Oswald's Book of Hours

The Northumbrian King, Oswald (reigned 635-642AD), was a warrior, evangelist, hunter and scholar. Martyred by Mercian pagans at the Battle of Maserfield, Oswald was immediately canonised by the acclaim of the people, his cult rapidly developing to rival George’s claim to be patron saint of the English. Oswald’s Book of Hours is a series of elegies and eulogies for Oswald redivivus, written in the voices of an unlikely band of northern subversives, including NUM leader Arthur Scargill, hermit Richard Rolle, brigand John Nevison, Catholic rebel Robert Aske – and Oswald himself. Brutal, provocative and thrillingly original, Oswald’s Book of Hours is an ambitious attempt to rehabilitate an organic English identity via an exploration of radical, pre-industrial and pre-reformation traditions, and a handbook of devotions for the exiled and expropriate English settled north of the Humber.

Short-listed for the Forward First Collection Prize and the Ted Hughes Award.

Sample Poem

Patris sapientia

	i, robenhode, englisc of barnysdale,
	cattle thief, siccarius, brigand
	of the great north road,
	from the dungeons of the empyrean
	syng the travails of my people.
	swindled from blode, exiled
	on our own grene earth,
	severed the dreaming umbilicus.
	a muzzled bear-whelp
	with plier-pulled claws, giddy
	on the hotplate. stop dancing
	and feel the burn.

when brother fights brother,
fellowship fails. tautology
of the weak. tostig’s cain-brand,
the oathbreaker dead
and lamech inherits our earth.
gallows seventy times seven:
the bastard’s lesson in blood.
a few drew their daggers:
hereward, eadric, wulfric;
but the aetheling spirit bled out
at senlac and stamford bridge.
the ealdormen quit and learned french:
for lords will have their manors.

on the eve of christes mass
1167 joon cyning was whelped
in the palace at oxford
on seventeen silken mattresses,
each one softer than the last.
yet marie, jhesu’s modir, leide hym
in a cratche in the shit of beestys.
the spotless shall be praised
and synne’s right is nout but work;
adam and his wijf eue, delving
and weaving, not less the cyng
and his quene. a deo rex, a rege lex?
ballocks! the law is from god,
and the king is from the people.

ic geseah on swefne a manne
of our cynne, blynded of eie
and lopped of foot, in beggary
at my skel on watlygne street.
and he cwaeth, against the vert
and venison of the french king’s
forest have i synned. and then came
a pore mother, meatless ribs
like a flamburgh coble, pot-bellied
manne-whelp gnawing at the tit,
saying, my lord hath brenneth
me out by fire and starved us
from the land; much cattyl is there,
deer and gentil manors,
but the englisc folc no moor.

in my black cloak and black boots
and black witchfinder’s hat, i stride
through the mud of the dismantled priory
to the ancient pilgrimmed road,
where thirty thousand with pikes
and rosaries marched under the flag
of the five wounds of christ.
at the whitewashed church
of feastless laurence, bread is just bread
and wine is wine indeed.
candlemas monday, another working day.
the priest would bless the plough
and absolve us from our sinnes.
the saints gave us solace and play.
and what have we now? work
and the word, the interminable pulpit.

in the fiery yeards of myccelgeat,
spinsters slave at flemish looms.
cottars and ploughboys, manacled
to the forge. chynes and pulleys.
ginnes and whirring gears. masters hocked
to caursines, bonds bleeding
from ledgered counting houses.
whorehouse schit-buckets, tipped-out
on plague-pit streets. ratten-raw
lodgings, brayed up in darkness
by coppersmiths’ hammers.
work and the grave, urbi et orbis.
at stobbes he rose with the houndis
at daybreak and them watterd
in the wrang-broc, dogges shaking
bowes in the morning sonne-light,
wagtayles peeping and darting for mayflies
from the boulders in the stream.

whatsoever schall it profiteth a man
that he gaineth the earth but loseth
his own land? that his tongue
become the mark of the beest,
that no-one may trade or speek
without it, but his words become
the world’s? that hound is put
to cur and terrier to alaunt
so that dogges designed for purpose
are but fit for pore utilitie? fyrd sceal
ætsomne, tirfæstra getrum: the people
in the land, knowing they are the people,
knowing it is their land.

forest for deer, covert for fox,
plantation for pheasant and erasing
the hovels of the poor. moor for grouse,
river for grilse. village for the rich,
farmhouse for the profit: barley, linseed,
oilseed rape; polytunnels, fishing lakes,
off-road muck-tracks, land-fill quarries
and mines. hayfields for corncrakes,
islands for the erne, fenland
for spoonbill and crane. the people
in their high estates look down:
on the pinks of the belvoir,
the national trust, the fleeces and gaiters
of the rspb. KEEP OUT.

i saw in a dream the fluoroxypyr
wheatfield bridal with hawthorns,
sown in the shite of winter fieldfares.
men there: walking dogs, picking bluestalks,
releasing pigs to pannage. ergot
on rye, the dried-fumes of harvest mice.
bread in burning vision. the field-stone
foundations of barns and homesteads.
horses in the hay-cut; sweet vernal,
fescue, yorkshire fog: and in the smoking dawn,
walking hares up to the slip, a line of figures
from the luttrell psalter, treading the earth
of the hundred acre wheatfield.

	an aungel of the lord came to me in sleep
	and cwaeth, rise noble robenhode
	and slay the frenchman’s shire reeve:
	john ball’s absolution awaits thee.
	john litel and scathelock slew him in saylis
	and stuffed his corps in a broc-hole at smeeton.
	the tithe of the lord was death
	and at sword-edge was servitude ended.
	and again he cwaeth, may the many-manored
	dukes and mansioned marquesses
	be abdicate and appropriated. and we dwelt
	on the land like the israelites in tents,
	bylding our covenant from the wild stones
	of the feeld, feeding our earth with much blood.


'Steve Ely takes the archaeologist’s spade to the idea of England – its myths,its heroes and villains, its forgotten corners, its persistence in the historical imagination. There’s a passion to the language, a radical fire reminiscent of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts.'

Ian Parks

‘In Steve Ely the North has found its voice in work that echoes Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting, Geoffrey Hill, the bloke in the corner shop, the Yorkshire breeze and autodidacts and pub philosophers across the region and beyond. This can become our creation myth, our encyclopaedia, our atlas, our sacred book.’

Ian McMillan

'a work of startling imagination and affirmation.'


'‘I found more power, energy, conviction and sheer verbal exuberance in this than in any other first collection I’ve read this year.'

Sheenagh Pugh

'Ely is a craftsman of an unusual and possibly unique kind and it is his craft which coheres all the outrageousness and cold beauty of this book.'

Fortnightly Review

'tough, brave and fantastically original,'

Rod Madocks

'a major talent'


'when a book is short listed for multiple prizes, I approach it more sceptically. I am glad to say that on this occasion the book in question is certainly as deserving - if not more so - of high praise as most other currently acclaimed volumes... a highly accomplished collection.'

The Recusant