One of the most intriguing periods of history to me is that of Dark Age Europe, that is Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The term dark age is mainly meant to refer to lack of sources for that time and not to suggest that it was a terrible point of history. Though it was a far cry from the peace and prosperity of Pax Romana in its heyday in many respects it was no worse than the later stages of the Western empire (roughly from the time of Commodus on) when the empire was wracked with internal strife, famine, external invasions and just declining fortunes generally.
One of the more interesting pieces of dark age history for me is that of the state of Britain and Max Adams’ The King in the North is a recent look at the fate of Britain and in particular the now defunct Kingdom of Northumbria. Adams’ book was sold to me as a biography of St. Oswald who was king of Northumbria for only about 8 years in the mid-7thcentury. The title – which was clearly taken from the incredibly popular Game of Thrones TV and book series – seems to suggest that. However, this book is more accurately a description of Northumbria from the arrival of the Angles in the 6th century to the coming of the Vikings some 200 years later.
Oswald was the son of king Aethelfrith who united the warring Anglian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira into one united kingdom: Northumbria. Aethelfrith was essentially overlord of the entirety of Great Britain, able to raid deep into Wales and even attack Mann and Ireland. His dominance could not last forever and eventually he was defeated by Raedwald, king of East Anglia in 616 AD. Raedwald was harbouring Aethelfrith’s enemy Edwin, the son of the king of Deira who Aethelfrith had killed. Edwin then became king of Northumbria and Aethelfrith’s sons went into exile in the Irish kingdom of Dal Riata which was a thalassocracy that included territory in both Ireland and Scotland. In the meantime, Edwin converted to Christianity and extended his domains into Wales and southumbria. He failed, however, to destroy the Welsh king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon who joined forces with the pagan Penda, king of Mercia, to defeat and kill Edwin in 632 AD.
Cadwallon runs roughshod over Northumbria (which quickly falls apart) for only a short time, however, as it is with the death of Edwin that Oswald and his siblings return. They lead an army against Cadwallon and catching him by surprise defeat Cadwallon in 634 AD. Oswald then rules for the next 8 years attempting to outmaneuver Penda politically, but failing in that goes to war with him. Penda proves victorious and Oswald is martyred. The book finishes up by discussing Penda’s own defeat at that hand of Oswald’s brother Oswiu, his subsequent rule and the kingship of his successors.
Throughout his book Adams discusses the geography of Northumbria, archaeological findings and the crucial role of Christianity in the life and governance of British Isles. Indeed, one learns more about Christianity and its role in dark age society than they do of Oswald. One learns more about Northumbria and its environs than they do of Oswald. In this sense the title is misleading. I’m sure it is a useful tool to get readers (irl clickbait I suppose) but perhaps Adams would be better off having used a different name; one that suggests this is about 7th century Northumbria first and Oswald second. Then again perhaps not. As we learn there is little real information on Oswald and so any biography of him must also be of the world in which he lived in and his ancestors, descendants, rivals and allies.
A major strong point of Adams’ work is that he makes his views clear. He does not shy away from stating what he thinks happened. In many books written on ancient and early medieval history the writer simply gives a general narrative of what occurred. There are no attempts to offer any insight into what certain things mean or why the author believes A happened instead of B or C. This is understandable when it comes to ancient and early medieval history given how scant sources can be but one certainly prefers it when the author is willing to risk giving statements as to how they believe events truly transpired.
A great example of Adams’ making his opinions clear is in Appendix A of The King in the North. He states that in his opinion Aethelfrith’s father Aethelric was king of Deira only after having been driven out of Bernicia by a confederacy of Brythonic forces. After this confederacy falls into petty infighting he is able to raise a force take the kingdom of Rheged and from there take Deira. Upon Aethlric’s death his son moves into Bernicia and forges Northumbria. Adams bases his views on new readings of the few sources available to us. In this same appendix he states he believes the strong relations between Aethelfrith and the Picts was in order to destroy Gododdin, the Brythonic kingdom that lay between Pictland and Northumbria. This makes sense given age-old antagonisms between Briton and Pict and Aethelfrith’s later conquering of much of what is now northern England.
Another example of Adams clearly stating his views relates to the final bout between Penda and Oswald. There is some debate about the exact location of Maserfelth (the battlefield where Oswald died) but Adams states he believes it was near Oswestry. According to Adams, Oswald was there because he was fighting for control of salt deposits and to support his ally, Penda’s brother Eowa. Maserfelth is based on a British name so makes sense it would be on or near British territory (p. 233). Prior to the fateful battle of Maserfelth, Oswald had also forged an alliance with Wessex (the kingdom that would eventually unite all of England) and became godfather of the king of Wessex after he converted to Christianity. Adams’ states how this was part of an attempt on Oswald’s to isolate the pagan Penda (p. 187).
And speaking of warfare, Adams finds time to discuss the differing warring styles of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples. Given that Oswald spent much of his life in the court of his grand-father the king of the Irish kingdom of Dal Riata, Adams posits that Oswald most certainly would have fought in the royal retinue. The Irish art of war was similar to that of the Picts and Britons: light infantry and cavalry using hit-and-run tactics. Oswald earned the nickname Whiteblade during his time in Dal Riata and it is most likely military in nature and so would have been picked up whilst fighting for his Irish kin (p. 67). Adams also notes that the Britons had in the years subsequent to the leaving of the Romans become so placated and pacific that they required Germanic foreigners to fight for them. These foreigners quickly disposed of or assimilated the British elites and were thus able to impose their culture upon the commoners. Thus the Anglicization of Britain began. As that old and perhaps overused saying goes: those who do not know history are bound to repeat it; let us hope contemporary Westerners take heed of what happened to the Brythonic tribes after they gave up on their ancient warrior spirit.
As stated earlier Oswald had an Irish grandfather. This was because his mother was the daughter of the king of Dal Riata. Despite the fact her husband (and Oswald’s father) had been an enemy of Dal Riata because they were kin the Dal Riatan king gave refuge to his daughter and her children. Though as Adams notes the Dal Riatans expected that if they helped Oswald become king of Northumbria he would be a good ally if not vassal to Dal Riata (p. 65). Dal Riata surely could have used such a boost as its power was waning during this time. Adams notes the loss of Dal Riatan power thanks to the actions of Hoan of Strathclyde (p. 194). The loss of its power must have been a blow to his imperium, especially if the Northumbrians had to see off northern invaders as Adams believes. Hoan’s victory was in 638 AD and the year prior the Dal Riatans lost a major battle in Ulster. Within two years Dal Riata had lost great power status and interestingly enough Domnall Brec died the same year as Oswald and he too fell in battle.
Throughout this book we are met with examples of intermarriage between the royal houses of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. One gets the impression that there wasn’t so great a segregation between Celts and Anglo-Saxons as older texts are likely to assume. Though he is only brought up briefly I feel at this point it is worth mentioning that one of the king’s of Wessex was named Caedwalla; this is an Anglicanization of Cadwallon which makes one think he had British ancestry or perhaps he was named after the Gwynedd king? Caedwalla’s ancestor, the first king of Wessex had a British name (Cerdic) as did several other Wessex kings like Ceawlin and Cedda. Penda and his father Pybba also had British names and so too were Bernicia and Deira. Perhaps in parts of England local elites managed to survive and adopted Germanic language just as in other regions Germans replaced elites completely and in other regions the local elites resisted Germanics completely. Interestingly a king of the British kingdom of Glywysin was St. Tewdrig who may have been an Anglo-Saxon who converted to Christianity and adopted the Brythonic language (his name is believed to be a Brythonic version of the Germanic Theodoric). Adams suggests that British speakers may have been in the majority in Northumbria at least into Oswald’s reign (p. 178); perhaps they remained so even later.
Another area of intercourse between Celts and Anglo-Saxons beyond elite mingling was religion. Until the 7th century the majority of Anglo-Saxons were pagan but Christianity did make headway during the this time. It wasn’t long until it was firmly entrenched in English society. Adams notes how from Kent came the Roman rite, which Edwin converted to, but from Ireland came Ionan Christianity. I have taken to calling it Ionan Christianity due to importance of the Island of Iona as a holy site where many important saints were trained and also because Adams makes clear there was no Celtic Christianity as earlier writers have stated. The Britons followed their own form of Christianity which though similar to the Ionan variant in many ways was also quite unique. Sadly, we do not know too much about the various differences between Ionan and British Christianity let alone these two and mainstream Roman. It would seem that the wearing of the tonsure and the calculation of feast days were the biggest differences. However, Adams brings up the work of Richard Abels who found that Easter was celebrated on the same day by the Irish and Romans 19 times. This means differences between the churches were not as extreme as Bede and others would have us believe (p. 310).
In Northumbria the British Christian church eventually was replaced by the Ionan as the British inhabitants (and the pagans) converted to Ionan Christianity as opposed to the Roman variant of king Edwin. Oswald was, like his subjects, a follower of the Ionan variant which makes sense given he had grown up in the Ionan kingdom of Dal Riata. The mainstream Roman form only became the official form of Christianity after the synod of Whitby in 664 AD. This came about as a way for Oswiu’s son Alhfrith to flex his political muscles (p. 315). Alhfrith supported the Roman party while his father supported the Irish. In the end Oswiu switched sides and gained the upper hand over his son. Siding with Rome also allowed Oswiu to have a say over who would be named archbishop of Canterbury and thus gain power in southumbria. The Roman church was also more structured which made it easier to control (p. 322). Well at least at that time.
Oswald’s Ionan allegiance is interesting given how he was mythologized as the perfect ruler by St. Bede the Venerable. Bede felt that the forms of Christianity practiced by the Celts were false. As I previously mentioned he gave the impression that Easter was never celebrated at the same time, but Abels work disproves this. Bede’s distaste for the Celtic forms of Christianity was likely because he not only grew up as a Roman but he was an English nationalist first and foremost. The Roman form was the first to truly breakthrough among the English after king Aethelbert of Kent converted in 597 AD. Yes Ionan Christianity would also be taken up by the English but not for long. Bede completely ignores British Christians within English lands who kept the faith alive and probable British Christian origins of some of the great saints of the era like his hero Cuthbert (p. 279) and he spoke favourably of Aethelfrith’s slaughtering of British monks at the Battle of Chester. Much of Bede’s writing was based on the work of the Brythonic St. Gildas who believed that the coming of the Anglo-Saxons was divine punishment. No doubt this view also greatly influenced Bede’s outlook.
In many ways Oswald was an ordinary king. Oswald only ruled 8 years. His rivals and successors ruled for much longer: Edwin ruled for 17 years, Cadwallon for 10, Penda for 29, Oswiu for 28 and Aldfrith for 20. Granted those last three are relatively well remembered and Edwin was sainted but none of them have been remembered like Oswald was. Much of Oswald’s rule was simply based on what Edwin had started and as stated earlier his brother Oswiu was the one who made Northumbrian Roman. What Oswald did do of importance, however, was that he began a patronage system which would last unchanged until Alfred the Great whose changes in turn would last until the reformation. As Adams notes, the patronage system is not dead it has simply changed. Oswald also began the system of monastic donation in England which remained modest under his rule and that of Oswiu, Ecgfrith and Aldfrith but spiraled out of control there after. People became soft and complacent and joined church so as to avoid military service (in past decades’ churchmen had also been soldiers) and also to avoid paying taxes. They lived unchaste lives in these dime a dozen faux monasteries that successive kings had allowed to pop up as they brought in “capital investment” and economic stability to lands they controlled (p. 380).
What is so remarkable about king Oswald is the popular cult that existed from his death into the 17th century. Oswald’s cult would become so popular that it later spread to the German speaking world (however, it remained most popular in England). Moreover, his sainthood was promoted by the people and not the clergy – at least initially – and he was viewed as a saint by Britons and Anglo-Saxons, Christians and pagans (p. 253). For Bede Oswald was an important figure as he could be used as a way of shaming the kings of his time into ruling better. Bede was able to take an already holy figure and mold him into something for his own purposes. Oswald was seen as the quintessential English hero; generous, a good warrior who fought against all odds, and of course a devout Christian (p. 372). Oswald’s death was just as important as his life because it was viewed as a necessary sacrifice for the creation of a strong, Christian monarchy (p. 290).
On a side note there were two points of interest not directly related to the topic at hand which I’d like to relate here. On page 357 Adams notes that in the Cheviot hills there had been sky burials by pagans. The Zoroastrians did the same thing; perhaps this was part of a greater Aryan heritage?
Secondly, this quote was framed, I feel in an interesting way,
Now the date of the [Augustinian] mission is one of the half-dozen or so dates in English history that every school child used to know: 597. (p. 400).
The context of Adams using this quote is to show the inconsistencies in dating the reigns of the Northumbrian kings, but he needn’t have said it in such a manner. He could easily have said the date of the mission was 597 AD or something to that effect. Instead he chose to mention how this used to be a date of importance to the average Englishman. Thanks to cultural Marxism and the general feelings of guilt and self-hatred that Europeans are now forced to express, education has truly gone down the tubes. In England as in the rest of Europe and in Australia and the Americas, children and young people are brought up not truly knowing their own history or any sense of pride in their ethnie and its past. We could do with a lot more teaching on events like the Augustinian mission and on men like St. Oswald than on “gender fluidity” or “post-colonial theory.”