The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams

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The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: As much about the times, surroundings and heritage of Oswald of Northumbria as it is about the man himself. Almost a Horrible Histories for adults, it's a wonderful companion for those of us interested in an encyclopaedic rather than a specific approach.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781854181

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Born in 604 and around for only 38 years, Oswald didn't live that long but he packed a lot in. Born into Bernician royalty, Oswald the teenager had to flee with his mother and siblings when his father Aelfrith was killed at the Battle of the River Idle. Any noble wanting to beat his way to the top would naturally kill Oswald's family and so an obscure upbringing in Ireland seemed the answer. However, Oswald grows strong and bides his time until he comes home to Northumberland to clear his own path, ruling for 8 years until his own untimely demise. During those 8 years he united kingdoms, helped establish Christianity and became the inspiration of writers as disparate as St Bede and Tolkien. As Oswald became St Oswald he left behind as many legends as historical events and this book seeks to separate the man from the myth while explaining the time we call the Dark Ages in the brutally separated lands that we now call Great Britain and Ireland.

Max Adams is a historian, archaeologist, has done a bit of telly, a lot of academia and if I ever met him I'd buy him a pint. He comes over as the sort you'd like to encourage with a beverage as he recounts the past. He's knowledgeable while understandable and unpatronising, writing conversationally rather than in the form a dry lecture, a style that will fascinate the learned and the passing hobbyist alike. For this is no yawn-worthy procession of events but a feel for life in an age we write off as uncultured and ignorant. Max backs his thoughts up with knowledge, archaeological evidence and factoids that bounce around the centuries, pointing out inconsistencies and fibs as he goes. (There are also academic footnotes and a bibliography for the purists.)

It's such an interesting era teetering between superstition, tribal beliefs and Christianity. The best story to illustrate this from the book is when Aelfrith spots a thousand monks on a hillside before going into battle. When he asked someone what they were doing, he was told that they were praying for his enemy. What should he do? Is Christianity that powerful or would the old religions save the day? In the end he chose to hedge his bets and killed all of them just in case they invoked a victory from their God.

There's only one thing about this book that some may deem a drawback: if you want a straight biography you may find Max's approach frustrating. Among the stories of Oswald and his near-contemporaries, there are also historical side bars like the story of Queen Elizabeth I's journey in 1603 and Max's thoughts on Maundy Thursday coins as he compares them amusingly (and insightfully) with a silver tray that Oswald broke up and gave to the poor. Personally I love the informal style and found the author's enthusiasm and passion to be contagious. However he's no blagger and isn't afraid to say he doesn't know about some things. When he does, he provides us with possible options over which to mull, allowing us to add some pieces of our own in a long-ago puzzle.

Max brings the era alive by pointing out places that Oswald knew and still exist today such as Bamburgh (Bebbanburg) castle. We're also introduced to more human sites such the Sutton Hoo burial mound's likely occupant. Indeed if you love Northumberland as much as I do, this will augment each visit. On the other hand if you're not familiar with the county, this is a great place to start: in the hands of a historian who is unafraid to use words like 'nick' or 'niggle' while animating the past with panoramic narration.

I'd like to thank Head of Zeus for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you'd like to read more about the people with whom Oswald mixed, we recommend Columbanus: Poet, Preacher, Statesman, Saint by Carol Richards, Columbanus being better known as St Columba.

Buy The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams at Amazon.com.


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