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North East author's new book tells of Northumbria King

Pushed to name a North East hero from the annals of history, you might come up with Harry Hotspur or the Venerable Bede

Author Max Adams who has a new book about King Oswald of Northumbria
Author Max Adams who has a new book about King Oswald of Northumbria

Pushed to name a North East hero from the annals of history, you might come up with Harry Hotspur or the Venerable Bede, possibly even St Cuthbert since the Lindisfarne Gospels went on display in Durham.

But to these North East author and historian Max Adams adds another, Oswald of Northumbria, who ruled the ancient kingdom from AD634 to 642.

In his handsome biography, King of the North, he makes a powerful case for Oswald as the man who conceived a Northumbrian golden age.

In a time of flux and bloody conflict, he reunited the North East, founded a monastery on Lindisfarne – where monks would produce fabulous manuscripts to rival any in Europe – and forged a hybrid culture of Briton, Irish, Scot and Anglo-Saxon.

True, he came to a horrible and violent end. Killed when leading his followers in battle at Maserfelth – probably close to Oswestry (Oswald’s Tree) – against the pagan Penda of Mercia, his body was dismembered and his head displayed on a pole.

Yet Max, who does not lack the populist touch, refers to Oswald’s “cinematic last stand” and states: “His fame in life endured and surpassed death in a manner fitting for his short but dazzling career as a Christian warrior and tribal chief.”

Reason enough to remember him, argues the author, is that he was the first English king to die as a Christian martyr, his political legacy “nothing less than the idea of Britain as a Christian state”.

But the problem for anyone hoping to write an authoritative book on a character from the Dark Ages is that there are precious few annals on which to draw.

As Max writes: “Without dates, history is lost.”

For the man whose previous books recall more recent heroes – Admiral Lord Collingwood and the artist John Martin – this book was not to be undertaken lightly.

“I actually started writing it two-and-a-half years ago and I didn’t have a publisher,” he says.

“I had no expectation that it would be published but Oswald has been on my mind for years, even when I was writing other books.

“This is particularly because of my background and training as a Dark Ages archaeologist. That’s what my degree is in, so it was coming back to where I belong.

“Oswald is such a fascinating character, but as far as I know there’s only one other book on him and it’s rather academic.”

Max acknowledges a huge debt to the Venerable Bede, a “pioneer of accurate dating” in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

But Max’s book is peppered with ifs and maybes. While he has striven to produce a series of fascinating timelines, he warns that they “cannot really be reliable”.

What you have to do with this book is allow the author to be your guide, accepting the inevitable limitations and embracing the educated conjecture.

The tale – patchy though it is – gets going with a woman, Acha Yffing, wife of Aethelfrith Iding, overlord of North Britain and “perhaps the greatest Early Medieval warlord”.

Acha has a daughter, a stepson and six sons, the oldest of whom is Oswald.

When her husband is killed in battle by her brother, Edwin, who then claims Northumbria, she doesn’t wait to find out his intentions towards her and her children. Instead, states the author, “as far as we can tell”, she gathered her brood and headed north, into exile, seeking refuge for her sons with an Irish Christian kingdom on Iona.

Oswald, who was 12, would not return to his native North East until he was 29, by which time – according to Max – he had acquired the nickname Whiteblade for his fighting prowess.

With an army of Anglian exiles and Scottish warrior monks, he reclaimed his birthright.

Demonstrating again that populist touch, Max points out that JRR Tolkien viewed Oswald as a Beowulf-style figure and cited him as an inspiration for Aragorn in his epic The Lord of the Rings. While fearing (sort of) the reaction of academics – “Some people, I think, will feel I’ve stretched the bounds of evidence” – Max explains that a biographer “sits somewhere between the academic and the novelist”.

“It’s a different thing. You’ve got to evoke a time and a place and give the reader a picture . Sometimes that’s the best you can hope to do.”

But Oswald, he stresses, deserved a book. In his estimation, he and Oswiu, the brother who succeeded him, laid the foundations for the nation as we know it today.

The King of the North is published by new publisher Head of Zeus, priced £25.

 

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