All About History
The slaughter and statecraft that shaped Viking Britain Author Max Adams Publisher Head of Zeus Price £25 Released Out now
Foreign invaders from across the ocean. Treasures stolen, never to be seen again. Apocalyptic prophesies and bloody battles that altered the course of a nation. The history of the Viking Age in Britain has it all, and it seems as though Max Adams has researched every aspect of this chaotic, bloodstained period of upheaval, producing a beautiful and curious book befitting a very curious time.
Within a few pages, it becomes clear that one is in good hands with Adams: he doesn’t assume that the reader possesses much knowledge of the period; he has researched this work in astonishing detail; and his love of a subject he has dedicated 457 pages to leaps up from every page. Yet perhaps what is most pleasing of all is the fact that, despite the title, this book doesn’t just focus on the trials and tribulations of the only Briton to ever have been afforded the epitaph of ‘great’.
While plenty of ink is rightly dedicated to the man who guided a fragmented country through one of its darkest hours, other figures are also examined, including Aelfred’s — or Alfred, as he’s more commonly known today — ambitious and ruthlessly successful children, namely his son Eadweard, who by the time of his death in 924 had almost completed his father’s mission of bringing the Vikings to heel.
By framing Britain within the wider context of a Europe regularly witness to violent clashes between the supposed ‘heathens’ of Scandinavia and the apparently more noble forces of Charlemagne (about whom an anecdote is included that refers to an elephant called Abul-abbas that the Frankish king kept as a pet), the author sets the wider scene of a lethal game in which Britain was merely one player.
By breaking the book up into sections, Adams helps the reader to properly map the many years he covers.
The inclusion of timelines before each section provides further support with mentally placing a series of famous and lesser-known events in chronological order. Another appreciated touch is his use of the old English word for preface, ‘forespec’, as the title of each introductory section, which makes this ancient tale feel all the more authentic. However, this work is not without a Burrow Mump-sized disappointment, which most frustratingly concerns arguably the single most pivotal event in the entire book: the Battle of Edington in May 878.
With only Wessex standing between the Great Heathen Army under the command of Gudrum and total control of the island, Alfred’s forces made a final stand on the edge of Salisbury Plain, fully aware of the ramifications of defeat. Fortunately for the king, his men routed their formidable opponents, but the details of their triumph are contained within an irritatingly brief sentence from the Anglo-saxon Chronicle.
While the paucity of information concerning the battle is, of course, not Adams’ fault, framing the battle as the moment that Alfred “tamed the tiger in the smoke” does lend a sense of drama to an event that then fails to live up to the hype. It is an anticlimax that hits like a Viking raid: fast, brutal and over before the realisation of what has happened has begun to sink in.
Even so, despite this unexpected disappointment, this is a beautifully crafted and impeccably compiled book, and one that is certainly a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in the events and figures that moulded Britain during the reign of the Vikings.
While a superbly researched and informative, the shadow of an anticlimax often looms over sections of this book.