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on 15 March 2017
This was bought as a gift, so I havn't read it myself
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Covering the life of Oswald, the context preceding him, and the period after his death at Maserfield when he came to be venerated as a saint, The King in the North is a lucid and compelling insight into 7th century England, Ireland and Scotland, and into the life of England's first biographable king.

Oswald was Bede's favourite, and continued to be one of the most important Anglo-Saxon saints right up to the time of Aelfric. In many ways, Max Adams's book is an extended commentary on Bede's account, elucidated by all of the contextual material that archaeology, history and contemporary literature can bring to bear. Adams carefully questions Bede. While he regards him as a serious and highly competent historian, he unpicks some of the cultural assumptions, and deconstructs Bede's own underlying theme of providence and God's reward for just kings.

Parts of this book are speculative and parts are strongly sourced, both textually and archaeologically. Adams is careful to let the reader know at all times where the information he is presenting is coming from, and spends ample time in interpreting his sources and questioning his own interpretations.

If this book has a fault, it is that it can -- at times -- be slightly florid and has a tendency to over-explain or even to repeat itself. Nonetheless, this is a highly readable and detailed account which brings together the latest materials, including the Staffordshire Hoard. Oswald could not have hoped for a better biographer.
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TOP 100 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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on 23 June 2017
Secondhand but you would never know. Arrived impressively quickly too. I read a copy of this, really enjoyed it and passed it on. This copy is a replacement as I decided I wanted to reread it. The author is rather self-satisfied, but if you ignore that it's a terrific read.
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on 4 March 2017
This tome is jam-packed full of interesting facts but it has taken me a month to read as I just couldn't get into it. It's probably not the fault of the book.
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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.
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on 15 August 2017
Firstly this should be called The Kings in the north: The Life and times of the kings of Northumbria and the rise of the Church, because that's what it is about, as opposed to it being a book primarily about Oswald, who does get a mention. Secondly it is generally a good book but the authors proclivity to go on rambling speculative excersions can really take their toll.
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on 22 October 2014
Not a novel, but a serious study - very interesting and easy to read, have learned a lot from it.
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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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on 17 June 2014
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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