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The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria
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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
An historical title and one that whilst I had heard of the subject (Oswald) was not one I knew too much about and to be honest in a culture where a lot of the heroes we get to read about are from invaders such as the Anglo Saxon's Beowulf, here we get the story of a home grown hero, a man who took his birthright, brought his kingdom under Christianity and won as well as lost his kingdom by the sword alongside having influence throughout the UK.

It's a tale that is an absolute epic on its own and deserving of the time to be brought to the fore. What Max does is sort out fact from fable, delves into the historical writings and brings this to the modern reader in a friendly as well as understandable manner. All round a great book and one that, whilst it took a while to get through, was one that I was more than happy I spent the time reading. Great stuff.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 June 2014
King of the North is supposed to be about “the life and times of Oswald of Northumbria”, as the book subtitle hints at. Written in an entertaining way and targeted at the general reader, this book is much more than that, with Oswald of Northumbria being almost a pretext for telling a much wider story over a much longer period than the mere eight years during which this warrior-king reigned. In a way, this is just as well, given how little real historical information we can really rely upon.

This is perhaps the first merit because the author, who clearly knows his topic and has done his research, manages to tell the story of most of Anglo-Saxon England over a period of about four centuries, with a special focus on its northern parts, while still being able to link this to Oswald. Part of this is achieved through the pretext of providing necessary context while events subsequent to the warrior-King’s death are also described as part of the King’s legacy or as part of the growth of his legend.

Another interesting feature is the provision of chronologies for each of the book’s major sections. While these may be tentative than the author cares to admit, and also largely reflects his assumptions, choices or even educated guesses in some cases, there is no denying how helpful they are for the reader who would very likely be confused or even lost in their absence.

A third focus and strong point of this book, although there are many others as well that I will be unable to mention in this limited review, is the emphasis put on the King or, perhaps more accurately, the paramount warlord. The author clearly shows to what extent the king’s power was essentially personal. Most, if not all, of his achievements vanished with his death or, at the very least, had to be re-established and reaffirmed by his successor. With very little or no permanent infrastructures to support his reign, his domination over his own kingdom and over those of his neighbours was essentially exercised through the payment of tribute in kind and the obligation to furnish men and war-bands to fight alongside his own.

As Max Adams insists upon several times, part of Oswald’s legacy was to be the King who allowed for the foundation of Lindisfarne and favoured the expansion and development of the monks of Iona who had brought him up in Northumbria. Another part was to be the heroic “Christian martyr” who was killed in battle by a pagan Angle King (Penda) with his body being dismembered and the body parts subsequently becoming powerful and miraculous relics to such an extent that even the family of his killer sought to associate themselves with his growing cult. The author does however also show that such a cult closely and largely associated pagan elements with Christian ones. He is also at his best when describing the expansion of the monks of Iona, the power politics that they were involved in, and their rivalry with Rome.

The book is also excellent when discussing the sources. These discussions, which can easily become tedious for a non-specialist, are however necessary if only because there is a need to establish to what extent the various sources are credible and can be relied upon. They also cannot entirely be avoided since the author must establish to what extent his respective sources’ biases may have distorted his narratives, as they almost always do to some extent. This is something else Max Adams have achieved in a rather superb way when discussing the Venerable Bede and showing that the picture he paints of wars between Britons, Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons was largely a misrepresentation. As he demonstrates, their almost constant fighting was against just about all neighbours, irrespective of origins. Few conflicts, if any, seem to have animated and motivated by any sense of a common identity, as opposed to common (and short-term) interests.

There are however a few interpretations and statements made by the author which may be somewhat questionable. For instance, while his statement about the small size of the armies of the time which were war bands of perhaps no more than a few hundred men each seem convincing, his assertion that Oswald’s forces were greatly outnumbered when they caught by surprise and destroyed those of Caedwallon seems more difficult to believe, if only because it is somewhat contradicted by his reconstitution of the running battle. It is also difficult to reconcile with the list of supporters and war bands that took part in Oswald successful bid for Northumbria. In fact, and despite the author’s tendency to minimise his forces which he believes to have been in the low hundreds, they may have exceeded a thousand. They may even have matched those with the enemy king who perhaps did not even have all of his forces with him when he was so obviously caught by surprise since to live of the land that he had been occupying, he would logically have dispersed his forces. This would have helped to explain why the battle was so decisive and ended with Caedwallon’s death and the destruction of his forces. Anyway, the bottom line here, and with so much else in this book, is that there is not the slightest shred of evidence to “prove” a case either way.

There are also a number of other instances where the author seems to get almost “carried away” by his subject and is prone to exaggerations, such as the instance when he mention a band of forty warriors and calls them an “army”. At times also, the author tends to “overdo it” a bit when attempting to relate events and times about which we know very little to periods that are presumably more familiar to the reader. One example which I found rather extreme in its anachronism was a somewhat superficial comparison between an Anglo-Saxon warlord and his warriors and an English captain of a frigate during the Napoleonic wars. I am not at all sure or convinced that the ties between an Anglo-Saxon battle king and his warriors are similar, or even comparable, to those between a British Navy captain and his crew, apart from the fact that both shared in the dangers and divided the bounty and spoils between themselves when victorious. This is not in any way specific to either the periods or the regions if only because the division of spoils and riches plundered from the enemy between the victorious fighters and their commander is possibly as old as war itself and would continue to take place until quite recently.

Finally, despite all its qualities and in particular this book's ability in shedding some light onto what has long been called the 3Dark Ages", the book's contents, however remarkable, did not entirely convince me. While King Oswald clearly was the precursor of many things, starting with the Christinisation of Northumbria, the book does show that the real founder rahter seems to have been his younger brother and successor Oswiu who reigned much longer, perhaps more successfully and seems to have been perhaps less rash.

Four stars for a rather superb, very accessible and highly recommended book, despite a few minor reservations.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 16 September 2013
Max Adams very readable biography of Oswald is steeped in a long love affair with the subject and region and an enthusiasm to share that with others.

In presenting his story he doesn't ignore the difficulties of the paucity or contradictory nature of his sources and draws deeply on his background in archaeology. I finished the book with a far better understanding of a fascinating period in the regions history and Oswald's place in it.

A minor point. As Old English names and words crop up frequently in the book, not least in the epigraphs which head each chapter, it would have been helpful to have a short pronunciation guide.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is a very readable book that focusses on Northern Britain in the seventh century AD. It describes, through looking at King Oswald the culture, religion and life in that time. The author draws illuminating parallels with later historical events and discusses differences in religion, language between various realms as well as transport problems. I did not know much about the subject of the book when I started reading but I learnt much about this shadowy time between the classical pagan world and the early medieval world.
Well written and recommended.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 September 2013
Review

Some non fiction reviewing for a change: A great book on the subject of Oswald Whiteblade, amazingly someone I knew little about, and that is a bit of an embarrassment for me and more so for the Historical education provided to me at school. The World of Historical fiction opens us up to so many tales about so many rich and wonderful periods and people, i'm amazed that not one writer has taken on the rich tapestry that is Oswald. A man so influential in his time that he inspired Tolkien to create the character Aragorn one of the most notable names in Fantasy fiction, converted a kingdom to Christianity, became the powerful figure in Britain. Truly a man to span the genres.

Now I like many can steer away from non fiction at times as a bit dry and detailed, with no prose worth the description. But this book is beautifully written, in such a style its very easy to forget its non fiction, to get swept up in the history, the people and the period, to call it an epic tale would not be going too far, an epic tale written for the average reader, never talking down to you, sifting the fact from the fiction and painting a vivid clear image of a man, a king and a forgotten legend.

What i need now is someone to write the fictional account of his life.... there is a whole series here guys!

recommended

(Parm)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 25 February 2015
The language at the start of this book made me think I was going to be treated to something exciting, sadly it got drier and dustier as it trundled along. Brilliant start, disappointing ending
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 May 2015
The dark age of British history has just had a bright light shone into the corners. The characters and people of the time are brought into the daylight and this book certainly brings the early part of our history alive, at times though it is hard to remember their relationships to each other, or the region that they came from. A map outlining or showing the various regions would of helped, but this is a minor point in what was an interesting and enlightening read.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 13 September 2013
This is a very readable history of an important Saxon king and I recommend it to all. It joins Max Adams other books as a great way to understand our past.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 24 August 2014
What I learned from this book was much less about Oswald himself than about the fabric of early medieval England and the mechanisms by which its rather ephemeral polities were worked. Its a bit of a surprise to find Aglo-Saxon England so full of Irish influences, and possibly British ones too.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2014
This book was interesting in that it covered a period of history little known to me and probably to others. Max Adams has really done lots of research and it is a fascinating portrayal of a long lost world often overlooked by historians as it is not as accessible as later periods. I found the book difficult to get into at first due to the unusual names of people and places but once further in it was a fascinating study of early Anglo Saxon Britain. I was glad that I did keep going through the early stages of the book when getting used to the unusual names and conjecture mainly because of the early period made this a difficult read. However this became a rewarding read and I finished the book feeling that I had learned a lot about this period.
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