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.
Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.
Not surprisingly, Max Adams’ book finds an appreciative reader in me: it’s all about Northumbria! Although ostensibly a biography of Oswald, in fact it tells the story of the great age of the kingdom, starting with its emergence into history under the ‘Twister’ Aethelfrith, through my favourite, Edwin, to Oswald, Oswiu and Ecgfrith, with an afterword about the golden cultural age of the eighth century. Adams is never less than fascinating, he brings to light all sorts of nuggets of information and parallels – I particularly liked the comparison between Oswald and Thomas Cochrane, the premier frigate commander of the Napoleonic Wars and a man of such daring his exploits would appear ridiculous in a film – and his book brims with a life-long love of the subject. In fact, the only other book on Northumbria I’d recommend as highly is my own, and Adams beats me into a cocked hat with the absolutely superb double page map on the inside front cover, which shows Northumbria and the other kingdoms of northern Britain in the style of the map in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, all hand-drawn hills and sketched forests. Superb, and on its own responsible for an extra, fifth star! Well done, Mr Cartographer.
Quite a lot! First, and I’m about half way through this and typing frantically with one eye on the approaching 16 May deadline, is a biography of Alfred the Great with Dr Katie Tucker, the osteoarchaeologist (she works with bones) who is leading the search for the mortal, but lost, remains of the king. There was a recent BBC 2 TV programme, The Search For Alfred The Great, hosted by the lustrous Neil Oliver, on the efforts to find King Alfred’s body, which can be seen in part here. This biography tells his life, and extraordinary achievements, and Dr Tucker will be writing about her search for his lost remains. The book is called In Search of Alfred the Great: The King, The Grave, The Legend and will be published by Amberley Publishing.
Then there’s volume two of The Northumbrian Thrones, Oswald: Return of the King.
The sequel to Edwin: High King of Britain tells the story of Edwin’s nephew, Oswald, who with his family fled to the sea-spanning kingdom of Dal Riada when Edwin defeated and killed his father in battle when he was a child – in the Dark Ages, the personal really was political! JRR Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, took his inspiration for Aragorn, the dispossessed king who returns to claim his kingdom, from Oswald, and his story is crucial in the history of England. It was a time of great danger – no king of Northumbria before Oswald had managed to die a natural death – but also the sudden birth of great beauty, as if the precariousness of life made the preciousness of things made with consuming skill all the greater.
I’m aiming to have written Oswald: Return of the King by the end of October for publication next Easter. After that, I’ll be working on the final volume of The Northumbrian Thrones, Oswy: King of Kings, which is about Oswald’s half brother and successor as king of Northumbria (in a time before surnames, parents gave their children names with the same prefix to indicate they were siblings; thus Alfred the Great’s five elder brothers and his sister all had names beginning with Æthel. Presumably even his mum and dad were getting confused when they came to number seven and called him Ælfred instead). Volumes two and three of The Northumbrian Thrones will be published by Lion Fiction.
And to round things out, there’s The Light That Drowns The Stars: A Spiritual History of London. Now, I’m an unusual creature: someone living in London who was actually born here, and lived all my life in the city – to be precise, up and down a six-mile section of the Piccadilly Line. This is an exciting, making it up as I go along sort of book, where I’m writing a spiritual history of the town that is both the Great Wen, a pustule on the bottom of the country, and the inspiration of religious and spiritual movements ranging from Methodism to the Alpha Course. Also, London formed me, for ill and good, and that story, I realised, forms how I write its history and thus is part of its history too. It’s a thrilling, though, nerve wracking, book to write. It should be out later next year from Lion Hudson.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
A lot of Early Medieval historical fiction concentrates on the heroic aspects of the Heroic Age: shieldwalls and battles, with a side order of wenching and pillaging – sort of Rambo in the sixth century. I wanted to take this and build a bigger picture: the obscurity of the Dark Ages hides the birth of England, Scotland and Wales, the foundations and many of the lift shafts of everything that came afterwards. And, what is more, it was the battles that often settled the questions: would England expand and dominate the whole country? Answered, emphatically in the negative, in the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685. Would the Romano-Britons be able to drive the Anglo-Saxons from their land? Again, a question answered in blood at Mount Badon and Catterick and elsewhere, and the reason I am writing today in English, not Welsh.
So, with The Northumbrian Thrones, I wanted to widen the focus and look at the interplay of nation building and identity, and how they worked out in the crucial period when the pagan kings of the Anglo-Saxons decided where their religious, and cultural, future lay. The personal choices made by a few men and women then determined our national trajectory up until today.
This was all made considerably easier because I had already written a non-fiction book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria, with archaeologist and director of the Bamburgh Research Project, Paul Gething. Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom, and the many conversations I had with Paul, gave me almost everything I needed in terms of historical research and, in Paul, I had access to one of the finest, most incisive analysts of the Early Medieval period there is. We spent many hours discussing the finer points of shieldwall battle tactics and the etiquette of duelling, with Paul always able to bring to bear some archaeological nugget or fascinating ethnographic parallel.
Another difference is that I don’t simply write historical fiction. Edwin: High King of Britain is my first novel, but I’ve had five books published before it, four on history and one children’s book (the details are all on my books page). I’ve also had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, in genres ranging from science fiction and fantasy, through literary fiction to a stab at romance! There’s a page linking to my stories here.
3. Why do you write what you do?
Because someone paid me! First off, writing is a job. The strange thing is, for all the years I looked on writing as an art and vocation and all that sort of stuff, I got virtually nowhere, wrote very little, and had almost nothing published. Since I’ve switched to looking at it as a job, and started – against all my instincts – to push myself forward and market myself in all sorts of hideous ways, I’ve not had time to stop.
But it’s also fair to say I get very grumpy if I don’t write – my sons found the perfect image of what I’m like if I don’t write regularly: it’s not a pretty sight, is it.
4. How does your writing process work?
I get up at 5am, make a cup of tea, say my prayers, and start writing. Getting up at that time means I get two hours before the rest of the family are up, or at least 45 minutes if I have to leave to do some freelance editing at Time Out or Bella or one of the other places I do shifts at. I know many writers find reading about the actual writing process fascinating, but I avoid reading it and I’m not much cop at writing it. In the end, it comes down to putting one word after another. The main, perhaps only, thing I’ve learned is: trust the words. They’re tough little blighters, and will do all the heavy lifting for you, if you give them the chance.
Thank you to Justin Hill (author of Shieldwall and a very fine writer) for asking me to continue the tour. Read his answers here.
The blog tour has stopped recently at Matthew Harffy’s blog (author of the Bernicia Chronicles, which are also set in seventh-century Northumbria); AH Gray who, although condemned to the sunshine of Perth, Western Australia, finds her true home also by the cold grey waters of the North Sea – she is the author of the Northumbrian Saga.
The tour continues…
Christi Daugherty takes cool and brands it in her own inimitable style. The author of the best-selling Night School series of YA novels, she combines writing about the sort of teenagers I wish I’d been with an unerring nose for a good cup of coffee.
A former crime reporter, political writer and investigative journalist, CJ Daugherty wrote for several American newspapers and for Reuters before becoming a full-time novelist. Her young adult series, Night School, set in a boarding school for the children of the political elite, has been translated into 21 languages.
Julian Bell will warm the heart of English teachers throughout the world – after years teaching the subject all over the world, he is about to step into the page with his first novel, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.
Julian Bell has worked as a teacher for twenty-seven years in London, Hong Kong, Spain, Kent and Hertfordshire. He is currently Head of English at the Godolphin and Latymer School in West London. He has written comedy scripts for BBC Radio 4 and a variety of stand-up comedians, and his poetry has been published in a number of magazines and has won several prizes. He has also been a restaurant and book reviewer, and has been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write the lyrics of a Christmas carol. He writes a weekly column on London at www.lifelonglondoner.blogspot.com.
Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, his novel set in Dublin in 1920 at the height of the Anglo-Irish war, is the first volume of a planned trilogy: the second volume, My Enemy’s Enemy, will be set in London in 1940 – 41 during the Blitz, and the third, Ourselves Alone, in Belfast, London and the Lake District in 1975. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve signed contracts with Lion Fiction for the next two volumes in The Northumbrian Thrones saga, the stories of kings Oswald and Oswy (and yes, they were brothers and their father had a weird fixation on the letter ‘O’; he had no less than eight sons: Oswald, Oswy, Oswudu, Oslac, Oslaf and Offa, topped and tailed with the eldest, Eanfrith, and the youngest, Æbba). Oswald: Return of the King (and this is not just a shameless attempt to rip off Tolkien; the Good Professor seems to have based aspects of Aragorn on Oswald) should be out early next year, and Oswy: King of Kings in 2015. Here are the first versions of their covers: tell me what you think.