Matthew Harffy, author of the Bernicia Chronicles, is no stranger to the history of Bamburgh (once Bebbanburg) during the Anglo-Saxon period of English history. He reviews Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething’s latest book, Warrior, for Historia.
The title of Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain by Edoardo Albert with Paul Gething might lead readers to believe that the book is about a specific warrior and his life in Anglo-Saxon Britain. That is partly true. But Warrior is so much more than that.
The warrior in question is a man buried within sight of Bamburgh Castle in the first half of the seventh century. This is the time of King Oswald (later Saint Oswald), the establishment of the first Christian monastery on Lindisfarne and cataclysmic battles for supremacy over the land and the religion of the peoples of the Hen Ogledd, or Old North.
But Warrior does not only seek to shed light on the life of the man buried during the period popularly known as the Dark Ages. The book has three main narratives that are intertwined like the intricate Anglo-Saxon knot work designs on a piece of garnet-encrusted jewellery found in the ship burial of Sutton Hoo.
Albert and Gething cover the archaeology of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), and the history of British archaeology as it pertains to Early Medieval finds. They also delve into the rich and varied history of the kingdoms and peoples of the British Isles in the seventh century. The life of the warrior, who was found as part of the BRP excavations and is the subject of the book’s title, makes up the smallest amount of the book.
Those sections are effective and affecting, and Albert clearly draws on his story-telling experience and the wealth of knowledge he gleaned into the lives of the people of Early Medieval Britain when writing his series, The Northumbrian Thrones, that covers the reigns of Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, who all get a mention in this book.
The glimpses into what the warrior’s life might have been like are engaging and give a real human viewpoint into what might otherwise be difficult to picture when faced with bones and fragments of objects pulled from the earth. By necessity though, these passages rely on supposition and imagination, so they may not fully satisfy readers looking for hard facts.
The rest of the book certainly provides plenty of factual information. The discussion of the geopolitics of the time is detailed and thoughtful, and for those uninitiated in the period’s complexities, there is enough information to give a sense of what was going on in Britain and Ireland during the early part of the seventh century.
In many ways, Warrior is a perfect companion to Max Adams’s more in-depth history of the period, The King in the North, but Albert and Gething’s Warrior is a very different book with an original approach, and the authors do a wonderful job of conjuring up a feel for the time and place.
The most rewarding parts of the book for me are the descriptions of the archaeological digs at Bamburgh and the history of the archaeology and the archaeologists that paved the way for the current crop who are still working at the castle.
The stories of Brian Hope-Taylor’s discoveries at Yeavering and Bamburgh that led to him being the preeminent expert on the period, and then his later withdrawal from the world of archaeology and his refusal to engage with the BRP, is fascinating, and describes with real humanity and an understanding of the pressures of an ageing academic who believes others might be seeking to discredit his work, or to somehow appropriate it for themselves.
In the end, the structure of Warrior, with the three interlocking strands of the story of the warrior, the history of the period, and the archaeology, can be seen as both the book’s weakness, and its strength. Some readers, who might prefer a book to stick to one theme and only to reflect what can be factually backed up by evidence, might find it lacking in focus.
Others, like me, will find Warrior a perfect entry point into the history of the Early Medieval period in the north of Britain.
By covering so much in a relatively short book, using the unusual three-threaded structure, and drawing on Albert’s considerable skill as a story-teller, Albert and Gething have given us a book that is enlightening, accessible, informative and rich in human context and emotion.
Find out more about Warrior.
If this review has whetted your
axe appetite for more about this period and area, here’s some further reading:
A life of war in Anglo-Saxon Britain is Edoardo Albert’s Historia feature about the discovery of the warrior’s skeleton and the story it told.
Edoardo Albert has also collaborated with Paul Gething to co-write Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom. Edoardo is known for his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy of novels about the Anglo-Saxon kings Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.
Matthew tells Historia about the unexpected similarities between the siege of Bebbanburg, as told in Fortress of Fury, and his life in 2020 – whether it’s coping with lockdown or making a television trailer.
And Matthew’s newest book, A Time for Swords, the first in a series, is out as an ebook on December 10, 2020.
Shoulder clasp (closed) from the Sutton Hoo ship burial (British Museum): via Wikimedia
St Oswald, illustration from the Epitome of Chronicles by Matthew Paris, first half of 13th century (British Library): via Wikimedia
Skeleton uncovered during the excavations: Paul Gething