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Book review: The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, By Max Adams

Forget Middle-Earth fantasy: this early English ruler had a life, and a legacy, that rivals any fable

Oswald Iding was a Northumbrian warrior, the first English king to die a Christian martyr, and a saint whose cult spread across Europe. He was also allegedly the model for Aragorn – JRR Tolkien's king returned from exile. According to Max Adams in this richly arresting account, Oswald was "almost the first Englishman".

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Oswald began his reign by slaying the vicious Cadwallon, king of the Britons. He ruled Northumbria between 634 and 642AD, his power stretching from Wessex to the Picts in the north. His time in power was pious, but brief and confused, and after eight years Oswald fell in battle to Penda of Mercia, supposedly dying with a prayer on his lips.

But this was not so much the end of Oswald's life as the beginning of his afterlife. Penda dismembered and displayed Oswald's corpse, with the result that various body parts – notably his head and arms – became objects of veneration, travelling hither and thither as holy relics.

Nearly all we know of Oswald was recorded by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. Bede had his own agenda and stressed Oswald's qualities as a warrior saint, his virtue symbolised by his gift of the holy island of Lindisfarne to the Ionan monk, Aidan.

Bede's portrait of Oswald is an amalgam of bloodthirsty regional politics, Anglo-Saxon attitudes, and devout morals. Kingship and Christianity, God and nation were inextricably knotted: the alliance of sacred and secular was at the heart of Bede's writings, and drives his depiction of Oswald. Adams, however, manages to flesh out this mix of worldly realpolitik and posthumous miracles with evidence gleaned from archaeology and cultural geography, as well as the fleeting testimony offered by literary sources such as Beowulf.

The result is a dense realisation of seventh-century Northumbria. Although Oswald remains elusive, actual relics survived into the Middle Ages and beyond. His right arm, which gave him the name Lamnguin ("Whiteblade" or "Blessed Arm"), possibly through being withered, was preserved for centuries before being stolen and handed over to Peterborough Cathedral, where it was lost during the Reformation. His cloven skull is preserved in Durham Cathedral and was last disinterred in 1899.

Adams, while pointing out that no less than five heads were at one point revered as relics, supplements the history of these gruesome talismans with a forensic explanation for the incorruptibility of the bodies of saints. He explains why the hallowed ground of martyrdom is usually distinguished by verdant grass – due to the manuring of the soil with potassium-rich blood.

Adams's aim is to ensure that St Oswald rests securely on the verifiable side of history, rather than lying in the realm of fable. Yet he clearly admires Oswald, arguing that his influence was far-reaching. His ecclesiastical endowments changed the balance between church and state, and began – if inadvertently – the de-militarisation of Northumbria and England, which in turn encouraged Viking raids.

While this policy brought about the collapse of monastic culture, it also established a patronage system that blossomed centuries later in the British Empire. As for the suggestion that Oswald was the model for Aragorn – while Tolkien does refer to Oswald in his famous essay on Beowulf, any connection with Middle-Earth is fantasy.

Nick Groom is Professor in English, University of Exeter