Yes, it’s me, speaking at Prinknash Abbey on Tuesday 25 April at 10.30am. I’m really looking forward to this as I’ll get to spend the previous day and night with the monks of the abbey before giving my talk on the Tuesday. If you’re anywhere nearby, do come along (and I’ll sign as many books as you want!).
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.)
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.)
Some unusual acquaintances are made online. In my case, few have been more unexpected but more welcome than my getting to know Andrew and Jane Norriss online. The name might not immediately mean anything but anyone watching TV in the 1990s will know Andrew from The Brittas Empire. Andrew wrote the first five series.
But then, with one of the more unexpected career swerves, he decided to throw in TV writing in exchange for the considerably less lucrative vocation of writing books for children. Mind, he still couldn’t completely escape the octopus clasp of television, for the producers took one read of his book Aquila and immediately saw what anyone reading it must see: that this is one of the most perfectly crafted stories ever written. And they promptly slapped it on television.
I must admit that the Aquila TV series was really rather wonderful. But, of course, past performance is not an indicator of future returns and, given the unlikely collision of talents that go into making a good TV programme, it’s unlikely that the lightning of success would strike again. Besides, working with TV people is like supping with the devil: something best done with a very long spoon.
So, thankfully, Andrew’s been able to escape the dead grasp of television, and he’s been busy writing further books for children – most of which I’ve read and reviewed, here (The Unluckiest Boy in the World) and here (The Portal) and here (The Touchstone). His latest, Jessica’s Ghost, I fear lays him open to the further blandishments of TV land so get in there and read it before some producer ruins it.
Given my untrammeled enthusiasm and admiration for Andrew’s work, imagine how pleased I was to find out that he liked my work too. He’s actually read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King. This time, though, putting my marketing cap on, I thought I’d get him to read a pre-publication copy of Oswiu: King of Kings in the hope that his recommendation might open up the 8-12 junior reader market to me. Well, not really. Oswiu is not really suitable for 8 year olds (although I don’t think there’s anything in it that would be unsuitable for a 12 year old moving on to trying adult books for the first time). But, really, I just wanted Andrew to read it. And he did, and here’s what he had to say about it.
Edoardo Albert conjures up an extraordinarily vivid and authentic picture of life in 7th Century Britain that is hugely enjoyable. This is fabulous story-telling, with the themes of greed, ambition, nobility and the power of religion woven together with consummate skill. This is the real Game of Thrones – a fabulous story, beautifully told, that turns out to be based on fact!
You can imagine just how pleased I am with this. Andrew is probably the most talented writer I know and to have such an endorsement is praise indeed. You hear that low pitched hum in the background? That’s the sound of a writer, purring.
James Aitcheson does, supremely well, what I hope to do in my own books: employ a profound knowledge of the history of the time he is writing about to make the actions of the men and women of the time understandable to modern readers. His Sworn Sword trilogy looks at the aftermath of 1066, and how William really conquered England, while his latest book, The Harrowing, represents a huge departure from the somewhat hackneyed norms of historical fiction writing, giving a determinedly downbeat and realistic portrayal of the impact of the Conquest on ordinary people. He’s also an excellent speaker – my boys were rapt when he spoke at the Battle of Hastings re-enactment last year and James will be there again this year. If you’re going, make sure you look out for him.
This is James with the boys:
And with me:
So I was delighted when James agreed to read Oswiu: King of Kings before publication – and even more pleased by what he thought of it. Here’s what he said:
In Oswiu, the concluding instalment in his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert takes readers back to seventh-century England: a shadowy and turbulent era when Britons and Anglo-Saxons, heathens and Christians, contested for political and spiritual supremacy.
Albert writes with great passion; his love for this period of history shines through at every stage. His research is worn lightly, and yet his depiction of early medieval life has a strong ring of truth. In particular the post-Roman landscape of northern England, littered with roads, walls and other crumbling relics of the imperial past, is vividly described: a constant reminder that power is transitory and that even the mightiest empires must fall.
As regards the eponymous Oswiu, king of Bernicia, Albert paints a credible picture of a man struggling with the many burdens of rulership: weighed down by expectations of what a good king should be; plagued by threats to his power both at home and abroad; and overshadowed (as he has often been in history) by his celebrated elder brother and predecessor, Oswald.
Dynastic rivalries, shifting allegiances and pagan mysticism combine in this atmospheric novel, evoking a volatile world in which life is uncertain, authority and respect are hard-won, honour is all-important, and divine forces hold sway.
There. I couldn’t have asked for better. Thank you, James and remember, if you’re going to see the 950th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings on 15 and 16 October, look for James in the book tent.
Take a look at this man. Most writers have the sort of face that fits on radio: Justin Hill looks like the sort of fellow you wouldn’t want to see standing opposite you in the enemy shieldwall. Only, judging by the photo, it looks like he’d favour the naked beserker style of fighting! So, you’d listen to what he tells you about good books to read about the Dark Ages. Particularly when he’s written one of the best of them: Shieldwall, about the best evocation of late Anglo-Saxon England I’ve read (the sequel, Viking Fire, has just come out and I’m on it big time). But just to show he’s not all trapezius and deltoid, he also weaves tales around Chinese teashops (The Drink and Dream Teahouse) and memoirs around Eritrean coffeeshops (Ciao Asmara); and, a particular delight to me, writes bolter-blasting stories in the 40th millennium too when there is only war (Storm of Damocles).
We’ve been really fortunate with the generosity of other writers of historical fiction: some extremely able authors agreed to read advance copies of Oswiu: King of Kings and, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to tell you what they thought of it.
It’s brilliant: hugely enjoyable, a galloping plot with characters I care abut – exactly the sort of thing I love to read. Please pass on my congratulations to Edoardo. This was a joy to read from start to finish.
You hear that sound, that creaking, cracking sound? That’s the sound of my head swelling. Seriously, I’m thrilled to have had Conn read this book and even more that he liked it – in fact, he said, having read Oswiu, he was going to go out and buy Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King with his own money! That’s a proper writerly accolade.
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.
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.
Here’s me, standing beside the well.
How on earth did they do 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.
And, ta da! Here it is: the final version of the cover for Oswiu: King of Kings. I’m particularly pleased with the bit of writing above the lion. It’s no small accolade to have the book described as brilliant by no less a writer than Conn Iggulden.
What’s more, we’ve got back some other, equally glowing commendations from other writers. I’ll tell you about them over the next few days and weeks. Only five weeks until publication!