Aelfred’s Britain by Max Adams – Review

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By Sandra Callard

Historian Max Adams’ astute and erudite new book is the third in his series on early medieval history and begins with a picture of a green and pleasant Britain, with plenty of food and riches. Indeed, it was ripe for plunder and the Viking attacks, which began on the north eastern coast of the country, would consume and decimate the people for many excruciating years to come.

Most readers will be aware of the brutal and unforeseen aggression of the Vikings which consisted of appallingly bloody, swift and devastating hit and run raids. These began around AD 793 with a raid on the holy island of Lindisfarne, and slowly worked its way throughout the many fractured, small but semi-civilised kingdoms which made up the island eventually to be called Britain.

Wars continued unabated until the Battle of Ashdown in 871 when the young King Aelfred of Wessex decisively beat the Viking hoard and some sort of rapport began to emerge between the Scandinavians and the various kings of Britain. By 876 Aelfred had made peace with the Danes, but only for a short time. They broke their bond, attacking and occupying Wessex, and Aelfred was driven into the marshes at Athelney to recoup his army. This he did in spectacular fashion when he dramatically won back Wessex at the Battle of Edington.

The above is a very limited resume of a blistering era that brings Aelfred to the forefront of history. Adams brings him gloriously to life as he painstakingly maps out, almost step by step, how and why this man became a war hero, a philosopher, an educationalist and an early humanitarian. He also has the distinct honour of being the only king in English history to have the accolade, ‘The Great’, attached to his name. I do like how Adams keeps the old English spelling of names throughout the book, leaving our modern Alfred as eighth century Ælfred.

Aelfred's Britain Max Adams book Review coverI also like the black and white pictures in the book, all taken by the author, which include the carving of a warrior on a church wall in the Isle of Man, a signpost in East Yorkshire with names of Norse origin and the beautiful ‘Alfred Jewel’ which is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

“Learned and challenging”

Max Adams is a superbly clever, studious and informative historian. His writing is detailed and clear, although the extended narrative and wide geographical scope is possibly aimed at readers who already have a good knowledge of the early history of England. The information that Adams offers is spread over much wider areas than simply England and its immediate surroundings and includes the vastness of Continental Europe.

We learn that life was not simply spent within the known confines of England, as many extant documents can be seen, including letters, bills, requests and information which had travelled between our islands and the countries of Germany, France, Spain and even as far as the Arabian lands. Intelligence, trade and literature abounded. Clergy, royalty and pilgrims found their way across Europe to Rome and an audience with the Pope, evidence of the toughness and capabilities of these ancient people.

Through writers like Adams and dedicated researchers and archaeologists, a bright light is being shone on the people who lived through these tumultuous times. The events which took place in England after the Romans left and before the Normans arrived are becoming steadily clearer due to these influential people, and the old sobriquet of ‘The Dark Ages’ should no longer be applied to these times.

This is a learned and challenging book with reams of information to absorb. As well as an index and bibliography (which is huge), Adams also supplies notes for each chapter, regnal tables of all royal families, a neat and necessary Timeline from 789 to 878 AD and a compact and precise Introduction. In all then, a worthy and fascinating book for any history buff to read, learn and inwardly digest.

‘Aelfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age’ by Max Adams is published by Head of Zeus, £7.99 paperback


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