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The King in the North: The Life and Times of…

The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria (2013)

by Max Adams

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A study of 7th-century Northumbria drawn from historical documents, archaeology, place-names and landscape archaeology, but seasoned with a little speculation and inference. It explores how the contemporary ideas of “kingship” were informed by a tribal warrior society where the king’s duties were to garner plunder and tribute, and grant land to his entourage. There was no real idea of state institutions or legislative bodies, but a system where the land was worked by slaves and peasants for the benefit of local lords and the king. It was also an era where various sects of Christianity were vying with each other and with Paganism for power, and magic and miracles were their stock-in-trade, resulting in a brisk flip-flopping of kings and nobles among the various systems depending on which one they thought could give them luck in battle. Altogether a most interesting time. ( )
  SChant | Apr 1, 2018 |
As someone who’s slightly obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon age, and especially the early Kings of Northumbria, even though I don’t live in that region. I blame Bede! I already knew a little about Oswald and his near contemporaries- his Uncle Edwin and brother Oswui from the classic Ecclesiastical History.

In some ways, this book bought the so called ‘Dark Ages’ to life, and shed light on a number of details I was not aware of (who knew that Oswald had Irish relations or an ancestor with the decidedly Gothic sounding name of Theodoric?) In a sense, the book does exactly what it says ‘on the tin’- and provides and wonderful guide to the dynamics of Oswald’s family ‘The Idings’- named after an ancestor in the era before surnames), and their relations to the other tribes and peoples of the region.

However, those looking for a traditional biography of Oswald will be disappointed. The actual account of his reign is short, and although he crops up regularly, many subjects that are not directly related to him are covered. I suppose that is to be expected of any good history book that tries to recreate the ‘world’ of a historical figure.
However, I did feel that the author had a tendency of going off on tangents- devoting many pages- sometimes more- on various subjects that the reader might not care much for- such as buildings and evidence or use of land. Typical for an archaeologist- but not everyone is necessarily interested by such content or will see its relevance. Also, the references to some kind of ancient pagan connection to this or that account in the life of Oswald or some saint may be fascinating initially, but the continual reference to ‘pre-Christian head cults’ etc may become grating in the end.

I also found myself distinctly disagreeing with some of the author’s conclusions. He is very much of the ‘no mass Saxon invasion and replacement of the population’ theory, which I have never been especially convinced by. I don't mean to disparage Mr Adams in any way, as he clearly knows his stuff very well (and don't we all have certain ideas and interpreations about historical figures or events?)
Yet what I found the most frustrating was what seemed like an effort to make the evidence fit the theory, even when it seemed to suggest something to the contrary.
Something like- this or that building and burial suggests these people were from the Germanic tribes who came to Britain in the fifth and sixth century- oh but DNA evidence says that most of us are Britons- so it must be wrong, and they must really have been Britons who adopted Germanic culture wholesale. After all people eat MacDonald’s in China, but that doesn’t make them American.

I’m sorry to sound overly sceptical- but as said above- not only am I not convinced about the ‘Germanic enculturation’ theory- I have also heard of other Genetic studies which suggest the populations of various areas of England have a very high percentage of Anglo-Saxon/Germanic DNA. In other words the genetic evidence is not clear cut- and there may have been more of a Saxon influence then some in the historical community would care to admit.

I also dislike this tendency to assume that ancient writers who witnessed, or were closer to events than us must have been wrong or lying , because some ‘smart’ modern technology doesn’t turn up a ‘smoking gun’ as evidence of X, Y and Z. Like ‘oh look- people were farming! That means there was not mass annihilation of the indigenous population like the sources say- oh but there was a plague and a famine- but its effects were gradual and life went on much as before’. Maybe because I’m a historian instead of an archaeologist, I don’t have such a great understanding of these things- but I also tend to think that those who were actually ‘there’ knew more about what happened then we do. Not a fashionable notion, but one I still hold to.

Nevertheless, The King in the North is a useful and fascinating book, with a lot of helpful resources for those who might otherwise get lost and confused, like maps, family trees and a handy pronunciation guide. For those like me already interested in this period, and those who want to learn more it’s an indispensable guide, even if you don’t agree with every point.
( )
  Medievalgirl | Oct 4, 2016 |
This is a superb history. It offers the nearest we will ever get to a biography of a very early medieval king who was not only the central character of the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, but also Tolkien's inspiration for Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. But it goes much wider than that, and gives a good feel for the fabric of the social order at a very transitional time, the seventh century, when kings such as Oswald of Northumbria were the first leaders to be what one might term heads of a state that could outlive that king, as opposed to warrior leaders whose rule collapsed after their deaths. It was also very much a transitional time in religious terms, with not only battles between Christianity and paganism, but also between the Celtic Christian tradition, introduced by St Columba in Scotland in the 560s, and the Roman Christian tradition introduced slightly later by St Augustine in Kent in 597. The decision of the Synod of Whitby in 664 to go with the Roman variety shaped the future of religion in England and is a date that should probably be much better known than it is. The author also brings into play archaeology and an exploration of features of the Medieval mindset that are hardest for us in the twenty first century to understand, the veneration of saints' remains and the belief that miracles and magic are perfectly valid and unremarkable elements of a narrative of events. Great stuff, supplemented by genealogies, chronologies and pictures. ( )
  john257hopper | Oct 22, 2015 |
I can't help thinking that the author was making too miuch of this ... whatever claims were made then or later for overlordship and extracting tribute from other kingdoms, when it boils down to it Oswald was only the petty king of three counties, and not for long, at that. Interesting, to a Dark Age history geek like me, but not as significant as Adams claims. ( )
  sloopjonb | May 25, 2015 |
Billed by one reviewer as the real game of thrones this book sheds light on a period of history about which I knew very little and was very entertaining. It peters out a little towards the end when it feels like the author wanted to add more in but overall a very entertaining book ( )
  prichardson | Feb 15, 2015 |
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"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 Tolkien's Aragorn. Oswald of Northumbria was the first great English monarch, yet today this legendary figure is all but forgotten. In this panoramic potrait of Dark Age Britain, archaeologist and biographer Max Adams returns the king in the North to his rightful place in history"--Publisher's description.… (more)

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