M.J. Porter, congratulations on the Brunanburh Series. Why does Æthelstan appeal to you as a historical figure, and why does his story demand retelling in contemporary society?
Æthelstan is an intriguing character to explore. We actually know very little about him, and his name has been largely lost to history. His achievements, sandwiched between those of his grandfather, Alfred, and the perceived failure of his great-nephew, Æthelred II, mean his story is often overlooked. We might know little about him as a man, but we do know a great deal about what was happening within the British Isles. It’s not only Athelstan’s story that needs retelling but that of his contemporaries as well.
Your novel is written from the point of view of a plethora of characters. Why was this choice important to you in your imagining of Æthelstan reign?
This series of novels was written to offer a narrative of this period in the whole of the British Isles, or at least, as far as I could. Too often, we’re taught English history, or Scottish history, Welsh history or Irish history, but we don’t connect the dots. It’s rare for accounts to explore the different kingdoms, not just within the British Isles but within Saxon England. If I’d not allowed these kings to have their voices, then I don’t think there’s a way that readers would have understood them. Perhaps I could have adopted a single viewpoint more easily, but that wouldn’t have given the wider viewpoint. Readers would have been constrained to the single thoughts of one of the protagonists.
How do the characters develop between the first and second novels in The Brunanburh series?
This novel was initially one, which was then split into two because, quite frankly, the characters have too much to say and do. By doing this, they could develop as individuals because there were more words to allow that to happen. Æthelstan grows into his kingship throughout the novels. His contemporaries also share various changes in fortune. The first book, King of Kings, covers substantially more years, from 925 to 934. The second book is more constrained to just three years, from the consequences of 934 to the events of the battle of Brunanburh in 937. Twelve years is a great canvas upon which to ensure the changing fortunes of the main characters can be clearly shown – some will triumph, some will fail, and some will die.
What is your process for researching the history that shapes your novels?
I’ve been studying Saxon England for more years than I care to remember. Sometimes, I forget how much I know and become daunted by how much more there is still to know. For this story, I tested myself by branching out into events in the Welsh kingdoms, the kingdom of the Scots, and the Norse history of York/Jorvik. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the source material I needed to utilise, so I’m wary of accepting almost anything as a ‘truth.’ This also means I can play around with the story we’re told. I relied heavily on a series of non-fiction books, that of Sarah Foot on Æthelstan, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland by Claire Downham, and From Pictland to Alba by Alex Woolf, when I encountered a stumbling block. I also relied heavily on the words written in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the new ‘story’ of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by Pauline Stafford, which has been a real eye-opener.
What about this period of history most interests you, and how did you become engaged with Medieval England in your writing?
As I said above, I’ve been studying the period since my days at university. I was first drawn to the history of early Iceland, and then early Wales and then more thoroughly into Saxon England. I enjoy the complexities of understanding the source material while weaving a narrative that allows readers to connect with historical individuals who are often little more than names. We have only a few near-contemporary accounts of what these individuals looked like, let alone what they thought. It’s both a blank canvas and one that needs to be handled carefully.
This part of our history is relatively lesser known in England. What truths about the Medieval period do you think everyone should know?
I wish people knew that once you got back the ‘strange’ names, there is a wealth of history to discover. The many kingdoms of pre-England, pre-Wales, and pre the kingdom of the Scots might appear daunting, but if readers can contend with the plethora of Williams, Henrys and Edwards from the later period, this era should be a delight.
If you could meet Æthelstan , what would you ask him?
I would like to ask him how he felt about his father. Thanks to the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, it’s widely believed that Athelstan was raised in Mercia by his aunt, Lady Æthelflæd of Mercia when his father remarried. I would like to know the truth of that and how it shaped him as an individual. I’d also like to know how he felt being the oldest of his father’s many, many, many children.
What are you working on next?
I’m in the process of editing my first non-fiction project about the royal women of the tenth century, due for release in January 2024 and at the same time, editing the sixth book in the Eagle of Mercia Chronicles, as well as books 3 and 4 in the Brunanburh Series. After that, I hope to return to some projects I’ve been hoping to start working on for some time. Don’t worry, they’re still set in Saxon England.
Interview by Alya Magness-Jarvis.