The best books throwing light into the Dark Ages

Who am I?

I spent much of my childhood living close to Whitby Abbey and heard many stories of the famous Saint Hilda. As a mother of three, I began writing stories, initially to entertain my children, and eventually published many historical stories for children and young adults – twice shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. I moved back to the Whitby area in my 60s determined to write for an older age group and indulge my lifelong fascination for the Anglo-Saxon period. I took the half pagan Fridgyth character from my Young Adult adventure mystery – Wolfgirl - and developed her role as a warm, curious, flawed, investigator. I'm working on a third Fridgyth the Herbwife novel.

I wrote...

A Swarming of Bees

By Theresa Tomlinson,

Book cover of A Swarming of Bees

What is my book about?

An atmospheric murder mystery set in the wind-blown monastery of Abbess Hild. The decisive and life-changing decision taken at the Great Synod is swiftly overshadowed as the monastery is ravaged by a deadly plague. Fridgyth, the half pagan herbwife, starts to suspect that all the deaths are not from the sickness. Despite Hild’s stern warnings ‘not to meddle,’ Fridgyth cannot control her curiosity and frustration. Risking her warm friendship with the abbess, she sets off to investigate. 

‘A herbwife on a mule may go where warriors cannot – she may see what warriors cannot see and hear what warriors cannot hear!'

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The books I picked & why

Absolution by Murder

By Peter Tremayne,

Book cover of Absolution by Murder

Why did I love this book?

I read this book many years ago - loved the strong female protagonist and was impressed by the writer’s detailed knowledge of the period, which must have come from vast research. The setting was familiar to me, as I had spent much of my childhood within view of Whitby Abbey. Though utterly fascinated by the story, I had a somewhat different take on what might have happened there in the year 664 and felt inspired to try my own hand at a historical murder mystery.

By Peter Tremayne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Absolution by Murder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The King of Northumbria has requested the services of a wise counsel to decide the people's religious future. Among the select priests, elders, and scholars from Ireland and Rome is Sister Fidelma of Kildare. Trained as an advocate of the courts, she was expecting to rule on issues of law. Instead she was plunged into unholy murder.

Dead was the Abbess Etain, a leading Celtic speaker, her throat slashed. With the counsel in an uproar and civil war threatening, the desperate king has turned to the sharp-witted Sister Fidelma for help. With the aide of her dear friend Brother Eadulf…

Book cover of Peace-Weavers and Shield Maidens: Women in Early English Society

Why did I love this book?

I first came across this short book when researching for stories set in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Kathleen Herbert, (herself a historical novelist) provided not only excellent information, but also a practical vision of the period specifically from a woman’s point of view. It is easy to read and presents the information in an accessible way; perhaps one of the earliest books focussed on women’s history.

By Kathleen Herbert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Peace-Weavers and Shield Maidens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An account of the earliest Englishwomen; the part they played in the making of England, what they did in peace and war, the impressions they left in Britain and on the continent, how they were recorded in chronicles and how they come alive in heroic verse and jokes.

The Sins of the Father

By Annie Whitehead,

Book cover of The Sins of the Father

Why did I love this book?

This is the second book in an exciting series. I loved the first book, which told the story of the fierce Mercian King Penda! The Sins of the Father focuses on the life of Penda’s more sensitive, less warlike son, Ethelred. Annie Whitehead (who is also a respected historian) brings vibrantly to life many of the people and places that I’m interested in, more from the point of view of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia, rather than Northumbria. Familiar characters appear and I find it so interesting to view them from a different angle. These books are not murder mysteries, but utterly fascinating historical novels, which vividly capture both the humanity and battles for power in the ancient kingdoms.

By Annie Whitehead,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sins of the Father as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A father's legacy can be a blessing or a curse...
AD658: The sons of Penda of Mercia have come of age. Ethelred, the youngest, recalls little of past wars while Wulf is determined to emulate their father, whose quest to avenge his betrayed kinswomen drew him to battle three successive Northumbrian kings.
Ecgfrith of Northumbria is more hostile towards the Mercians than his father was. His sister Ositha, thwarted in her marriage plans, seeks to make her mark in other ways, but can she, when called upon, do her brother's murderous bidding?
Ethelred finds love with a woman who is…

Book cover of The Song of Heledd: At the Hall of Cynddylan

Why did I love this book?

This is another historical novel set in my favourite time period AD 600’s, this time in Powys. The main character is Heledd – a peace-weaver bride, she is human, flawed, compelling, and courageous. The background detail is vivid and well researched, but what I love most about this book is the lyrical style of writing, which may almost give the reader the sense that the story is being sung,  reflecting with feeling and humanity, the real Anglo-Saxon poetry that has come down to us. Here is a powerful sense of sadness, regret, and gathering doom, lifted by moments of pure joy – a true lament!

By Judith Arnopp,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Song of Heledd as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In seventh century Powys at the hall of King Cynddylan of Pengwern, the princesses, Heledd and Ffreur attend a celebratory feast where fifteen-year-old Heledd develops an infatuation for a travelling minstrel. Their illicit liaison triggers a chain of events that will destroy two kingdoms and bring down a dynasty. Set against the backdrop of the pagan-Christian conflict between kings Penda and Oswiu The Song of Heledd sweeps the reader from the ancient kingdom of Pengwern to the lofty summits of Gwynedd where Heledd battles to control both her own destiny and those around her. Judith Arnopp has carried out lengthy…

Book cover of The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria

Why did I love this book?

Good research is so important to me and this is the historical study that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to know more about the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. Max Adams has studied the period in detail, but his style of writing is easy to read and sometimes exciting, so much so that I almost felt that I was reading a novel. I love the way Max Adams suggests various possible scenarios, from the written evidence, studies, and archaeology that we have. This is a perfect research book for a novelist, wanting to bring the time period to life. I found that I couldn’t put the book down, once I’d started reading it.

By Max Adams, Max Adams,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The King in the North as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A triumph - a Game of Thrones in the Dark Ages' TOM HOLLAND.

The magisterial biography of Oswald Whiteblade, exiled prince of Northumbria, who returned in blood and glory to reclaim his birthright.

A charismatic leader, a warrior whose prowess in battle earned him the epithet Whiteblade, an exiled prince who returned to claim his birthright, the inspiration for Tolkein's Aragorn.

Oswald of Northumbria was the first great English monarch, yet today this legendary figure is all but forgotten. In this panoramic portrait of Dark Age Britain, archaeologist and biographer Max Adams returns the king in the North to his…

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