“Bede saw Oswald as the torchbearer of God’s will and England’s destiny; and while I attempt a more modern analysis of Oswald’s role in English history, there is little doubt that his conversion on Iona and triumphant return to reclaim his kingdom from exile was a profoundly significant moment in both British and European history.”
WHAT: “The magisterial biography of Oswald Whiteblade, exiled prince of Northumbria, who returned in blood and glory to reclaim his birthright.
A charismatic leader, a warrior whose prowess in battle earned him the epithet Whiteblade, an exiled prince who returned to claim his birthright, the inspiration for Tolkein’s Aragorn.
Oswald of Northumbria was the first great English monarch, yet today this legendary figure is all but forgotten. In this panoramic portrait of Dark Age Britain, archaeologist and biographer Max Adams returns the king in the North to his rightful place in history.”
WHO: “Max Adams is an archaeologist, historian and traveller, the author of twelve books and numerous articles and journal papers. Born in 1961 in London, he was educated at the University of York, where he read archaeology. After a professional career which included the notorious excavations at Christchurch Spitalfields, and several years as Director of Archaeological Services at Durham University, Max went to live in a 40-acre woodland in County Durham for three years. He wrote and presented two feature documentaries for Tyne-Tees Television and made thirty short films as the ‘Landscape Detective’.”
Why ‘The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria’?
Oswald was a king of Northumbria during one of the most obscure periods in British history. Most readers won’t, I think, be able to give him much context out of their general knowledge. So I thought what he needed was the most detailed and evocative historical setting possible. That setting is rooted in the geography of the North – open country; the sea; the legacy of Hadrian’s Wall and Roman forts.
And then, one has to understand how a kingdom of Northumbria emerged in the late 6 th century; how it became so dominant among the competing warrior kingdoms of Britain. Our principal historical guide is Oswald’s fellow Northumbrian Bede, whose purpose was to explain how God’s hand came to convert the Northumbrian kings from paganism; how they united (in Bede’s view) the peoples of England under a universal church. Bede saw Oswald as the torchbearer of God’s will and England’s destiny; and while I attempt a more modern analysis of Oswald’s role in English history, there is little doubt that his conversion on Iona and triumphant return to reclaim his kingdom from exile was a profoundly significant moment in both British and European history. In his life and times we see the birth of nations and of a European Christian state – but also, I think, the plainest possible model of how state politics and religion work together to forge royal power in medieval Europe.
If you could ask Oswald one question, and tell him one thing, what would they be?
As an archaeologist and historian of the landscape of power, I would want to know how he knew what was his – an odd question, perhaps. But in a period of no written deeds, this prince in exile, who leaves his homeland at the age of 12 and returns as a grown man and proven warrior in his late 20s, and yet seems to have a very good immediate grasp of how to deploy his control over the Northumbrian kingdom. He is able to hand vast estates over to his Ionan Christian protégés – landed estates with an income and known boundaries. How that knowledge was transmitted is an enduring question that I would love to understand better. And what would I tell him? Do not underestimate your enemies! After eight years of rule he was cut down on the battlefield of Maserfield by a pagan Mercian warlord; dismembered and his body parts mounted on stakes.
Oswald was killed at the Battle of Maserfield. What would have happened if he had
Who can say? Historians are hopeless at prediction. In the manner of such dynasties, there would very likely have been a civil war between his son and his brother (as there ultimately was, it seems, when his brother Oswiu succeeded him). But I doubt if he would have instituted the crucial reforms through which his brother cemented the place of a literate, European church at the heart of British royal politics. Had Oswald killed Penda at Maserfield, on the Welsh border in 642, in all probability Northumbria would have crushed the emerging Mercian state and imposed Christianity on its kings; and Wessex might not have emerged as a later English powerhouse.
The women around Oswald were forces to be reckoned with. Which one should everybody have heard of?
The 7th century is conspicuous for the number of outstanding, politically active women who played key roles in the emergence of the British kingdoms. In the ‘fictive family’ of the warband, they played the part of peace-weavers; but also of inciters to action. They brought substantial wealth and power into a royal marriage and maintained political interests as well as being powerful patrons of religious establishments and of their own collateral kin. We know little of Oswald’s mother, Acha, but we know she managed to get her young family safely away from Northumbria after her brother Edwin killed Oswald’s father. She established key relations (and sponsors) for her children with both Pictish and Dalriadan kings. Another northern force, St Hild, was a heavyweight ecclesiastical entrepreneur – the founder of Whitby Abbey, who oversaw the most important political event of her day, at Whitby in 664.
But It’s Oswald’s brother Oswiu’s wife, Eanflæd, who is the outstanding figure, I think. She was the daughter of King Edwin, Oswald’s uncle and rival. Exiled after her father’s death in 633, she was taken to Paris where she was introduced to the sophisticated, bloody politics of the Frankish court. She returned to Northumbria to marry Oswald’s brother, Oswiu – a purely political alliance – and with him set about deploying their huge estates to found monasteries under the rule of their various relations: cementing Oswald’s legacy and investing working, rational capital into the landscape for the first time since the end of Rome. Reading between Bede’s lines, she was a shrewd, wise, thoughtful operator. The fact that England has, ever since, been a Christian state with a literate ‘civil service’ is at least as much their legacy as it is Oswald’s. Eanflæd shows how women (and she stands for many) of noble birth exercised ‘agency’ in a warrior’s world.
Your travel agent offers you: A day and a night living and studying with the Venerable Bede*; A passage on one of Benedict Biscop’s trips to Rome**; OR A season living the holy life on Iona with Columba.*** Which do you choose?
*You may ask the scholars anything, but you may not take any notes away with you.
**Sorry, but the ticket doesn’t allow you beyond the pomerium (you can’t go into the city).
***Columba insists you take a vow of silence so that you don’t distract the brothers from their
work. You can listen and observe only.
That’s easy: I would go to Iona to see how Columba ran his island empire and spiritual domain. The glimpses that we get from his hagiographer Adomnán of how the monastery functioned, backed up by various, not entirely satisfactory, excavation campaigns make me want to know much, much more: how Iona was connected so far afield (to Gaul and the Mediterranean world beyond) by trade, by ecclesiastical links and the shared language and culture of the church; how their economy functioned; how they dealt with great secular lords and maintained diplomatic links across the North of Britain and Ireland.
And I’d want to know if Columba was really the huge personality that comes across in his Vita. Naturally, I’d have to learn Irish and vastly improve my Latin to be able to eavesdrop on their conversations. But what a place to learn – both on the edge of the known world and at the same time the beating heart of Early Medieval life and politics – it would be like being a Westminster AND Vatican AND UN insider – and at the same time living on a jewel in the ocean.
Scottish and Welsh identity have both gone on to inform contemporary political outlooks.
Why hasn’t Northumbrian Nationalism ever gone beyond the occasional display of a gold and red bumper sticker?
There’s a huge contrast in attitudes both North and South of here. Scotland presents a self- consciously nationalist in outlook – flag waving and caricaturing of its own history. Wales offers a vision of cultural and linguistic vibrancy that has outgrown its nationalist movement. Then there’s Yorkshire – also very proud of its geography and historic identity – not wanting independence from England because it thinks it IS England. When you ask Northumbrians about their identity they put a finger to their lips and ….Ssshhh…. I think that is a function of the last thousand years of being ‘other’ – a border territory fought over by competing interests and, quite frankly, happy to be left alone to enjoy its quite pleasures of landscape, sea and space. I doubt if all that many drivers of cars with Oswald’s banner on their bumper sticker could quite say what it means – or where the image comes from.
Can you read Bernard Cornwall’s ‘The Last Kingdom’ series without tutting or rolling your
No, not really. I should say that I admire any attempt to evoke the period through fiction – it’s thoroughly merited both artistically and intellectually as a thought experiment in animating a world otherwise known only in stilted snapshots. If I were brave enough I’d try it myself. But I have not yet been very convinced by many ‘Dark Age’ stories – although I thought Nicola Griffith’s Hild was a fascinating and worthy novel. It’s much, much worse when those complex works are translated onto the screen. The fact that Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie is the most realistic screen portrayal of the period says it all…
If you could possess one item described in your narrative, which would it be?
Like most archaeologists, I don’t possess any ancient artifacts of my own – they all end up on museum shelves. But I fancy if I had Oswald’s skull sitting on my desk, looking at me, Yorick-like, with its three-finger sword-slash cut, it would be a potent reminder that for all our romanticising of ancient times, these people could be pretty thuggish. I might just have it tested for its DNA, though – curiosity would be hard to resist…
The people who inhabit both ‘The King in the North’ and ‘Britain in the age of Arthur’ had a strong belief in magic and the supernatural. Are you ever inclined to think there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our modern philosophy?
Absolutely. Just look at a Bruegel painting of people in 16th century Flanders going about their eccentric lives. In The First Kingdom, which was published in February of this year, I’ve tried to explore more of the sense of alternative consciousness that archaeologists sense, but find it hard to describe. It was a world both pragmatic and wonderful, in which the rules that governed behaviour both in this world and the next are at one and the same time comprehensible in their own context and a little alien to us, with their capricious gods and dread omens. But reckon that if you went to live with them for a while, the bigger culture shock would be in coming back to the present – equally weird, wonderful and eccentric, when seen from another perspective.
What are you currently working on?
Having, as it were, now completed an early medieval trilogy, from the end of the Roman Empire (The First Kingdom) to the Viking Age (Ælfred’s Britain), I’m stepping back a little and taking a look at our oldest and most persistent technology, with a book about the history of humanity and its relations with wood. The Hand that Wields the Axe will tell the story of technology and creativity through the tools, wheels, boats, art, machines and buildings that have accompanied the great human adventure from the African Rift Valley to the end of the Wood Age in the 18 th century. I’m enjoying the trip…
LIKE WHAT YOU JUST READ? FOLLOW US ON TWITTER! OR SIGN UP TO OUR MAILING LIST!