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.
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.
There's a hole at the centre of this book, and unfortunately that hole is where Oswald himself should be. Max Adams makes great claims for the importance of Oswald as one of the first Christian kings to hold sway over the rest of Britain, as his mighty role as warrior, as Tolkien's inspiration for Aragorn in 'Lord of the Rings', as founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne, as his afterlife as a saint - but reading this book I never came to any clear understanding of why Oswald was important or what justification there was for these claims.
This book is very much more about the 'times' than the 'life' - it devotes as much time to the years before and after Oswald, if not more, than the years of Oswald's reign itself. I felt like Oswald had hardly made an appearance on the scene as king of a united Northumbria before he was dead and gone again, and there seemed very little to tell about him even then. From what Adams relates, it's hard to see why Oswald is considered such an important figure in British history or why he was elevated as a saint. He doesn't seem to <i>do</i> very much at all - his successors were the ones who arguably were more successful in solidifying what achievements be began.
Whilst I found this book a genuinely interesting snapshot into life in Dark Ages Britain and in particular the development of Britain as a Christian country (or perhaps re-establishment is more appropriate, since a major theme of this book is the struggle between 'British' Christianity best exemplified by the Irish churches and the 'Roman' Christianity of the established Catholic church), as a book about King Oswald it leaves much to be desired. Perhaps that's a failure of marketing and publicity, who knows? Maybe kings and saints are a catchier hook than a history of British Christianity in the Dark Ages, which is effectively what this book is really about.
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.
on 9 March 2016
There isn't actually very much in the historical record about Oswald, which means this book is mostly context. But that's a good thing in my experience, for when you are coming to a new area of history, it's context, the bigger picture in which smaller events are situated, that is most fascinating. And the context here is both broad and detailed - I mean REALLY detailed, such that you'll probably end up reading it with a pencil in hand. That might not be for you, but I like it (although the Anglo-Saxon names did threaten to overwhelm me). Adams has a scholarly, nuanced grasp of his topic, one that includes kings and battles, sure, but also ranges across archaeology, church architecture, landscape analysis, theological debates... And like the best popular history, it is peppered with these little moments of illumination. Like: the earliest A-S kingdoms were not defined by borders but by heartlands, with their edges floating --- these people had a different conception of (political) SPACE. Like: the native British Christianity that the Rome-orientated newcomers had to contend with in fact had at least three different constituencies, comprising tribal king/priests, Eastern-style monks, and post-Roman urbanites. Like: there were no 'states,' since kingdoms were founded by warrior kings, died when they died, and then had to be refounded. Like: Britain was a hodge podge of different polities, with A-S, Irish/Scot, British and Pictish all competing and making alliances. And all is suffused with a sense of being at the beginning of things, this Dark Ages world that is intriguing because so little is yet set. This is a deeply detailed book, and you may find yourself skipping paragraphs on issues that don't interest you, but it is exactly the kind of popular history I like, and I really enjoyed it.
This is a superb history. It offers the nearest we will ever get to a biography of a very early medieval king who was not only the central character of the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, but also Tolkien's inspiration for Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. But it goes much wider than that, and gives a good feel for the fabric of the social order at a very transitional time, the seventh century, when kings such as Oswald of Northumbria were the first leaders to be what one might term heads of a state that could outlive that king, as opposed to warrior leaders whose rule collapsed after their deaths. It was also very much a transitional time in religious terms, with not only battles between Christianity and paganism, but also between the Celtic Christian tradition, introduced by St Columba in Scotland in the 560s, and the Roman Christian tradition introduced slightly later by St Augustine in Kent in 597. The decision of the Synod of Whitby in 664 to go with the Roman variety shaped the future of religion in England and is a date that should probably be much better known than it is. The author also brings into play archaeology and an exploration of features of the Medieval mindset that are hardest for us in the twenty first century to understand, the veneration of saints' remains and the belief that miracles and magic are perfectly valid and unremarkable elements of a narrative of events. Great stuff, supplemented by genealogies, chronologies and pictures.
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!
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.
on 18 April 2016
At times, not the easiest of reads in terms of language/style, but the subject-matter was in general very well-handled and Max Adams' knowledge-base is very secure – although his conjectures may be challenged by some. Like another reviewer, I felt that the title encompassed more than just Oswald – Oswiu, if anything, is a more "substantial" king, so I feel that the sub-title on the front cover, "The life and times of Oswald of Northumbria" is not fully accurate. The text on the back cover, with its "Game of Thrones" style, may well have misled those reviewers who thought it to be a fantasy novel?
Adams presents a comprehensive overview of the development of Northumbria and the structural and dynastic reasons why it was ultimately unable to defend itself from the depradations of the the Vikings, although it's debatable whether it could have withstood this onslaught had it been in better health. He links well the developing relationship between "church" and "state" in their embryonic forms and I would say that this is a very good introduction for the lay reader to a period of Early English history focussing on the north as opposed to Wessex, allowing for the caveats expressed by some other reviewers.
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.