In the second chapter of an AI-only alternative history, the Very-Much-Not-United Kingdom is home to several Lords who get a kick out of impaling their enemies, our own Earl Osbald proves to be quietly competent and ambitious, and Charlemagne owns just about everything.
Part one, which lays out the rules, is here.
If I May Be So Osbald
Who is Earl Osbald of Westmorland? Ruling from his Earldom of Appleby, he’s a shrewd man. To the outside observer, it may seem that he is unambitious in the extreme, busy as he usually is with paperwork and the minutiae of taxation. He’s more likely to be found counting coin and discussing trade routes than practicing his swordsmanship. Is he an inspirational leader? No. He’s a bureaucrat. But he may be ahead of his time – the affairs of state are decided in the countinghouse and the boardroom rather than the battlefield. Or at least that’s how Osbald would prefer it to be.
That seems sensible, particularly when your neighbours include the likes of King Offa of Mercia, a man who seems to think the whole island should be his (leaving Pictland to one side for now because it’s cold and bothersome). Worse still is King Brochfael ‘The Black’ of Deheubarth. He likes to impale people who oppose him.
It’s good to be boring when your neighbours are impalers.
While Big King Offa is fighting off Brochfael The Black and the Holy Wastrels of Essex, a two-fronted war, Osbald is living the good life. This particular form of the good life involves efficient business dealings and conscientious trade negotiations. He may not be a particularly Romantic character and many swashes are left unbuckled all across Westmorland, but the stable nest that he’s building is pleasant enough to attract a wife who complements his brainy stewardship with a dose of the Dark Arts.
Lowborn she may be, but Osbald’s teen bride is as cunning as any wily old spymaster. The earl will have need of her talents in the decades to come because some of that paperwork he hides underneath the latest inventory of trade goods looks suspiciously like fabricated claims on the lands to the North.
It’s always the quiet ones…
The Fake District aka Beaten Black And Bloody
Mercia collapses, reforms, splinters, solidifies and expands. It’s the kind of power struggle you’re happy for your neighbours to engage in because nobody ever seems to come out on top. While Offa might seem like the biggest fish in the small pond that is Britain, he’s a minnow in the grand scheme. A peek at Charlemagne’s Neustria would humble God at this point.
In Strathclyde and beyond, chieftains fight over small swathes of territory but there is an undisputed king in the North, head of a fairly powerful Pictland. Despite the climate, it’s all a lot more tempting than the south, which is tumultuous and packed with impalers. Well, two impalers. When it comes to impalers, one is too many.
Mercia now has The Black to the West and The Bloody to the East. It’s like a rock and a hard place, except with more spikes.
Time for our first interlude as I ponder Osbald’s artificial intelligence. He’s been a fairly dull character so far, choosing not to act outside his own lands. But now something interesting is happening – suddenly, out of nowhere, Osbald has a claim on Cumbria. It’s unrelated to any family connections. His kids are too young to marry (and I’m not entirely sure where his first three kids came from – they pre-date his marriage and one of them must have been born when Osbald was FIFTEEN) and his wife is lowborn, with no lordly connections. Osbald does have an older brother, who has his own county right next door, to the East. In fact, Osbald stands to inherit that when his brother dies and I half-expected a bout of sibling rivalry but, as it turns out, Osbald has other plans.
That Cumbrian claim has almost certainly been fabricated, which means the AI is turning its sight to the north. The claim didn’t fall into its lap through some accident of geneaology; Osbald has decided to expand and he’s picked his victim carefully. Since the game began his ambitions have been directed toward a larger demesne and perhaps the AI has been working on a claim the whole time. Perhaps it’s chance that Cumbria happens to look like a very good selection at this particular time, with every territory to the south marked by conflict, and targeted by kings and dukes powerful enough to kick Osbald into touch.
Osbald is 28 years old when he declares war on the earl of Cumbria. He’s been preparing for this day and pops on a helmet to commemorate his military debut.
Where’s North From Here?
A year of campaigning and Cumbria falls. Osbald’s first military action is also his first victory, and it’s a good one. Westmorland is now a healthy size and nobody has been left behind to mourn for or avenge the overthrown ex-ruler of Cumbria. It’s as clean a conquest as Crusader Kings II allows, leaving no claimants or furious family members to cause bother in the future. Of course, as Osbald himself has proven, the lack of a claim on the territory right now isn’t a guarantee against an attack in the future – somebody will find a way to claim Lakeland eventually but, for now, all is well.
Except for a Yorkist claim on Lancaster. The Roses aren’t even buds in the soil yet, but one of Offa’s underlings manages to convince the Big Cheese to back up his claim and shortly after claiming Cumbria, Osbald has to deal with a couple of thousand infantrymen marching on his southernmost territory. He barely puts up a fight, ceding the land and retreating to Appleby. Westmorland is reduced to its original two-county state, but has shifted to the north.
That’s a general trend. As Essex and Wessex whittle away at one another, the Mercians feel the squeeze, trapped in between two belligerent dukes. The Battle of the Sexes is sapping the life and prosperity out of the South and it’s no surprise that the already-divided lands of Northumbria and Deira are more attractive. Picking off solitary counties tends not to lead to prolonged campaigns, as territories switch back and forth until some sort of equilibrium is reached. That’s what made the Cumbria acquisition such a smart move for Osbald.
Since taking Cumbria, Osbald has a new ambition. He wants to “become exalted among men”. I don’t think he’s even exalted in his own household just yet and with Lancaster gone, I have a horrible feeling he might be on a losing streak.
Also of note in this period – Osbald grows a beard.
That losing streak I was worrying about? Forget about it. Osbald is a canny little operator and by 795 he has captured two new territories – Westmorland straddles two cultures, with Anglo-Saxon townships to the south and tribal hill
forts to the north. The AI has played Osbald to perfection and it’s only when I glance across at his brother – still secluded in his single holding and contributing nothing of note to the narrative – that I realise how lucky we are to have landed this go-getter as our first progatonist. He’s a champ, is Osbald. From clerk to conquerer.
There was a hairy moment when he acted on his second fabricated claim, invading Teviotdale. The residents didn’t have much fight in them but both Northumbria and the Kingdom of Strathclyde saw an opportunity to press their own claims during the disruption. Osbald fought them both off, which surprised me. I was even more surprised when he followed that victory up with a claim on Alt Clut. I’m not sure what the endgame is but when Alt Clut is absorbed into Westmorland in June 795, Osbald’s borders are pressing against the Kingdom of Pictland (Westmorland is the pink streak just above Mercia).
It’s only a matter of time before the Picts push back, surely? And with the Mercians – briefly residents of the rebranded and resurgent Kingdom of Deira – seemingly intent on continuing their northward migration, Westmorland might become the
filling in a King burger. So far though, Osbald’s machinations look like they’ve been carefully planned. He’s taken his time and might not have enough friends to call in if the going gets tough, but he’s in a position to share the wealth now that he has four territories to control. If he doesn’t put a third party in charge of one of the four counties, he’ll struggle to maintain his efficient stewardship because three is the upper-limit of his control.
Perhaps he could hand over control of Alt Clut to his eldest son and heir, who is a court chaplain and all-round do-gooder. With Osbald now in his forties and Westmorland comfortably on the map, I’m expecting a peaceful couple of decades.
What could possibly go wrong?
In part three, we find out exactly what can go wrong.
– We really have been lucky with Osbald. It might not be the most exciting life – no incest, infanticide or heresy – but Westmorland’s gains have shown the AI’s ability to cope with careful expansion.
– Neustria is terrifying. Right now, Charlemagne is: King of Neustria, King of Italy, King of Aquitaine, King of Austrasia, King of Sicily, King of Burgundy, King of Holland and King of Saxony. As we leave the game, in 795, good ol’ King Karl ‘The Just’ is in Surrey. I don’t know why he’s in Surrey but he bloody well is. I hope he decides to conquer Essex.
– Viking raiders have just started to harass the East coast, including Dunholm, where Osbald’s brother dwells. That might change everything. The best sequence of events, from a Westmorland perspective, involves the major British powers applying their military efforts toward defense against the raiders, preventing enormous land wars and further conquest.
– Given the strength of Pictland – which has almost united the lands we’d recognise as Scotland – I’d love Osbald to build a Strathclyde dynasty. Sure, he’s originally from the wrong end of Cumbria, but I’d love to see two competing Kingdoms in the North, and Osbald is well-placed to fill one of those roles. The current king of Pictland, incidentally, is a withered old cynic who has been excommunicated from the Catholic church.
– This guy.