An Alternative History of Britain: The Anglo-Saxon Age
Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2013. 224 pp. $39.95. ISBN 978-1-78159-125-3.
“Nothing was inevitable.” In this one simple statement, printed on the back cover of Dr. Venning’s latest installment in the Alternative History series, we are presented with his governing ideology. He asks the important ‘what if?’ questions regarding various events within Anglo-Saxon history in order to extrapolate the whys and hows of what did happen. In this way, it is more of an alternative methodology rather than an alternative or counterfactual history, for his suppositions are not presented as fact, but as new angles from which to view what occurred in England from post-Roman Britain to the triumph of the Normans in 1066.
Unlike Stenton’s tome on Anglo-Saxon England (1941; 1971; 3rd ed. 2001), Venning narrows his focus to the importance of leadership on the developing English state. This allows for a shorter text, although one no less researched or overflowing with information. His thesis revolves around one constant: “The triumph of one state in England was far from certain throughout this period, and was due to genetic and military luck rather than ‘inevitability’” (ix). It is this emphasis on leadership and the frailty of life that guides Venning’s examination of Anglo-Saxon England.
He divides his work into key periods within early English history by examining the whos and whats that defined them. In chapter one, he balances pre-invasion Celtic Britain with the emergence of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He cautions against the validity of those extant sources, from Gildas, Bede, and the Annales Cambriae on the isles, to continental sources that establish late antique Germanic culture. One of his more interesting discussions in this chapter concerns the possible origins for Anglo-Saxon place names (i.e., Mercia, Kent, et. al.) and the factual or mythological figures that established them. In this way, he incorporates the pre-invasion, British presence and its possible effect on the development of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The remainder of this chapter follows a typical narrative pattern, almost to the exclusion of Venning’s ‘what if’ thesis, providing a basic introduction to the following chapters.
Laudable throughout his text is the inclusion of contemporary events in Ireland and Gaul as points of comparison for the events in England. He does not seek to maintain an insular focus on Anglo-Saxon history, but rather a comparative examination of why something was possible on the continent but not in England. In chapter two, he compares the Irish model of ‘High Kingship’ to the post-Roman British ‘Vortigern’; was there a person able to unite the British? Did he have the influence to call in Germanic mercenaries to defend his borders? In this manner he establishes the British presence in England, its relationship to the Germanic newcomers as suggested by the sources, and the continued British kingdoms into the seventh century. The ultimate aim of this chapter, although not clearly stated, appears to be an explanation as to why the British were unable to command a unified front, despite evidence for a ‘Vortigern’ figure.
The remaining three chapters focus on the known leaders within given periods of Anglo-Saxon history. Chapter three examines the seventh to ninth centuries wherein Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex emerge in turn as military powers, vying for greater control. Venning analyses the success and failures through the counterfactual methodology: For example, might Mercia have succeeded in greater territorial control if the Vikings’ had not expanded westward in 874? (78-80) Through this line of questioning he pinpoints key strengths and weaknesses in a given kingdom that led to its decline or, in the case of Wessex, its success. Chapter four follows a similar pattern, narrowing its scope to the effect had on England by the Viking incursions in 865/6. This in turn introduces the rise of Wessex and Alfred, which continues into chapter five with an involved discussion of Alfred’s descendants, their abilities and eventual failure against the Danes in the early eleventh century.
The final chapter supplies a comparative study of William the Bastard and Harold Godwinson. Here, Venning examines the England that might have been had Harold won the day at Hastings and established a lasting Godwin dynasty. Noticeably lacking after this comparison, however, is a conclusion. Chapter six ends without much summation of the work accomplished or a reiteration of why Venning thought it a necessary or useful study to make. We are left wondering what his ultimate goal was and why his revised methodology presents anything different from the vast corpus of Anglo-Saxon histories already written. Throughout he looks towards 1066 and the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as if the book is merely a chronological build-up to why William succeeded in his invasion. This in turn questions his original purpose in undertaking this study and why it is significant in the recording of Anglo-Saxon history.
The amount of information shared in Venning’s text is, at times, heavy going. Although there are no new dates or persons introduced, the high quantity of data condensed into lengthy paragraphs becomes exhausting. Chapter subsections are helpful in guiding the reader, but are again so heavy with information that it is difficult at times to navigate through them. The refreshing methodology is not, however, enough to consider this an ‘alternative’ history, as the ‘what if’ questions are relatively few and often find no definitive conclusion. The text is a dense exposition of dates, persons and episodes spanning more than six hundred years and could provide an interesting source of discussion among Anglo-Saxonists, particularly those who find debate in key personages and events within early medieval England. However, its lack of conclusion and density of information does not recommend it for the beginning Anglo-Saxon historian or casual reader.
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