This new year, I fulfilled a childhood dream and wrote a Ladybird book. Its heroine – and I use the word advisedly – was a woman who might plausibly be described as the founding mother of England: Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great. Although she died eleven centuries ago this year, her legacy endures. As ‘Lady of the Mercians’, the ruler of the Midlands realm of Mercia, she played a crucial role in forging a unitary English state out of what had previously been disparate kingdoms. She also founded cities, sponsored learning and won a series of victories over the Vikings. Æthelflæd is one of the most significant figures in English history that most people have never heard of.
If I manage to do anything to help change that, then I will be happy. The series my book forms a part of is aimed squarely at adults and has already featured works by such luminaries as Steve Jones, Jim Al-Khalili and – most eye-catchingly of all – the Prince of Wales. It is impossible, though, for anyone who grew up in the 1970s not to have powerful memories of the original Ladybirds, aimed at children, and their inimitable fusion of picture and text. History was a particular strength of the series. Proust had madeleines dipped in tea; I have thirty-odd Ladybird titles, ranging from the Stone Age Man in Britain to Captain Scott, written by the splendidly named L du Garde Peach.
The first in the series that I ever read was also the first that du Garde Peach wrote. I was bought it by my parents at a stall in a Wiltshire field. I don’t remember how old I was – probably six or seven – but I do remember a dull and rather soggy battle being re-enacted in the background. The performers were staging Alfred’s great victory at Ethandun: the battle he fought in 878, when, after burning the cakes, he re-emerged from the marshes of Athelney to defeat the Vikings. This, it turned out, was the very story narrated in my newly acquired Ladybird book. The cover illustration depicted the signing of the peace treaty forced on the Vikings after their defeat. King Alfred was shown handing a quill to a shaggy Viking with a magnificent winged helmet. Alfred himself wore a crown and was altogether better groomed. Inside the book, there was not an illustration in which he did not look simultaneously noble and mildly pained.
Although it was published in 1956, its portrait of Alfred reached much further back in time. What I can now appreciate, in a way that I obviously did not when I first read it, is that du Garde Peach’s book was giving me less an Anglo- Saxon hero than a Victorian one. The picture of Alfred on the cover, complete with anachronistic crown, derived from a statue of him that had been erected in Winchester in 1901. At the unveiling, Lord Rosebery, a former Liberal prime minister, praised him as the very model of a gentleman. The Alfred of the Ladybird book holds up a mirror to all the virtues most prized by the Victorians. He is the founder of English liberty, of educational self-improvement and of the Royal Navy. This was the Alfred that I, in the mid-1970s, came across. National self-mythologisation, if well done, can take a very long time to fade.
It would be easy to sneer – easy, but wrong. If it is true that historians, much like physicists, are obliged to spend their careers forgetting everything they ever learned at school, and if it is true as well that our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history has measurably and objectively improved since 1956, it is also true that my own Ladybird book may well turn out to be as much a product of its age as du Garde Peach’s. Why Æthelflæd and not her father? Or, come to that, why not her brother, Edward, whose achievements as king were no less formidable than hers, and are now also obscure? The reason, patently, is that Britain, as a society, has become a good deal keener on gender balance than it was in the 1950s. Anglo-Saxon history is not so full of charismatic and high-achieving female leaders that a figure like Æthelflæd can readily be overlooked. She is a hero fit for a feminist age.
Our understanding of the past is never neutral. History is no less prone than fiction is to soaking up the assumptions, perspectives and priorities of the age in which it is written. The Victorians did not consciously fabricate an image of Alfred. Rather, in seeking to understand the elements within English society that they most admired, they looked to the distant past for a wellspring. If history is read in part because it can provide entire worlds of strangeness, of alien societies and attitudes, it is also valued for providing the opposite: a sense of continuity. The few scattered references in our sources for Alfred’s reign to his fighting the Vikings by sea were sufficient for the Victorians to cast him as the father of the Royal Navy, the institution that, more than any other, had come to serve as a symbol of how the British liked to see themselves. It is in a rather similar manner, perhaps, that historians in today’s society have looked to Roman Britain for a prefiguring of contemporary multiculturalism – a mirror in which the present can catch a glimpse of its reflection. In both cases, it is the very paucity of the sources, the skeletal nature of the evidence, that seems almost to encourage the putting of flesh onto the bones.
All writers are the children of the books that they read when young. Some live radiantly in our memory and some we forget, until we have cause to stir the sludge that has buried them and discover that they are lying there still. Looking at the Ladybird history of King Alfred for the first time in many years has brought this realisation home to me with an almost disorientating jolt. All the time that, as an adult, I was researching early medieval culture and history, there the Viking with the wings on his helmet had always been: an admonition, an inspiration, a reproach.