A Political History
Even without many primary sources, writing a book on the history of Britain from 367 up to 664 seems like a massive undertaking at first glance. Any serious study should involve at least looking at all the histories, literature, and archeological research from the period. One would think that the archaeology alone would require a separate study and the extant literary sources – from poetry to folklore and even personal letters – would be just as expansive and would require the mastery of several different areas of study.
As the island was occupied by the Irish, Picts, and Germanic tribes as well as the Britons, common sense would dictate that four entirely different traditions of history and literature would exist and would need to be individually studied if a scholar were to have any chance of making sense of the subject.
All these assumptions are only partially true, though. There are not as many sources as one would hope for to properly study the period, but what there are is so difficult to interpret that there is just as much work involved. The involvement of four different cultures complicates the work, but the fact that scholars from each ethnicity made use of their counterparts’ history and literature makes the work much simpler. As will be seen in the pages below, many of the most important extant histories are closely related to each other.
Probably the most difficult aspect of this study, in fact, is in understanding how the historians of every culture made use of each other for their own ends or for the ends of their patrons. This problem will not only apply to the broad histories of Gildas, Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae, Bede, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle but also to more isolated or localized works such as dynastic pedigrees and monastery documents.
The biases of the sources is not the only problem, though. Much of the information given is not extant in a form we would recognize as historical, like a newspaper reporting events. Instead, everything we know of is given in a deeply cultural context. This fact makes understanding the materials they present especially difficult for several reasons. For one, what little we know of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries is consistent in presenting cultures vastly different from our own in terms of personal and public values. For another, there are four different cultures to consider. At times, many of the sources have passed from one culture to another, adding another layer of interpretation.
The manuscripts themselves present more difficulties. Scholars know from references by medieval authors that there were many more works during the Middle Ages. Those that have survived have not done so because they were the best or the most historically accurate, however. Manuscripts that were interesting were borrowed by different monasteries, whose monks would make copies while they read it. Those that no monks were interested in were not copied.
Now, manuscripts were written in vellum, a particularly durable writing material. However no form of paper, no matter how tough, could hope to last for a thousand years. If only a couple monks found a manuscript interesting in all that time, then only two copies would have been made. And, if both of those monasteries were attacked by Anglo-Saxons, Irish, Picts, Vikings, or the French at any time after that, their manuscripts might just be destroyed. To put it in context, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae was a bestseller during the Middle Ages, and more copies have been found of it than of any other lay manuscripts. With all of that popularity, manuscripts have been found.
Another problem with the manuscripts is the meticulous science of determining which copy most closely resembles the original. Studying the development of scribal errors for only a dozen manuscripts often requires months of some of the most painstaking work in the field and the most easy to find flaw in with the finding of another manuscript or the discovery of some new element in an old one.
Historians’ prior assumptions are also a problem. Even the most neutral of learning environments starts with a simple reading of the four basic “historical” sources – Gildas, Bede, Annales Cambriae, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – interpreted by Geoffrey of Monmouth. There is nothing to say that Geoffrey had any better idea about Post-Roman Britain than we do, and a great deal suggests that most of his writings were tempered by the desires of the people he wrote for and his own fancy. It is delicate and time-consuming to be aware of that bias without assuming it is simply wrong.
A sixth obstacle to a study of the period is the limited archaeological remains. Through traditions and information from various other sources, scholarship and digs have come upon many of the chief sites occupied in Wales and several in Cornwall/Devonshire and the north, while similar luck has helped Anglo-Saxon scholars determine many of the occupied sites in England, but they represent only a small proportion of the total occupied sites – for instance there is no certain site or sites for a ruler or rulers in Cumberland up until the early seventh century when Mercia controlled it. Though it has now been determined there must have been several kingships in early Pictland, only one has been certainly located.
There is also the simple fact of oral history to consider. The native customs of all the culture groups of Britain put a great deal more stock in oral history than written records. Celtic bards and their Germanic equivalent skops were some of the most respected members of their respective societies. Several of the bard’s mnemonic devices have been preserved in manuscripts, while we have a number of stories and legends that could only have survived by word of mouth.
However, oral history is often not as useful to historical studies as the written word because it has a habit of growing and adapting to new surroundings. Under the best of circumstances, oral materials must be handled with extreme care. In the constant turmoil that was Early Medieval Britain, it must be highly suspect. In short, this leaves the historian with a very small number of historical sources and the awareness that most of the information they contain may be inaccurate.
Keeping all this in mind, suddenly a topic with so few sources and those from such varying viewpoints, one must change perspectives in addressing the history of Post-Roman Britain. The passed century may have seen a thorough discussion of every source relating to the Arthurian period from many different perspectives and by people with diverse backgrounds. However, the present author has seen a number of breakthroughs over the last decade and by experts who have never seen fit to tie all the findings together in one overarching history. That is what the present volume is intended to do.
All of the above is why the present offering is primarily a political history. The choice is also one the author is well qualified for. He has dabbled in the cultural and social history of the period in his previous works, but his efforts cannot compare to Dr. Charles-Edwards on the subject, Dafydd Jenkins’ work in Welsh law, or David Binchy in the importance of family. Nor would he claim to be an expert in the art of the British, Picts, Irish, or Anglo-Saxons. With all the recent work done on the literature by various experts and the linguistics themselves by Professor John T. Koch, the author would not even entertain the thought of contributing in that particular field. He has touched on the religion and of the period as well, but nothing to compare with the religious studies of D. Simon Evans.
Instead, the author laid the groundwork for such a study by dating many of the key people of the period in Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain. Before then, he had alluded to many of the key concepts and questions of the period in Hengest as well as Evidence of Arthur and Origins of Arthurian Romances. These writing choices have made the generation of the present volume a next logical choice. It provides the opportunity for responding to some of the logical questions that should follow his work. For example, if Gwrtheyrn was a sixth-century king and Hengest was a figure of the fourth century, what exactly happened in the decades between 410 and the rise of the first generation of kings in the late fifth century? How did fifth-century politics work if a king could not expect to reach forty?
1 Adamnan. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 1.1, 1.10, 2.33, 2.35, 2.42.
2 Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (Madison, 1985).
3 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013); The Law of Hywel Dda, trans. and ed. Dafydd Jenkins, (Llandysul, 1986); Binchy, Early Irish and Welsh Kinship, (Oxford, 1993) and “Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Kingship, (Oxford, 1970).
4 Lloyd Laing and his wife produced several educational works in the 1970s and 1980s.
5 We can only hope that Professor Koch will offer some sort of an overview of the development of Welsh literature in the next few years.
6 The Welsh Life of David, ed. D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1988); Lives of the Welsh Saints, trans. G.H. Doble, ed. D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 2015).