Oswiu: What A Historian Thinks

I am hugely grateful to all the writers who have taken time to read and comment on Oswiu: King of Kings but, as writers of historical fiction all, I think every one of them would agree when I say that getting a glowing commendation from one of the most eminent historians in the field beats all.

Professor Nicholas J Higham is Emeritus professor in Early Medieval and Landscape History in History at the University of Manchester and one of the foremost experts in Early Medieval history in general, and the kingdom of Northumbria in particular. And he’s read my books!

Pause for a quick run around the room, waving my hands in the air because I really do care.

(Just to confuse things, there is, believe it or not, another Professor Nicholas J Higham at the University of Manchester, but the other professor is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics. As an experiment, I’m going to put up pictures of both professors. See if you can guess which is the historian and which the mathematician – answer at the bottom of the blog.)

Professor NJ Higham
Professor NJ Higham
Professor NJ Higham

Anyway, the historian Nick Higham knows more about Northumbria than just about anyone else. His book, The Kingdom of Northumbria: AD350-1100, is pretty well the definitive academic work on the subject while The Angl0-Saxon World is the best introduction for the general reader to the early medieval period in this country – and, in the tradition of early medieval scribes, a particularly handsome book too. For anyone seeking a deeper knowledge of these times, I particularly recommend Professor Higham’s Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High King of Britain (what’s more, he even mentions my books in the notes! How cool is that, I’ve been footnoted, and bibliographied, in a proper academic book!).

I first found out that Professor Higham had read one of my books when he left a review on Amazon of Edwin: High King of Britain. Of course, I didn’t know it was the Nick Higham (it could have been the mathematical Nick Higham, the photographical Nick Higham – there is one – and so on) but I figured there was a good chance it really was Professor Higham so I emailed him, at the University of Manchester, to ask.

And it was him!

Gosh, I was so chuffed.

Then, when I’d finished Oswald: Return of the King, I emailed Professor Higham if he would read an advance copy – and he did. And then he did so again with Oswiu: King of Kings. So, there you have it: an academic imprimatur from the professor who knows more about the subject than anyone else.

If that doesn’t convince you to read the book, I don’t know what will.

So, here’s what Professor Higham has to say about Oswiu: King of Kings:

The bare bones of Oswiu’s story was told by Bede in book III of his Ecclesiastical History; Albert puts flesh on the bones, bringing these characters to life in an historical novel which fairly fizzes with humanity, all amid the struggle between Christian and pagan, Northumbria and Mercia, for the soul of Britain.

There. Can’t say fairer than that. Thank you, Professor Higham!

(And, if you’re wondering, the historical Professor NJ Higham is the one without the glasses.)

Adventures in Bookland: Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley


The world was strange five hundred years ago. The unity of medieval Christendom had ruptured, breaking apart a thousand years of cultural understanding (even if that had not translated into any lasting peace between the warring European states). Meanwhile, the old bulwark against the advance of the armies of Islam, the impregnable walls of Constantinople, had finally proved pregnable in 1453. Each new Ottoman Sultan had to prove his legitimacy through war and conquest – hence the inexorable drive towards a century and more of conflict.

The Ottomans were originally a nomadic people. Naval warfare was something new to them. But, in the 16th century, they learned fast. Land conquests had made the Sultan master of the Black Sea. Now, he sought to rule the White Sea too.

Standing in his way were the Venetians, the Genoese and the Spanish, under their Habsburg kings, Charles I and Philip II.

The struggle for the Mediterranean was one conducted through generations, with fathers and then sons and even grandsons engaged in the conflict. And it was a brutal conflict, its brutality exacerbated by the demands of the chief engine of this particular naval war: the galley. In the shallow, generally calm waters of the Mediterranean, these oared sailing ships, with their ability to ram and run fast under the pull of the oars, were the most potent vessels, but their potency was earned through human misery: the men pulling the oars. For most sides in the conflict, the chief source of oarsmen was slaves. Slave-taking expeditions became a constant menace, particularly to the southern European states. All sides took part in the trade, but the Ottoman armed forces were predicated upon slavery for their most feared troops, the Janissaries, were slaves, children taken from their, usually Christian, parents, converted to Islam and then raised as soldiers.

Crowley takes this fearsomely complex war and relates it well, breaking down the long struggle into a number of key battles while not neglecting the longer-term diplomatic and economic factors that also played into the war. But, in the end, it came down to four great battles, three island sieges and a concluding naval battle: the siege of Rhodes (1522), when the Ottomans succeeded in expelling the Knights of St John, the successors to the medieval Hospitallers, from the island; the siege of Malta (1565), when the knights held, just, to their new base; the siege of Famagusta (1571), in which the Ottomans took the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus and, by their barbaric execution of the defenders, inflamed Venetian passion to such an extent that the Republic forwent trade for war and became one of the chief instigators of the Holy League that faced the Ottomans in the great naval battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571).

Four great battles in one long war. That the Sultan did not rule the White Sea as he did the Black was down to these men, men like Cervantes, who fought at Lepanto and counted it his most glorious deed, Don Juan of Austria, commander of the Holy League, who danced a galliard on the poop deck of his ship before battle began, Jean de Valette of the Knights, who fought at the siege of Rhodes and then commanded the Knights during their defence of Malta, and many others. Remarkable men for a remarkable conflict, and one that deserves to be better known. Hopefully, Crowley’s excellent book will serve to make that happen.

The Presence of the Past – no.2 in an occasional series

This summer, we went to Northumberland. The past lies deep over the present there, in this land of far horizons, and over the next few weeks I’ll write a few more entries in this occasional series, the presence of the past.

For today, we’ll look at the well in Bamburgh Castle. The rock on which the presnt-day castle stands has been a stronghold for as long as men have lived in Northumberland. It’s a great lump of Whin Sill, the layer of hard dolerite that extends, mostly underground, through Durham and Northumberland. 295 million years ago, an upflow of magma from the earth’s core was diverted on its path to the surface and, instead of exploding as a volcano, slid sideways, below the surface, spreading out along the fault line between two horizontal layers of rock, rather like the jam in a sandwich. But when the magma cooled, it formed dolerite, a much harder rock than the sandstone that sandwiched it. So, as the softer rock has eroded, the hard protuberances of the Whin Sill have emerged, producing features such as Bamburgh Rock, High Force, and parts of Hadrian’s Wall.

Part of Hadrian's Wall, riding along the Whin Sill
Part of Hadrian’s Wall, riding along the Whin Sill

Bamburgh Rock, rising a couple of hundred feet above the surrounding sea and land, is an obvious watchpoint and stronghold. But it lacked one vital feature of a defensible fortress: water. If the defenders were beseiged, they would rely on stored water and catching rainfall – admittedly, not an infrequent occurrence in this part of the world, but, the world being what it is, no doubt drought would be the inevitable partner to siege.

To overcome this deficiency, the Anglo-Saxons dug a well. Through granite. Through 150 feet of granite. And the well is still there, in the lowest level of Bamburgh Castle, with nothing but a small caption to remark this extraordinary feat of Early Medieval engineering.

The well head in Bamburgh Castle
The well head in Bamburgh Castle

Here’s me, standing beside the well.

Standing by the head of the well
Writer, wondering how they did it

How on earth did they do it?

And wondering how on earth they did it
And wondering how on earth they did it

This is what the caption says:

This Anglo-Saxon well was essential for providing the castle with a reliable and clean source of water. The well is 44 metres in depth and 2 metres in diameter. There are no records about how the well was made but one thought is that fires may have been built on top of the hard whinstone. When the rock was extremely hot, cold water would have been poured onto it causing it to contract and split, making the stone easier to work. Beneath the whinstone is sandstone much softer and easier to excavate.

The sides of the well are smooth and close to the bottom there is an arched tunnel approximately 1.75 metres in height which is reached by iron rungs set into the stone work. Running at a south westerly angle it travels to shrubbery outside the castle near the existing pump house and was made in the 20th century to carry services, out of sight, up to the castle.

So, that is, maybe, how they did it. Hot rock, cold water and hard labour. And, well dug, Bamburgh became well-nigh impregnable, the stronghold which became the base for the Idings take over of the kingdom of Bernicia, the land of the high passes.

A Proper Peer

On a recent visit to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, we saw this quote, in the Bowling Green House, from Jemima, Marchioness Grey:  ‘Have been strolling most of the morning with my book, and my dog and my fawn.’ 1744.

Now that is the quote of a proper aristocrat! And here she is – Jemima, Marchioness Grey (9 October 1723 – 10 January 1797):

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Bowling Green House, Wrest Park
Bowling Green House, Wrest Park

The Presence of the Past – no.1 in an occasional series

Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.

So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.

Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):


And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:


Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.

Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:


And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.


It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.

Adventures in Bookland: A History of the Church in England by John Moorman

A History of the Church in England
A History of the Church in England

This is a delicious book – in the same manner that taking tea with an extremely well-read, gossipy and slightly camp vicar would be. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine sipping at the cup, with a slice of cake on the table, as Bishop Moorman (he was bishop of Ripon) holds forth on the failings and foibles of his predecessors in ecclesiastical office.

In fact, this might be the best one-volume history of England I’ve read. By using the church as the lens, it magnifies and illuminates history in all sorts of interesting ways; something comparable (although over two much longer volumes) was done by NAM Rodger in his Naval History of Britain, with similarly fascinating results. The history of a country is so multi-faceted that a single volume work can easily either lose itself in distinctions or fall into triviality – Moorman, and notwithstanding his occasionally waspish tone, does neither. The only regret is that the history stops just after the Second World War (although checking the records, there was a revised 1973 edition which would be worth reading – I read the original ’53 printing) and it would be fascinating to know his assessment of the last half century. As it is, Bishop Moorman must be looking at all our goings on with the wry amusement of the dead at the antics of the living.

Give him something else to be amused at: seek out and read his book.

Adventures in Bookland: Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Dr Faustus
Dr Faustus

Dr Faustus first made his pact with the devil on the London stage in 1572. It’s hard reading it not to think that Christopher Marlowe had concluded his own bargain a year or two before – and like the hero of his play, they were both short changed. Reading it now, after Reformation, Enlightenment, wars world and otherwise, Modernity, Post-Modernity and everything else, it still shocks; its impact near five centuries earlier in the middle of the religious upheaval of the Tudor dynasty must have been overwhelming.

Dr Faustus, speaking with the devil’s own despite, pours scorn over all, but most particularly the religion that had formed, then broken apart, the civilisation of which Marlowe was part.

Philosophy is odious and obscure.
Both law and physic are for petty wits.
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile…

But when men make God the reason for their hatred, is it any wonder that others heap coals upon this image and make pacts with a devil who must seem the lesser of the two calamities. What Marlowe really believed is unknown, buried beneath lies and rumours and slanders, aimed not so much at him but the richer and more powerful men, notably Sir Walter Raleigh, with whom he was associated. Tudor power politics was a blood game but its rules were laid with ink: was Marlowe the heretic, the atheist, the sodomite and blasphemer the Baines note suggested he was, or were these the casual calumnies of the underworld of spies and recusants, traitors and fanatics and rogues where Marlowe swam. That he was enlisted as a spy by the Privy Council seems fairly clear, but beyond that, it’s difficult to know anything for certain in this murky time. In one sense, Dr Faustus is a medieval morality play, updated, yes, but still with a clear sense of evil (although a rather shakier sense of the good), and justice is done, and seen to be done, in Faustus’s condemnation and damnation at the end of the play. But, on the other hand, Faustus’s almost complete lack of sense for the power of redeeming grace suggests powerfully that Marlowe may also have felt that absence in the milieu of the burnings and executions of the Reformation.

Maybe Marlowe fascinates so because he seems at once a thoroughly medieval man and yet, also, the first truly modern one – in fact, almost post-modern in his scepticism of the rules and mores of his society. Dr Faustus looks at the world around him and has the courage to call it all a sham, and there lies the tragedy: for there is a clarity of vision there that is then clouded and blurred into the petty lusts and (really rather funny) ragging of Pope and cardinals. Dr Faustus is, clearly, the work of a young man, with all the rage of the young fresh burning against the mess they have discovered their elders and supposed betters have made of the world. It burns still.

Adventures in Bookland: London and the Reformation by Susan Brigden

London and the Reformation
London and the Reformation

Now this is hard-core history. I can only stand back in awe before the prospect of the hours, days, weeks, months and years Susan Brigden must have spent in archives and libraries, poring over texts – letters, wills, deeds, all the paper trail of a civilisation that was becoming intensely literate – in the making of this book; and the facility with which she combines the wealth of detail from every sector of society with an overall grasp of the extraordinary changes that befell London and England through the reigns of Henry VIII, and his son and elder daughter. The book does not go on to the reign of Elizabeth, but it is one of the finest pieces of historical research you could ever come across on this topic, doing justice to the complexity of the subject, with its intersecting religious, spiritual, political, economic and cultural vertices, while never becoming lost in this complexity. It stands in comparison, good comparison, with Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and, alike, shows how the Reformation in England was, in the end, the product of the zeal of a small group of people, on flame with the Gospel, but, most of all, the relentlessness and fickleness of one man: Henry VIII. Henry made England’s Reformation. Without him, England would most probably have remained a Catholic country.

The King’s Will

When the monks of Syon Abbey, in 1536, expelled and homeless, looked upon the ruin of their monastery and the destruction of the intricate web of interconnection between the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural that made the medieval world, they asked how what had seemed so permanent, so set in stone, could have been destroyed. Their answer: ‘The King hath done it on his high power.’

Few kings destroy an entire world. Henry VIII did so.

Adventures in Bookland: New Worlds, Lost Worlds: the Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603 by Susan Brigden

New Worlds, Lost Worlds
New Worlds, Lost Worlds

At school, my children have studied the Tudors in Year 1, Year 3, Year 6 and Year 9 and, looking ahead, they will probably turn up in years 11, 12 and 13 too – and that’s not to mention Shakespeare in English, The Tudors on TV, Wolf Hall on stage and screen, and hundreds of other books, plays, films, series and shows. In an age of historical ignorance, we are left with 1066, Elizabeth, bluff King Hal and his wives and, er, that’s about it. But the problem with all of this is its bittiness – we get parts, rather than the whole. Susan Brigden’s book is a wonderful corrective to this, providing an overview of the whole period, from the grey penury of Henry VII through to the dog days of Elizabeth’s reign. In fact, I’d say this is the best one volume history of the Tudors that I’ve read. Brigden is particularly good on the religious upheavals that made the Tudor era the definitive break between medieval and modern eras, and the revolution in world views that brought about and was caused by these changes.