Oswald: Return of the King- Edoardo Albert

Published May 2015 (UK)

Lion Fiction, 448 Pages

25270211

The exiled family of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria arrive,after much hardship, on the island of Iona, where the monastery founded by St Columba has become a centre of worship and learning. Young Oswald becomes firm friends with a novice, Aidan.

When Aidan professes his final vows, Oswald and his little brother Oswy are received into the church. As befits a young prince, Oswald learns to fight. However, Aidan’s example attacts him and he is on the point of deciding to become a monk when news reaches Iona that his half brother, Eanfrith, has been killed by Cadwallon, the king who defeated Edwin.

Oswald sails back to Northumbria and meets Cadwallon in battle, defeating and killing him. Oswald, now undisputed king of Northumbria, gives Aidan the island of Lindisfarne as his base. But Penda, the last great pagan king in England, is raising troops against him …


The sequel to the first book in this trilogy ‘Edwin: High King of Britain’ was for me, long awaited. I remembered a little of Oswald’s story- for which the sources are sparse- but the wait was well worth it. The title is a conscious nod to Tolkien, of which it is, I believe legitimate to draw at least some comparison.
King Oswald of Northumbria, a seventh century Saxon King, was the inspiration for Aragorn- and Middle Earth was what Oswald’s people the Anglo-Saxons, called the earth. For once again Edoardo Albert has taken the material that gives the barest details and created a grand, moving and realistic historical drama recreating the lives of half-forgotten figures who lived in a period that is as much shrouded in myth as it is known from history.

It tells the story of an exiled Prince, who returned to his homeland to reclaim his Kingdom, and, once it was won, to spread the New Faith of Christianity which he had embraced. This led him to establish the great monastery of Lindisfarne, and other foundations that would become famous as centres of Early Medieval English Christianity
As a ruler, Oswald ‘flashed for a few short years’ when much was against him- when fellow Kings said that no throne could survive when there were two brothers to compete for it.
His was a tale of a King who sought to bring hope to his people of brotherly love, loyalty, intrigue and sacrifice – tainted by betrayal, pride and mistrust.
The characters are ‘real people’- flawed and relatable- this heroes genuinely heroic- yet not always having a heroic motivation for their actions.

As with the last book the often beautifully written descriptive passages helped re-create a far distant age and really transport the reader back to the time, to feel as if they are there with the characters as the story unfolds in the King’s hall high on the fortress of Bamburgh , on the battlefield, sailing through the misty fens of East-Anglia.
One problem with some historical fiction novels is the tendency to inject modern values, thoughts and ideas into the heads of historical characters- harder still is the avoid modern idioms and turns of phrase.
In this series- even the way that the characters speak evokes the world of Tolkien, and, for literary buffs- Old English and British poetry.
Some of my favourite passages included:

        “But even the sea, first and masterless, had quietened at the command of her    heart-Lord. If he had chosen Oswald, she would not hold him back for her mother fear.”

         “We are all afraid…Death takes…glory fades, deeds are forgotten. In a generation, who will remember out names? But there is a hope in the new ways: a hope of life, a hope in death, a hope even in defeat”.

         “When I was a boy, all I wanted was to be a warrior, to wield sword and win fame…but now I am glad the story is greater than sword glory”.

My only complaints were that the Oswald’s actual reign seemed to take something of a back foot. He didn’t even develop King until halfway into the novel- and the section devoted to his rule is nearly three quarters of the way through.
Much time is devoted to the preliminaries- mostly the warfare which ravaging the Kingdom of Northumbria, waged by rival Kings who Oswald had to defeat and bring to heel. This much of the first part of the book is the backstory about how he became King, in which relatively minor character from the last book get a lot of attention.

One such characters was Coifi, the former pagan priest who ostensibly converted to Christianity it the last book. The characterization of him here was- dubious to say the least. In the last book, it seemed to be implied that his supposed supernatural ‘powers’ of prophecy were a delusion, and he was something of a powerless charlatan, who lost realized the gods he served held no power. Here, it is implied many times that he really can see into the future- when he goes into trances, his ‘visions’ often prove uncannily accurate.

One minute he claimed the gods abandoned him- but then claims they have given him is abilities back when he gets his visions again. I almost felt the author was trying to cast his as a Gandalf like- character- when such was really not needed and I feel is not appropriate.
It is almost counter-productive to have a figure to whom who believes the gods have given him power- and whose power seems very real- when other characters are shown abandoning the worship of those capricious gods because they believe it can give them no hope.

Also, in a couple of places some details seemed confusing. Perhaps the last section seemed too ‘rushed’. Oswald went from gaining his throne, to everyone calling him High King very quickly, one I sometimes found it hard to recall when the other kings had given him their allegiance. In some places, also, there seemed to be little sense of the passing of time- so until we were told that someone’s child was so old, it was hard to keep track of how much time had passed.

Finally, it may be pertinent to mention that readers seeking a story with a happy ending may be disappointed. This novel is true to the history of the period, which was frequently violent and sometimes tragic.
Yet is it not a story entirely devoid of hope. Those seeking a realistic work of historical and literary fiction, which explores some deeper issues without being preachy or clichéd, and is free of gratuitous sex, excessive, unnecessary violence, or plain silliness which plagues some historical dramas may well find what they are looking for here.

I received an ARC of this book free from the publisher for review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress- Jeanette Lucraft

The History Press, 2011, 252 Pages

6933019

Katherine Swynford — sexual temptress or powerful woman at the centre of the medieval court? This book unravels the many myths and legacies of this fascinating woman, to show her in a whole new life. Katherine was sister-in-law to Geoffrey Chaucer and governess to the daughters of Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt.

She also became John of Gaunt’s mistress — a role that she maintained for 20 years — and had four illegitimate children by him, from one of whom Henry Tudor was descended. In a move surprising in the fourteeth century, John of Gaunt eventually married her, making her Duchess of Lancaster and stepmother to the future king, Henry Bolingbroke. But who was this extremely well-connected woman?

In this fascinating book, Jeannette Lucraft treats Katherine as a missing person and reconstructs her and her times to uncover the mystery of the ‘other woman’ in John of Gaunt’s life.


As I’m studying Women in the Later Middle Ages, I thought this book would come in useful. I had seen some negative reviews of Alison Weir’s book, so (perhaps unfairly) avioded it and opted for this one which has a more academic tone.

I knew of Katherine of course as the long term mistress, and later wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the mother of his Beaufort children, and so ultimately, a progenitor of Henry Tudor. After reading this, I think it could be said I have a newfound- admiration (though perhaps not respect) for Katherine- though her position as is mistress engaged in long-term adulterous relationship cannot be ignored, and can scarcely be admired.
Yet other aspects of Katherine’s life and career are explored, revealing many things about the expectations of the Medieval noblewoman and female courtier, and also as a wife and mother. The details of her background as well as she and her reatives ‘connections’ prove interesting- her sister was married to Geoffrey Chaucher for instance.

The later chapters on Image management and piety and saintly approprations are probably of more specialized interest, but do help to set Katherine in context. It appears that what was controversial was not her having been a mistress (as many noblemen kept mistresses) but that the Duke of Lancaster married her, and officially raised her to the status of Duchess- and that this was accepted by the King and other relatives.

This books does present quite a sympathetic view of Gaunt, as loyal, a generous patron, and the epitome of ‘Good Lordship’ to his retainers, as well as genuinely caring for Katherine and her children. Gaunt has I believe been subject to some bad press for his negative traits. On top of the wave of the recent resurgance of interest in the Yorkists, particualrly Richard III, he is in danger of being cast as ‘the enemy’ as the progentior of the Lancastrian Dynasty.
This would be a savage irony indeed, as the Yorkist Kings were, in fact, also descended from him and Katherine through their Maternal grandmother, Joan Beaufort.

Her brothers also get a mention. The first generation of Beauforts were an interesing lot- one was know for his generosity and pious bequests- but later generations have an unfortunate historical reputation as the ‘baddies’ and enemies of the Yorkists. Perhaps this book can go some way towards challenging that.

A short, but informative book, well worth a read- (even if one questions the reason for the inclusion of the last chapter largely devoted to recounting Saint’s lives, and with whom said said was popular) if you don’t mind the more adademic style. As with any history book, one does not have to agree with everthing the author says, but most points seem to be well argued and evidenced- and the intention revealing the figure of Katherine as she was seen by her contemporaries seems to have been achieved.

Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages- Joseph & Frances Gies

2033009A readable chronicle of medieval life written by the authors of Life in a Medieval Castle & Life in a Medieval City. Historians have awakened to the importance of the family, the basic social unit.

This traces the development of marriage & the family from the Middle Ages to the early modern era, describing how Roman & barbarian cultural streams merged under Church influence to forge new concepts, customs, laws & practices. Century by century it follows the development–sometimes gradual, at other times revolutionary–of significant elements in the history of the family.


Chronicling the subject from the end of the Roman Era to the Black Death, this is amongst the longest of the Gies works. Nevertheless, it is well worth the read, not just for those interested in Social History, but also for the more general reader- such is the appeal of these authors.

The chronological approach makes it relatively easy to find what you might be looking for, and looking at examples from across Europe and the social specturum gives a more well-rounded approach.

There are some- surprising revelations here- in the later half of the fifteenth century for instance, some female agricultural workers in the Midlands of England were paid the same wage as their male counterparts.
This was a condition that would not be achieved again for many ordinary women until well into the Twentieth century.

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones

432 Pages, January 15th 2015, Simon and Schuster

24502121A thrillingly intimate portrait of one of history’s most illustrious knights – William Marshal – that vividly evokes the grandeur and barbarity of the Middle Ages

William Marshal was the true Lancelot of his era – a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry – yet over the centuries, the spectacular story of his achievements passed from memory. Marshal became just one more name in the dusty annals of history. Then, in 1861, a young French scholar named Paul Meyer made a startling discovery during an auction of rare medieval manuscripts. Meyer stumbled upon the sole surviving copy of an unknown text – the first contemporary biography of a medieval knight, later dubbed the History of William Marshal. This richly detailed work helped to resurrect Marshal’s reputation, putting flesh onto the bones of this otherwise obscure figure, yet even today William Marshal remains largely forgotten.

As a five-year-old boy, William was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, yet this landless younger son survived his brush with death, and went on to train as a medieval knight. Against all odds, William Marshal rose through the ranks – serving at the right hand of five English monarchs – to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician and, ultimately, regent of the realm.

Marshal befriended the great figures of his day, from Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine to the infamous King John, and helped to negotiate the terms of Magna Carta – the first ‘bill of rights’. By the age of seventy, the once-forsaken child had been transformed into the most powerful man in England, yet he was forced to fight in the frontline of one final battle, striving to save the kingdom from French invasion in 1217.

In The Greatest Knight, renowned historian Thomas Asbridge draws upon the thirteenth-century biography and an array of other contemporary evidence to present a compelling account of William Marshal’s life and times. Asbridge follows Marshal on his journey from rural England onto the battlefields of France, to the desert castles of the Holy Land and the verdant shores of Ireland, charting the unparalleled rise to prominence of a man bound to a code of honour, yet driven by unquenchable ambition.

This knight’s tale lays bare the brutish realities of medieval warfare and the machinations of royal court, and draws us into the heart of a formative period of our history, when the West emerged from the Dark Ages and stood on the brink of modernity. It is the story of one remarkable man, the birth of the knightly class to which he belonged, and the forging of the English nation.


William Marshall is a popular subject for biography. I know of at least four such titles- mostly with a different focus or perspective.
Richard Brooks ‘The Knight Who Saved England’ (2013), had an emphasis on battles and military history. David Crouch’s ‘Knighhood, War and Chivalry’ is a more academic work.

Thomas Asbridge’s offering is a timely and accesible work, revealing much about Marshall’s ‘life and times’, as well as his famous role in the events surrounding the creation of the Magna Carta, and the aftermath.

I also liked the information about Knighthood and the role of a retainer in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In some ways, there seemed to be more focus on this than William’s later career as a major Magnate, the Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Striguil.
In the course of the narrative, something was revealed of what it meant to try to adhere to the code of Chivalry, which Marshall was hailed as a paragon of, but tends to be disparaged today.

Marshall was perhaps not the most Romantic or Charismatic of heroes- indeed sometimes he comes across as a rather plain and ordinary chap, who life was coloured by his involvement with the major events and figures of the age, and his tendency to ride the tide of politics and intruige, but generally come out on top.
More than once on the wrong side and embroiled in rebellion, sometimes reckless, and not always making good choices, the flawed man comes through- and also the virtues (that he seems to have believed in) such as loyalty to his Lord- even if that Lord’s cause seemed to have been hopeless.

Some have drawn attention to a few translation and technical errors (is it more correct to say hearing mass, or going to mass?), but this was still an informative, useful work and a good read. I want more than evern to read some Transcription of the ‘The Life of William Marshall’ (what a shame the only surviving copy is owned by America).

Some may accuse the author of having fallen into what some regard as the age-old biogaphers trap of growing to love and admire his subject to an undue degree, and so losing objectivity. Yet, perhaps, that admiration is not wholly undeserved.
Marshall may not have been the best warrior, or the most astute politican, but the contemporary adage of ‘The Greatest Knight’ seems well deserved.

King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant by Stephen Church

Pan MacMillan, 12th March 2015, 352 Pages

25127022“No English king has suffered a worse press than King John: but how to disentangle legend and reality?

The youngest of the five sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the empire builders of the Angevin dynasty, John had small hope of securing any significant inheritance. Then, in 1199, on the death of his older brother Richard, John took possession of the vast Angevin lands in England and on the continent. But by his death in 1216, he had lost almost all that he inherited, and had come perilously close to losing his English kingdom, too.

Drawing on thousands of contemporary sources, Stephen Church tells John’s story – from boyhood and the succession crises of his early adulthood, to accession, rebellion and civil war. In doing so, he reveals exactly why John’s reign went so disastrously wrong and how John’s failure led to the great cornerstone of Britain’s constitution: Magna Carta. Vivid and authoritative, this is history at its visceral best.”


This was the first of several titles on my reading list for my studies on early English Feudalism, the government and the Magna Carta. In this regard I found it useful. I understand some reviewers have found it slow or dry, and this may be the case, but perhaps it was intended to be more academic than written for a popular audience. It should be stated early on that this book is not primarily focused on the Magna Carta, but more on the life, political and military career of John as youngest son, heir of Richard and eventually King.

It is about his relations and interactions with family members and the nobility, the circumstances and decisions which shaped his career, and the events that led up to him losing his hold on power, and dying a virtual fugitive in his own kingdom. It is not a wholly negative appraisal, for it emerges that there were times when the King genuinely wanted to do what he thought to be the right thing- to fight to retake Normandy, and his subjects seemed to regard him as a promising ruler at the beginning.

The passage on the death of Prince Arthur also proved enlightening- John almost certainly did kill him, but it appears that by the teens dealings with Phillip of France to cede land or do homage for it, John and his adherents considered him to be giving away the family inheritance, and so guilty of treason. Not that this justifies the action, but it helps the audience to get an impression of what might have happened and why.
It also sheds a useful light on the workings of the political and administrative system of the age- and why it was so difficult for one person to resist the King. To be successful, there had to be a large scale rebellion. Perhaps the book fails to draw any definitive conclusions about John’s character and legacy, but does help to demonstrate maybe not all the misfortune of the early 1200s can be attributed wholly to John’s tyranny. The loss of Normandy proved disastrous for England- an event John attempted to fight against and to resolve, but the raising of revenue by taxation, always unpopular, seems to have been particularly problematic and controversial, leading some of the abuses later mentioned in the Magna Carta.

Overall The Making of a Tyrant was a useful and pertinent title for useful contribution, amongst several, to the scholarship on this period. The bibliography and other such might be of more interest to researchers than general readers, but I would still recommend it to those interested in the style, approach and scope of the work.
I received a free copy of this book directly from the publisher for review. This did not affect my opinions, which were freely expressed and entirely my own.