The best books that led to my obsession with Saxon England

Who am I?

I’m a writer of novels set in Saxon England. I studied the era at both undergraduate and graduate levels and never meant to become a historical fiction writer. But I developed a passion to tell the story of the last century of Early England through the eyes of the earls of Mercia, as opposed to the more well-known, Earl Godwin. I’m still writing that series but venture further back in time as well. I might have a bit of an obsession with the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. I’m fascinated by the whole near-enough six hundred years of Saxon England before the watershed moment of 1066, after which, quite frankly, everything went a bit downhill. 

I wrote...

Son of Mercia

By MJ Porter,

Book cover of Son of Mercia

What is my book about?

The once-mighty kingdom of Mercia is in perilous danger. Their King, Beornwulf lies dead and years of bitter in-fighting between the nobles, and cross-border wars have left Mercia exposed to her enemies. King Ecgberht of Wessex senses now is the time for his warriors to strike and exact his long-awaited bloody revenge on Mercia.

King Wiglaf, has claimed his right to rule Mercia, but can he unite a disparate Kingdom against the might of Wessex who is braying for blood and land? Can King Wiglaf keep the dragons at bay or is Mercia doomed to disappear beneath the wings of the Wessex wyvern? Can anyone save Mercia from destruction?

The books I picked & why

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Aelfred's Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age

By Max Adams,

Book cover of Aelfred's Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age

Why this book?

This is a book about much more than just the most famous of the Saxon kings, Alfred the Great. The narrative begins in 789 and runs to 955, and charts not only the ‘beginning’ of England, as we know it, but also the ‘end’ of the smaller kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. One of the more recent of my book recommendations, Max Adams simply thinks about Saxon England the way that I do, and he’s able to weave a narrative that’s conscious of both the narrative sources for the period and recent archaeological advances. I often pick up his books (he’s written two others about earlier Saxon England) to make use of his timelines and maps. He has a lightness of touch and flair that makes even the murkiest of topics, engaging and more importantly, comprehensible.

The Earliest English Kings

By D. P. Kirby,

Book cover of The Earliest English Kings

Why this book?

I’ve owned this book for over thirty years, and it’s still my ‘go-to-book’ for the earliest of the English kingdoms—charting the centuries when Northumbria, Mercia, and then Wessex were in the ascendant during Saxon England. It’s so readable and engaging. Without it, I don’t believe my passion for the era would ever have gained flight. And it’s not that it shies away from the more complicated arguments about source material and complexities in the narrative record. No, it does all that and much, much more. I still believe it to be one of the best books on the period, and I know for a fact, that many other Saxon historical fiction authors have this book on their bookshelves.

The Death of Anglo-Saxon England

By N. J. Higham,

Book cover of The Death of Anglo-Saxon England

Why this book?

Finally, one of my recommendations has lots of pictures in it. The Death of Anglo-Saxon England charts the closing century of Saxon England. This book was written for a general audience and is a thoroughly engrossing read. I can remember taking it with me on day trips so that I could find a corner and stick my head in the book, and my version is replete with many, many bits of paper sticking out from the pages. Complete with all the images and pictures, the author presents an easy-to-understand and chronological account of the events that led to the Norman Conquest of 1066. I’m not saying I agree with everything in this book, but it’s a very good starting point for those with a growing interest in the period.

Aethelstan: The First King of England

By Sarah Foot,

Book cover of Aethelstan: The First King of England

Why this book?

Aethelstan is an engrossing account of king Aethelstan, lauded as the first crowned king of ‘England,’ something his father, and more importantly, his grandfather, King Alfred, was unable to lay claim to. It’s a thorough examination of all that’s known about Aethelstan during his reign. It’s rare to get a book dedicated to any one single king before the reign of Æthelred II, who was Aethelstan’s great, great-nephew, and reigned thirty years later. The work shows just how much can be gleaned about historical figures during this period by experts in the field, who know how to unpick all the complicated details and present them to readers in an engaging format.

Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England

By Elizabeth Norton,

Book cover of Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England

Why this book?

As with the book on Athelstan above, this is the first of England’s queen, and the first of England’s queens for whom we have a historical record that she underwent consecration, for which a monograph currently exists. While the author does draw on much post-conquest material, if not for this book I know I would never have begun to consider the queens, as well as the kings, as subjects that I could write about. It’s not the thickest of books, but it is very well written, again adopting a chronological approach, and readers will feel as though Queen Elfrida, whose Old English name was Ælfthryth, feels far more understandable, as opposed to being lost behind the seemingly impenetrable wall of 1066 and the Norman Conquest. It perhaps helps, that Queen Elfrida had quite a scandalous reputation☺

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