Much longer ago than I care to think, I was an undergraduate studying medieval history. My long suffering tutor was the brilliant Steve Church. He was tasked with explaining the Heptarchy and Northumbrian dominance of the seventh century to a twenty year old; I was perhaps more interested in illegal raves on the weekend than my degree (it was the early 90s).
It was a fantastic course that I wasted the opportunity to study properly. To be fair, I was already drawn to post Norman Conquest Britain and the late medieval, and made up for my initial hedonism in later modules. Steve, being one of the foremost experts on King John and more tolerant of my tardiness than I deserved, forgave me I think.
The Seventh Century just never really came to life for me - the Fifth and Sixth? Fascinating. The period of Viking invasions to the Norman conquest - awesome. The Seventh always stayed a bit meh - then this summer I found Beobrand, and Matthew Harffy’s series set in brutal Seventh Century Northumbria.
Beobrand is a hard warrior in a brutal world, but he has really developed over the three books. That is one of the very big plusses in the series - how the character changes from his experiences. He is a little bit too angst ridden for me in this one - although justifiably so given the last books - but it’s good to see him develop. This is not like Sharpe who is always Sharpe or even Flashman who remains the unrepentant blaggard to the end.
King Oswald of Northumbria - Beobrand’s patron and boss - takes our hero and his men on a journey to the Kingdom of Wessex as an escort. A marriage between King Cynegils of Wessex’ daughter and Oswald beckons, and with it alliances and the growth of Christianity in a land of pagans. And this is still a period where the eventual triumph of the Christian religion is in doubt. Throw in Beobrand and his merry band of troublemakers, and you have a real story on your hands.
Harffy writes exceptional prose. It is deftly executed, but does not shy away from the vicious realities of Seventh Century England. The characters are very real for their time - it’s not modern sensibilities pasted on an early medieval setting. That is something to be admired because the period is not the most accessible to modern readers. The different motivations and particularly religious influences are often poorly done, but Harffy manages the immersion in his world convincingly. There were no jarring anachronisms or WTF? moments. Although there are some genius plot twists!
There are a few writers at the moment whose series I eagerly look for: Cornwell’s Uthred, Scarrow, Mike Jecks and Mike Arnold to name a some. The Bernician Chronicles is rapidly joining them.