Book review: The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward, who died on 3 April 2022, was one of Britain’s most accomplished popular historians, his many books displaying a mixture of vigorous storytelling and close attention to primary and secondary sources. Seward’s final book, published posthumously, shows that he suffered no decline in his gifts in his final years. The Greatest Viking takes the life of King Olav Haraldsson and brings the man and his times to life. In this, Seward was helped by Olav’s life being, like that of so many of the great Vikings, a tale of outrageous adventure, of reversals and victories, daring escapes and unlikely returns. Indeed, it’s the sort of life that if Seward had been writing a novel, he would have had to tone it down to make it more believable.

Olav, in life and even more in his death, became a symbol of Norwegian national identity, so much so that we was given – and still holds – the title of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, the eternal king of Norway. Olav, a descendant of Harald Fairhair, the first man to unite Norway, saw it as his destiny to bring the country under his rule. Following his conversion to Christianity, he widened his mission to include banishing the old Norse gods. Seward is particularly insightful in explaining the savagery with which Olav went about suppressing the old pagan religion, neither excusing Olav’s fierceness nor downplaying the depravity attached to worshipping the old gods. Although we have lost an excellent historian, The Greatest Viking is an excellent valediction of a lifetime’s work bringing the past to life for new generations.

Book review: Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Peter Fehervari is the unlikely Evelyn Waugh of 40k authors. Writing about Tyrannid genestealer cults is not an obvious opportunity to showcase a prose style that combines the economy of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall with the jewel crusted baroquetries of his Brideshead Revisited, but Fehervari, rather extraordinarily, manages to do so. One of the very, very few 40k books to read for its literary qualities.

Book review: Relentless by Dean Koontz

Relentless by Dean Koontz

I am, in principle, in favour of stories where the hero is an unassuming but nevertheless quietly heroic writer – I can’t imagine why. I also thoroughly approve of stories where the villain is a horribly unfair literary critic, of vituperative opinions and little discernment. Having been on the receiving end of a few reviews of the writer-is-an-idiot-and-his-work-is-worse variety I can aver that there are few retributions not fully deserved by such reviewers.

Despite all these points in its favour, I must nevertheless admit that ‘Relentless’ is boiler plate Koontz: standard late period fare without the original ideas of ‘Innocence’ or ‘The City’. One for Koontz completists only.

The Strategy of Alfred the Great 4: Cultural Renewal

Driven into the marshes of the Somerset Levels by Guthrum’s surprise Christmas attack, Alfred had time to reflect on his strategy. On the Isle of Athelney, his household reduced to his immediate family and retainers, it must have seemed that everything was gone.

But Alfred, the most deeply Christian of early medieval kings, saw Biblical parallels in his reverse. Notably, David himself had had to flee from King Saul, taking refuge in the wilderness. From that wilderness, David had launched his guerilla campaign against Saul and that was what Alfred proceeded to do against Guthrum’s still unstable regime.

Success came at the Battle of Edington, where Alfred defeated Guthrum. But while Alfred imposed terms upon Guthrum and oversaw his baptism, standing as the Viking’s godfather, Alfred had been made painfully aware that his previous plans to deal with Norse attacks had been inadequate.

Alfred tackled the matter with his characteristic systematic intelligence. First came the question, ‘Why’? Why would God allow pagans to devastate the Christian kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons? Alfred did not believe in a universe of chance. Things happened for a reason, and he applied to recent events the sort of self-analysis that the Jews applied to their own history in the Bible.

Alfred saw the English as a new Chosen people, set apart by God for his purposes. But while the Jews came to understand their history in terms of their falling away from the ancestral covenant they had made with God, Alfred came to a different conclusion with respect to his own people. It wasn’t so much that they had failed morally, but rather that they had failed by abandoning their previous commitment to learning and education. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Anglo-Saxon scholars such as Bede and Alcuin had been among the most learned men in the world. But by Alfred’s reign scholarship had fallen off so precipitously that the scribes for Canterbury Cathedral were unable to produce texts in intelligible Latin. It was this failure to nurture their patrimony of learning, Alfred believed, that had caused God to remove his protection from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Having established the cause, Alfred set out to remedy it. He started with himself. He had only learned to read and write English when he was 12. This was better than for many other people but it was still a source of embarrassment to Alfred. Nor could he read or write Latin, the language of scholarship. So, somewhere in his mid-30s, Alfred started to learn Latin, with the aim of achieving a high-enough standard that he would be able to translate Latin texts into English.

For Alfred had decided to embark upon a programme of education for his people so that they could recalim the mantle of scholars they had worn when Bede and Alcuin were alive. Alfred recruited to his court the most able clerics he could find, from Britain and abroad, men such as Asser, a Welshman, Plegemund, a Mercian, John from Saxony and Grimbald from France. Alfred’s court was becoming an international institution.

Recognising that most of his people had neither the time nor the opportunity to learn Latin, Alfred and his court scholars set about translating the books ‘most necessary for all men to know’ into English. These included the Dialogues and Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and the first fifty Psalms. These works are full of spiritual, moral and practical wisdom, from the Consolation’s advice on how to deal with turns of fortune that leave you destitute – something Alfred himself was familiar with – to sound precepts for how a bishop should do his job in Pastoral Care.

Alfred sent a copy of Pastoral Care to every bishopric in the country. He was shrewd enough to guess that Gregory’s pastoral advice might best be gold-plated with an earthly gift, so included with each book a beautiful and valuable text pointer. To ensure that the knowledge in these books reached beyond the episcopacy, Alfred established a court school to teach not only his own children but also the children of the nobility and even many among the common born. To recover from the ravages of the Vikings, Alfred fostered a thorough going cultural renewal.

That Alfred, while burdened with all the duties of a king, should still find time in his day to translate Latin texts into English for the good of his people marks him out as truly exceptional among monarchs. There have been many great warrior kings, there have even been a few scholar kings, but Alfred is pretty well unique in being both.

Bartolomeu Dias and the Tip of Africa

Portuguese explorations showing the dog leg into the Atlantic Ocean first sailed by Bartolomeu Dias

In October 1486, King John II of Portugal charged Bartolomeu Dias, with finally finding the tip of Africa and the route into the Indian Ocean. Dias was to lead an expedition consisting of two caravels and a square-rigged cog carrying provisions for the expedition.

Dias recruited the best pilots and navigators he could find and set sail in July or August 1487. By Christmas Day, the little flotilla of ships had passed the previous southern limit of Portuguese exploration. They had gone further than any Europeans before them.

But the expedition was struggling against a south-west wind that blew them towards the shore and a steady current pushing them north. The square-rigged cog could not make headway, so Dias decided that it would moor, on the shore of what is today Namibia, and wait on the return of the rest of the expedition.

With just the two caravels, Dias pushed on south.Tacking back and forth against the wind, the ships crawled southwards. And then, after a few days of little progress, Dias did something extraordinary. He turned west.

The expedition sailed out into the empty ocean, directly away from land and at right angles to where they wanted to go. Two small caravels headed into the swell of the open Atlantic. There’s no record whether this was an inspired call by Dias and his navigators or a strategy worked out back in Portugal with John’s geographers.

The little expedition continued sailing south west for 13 days and a thousand miles. The temperature dropped precipitously. Then the winds changed and Dias turned east.

But even after days of running before the wind, there was still no sign of land. Finally, Dias turned north again. At the end of January, the lookout saw distant ridges. On 3 February 1488, the ships made land (today called Mossel Bay). Although they did not know it yet, the great wide loop they had sailed had carried them past the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean.

The expedition continued sailing, following the coast for two hundred miles further so Dias could be sure this was not another bay. By mid March, with supplies running out and the coast continuing to run north east, Dias was sure. He had sailed around the tip of Africa and opened up the Indian Ocean to the Portuguese.

Turning back, Dias spotted the Cape of Good Hope on his return journey. The voyage north was aided by the current and the prevailing winds but returning to their supply ship, only three of the nine men left to guard it were still alive. Burning the cog – it was no longer seaworthy – the surviving men transferred to Dias’ ships and set off for home, reaching Portugal in December 1488. Dias’ voyages ranks alongside Columbus’ discovery of America as the most important voyage of the Age of Discovery. The world was opening up and it was the Portuguese who opened it.

The Problem of the Wind

Map of the world’s ocean currents

The problem was the wind. The current was difficult too. The coastal winds of west Africa and the steady northward current running along its shore pushed back against the Portuguese caravels slowly exploring southwards.

For sixty years, the Portuguese, under Prince Henry the Navigator and King John II, had mounted a consistent and continuing effort to find a new route to the east. The only way to do that was to go around Africa. But according to Ptolemy, the foremost geographer of the classical world, the Indian Ocean was landlocked. There was no direct sailing route to it.

However, the Portuguese, perched on the edge of the known world and with the ocean as their western border, did not believe this. Having invented the caravel, a lateen sailed ship of unparalleled manoeuvrability and seaworthiness, they had already discovered the Azores and Madeira, islands unknown to antiquity.

Now, with the encouragement of Henry and John, a succession of Portuguese expeditions made their way south, following the west coast of Africa, and planting stone columns on prominent headlands to mark the southern limit of their sailing. In 1486, Diogo Cão discovered the Congo River. In 1486, he made it as far south as Namibia. But the coast of Africa seemed to stretch on without end and the winds along the coast of Namibia and Angola blew against their further progress. What’s more, the ships had to contend with the north-flowing Benguela current too.

But having reached so far south, King John was determined to find the route to the Indian Ocean he and his geographers were certain existed.

How to Sail Around Africa

The Portuguese caravel ship design that opened up the world’s oceans to long-distance exploration.

Prince Henry the Navigator (1394 – 1460) was the Portuguese prince who first co-ordinated Portuguese efforts to explore down the West coast of Africa. Henry hoped both to find a route to the Indian Ocean and to make contact with Prester John, who was said to rule a great Christian kingdom in the east. The Portuguese had fought a centuries-long struggle to reclaim their land from Muslim invaders. Now Henry aimed to outflank the Muslim world, claim its lucrative Indian Ocean spice trade and make alliance with Prester John.  

To that end, Henry sponsored a succession of voyages down the coast of Africa, each marking a new southerly furthest point before returning with geographical and navigational information for other navigators and for the geographers who were assembling in Lisbon. During the 15th century Lisbon became a nexus for geographical information, where news and discoveries were shared (as well as being jealously guarded from other powers).  By Henry’s death, the Portuguese had explored south as far as present-day Sierra Leone, as well as discovering Madeira and the Azores, previously unknown islands in the great Ocean. The Portuguese were beginning to outstrip Ptolemy in knowledge.

The final steps to opening up the world took place under the rule of John II (1455 – 1495).  For the Portuguese, John would pass into history as the Perfect Prince. Even his rivals acknowledged his natural majesty: Isabella, Queen of Castile and then of the united monarchies of Castile and Aragon, simply referred to John as ‘El Hombre’ (‘The Man’). During his reign, John sponsored the naval expeditions that would, finally, solve the great navigational conundrum that had stopped the Portuguese advancing further south down the coast of Africa.

The problem was the wind. In the Gulf of Guinea, that great bite into the side of Africa, the winds became unreliable and often died away to calm. Exploration by coast hopping became stifled.  To get further south required better, steadier, stronger winds. These winds were available, out in the ocean. So rather than inch down the coast, Portuguese navigators trimmed their sails, set their compasses and, having reached as far south as Guinea, headed out into the open ocean. In caravels measuring between 12 and 18 metres, they sailed for days, sometimes weeks, across empty ocean, first south west, then due south until, reaching the lower latitudes, they steered east again. They were literally sailing into the unknown.

Following this course, Bartolomeu Dias eventually reached and passed the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, opening up the Indian Ocean and definitively proving Ptolemy’s geography wrong. But also, and unknown to these first navigators, the south west course was bringing them towards a continent previously completely unknown in the Old World: the Americas. Christopher Columbus, selling his services to the rival crown in Castile but employing a Portuguese navigator, attempted to use this new navigational technique to find a westward route to the east. But, instead, he found a New World.

The Age of Discovery had well and truly begun.

The Dawn of the Age of Discovery

Ptolemy’s world map: note how the Indian Ocean is shown as landlocked.

In the early 15th century, Portugal was a poor country stuck on the edge of the world, hundreds of miles from anything. The Mediterranean remained what its name proclaimed it to be: the centre of the world. It was via maritime trade routes running across the Mediterranean that the hugely lucrative spice trade with the east ran. The Italian maritime republics, Venice and Genoa, had sewn up the trade in luxury goods from the east, establishing fiercely defended monopolies. All the Portuguese had was the Ocean, the endless World Ocean that, according to the geographer Ptolemy, enclosed all the lands of the world, possibly continuing without end.

What seemed set to lock out the Portuguese from this lucrative trade was the fact that, according to Ptolemy, the Indian Ocean was landlocked. The most eminent authority of antiquity averred that the Portuguese might sail to the ends of the world and still never gain access to the ports trading pepper and gold and silk. They were stuck forever with only Ocean as their western boundary.  

But through a concerted, generation spanning effort that required the whole-hearted support of the Portuguese crown, this small, poor nation – so poor that that at the start of the great enterprise the King of Portugal was too poor to mint gold coins – fundamentally changed the nature of the world, giving birth to the global, interconnected world in which we live today.

To do this, the Portuguese made use of a number of discoveries, some indigenous, others borrowed. Fundamental among these were compasses, imported from China via Arab traders, and the caravel, developed in Portugal, the revolutionary ship design that opened up the Atlantic Ocean to Portuguese explorers by allowing sailors to sail windward by beating (tacking backwards and forwards at an angle to the prevailing oncoming wind). Caravels were fast and manoeuvrable, with the triangular lateen sails allowing it to sail windward while the square-rigged sails gave it speed before the wind.

The Long, Long Journey of Portuguese Explorer Pêro da Covilhã

Pêro da Covilhã’s journeys shown in green, yellow and blue, Vasco da Gama’s in black

King John II of Portugal (1455-1495) was set upon furthering the work of his great-uncle, Henry the Navigator, and to that end sponsored many of the key Portuguese voyages that unlocked the secret of blue-water navigation and allowed a small country on the far west of Europe to found the first global maritime empire. But King John did not just send ships: he sent spies as well.

In particular, he dispatched Pêro da Covilhã, a low-born but multilingual adventurer, with orders to find the origin of spices such as cinammon and to contact the legendary Christian king, Prester John. Covilhã, with letters of exchange to pay his way, made his way to Alexandria, the entry port to the Islamic world and then, passing himself off as a Muslim merchant, he made his way to Cairo and then on to Aden.

From there, he took ship on a dhow across the Indian Ocean, arriving in Calicut, India. Taking notes on the Indian Ocean spice trade, Covilhã then returned to Cairo where he met emissaries sent by John II, giving them his report.

Now apparently bit by wonderlust, Covilhã explored Arabia, even entering Mecca and Medina in disguise as a Muslim pilgrim, before venturing across the Red Sea to Mount Sinai.

Rather than return home, the indefatigable Covilhã headed to Ethiopia, the Christian kingdom in the heart of Africa and the probable source of the legends of Prester John. The ruler, Eskender, received Covilhã well but refused to let him leave, although Eskender allowed Covilhã to write back to his king.

Thirty years later, a Portuguese embassy arrived in Ethiopia and met their countryman, still living in the court of the kings of Ethiopia. Covilhã wept with joy to meet them but the king of Ethiopia, while treating Covilhã well, would not give him leave to depart. Eventually, Covilhã died there, far from home, a traveller to the end.