land. All this is very Saxon.
So to the new books:-
The first is a great book, The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris. Such a new book, looking at this period in its entirety, has been long awaited. The wait has been worthwhile, and the book has garnered rave reviews.
I said it was the battles that interested me as a child, and the battles remain not just of interest today but of importance too. A new look at the Viking Invasion of the 9th century is Hadley and Richards' The Viking Great Army and the Making of England'. The authors, from the University of York, are both archaeologists and therefore bring all the recent research from that field to their study.
Two books looking at the story of two battles that determined the course of English history are, Never Greater Slaughter by Michael Livingstone. This is the story of the Battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937, in which Athelstan consolidated Saxon England. Livingstone is a military historian and the book is a great read. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the book has received some negative reviews from historians because there is no consensus on the battle's location and Livingstone plugs one possible answer. Ignore the criticism, read the book, and make your own mind up.
The second book of a battle, which everyone knows was arguably the greatest turning point in our history, that is Hastings in 1066. The Battle of Hastings by Jim Bradby. This again is largely written from a military vantage point.
Next, two local history books which have a much greater significance. First, from the admirable Caitlin Green, is Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400 - 650. The second is Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain by E. Albert. Another book based on recent archaeology; this time from Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland.
Finally, two books which are slightly off centre to the topic. Firstly, the inestimable Barry Cunliffe's Bretons and Britons. This is a must read for the scope of the writing, from 5400 BC to the present day, and for the memoir passages as well. It emphasises a recurring theme of Cunliffe's writing, namely the part played by the ocean. This has inevitably attracted great reviews from critics. The second, which has had the most fantastic reviews in the Press is Cat Jarman's River Kings: A New History of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.
Before I finish this list two old classics, from 1995, which are not about Kings and Battles but about Food and Drink, and much much more besides. If left on a desert island these are two books I must have!
A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption and A Second Handbook on Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: Production and Distribution. Both are by Ann Hagen. I wish the publisher had given them more intriguing titles to encourage a wider public to delve into their pages, each one of which contains a gem of knowledge.
I hope that those of you who have never read into this period might be tempted by one of the above. If you are, I hope you won't be disappointed.