“I think Napoleon planned his offensive against the Papacy like a military campaign. Manoeuvring, invasion, battle, victory, and capitulation were the set pattern of his triumphs.” – Author Ambrogio A. Caiani talks about ‘To Kidnap a Pope’

“I’d love to ask Pius VII what kept him going during his imprisonment/exile? It would be fascinating to know if his faith that he would be delivered from and survive his incarceration ever wavered.”

WHAT: The story of The Story, of Christianity as it appears in the historical record, is a constant tussle between those empowered solely by their spiritual faith and those holding supreme temporal power. For the Catholic Church, the established church of Western Europe, the multidimensional Venn diagram of overlapping spiritual and temporal interests has been a fractal labyrinth through which very few have successfully navigated. There is scarcely a polity – not an Earldom, Dukedom, Kingdom, or Empire – in which Church and state have ever coexisted in perfect balance without the unfolding, all consuming drama of a Beckett or a Borgia, a Henry or an Honorius. Since the fall of Rome, the history of Europe has always been, in one sense or another, the history of Church and state.

Amid the aftershocks of the political and intellectual earthquake known to us as the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Pope Pius VII (1742 -1823) attempted to reconcile the latter’s old church with the former’s new state. The early signs were promising. Together in 1801 they formalized an agreement, but relations between them rapidly deteriorated. In 1809, to the horror of the faithful across the continent, Napoleon ordered the Pope’s arrest. Pius’ imprisonment, which would vary in severity and isolation, lasted until Napoleon’s fall in 1814.

In his pioneering account of the tempestuous relationship between the Emperor and his most unyielding opponent Ambrogio Caiani draws on original findings in the Vatican and other European archives. He uncovers the nature of Catholic resistance to Napoleon’s aggression; charts Napoleon’s approach to Papal power; and reveals how the Emperor attempted to subjugate the church to his particular vision of modernity.

“In gripping, vivid prose, Caiani brings to life the struggle for power that would shape modern Europe. It all makes for a historical read which is both original and enjoyable.” – Antonia Fraser, author of ‘Marie Antoinette’.

WHO: Ambrogio A. Caiani is senior lecturer in modern European history at the University of Kent. He is the author of ‘Louis XVI and the French Revolution 1789-1792‘.

MORE? Here!

Why ‘To Kidnap a Pope’?

Well, the title is meant to provide the reader with the basic storyline of the book: in 1809 Napoleon ordered that Pius VII be removed from Rome against his will. He would remain the French Emperor’s prisoner for nearly five years. I have always been fascinated by the politics of religion. The more I researched this topic in the Vatican Archives, and National Archives in Paris, the more I became convinced that its legacy cast a long shadow over the Catholic Church. Indeed, the age of revolutions catalysed the decline in church and state relations that had its roots in the long eighteenth century. The experience of persecution under the French Revolution and Napoleon ensured that the Papacy would view modern states with unconcealed distrust.

Biographers are often asked if they came to like and / or respect their subjects. How do you feel about these two personalities now compared to when you started out? Would you want to share a small and remote holiday cottage with either for an indeterminate period?

Ultimately, I learned to respect both my protagonists as men of principle. Regrettably for them their most deeply held convictions set them on a collision course that was to have disastrous consequences for Europe and the Church. If I had to spend a wet weekend with them…. that’s easy …. Napoleon would definitely be better company than the taciturn and contemplative, former monk, Barnaba Chiaramonti, who was elected Pope in March 1800. I imagine that it would have been tricky to pry even the smallest of conversations out of Pius. He was a deeply religious man, and I am not sure he was that keen on human company. His companions tended to be theologians and confessors. He only really spoke freely to a tiny circle of friends and family.

Whereas Napoleon adored conversation and, when he was not in one of his dark moods, he was, apparently, very good company and a scintillating conversationalist (you just have to read the memorial de Sainte-Hélène to realise that this was the case). Having said this, I suspect that a hyperactive guest, who barely slept four hours a night, like the French Emperor would have tried the endurance skills and energy levels of even the most consummate host. Despite this snag, I think I would be willing to risk it.

How does Napoleon’s struggle with the Papacy of Pius VII stack up against his more famous military campaigns in terms of planning, execution, and adaption to shifting circumstances? Did he have a particular idea of what ultimate victory might look like?

That’s a great question, I think Napoleon planned his offensive against the Papacy like a military campaign. Manoeuvring, invasion, battle, victory, and capitulation were the set pattern of his triumphs. He, probably, expected that he could follow a similar grand design, and ultimately subordinate the Catholic Church to his will. Yet, like in Spain and Calabria, he met a determined group of ecclesiastical resisters, especially the Pope, who simply refused to concede defeat and yield. Simply put, Chiaramonti, unlike a Habsburg or Hohenzollern sovereign, was unresponsive to bullying and military intimidation. Pius’ weapons and provisions were spiritual. He organised a mass campaign of passive resistance that made French rule in the papal states next to impossible. Such tactics prove much more effective in resisting Napoleon than brute force.

Neither Napoleon or Pius were especially modern political thinkers. Neither believed that political legitimacy rests exclusively on the consent of the governed. Keynes described Newton as the last magician rather than the first scientist. Did you ever find yourself wondering if you were chronicling a late medieval struggle rather than an early modern chapter of European history?

Well you say that … but I do wonder if anything, at the end of the day, is really that modern. Napoleon often drew parallels between himself and the medieval investitures crisis of the eleventh century. For example, the struggle that pitted Gregory VII against the Emperor Henry IV, or that which saw Philip IV, possibly, murder Boniface VIII bear remarkable analogies to the events of my book. Yet, by the same logic, the investiture crisis that set Communist China against the Holy See, in the early twenty first century, bears some, loose, though striking parallels to the Napoleonic Empire’s relationship with the Catholic Church. Governments, whether ancient or modern, have and will continue to put pressure on the Church to yield to the power of the state. A harmonious relationship between church and state remains an elusive objective even to this day.

What lessons from this period could the Papacy have absorbed and applied when it came to dealing with 20th century dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler?

Let me start by saying that in general concordats have a good track record in the long history of the Catholic Church. When both contracting parties have upheld the bargain, then, these treaties often created harmonious periods in church and state relations. This was particularly the case in nineteenth century Latin America. Such agreements cemented the Church’s position, rather than undermining it, in South America. A major problem emerges when one party is ‘not playing by the rules.’ The soft power of the church unsupported by hard power of the state could only go so far. The church negotiated these agreements in good faith, but it did not possess the means to force secular states to adhere to the terms of the concordats it signed. The dictators of the twentieth century proved unscrupulous and manipulative in their selective reading of the concordats they had ratified. Like Napoleon, they showed little respect for the Church’s prerogatives and position.

Unlike the French Emperor, they did not kidnap a Pope and exile him (although apparently at one point Hitler did consider kidnapping Pius XII according to one author). Ultimately, there is no easy lesson for the Papacy to draw from the Napoleonic period. Perhaps focusing on its pastoral mission, and avoiding politics where possible, could only be to the church’s advantage.

You express an admiration for Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife and the mother of his son. Why has she been so overlooked? Why does she deserve a greater share of the limelight?

I think we tend to be dismissive of arranged marriages in our society as they lack the romance and passion of courtship. In consequence, I guess, the public dismisses the marriage of Napoleon to Marie Louise as mere politics. This eclipses the fact that Marie Louise and Napoleon formed a notable political partnership. Unlike Josephine, she served as regent of France in 1813-1814 while the Emperor was on campaign. This was certainly a token of the trust and esteem Napoleon placed on her. Indeed, as Michael Broers has stated, she attended the council of state and was given a good education. After Napoleon’s fall, she became Duchess of Parma where she is remembered as an enlightened ruler. Under her beneficent guidance, Parma achieved some of the highest literacy rates in Italy, and she was a renowned patron of the arts, especially Italian opera. It has even been suggested that the quality controls and production standards for Parma ham were inspired by her. I also quite like that Napoleon was only husband number one (out of three), so she clearly was a strong woman who put her stamp on an age ruled by men. I do wish somebody would write a political biography of this formidable princess.

If you could directly ask one question of each of your protagonists what would you ask them and what answers would you expect?

I’d love to ask Pius VII what kept him going during his imprisonment/exile? It would be fascinating to know if his faith that he would be delivered from and survive his incarceration ever wavered. I suspect I would not be likely to get an honest answer. Once freed, the Pope claimed his emancipation was a clear manifestation of divine providence. We have no real source with which access to Pius VII’s inner most thoughts which is frustrating for a historian.

To Napoleon I would ask why he wavered (which was out of character) on what to do with his prisoner? Why he wrote to Fouche, his minister of police, claiming that taking the Pope into custody had never been his intention (a manifest lie)? Perhaps I would also ask if deep down he had some lingering belief in the Catholic God… I suspect we’ll never know.

If you could possess one artefact mentioned in your narrative, what would it be and why?

Oh dear, I am not very good when it comes to the ‘material turn’ in history or the current obsession some historians have with knick-knacks. But I would love to possess some of the notes and fragments of paper that Pius smuggled out of Savona, in the seams of his cassock, to communicate with the outside world. It would be fun to spend hours trying to decipher and reassemble his messages to loyal Catholics across Europe.

Was Pius VII an effective Pope? Does he have any wider claim to fame other than having reigned and suffered in interesting times?

Oh, definitely! He was, to an extent, the architect of the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century. The re-establishment of the Jesuit order in 1814, the rediscovery of baroque/popular piety and the drive towards Marianism, can all be attributed to his post-Napoleonic reign. He was determined to not only ensure the church survived the Napoleonic episode, but prospered after one of its darkest hours. He showed an iron determination that the Papacy should retain its central Italian principality. This turned out to be a lost cause and left something of a burdensome legacy. He created a church that was spiritually vibrant. Indeed, numbers of vocations and worshippers increased in rural Europe in the decades following his pontificate. Yet, at the same time, he left much unfinished business with the modern secular state. He would not be the last Pope forced to leave Rome and lose his principality.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on a political history of Global Catholicism during the age of revolutions 1700-1903. It is a great challenge but must say I am loving every minute of it!


“I don’t think the CSA would have won independence had Breckinridge bene president. No one was going to make that happen given the determination of Lincoln and his people.” – Author William C. Davis talks about ‘An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government’

“I do suspect that by the time of the flight from Richmond, Davis had become intermittently delusional, as he could not see, what all around him saw.”

WHAT: “A dramatic retelling of four months in 1865…; A true story full of political treachery and physical adventure; Author is arguably the foremost authority on the American Civil War; In February, 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederacy. Lee was defeated at Gettysburg, Grant’s victory at Memphis had cut the South in two, and Sherman’s brutal march through Georgia had destroyed what was left of the Southern economy. With the land shattered, people starving, and no hope left, the reality for the secessionist government was grim. An Honorable Defeat is the story of four months in 1865, during which the South surrendered, the North triumphed, and President Lincoln was assassinated, told with style and with absolute historical accuracy.”

WHO: “William Charles “Jack” Davis (born 1946) is an American historian who was a professor of history at Virginia Tech and the former director of programs at that school’s Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Specializing in the American Civil War, Davis has written more than 40 books on the American Civil War and other aspects of early southern U.S. history such as the Texas Revolution.[1] He is the only three-time winner of the Jefferson Davis Prize for Confederate history and was awarded the Jules and Frances Landry Award for Southern history.”

MORE? Here!

Why ‘An Honorable Defeat’?

I have always found the story of the last days of the CSA government and the flight of Davis and the cabinet to be fascinating. Inevitable, tragic, at times comic, and at others suspenseful.

Did the CSA ever have a viable path to victory via an exclusively military route?

In a word, No. That is to say, I see no way the CSA was going to win independence on the battlefield so long as Lincoln and the people of the Union were willing to keep fighting, which they showed they were from the outset. Only massive foreign intervention might have turned the tables, and no European power regarded having an independent CSA as worth the potential cost of being at war with the Union’s huge army and modern navy.

Was Jefferson Davis too quick on the draw in 1861? Should he (could he) have exhausted
any of the other options – such as attempting to establish the legal right of states to exit the Union in the courts – before firing on Fort Sumter?

I think so. In fact, in February-March 19861, I think the CSA’s best chance was in the Supreme Court, which had a pro-Southern majority on the bench. Instead of seizing arsenals and other clearly warlike acts, they could have filed suits through the federal district court in Richmond or elsewhere, which they surely would have won, and then Washington would have appealed it to the supreme court. Of course, like Andrew Jackson before him, Lincoln could simply have ignored a court ruling.

Could Davis have made a worse job of leading his government into exile? Does this chapter typify his wartime presidency, or did everything in his public life become him EXCEPT the leaving of it? Were you ever tempted into thinking he was trying to be captured and put on trial?

I do suspect that by the time of the flight from Richmond, Davis had become intermittently delusional, as he could not see, what all around him saw. He was simply too invested in the CSA mentally and emotionally to admit it was dead. Consequently, I think it possible that he even hoped to be killed during the flight rather than outlive it. Failing that, he very definitely wanted a trial so he could make the case that secession was lawful, and there he and the seceding states were not traitors. Fear of such a court ruling was a bit part of why Washington chose not to prosecute him.

Who was John C. Breckinridge? You seem to suggest that had he been at the helm the CSA
might have stood a better chance of winning its independence. Why’s that?

I don’t think the CSA would have won independence had Breckinridge bene president. No one was going to make that happen given the determination of Lincoln and his people. However, I think it probable that had he been president in 1865, he would have negotiated a peaceful surrender and gotten some concessions in return that might have made the transition to reconstruction easier on the South.

“He had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” Was Mark Twain right about Walter Scott?

Twain, as often, was being glib and hyperbolic.

In Europe we live our daily lives amid the physical reminders of our past political follies and once trendy cultural foibles. Do you think Americans could ever learn to live with their past rather than in it?

Perhaps not. We—or our leaders—are too fond of making political and social capital out of misstating the past to further contemporary aims.

If you could personally possess one physical item described in your narrative, what would it
be and why?

I’d like to have the pocket compass Breckinridge carried. I believe it is at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, though not on exhibit.

If you could interview just one character from your drama (without changing the course of
history), who would they be, what would you ask them, and what would you tell them?

Breckinridge of course. I have studied him for more than fifty years, and still find him interesting. I would ask him his innermost feelings about slavery and secession. He was opposed to both personally, but regarded them as lawful and therefore beyond interference. I wonder if he let ambition cloud his judgment when he went over to the CSA.

What are you currently working on?

No books. I am restoring a 1928 Pierce-Arrow convertible coupe to running order. Don’t really know what I’m doing, but I am enjoying it!


“During the early days of his pontificate I was fascinated, and supportive. Like many others I was caught up in the Francis effect.” – Author Philip Lawyer talks about ‘Lost Shepherd’

“If I were selecting bishops, I’d look to priests who had seen a healthy growth in the activities of their parishes.”

WHAT: “Faithful Catholics are beginning to realize it’s not their imagination. Pope Francis has led them on a journey from joy to unease to alarm and even a sense of betrayal. They can no longer pretend that he represents merely a change of emphasis in papal teaching. Assessing the confusion sown by this pontificate, Lost Shepherd explains what’s at stake, what’s not at stake, and how loyal believers should respond.”

WHO: “Phil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN), the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the internet, which he founded in 1995. CWN provides daily headline news coverage for the Catholic Culture site, where Phil Lawler also offers regular analysis and commentary.

Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil attended Harvard College and did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He has previously served as Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation, as editor of Crisis magazine, and as editor of the international monthly magazine Catholic World Report.

Phil Lawler is the author or editor of ten books on political and religious topics. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroadA pro-life activist and veteran of many political campaigns, Phil was himself a candidate for the US Senate in 2000, running against the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.”

MORE? Here!

Why Pope Francis?

Well, any Pope is always going to be a figure of special interest: to Catholics, to anyone interested in the Catholic Church, and certainly to a Catholic journalist like myself. But Pope Francis was particularly interesting because he has set out along a route so markedly different from that of his immediate predecessors.

During the early days of his pontificate I was fascinated, and supportive. Like many others I was caught up in the “Francis effect”— the excitement over his informal style and his willingness to engage in new and different ways. But as I explain in Lost Shepherd, as time passed I saw the dangers created by his approach.

The Catholic Church ascribes a great deal of authority to the Bishop of Rome. But that authority is strictly limited in scope: the Pope has the power commensurate with his duty, and his duty is to preserve and defend the truths of the faith. If he questions those truths, he subverts his own authority. That is the danger that I saw developing, more and more clearly, in this pontificate.

What is Francis doing right?

He has— belatedly, and after several false steps— begun holding bishops to account for their own stewardship, particularly in their responses to sexual abuse. He has continued the work begun by Pope Benedict in cleaning up Vatican finances. But in both areas he has unfortunately sent some mixed signals, so that the final results of his reforms are not yet clear.

The media initially ran with a narrative of Francis as an kindly outsider, an innocent abroad in murky realms of skullduggery and intrigue. How true to life is that portrait of the man who became (and who is) Pope Francis?

Not very. He came to Rome as an outsider, but now he’s been in power for long enough to assemble his own “team,” and the net result has been an increase in the power of the Vatican insiders. He has shown his own willingness to reward his allies and punish his critics within the hierarchy and at the Vatican. Staff morale is not good; there is an atmosphere of tension that I did not notice in previous papal administrations.

Could The Francis Effect have been sustained after the initial honeymoon?

Good question; it’s hard to say. As I see it, one reason the “Francis effect” wore off is the gradual realization that the public image didn’t match the man. (By the way that was also true, in a very different way, of Pope Benedict XVI. The public image of him as a stern authoritarian was completely upside-down; he was and is a very meek and gentle man who goes out of his way to be fair to those who disagree with him.)

Non-Catholics might look at this institution, perhaps even at this whole way of thought, and seeing Borgia Popes, the suppression of Galileo, systemic child rape by priests, et al., and find themselves wondering what (if any) moral authority such a Church retains. How should an effective Pope respond?

There have been plenty of bad popes, bad prelates, bad priests. It does the Catholic Church no good to try to suppress that unhappy fact. As St. Augustine said, “God does not need my lie.” The Church should never be afraid of the truth, on the contrary, should always encourage people to see the whole truth. Toward that end, the Pope should:

  • Encourage bishops to acknowledge problems before they hit the press, and urge them to stop stonewalling.
  • Change the way the Vatican releases information. On sensitive issues, the Vatican operates on a “need to know” basis. Change that; be open. For example, when a bishop is forced to resign because he’s been found grossly negligent, say that; don’t have him step down quietly.
  • Welcome capable outsiders to explore the facts, and cooperate with them in their research.
    Conduct and publish an outside audit of Vatican finances.

Things that like will change public perceptions and restore trust.

Ultimately the moral authority of the Church rests on the belief that the Church can provide the truth. If the Church is providing the truth only part of the time, or only on some subjects, obviously that harms public confidence.

Why shouldn’t two consenting gay adults build a life of love together and enjoy the same civil protections afforded to every other couple? How should a compassionate Pope respond?

Same-sex couples already have the same civil protections afforded to other couples. The question is whether their relationships can be recognized as marriages. They can’t, because marriage is an institution established by God and by nature— not by the state— and we’re not at liberty to re-define it.

How is artificial contraception as bad as abortion? Wouldn’t more of the former result in less of the latter? How should an informed and informative Pope respond?

The acceptance of contraception hasn’t reduced the demand for abortions; quite the contrary. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because abortion is seen as a back-up plan for when contraception fails (which it inevitably does in some cases). The fundamental problem here is that the link between sexual activity and reproduction has been broken, and the result has been a devaluation of both marital sex and the dignity of life. Pope John Paul II offered the world an alternative view of sexuality as the “theology of the body.” That was a model of papal teaching. It’s terribly unfortunate that Pope Francis has downplayed that line of teaching, and gutted the Vatican institutions (the Pontifical Academy for Life, the John Paul II Institute) that were set up to promote the teaching.

Why are the views and careers of bishops whose flocks are dwindling so often promoted over those to whom the faithful gather in great number?

Another very good question. Fundraising is obviously at least a part of the answer, I’m sorry to say. The Catholic Church in Germany has been losing tens of thousands of faithful every year, but due to the “church tax” (which is an arrangement the Church should never have encouraged), the Church in Germany is extremely wealthy, and that wealth brings undue influence.

If I were selecting bishops, I’d look to priests who had seen a healthy growth in the activities of their parishes. (I’d set the same standard for choosing a pope.) But often the best pastors aren’t particularly interested in climbing up the ecclesiastical ladder; they’re too busy with their parishes. The Church is an institution made up of ordinary humans, after all, and as in most institutions, the ambitious people are most likely to get ahead. “Ambitious” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily associate with a good shepherd of souls.

Pope Francis calls you up and asks you to suggest the names of three worthy individuals for a Cardinal’s hat. Who are you suggesting and why?

Hmmm. I’m tempted to name a few bishops I heartily dislike— confident that my recommendation would scuttle their chances for advancement. On the other hand I’m also pretty confident that no one in Rome will pay much attention if I play it straight, so:

Bishop Athanasius Schneider, because he has been among the most persistent critics of Pope Francis– but always thoughtful and respectful in his criticisms— and a good leader should surround himself with thoughtful people who will not be afraid to question his judgment.

Archbishop José Gomez, because he leads the largest archdiocese in the US (Los Angeles) and is now president of the US bishops’ conference, and the Vatican badly needs a counterweight to offset the influence of the liberal Americans (Cupich, Tobin) most recently added to the College of Cardinals.

Father Jacques Philippe, because when you hear him speak, you feel the peace that comes with the embrace of truth.

What are you currently working on?

My latest book is Contagious Faith: a study of how the Church responded to the Covid epidemic— not very well, I’m afraid. I’m mulling another new book, about the prediction of Pope Benedict that the Church in the near future will be much smaller yet paradoxically much more influential. I think that’s right, and I’d like to explain why.


“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.” – Author Max Adams talks about ‘The King in the North’

The King in the North ( The life and times of Oswald of Northumbria) – A Book by Max Adams from Lonely Tower Film & Media on Vimeo.

“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’.”

MORE? Here!

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…


“I wanted to show children that they should be open to those differences and celebrate them. It’s what makes us unique and special.” – Author Peter A. Johnson talks about ‘Bog: The Ogre In The Cellar’

“Key Stage 1 classes certainly understood Bog!”

WHAT: “Bog is an ogre who has been alone for years. Jacob is a schoolboy who has heard stories about a mysterious creature that lives down in the school cellar. The rumours have been told for years. But are they true? No one has ever been brave enough to find out, that is until now.

Take a walk deep into the school cellar with Jacob, a brave little schoolboy, as he comes face to face with what all other children have feared the most.

Peter A. Johnson and illustrator Faizal Razalli have teamed up to create a rich, vibrant and heart-warming story. This rhyming storybook is a must for every child in love with picture stories and for those who have a curious mind, just like Jacob.

The story opens up conversations parents can have with young, tiny minds about inclusion. Every page in this book has been lovingly created to draw the attention of young readers. Each detail is something to be admired. If you love books created by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, you will enjoy this read.”

WHO: “Peter A. Johnson is a children’s author born and bred in Greater Manchester. He has been a primary school teacher for 10 years and has taught various age groups during his career. At Salford University, Peter studied Performing Arts and Media Production and has always had a creative flair. This creativity feeds into the stories that he writes.”

MORE? Here!

Why ‘Bog’?

Bog is a character anyone can relate to. At some point in our lives, we have all felt different from others or felt like an outsider, even if only for a short time. Bog was forgotten and lonely through no fault of his own. I wanted to write about a character that was an outsider but throughout the story, gradually reveal to the reader, and the lead character Jacob, that although we may all have our differences, deep down we all have something loveable inside us. I wanted to show children that they should be open to those differences and celebrate them. It’s what makes us unique and special. This book shows children that it’s ok to be different like Bog and opens up conversations about inclusion.

When and how did you first ‘meet’ Bog?

Whilst I was teaching at school, I read out a short story to the class that I had written, just to support the lesson. I had no intention of writing a ‘story’, however, after I had finished the teaching, I mentioned to the class that I’d written the story. The children were surprised as they thought it was something I had read from another author. I knew in that moment I needed to start to share my stories to a wider audience. I went home and pieced together all the good parts of a story that I loved as a kid. A damp cellar, a scary monster hidden away in the darkness, and a curious boy in search of the truth. Before I knew it, Bog was created.

What kind of young readers will also want to meet Bog?

The book really works well for ages 4-7. Being a teacher, I was fortunate enough to be able to read it to lots of children of different ages and ask them for their opinions. It appeared that the same year groups kept coming back time and time again with such positive feedback and wanting to know more. Key Stage 1 classes certainly understood Bog!

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of the

As a debut author, the process was a steep learning curve. I am proud with how I handled it all. All the preparation I did paid off. I sold over 450 books in the first week, and out of 33 million books currently available on Amazon, mine reached 700 in the world, which is something I never expected. When I think about it now though, I wish I would have given myself a little more time from starting the book to its release. I put unnecessary pressure on myself. The closing stages, prior to release, were stressful to say the least. Waiting in hope that the book would arrive from the printers in time for release day was a nerve-wracking time, but when they arrived I wasn’t disappointed. I am so proud with how the book has turned out.

What’s next for Bog and you?

Bog the ogre is set to become a series and the sequel, “Bog the Ogre Goes to School”, is currently being illustrated. The next book focuses on Bog struggling to find what he’s good at and his journey to finding his special talent.

In the meantime, I have another book due for release soon called “The Manchester Bee”. There are no fictional stories out there about the iconic Manchester Bee symbol and this is a story that celebrates everything we love about this region. The culture, the music, the people, and places. There are lots of references in there for parents and beautiful artwork for young eyes. There has been quite a buzz in anticipation of the story being released as it is an original idea about a much-loved icon.


“I am currently working on a follow up. But I can say no more than that at the moment.” – Author Paul Lay discusses ‘Providence Lost’

“I would ask him why he refused the offer of the Crown. Then I would ask him to think again.”

WHAT: “England, 1651. Oliver Cromwell has defeated his royalist opponents in two civil wars, executed the Stuart king Charles I, laid waste to Ireland, and crushed the late king’s son and his Scottish allies. He is master of Britain and Ireland.

But Parliament, divided between moderates, republicans and Puritans of uncompromisingly millenarian hue, is faction-ridden and disputatious. By the end of 1653, Cromwell has become ‘Lord Protector’. Seeking dragons for an elect Protestant nation to slay, he launches an ambitious ‘Western Design’ against Spain’s empire in the New World.

When an amphibious assault on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1655 proves a disaster, a shaken Cromwell is convinced that God is punishing England for its sinfulness. But the imposition of the rule of the Major-Generals – bureaucrats with a penchant for closing alehouses – backfires spectacularly. Sectarianism and fundamentalism run riot. Radicals and royalists join together in conspiracy. The only way out seems to be a return to a Parliament presided over by a king. But will Cromwell accept the crown?

Paul Lay narrates in entertaining but always rigorous fashion the story of England’s first and only experiment with republican government: he brings the febrile world of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate to life, providing vivid portraits of the extraordinary individuals who inhabited it and capturing its dissonant cacophony of political and religious voices.”

WHO: “Editor of History Today. Author of Providence Lost: the Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate.”

MORE? Here!

Why ‘Providence Lost’?

‘Providence Lost’ plays on the loss of the English Puritan settlement of Providence Island to the Spanish in 1640, but also alludes to the fact that a later venture into the New World – Cromwell’s Western Design – was perceived. by the Protector in particular as a withdrawal of Good’s support and guidance – His providence. And Milton, as always, is in the background.

Was Cromwell as good a statesman as he was a soldier?

Cromwell was a fine cavalry commander, aggressive and brave, though he only fought on home territory (Britain and Ireland). As a statesman, he became the first commoner to become Britain’s Head of State, through an alliance of soldiers, parliamentarians and religious figures. He was held in high repute abroad. The Protectorate depended entirely on this one man.

The framers of the US Constitution relied heavily on the ancient classical learning and tradition, Addison’s “Cato” was a particular favourite. To whom were those concerned with ideas about English constitutional structures during the interregnum looking for their inspiration?

Venice was an important model for Classical Republicans. ‘They wish to make me a Duke of Venice,’ Charles I warned, with some prescience. The Republicanism identified with Milton was rooted in Classical texts. The most famous work of political philosophy of the times, along with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, is James Harrington’s Oceana, explicitly modelled on the Venetian constitution and addressed personally to Cromwell.

Why did the Protectorate gamble so much of its credibility on the Western Design? Why did they need to reduce Spanish power in the West Indies? Wasn’t Cromwell fishing with a golden hook?

I am not sure the Western Design was that great a gamble. The Protectorate had a powerful and battle-tested army and navy. And the potential riches – of the flota, the mines of Potosi etc – were enormous. But they had become used to winning and were ill-prepared for tropical conditions. A classic case of hubris followed by nemesis.

What’s the most important thing to know about the Protectorate?

The most important thing about the Protectorate, as a consequence of its existence, is that Britain remains a constitutional monarchy.

There are many players entering, exiting, and waiting in the wings during the drama you chronicle. Were any of them both great AND good?

I think John Lambert, who should have succeeded Oliver Cromwell, was a brilliant soldier, arguably even better than his boss, and a serious political thinker. He was also a fine gardener. His firm, unyielding principles meant that he lived out most of his life in captivity.

(God forbid) Huntingdon’s Cromwell Museum is on fire and you only have time to save one item. What is it? If there was one item you could add to the collection, what would it be?

The Dunbar Medal.

Could the Protectorate have survived without Cromwell, or was some form or Restoration inevitable?

Had the succession gone to Lambert, or indeed Henry Cromwell, it might have succeeded. Had Cromwell taken the crown as Oliver I and accepted hereditary succession, the House of Cromwell may well have survived.

If you could ask Oliver Cromwell one question, other than whether or not he liked pineapple, what would it be? If you could tell him one thing, just to see his reaction, what would it be?

I would ask him why he refused the offer of the Crown. Then I would ask him to think again.

What are you currently working on? (Is it that much-overdue biography of Richard Cromwell?)

I am currently working on a follow up. But I can say no more than that at the moment.


“How do you Quantitatively ease bitcoin?” – Author Dominic Frisby discusses Daylight Robbery: How Tax Shaped Our Past and Will Change Our Future


“I’m not sure that there were bananas in Ancient Babylon but there was a cryptocurrency based on bananas a few years back. Not sure if it still exists. It might have gone pear-shaped.”

WHAT: “Death and taxes are our inevitable fate. We’ve been told this since the beginning of civilisation. But what if we stopped to question our antiquated system? Is it fair? And is it capable of serving the needs of our rapidly-changing, modern society?

In Daylight Robbery, Dominic Frisby traces the origins of taxation, from its roots in the ancient world, through to today. He explores the role of tax in the formation of our global religions, the part tax played in wars and revolutions throughout the ages, why, at one stage, we paid tax for daylight or for growing a beard. Ranging from the despotic to the absurd, the tax laws of the past reveal so much about how we got to where we are today and what we can do to build a system fit for the future.”

WHO: “Dominic Frisby is perhaps the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He writes a weekly investment column for Moneyweek about gold and finance and has also written for publications including the Guardian and the Independent. He speaks at conferences around the world on the future of finance. Frisby hosts various podcasts, performs stand-up comedy and is a recognized voiceover artist.”

MORE? Here!

Why “Daylight Robbery”?

Like many everyday expressions – Nosy Parker being another – the expression is thought to have its roots in a tax, in this case the Window Tax. Window Tax was introduced in 1695 to help fund William of Orange’s conflicts abroad. It lasted over 150 years. Like all taxes, it had many unintended consequences, the worst of which was that it made people ill. The urban poor of the Industrial Revolution suffered most. They lived in large tenement buildings, which, having many windows, proved heavily susceptible to the tax. Landlords – on whom the tax fell – simply boarded up the tenement windows to reduce costs. The numerous epidemics of disease in cities during the Industrial Revolution – typhus, smallpox and cholera, in particular – were made worse by the cramped, damp, windowless dwellings.

By the nineteenth century, opposition to it was everywhere. Charles Dickens fumed that, ‘Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the window-tax.’ Campaigning against it went on for decades. Pamphlets were handed out, songs were sung, speeches were made. Only in 1850 was a motion finally put before Parliament to repeal it, and legend has it that, as the matter was debated, MPs cried ‘Daylight robbery!’ The idiom has lived on as an expression for outrageous charging

You catalog the ways in which armed conflict drives innovation, consolidation, and overreach in the realm of tax as the competing governments scramble to spend on their militaries. Is it intellectually consistent to be anti-war and pro-tax?

The short answer is yes. Every single war in history has been funded by a tax of some kind – either during or after the event. Rulers, whether emperor, king, or government, start wars and taxes pay for them. The most effective means to limit war is to limit taxation.

There are plenty of idealistic, pro-large state, high taxation progressives who are anti-war in principle. But in practice, if a government decides it wants to go to war, in a democracy, there’s not a lot the people can do about it. Iraq is a recent example. The country did not want that war. Tony Blair did. Taxation made it possible. Limit taxation, you limit the size of government – and you limit its ability to do harm.

The Emperor Vespasian famously stifled and suppressed the labour-saving devices presented to him by an inventor, perhaps delaying the Industrial Revolution for centuries. You’re standing behind Caesar when the inventor has finished his pitch. The Flavian eyes turn questioningly to you, his visitor from the distant future. Knowing what you know, what do you advise the supreme ruler of the known world about the costs and benefits that big technological disruption and innovation bring? What do you advise Vespasian to do?

I would have advised him to stand aside and let the innovators do their thing. I’m not sure he would have listened, however. Rulers don’t always want their people getting rich, however – it makes them less easy to rule.

Vespasian, by the way, gave Rome a urine tax. Urine was used for tanning, laundering, and brushing your teeth (!). Collecting it proved so lucrative that Vespasian enacted a tax. Portuguese urine for some reason was the most prized. When criticized Vespasian held up a gold coin and said “the gold is clean.” That’s where we get this idea of clean and dirty money from, so the story goes)

Are there any good taxes, or at least is there such a thing as a least bad tax?

Much as we anarchists may dream of a society with no taxes, the reality is that there has never been a civilisation without taxation. The lower and simpler they are, the better, in my view. The evidence of history is that the civilisations with the lowest taxes (and thus the greatest levels of freedom) are the most innovative, inventive and prosperous.

Milton Friedman described Land Value Tax as “the least bad tax” and I would agree. It’s transparent, simple, clear, easy to administer, hard to avoid or evade, but also hard for a government to overtax. It’s the most natural way to keep the relationship between government and citizen in balance.

Why do crypto-currencies matter to the taxman?

Money beyond the control of government means an economy that is hard to tax and regulate.

Furthermore, government can’t levy the inflation tax. That is it can’t debase the currency. How do you Quantitatively ease bitcoin?

Blockchain currencies are best adapted for transactions involving non-physical, non-tangible products and services. Are there any examples of the kind of real-world tangible commodities – goods that would have been familiar to the Babylonian inventors of currency – that are being successfully traded in cryptocurrency?

I’m not sure that there were bananas in Ancient Babylon but there was a cryptocurrency based on bananas a few years back. Not sure if it still exists. It might have gone pear-shaped.

If you had to put a Dollar, Euro, or Pound Sterling on the first big currency* to switch to blockchain technology, which would it be (and which SHOULD it be)? *one that you don’t have to scroll too far to find on XE.com

Probably one of the Scandinavian currencies. I wouldn’t rule sterling out. We will all soon have wallets with the central bank.

There are examples of small states being big successes (the book spends a lot of time examining post war Hong Kong). Could Scotland, with its fondness for big government, be one of them?

I’ll say! Scotland has the potential to be the richest nation on earth on a per capita basis. If you look at the richest nations on earth per capita (Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Qatar etc), they all have populations of about 6-7m or under, and are either financial centres or have oil. Scotland has the triple.

Which of your projections and predictions are accelerating or decelerating as a result of the COVID crisis?

Remote working has become totally normal. I’m amazed at the speed this has happened.

Covid has obviously killed travel.

What are you currently working on?

I am working a musical based on my Dad’s book ‘Kisses On A Postcard‘ about his time as an evacuee in WWII.



“No way could I resist a day in the Library of Alexandria. I would go straight to the book, On the Ocean, written by Pytheas.” – Author Barry Cunliffe discusses The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe

“Alexander the Great … did not attack the Pontic steppe Scythians, but preferred to campaign against the Scythian peoples in Central Asia, may be due to his respect for the old treaty.”

WHAT: “Barry Cunliffe here marshals this vast array of evidence – both archaeological and textual – in a masterful reconstruction of the lost world of the Scythians, allowing them to emerge in all their considerable vigour and splendour for the first time in over two millennia.”

WHO: “Sir Barrington Windsor Cunliffe CBE FBA FSA (born 10 December 1939), known as Barry Cunliffe, is a British archaeologist and academic. He was Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2007. Since 2007, he has been an Emeritus Professor.”

MORE? Here!

Why the Scythians?

The Greeks considered the Scythians to be one of the four great peoples of the world (equal to the Celts). They were right and yet, in the West we hardly hear about them and they rarely feature in general books. They led a very distinctive lifestyle focussed on mobility, which contrasts to the sedentary existence of most European societies, reminding us that pastoralism is a valid economic strategy and worth of consideration alongside agriculture. More to the point they had a significant impact on China, India, the Near East and Europe – they were world players.

Did the Scythians leave a lasting legacy?

There greatest contribution was their skill as horsemen. The Scythians developed the idea and practice of cavalry which became so important in European warfare. Their animal art was another major contribution. In Europe, it influenced Celtic art and from there ideas penetrated Scandinavia and reappear in medieval Irish art.

How have Scythian studies fared since the end of the Cold War?

Archaeologists have always found it easy to work together across political boundaries but the end of the Cold War meant that collaborative fieldwork and excavations have become much easier with Germans, Italians and British working with Russian collaborators. A good example of working together was the brilliant exhibition, Scythians warriors of ancient Siberia, held in the British Museum in 2017 and all the seminars and informal meetings around it.

The Scythians left no written record, but do examples of their oral culture remain? Are there words or even phrases we could learn in the hope of engaging a time-travelling Scythian in conversation?

Scythians have left practically no trace of their oral culture except in one instance. Out of the melee of nomadic horsemen existing on the steppe, deriving from the Scythians, were the Alans, some of whom settled in the central Caucasus. They were still recognised as Alans as late as the 13th century. Their descendants are the Ossetians who have a wonderful oral tradition reflecting their past glories and whose language still has echoes of Scytho-Sarmatian.

What advice do you have for modern travellers wishing to trace the physical reminders of the Scythians – where should they go, how should they travel, who should they try and meet?

As a largely nomadic people, the Scythians have left no monuments other than their burial mounds (kurgan) which can be seen in Ukraine, southern Russia and the Altai Mountains. By far the best museum collections are housed in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia and the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kiev, Ukraine. In the UK we have very little but a small collection from burials in the Crimea is housed in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

If you could own one item described in the book which would it be and why?

I am a firm believer that rare artefacts should be in public collections where they can be enjoyed by everyone. My favourite piece is the gold beaker from Kul’-Oba, in the Crimea (now in the Hermitage Museum). It was probably made in a Greek workshop somewhere on the Black Sea coast for a Scythian client, and shows a number of Scythian warriors, possibly blood brothers, relating to each other. Its a reminder of comradeship.

What do we know about the Scythian princess buried alongside Philip of Macedon? Does her presence help explain why Alexander the Great didn’t go to war with Scythians?

The Scythian princess buried alongside Philip II of Macedon in Vergina, is a reminder of diplomacy in the Ancient world. She died at about 30 and was cremated. Her bones show that she had seriously fractured her left leg, possibly in a riding accident. Her greaves (leg armour) were modified to fit her crippled leg. It is quite possible that she was the daughter of the Scythian king who ruled the western part of the Pontic steppe and was given to Philip to ensure friendship between the two leaders. That said, Alexander the Great, Philip’s successor, did not attack the Pontic steppe Scythians, but preferred to campaign against the Scythian peoples in Central Asia, may be due to his respect for the old treaty.

What’s the most important thing we don’t know about the Scythians?

What don’t we know? Lots! One fascinating area is the meaning of Scythian animal art involving jumping stags and predators. The images are so prevalent that they must have been of great importance to Scythian belief systems. We can speculate but it is no substitute to hearing a Scythian explaining his world view.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

Oh – that’s so difficult. I’m no fan of house parties so Hadrian is at the bottom of the list. Caesar, I find fascinating particularly his brilliant grasp of the geography of Gaul- the landscape across which he was fighting. I would love to hear him explain his proposed lines of advice to his officers. But that said, no way could I resist a day in the Library of Alexandria. I would go straight to the book, ‘On the Ocean‘, written by Pytheas, the Greek who explored the Atlantic and circumnavigated Britain. The book no longer survives and all we have of it are a few quotes in later works. It gave a first-hand account of western Gaul and the British Isles in about 320 BC and he may even have got to Iceland.

A month in the saddle with a Scythian band or a long weekend at Fishbourne Roman Palace?

No competition – a month in the saddle with the Scythians is a must. I spent a memorable afternoon riding across the Mongolian steppe a few years ago -nothing but the grey-green grass and the blue sky. Complete peace and calm and time to put life in perspective. All I would ask is for a more comfortable saddle!

What are you currently working on?

My new book ‘Bretons and Britons: The Search for Identity‘ is now in proof and will be out next year. I’m currently writing about the Sahara and how the communities around it periphery communicated across the sea of sand.


“Sheep breeds are like vernacular buildings, each region has its own unique sheep with their own unique traits.” – Author Sally Coulthard discusses A Short History of the World According to Sheep

“I know shepherdesses who think nothing of throwing a ewe on its back and, like lightning, clipping it clean. It’s tough, dextrous work and I’d be curious to have a go.”

WHAT: “An addictively free-ranging survey of the huge impact that the domesticated ungulates of the genus Ovis have had on human history.”

WHO: After studying Archaeology & Anthropology at Oxford University, best-selling author and designer Sally Coulthard has spent the last twenty years designing, making and writing about homes, craft and outdoor spaces.  She sees no boundary between the rules that govern good interior design and those which are needed to craft a spectacular studio or glorious garden. 

Keen to make good design accessible, she’s written over twenty books about restoring houses, designing interiors and outdoor living.  From garden styles to craftsmanship, creating workspaces to building sheds, Sally’s books inspire, encourage and equip readers to take on projects of their own. 

Sally is a passionate advocate of rural living and regularly writes about nature and her experiences of smallholding deep in North Yorkshire countryside, including her ‘Good Life in Country’ column for ‘Country Living‘ magazine.”

MORE? Here!

Why sheep?

A while back, I read a fascinating article about how the Vikings would have never conquered huge swathes of the Western world without sheep. Not only did sheep provide food and clothing for the marauding hordes but, crucially, they provided the fleeces needed for their ships’ vast, woollen sails. And it got me thinking, what other cultural or historical events have been shaped by this unassuming creature?

As I started to poke around, I soon found at that many key aspects of human history have sheep at their centre – medieval wool wealth and wars, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, the success of the Romans, the Black Death, the Industrial Revolution – sheep have clothed us, made us rich, impoverished others, helped us colonise countries, decorated our homes, changed our rural landscape, altered our diets, helped scientific breakthroughs and much much more….

Sheep are obviously the plucky heroes of your narrative. Are humans the boo-hiss villains of the drama?

It depends on how you look at it I suppose. Sheep have been exploited by humans for over ten thousand years and we’ve changed their bodies, temperament and natural habitats to suit our needs. So yes, we’re the exploiters. And yet, sheep have benefited in a way. Human interference has meant that a wild creature, which had a limited range, now lives on every continent apart from Antarctica. The world has around a billion sheep, and over a thousand different breeds and cross-breeds. There’s no danger of sheep going extinct any time soon and so, in a way, they are winners at least in the evolutionary sense. Welfare wise, I’m not so sure.

Are sheep as unintelligent as we like to think?

Absolutely not. We underestimate sheep all the time. Far from being dim, sheep have been shown to be able to recognise at least fifty different faces, distinguish between facial expressions such as happy and sad, navigate through complex mazes and remember how they did it. One Cambridge University professor, who has spent years testing sheep with learning tasks, concluded that you’d struggle to tell the difference, in terms of intelligence, between a sheep and a monkey. And that, in many cases, sheep actually learn more quickly that their simian friends.

What’s your go-to mutton or lamb recipe? Is it an accident that there is no mention of rosemary in the book?

Ouch. Hard question on the back of an answer about sheep intelligence. Still, I have no problem with eating sheep, if they have had a high welfare life. We have a small flock here and, many times, we’ve eaten our own ‘lamb’. The Moroccans and Greeks are the masters of mutton and lamb recipes – often adding plenty of fragrant spice and sweet fruit, slow cooking, or chargrilling. There’s a fantastic recipe in Tessa Kiros’ ‘Falling Cloudberries‘ book, for Leg of Lamb with Oregano and Lemon. Hours of slow cooking leave you with a melting, lemony unctuous dish – perfect for a meal with friends.

Which item or artefact described would you most like to own in order to show off to dinner guests?

I’m slightly obsessed with scissors. I recently bought myself a pair of Viking scissors – just touching and holding them makes me think of whoever would have forged and treasured them a thousand years ago. And so, to answer your question, it’d probably be the bronze ancient Egyptian shears in Chapter 3 – such amazing craftsmanship and decoration, with so much of the symbolism lost in time. It’s interesting that scissors still hold such superstitions for people – such as never giving a pair to a friend or, if you do, the receiver has to ‘pay’ for the scissors with a small coin or token.

If you could totally, undisputedly, dude-she-really-knows-her-stuff-edly master one of the skills you chronicle which would it be?

I’ve never had a go at sheep-shearing. It looks really difficult. I know shepherdesses who think nothing of throwing a ewe on its back and, like lightning, clipping it clean. It’s tough, dextrous work and I’d be curious to have a go. Love a practical challenge. Failing that, my knitting skills could do with a polish.

Let’s say that you decide to create the shepherding equivalent of a mixtape, a mixed flock of the breeds that most speak to you. Which are you including and are you being practical or aesthetic?

Sheep breeds are like vernacular buildings, each region has its own unique sheep with their own unique traits; the pretty Herdwicks in the Lake District, for example, or the Hebridean sheep with their remarkable horns. I love that variety and long may it last. I’d create a flock that represented all the different counties – to show that variety and adaptability – real characters like a craggy, tough little Soay sheep, a Welsh badger face, a long-haired, lustrous Wensleydale, a crazy-horned Isle of Man Loaghtan and a teddybear-faced Southdown. Too many to choose from. One of each of the 50 or so native breeds, please.

The pastures green of the early chapters morph (almost overnight) into the dark, satanic mills of the early industrial revolution, so much of which was built with child labour. At the time there were those (such as William Pitt the Younger) who advocated in favour of child labour, justified it as an economic and even moral necessity. Were you ever (even a little bit) persuaded by their arguments and what do you think are the lessons modern society needs to learn from that problematic era?

The past is a different country and so it can be difficult to judge historic events through modern sensibilities. Taking child labour, for example, we need to see the context – at the time, most families wouldn’t have had a choice that a child had to be a productive member of the family if they lived in poverty (which most people did). That said, we can’t be value-less when we look back at history. Rather than blame the parents who had to send their children to work, for example, I think it is important to analyse the kind of society which put profit before human wellbeing and whether that’s who we want to be now. I think my politics sometimes creep through into my books – it’s hard not to get angry about people being thrown off their land to make way for sheep farming or to feel ashamed about Victorian attitudes towards poverty, welfare and social class. We enjoy plenty of modern privileges thanks to past injustices – what we shouldn’t do is to try justify it or celebrate it.

Sheep have a past. Do they have a future?

Hope so. It depresses me to see how large-scale, intensive sheep rearing is causing all kinds of ecological problems across the planet while, at the same time, small scale sheep farmers can’t sell their wool for more than it costs them to have the sheep sheared. It’s all part of a wider discussion about agriculture and mixed farming, and where food security and sustainability fits into all this. It’ll take a wiser person that me to come up with the answer.

What are you currently working on?

Lots of projects on the go – still writing my monthly column for ‘Country Living‘ magazine, about my adventures on our North Yorkshire smallholding, and have a new book about earthworms coming out in time for Christmas (it’s fascinating, I promise). In spring 2021, a new book about the history and folklore of flowers – called ‘Floriography’ – and then a big history book out later in 2021, called ‘The Barn‘, about farming and rural life over the past three hundred years.


“I don’t eat eel. That’s a principle. I don’t think you should hunt and eat endangered animals.” – Author Patrik Svensson discusses Ålevangeliet

“I found out that if you don’t just ask the question “What do we know about the eel?” but also “How do we know it?”, then you find all those great stories and interesting characters.”

WHAT: “Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature.”

WHO: Patrik Svensson is an arts and culture journalist at Sydsvenskan newspaper. He lives with his family in Malmö, Sweden. Ålevangeliet (The Gospel of Eels) is his first book.

MORE? Here!

Why eels?

Because it’s a remarkable animal. Just think about the life cycle of an eel. They’re born in The Sargasso Sea, in the Western part of The Atlantic Ocean. They drift with the currents all the way to Europe. They go through metamorphoses, they become glass eels and then yellow eels. They find their place to live in freshwater and then they stay there. They live a lonely, quiet passive life at the same place for 20, 30 or 50 years. When suddenly they get this urge to return to the place they came from. They become silver eels. They stop eating and only now develop their sexual organs, and they swim all the way back to the Sargasso Sea, where they disappear down in the depths to breed and then die. That’s a remarkable story in itself. But the eel has also captured me because of the scientific history.

There are so many prominent scientists who have tried to understand the eel, and so many things we still don’t really know about it. I’m first of all interested in telling stories and I think that natural science is full of great stories if you just know where, and how, to look for them. And this is especially true about the eel. I found out that if you don’t just ask the question “What do we know about the eel?” but also “How do we know it?”, then you find all those great stories and interesting characters, from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud to Rachel Carson. In that way, the story of the eel is also the story of remarkable people making remarkable efforts in the name of science. It’s the story of one of human nature’s most enduring urges, the urge to understand life around us, to understand how things work, and in the end where we ourself belong in everything.

As well as being a natural history, Ålevangeliet, is a deeply personal narrative – a chronicle of your memories fishing for eels with your father and of that bond between you. When did you first think about writing this story, making this pilgrimage into your past, and when did you know for certain that you would complete it?

I wanted to write about my own experience of the eel from the beginning, mostly to try to come closer to the subject in a way. I fished for eels with my father during my whole childhood. Late summer nights down by the stream, under the shadows of the trees. And I have very strong and vivid memories from that place and from those nights. That was also where my father told me about all the mysteries surrounding the eel, and about the Sargasso sea where all the eels came from, this almost fairytale place far from anything I could even imagine.

A life long fascination started right there. And when later in life I learned that there actually is a term, “the eel question”, that’s been part of the scientific history for ages, it was as if my own story, and my own origin, connected to something much larger. That was also when the two separate stories in the book – the scientific history of the eel and my own story about my father and the place I came from – started to connect, they reflected each other in some way, and I understood that they both had to be part of the story.

There are several recipes for eel mentioned in the text. Which is your go-to family favourite and what’s the recipe?

I don’t eat eel. That’s a principle. I don’t think you should hunt and eat endangered animals.

European eels, Anguilla Anguilla, are listed as critically endangered. Does this mean we should all stop catching and eating them? What’s the best ethical substitute for eel meat?

Yes, we should all stop eating eel. The fishing is probably actually not the biggest problem for the eel. They are threatened by a lot of different factors, from toxins to climate change to power plants. But as I said, I don’t think you should eat endangered species.

There are some big-name scientists featured in the book, Aristotle, Freud (who spent a surprising amount of his early life dissecting male eels in the hope of finding their testes), Darwin, and Rachel Carson. If you could ask any of them any one thing, what would it be?

I’m very inspired by Rachel Carson. Her ability to write about nature and animals in a very scientific way, based on deep knowledge and understanding, but also with a sense of wonder for natures creations, and with the language of a poet almost. I don’t know what I would ask her, I would just love to hear her talk. I think she was a kind of voice that we really could need today.

Ålevangeliet has been translated into 33 languages and counting. What is your advice to an author whose work is about to be translated? Get involved or leave it be? Are there particular passages you always want to be treated with particular care?

I think it’s very good if you can have a dialogue with the translator. There’s always lots of references, meanings, metaphors, that can easily get lost in translation. But in the end, you also have to let go, especially of course if it’s a language you don’t understand. All the translators I have met have been extremely professional and devoted. At some point, you just have to put your trust in them.

How has the book and its message been received in those countries most resistant to sustainable fishing quotas and practices?

I have only met readers who have shown a great understanding of how serious the situation is for the eel. The official assessment from IUCN and others is that the population of the European eel has gone down more than 95 per cent since the 1970’s and it’s now listed as critically endangered. That’s really all that has to be said to understand that we can’t continue to threat the eel, and the ocean, the way we have. I also use to talk a lot about the bigger issue here, the mass extinction of species, scientists who believe that the number of species on earth could be halved in only a hundred years. That’s a dramatic and extremely urgent problem that I think people only now are starting to fully understand.

Would you want to be reincarnated as an eel? Which part of the lifecycle would you most enjoy?

No, I would not. But if I had to I guess I would be very curious about the migration of the silver eel. The travel back to the Sargasso Sea, disappearing in the depth where they supposedly breed and die. No man has ever seen eels breed, no one has even seen an eel in the Sargasso Sea, neither living or dead. That’s one of the mysteries that still remains of the eel.

The book has been an incredible success. When Netflix comes calling which actor will you want to play your father?

Haha, well isn’t the more interesting question who would play the eel? But you know what, the perfect actor for my father would actually be Stellan Skarsgård. He’s from the same area of Sweden as me, and he was also my father’s favourite actor.

What are you currently working on?

When it comes to that question I’m afraid I’m as secretive as an eel.