We speak English today, because the Anglo-Saxons took over most of post-Roman Britain. How did that happen? There is little evidence: not much archaeology, and even less written history. There is, however, a huge amount of speculation. King Arthur’s Wars brings an entirely new approach to the subject—the answers are out there, in the British countryside, waiting to be found.
Months of field work and map study allow us to understand, for the first time, how the Anglo-Saxons conquered England, county by county and decade by decade.
King Arthur’s Wars exposes what the landscape and the place names tell us. As a result, we can now know far more about this “Dark Age.” What is so special about Essex? Why is Buckinghamshire an odd shape? Why is the legend of King Arthur so special to us? Why don’t Cumbrian farmers use English numbers when they count sheep? Why don’t we know where Camelot was? Why did the Romano-British stop eating oysters? This book provides a new level of understanding of the centuries preceding the Norman Conquest.
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King Arthur's Wars
By the late fourth century, England and Wales had been part of the Roman Empire for about 350 years. Roman Britain had many towns and about 30 cities, connected by an extensive and well-built road network. Most of the population spoke a Celtic language, but some spoke and wrote in Latin. Society was organised, government functioned, and trade was conducted using Roman law. England, Wales and much of both Scotland and Ireland were part of a continent-wide trade system. Goods from places as far away as Turkey and Egypt were traded for tin, corn and other cargoes from Britain.
By the mid-ninth century, Britain was very different. Most of the people in what had become England spoke an entirely different language. Roman law had disappeared. It had been replaced by a rapidly-developing system based on Germanic tribal custom. The towns and cities had been largely abandoned, but were slowly being redeveloped. In simple terms, in the year 400 AD most people thought of themselves as Roman citizens. By 850 they did not.
Those changes had been accompanied by a major series of wars. They were fought between the descendants of the Romano-British inhabitants and people who were, or were descended from, Germanic invaders. We now call those people Anglo-Saxons and we know that, broadly, they won. However, that was by no means inevitable. For more than a century it seemed unlikely. We know very little about those wars.
The change from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England was not just a matter of warfare. There was major social, political, economic and cultural change as well. But war was a major factor. War can, and has, changed the fate of continents, and do so astonishingly quickly. War was hugely important in this period. It was a period of much violence, brutality and main force. The wars by which Roman Britain became Anglo-Saxon England are the main subject of this book.
If there was someone called Arthur, someone who we now know as 'King' Arthur, what role did he play? It does seem that he, and others like him, were key figures in those wars. That is why we shall call those conflicts 'King Arthur's Wars'. But no matter what role he played, no one man could be responsible for the course and outcome of a series of wars which stretched over 450 years.
The English have forgotten. They remember the Norman Conquest. There were only about 7,000 Norman invaders; perhaps as many as 10,000. With their families and retainers, the total may have been 20-30,000 people. They took over England in roughly 20 years. They had a major impact on society. Within a generation, over 70% of all men had names of French origin: Roberts, Williams, Hughs, Johns and so on. Arguably, however, the Normans had little impact on the law or the language. Today the English speak English, not Norman French. The Normans made several laws, but did not change the underlying basis of the law. The Anglo-Saxon conquest (if conquest it was) took far longer: about 450 years. 450 years from the Norman Conquest would take England into the reign of Henry the Eighth, arguably England's first post-medieval king.
The English are unlike many other Europeans. They do not, like most of western Europe, have a Roman law code. A law code is the basis for the way society is run, government is conducted, and trade takes place. Laws and legal systems are written statements of observed and enforceable social, political and economic norms. So the fundamental basis for the way in which England is run is very different from that of much of Europe. That difference has had major implications; for example, in Britain's relationship with the European Union.
Roman law triumphed elsewhere, for several reasons. Most of them did not apply in a society which, like post-Roman Britain, had largely collapsed,. Britain is the only major region of the former western Roman empire which did not develop a Latin-based language. England is different. The Germanic takeover of England took centuries and had a major impact. The use of a Germanic language (which is closer to Frisian Dutch than any other similar language) suggests that Roman structures of law and society largely disappeared. They were rebuilt by Germanic incomers and their successors. The difference is important. Without the Germanic takeover, Britain might still be called Britain, as it was in Roman times. But England would not be the land of the English. The English language would probably not exist. The United States, the Commonwealth, and several other countries would not exist as they do now. Many million people around the world would not speak English. America might be 'the Land of the Free', but its constitution would be very, very different.
Terminology is highly important in this area. Terms like 'Dark Age', 'Celtic', 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'British' are often used loosely. That can be a problem. In this book they will have fairly specific meanings. 'Britain' will be taken to mean the whole of the British Isles, whilst 'Roman Britain' will mean that part of Britain which the Romans conquered. Put simply, that means England south of Hadrian's Wall (thus excluding much of Northumberland), and Wales. Southern Scotland was an important part of the Roman Imperial system and will be discussed later.
The question of what 'Celtic' means is important. Here it is used very narrowly to describe culture and language. Before the Roman conquests, much of western Europe had something broadly described as Celtic culture and spoke Celtic languages. So when we refer to 'Celtic' in Britain, we mean the language and culture that underlay Latin and Roman culture. By extension, 'Romano-British' is a general term to describe the largely Celtic-speaking people who lived in Britain at the end of imperial Roman rule. They didn't go away or disappear. By and large they were conquered, or taken over, by what we now call the Anglo-Saxons.
The origins of the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic. Many of the original invaders came from what is now north Germany, the Netherlands (especially Frisia) or Denmark. They are described in historical sources as Angles, Saxons and Jutes. By the tenth century or so, the term 'Anglo-Saxon' had been coined to differentiate their successors from the Romano-British. By then, however, almost none of the 'Anglo-Saxons' had ever been to Germany. Their ancestors had lived in England for centuries.
'Saxon' requires very careful consideration. The Romans used it fairly loosely, in the way the we might now say 'German' or perhaps 'Germanic'. Many people who we now think of as having Saxon origins (such as the people of Wessex) never used the term to refer to themselves. To reduce ambiguity, we will use 'Saxon' in one of two specific ways. The first, and least important, is to refer to people who come from the region of north Germany around Hannover: Saxony. The second is to refer to the people of what became the kingdoms of the East, South and West Saxons: Essex, Sussex and Wessex respectively.
'Welsh' requires even more careful use. The word is derived from a Germanic word for 'foreigner'. The word has developed to describe several peoples who lived beyond the borders of where Germanic people lived. Hence 'Wallis' (the German name for the French-speaking canton of Valais in Switzerland); 'Wallachia' in Romania (the principality beyond Transylvania, where many Germanic people had settled); and 'Wales'. Unfortunately for us, the Anglo-Saxons called the Romano-British 'foreigners', hence 'Welsh'. That leads to confusion because, for example, a Germanic warrior in Kent in the fifth century (who was by origin possibly a Jute from Jutland) might call the Romano-British inhabitants of London or Surrey 'Welsh'. To avoid that confusion we shall call those people 'Romano-British', and keep the word 'welsh' for the inhabitants of Wales. They are, after all, inhabitants of what we now call Wales. They are descended from the Romano-British, and still what the Anglo-Saxons would have called 'foreigners' (hence to that extent 'welsh'). Modern Wales is, essentially, the part of Roman Britain which the Anglo-Saxons never conquered.
The inhabitants of Ireland had a Celtic culture and language, as did most of Scotland. Some confusion arose in the past because there are broadly two main forms of Celtic language in Britain. They are known as 'p' and 'q' Celtic, or alternatively 'Brythonic' and 'Goidelic'. The boundary of where those languages were spoken was not well understood, and there was some movement of tribes. Hence, confusingly, a tribe called the 'Scotti' were considered to be Irish. We shall use the term 'Irish' only to refer to people who lived in Ireland, and 'Scottish' to refer to people who lived in modern Scotland. The term 'Picts' or 'Pictish' will be taken to mean Scots who lived north of the River Firth, where the Romans never settled. The Romans used the term 'Picti ('the painted ones') to describe them from about 300 or 310 AD.
The modern welsh word for Wales is 'Cymru', which is derived from the Romano-British word for 'companions'. The late Romano-British used it to describe themselves, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxons. One form of it was 'Cumbroges', hence Cumbria as a region of the Romano-British. Cumbria was one of the last areas to become Anglo-Saxon. The Romano-British called themselves 'Britones' (hence 'British') when they wrote in Latin, which they continued to do until after the Norman Conquest. Thus when a Welshman today says he is British, he is absolutely correct.
When were the Dark Ages? The term is used loosely and can mean different things to different people. There is very little if any historical record between the end of Imperial Roman Britain and, for example, the writings of the Venerable Bede. The period in between is dark to the extent that little or no historical record illuminates it. We will use the term 'Dark Ages' to mean the period from about 400 to about 730 AD. Historians tend to use the term 'early medieval', but that can include the period up to the Norman Conquest.
The broad sequence of 'King Arthur's wars' is quite simple, although the dates are vague (for reasons which we will discuss later). Imperial rule in Britain seems to have ended soon after 400 AD. Some Germanic people were already settled in Britain by then. Increasing numbers arrived in the fifth century, often as warriors to protect the east coast and (to some extent) to replace Roman forces. In the middle of that century (about 450) some of them rebelled. The rebellion was contained, and by about 500 they were contained in small pockets in what we now call East Anglia, Essex, Kent and Sussex. Strictly, East Anglia is the land of the East Anglians. It was divided between the land of the North Folk and the South Folk, hence Norfolk and Suffolk. It does not include the land of the East Saxons, namely Essex. There were probably also groups of Germanic settlers in Lindsey (the area around Lincoln), East Yorkshire, Northumberland, and some other smaller pockets.
That situation lasted for about fifty years. Then, in the middle of the sixth century, separate groups began to fight the Romano-British again, and conquer further territory. The Kingdom of Wessex developed from about 550 AD. Germanic kingdoms developed in Essex, East Anglia, the Midlands, Yorkshire and Northumberland from about 570 AD. By no means all of the fighting was against the Romano-British. The Yorkshire and Northumberland kingdoms fought each other until one man ruled both, as the king of Northumbria. Mercia, the midland kingdom, fought against Northumbria and Wessex for centuries. At times any or all of them were allied to Romano-British kingdoms, whose names are often wrapped in mystery. By about 850 AD Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex had conquered most of modern England, swallowing up the smaller kingdoms of Kent, Essex, Sussex and East Anglia on the way. It was a slow and fitful process. In some areas no progress was made against the Roman-British for a century or so.
King Alfred, the only king in English history be called 'The Great', ruled from 871 to 899 AD. He was a king of Wessex and never ruled England. Viking raids had started in 793. Alfred and his contemporaries spent far more time and effort fighting the Vikings than the remaining Romano-British. His son Edward the Elder united England under one throne, not least due to the Viking invasions. England was not free of Viking incursions until after the Norman conquest of 1066. It can, however, reasonably be said that Alfred's descendants ruled a unified Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The advent of Alfred, and the Vikings incursions, can be seen as the end of King Arthur's Wars.
There are many problems in trying to understand this period. There is almost no historical record and little archaeology. Both disciplines present problems when looking at the Dark Ages. History books tend to describe one of two views of the period, which we can call 'Edwardian' and 'Modernist'. 'Edwardian' writers tended to take works such as Bede's largely at face value. They believed that Britain was invaded by waves of Germanic invaders, who felled the mighty oak forests, ploughed the land, rapidly disposed of the effete and decadent Romano-British, became Christian, and brought democracy and parliamentary government to England. That, of course, is a great simplification, but it exposes two things: the attitudes of the Edwardians, and the relative absence of archaeological evidence in Edwardian times.
According to the 'Modernist' view, there were no invasions; just migrations. The cultural shift from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon was largely peaceful and cultural. Key archaeological issues (such as the fact that many of the Germanic migrants cremated their dead, rather than burying them intact) are taken to reflect peaceful cultural transition rather than conquest. Men started to carry weapons in public as fashion statements, to reflect a peace-loving society (!) The mighty forests were not hewn down: they did not exist, because Britain had been deforested in the Iron Age. That is also a parody, but each of its elements is taken from recent books on the 'Dark Ages'.
The great works on the subject tend to come from mid- to late-twentieth century. They are the standard text books used at universities. They tend towards the Edwardian rather than the modernist view. The volumes of the Oxford (University) History of England are important amongst them. The first volume, originally written in 1936, was entitled 'Roman Britain and the English Settlements', by R. G. Collingwood and J. N. L. (Nowell) Myres. Myres wrote the piece most relevant to us, namely the final five chapters on post-Roman Britain. When the book was re-written fifty years later, Myres re-wrote his work as a separate volume simply called 'The English Settlements'. He was then 84 years old and it was a mistake to ask him to write it. His thinking had not moved on. The Roman part of the original book was re-written in 1981 by Peter Salway. The succeeding volume, 'Anglo-Saxon England', was written by Sir Frank Stenton in 1943.
There is no good, modern, standard reference book which covers our period in general, and the wars between the Romano-British and the Anglo-Saxons in detail. That causes several problems. For example, there may have been a major incursion against Britain by Picts, Saxons and others in or about the year 367 AD. As a result several archaeologists in the early twentieth century dated sites or finds to 367. Some recent writers took that at face value. Indeed much early dating is now considered to be wrong, but there is no way to get writers who only read the Oxford History to understand what is now thought to be right. A related problem is that Bede, who is almost the only (and certainly the most reliable) writer who lived close to the period, only dated nine events relevant to our subject in a period of several centuries. So there is little or no chronological backbone on which to hang events. The fifth and sixth centuries are a critical period, in which Bede provides no useful dates at all.
The Edwardian approach tends to largely overlook the Romano-British, not least because Bede did. It also tends to dwell extensively on the advent of Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons. Well, the Anglo-Saxons may have adopted Christianity much as Bede described it. After all, he was a monk and became a saint. However, the Romano-British were already extensively Christianised. They had churches and bishops long before the end of Imperial Roman Britain, and they survived long after.
Older historians have tended to cling to the notion of a conquest, and a large migration of Germanic warriors. Newer generations, and particularly archaeologists, increasingly reject that view. Some of them are definitely in the 'modernist' camp. The reason is fairly easy to see. History tends to be written by the winners, and from the top down. It looks at kings and the view from the throne. Conversely archaeology tends to look from the bottom up. It often looks at things like huts, farming, and cooking implements. The archaeology shows little direct sign of wars. The two views can be reconciled, but for this period that has not yet happened.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "King Arthur's Wars"
Copyright © 2016 Jim Storr.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures,
List of Plates,
Memorial: On the Banks of the Tamar,
1 King Arthur's Wars,
2 Seen Through a Soldier's Eyes,
3 The End of Roman Britain,
4 The Germans Arrive,
5 The Revolt of the Saxon Shore,
6 Cerdic and his Following,
7 Above the Goring Gap,
9 Deira, and Northumbria,
11 Breaching the Wansdyke,
12 The Conquest of the South West,
13 The Elephant in the Room,
I Arthur and Cerdic,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The "trailer" for the book promised an exciting, interesting new take on King Arthur's existence. Didn't happen. If you are a dedicated archeologist, you might find this interesting; for the general reader, it is drudgery. It's a case of too much information and not enough conclusions. I read about 1/2 way through, and I must admit, it's a sure cure for insomnia.