Adventures in Bookland: King Cnut by WB Bartlett


Ask the man in the street how many times England has been successfully invaded and he’ll reply, “Twice: the Romans and the Normans.” Ask a historian, particularly one specialising in constitutional history, and he’ll add a third: William and Mary’s invasion in 1688.

They’re all wrong. There have been at least five successful invasions of England. These three, plus the slow-motion carving out of an England separate from Britain by the Anglo-Saxons and then, fifty years before the one date in English history everyone knows, the Vikings finally succeeded in what they’d been trying to do for the previous 150 years: grab the country.

This long-overdue book is about the Viking invasions that first crippled and then ended the reign of England’s worst-ever king, Æthelred, and the man who finally succeeded him, Cnut. In Denmark, his homeland, Cnut’s name is invariably followed by his appellation, ‘the Great’, but in England, where he spent most of his adult life and where he was buried, he is all but forgotten, his fame as a conqueror eclipsed by the man who followed him, fifty years later. Bartlett’s book seeks to redress that balance and it does a good job of demonstrating what a remarkable king Cnut was, holding together a sea-spanning empire encompassing Denmark, England, Norway and much of Sweden.

As a sea pirate with imperial pretensions, Cnut did all that he could to ensure the history makers of his time – the clerks of the Church – were on his side, as well as doing what he could in later life to atone for the judicious murders of his early life that had made his grasp of the crown more secure. The book is thorough in its exploration of the man and his time, although a little on the bloodless side. This is no fault of the author, but rather inherent in the limited contemporary sources – mainly chronicles and charters – which do not lend themselves to rounded character portraits. Later Norse sagas add colour but the careful historian, and Bartlett is careful, has to be cautious about adding these details to what is a sober assessment of England’s forgotten conqueror.

And the tide story? First related by Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century (a century after Cnut’s death).


Adventures in Bookland: St Augustine’s First Footfall by Gerald Moody


This slim (87 page) book does exactly what it says in its subtitle: An Investigation into the Probable Location of the Landing Site of Augustine’s Mission in 597 AD. Of course, the really fascinating thing is why Augustine (the missionary sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring the pagan and barbarian Angl0-Saxons into the fold of civilisation) should land right where, in centuries before and afterward, visitors and invaders ranging from the Emperor Claudius, through Hengist and Horsa, all manner of Vikings and, even would-be invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler, all made first footfall.

The answer lies in part in geography. Yes, Dover is closer to France, but it is exposed and has great towering cliffs standing over it: a particularly vulnerable place to make a landing. The great secret to landing where Augustine, and so many others, landed, is that the Isle of Thanet really was an island back then, a chalk hill cut off from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel. In places, this channel was a mile wide, and up until the 15th century a ferry trip was still needed to get to Thanet. But the Wantsum silted up, joining Thanet to the mainland. However, while Thanet was an island, it provided a unique, and uniquely defensible, entry point to England.

In this book, Gerald Moody, deputy director of the Trust for Thanet Archaeology, employs the latest research into how Thanet’s coastline has changed to investigate just where Augustine and his team of Italian missionaries landed in 597 AD. According to our chronicler of the event, Bede, Augustine and crew were detained on Thanet while the king of Kent, Æthelberht, decided what to do with these strange visitors. Moody does an excellent job of examining the historical account through the lens of modern archaeology, and makes a convincing case for his siting of the landing and the location of Augustine’s stay on Thanet.

In short, an absorbing and detailed little book, well worth reading for anyone interested in the particulars (Augustine’s mission) or the general (England’s changing coastline).

The Sage for Our Age


Turns out that Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s mentor, is the true sage of our time, when every expert proves wrong and wild hopes and wilder fears are realised:

“What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”

Adventures in Bookland: Ecgfrith, King of the Northumbrians, High King of Britain by NJ Higham

517twmhyeqlProfessor NJ Higham is probably (no, definitely) the foremost academic expert of the history of the kingdom of Northumbria. (In one of those peculiar coincidences, he is Emeritus professor of History at the University of Manchester but, just to cause confusion, the University of Manchester has another eminent professor who is also called NJ Higham – and Nicholas is the Christian name for both of them. The other NJ Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics.)

So imagine my delight when, reading Professor Higham’s latest book, I found…me! Yes, I was referenced and footnoted, and not just once but multiple times. It turns out that the great man has read the book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria that I co-wrote with Paul Gething, the director of the Bamburgh Research Project, the ongoing archaeological investigation of the castle and its surroundings. Turning to the back of the book, not only is Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom in the bibliography, but so are Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King!

All I can say is that I wish this book had come out before I began writing the Northumbrian Thrones. It is quite the most rigorous and thorough treatment of the kings of Northumbria’s ascent to dominance, and the perfect foil to Max Adams’ book The King in the North. Where Adams treatment is poetic and anthropological, pursuing the limited evidence by recourse to cultural parallels even if they are far removed (an approach that suggests much that is intriguing but one that establishes very little), Professor Higham’s book is much more restrained, not seeking to push the evidence beyond what we know but, by bringing a lifetime of scholarship to bear, Professor Higham extracts every last bit of inference from what we do know, creating the fullest possible picture of the kingdom of Northumbria in its heyday. Indeed, for the period of Northumbrian dominance, this book is now the definnitive work, overtaking Professor Higham’s own magisterial The Kingdom of Northumbria AD350-1100.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.5 in a short series

Matthew Harffy
Matthew Harffy

See this fellow? If you think he looks like he wouldn’t be out of place in the 7th century, you’d be right. Back when I was finishing off Edwin: High King of Britain and congratulating myself in having this extraordinary period in British history all to myself, I discovered that there was another writer working on a book set during the reign of King Edwin. After employing a few old English words, I set to stalking him online and discovered to my horror that, yes, he really was writing in my period and that, even worse, he was really good.

When Matthew found out about me – you can read how this happened in his interview with me here – there was much tentative circling, rather like two wary warriors, not quite sure of the other’s intention. But we soon realised that we would do better standing shoulder to shoulder than facing each other, a realisation bolstered by the fact that we could each admire the other’s work wholeheartedly while realising, with some relief, that we were doing quite different things with our takes on the 7th century.

Since Matthew writes about the same period I do, he clearly knows it backward. So I was delighted when he said he’d read an advance copy of Oswiu: King of Kings. I was even more pleased with what he said about it:

“In Oswiu: King of Kings, Edoardo Albert brings to vivid life the battle for the land and souls of the British people in the seventh century.  Albert tells an epic tale of kings and queens, omens and shieldwalls, where the future of a people was decided as much through the guile of its priests as the strength of its warlords. He deftly weaves the threads of a memorable cast of characters into the weft and warp of a vibrant tapestry of war, mystery and intrigue. Yet the true strength of Oswiu: King of Kings, is in the depiction of the effects of conflict on the men and women of the Dark Ages. As Albert reminds us there is much more to conquest than the ringing clash of swords.”

And if you don’t rush out and buy Oswiu now, I’ll get Matthew to send his hero, Beobrand round to have a word with you – and you really don’t want to get Beobrand annoyed!


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.