Like a blazing torch thrust deep back into the Dark Ages of the seventh century
I read this book immediately after having completed Adams’ book on AElfred’s Britain. That book took me months to get into. It sat around for months with 100 pages read. Then, I read the remainder in a matter of little more than a weekend. Instantly, I knew I had to read ‘The King in the North’.
The detractors from ‘The King’ amongst these reviews are not entirely incorrect. This claims to be the ‘life and times’ of Oswald of Northumbria. It is not; it is so much more.
Broadly covering the period from the late sixth century through until the end of the seventh, this book is every bit about the dynastic rivalries between the royal houses of Deira and Bernicia, Northumbria’s interaction with its neighbours, allies, enemies: the Irish speaking Dal Riata – in which both Oswald and Oswiu grew up (this is Oswald’s first language); the Brythonic Kingdoms of Rheged, Elmet and Pictland, the integrated lands of Gododdin (Votadini), Penda’s heathen Mercia and Raedwald’s East Anglia.
It takes us through the context of some of the key battles of the period – whether inside or outside Oswald’s reign: Catraeth / Catterick (c. 587), the defeat by the combined forces of Deira and Bernicia of the rag-tag Rheged-Gododdin alliance; Dal Riata’s reduction to tributary status in 604 at Degastan; AEthelfrith’s annexation of Rheged in 615 and the Battle of Chester against Solon, son of Conan of Powys; the Battle of the River Idle in around 616 and East Anglia’s promotion of Edwin; Edwin’s own conquering of Elmet and his campaigns against Man and Anglesey.
Both Oswald and his younger brother, Oswiu (and a substantial portion of the book is actually about him), grew up under the Irish influence of Dal Riata. In 632, Edwin died at Hatfield / Haethfelth, courtesy of the alliance formed between Penda and Cadwallon of Gwynedd (Cadwallon ap Cadfan). The plug had been pulled beneath Northumbrian stability and it reverted to its constituent kingdoms. The vacuum also sucked in the British. At Deniseburn in 634 Cadwallon laid waste to Northumbria.
But the power vacuum brought about by Edwin’s death also facilitated Oswald’s return. And with him came all sorts new ideas from Dal Riata’s Goidelic culture – including Irish Christianity. In 635 the Kingdom of Northumbria was converted by Aidan of Iona.
But whilst the conversion was a genuine one driven by Oswald’s beliefs, Northumbrian thought was still infused with pre-existing cults. So, when in 643, Oswald was killed in battle (near Oswestry) by Penda and his allies, an at least partly unfamiliar – if, in retrospect, only partly – worship of body parts ensued. The talismanic value of heads, in particular, was huge but, in Oswald’s case it was combined with Aidan’s prediction that the king’s arm would never corrupt. The cult clearly became widespread, appealing both to Britons and Angles, to the heathen and the Christian.
The ‘standardisation’ of Christianity in the Northeast is a key legacy of Oswiu’s rule, thanks to the Council of Whitby. Alhfrith and Oswiu called it nominally to bring to an end the debate between Irish and Roman interpretations of the calculation of the date of Easter. But this is unlikely to have been amongst the primary reasons. For a start, in practical terms, both traditions usually ended up with Easter being celebrated at the same time. And Northumbria had more expedient matters at stake: the very unity of the kingdom itself at the risk of Deiran muscle being flexed. Even though Oswiu’s own upbringing must have made him more sympathetic to Iona than Canterbury, he was unequivocal in not permitting two traditions to continue side by side and, ultimately, ingratiated himself with Rome. The reform had important political implications, separating the roles of abbot and bishop and Oswiu was swift to make the most of the political capital.
However, there was to be a long-term legacy of granting lands into the wrong hands in the name of religion. As time went on this became an obvious opportunity for draft avoidance. It was to leave Northumbria weak militarily and open to attacks. But the attacks were not going to come from a traditional enemy such as Mercia; there were going to come from Scandinavia and Lindisfarne would be amongst the first to pay the price.
Although I consider this an amazing book, detractors are correct that there is a feel that it loses direction in the last few chapters. However, I think the thinness of the material Adams is working with needs to be considered – and, indeed, that makes it all the more of an achievement. True enough, some holes felt more exposed than ever: the transformation of the mythical lineages of kings into some form of history, the ongoing debate about the origin and date of the Tribal Hidage and where it fits in, alternative possibilities for the Staffordshire Hoard and – most of all – the problem of the relationships with, say, Lindsey, and, above all, Penda’s Mercia.
In retrospect, perhaps it is fair to suggest that the whole work has a slight tinge of a pro-Bernician bias but then one has to utilise available sources and those sources were never Mercian.
I consider the real achievement of the book to be the bridging of a chasm – the chasm that existed between academic understanding of the mid-7th century and the popular, Victorian-indoctrinated conception of this period of the Dark Ages. That, surely, is an incredible achievement?