The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, by Max Adams
Head of Zeus (2013), Hardback, 450 pages
Anglo-Saxon history with a dash of Tolkien. Oswald Iding, Oswald Whiteblade, King of Northumbria from 634 to 642, was the inspiration for Tolkien’s iconic Aragorn son of Arathorn, and the flavour of Tolkien’s creation is very strong in this book, one of the chapters even being titled “The Return of the King”. I have had an interest in the kingdom of Northumbria ever since reading about the battle of Nechtansmere in 685 AD, where Oswald’s nephew Ecgfrith was defeated and slain by the Picts in an ill-fated attempt to add large portions of Scotland to his realm. The story of that battle gripped my imagination and when I was in Scotland in 1995, within a few days of the 1310th anniversary of the battle, I visited the site (or what is thought to be the site, there are dissenting opinions), and resolved to learn more about the Northumbrians and what led them to fight and die in this fairly desolate corner of what is now Scotland. Over the years since, I have added bits of knowledge where I can (books about Anglo-Saxon history not being especially easy to lay hands on here in Aus), and now suddenly I have been presented with a sumptuous feat of Northumbrian history here in one volume. I had previously known little about Oswald, beyond the fact he was one of only 2 English kings to be regarded as saints (Edward the Confessor being the other), and that his alleged relics are scattered around Britain and Europe (as far away as Switzerland). However, not only does this book give a comprehensive account of Oswald’s life, death and afterlife (remarkably full given the paucity and unreliability of the sources, it’s not called the Dark Ages for nothing after all), but a comprehensive history of the rise and fall of Northumbria itself. Oswald’s uncle Edwin unified the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira (although tensions remained between those two distinct polities) into a united Northumbria, but was slain during battle with Northumbria’s most enduring foes, the Welsh and the Mercians. Oswald himself was forced to flee with his mother and siblings into exile in the Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata, where he grew to manhood and learnt the skills of warfare, before his triumphant return to reclaim the kingdom. His reign was brief, but regarded as a golden age, particularly by the church, which benefited enormously from his patronage. Much of Oswald’s saintly reputation comes from his subsequent eulogization by church writers, particularly Bede, who lists in glowing terms his endowments to various monasteries, particularly the holy island of Lindisfarne. However, the need to protect his kingdom was ongoing, and it eventually proved his downfall. He was slain in battle fighting again against the Welsh and Mercians, and his body ritually humiliated by being dismembered and hung on stakes by his victorious enemies. However, his brother made a dangerous journey into enemy territory to recover his remains, which were promptly declared holy relics by the church and claimed to be the source of numerous miracles. The book continues on to cover both the fate of Northumbria and the fate of his relics, which eventually covered more territory in death than he ever had in life. This is a thoroughly comprehensive work, the depth of Adams’ research is extraordinary. It is not easy going, by any means, the intricacies of Dark Age genealogy, of the patchwork of kingdoms and fiefdoms that made up Anglo-Saxon Britain, and the political intricacies of the system can be hard to follow. But if the reader persists, he/she will be rewarded with a wonderfully illustrated picture of life in one of the most shadowy parts of British history. Perhaps more importantly, it gives a real insight into the thinking and mindset of people in that dark and dangerous time, so different from our modern sensibilities. This book is a treasure-house of knowledge, containing enough densely packed information for a book three times its size. It is not a light reading, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the sort of book that leaves the reader feeling enriched and knowing considerably more than when they started. And there’s romance in it too, the feeling of seeing an epic hero, an icon of the modern literary imagination, in creation. Lovers of Tolkien will gain as much from this book as devotees of Anglo-Saxon history. Highly recommended.