‘Murray Pittock: Old Scotia’s Gradeur Springs’ (Book Festival, AUG 17th)

“This was no dry and dusty seminar, but a breezy and accessible chat about the influence of Scotland’s culture and history on how it sees itself and its place in the UK (or out of it) and the wider world.”

If, like me, you haven’t been to the Edinburgh Book Festival since those far off days of 2019, you’ll notice that Charlotte Square is looking uncharacteristically deserted this Summer. That’s because the world’s biggest public celebration of the written word has decamped and moved to a new base at the Edinburgh College of Art in Lauriston Place. Whilst many will miss the horticultural charm of Charlotte Square, this new venue retains much of that bucolic vibe, with plenty of outdoor green space – but, importantly, that’s coupled with plentiful indoor lecture theatre space which (I think) is an improvement on the marquees and tents of yesteryear.

The first event I attended was the launch of Scotland: the Global History, 1603 to the Present, the latest publication by Prof. Murray Pittock, probably Scottish academia’s leading cultural commentator, who has held a number of high-profile appointments as well as authoring several key texts on Scottish history, identity, and literature. This latest work carries readers from Scotland’s involvement in the Thirty Years’ War to the 2016 EU referendum. A sizeable audience gathered in the grand surroundings of the Bailie Gifford Sculpture Court for the event, which took the form of an interview chaired by the broadcaster and journalist Ruth Wishart.

These two figures, both well-known in Scots literary circles, made an excellent duo, seeing to it that this was no dry and dusty seminar, but a breezy and accessible chat about the influence of Scotland’s culture and history on how it sees itself and its place in the UK (or out of it) and the wider world. Always a nation that’s punched above its weight, the nation’s disproportionately high-profile role in a number of spheres was discussed: the Enlightenment, the British Empire, science, and literature. To keep the tone light-hearted, there was even some teasing about the rival fortunes of Dundee United and Aberdeen FC. After 45 minutes, there was a quarter hour of questions from both the live and the online audience, many of which touched upon Scotland’s lively political scene. In case there is any doubt about the current significance of the ideas being discussed this talk, the following day the leader column in the Scottish edition of The Times newspaper used the occasion as the basis for a discussion on conflicting ideas of what it is to be Scottish or British in the current nationalist debate.

The book festival runs until 29th August, with numerous authors appearing live for lectures, talks, and book-signings. All related works, along with a huge selection of great Scottish literature, are for sale in the excellent on-site bookshop. So come for the fascinating talks; stay for a coffee and a slice of cake in the superb café; leave with a book signed by your favourite author. Get your coats on and go see this!

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“It would be useful to know what was in Æthelflæd’s mind when she was planning her campaigns against the Viking armies who had occupied eastern England.” – Author Tim Clarkson talks about ‘Lady of the Mercians’

“Why Æthelflæd? Well, I had wanted to write a book-length study of her for quite some time, mainly because she is my favourite person from the entire early medieval period. Her life and political career have always fascinated me, more so than those of any of the kings whose deeds I have written about. For me, Æthelflæd stands out from the crowd.”

WHAT: “The narrative incorporates my usual focus on political history with an emphasis on warfare. It considers the military campaigns not only of Æthelflæd but also those of her father Alfred the Great and of her brother Edward the Elder. Hence there are frequent mentions of battles, fortresses, treaties and alliances. But there is much more to Æthelflæd than the Anglo-Saxon warrior queen visualised in modern artworks. She was an educated, literate woman with strong religious beliefs. She had a keen interest in saints – especially Mercian ones – and actively promoted their veneration by establishing new cult-centres in various parts of her domain. She was also adept at what we now call ‘urban planning’ and has left her mark on the modern street-pattern in a number of west midland towns.”

WHO: “Tim Clarkson graduated with a PhD in medieval history in 2003. His dissertation’s title was ‘Warfare in Early Historic Northern Britain’. Prior to this he gained an MPhil in archaeology with a research thesis entitled ‘The Solway Region AD 400-650 and the Kingdom of Rheged’. Since completing his doctoral thesis Tim has continued to pursue his interests in early medieval history as an “independent scholar”.”

MORE? Here!

Why “The Lady of the Mercians”?

This book was a slight departure from my usual track, my previous books having had a focus on Scotland. But it fitted with the broad theme of early medieval rulership that runs through my Scottish books. The main difference is that it switches the focus to England. Why Æthelflæd? Well, I had wanted to write a book-length study of her for quite some time, mainly because she is my favourite person from the entire early medieval period. Her life and political career have always fascinated me, more so than those of any of the kings whose deeds I have written about. For me, Æthelflæd stands out from the crowd. In an early medieval context she was a rare individual: a powerful female ruler in an era when high-level politics was seen as a male preserve. The land she ruled was western Mercia, basically the west side of the English midlands, which includes my home county of Cheshire. So, being a modern-day Mercian myself, I felt it would be good to pay homage to one of the greatest rulers of my ancient homeland by writing a biography of her.

Was the historical Æthelflæd at all concerned with her father’s vision of a united English kingdom?

Hard to say, but the question is an important one. It would be useful to know what was in Æthelflæd’s mind when she was planning her campaigns against the Viking armies who had occupied eastern England. As a princess of Wessex and a daughter of its famous king Alfred the Great, she can be seen on the one hand as continuing her father’s policy of reclaiming the conquered lands and bringing them back under English control. Wessex and Mercia were close allies in this task. On the other hand, we know that she worked hard to restore a sense of Mercian identity – by vigorously promoting the cults of Mercian saints, for example – so perhaps her guiding principle was Mercia first, England second. This is the scenario I’m inclined to go with. I suspect her main priority was putting the old pre-Viking kingdom of Mercia back together again, strengthening its frontiers and making sure its people felt safe, before giving any thought to a grand strategy of unifying all the English.

Many towns and churches claim an association with Æthelflæd, but are there any places, any buildings in particular, we know for certain she was present at?

A lot of what we think we know about early medieval history is based on informed guesswork rather than absolute certainty. Even when we have a contemporary account saying that a particular person was in a particular place at a particular time, we can rarely take it at face value. The writer may have had a personal (or political) reason for wanting the reader to believe that something happened in a particular way. In Æthelflæd’s case, we have a few instances where a contemporary document puts her in a specific location and is probably telling the truth. One such document is a charter which recorded a gift of land from Æthelflæd and her husband Lord Æthelred to a monastery at Much Wenlock in Shropshire. The charter was issued after a meeting of the Mercian ‘witan’ (a council of senior nobles and clergy) at Shrewsbury in the year 901. It says that Æthelflæd attended the meeting, so this is one instance where we can, with a fair amount of confidence, say she was in a specific place. The exact site of the meeting is, however, unknown.

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

In my book I mention that Æthelflæd’s tomb lay at St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester. After her death at Tamworth in June 918, her body was taken to St Oswald’s to be entombed alongside her husband Æthelred who had died seven years earlier. Together they had founded the priory as their personal church and mausoleum. It was built around a shrine to the seventh-century Northumbrian king and martyr Oswald whom they both greatly revered. Unfortunately, the priory is now just a ruin and nothing survives of the shrine. Whatever graves lay at the site have been obliterated, except for part of a tenth-century sculptured stone that looks like it came from a high-status tomb. Some people like to believe the tomb in question was Æthelflæd’s but there’s no proof of that. So, if I could obtain one object mentioned in my book, it would be a piece of Æthelflæd’s real tombstone. I’d take a few photos of it for my blog, then hand it over to the city museum at Gloucester (where the aforementioned fragment is kept).

What’s the one thing we don’t know for sure about Æthelflæd that you wish we did?

I would like to know if she ever referred to herself as a queen. Contemporary English sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle call her the Lady of the Mercians and we can probably assume she was happy to be addressed by this title. But non-English sources like the Irish annals refer to her as a queen, so I’d like to know what she thought about that. She was the ruler of Mercia, one of the ancient English kingdoms. Its last king had still been around when Æthelflæd was in her teens. Yet her husband Æthelred was known as the Lord of the Mercians after he took control of the kingdom. Why not ‘King of the Mercians’? The usual explanation is that Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd’s father, didn’t want any more kings in England other than himself and his heirs. This may be true, but I can’t imagine the people of Mercia feeling too happy about it. Perhaps Lord Æthelred, and Æthelflæd herself, weren’t too happy about it either? I have often wondered if they really didn’t mind if someone addressed them as King and Queen, but I would like to know if they went as far as using these titles openly.

If you could tell Æthelflæd one thing and see her reaction, what would it be?

In the twelfth century, 200 years after Æthelflæd’s death, an English monk and historian called William of Malmesbury wrote about her in his book on the rulers of England. He included a curious tale in which Æthelflæd tells her husband that she won’t be having sex any more because, despite being briefly pleasurable, sexual intercourse ultimately leads to the pain of childbirth. She had given birth to one child, a daughter, and apparently didn’t intend to put herself through it again. It’s a strange little episode and William of Malmesbury is the only writer who mentions it. Is it based on truth? One theory suggests that there might be some historical basis to the tale, perhaps rooted in tenth-century dynastic politics, with Æthelflæd telling her husband that she didn’t want any more children in case one of them was an ambitious son who might decide to break the alliance with Wessex.

I’m not convinced by this explanation, mainly because I can’t imagine a powerful ruler like the Lord of the Mercians agreeing to abandon the chance of producing a male heir. So maybe the tale is nothing more than fiction, created simply to portray Æthelflæd as a woman of pure morals – like a nun or saint. We know William of Malmesbury sometimes got his facts wrong and wasn’t averse to making things up, so is he letting his imagination run away with him here? I’d be interested to see what Æthelflæd thought of it. I would quietly and very politely mention the story to her and see how she reacted. My guess is that her eyebrows would furrow deeply and she’d say something like ‘Do people actually believe this stuff?’

What’s the one thing you wish every school child knew about Æthelflæd?

That she existed. That she was a powerful female ruler, on a par with Boudicca and Elizabeth I, even if (unlike those two women) she doesn’t receive much attention in today’s history textbooks. Also, whenever the school curriculum turns to the Vikings and their raids on England, it would be good to point out that not all of the heroic leaders who stood against them were men. A question likely to pop up at this point is ‘Did Æthelflæd fight in battles?’ The answer is ‘probably not’ but it would be an interesting topic to discuss in class.

You get to spend 6 months back packing around England in Æthelflæd‘s time (without changing the timeline), what’s on your bucket list of things to see and do?

First, I’d go to Cheshire, to the places where I spent my childhood, just to see how they looked 1100 years ago. Next, I’d travel to the north-west border of English territory, to the frontier with the Kingdom of Strathclyde. I wrote a book on Strathclyde some years ago and supported a theory that the kingdom’s tenth-century border lay near Penrith in what is now the county of Cumbria. I’d be curious to visit this area, to see if the theory is right or wrong. Another destination on my list would be a large urban settlement with a bustling marketplace. This would give me a real taste of what life was like for ordinary folk in those times.

My books tend to focus on high-status people like kings and bishops (and Æthelflæd herself) but I think it would be good to see what went on lower down the social hierarchy: the day-to-day existence of the majority population. It’s something I don’t usually write about, so it would give me a different perspective on the whole era. After that, I would probably stay at a monastery for the rest of my trip, offering to work in the fields as payment for my accommodation. I’m not a deeply religious person but I’ve written about the important role of monasteries in early medieval times and I’d like to see how one of these places operated. I’d visit the monastic library every day, to peruse the manuscripts, even though some people might say I was wasting an opportunity (‘What? You were given the chance to travel anywhere in tenth-century England and you just sat in a library?’).

Can you still picture Æthelflæd without conjuring an image of Millie Brady in your mind?

Yes and no. Yes, because I don’t know what Æthelflæd looked like. So, whenever I imagine her, the image isn’t a clearly drawn portrait. It’s indistinct, almost as if she’s standing outside the light: a hazy figure in the shadows, forever out of reach. But, at the same time, I think Millie Brady did a fantastic job of bringing Æthelflæd to life, depicting her as a serious yet charismatic individual who commanded respect and devotion from the Mercian elite. I’m sure the way Millie stole every scene she was in has helped to ensure that more people than ever before are now aware of Æthelflæd .

What are you currently working on?

A book on the Isle of Man in the early medieval and Late Norse periods (AD 400 to 1265). It will be published in 2023.


“Charles Dickens was a big fan of coach travel. And as well as being a great storyteller he is the master at description. I’d love to mysteriously acquire a notebook he’d used to scribble down his thoughts as he hurtled northwards.” – Author Steve Silk talks about ‘The Great North Road’

“I was attracted to the road we now call the A1 because it had been such a big part of my life. As a youngster growing up in Southern England but studying at Newcastle University I was up and down it all the time. Later I worked as a newspaper reporter in Darlington and then a TV reporter in Peterborough. So whatever I did with my life, the Great North Road seemed to be close by.”

WHAT: “The Great North Road is Britain’s Route 66 – we’ve just forgotten how to sing its praises

In 1921, Britain’s most illustrious highway, the Great North Road, ceased to exist – on paper at least. Stretching from London to Edinburgh, the old road was largely replaced by the A1 as the era of the motor car took hold.

A hundred years later, journalist and cyclist Steve Silk embraces the anniversary as the perfect excuse to set off on an adventure across 11 days and 400 miles. Travelling by bike at a stately 14 miles per hour, he heads north, searching out milestones and memories, coaching inns and coffee shops.

Seen from a saddle rather than a car seat, the towns and the countryside of England and Scotland reveal traces of Britain’s remarkable past and glimpses of its future. Instead of the familiar service stations and tourist hotspots, Steve tracks down the forgotten treasures of this ancient highway between the two capitals”

WHO: “Steve Silk is a journalist working for BBC Look East in Norwich. His two previous books – The Wherryman’s Way and Hidden Riverside Norwich – saw him take to a canoe to explore the Norfolk Broads. He’s now more comfortable on an old-fashioned touring bike with a pannier full of obsolete maps and flapjack.”

MORE? Here!

Why ‘The Great North Road’?

Well, before you even know what it is and where it goes, isn’t it a great name? Can any true traveller resist the thought of exploring such a highway? Slightly more prosaically, I was attracted to the road we now call the A1 because it had been such a big part of my life. As a youngster growing up in Southern England but studying at Newcastle University I was up and down it all the time. Later I worked as a newspaper reporter in Darlington and then a TV reporter in Peterborough. So whatever I did with my life, the Great North Road seemed to be close by.  Finally, as a cyclist seeking a new challenge, I felt the 400-mile length between London and Edinburgh offered just the right amount of jeopardy and adventure.

You are following in the tyre tracks of the Victorian cycling writer, Charles Harper. 100 years from now, what are the things about the landscape you cycled through that you expect will have changed the most?

That’s a tough one. I’m going to start off with what won’t change. We will always need places to eat and places to stay. So there will be cafes and inns – even if we call them something different. In fact, my friends with electric cars tell me they are currently spending more time in service station type places – because charging takes longer than filling up.

Moving on to changes, I guess the quality of road will improve. We’ve already seen huge upgrades in recent decades, yet north of Alnwick in Northumberland, the road does largely revert to a single carriageway in each direction. The obvious next step is dualling all the way to Edinburgh. With my history hat on, I have mixed feelings about this. Certainly, we need to make the most of those wild and woolly stretches while we can.

You write that of all the Coaching Inns still extant on the route, it’s the Bell in Barnby Moor that would be most familiar to Harper – even to the extent that he might have to take a moment to realise the time difference. What spot on the route would you like to change the least in the century to come?

I have a soft spot for Newcastle. I have a seriously soft spot for the moment you cross the Tyne gorge across the Tyne Bridge. That whole vista has improved immeasurably over the last 20 years. The Quayside looks the business, Gateshead has been transformed, they’ve got rid of the dodgy floating nightclub and the Millennium Bridge looks a million dollars. Now just leave it alone!

If you could go back in time and travel part of the route during the golden age of stagecoaches, which would it be and would you be sitting inside or outside?

I like the fact that the A1 gets noticeably wilder once you cross the border. So, I would summon up some bravery and be one of the “outsides” on that stretch where the road runs close to the North Sea between Lamberton and Burnmouth.

Here, you don’t need much of an imagination to summon up the ghosts of mail coaches past. It is still a truly exhilarating road made more dramatic by the proximity of the coastline. (Incidentally, this is one of many sections of the road where it would be suicidal – if not illegal – to travel by bike. I had to find quieter lanes further inland instead.)

What’s the one relic or artefact from the golden age of coaching (that you could fit on your writing desk) that you would want to acquire money and rarity presenting no problems?

Charles Dickens was a big fan of coach travel. And as well as being a great storyteller he is the master at description. I’d love to mysteriously acquire a notebook he’d used to scribble down his thoughts as he hurtled northwards. I feel I could certainly learn a few tricks from seeing the world through his sharp, all-seeing eyes.

What’s the best place to stand and see/sense the Great North Road as it would have been before the arrival of automobiles?

Stilton in Cambridgeshire. The Bell at Stilton is one of my favourite GNR pubs – it still looks like a coaching inn after all these years. But what sets Stilton apart is the breadth of its high street and the fact that it’s been so thoroughly bypassed that nothing had to change. Yes, you can hear the modern A1 in the background, but look more closely and I swear you can summon up at least the mirage of a four-in-hand, the horses snorting and the guard blowing his bugle.

You pack a lot of historic factoids into the narrative. What’s the best one that didn’t make the final edit?

There’s a museum directly under the A1(M) in Hertfordshire and it doesn’t even get a mention! Disgraceful I know, but I just had too much history at that point in my journey to weave in the archaeology around some Roman Baths. That is one of the challenges of a book like mine. To keep readers reading, you need a good mix of description, action and personality. The road provides my narrative thread, but I can’t always control the pace of the facts. There was just too much going on here. Many apologies to the museums department of Welwyn Hatfield council.

If you could share a convivial meal at an inn with any one of the great and the good personalities mentioned by you and Harper who would it be?

Well, first of all I would want Harper along too. I suspect we would argue quite a bit, but while several people have written about the Great North Road over the decades, we all accept that he’s the Boss. 

As for the personality, I’d go for John Palmer. He was a Bristol man, rather than a GNR sort of chap, but he is single-handedly responsible for the introduction of the mail coach system. Before he came along the post was taken from place to place by slightly dozy blokes on horses. They were often beholden to – or in league with – the local highwaymen. Palmer travelled regularly from Bristol to Bath by stagecoach and grew fed up with their lack of get-up-and-go.

He was the one who came up with the idea of specialist mail coaches, protected by a guard armed with pistols and a blunderbuss. He also suggested that the turnpike barriers should be specially opened to increase their speed and reliability. Because the railways came along so soon afterwards, we forget how phenomenal a logistical achievement that was.

The Three Tuns at Beamish sounds like an epically brilliant concept. What are your top tips (sans bedbugs) that you would insist on for the sake of authenticity?

So, just to explain, Beamish Museum wants to build a replica coaching inn at its huge outdoor site in County Durham. Since Covid it’s actually gone a bit quiet but I’m sure they will get it sorted at some point. The original Three Tuns was at Scotch Corner – the place where Scotland-bound travellers had to decide whether to continue up the east coast to Edinburgh or cross the Pennines en route to Glasgow.

The museum wants to give people the chance to stay overnight at a “genuine” coaching inn. It’s a fantastic idea. I know there’s rightly a lot of emphasis on the food and the beer and the ambience. But I’d want horses – lots of them. They were what made coaching inns, coaching inns. I would want horses in stables, complete with an ostler shouting at stable hands and the “coachy” walking round like he owned the place. The sights and the sounds of a forgotten world.

What are you currently working on?

I have another road in my sights. You might have imagined that having done the A1, I would have chosen one of other biggies – the A2,3,4,5 or 6 in England or 7,8 and 9 in Scotland.  In fact I’m going for the relatively unheralded A40. I’ve chosen it simply because I fancy the route. It goes over the Chilterns to Oxford and then includes the Cotswolds, the Wye Valley and the Brecon Beacons, finishing at Fishguard on the Welsh coast. It should be stunning.

I’m currently at the research stage. I am very much a part-time author, but I happen to have a week off at the moment, so Saturday saw me at Burford in Oxfordshire where there was an annual ceremony remembering three Levellers who were shot on Cromwell’s orders during the English Civil War. It’s rather complicated to explain here, but it’s just the kind of historical nugget that I enjoy digging out. On Sunday I did a 30-mile bike round around Oxford including Shotover Hill – once a haunt of highwaymen and more recently made famous by a Supergrass song. And on Monday I was exploring old chair factories around High Wycombe. When – or even if – this all morphs into an intelligible book is anyone’s guess.


“Boots planted firm, shield shoulder strong, weapon hand unflinching … and prayers already said.” – Author Michael Livingston talks about ‘Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England’

“Not only does Old English Brunanburh become Modern English Bromborough, the landscape, social, and political situations of the Wirral are a perfect match for everything we know about the battle.”

WHAT: Late in AD 937, four armies met in a place called Brunanburh. On one side stood the shield-wall of the expanding kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. On the other side stood a remarkable alliance of rival kings – at least two from across the sea – who’d come together to destroy them once and for all. The stakes were no less than the survival of the dream that would become England. The armies were massive. The violence, when it began, was enough to shock a violent age. Brunanburh may not today have the fame of Hastings, Crécy or Agincourt, but those later battles, fought for England, would not exist were it not for the blood spilled this day. Generations later it was still called, quite simply, the ‘great battle’. But for centuries, its location has been lost.

Today, an extraordinary effort, uniting enthusiasts, historians, archaeologists, linguists, and other researchers – amateurs and professionals, experienced and inexperienced alike – may well have found the site of the long-lost battle of Brunanburh, over a thousand years after its bloodied fields witnessed history. This groundbreaking new book tells the story of this remarkable discovery and delves into why and how the battle happened. Most importantly, though, it is about the men who fought and died at Brunanburh, and how much this forgotten struggle can tell us about who we are and how we relate to our past.”

WHO: “Michael Livingston is a two-time winner of the Distinguished Book Prize from the International Society for Military History (2017, 2020), an author of best-selling fiction, an award-winning full professor at The Citadel, and a frequent public lecturer, and occasionally even a person on TV. At present, he serves as the Secretary-General for the United States Commission on Military History and sits on the Board of the South Carolina Academy of Authors.”

MORE? Here!

Why Brunanburh?

In 937, a massive alliance of Scots, Vikings, and Britons came together to try to eradicate England at a place called Brunanburh. From the first time I heard about the battle as a student, I found it fascinating. It sits at this enormously tantalizing crossroads of being an event of enormous importance in the history of the British Isles … yet it’s also an event about which very little is known. I’ve always liked puzzles, and as historical events go, this is a terrific one!

Other than the location, what are the things we don’t know about the battle and its context that you wish we did?

The absolute number one thing we’re missing, without question, is how the alliance came together. All three of the kings who banded together – Constantine of the Scots, Anlaf of the Dublin Vikings, and Owain of the Strathclyde Britons – had reason to hate each other, and yet they set these differences aside to try to take on King Athelstan of the English. The negotiations must have been fascinating, but we don’t know what they were. We don’t even know for sure whose idea it was at the start!

What’s your elevator pitch for Brunanburh’s having taken place on the Wirral?

Not only does Old English Brunanburh become Modern English Bromborough, the landscape, social, and political situations of the Wirral are a perfect match for everything we know about the battle.

How did Brunanburh live in the memory of ordinary folk in the immediate generations after the battle?

They called it simply the “Great Battle,” which speaks volumes about how horrific it must have been. As I say in the book, the violence shocked a violent age. How did they remember it over time? Well, poetry has long been a vital way of preserving the past, and Brunanburh was certainly no exception to this. The most famous “artifact” of the battle today is a powerful poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the sole information that it records for the year 937. Likely there were many such things told in the years after the bloodshed, and we’re fortunate that this one survived.

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

According to one chronicler, a Frankish duke sent King Athelstan a long list of treasures, including “the sword of Constantine the Great, inscribed with the ancient owner’s name in golden letters, with one of the iron spikes used to crucify our Lord affixed to the scabbard with golden fastenings.” I feel like that would be a nice addition to the office, right?

If it was possible for you to own a from life photograph portrait of any one of the characters chronicled in the story, who would you want to see and what would you be looking for?

I’d want to see Athelstan, immediately after the battle. Thousands had fought and died for him. How much did the bloodshed impact him? How much did the trauma haunt him? He no doubt wore a public face, but I’d want to see the look in his eyes when he thought no one was watching.

What’s the best way to stand in a shield wall and live to tell the tale?

Boots planted firm, shield shoulder strong, weapon hand unflinching … and prayers already said. It was unbelievably brutal combat.

Bernard Cornwell wrote the preface to the book. What’s the best thing about his “Last Kingdom” series of novels and are there any parts you aren’t so keen on?

I love Cornwell’s novels – and not just the Last Kingdom ones! Wouldn’t change a thing about them, honestly. What I love best about them is the ways in which he manages to respect the hard work of historians while also pulling off that a bit. I mean, what are the odds that his Uhtred of Bebbanburg, being born in the 850s, would still be effectively swinging a sword at Brunanburh in 937? Not high, but damn if it doesn’t make for an awesome story!

You’ve got one year living as an observer in the 930s. What’s on your bucket list of sights to see?

Can I witness Brunanburh – and all the arrangements that made it happen – without participating in it? I’d do that if I could, just to satisfy my final curiosities. And what downtime I had I’d spend riding the roads from Hastings to Winchester to London and then up to York. Figure I’d knock out some other questions along the way!

What are you currently working on?

In June I’ve got another historical investigation in the same vein of Never Greater Slaughter coming out: Crécy: Battle of Five Kings. I’m really excited for people to get their hands on it. Right now I’m working on its sequel, which is an investigation and reconstruction of the Battle of Agincourt.


“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.