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Interview: John Connell

Author of The Man Who Gave His Horse to a Beggar

One thing I really enjoy doing on this blog is getting the chance to interview other authors. Today I am very excited to welcome John Connell. If you missed my review of his book, The Man Who Gave His Horse to a Beggar, zip over and have a look, and then grab your favourite beverage and settle down with us as I chat with John!

Thank you so much, John, for being willing to spend some time with me on the blog today! And thank you again for being willing to donate your book as a prize for the Bamburgh Bones contest. I was so thrilled to be a winner, and I really enjoyed the book.

Thank you for inviting me, and I am glad you enjoyed the book!

First of all, give us a bit of your background and tell us what drove you to write about St. Aidan in the first place.

I grew up in rural Northumberland, in the heart of Aidan’s mission area. As soon as I was able to walk, my father took me around the castles, churches, ruins and hillforts of the region. Ever since I was a boy, I have been fascinated by the legends of the northern kings, saints and warriors. Though we lived different times, Aidan’s landmarks and mine are in some respects the same.

I wrote about Aidan rather than one of the other northern saints based primarily on a sense of justice – or rather of injustice. Given the scale of his achievements, he has been egregiously overlooked. I wanted not only to celebrate his life and legacy, but also to retell his story for a new generation that may not even have heard of him.

My long-standing interest in the early medieval period was encouraged by well-known Anglo-Saxon scholar S.A.J. Bradley at the University of York. He introduced me to Old English poems such as The Dream of the Rood and the epic Beowulf in the original. Several years later, I returned to York to pursue a postgraduate degree in Medieval Studies where I specialised in early medieval Northumbria.

Professionally speaking, my background is mainly in journalism. I have worked as a BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter based with The Whitehaven Newsand the Times & Starand as a general news reporter for the Edinburgh Evening News. I have contributed in a freelance capacity to magazines, newspapers and radio programmes, both regional and national. I am now a Senior Caseworker for Workington’s Conservative MP, based largely in West Cumbria, but with occasional visits to Westminster.

This was obviously a big project. Why did you decide to write this book in this format, and how long did it take you to complete it?

The layout was inspired by Sacred North, a remarkable adventure in the footsteps of the northern saints undertaken by an equally remarkable man, Cumbrian Orthodox priest Father John Musther. He achieved all this despite being in his late 70s and having Parkinson’s disease. I believe him to be a living saint very much in the mould of Aidan.

The writing and research itself took about 18 months. I worked on the book around a demanding full-time job and looking after my then two-year-old daughter. There were occasions when I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, but my partner Becky was very supportive. I owe her a great deal of thanks for her forbearance – and for not kicking me out on the street.

I haven’t read Sacred North. I’ll have to add that to my TBR list! You’ve said you’ve travelled extensively throughout Northumbria, but were there new places that you visited in the course of your research? Do you have a favourite?

On the course of his travels, John got to visit all sorts of interesting places which would have been familiar to Aidan, such as this burial cairn at Kilmartin Glen, in present day Scotland.

 Many of the areas in northern England were already very familiar. I have lost count of how many times I have visited Bamburgh, Yeavering, Lindisfarne and Durham Cathedral. However, the locations in Ireland and the Hebrides were all new to me. The ancient prehistoric monuments of Kilmartin Glen in Argyll and the ancient stronghold of Dunadd were particularly impressive.  It may seem a rather ‘obvious’ answer, but Iona made perhaps the greatest impression on me. The quality of the light and the palpable aura of sanctity were profoundly moving in a way I struggle to articulate. I can understand why George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, described the island as “a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual.”

Iona is high on the list of places I want to visit, that’s for sure. After Lindisfarne! Your photographer, Phil Cope, as well as the actor who “stands in” for Aidan in some of the photographs, both add unique elements to the book. How did their involvement come about?

I was inspired by Phil’s photography in Sacred North. I approached him, initially by email, with a view to enlisting his help on my own project. He liked my pitch and we took it from there. We decided very early on that the tone of the book would not be too ‘academic’. The point was to make Aidan’s story accessible to everyone. This re-telling of Aidan’s life was not simply to be aimed at Christian pilgrims or history-lovers. We both felt that his message is much broader than that and is pertinent to our own times.

I wanted to remind people that Aidan was a man before he was a saint. This was why I took such pains to explore his possible foibles and flaws. By its very nature hagiography creates very ‘flat’ and formulaic characters. This makes it challenging to give the impression of a three-dimensional personality. However, this is not simply a book about religion and old ruins: it is a story about a man who changed the world.

I had a picture in my head of what Aidan looked like: a lean outdoorsman, bearded and weather-beaten, as you would expect of a man who spent so much of his time wandering the wilds  The mission was to find someone who would help ‘resurrect’ our hero. Having a real bloke play Aidan was a quite deliberate to device to made him a less remote figure.

I approached my former colleague and good friend Liam Rudden, the Entertainment Editor of the Edinburgh Evening News. A writer, director and presenter with extensive contacts in the industry, he put me in touch with Eric Murdoch. A tour guide and actor who goes by the soubriquet of ‘the Tartan Viking’, Eric has appeared in Robert the Bruce (2019) and in hit TV series Game of Thrones.  He became Aidan for the day. We did a shoot in the spectacular coastline of East Lothian. The overgrown ruins of Auldhame Castle, Seacliffe Beach, St Baldred’s Cave and Aberlady provided the backdrops. The greatest challenge was finding a horse which we borrowed from a riding centre at very short notice to recreate the episode in Aidan’s life from which the book derives its unusual title.

You explain in the book that Aidan’s life became somewhat overshadowed by Cuthbert, who came after Aidan. Why was that? Why doesn’t the average person know much about Aidan today, do you think?

 When Cuthbert’s coffin was reopened a decade after his death, his body was apparently found relatively ‘fresh’. This gave his cult an immediate boost. However, it is difficult to disentangle truth from ecclesiastical spin. As late as the sixteenth century, there were reports that his body was still incorrupt. When Henry VIII’s commissioners came to loot the tomb in Durham, St Cuthbert was found whole, with his beard as if it had a fortnight’s growth!

But there were also political reasons why Cuthbert’s fame waxed as Aidan’s waned. Cuthbert presented a much firmer foundation for the edifice of a saintly cult than his predecessor. He was ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rather than Irish and was a safer bet with the emergence of a sense of English nationhood in later centuries. Aidan was also a tainted figure because of his association with ‘Celtic’ Christianity and being on the losing side at the Synod of Whitby.

Aidan’s cult may also have been actively supressed following the Synod which split the Church in Northumbria. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668 to 690, issued strict instructions that people were not to pray for the souls of ‘heretics’, or even venerate a devout heretic’s remains, a clause which academic Marilyn Dunn suggests may refer specifically to the relics of Aidan that remained on Lindisfarne.

The popular appeal of Cuthbert’s legend also derived in no small part from the remarkable story of how the monks of Lindisfarne carted his coffin about for seven years to escape from the Danes before receiving intimations that Durham was their divinely-appointed destination. An impressive foundation legend like this would have given the town’s status a huge lift, helping to promote a flourishing pilgrim trade. Cuthbert’s cult may have been a product of the genuine love and respect he commanded from ordinary people, but it is also true to say that this was seized upon by clerics to increase their own wealth, status and power as they basked in a reflected glory that was in some senses real, and in others manufactured by the Church.

John getting in touch with his inner warrior at Bamburgh.

What do you think was Aidan’s greatest challenge in bringing the Gospel to the Northumbrians? And why was he so successful?

It is difficult to know where to start, so manifold and complex were the obstacles he faced. The most obvious and immediate problem was the language barrier, which would have made it more difficult to get his message across. Aidan spoke a dialect of Old Irish, but his adoptive people spoke a Germanic tongue known retrospectively as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Old English’. He would probably have encountered some initial hostility from the local population and some resistance to his message from Anglo-Saxons reluctant to abandon the religious practices of their forefathers. The population of Northumbria had also been ravaged very recently by an invading army. The people had every reason to be distrustful of strangers.

You also have to consider the vast size of Aidan’s mission area, which extended from the Firth of Forth in the north to the Humber in the south; and from the North Sea in the east to the Irish Sea in the west. This must have presented huge logistical challenges for the Gaelic monks who came here at great personal risk to convert the pagan English. The landscape was more densely-forested than today and there was very little in the way of infrastructure, with the exception of the overgrown semi-derelict Roman road network. The quickest way to get anywhere would have been by boat or on horseback. Aidan, however, usually chose to walk, making his achievements nothing less than astounding.

Aidan’s success was dependent to some extent on the patronage of his king Oswald who even acted as his personal interpreter on some occasions. That said, this was also a ‘bottom up’, grassroots movement involving the ordinary people. Aidan’s hands-on approach and his ability to connect with the everyday folk he encountered on his many journeys would have been key. Being too hard line would have risked alienating the people he was trying to reach, so he would have need to have shown high levels of patience, understanding and determination.

He led by example and did not expect his followers to do anything that he was not prepared to do himself. Aidan refused to insulate himself from the grinding poverty, disease and suffering he must surely have encountered. He showed himself to be a strong, even stubborn personality, unwilling to be cowed or intimidated by those in power.

Aidan died only twelve days after his friend, Oswine, King of Deira, who had been murdered by Oswy of Bernicia. You discuss this a bit in the book, but do you think that these two deaths were linked?

Yes, I do. Bede makes a point of recording that Aidan died just eleven days after his beloved king, Oswin, had been treacherously put to death by Oswiu. Bede’s juxtaposition of the two events suggests they were connected in some way, though we cannot be sure exactly how.

One scholar has suggested a more sinister link between Aidan’s death and that of his friend Oswin. The indication is that Oswiu wanted Aidan out of the way, perhaps because the Irishman was growing increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the king’s behaviour. It would certainly have benefitted the king to have Aidan replaced with someone more tractable. However, my personal view is that Aidan died of a broken heart following the death of his close friend, worn out from his many labours.

What do you think is Aidan’s greatest legacy?

Re-establishing Christianity across the north was his greatest achievement. His legacy is not as easy to pin down or to quantify. This is the reason I wrote the book in the first place. I wanted to raise his profile nationally and internationally at a time when so many people in the west are turning their back on their religious heritage.

I also hope that Aidan’s connections throughout the ‘British Isles’ will help heal some of the historical divisions that are still with us. He has been mooted as a patron saint of the British Isles. Perhaps his greatest legacy could be a greater recognition of what we all share, here and elsewhere. A pilgrimage route linking some of the places visited in the book would be an excellent way for people to connect with one another, with their past, and with Aidan himself.

If you could ask Aidan one question, what would it be?

I would ask for his blessing.

Besides Aidan, is there anyone else from the early medieval era that you would like to write about?

 Penda is a fascinating character. A contemporary of Aidan, it is difficult to imagine someone more different. His psychopathic violence; his penchant for fire-starting, his paganism; and his energetic military campaigns would make him an interesting subject.

Oh yes, Penda fascinates me, too! What are you working on now? Do you have any more books with a similar format planned?

I would love to write another book and I have several ideas in the pipeline, including a children’s book. But I suspect I would find my clothes in bin bags outside the front door if I started another literary venture quite so soon after this one. My focus is very much on my family, my job and with promoting the book. However, I will be sure to keep you posted!

Thank you so much, John. I really enjoyed chatting with you today! 

If you want to keep up with John on the interweb, you can connect with him on Facebook on his book’s page, The Man Who Gave His Horse to a Beggar, where he posts all sorts of interesting info about Early Medieval England. He also can be found on Twitter @aidan_all.

If you, too, have a hankering to wander around Northumbria after reading that interview, don’t let COVID stop you! My historical fantasy books, Wilding and Bound, are set in 7th-century Northumbria and they even include Aidan himself as one of the characters!