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.