The Return of the wrongly-named kings

Oswald as Hamlet & Oswiu as Aragorn






Recently, the Daily Mail has discovered the brilliant book of Max Adams about the Kings of Northumbria. Regarding this comprehensive and extensive research, I cannot but approve the publication of this article. Though I feel the journalist could have published it much earlier!


Regardless of the newspaper,  this work is of the highest quality. Albeit there is a but as ….


More recently, New Zealand has once again proven it is the country favoured by kiwis and hobbits. Said furry-footed creature  is gracing our screens with Elves and Dwarves though how can Mr Peter Jackson manage to film a book of less than 250pages in more than 6 hours, is a mystery which baffles me (and I am not alone in this amazement). Tolkien, its writer was an academic on Anglo-Saxon lore and used his historical knowledge to give us Aragon as the Returning King.


So far so good are you thinking. The journalist punctuates his article by quoting Beowulf; thus what’s wrong? Precisely, what feels wrong? Max Adams has written a good book, Tolkien is nonpareil. Beowulf is certainly a rare and valuable authentic glimpse on Anglo-Saxon England while the Lord of the Ring Trilogy is a deserved international success suddenly all freezes.


It is wrong because the journalist misses the point because of his sloppy work. Up to the point I wonder if he has actually read the book! Not to mention if he has ever opened a school history book.


True Oswald of Northumbria was born around 604 AD to die in 642 at Maserfelt battle. Killed by the shining star of Pagan Englaland : Penda of Mercia. (no typo error here, Englaland was the original name for England and can be found in the French ANGLETERRE : The Land of the Angles).


Oswald: only 38 years:  a man with a short but intense life. A life which deserves better than sloppy fast journalism. And a life where truths however unpleasant must be told.






Before becoming a man and in Oswald case a warlord later to be king, one is first a child, a son. Born to a father Aethelfrith of Bernicia and a mother Acha of Deira. For us : Northumberland and Yorkshire respectively.


In the best case scenario, it is Aethelfrith’s father who kills Acha’s father the current Lord of Yorkshire. I write Lord as lordship and kingship in the Early days of Anglo-Saxon England are foggy. Let’s not forget we have no written evidence from 604. What we have is once again my pal Bede writing 125years later.


Whether Bernicia invades successfully Deira via Oswald grandfathers or not, we can only hope Acha was more than just a war prize and possibly a willing bedfellow.  I write bedfellow and not bride as it seems that Aethelfrith had more than one wife/concubine?.


Among the wives of his father or himself, there is a Bebba. “Eadfered Flesaurs [Aethelfrith the Flexer] reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguoaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg.”




Was Bebba a pure-bred Angle or did she carry some interesting alliance with the native Romano-Britons, I do not know. What I know is that aside Bebba and Acha, Oswald father may have got frisky with a (Pictish?) lady as he fathered Eanfrith before Oswald. In fact Oswald father fathered a lot of sons if the genealogy is not fantasist :




Eanfrith of Bernicia
Oswald of Northumbria
Oswiu of Northumbria
Oswudu of Northumbria
Oslac of Northumbria
Oslaf of Northumbria
Offa of Northumbria
Æbba of Northumbria




Of Oswudu to Offa we know about nothing else; of Aebba, we have her as the ‘uterine sister’ to Oswiu the younger (youngest?) brother.  By which may mean Aebba is Oswiu half-sister as his mother remarries after her widowhood or they are twins.




8 years are separating Oswald from Oswiu. What is the life of young Saxon princelings? As boys Oswald must have started warrior training, the siblings have survived the many perils of childhood  diseases our times have forgotten (Clue Measles were deadly, same goes for Scarlet fever, Rheumatic fever left cardiac scars etc). Oswald is now 12; he is probably looking for the big event of his young life: the Saxon equivalent to the Roman Barbatoria: the passing of age when a young man has his first shave and really enters full warrior training: in short entering the teen age years with more life-threatening consequences. Some historians a lot more serious than me like Michelle Ziegler have postulated Oswiu may not have share the same mother as Oswald as explaining why tough born of Acha as we suppose him to be the Deirans would take ages to recognize him as their king.






The problem is not here or there: Oswald is planning his big day while little Oswiu follows him like a Tantony pig as he is only 4 hen tragedy strikes. Their father is killed by Aedwin of Deira: their uncle. Their exiled uncle. Acha’s brother. Remember: I wrote about him in previous posts.


All the family runs in a debacle to the safe haven of Scotland: suggesting the Northern kingdom of Bernicia had close familial bonds with the realm of the Picts/Scots.




Uncle, Mr Journalist and this should remind you of … not Tolkien but Shakespeare and Hamlet. A young prince deprived of his crown by a cruel uncle. The fact is that the cruel uncle was pursued for years end by the vigilant hatred of Aethelfrith down to East Anglia intimating Raedwald of the East Angles (yes, the Sutton Hoo guy) either to kill him to save time or to surrender him to Bernicia. As you may not know Raedwald had a wife –  name unknown- who remonstrated her husband and decided him to stand by the exiled Deiran. A battle later, Raedwald had proven himself as the worthy heir of the late Bretwalda Aethelbehrt of Kent who had died earlier in the year and Aedwin was now king of Bernicia.




Acha could have returned to her native land but she did not. She stayed by her sons and daughter. Considering the usages practiced by the time, young nephews standing in the way to the throne did not live long and I speak of Frankish and Visigoth and Langobard Christian kings ! Acha remained in Scotland and her sons thrived. Edwin was not a distant cousin; he was Oswald uncle.




Time flies. Edwin succeeds peacefully to Raedwald as Bretwalda, he is now Christian married to Aethelbehrt of Kent daughter (yes, just like nowadays kings practicing endogamy among their social circle I.e. kings can but marry princesses) . And guess what he has a few sons and … a daughter.






Another battle: gone are Edwin and sons.  By the way, Daily Mail,  IT WAS NOT A Welsh King: it was a coalition against Edwin and it had in its rank the rising star of Mercia: Penda in its rank.




Eanfrith as the eldest son succeeds his father but cannot rule Deira handed to a nephew of the slain king. A year later, both have been killed by this time Caedwallon of Gwynedd ( the native Welsh by which you translate the real Romano-Briton of the time).




Where does Oswald mirror Beowulf’s life? Dunno. Beowulf has a pretty good relationship with his family. Unlike Oswald. As for Heorot, Gefrin as nowadays Yeavering offers clues (dismal when you visit the site) about how a hall would have looked. If you want to see and guess history Yeavering is for you, if you want more than gazing at a herd of goats go else where.


Once again, time flies and another battle later. Oswald who has married, who has become Bretwalda has suffered the very same fate his father, his maternal grandfather and uncle have suffered plus a retinue of brothers and cousins. Once again the 2 kingdoms are sliced apart and Bernicia longs after Deira.




Oswiu his brother is not  a romantic figure. What can you do when your evil uncle is made a saint like Edwin and your big brother is also a saint? Nothing, all you can do is endure and build back from scratch. Instead of uniting the 2 realms through battles and wars, lil’bro decides to win by love.




Why does he think that courting his orphaned cousin via the ministrations of a priest? Your guess is as good as mine. Still it works. The maid is now queen of Deira while her and his cousin, Edwin grand/great-nephew rules over Deira. Some patience, something? Survival of the fittest? Oswiu gets the cousin assassinated. As by the time, Penda is more or less the Bretwalda and he has just defeated Oswiu, one expects Penda to get very angry. But he does not. And the death does not suggest war but a personal element. It shrieks it is not about the throne. None the less the new king is now Aethelwald (Oswald son). Well the one he had from his last Queen. Aethelwald betrays Uncle Oswiu at the Winwaed battle 4 years later and good bye , Oswaldson. At long last Oswiu has re-united and for long (for very long as Deira will never rise again) Bernicia and Deira into Northumbria.






Oswiu succeeds in 642, dies in 670. Fights many, many battles. Some lose, some wins. The ones where he must win to survive, he wins. He does in his sleep, peacefully: rare feat in the Dark Ages. He resolves complicated Christian conflicts within the Church (because just like nowadays and Luther and the Cathares etc, the Christian church supposedly devoted to one unique God has spent its time into divided chapels fighting as what is the best worship. No further comment). He also starts to have a more civilized, a more rational state. Oswald for all his sainthood may have dreamed the dream; it is Oswiu who builds it.




Aragorn may be a lot of things, a dreamer he aint.




In short,  Beowulf has in my opinion a lot in common with the complicated history of Northumbria and its opposing ruling clans: Edwin and Aethelfrith and their sons. Shakespeare describes very well Oswald/Oswiu in the Prince of Denmark with a conflicted mother: what to do about my husband/brother who has also killed my husband but my husband killed our father….




The good point is that just like at the end of The Lord of the Rings  when Aragorn was crowned King Elessar Telcontar of Gondor while marrying Elrond‘s daughter Arwen, and assumed the Sceptre of Annúminas as King of Arnor, uniting the two kingdoms for the first time since the reign of Isildur. Oswiu marries Eanflaed, daughter of Edwin, uniting peacefully the two kingdoms of BERNICIA and DEIRA for the first time ever (peacefully I repeat).




Oswiu is the real Aragorn (Did I mention I have a soft spot for him?)




Thou shalt not steal … my hound and my hawk

In the early middle ages, to steal one’s hunting dog or one’s bird of prey cost you dearly and I do not speak only of the 15 gold solidii you paid as a fine.But of the public humiliation to have to kiss said dog’s … behind.

These were the days where hunting was a serious business!

1 solidus : 4,5grams of gold; 15 solidii : 67, 5 grams.

A fine verging $600.00 and a dog’s bottom kiss…

From The Private Life from Late Antiquity to Byzantium. Georges Duby and Philippe Aries Editors.


To Shave or not to shave.

There is a before and an after when a man can trace the moment he started needing a shave. Our ancestors went through the same change. Romans called it the BARBATORIA. The first shave.

Generally around age 12, the very young men were going through some sort of ceremony. Some offered the first cut to the Gods… then the Barbarians came… and carried on until Charlemagne.

As early as in Tacitus, a rite of passage was described with the chieftain/father/foster father: a shield and sword was handed to the young man. Did boys grow a moustache at 12? Was it a gentle rubbing of the cheek or a full trimming? Let us not forget that shaving in 500 AD was not exactly the safe exercise our days know with the electric shaver.

Greeks, Romans and Germanic tribes were all for a clean shaved teenager. We know that tombs of known Saints could be the objects of the gift of said hair! Franks, Visigoths, Byzantines pronounced prayers at this special time of the life of a man. (Bearing in mind, we are probably describing the barbatoria of a young aristocrat/prince). Foster fathers held such ceremonies.

Charlemagne father Pippin was given a luxurious ceremony. Pippin grand sons would not enjoy such treats: but would go through the original Germanic rite: the sword gift.

A much bigger razor.Image

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