Oswald of Northumbria – an Anglo-Saxon saint-king of the north for our time

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

In Hamlet a gravedigger asks the riddle: ‘What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?’ Answer: ‘A grave-maker: the houses that he makes last till doomsday.’And yet they do not; this character has disturbed the bones of Yorick. ‘Doomsday’ is, of course, the archaic word for ‘judgment day’ and Hamlet is soon asking questions of the dead jester’s skull.

So it is in modern times with those odd folk, archaeologists — always scrabbling around in the dirt, asking questions of the dead with their grubby fingers. Medievalists are lucky that they do, because without their digging and scraping we would have to rely on a finite number of heavily thumbed sources. Archaeology is a great disruptive force, dredging up enigmata, quashing theories, creating fresh uncertainties.

Paul Gething, the co-author of a new book on the Anglo-Saxon north in the early 7th century, is a highly accomplished practitioner of this imaginative science. A former DJ and nightclub doorman who got hooked on archaeology after a chance site tour, he is now the co-director and co-founder of the Bamburgh Research Project in Northumberland.

Bamburgh Castle neighbours Lindisfarne, and in the 6th and 7th centuries was the royal centre of the kingdom of Bernicia, which lay north of the Tyne. Its sister kingdom of Deira lay to the south and, in this period, the two would unite into the realm of Northumbria.

Bamburgh was thus centre stage at one of the great transformative periods in English history, when the petty kingdoms of the post-Roman epoch amalgamated into larger units (Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia), the regional legacies of which live with us still. These were the years in which the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, taking inspiration from both the Irish monks of the west and the Italian missionaries of the deep south. Gething’s new book, written with Edoardo Albert, investigates the story of a man whose body he excavated during a thunderstorm at Bamburgh in 1999, and who lived in the electric early decades of the 7th century.

The grave itself was a relatively simple one, unfurnished save for a seax — a sort of one-sided dagger, sufficiently ubiquitous that it gave the Saxons their name. Yet the body seemed not to have been that of a Saxon but of a well-to-do man who had grown up off the west coast of Scotland, almost certainly Iona.

The accuracy with which this can be mapped is one of the wonders of contemporary archaeology. Isotopic analysis allows a chemical signature to be identified in bones and teeth, which can help identify where a subject came from, based on the ‘you are what you eat’ principle (this man was from that part of the world and had suffered no malnutrition in childhood). Similarly, carbon-14 dating can be used to show, within a range of possibility, when an individual died — in this case around 635. These are wondrous insights, and the authors use them to great effect, though we should have been told more about exactly how these techniques operate and how revolutionary they are.

Exactly what an early 7th-century Ionan was doing over 200 miles from home is the central question of the book. And from the scraps available, Albert and Gething alchemise a highly imaginative — and surprisingly plausible — story of a young man who placed himself in the retinue of a Bernician prince, Oswald, known to have been exiled near Iona while he was growing up. Oswald would become king of Northumbria and overlord of Southumbria, the Picts, the Scots and at least some of the Welsh, and so has some claim to have held a form of dominion over all Britain. A frontier-busting ruler, he spoke both Old English and Gaelic and would, on being killed at 38 by England’s last pagan king, become a miracle-working saint, revered across kingdoms and centuries.

There has been a flowering of interest in old Oswald, with Max Adams’s The King in the North (2014), Albert’s own Oswald: Return of the King (2015) and Steve Ely’s magnificent poetry collection Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013). The saint-king’s attraction is obvious: the spirits of Middle Earth and Winterfell can be invoked to promote him, and he can be used to harken back to a time when Britain’s central locus was the north.

This latest contribution not only adds colour to the lives of those who may have surrounded such a king, but provides a fine insight into the archaeological community that can bring them back to life. Some of the book’s most enjoyable chapters are about the lives of eccentric excavators — such as Augustus Pitt Rivers, Brian Hope Taylor and Lewis Binford — who expanded our ability to understand what lies beneath and pass judgment on the lives of our forefathers.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments