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August 5 642 Battle of Maserfeld: King Penda of Mercia defeats King Oswald of Northumbria

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Review: The King in the North by Max Adams
James Aitcheson

10 February 2014

 

A prince-in-exile makes his triumphant return from obscurity, slaying the tyrant who was ravaging his homeland and reclaiming the throne that, half a lifetime earlier, was stolen from him, before establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent kings of his age and ushering in a golden age for his people. The story of King Oswald of Northumbria (reigned 634-42) is a remarkable one – indeed the stuff of legend – and yet nowadays his achievements have largely been forgotten by most except Anglo-Saxon specialists.

 

The seventh century was a golden era in another, quite different sense. This is the age of Sutton Hoo, with its marvellous treasures, as well as the recently excavated Staffordshire Hoard. These and other discoveries illustrate the vibrant craft and culture and the immense wealth of Oswald’s world, but in constrast the documentary record for these years is incredibly thin. Certainly compared with the tenth and eleventh centuries, my own particular period of specialism, the seventh century truly is a dark age. What written material does exist is not only sparse in the detail it provides but also very often fragmentary, and not easy to piece together. Reconstructing a narrative of events therefore presents a tough challenge for historians, but Max Adams rises to it admirably in The King in the North, sifting through the complex primary source material and, where possible, tying that in with more recent archaeological evidence.

In keeping with the book’s subtitle, “the life and times of Oswald of Northumbria”, Adams does not examine his subject’s career in isolation, but also explores the array of societies and cultures – religious and secular – that inhabited seventh-century Britain, and so places his reign in its historical context. While Oswald, his achievements and his afterlife as the focus of a saintly cult form the backbone of the book, a significant amount of attention is given also to the career of his predecessor Edwin (616-32) as well as to the long reign of his successor, his brother Oswiu (642-70). Indeed The King in the North is less a biography of a single man than it is a study of a dynasty, and of the leading role played by Northumbria in the politics, religion and culture of seventh-century Britain. This was a land divided: a land of seemingly perpetual conflict between rival families, Anglo-Saxons and Britons, new and old customs, pagans and Christians, and even between different branches of the Church: the Irish, the British and the Roman traditions.

 

(Snip)

 

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

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