The Bone Thief: Stealing St Oswald

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[I didn't intend to be gone this long. I hope someone is still out there!]

Its been years since I’ve taken much time to read novels. I’m embarrassed to say how few I’ve read in the last couple years, but the Bone Thief finally was a temptation too great. How could I resist a novel about the theft/transfer of St Oswald’s bones from Bardney to Gloucester?

VM Whitworth‘s The Bone Thief did not disappoint. Readers of this blog will know that Oswald’s relics were enshrined at St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester, so I don’t want to give away anything else. Not surprisingly it follows a quest tale type but it’s not a very typical quest. He doesn’t have to go  very far, but Whitworth finds plenty of obstacles and surprises to keep the tension. She nails the shifting loyalties and tensions of the time perfectly and managed to place Oswald’s relics centrally in West Saxon – Mercian politics  without cheapening their spiritual importance. I loved the way she treated St Oswald throughout the book (and what a nice little surprise at the end!).  I highly recommend the Bone Thief.

For a glimpse into Lady Ætehlfled’s Mercia, here is a previous post on their defense of Chester.

The Makers of Scotland

Tim Clarkson, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012. 224 pg.

In his third book, Tim Clarkson takes on the first thousand years of recorded Scottish history. It’s a huge task, but Tim was more than up to the challenge. I really enjoyed it. I tend to focus so much on my narrow time period that it’s really good to properly put it all in context. For example, I was struck while reading this the parallels between the Anglo-Saxon adventus and the Scandinavian contact and migration to Britain. Both begin as raiders seeking only loot from soft targets (villas vs monasteries), then both are either offered payments or mercenary positions to protect Britain from their fellows, and lastly by military and other permanent migration to the isles.  All food for thought and I do wonder by these parallels aren’t talked about more. By usually constraining most of my reading to the pre-Viking period I can often miss such important contextual associations.

Do the math, to cover a thousand years in 225 pages, you can only expect so much depth. I think Tim covers as much chronological detail as possible in a book this length. He managed to untangle the Scottish and Pictish families and succession clearly and briefly. I wish I could talk him into writing a Men of the North style book on Dál Riata! By choosing not to delve into academic controversies, Tim swept aside discredited theories, replacing them with well received  new paradigms, and sometimes making a choice where the there isn’t consensus. Countless updates and choices brings out the clear and consistent voice of the historian I have gotten to know so well over so many years. Tim doesn’t write much about historical theory but his historical paradigms are deftly woven through The Makers of Scotland, just as with his other books. In some ways his voice has more clarity here because of the expanse of time covered – and that is a good thing!  I highly recommend The Makers of Scotland as an ideal, comfortable read whether you want a contextual refresher  or are coming to Scottish history for the first time.

Tim Clarkson is a generous and accessible author. He can be found at his blog Senchus (highly recommended) and on twitter at @EarlyScotland.

Clarkson’s The Men of the North

Tim Clarkson (of Senchus) has done what it was always said couldn’t be done. With a heavy dose of skepticism and the proper caveats, he has produced an engaging and evidence-based history of the northern Britons. By stripping away most of the legend that has built up around the Men of the North the real northern Britons finally emerge to take their place among the peoples of Scotland.

What emerges from Clarkson’s narrative is a people who are survivors above all else. Survival is more than endurance. It is also accommodation and careful statecraft, acceptance of what is possible, while knowing where to draw the line.  While it would be going too far to say that they were often allies of neighboring kingdoms, they must have occasionally found common cause and do seem to have frequently acknowledged the greater power and influence of a neighboring king. This is  a matter of choice as much as  necessity; there were many periods they could have fought to the bitter end to shake off their yoke. The British remnant left around the River Clyde parlayed their hand for over 500 years.

The Britons remained a military force to be reckoned with until the end. Clarkson’s discussion of the known kings and two famous battles reminds us how very local these conflicts were. Yet, they had the respect of neighboring kings who ruled much larger kingdoms. How did they endure against much larger, resource rich kingdoms?  As Clarkson discusses, the northern Britons have a long tradition dating back to Roman times of a military society. The Britons north of Hadrian’s wall had several centuries of being both clients and foes of the Romans. The experience they gained during the Roman period of warlord statecraft must have served them well heading into the medieval period.

By the late seventh century, the Britons ruling from the Rock of the Clyde (Alt Clut) were the only visible state left. The loss of Gododdin, Rheged and other kingdoms finally allowed the northern Britons to consolidate into a seemingly single kingdom giving them a unity that long alluded Britons elsewhere. Their ability to utilize  warlord statecraft against each other prevented them from forming a unified kingdom early enough to resist Northumbria’s surprisingly slow erosion of their territory.

Once the Britons eventually united into the kingdom of Strathclyde they became a serious force to be reckoned with in the isthmus of Scotland and perhaps the Irish Sea. Toward their later years successful incursions into British lands were only done by allied armies of their neighbors, first Anglo-Pictish in 756 and later the largest targeted attack by the  Dublin Norse on a single site in 870. The kingdom survived these two defeats. How ironic that the last British kingdom of the north dissolved and was permanently annexed into Scotland in 1066 in part because they lost the support of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom.  Unlike when their Roman partners slowly crumbled, the Norman onslaught was relatively rapid and they could not withstand a unified Scotland, if at that point they wanted to. The Strathclyde Britons joined Scotland with their heads held high and with early active participation in the Scottish realm.

Clarkson is to be congratulated for sifting through some difficult and patchy evidence to produce as much of  a narrative as I think is possible. There are very few histories for the early medieval Britons. I’m not sure that I know of any within the last 20 years. With the scarcity and nature of the evidence there can often be multiple  interpretations, but I didn’t find any that stood out to me as not being reasonable. Its not often I can say that when reviewing a book! If you are interested in the Britons, northern or elsewhere, this is a book you should read.