The Anglo-Saxon period stretches over seven centuries, from the collapse of Roman rule in Britain to the Norman Conquest, a span of time equivalent to that which separates us from the Hundred Years’ War or the Battle of Bannockburn. Encapsulating this in a single volume is a Sisyphean task, but one nonetheless that early medieval historians are tempted from time to time to essay, in emulation of Frank Stenton, the doyen of the discipline, whose Anglo-Saxon England stands as a forbidding yardstick.
Marc Morris is the latest to enter this field with The Anglo-Saxons. From the outset, he makes it clear what his book is not. It is not a comprehensive, chronological account of the Anglo-Saxon era, detailing every ambitious prince, conquering king and upstart prelate, from Hengist to Harold. Instead, each chapter covers an important theme, such as the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity in the aftermath of St Augustine’s mission in 597 or the Viking raids, which for over two hundred years scourged the British Isles and reshaped their political landscape.
Each chapter is also anchored by a dominant personality, such as Offa, the great eighth-century king of Mercia, whose pretensions led him to present himself wearing a Roman-style diadem on his coinage and to dare to correspond on equal terms with Charlemagne, his far more genuinely imperial Frankish counterpart, and