A stunning recreation of the life and times of Oswald of Northumbria: Christian warlord, founder of Lindisfarne monastery, and the first great English monarch
Oswald Whiteblade lived one of the most influential and colorful lives in early English history. Before his death in battle against the pagans of Mercia cut short his reign as king of Northumbria (634-42), he remodeled his northeastern English homeland as a Christian kingdom, founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, introduced a culture of learning which influenced all Europe, and became the most powerful ruler in Britain. Max Adams's thrilling account rescues Oswald from Dark Age obscurity to reveal an unjustly forgotten English hero—a king whose return from exile to reclaim his birthright was the inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. But this is more than just a biography of the first great English monarch; it is a stunningly researched, wide-ranging, beautifully written, and revelatory portrait of early medieval England in all its aspects.
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The King in the North
By Max Adams
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2013 Max Adams
All rights reserved.
Soð bið swiðlost ... and gomol snoterost
Truth is the clearest thing ... and the old man is the wisest
* * *
The dark ages are obscure but they were not weird. Magicians there were, to be sure, and miracles. In the flickering firelight of the winter's hearth, mead songs were sung of dragons and ring-givers, of fell deeds and famine, of portents and vengeful gods. Strange omens in the sky were thought to foretell evil times. But in a world where the fates seemed to govern by whimsy and caprice, belief in sympathetic magic, superstition and making offerings to spirits was not much more irrational than believing in paper money: trust is an expedient currency. There were charms to ward off dwarfs, water-elf disease and swarms of bees; farmers recited spells against cattle thieves and women knew of potions to make men more — or less — virile. Soothsayers, poets, and those who remembered the genealogies of kings were held in high regard. The past was an immense source of wonder and inspiration, of fear and foretelling.
Historians, bards and storytellers alike were tempted to improve on the truth, as they are today. But you can forget pale hands emerging from the depths of lakes offering swords of destiny to passers-by. You can forget holy grails and messianic bloodlines. Bloodlines mattered as political reality, it is true, but they were traced from the ancestral tribal gods of Britain and Germany or the last generals of the Roman Empire, not from the crucified prophet of Nazareth.
One of The Wonders of Britain, from a list written down at the beginning of the ninth century but surely recited to children and kings for hundreds of years before and after, was an ash tree that grew on the banks of the River Wye and which was said to bear apples. Such poetic imaginings are easily dismissed by academics as fancy; and yet the distinguished woodland historian Oliver Rackham has recently shown that the famous tree in question must have been a very rare Sorbus domestica, the true service tree, which has leaves like a rowan or ash, and which bears tiny apple- or pear-shaped fruit. In 1993 one was found growing on cliffs in the Wye Valley in Wales. Early Medieval Britain was full of such eccentricities — the Severn tidal bore and the hot springs of Bath fascinated just as they do now — but the people who survived the age were, above all, pragmatists and keen observers of their world. Their knowledge of weather and season, wildflower and mammal, shames the modern native. They were consummate carpenters, builders and sailors. The monk Bede, writing in the year 731, knew that the Earth was round, that seasons changed with latitude and that tides swung with the moon's phases.
Love and romance must have played their part in life, although few men writing during the three hundred years after the end of Roman Britain thought to mention them. For the most part life was about getting by, about small victories and the stresses of fretting through the long nights of winter, about successful harvests and healthy children.
The vast majority of people in the Early Medieval British Isles, as across Europe, are invisible to us. We know farmers and craftsmen existed: we have their tools and the remains of their fields. Sometimes their houses can be located and reconstructed; rather more often we find their graves. Very, very rarely we hear their names. Sometimes they encountered seafarers and travellers from strange lands who brought tales of exotic beasts and holy places. The countryside was busy with people, nearly all of them to be found working outside in their fields or woods, or fixing something in their yards; ploughing, milking, weeding, felling, threshing and mending according to the season. We have their languages: the inflexions, word-lore and rhymes of Early English, Old Welsh, Gaelic and Latin tell us much about their mental worlds. We can guess at numbers: somewhere between two and four million people living in a land which now holds fifteen to thirty times that many. Their history is recorded in our surnames and in the names of villages and hamlets. With care, their landscapes can be reconstructed and at least partly understood. The hills, rivers, coasts, some of the woods and many of their roads and boundaries can still be walked, or traced on maps. And through pale dank sea-frets of late autumn King Oswald's Holy Island of Lindisfarne still looms mysteriously across the tidal sands of Northumberland's wave-torn coast.
Oswald Iding ruled Northumbria for eight years, from ad 634 to 642. In that time he was recognised as overlord of almost all the other kingdoms of Britain: of Wessex, Mercia, Lindsey and East Anglia, of the Britons of Rheged, Strathclyde, Powys and Gwynedd, the Scots of Dál Riata and the Picts of the far North. A famed warrior, the 'Whiteblade' or 'Blessed arm' of legend, he won and lost his kingdom in battle. He was the first English king to die a Christian martyr. He is the embodiment of a romantic hero: the righteous exiled prince whose destiny is to return triumphant to reclaim his kingdom. More than that, he is almost the first Englishman (the other candidate is his Uncle Edwin) of whom a biography might be written.
We do not know what Oswald looked like except that, like all warrior kings of the age, he probably wore his hair long and sported an extravagant moustache. Even by the standards of the day his was a short and bloody rule, his end summary and brutal. In death his severed head and arms were displayed on stakes at a place which came to be known as Oswald's Tree or Oswestry and his skull, a sacred possession of Durham Cathedral, exhibits a sword-cut wide enough to accommodate three fingers. His post-mortem career was as extraordinary as his life and death had been. Many miracles were said to have taken place where he fell and in later times his relics (rather too many of them, in truth) were valued for their virtue and potency right across Europe.
Oswald's historical significance is greater even than the sum of his parts. He forged a hybrid culture of Briton, Irish, Scot and Anglo-Saxon which gave rise to a glorious age of arts and language symbolised by his foundation of the monastery on Lindisfarne and the sumptuous manuscripts later crafted there by Northumbria's monks. His political legacy was in part responsible for the Crusades and for Henry VIII's break with Rome; and for the idea that Britain is a Christian state. He was the model for Tolkien's Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. If popular history needs a heroic figure from the age of Beowulf, there is no need to invent, or re-invent one. Oswald was the real thing.
There are songs and memorial inscriptions and a substantial body of poetry surviving from the so-called Dark Ages, some of which celebrate the lives and deaths of ordinary folk: ceorl and dreng, husband and wife. The written history of the period is very much concerned with kings and queens, with exiled princes, warriors and holy men; but the politics are instantly recognisable as that of any group of competing elite families: sibling rivalry, marital rows, betrayal and plotting for dynastic advantage are all there. Oswald was the product of such rivalries. He was born in about 604 into a family where politics were played for the highest possible stakes. For no-one were those stakes higher than for his mother.
It was not easy being a seventh-century queen — particularly so in the case of Acha Yffing. She was the mother of six sons, a daughter and a stepson. Her husband was a great, perhaps the greatest, Early Medieval warlord: Æthelfrith Iding, king of Bernicia and Deira, overlord of North Britain; but in the long campaigning summer of 616 he was far away from his Northumbrian homeland, fighting British kings and massacring Christian monks on the marches of what is now Wales. Like his father and grandfather before him, he would die sword-in-hand. The British called him, with bitter irony, Eadfered Flesaur: Æthelfrith the Twister.
As a woman Acha is virtually invisible. Her grave is unknown. Dr Tony Wilmott, Senior Archaeologist at English Heritage, informs me that a gravestone fragment recovered from excavations at Whitby Abbey in the 1920s bears the name ahhae+; if this is indeed the last resting-place of Oswald's mother, it suggests that she survived until the mid-650s and was influential in the founding of the royal cult of the Idings at Whitby under Oswald's brother, King Oswiu. After the death of Æthelfrith her fate is obscure, although there are two small clues. One is the destiny of her sons. The other is a name on a map. Acha, a minuscule hamlet close to the site of an ancient dun, or fort, lies nestled on the sheltered south coast of the Scottish island of Coll in the lee of low hills, which protect it from the pounding swell of the open Atlantic. If the place stands as a record of her residence there it is intriguing, because at least two of her sons, Oswald and Oswiu, were educated on the island of Iona, no more than twenty miles to the south, in the famous monastery of Saint Columba (more properly Colm Cille). One of those quirks that litter our hotchpotch linguistic heritage is that the Germanic name Acha is close to the word achaidh, which means, in Old Scots Gaelic, 'field' or 'pasture'. So the name Dun Acha might have come into being to denote a fort with or near a field. We will never know. There are, though, good reasons for believing that Acha might have journeyed far to the north and west with her children in the aftermath of her husband's violent death.
Acha was the daughter of Ælle, king of the region called Deira between the rivers Humber and Tees. We can place her birth, perhaps, at one of the royal estates of the Deiran kings on the Yorkshire Wolds within three years or so of 585. It is reasonably likely that King Ælle was deposed either by Æthelric, the father of her future husband, or by Æthelfrith himself. He was the first to join the two ancient territories of Bernicia and Deira and unite them as one kingdom of the peoples north of the Humber: the Norðanhymbrenses or Northumbrians. He probably did so by force. We can place their marriage close to the year 603, and the birth of Acha's first child, Oswald, a year later. Marriages of political convenience or alliance were absolutely normal in the higher reaches of Early Medieval tribal society. Sometimes the marriage cemented an alliance ensuring the future prospects of both families and kingdoms; sometimes it reflected the superiority of one king over another, who must offer a daughter to seal his submission; at other times it might be designed to put an end to a feud. The male offspring of the union might be regarded as legitimate potential rulers of a united kingdom — if they survived.
The status of potential kings, nobles of sufficiently high birth, came with the Anglo-Saxon epithet 'atheling'. It was not an equivalent to the modern concept of the heir to the throne, because on the death of an Early Medieval king all bets were off; it rather encoded the right to be considered a possible legitimate king of the future — a future which must be secured by arms or the overwhelming political will of an aristocratic elite.
That a daughter might be offered, willing or unwilling, to a future husband, especially one who was complicit in the deposition or murder of her father, is unpalatable; but it does not mean that royal women lived passive lives as mere atheling breeders and cup-bearers to their lords and masters. Far from it. The seventh century is outstanding for the number of women who played active, sometimes decisive roles in the fortunes of kingdoms, both earthly and spiritual. They are not to be underestimated. They had their own queenly agendas, engineering lines of patronage for their families, acting as brakes on hot-headed husbands, as brokers of deals, as pacifiers and landowners in their own right. Moreover, they might possess great tracts of land and wield the powers of patronage that came with such wealth. For the Beowulf poet the ideal was 'a noble Princess, fit to be the pledge of peace between nations'. She 'would move among the younger men in the hall, stirring their spirits; she would bestow a torc often upon a warrior before she went to her seat'. But her over-riding political role was not lost to the poet: 'She is betrothed to Ingeld, this girl attired in gold ... The Protector of the Danes has determined this and accounts it wisdom, the keeper of the land, thus to end all the feud and their fatal wars by means of the lady.'
Politics and status notwithstanding, in the year 617, after perhaps thirteen years of marriage, Acha Yffing found herself in a peculiarly unattractive and invidious position. We cannot know if her husband was the murderer or sponsor of the murderer of her father, even if we suspect it. But we do know who killed her husband, ambushing him on the southern borders of his lands where the old Roman Ermine Street crossed the River Idle near Bawtry in South Yorkshire.
Acha had a brother: two, in fact. Little is known about one, except that he sired two famous granddaughters and caused a small war of conquest. The other was called Edwin. As adults he and Acha can hardly have remembered each other. Edwin, born a year or so after his sister, had been in exile these many years. Deiran atheling without a homeland, freelance warrior, he sought protection and patronage where he might in the kingdoms of the Britons and the Southern English. Through all this time Acha's husband took a close, almost obsessive interest in Edwin's career: he spent some years trying to have him killed. Æthelfrith's failure to bribe Edwin's protector (the king in question, Raedwald of East Anglia, was put off by some harsh words from his queen) was fatal. Edwin lived to kill his persecutor on the field of battle and claim Northumbria for himself.
Acha may have considered waiting for her brother Edwin that late summer of 617, to ascertain his intentions towards her and her sons. That she did not speaks volumes for her state of mind and the advice of her counsellors. Shakespeare's nephew-killing Richard III was a dynastic pragmatist. So was Edwin; and so was his sister. As far as one can tell, on hearing of the death of her husband she gathered her children, her personal treasures and a group of loyal warriors and fled north. Edwin, reclaiming his kingdom, would have summarily dispatched his nephews without a thought for sisterly sentiment.
The Venerable Bede, first historian of the English and an accomplished investigator, could write only sketchily in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People of events which took place fifty years or so before his own birth:
During the whole of Edwin's reign the sons of King Æthelfrith his predecessor, together with many young nobles, were living in exile among the Irish or the Picts ...
Bede had good reason to know of such things, for he had distinguished correspondents on Iona, the principal monastery and school of Dál Riata (which is what he means when he talks of the Irish); for their part, the Iona chroniclers had special reasons for recording the presence of Oswald at their monastery. He was their Northumbrian king. Bede does not say that their mother Acha went with them. But to risk her brother's vengeance would have been suicidal. Besides, when the boot was on the other foot — that is to say, when King Edwin was himself killed — Bede records that his queen, Æthelburh, did not hesitate to take her children with her into exile among her relatives at a very safe distance: Paris, to be exact.
Pagan queens who lost their kings in war did not necessarily find themselves disposable or politically irrelevant. Their potential role as negotiators, as counsellors or as senior representatives of their dynasties might save them. A widowed queen of Kent married her stepson on his accession, although it ended ill: Bede reported with satisfaction that the offender was afflicted by madness and possessed of unclean spirits. Heathen dowagers may on occasion have been executed or left to live on the equivalent of a pension — a small estate perhaps. But the arrival of Christianity in the days of Edwin and Oswald subtly changed the status of noble women. The sanctuary of the monastery came to offer a relatively comfortable, peaceful retirement, as it also became an attractive career option for royal women who were not destined to be queens.
Excerpted from The King in the North by Max Adams. Copyright © 2013 Max Adams. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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Table of Contents
A note on dates and timelines xiii
I Queen's move 1
II The Sound of Iona 17
Timeline: AD 547 to 604 33
III Pride and prejudice 36
IV Coming of age in Dál Riata 55
V Uncle Edwin 76
VI King's gambit 97
Timeline: AD 604 to 631 121
VII Winter quarters 124
VIII The return of the King 141
IX Holy Islands 160
X The neighbours 186
XI Holy shires 203
XII Oh brother, where art thou? 229
Timeline: AD 632 to 642 238
XIII Miracles will happen 241
XIV Family affairs 260
XV Promises, promise 278
XVI Wood and stone 295
XVII The Bay of the Lighthouse 311
Timeline: AD 642 to 671 327
XVIII Habeas corpus 334
XIX Incorrupt 353
XX Men of letters 373
Timeline: AD 672 to 735 387
Appendix A The Bernician king-list problem 399
Appendix B The genealogies of the kings 404
Appendix C A note on the languages of seventh-century Britain 410
Notes to the text 416