He attempted to unite the warring tribes of Britain under one crown. He converted to Christianity in 627 and many others followed his example. After his death he became a saint. These are some of the achievements of Edwin, the 7th century King of Northumbria, but how many of you, without having read the title of this post, would have known who I was talking about? I always think it’s a shame that so much is written about some historical figures and so little about others, but in this, the first of the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert gives Edwin the attention he deserves.
Edwin: High King of Britain is a fictional account of Edwin’s life. The story begins with Edwin in exile at the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia and follows him as he attempts to regain the throne of Northumbria. With his kingdom secure again, Edwin goes on to conquer several of his neighbouring kingdoms, believing that strength lies in unity. To secure an alliance in the south of the country, he marries Æthelburh, daughter of the King of Kent, but when his new bride heads north accompanied by her two Christian priests, Paulinus and James, Edwin has an important decision to make both for himself and for his people.
This is a fascinating novel and I feel that I’ve learned a lot from it, but it’s also a gripping, entertaining story. My description above might make it sound a bit dry, but it’s really not dry at all. In the first chapter alone, while seeking refuge at King Rædwald’s court, Edwin learns that his Northumbrian rival Æthelfrith has bribed Rædwald to assassinate him, and later that same day he has a moonlight encounter with a mysterious stranger who predicts that he will become a great and powerful king.
In the pages that follow there are battles and duels, feasts and feuds, and lots of political intrigue; there’s always something interesting happening or something new to learn and I was never bored. One very important thread that runs throughout the novel involves the coming of Christianity to Northumbria and the choice Edwin and his people are forced to make between the old pagan gods and the Christian God. This religious conflict is portrayed particularly well through the characters of Paulinus, the Italian missionary, and Coifi, Edwin’s chief pagan priest.
Writing a novel set so far into the distant past means that there is obviously a limit as to how much information is available, but Albert does seem to stick to the known facts as far as possible; his author’s note at the end explains where it was necessary to change things. The main sources he acknowledges are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede. He also includes some riddles and poetry from the Exeter Book (one of the few remaining works of Anglo-Saxon literature), which I thought was a nice touch.
I have read about this time period only once before, in Nicola Griffith’s beautifully written Hild, but while Hild gives us a female perspective, this is more of a male-dominated story so the two books complement each other very well. It was nice to be able to begin this book with some familiarity with the period, however slight, but I didn’t really need it because the author makes Edwin’s story easy enough to follow even if you have no previous knowledge at all. He also provides a list of characters and a glossary at the front of the book – and a map, which is very useful if you’re not sure where the various kingdoms that make up 7th century Britain are located.
Edwin: High King of Britain is one of the most enjoyable historical fiction novels I’ve read so far this year. I’m now looking forward to reading the sequel, Oswald: Return of the King.