It is rare to discover a novelist of historical fiction who is both relatively unknown and a master of the craft. Edoardo Albert is one such writer. In his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, the Catholic author tackles a historical period in British history that has largely vanished from the English imagination, but richly deserves the treatment Albert gives it. His books about the Northumbrian kings are not only packed with vivid historical detail; his descriptions of battles and bards and cavernous halls and great warriors can at times be accurately described as Tolkienesque.
We know little of the Northumbrian kings. What we do know comes mostly from archaeological research and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written about 731. The Anglo-Saxon King Edwin was the first Christian ruler of Northumbria, ruling from 616 to 633. Originally a pagan, Edwin converted after his marriage to the Christian princess Aethelburh of Kent, who took the Roman missionary Paulinus with her to Northumbria to establish a church. Many of Edwin’s subjects converted to Christianity in 627, although there were reversions after Edwin was killed by King Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Penda of Mercia. To the transactional Anglo-Saxons, Edwin’s new God had not done him much good in battle.
In the ensuing power struggle, Edwin’s nephew Oswald returned from exile in Iona to claim the throne. Oswald’s father Aethelfrith, ruler of Bernicia and Deira, had been killed in battle around 616. Oswald and his brother Oswiu fled to the Hebrides, where they became Christians. Upon his return, Oswald defeated and killed Cadwallon in Northumberland, took the throne, and called for a bishop. St. Aidan and a band of Irish monks arrived from Iona, founded the monastery at Lindisfarne, and began a new work of evangelization, since Paulinus had fled with the queen after Edwin’s death and for some years the church was suppressed. When he died in battle against the pagan King Penda in 642, Oswald was canonized a Christian martyr.
Oswald’s brother Oswiu took control of Bernicia after his brother’s death but was subject to Penda for 13 years. At last, Oswiu’s forces killed the Mercian king in the Battle of Winwaed (in what is now West Yorkshire) and Oswiu reunited Northumbria once again under Christian rule.
Oswiu’s Christianity was of the Celtic tradition, and in 663 and 664 the king hosted a meeting known as the Synod of Whitby, where he helped blend the methods of worship of the Roman Catholic Church (in which his wife Eanfled had been raised) and the Celtic churches. Among the decisions made at the Synod (with Oswiu’s direct involvement) was to begin calculating Easter according to the Roman tradition rather than the Ionan calculation. Oswiu died on February 15, 670—of illness, not by the sword.
From these skeletal biographies Edoardo Albert has done a magnificent job of giving us men of flesh, blood, and bone. The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy—Edwin: High King of Britain; Oswald: The Return of the King; and Oswiu: King of Kings—is a historical and literary achievement. Conn Iggulden, himself a reigning king of historical fiction, called the trilogy “brilliant.” While Iggulden’s novels on the Wars of Roses and others stand out in the genre, his book on St. Dunstan (909-988) falls into the postmodern trap of portraying the devout Archbishop of Canterbury as a cynic, ecclesiastical huckster, and schemer. As we move further into the post-Christian age, it has become increasingly difficult for writers to truly immerse themselves in past worlds, where men and women lived lives in which the metaphysical was as real to them as the physical. (Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall does the same damage to the character of Thomas Cromwell, casting him as an ambivalent pragmatist rather than a man of devout convictions.)
Albert does not make that mistake. His portrayal of the Christianity of the period is convincing and clearly written by someone who understands it. Even the brigands and the butchers believed in God or the pagan gods in those days; to believe in nothing, as so many writers do today, was simply unfathomable.
How did you choose this era? It is such a neglected period, making your books a particularly valuable contribution.
There’s a little bit of a clue in my name that I’m not the most obvious person to be writing about 7th century Britain but it’s even more unlikely than it looks. My mother is Italian—hence Edoardo—but my father is actually Sri Lankan, and unusually half Sinhala and half Tamil. The very English surname is a relic of British colonial rule: at some point somebody on my grandfather’s line took an English name. Unfortunately, we know very little about our family history in Sri Lanka as my grandparents were disowned by their own parents—as much because of caste differences as religious ones, my Sinhalese grandmother being high caste—and my father had almost no contact with his own grandparents. My father and mother both arrived in London in the early 1960s, met, and married, meaning that my mother, who came to England to learn English, stayed rather longer than she had intended.
I grew up the son of immigrants, both Catholic, in London and went to Catholic schools, which meant that all my school friends were themselves the sons of immigrants, mainly Irish and Italian with a smattering of Poles, the children of Poles exiled after the end of World War II. The outcome was that it was only when I went to university in my early 20s that I actually met, and became friends with, any actual English people.
The United Kingdom is a union of four different countries—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and that gives the children of immigrants have a potential identity. I could not think myself English, as to be truly English I would have to have deep family roots. But I could, I realised, consider myself British, for that identity basically includes all people of good will who live here as well as being a holdover from the days of the Empire into which my father was born (Ceylon, as it was, only became independent in 1948). Then, when I married a wonderful woman who is thoroughly English, I found myself welcomed even more into the heart of this country. But what was this country and how did I fit into it?
Now, as a Londoner, I had, with all the cosmopolitan blindness that comes from living one’s life in a global city, never given thought much to the north, dismissing it with all the blithe insouciance of the capital. However, my wife’s sister was an archaeologist, married to another archaeologist, and they had established a long-running dig way up in the north of England in some place called Bamburgh. I had never heard of it. But Paul and Rosie kept on inviting us to go up and visit and, in the end, I ran out of excuses and in 2002 we drove up from London for a week’s holiday.
I still remember the quite literally jaw-dropping impact of turning up the coast road from Seahouses and seeing Bamburgh Castle ahead of us, squatting atop its outcrop of the Great Whin Sill, commanding land and sea and sky. It’s an extraordinary castle in an extraordinary location and, arriving there, climbing up to the castle to meet Paul and Rosie and the team from the Bamburgh Research Project, I wanted to know everything about the place and the work they were doing. So began a week of discovery—the first of many. Standing on the ramparts of Bamburgh Castle, I could see, a few miles to the north, Lindisfarne, the Holy Island that breathes connection and separation from the land twice daily as the tides sweep in and out. Two miles out to sea were the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert had made his hermitage. And in the stronghold of Bamburgh itself, the archaeologists were making some extraordinary discoveries: people had been here for millennia, using the natural outpost of the rock as a citadel and a watchtower before it became the capital of a kingdom.
Paul began telling me something of the history of Northumbria, the early medieval kingdom when this part of the country became a hub of political power and scholarship. He told me tales of kings and saints and warriors, stories of triumph and disaster—and I knew nothing of these matters. I was standing on the spiritual foundations of England, in the remains of a kingdom that had been instrumental in making the pagan Anglo-Saxons Christian and in dividing a single island, Britain, into constituent countries, England, Scotland and Wales, and I knew none of this history. There is a tendency in history lessons in Britain to do the Romans, and then skip almost everything until the Normans arrived in 1066. There is a lot of history to cover in a country as old as Britain, but what we were missing here were the foundations!
In passing, Paul mentioned that a publisher, the History Press, had asked him to write about the findings of their excavations but he had not had time to do so. In such chance remarks are lives remade. What if I wrote it, I asked Paul? He had the knowledge, I had the writing skills: I could mine him for the information and write up the story, pass it to him for checking, and then publish the result. So that is what we did. Over many long phone conversations, we talked the history and archaeology of Northumbria and the result was Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, published by the History Press. But in the research and writing of this book, I learned about three kings of Northumbria, Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, successors to each other, whose reigns had such an extraordinary dramatic arc that I felt sure someone must have written about them. But on investigating, it seemed that nobody had. So I decided to do it. I found a publisher, Lion Hudson, willing to commission me, and so I set about writing a trilogy of historical fiction novels.
What made you decide to write historical fiction?
So it was actually a surprise: I had not expected to write historical fiction. Before I wrote Edwin: High King of Britain my fiction writing had been mostly fantasy and science fiction; those were the genres I knew best and the ones I expected to write in. But the stories of Edwin, Oswald, and Oswiu were so compelling and important that I felt bound to try to tell them, and do them justice. And by telling these stories, I was also learning about the deep history of my own country, a country I was born in but not of, and by learning, appreciating and understanding it better. So the stories were stories of identity too.
But I wanted them to be more than just stories. I wanted them to be imaginative history, an exploration of the possibility of the past and an examination and a refutation of the pernicious idea that we are completely culturally bound, unable to escape the thought constraints of our own time and situation. The past is a different country—but a country inhabited by people. As such, we can approach it, although not entirely enter it, in our imagination. To do that to the best of my ability, I entered a sort of imaginative pact with the history of the period, resolving to stick to it as closely as I could, accepting the historical facts—which are admittedly quite thin—as both the skeleton and the constraints under which I would work.
Rather to my surprise, I found this decision to be creatively fulfilling; accepting the narrative limitations of historical events proved to be paradoxically liberating. This may be the secret of good historical fiction: like poetry constrained by metre, it produces a deeper engagement on the part of the writer with the people and events that he is writing about. ‘This happened, that character did it.’ These are bald facts, constraining facts and the acceptance and explanation of them produces more truthful storytelling.
How do you choose which details to include in setting the scene to bring the reader back in time?
This is a difficult question when dealing with a time (the 7th century) and culture so different from our own. As a writer, one could spend pages simply setting the scene and exploring the culture and geography of the time—at the expense of losing all one’s readers! So I went for a slightly different approach. For the dialogue between characters, I adopted a style of slight archaism while avoiding as far as possible English words that derive from French or Latin. I also bore in mind the metre of Old English poetry, the four-beat line, with some adoption of alliteration, hopefully without it seeming affected for readers of modern English. The everyday details of 7th century life I tried to incorporate into the narrative with incidental details—the colouring and shadowing of the main narrative—without going into too many particularities, a flavour and an indication rather than a manual of life in the early Medieval.
What is your process like with regard to research?
As I mentioned above, I was fortunate with these books in having a brother-in-law who is one of the top archaeologists in the country working on the period, and having written a non-fiction book about Northumbria before starting writing my novels. I couldn’t really have had a better research preparation!
What is your writing process like?
Writing these three novels, I would get up early, about 5am, and get an hour or two done before the rest of the family got up. Then, once the children were at school, I usually went to a library and worked there until it was time to collect the children from school. Rather bizarrely, I wrote the majority of Oswald: Return of the King while we were on a long trip to Sri Lanka. It’s a long way from Britain, the children had not been there, so we spent six weeks showing them the country and introducing them to the relatives. It was quite strange, sitting on a veranda, with the smells and sounds of a tropical country all around me while in my mind I rode the winter roads of a lost Britain.
What are some historical stories you’d like the opportunity to tell in fiction format?
The war for the heart of the world! Or, to put it more historically, the 80-year struggle between the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, the Venetians, and the Knights Hospitaller for control of the Mediterranean. In fact, I took advantage of this year of lockdowns to write the first part of the story: the 1522 siege of Rhodes, when the Ottomans under their Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, took Rhodes from the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
The 16th century represents a decisive break with the Medieval world but in this story, I wanted to look at some of the other questions that were still very open at the time. For instance, men were investigating new methods of knowledge but at this juncture there was no guarantee that science would prove the most fruitful and powerful: magic was also pursued as a new means of unveiling nature, as exemplified in the writings of Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino. War, also, was seen as a spiritual struggle as much as a martial one, and in this book, I wanted to pay attention to that aspect of the siege too. Most modern historical fiction, at least when dealing with battle, is basically wish fulfilment for boys: swords, damsels, danger, 21st century characters and attitudes with a soft soap of historical settings. By tackling the religious and magical aspects of the struggle, I hope to bring this particular period to life in a way that does its way of thinking justice. Its hero is an Italian, the military engineer Gabriele Tadino.
I was also interested in writing about this war because of the clash between Christianity and Islam, a clash that has served to partially define both religions and one in which I have a personal interest as, for about twenty years, I was a Muslim, a Sufi. While I have returned to Christianity, I continue to have Muslim friends and a deep respect for Muslims, and this personal experience of both religions gives me, I think, a unique perspective on the commonalities and clashes between them.
At the moment I am looking for an agent and publisher for this novel, so if any agent or publisher reading this is interested, please get in touch!
Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield.