April, 2023 Author Interview
Alvar the Kingmaker
By Annie Whitehead
Author Bio: Annie Whitehead is a prize-winning writer, historian, and elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and has written four award-winning novels set in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Mercia. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines. She has recently contributed to a new history of English monarchs, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2023, and is currently writing a book on Murder in Anglo-Saxon England, to be published by Amberley in 2024.
Book: Alvar the Kingmaker
10th-Century England is rocked by scandal, civil war, secret love, and divided loyalties. Alvar finds himself the only man capable of setting a new king upon the throne of England, an act which comes at great personal cost. Can he bring about peace, reconcile with his enemies, and find personal happiness, whilst all the time doing his duty to his loved ones?
Look for these themes in the excerpt below:
· The draw of hearth, home, and kin
· Alvar's 'uncouth' way of saying exactly what he thinks, and his earthy language
· Conversely, the way he uses humour/self-deprecation to mask what he truly feels
· A wandering poet storyteller, the scop, this time gathering small children to him to tell them a bedtime tale
Excerpt, Alvar the Kingmaker:
The sun was shining red and low when he reached Brock’s manor. Alvar pressed a finger to the bridge of his nose and rubbed his thumb up and down his temple. He walked his horse into the yard and a young boy ran from the kennels and stood ready to take the lord’s horse. A cook was dragging the roasting-spit away from the fire so that it could cool before being cleaned, and a kitchen-boy was walking towards the gate, his parcel of food suggesting that he was on his way to dole out sustenance to the shepherds staying overnight in their huts.
Brock ambled from his mews, calling out to the fowler who remained inside and whose answer was audible but indistinct. Brock smiled broadly at the sight of Alvar, but his expression sobered as he came nearer. “What is wrong, little brother? You look as though you have been riding with the Devil on your tail.”
Alvar was weary and had tried to shy from his thoughts during the long ride. Under Brock’s enquiring gaze he buckled and the words tumbled out. “I have been riding for days to rid myself of the smell rising from a heap of steaming shit. Its stench is fouler than a Welshman’s fart. That dried up old windle-straw, Oswald… No, wait, I must call him by his rank… The snivelling louse-scabbed bishop, has sweetened the king into giving him three hundred hides of land around Worcester. And how did he do this? By vowing to turn it into a ship-soke and promising to provide seamen to serve in Edgar’s new fleet. But this land is rich farming land so now, as if he has not already sucked enough of England into his greedy Danish mouth, he has begun to throw the folk off the land and give it to his kinfolk whom he has brought from East Anglia.” He continued to curse as the young stable-lad took his horse from him.
Brock laid a hand on his shoulder and said, “Your steed is in need of a rub down and so, I think, are you. Stop spitting your oaths and go into the hall. I will be there as soon as I have made sure that your horse gets the best stall.”
Alvar, spleen vented, sighed and smiled. The sun was a half ball of red fire. All men should be by the hearth at this hour and he turned towards the noise and warmth that beckoned from the hall.
Indoors, the fire was lively and welcoming, and folk had gathered round to begin an evening of story-telling and riddles. Overhead light flickered from cressets; the wicks sucked up oil, burning it to light up even the corners of the hall, where children yawned while they played with the dogs and tried to shrink into shadow when their mothers came close, looking to send them to bed. Alvar closed the door on the cooling dusk and, as the oak panel clattered, Brock’s wife, Swytha, spotted him and darted forward.
“You are welcome, Brother.”
He held her to his chest, kissed the top of her head and pushed a grey-blonde curl from her cheek. She stepped back, and mimed food and drink to a servant.
A little boy of about five years edged closer and disappeared behind Swytha’s skirts. Alvar pretended he had not seen him.
The boy peeped from behind the dress.
“Oh, and who is this?”
Swytha reached round and placed her hand on the boy’s back to bring him forward. “This is our fosterling, Goodwin.”
“The bishop’s son? Winchester’s child?” Alvar squatted down to bring his face level with the youngster’s. “I am your Uncle Alvar,” he told him.
The boy reached up and placed a small warm hand inside Alvar’s.
The servant returned with bread, cheese, and ale. Alvar sat down at the long table and hoisted Goodwin onto his lap.
Swytha sat beside him. She waved her hand. “No, no, you must begin. I ate earlier with the rest of the household.”
A shout went up from the men at the gaming board. “I win again. Your throw.”
By the hearth, the harper slid his instrument from its beaver-skin bag and plucked a few notes to test the tuning against the piper’s whistle.
The servant returned and poured ale into a cup, and Alvar broke a loaf of bread. Swytha watched him and smiled.
“What is it?”
“He barely knows you, yet he does not even wriggle in your lap. You have a way with the little ones,” she said. “Is it not time you gave thought to having some of your own?”
He swallowed a mouthful of ale. “I think that if you knew which ladies of the king’s house to ask, you might hear that the lack is not for want of trying.” He laughed and sank his teeth into a chunk of cheese.
The piper began to play a lively tune and two young girls stood up to dance.
Swytha raised her voice and said, “Do not brush away my words, for that is not what I meant, as you well know. You need sons to leave your land to. Maybe your earldom, too.”
He stopped chewing and turned to look at her. The face he had known for so many years was unchanged but for the handful of grey hairs around her temple. Alvar had been six when she wed Brock. He said, “When I first met you, you were taller than me. I am a grown man and it is a long time since you named me your ‘little busy-bee’, yet still you are like a mother to me. Do not look at me so...” Alvar pulled a chunk of bread from the loaf, gave it to the boy and set him down. “Off you go and find your foster-father.” He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and sighed. “I can see that you will not rest until you know my thoughts. It is true that when I look upon my brother I see how wedded life and children are good for the heart. But I cannot think of settling with a woman when the road oft-times takes me north, where I must keep the folk bound to Edgar. And now, where being away at least used to bring me some freedom to breathe, I will forever be worrying about what Oswald is doing in my lands.” Anger rekindled, he returned to his curses. “Even in your sweet hall, I can still recall the din of his foul lies…”
“You dislike him.” She smiled.
“Dislike? I loathe him. He stoops lower than a weevil crawling through dung…” He stopped and stared at her. “Ah, you were teasing. You understood me all along.”
Brock appeared, with Goodwin on his shoulders. He said, “Here is my brother, staring like a halfwit. Does your fish-eyed look mean that you have been chided by my wife after your little show of self-pity?” He slid the boy from his perch and held him in his arms. “Well now, have you done with cursing the new bishop to the everlasting heat of hell?”
Swytha dabbed her eyes with her sleeve. “Your sweet-tongued brother has me in tears with his thoughts on Oswald.”
Alvar looked from husband to wife. He said to Swytha, “Ah, yes, I nearly forgot. I must tell you what has arisen at Worcester.”
“There is no need,” Brock said. “If my lady wife has heard your thoughts on the new bishop then she does not need to learn all your new names for him.”
Swytha looked up at her husband and back to her brother-in-law. “Well, one more would not harm.”
Brock said, “If I have it right, one of the milder ones was ‘soft-arsed worm-riddled son of a Danish whore,’ but there were others.”
Alvar crossed his arms. “It is true. He is Danish.”
Brock gave the boy to Swytha. Swytha gathered him into her arms and stood up, and the little boy smiled at Alvar over her shoulder.
Alvar winked at the youngster. It was a wonder how any man could say that the boy’s existence was a sin. Yet in this new world, that was how it would be; clergy could no longer be wed, nor their offspring acknowledged.
Swytha carried Goodwin towards the stairs and swayed as she picked her way through the dancers. Alvar smiled. He patted the empty chair next to him.
Brock squeezed onto the seat, wriggled, and coughed. “You missed the witenagemot.”
“So I did. How was it?”
Brock chewed the inside of his cheek, giving his face a lopsided appearance. “It was odd. Dunstan spoke again about a second king-making. Edgar said that he had worn the king-helm long enough to be known as king, but Dunstan seemed to crave a more fulsome affair. He looked almost thwarted.”
Alvar grunted. “I am glad I was not there. Dunstan would have blamed me. And…”
They looked up as Brock’s eldest son Bridd walked over to the hearth, cradling a puppy. Brock smiled. “He will not leave that hound. As soon as it was weaned he would have it for his own. Still, it is a sweet thing.”
Bridd lay down by the fire and let the puppy jump onto his stomach. The harper flicked the young dog’s soft ears and two thegns leaned over from the table to pet it.
Brock’s scop stood up and gathered the children to him. He sat in an armchair on the other side of the hearth and allowed the children to sit on his knee, weathering the stern looks from the mothers who stood with their arms folded and their feet tapping.
Brock laughed. “They will have a tale before bedtime, come what may. Now, what were you going to say?”
Alvar sighed. It was time to concede. “No, I will not say it, for it was about Oswald and I understand that I am forbidden now to speak his name in your hall.” He winked at Bridd, slapped Brock on the thigh and stood up. He set off towards the door and thence to the latrine. Over his shoulder he said, “But he is still a turd.”