Interview with author Matthew Harffy

Charlene Newcomb

Author Matthew HarffyI am delighted to have Matthew Harffy visit my blog today. Matthew has written a tale of Dark Ages Britain that is receiving praise from readers and other authors alike.

Welcome, Matthew! Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. Tell us about The Serpent Sword.

It is set in BRITAIN 633 A.D.

The book blurb is as follows:

Certain that his brother’s death is murder, young farmhand Beobrand embarks on a quest for revenge in war-torn Northumbria. When he witnesses barbaric acts at the hands of warriors he considers his friends, Beobrand questions his chosen path and vows to bring the men to justice.

Relentless in pursuit of his enemies, Beobrand faces challenges that change him irrevocably. Just as a great sword is forged by beating together rods of iron, so his adversities transform him from a farm boy to a man who stands strong in the clamour and…

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The death of King Aethelred II – on this day in history 999 years ago

It’s been pointed out to me via another blog post that today is the 999th anniversary of King Aethelred II of England’s death, which means that really something big should be planned for next year when it’s a 1000 years, but poor old Aethelred II, like the much maligned Richard III, is very short of supporters. And here the similarities will, for the time being remain.

Richard III, like Aethelred II, was the last King in a royal line (let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Aethelred’s children did eventually succeed him after the death of Cnut and his own sons) and he was the victim of many scurrilous rumours and of course, the quill of Shakespeare didn’t help him out at all. Whilst I’m not a great fan of Richard III I want to at least do him the courtesy of considering what we KNOW about his and what we SUSPECT about him and make my own decision. The power of negative publicity is far greater than good publicity.

Yet, the same rules have never been applied to Aethelred II. He’s been derided by many, earned himself the epitaph of ‘The Unready’ and few seem to want to look behind the fiction to see the facts. It’s also worth remembering that not only did Aethelred II’s death allow (alright, maybe allow isn’t the right word there but I think you know what I mean) Cnut of Denmark to claim the throne, the later death of his son, Edward the Confessor, allowed William the Bastard to ‘steal’ the throne of England. Effectively the history of Aethelred II had been rewritten TWICE within the space of fifty years and that’s before anyone else turned their attention to him.

This is an important fact to remember. Almost all that is known about Aethelred II is retrospective, and sadly, historians and fiction writer alike, tend to forget this and rely on any snippet of information they can find out about him in order to build their story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, the attitudes of people who lived close to the men and women in history I strive to research are an excellent source of information, but often it’s what they DON’T tell us that’s important, and often it’s what they DO tell us within the context of events affecting them that’s important. ‘Histories’ and Saints Lives that have survived nearly a millennia often reveal more about the society that created them than it does about the people they purport to be about.

So, what’s the main issue with Aethelred?
1) he murdered his brother to become King
(um – he was only ten or twelve at the time of his brother’s death and he was never implicated in his own life time, and nor, more interestingly, was his mother who also takes the blame for this. His brother, a youth of only 18 at the time of his death, was a political pawn in a game between the great ealdormen of England at the time. Who knows what really happened.)
2)He never went to war and he let the Vikings rape England and then paid them to leave and crippled his people with heavy taxation!
No, no and yes. He did go to war – in the year 1000 there was the Battle of Strathclyde and it was a victory (I think – the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) is very anti-Aethelred and can’t seem to record anything worthwhile about him without a big BUT at the end of it.)
As to the Vikings, yes, they attacked England A LOT during his reign, but even according to the ASC it wasn’t Aethelred’s decision to pay them off – no that was taken by his church men and his councillors. Let’s not forget – England was a rich society – it had a sophisticated system of recalling and recasting money – Aethelred did this about every six-eight years throughout his reign. There were moneyers all over the place and the design of the coins was changed each time the money was recast. It was, on occasion, a way to make money by changing the weight of the coins, but it was also a system that was unheard of amongst the Vikings. I believe that England could well afford the money she paid to try and tempt the Vikings away. It’s simply unfortunate that in doing so, she roused the greed of the Vikings and they just kept coming back. A final point – if England hadn’t been so well endowed, why would Cnut, once he was King, have paid his men so much money? He wouldn’t have wanted to impoverish his new kingdom. He’d fought for maybe as long as a decade to claim the throne of England, I imagine he probably wanted to enjoy it when he finally got it. He could have rewarded his men with land or riches back in Denmark, or like William the Bastard, have doled out England’s land to those who were his favoured followers. He didn’t do this. Some of his followers became Earls (the name now changing from Ealdormen) but he kept much of the governing structure and its people in place.
3)He ordered the massacre of the Danes on St Brice’s Day and earned himself Swein of Denmark as an enemy (Cnut’s father).
Certainly the ASC mentions this – “all the Danish men among the English race were to be killed on St Brice’s Day because it was made known to the King that they wanted to ensnare his life,” but little is known about how many were killed on the King’s orders, and who exactly was meant by ‘all the Danish men,’ and neither can it be said with any certainty that this involved the killing of Swein of Denmark’s sister who was then living in England. This entire scenario is difficult to understand or explain, or offer any explanation to, but it could simply be a turn of phrase used by the scribe of the ASC AFTER Aethelred’s death to describe something far less catastrophic than the hastily flung words imply, when it just so happened that England had a Danish King, a very strong Danish King who understood the importance of the written word, as can be evidenced by his letters back to the English when he was overseas during his reign. Once more, it’s vital to look BEHIND the supposed ‘fact’ that is known about Aethelred.

Aethelred II is very much maligned in almost every written source available to modern readers, but a very careful study of the independent sources, can present Aethelred in a wholly different light. For those who are really keen please try and track down a copy of Simon Keynes, ‘The Diplomas of King Aethelred II’, it is a hugely intelligent piece of work and whilst you might not want to pour through the charters, at least read the way that he believes Aethelred II governed throughout the changeable years of his reign. Don’t forget, whatever else can be said about Aethelred, England was whole when it was passed onto Cnut. During the first Viking Age, the kingdoms of England; Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, all fractured and fell apart under the onslaught of the Vikings. Aethelred, whatever his faults, (and he had many) had loyal men labouring to keep England safe and united. It would be interesting to know if Cnut ever realized that.

As a writer, my concern was actually with Ealdorman Leofwine, one of Aethelred’s longest serving supporters. He, like Aethelred, falls foul of the scribes of the ASC because he’s not mentioned, not once, even though he held his position throughout the Viking raids (from 994 – 1023). The reasons he wasn’t included are intriguing (and not for today) but he serves as a wonderful example of the hit and miss nature of historical knowledge and that might just be because his sons and grandsons were the arch rivals of the House of Godwins. But again, that’s not for today, and is just another angle to be factored in when talking about Aethelred II and Leofwine of the Hwicce.

I almost pity them their anonymity and their notoriety.

History, is not, and contrary to what people believe, a study of facts. It’s a study of the tantalizing glimpses of information that have miraculously survived, and the greatest skill is in appreciating this and applying sound reasoning to what might have happened. It’s not, unfortunately, an excuse to decide who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’. History can teach many valuable lessons, but the first one, the most important one, is that no one writes down a piece of information without some bias. Find the bias – discover the ‘fact’.

Enjoy.

3D Modeling at the Bamburgh Research Project

It’s all about 3d again!

Bamburgh Research Project's Blog

Our Field School Coordinator, Cole Kelly, has been exploring more ways of bringing the Bamburgh Research Project excavations to the wider world:

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 8.17.21 PM A still photo of the 3D model

“I started last summer by downloading a free trial version of Agisoft PhotoScan, a Photogrammetry program. Photogrammetry is essentially the process of making precise measurements by means of photography. One photograph on its owns cannot be measured with accuracy. Photogrammetry takes information from multiple photographs to create a highly accurate representation of the place or object. It is becoming increasingly important to the archaeological recording process.

After taking 50-80 pictures of a site the program renders the information into an adjustable 3D model. We can increase the accuracy of the model by combining it with real life 3D location points provided by our EDM machine. 

In the future I hope to bring many more features from our excavations into this easily sharable…

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The Archaeologist’s Shoes

The Landscape Research Centre

Shoes_DSC7674_reduced

The Landscape Research Centre has been actively involved in rescue archaeology at Cook’s Quarry, West Heslerton, North Yorkshire in the Vale of Pickering since a visit by the director in 1977. The original excavations at Cook’s Quarry were published in the Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute in 1986 (Powlesland, D.J., Haughton, C.A. and Hanson, J.H. 1986 ‘Excavations at Heslerton, North Yorkshire 1978-82’, Archaeol. J. 143, 53-173). Since then with the exception of a gap in excavation during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when parts of the quarry were extended without any archaeological observation, excavations have continued to examine and record areas prior to sand extraction on an almost biannual basis.

The cumulative results of these excavations have confirmed the importance of the Cook’s Quarry site with reference to the Prehistory of the North of England including the excavation of possible major Late Mesolithic or Neolithic but as yet undated post settings…

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A discussion of early Anglo-Saxon sources

To what extent can we – or should we – select one date or event as ‘the end of Roman Britain’?

In order to locate the end of Roman Britain it is necessary to conduct a detailed and systematic critique of the available sources from the period that the end of Roman Britain is purported to have come about. This is not such an onerous task as might be expected as sources for the period are scant and offer piecemeal information. After this has been attempted it should be possible to determine if a date or event can be said to mark the end of Roman Britain. At the present time there is a wealth of theories given as to when Roman Britain ended. Dark in his ‘Civitas to Kingdom’ published in 1994 argues that ‘…. Eastern England passed out of Roman political domination in the course of the first decade of the fifth century and was re-defended by sub-Roman authorities in the early to mid fifth century. By the late fifth century, most of it was controlled by Anglo-Saxons,’[1] whilst Higham in his 1994 book argues that ‘it is accepted by all sides that the year 441 represents the date at which Saxon rule within a large part of Britannia became known to a southern Gaulish chronicler,’[2] and as such Roman Britain must have ended by that date at the latest. As these differing interpretations all rely wholly on the same written sources and so it is necessary to have a deep understanding of these sources before reaching any conclusions or agreeing with other historians interpretations of events.

Sources for the end of Roman Britain, which is taken to have occurred from the 5th century onwards, with a readily given date of 410 as the official date for the end of Roman Britain taking after Zosimus who stated that they ‘expelled their Roman rulers and set up their own governments as far as lay within their power’[3], are few and nearly all continental. It must here be noted that even Zosimus is a later commentator so had the advantage of hindsight when writing his work. The only native source is that of Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae (DEB). This source is extremely problematic and needs to be considered with care and attention. For the purpose of this essay the problems of ancient document transition to our own times will be only lightly touched on, yet it is essential to understand that only the information available to us can be interpreted and if this can be shown to be incorrectly transcribed then the reliance on the source is extremely problematic.

There is still no consensus amongst historians as to when the DEB was actually written. Convincing arguments have been postulated by Higham for a date in 480,

‘he was apparently writing in or about AD480 from the comparative safety (in this context) of a British community between the Thames and the Channel which was under indigenous rule but subject to the ultimate protection of the Saxons.’

Gildas himself comments that the siege of Badon Hill ‘was the year of my birth: as I know one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed,’[5] but gives no further details about the year of Badon Hill. This has led to a debate about when Badon Hill took place. This must be seen to be a worthwhile debate as it does mark the only datable event in the entire DEB. Lapidge has further argued for an early sixth century date for Gildas’s writing, whilst admitting that

‘to think in such terms is to imply that much more of the fabric of Roman civilisation was still visible in sixth-century Britain than has hitherto been assumed.’[6]

Coupled with the problems in dating the DEB there is also the difficulty of placing where the DEB was written. Whilst Higham above postulates that it was written in the south of the country, there have been equally convincing arguments that he was writing in the north of the country (Miller) and also that he may have been writing in Wales. The only compelling reason to discredit the northern association with Gildas comes from his confusion over the purpose and building of Hadrian’s Wall which has been taken to show that he was not a native northerner, as does his confusion about the home of the Picts. The geographical location of Gildas has also been assumed to lie outside that of the five tyrants he berated,

‘…. the assumption that he necessarily lived and worked outside their orbit merely because he attacked them so openly is far from conclusive.’[7]

This carries with it the assumption that we can correctly place the five tyrants and this is not always the case. Surely for an assumption to be based on the available information, that information must be seen to be above reinterpretation!

It is also important to understand the motives behind Gildas’s DEB. Certainly it is no dry chronicle with a list of consular dates and appropriate happenings. Gildas was writing at a time when he feared for the spiritual welfare of the people of Britain. His intention was not to provide as concise and accurate history of Britain as he could write. Instead it was to highlight the plight he felt the Britons to be in. As such his emphasis was not on the facts that historians would find most useful in determining the end of Roman Britain but in finding facts that fit his intended template – that Britons could find respite from the evils that had befallen them by seeing to their own spiritual welfare. As Higham states,

‘Gildas was not writing an objective, historical account of British history but a piece of dialectic which utilised the past to establish a system of causality appropriate to the present.’[8] ‘Gildas’s business was with examples and anecdotes, not the continuous warp of history and his case might well have been weakened by reference to more than a single exemplar of each sort.’[9]

So what does Gildas actually tell the reader about the state of Britain at this time? Again, this is not a simple question to answer. Regardless of where Gildas wrote his work his view of Britain at that time was differentiated by the Roman view of Britain,

‘his Britannia was … close kin to the Britanniae – the provinces of the late Roman British diocese. He may even have been ignorant of the survival of free indigenous communities in the far north throughout the Roman period, if he ever considered the question.’[10]

This means that his work informs about the areas of Britain which were Romanised – that is the lowland areas of Britain, namely the south of Britain, whilst his tyrants are thought to have lived in what is now Cornwall and Wales (Higham). The content of his work also informs that,

‘the most frightening feature …. is not the destruction of city life in Britain, or the breakup of the imperial system with its guarantee of peaceful life, but rather the destruction of knowledge itself – knowledge of the outside world and knowledge of the past had been wiped out of men’s minds.’[11]

With specific reference to events in Britain at this time Gildas informs of the career of the usurper Maximus; of him taking troops away from Britain when he left ; of the invasions of Scots and Picts at this time and the request that was sent to Rome to ask for aid. He tells how they did receive some aid but that the troops quickly returned home and that the Scots and Picts quickly reasserted themselves, and that when Rome was again appealed to for help, Britain was told to defend itself although Rome did offer advice on how this should be done. However the Scots and Picts again returned and the people of Britain sent a letter to Aetius asking for assistance but received none. In the meantime Britain was devastated by famine, and attacks from the Irish, whilst the Picts stayed home for once. During this time the people recovered and the island became wealthy and turned away from their Christianity. Then the ‘old enemy’

Gildas then goes on to detail some of the kings who have ruled in Britain, naming five of them and giving them all various crimes against God. Those listed are Constantine, Aurelius Caninus, Vortipor, Cuneglasus and Maglocunus, with the implication that there was a further sixth Saxon king,

‘Gildas offers a vision of a contemporary Britain which was unevenly divided between the five British tyrants in the west and a powerful, but shadowy, Saxon king ruling the remainder.’

Thus, Gildas is actually incredibly informed about events in Britain at this time, or at least what was the Roman province of The impression given is of an island in constant flux and constant danger of invasion, which is ultimately abandoned by its Roman overseers. However, the lack of dates makes the whole narrative extremely difficult to piece together with any amount of precision. From Gildas it is fair to say that he presents a picture of the province of Britanniae which is constantly changing, and of course for Gildas, in mortal peril of losing its place under the watchful eye of God.

So what else can be implied about Britain at this time from the words of Gildas? Britain was by this time, obviously, open to the ideas of Christianity. It has been argued persuasively by both Dark and Thompson that Britain at the end of the Roman age was becoming increasingly Christian – either from the bottom up – that is from the lower classes (Dark) or from the top down – that is from the upper classes(Thompson). Whichever viewpoint is taken it is important to remember that the Roman Empire had only relatively recently adopted Christianity as its main religion, displacing the pagan gods. As such Britain had been influenced enough by the time of Gildas’s writing that he could safely assume that his intended audience would understand his biblical references and his desire for spiritual reform.

It could be said that the person of Gildas himself is more important than his writing. The fact that he wrote in Latin, the language of the Roman aristocracy and administration points to an education received in Latin; the fact that he wrote about Britain in mainly biblical terms which he believed his audience would understand; the fact that he used as his base earlier Latin texts; and the fact that it can be argued that his writing was actually intended as a sermon points very much to the culture of Rome still being current and immediate when he produced his DEB. This could be said to show a continuing Roman culture when the Romans should have already left British shores, and so perhaps pushing the end of Roman Britain further back than the year 410. As Higham argues,

‘Gildas’s own education in grammar and rhetoric may imply that the law courts and magistracies, which had provided the normal career path of the aristocracy in the Roman provinces, were still functioning, or at least expected to resume functioning, when his parents were considering his educational needs, some thirty years before the date of composition.’[15]

He also asserts that ‘perhaps it was his own (Gildas’s) generation which was the first to witness the final separation of civil government and jurisdiction from its traditional urban setting.’[16] Gildas offers something more than a narrative of the end of Roman Britain as he in a sense embodies the end of Roman Britain. If it can be said with confidence that Gildas was a product of the last generation of Romanised gentry in Britain then he presided over the final severance of Britain from Rome, whenever that happened.

The writings contained in the other sources purporting to date from the fifth century are less detailed and yet the work of disentangling the author from his background is just as relevant if the work is to be correctly interpreted. The work of Constantius of Lyon on St Germanus of Auxerre was written circa 480-490 and before 494, according to Thompson, and so could be said to have been written at the same that Gildas was writing, if we accept Higham’s view on dating. It is a work of hagiography and as such does not have as its basis a historically accurate account of St Germanus, and indeed contains no dates. It was written up to 60 years after events which are mentioned in it, and it is important to bear in mind this time discrepancy between its characters and its author. The only datable moment stems from a notice in Prosper’s Chronicle which dates Germanus’ visit to Britain to 429. However, is it prudent to rely on another ancient text to verify an entry in an equally ancient text? The purpose of the work is always to show St Germanus in as good a light as possible, possibly to the detriment of then known facts, which can now no longer be independently verified. As Thompson argues, ‘we must not be over-optimistic about our chances of learning much about the history of fifth century Britain from his pages.’[17] However, it behoves the historian to try for the simple reason that it is a contemporary source, ‘we cannot afford to ignore any ancient author who speaks at some length about Britain.’[18] This work can be placed geographically and the author is well known, an advantage over the work of Gildas. With this work it is possible to interpret the authors’ bias and also account for information contained or omitted within its text.

Constantius’ text relating to Britain concerns the visit of St Germanus to Britain to counter the Pelagian threat. There is much debate as to whether or not he visited Britain once, or twice and when these visits took place. As mentioned above, the first visit has been dated to 429 through correlation with Prosper’s Chronicles. Whether it is a correct assumption to marry the two sources together or not, is certainly open to debate and needs to be borne in mind when discussing the validity of either text to the debate on the state of Britain in the fifth century. However the text is relevant and informative about certain aspects of Britain at this time, and must be explored in depth for this information. Thompson has written at great length on this work and has made a number of valuable comments about what the Pelagian controversy in Britain means about the state of Romanisation in Britain at this time. The fact that the controversy spread so quickly and was so popular has lead Thompson to argue that this ‘was perhaps only possible in a land where the Emperor’s power could no longer be felt’.[19] When on his second visit to Britain Constantius informs that the Pelagians were sent into exile by the Church congregation Thompson argues,

‘where else in the Roman world, or in what had until recently been the Roman world, could a preacher’s congregation send men into exile?’[20]

Following this argument forward, Thompson wonders if this action could have been taken as a result of knowledge of the law enacted by Honorius on 30/4/418 which decreed that anyone found discussing Pelagianism were liable to be arrested by anyone and condemned to inexorable exile. If this were the case then it would show that Roman law still had some validity in Britain in the 430’s onwards. However this argument is slightly laboured and Thompson is quick to comment that ‘it would be a bold man who would assert that Roman legislation of 418 could have been enforced in Britain in the 430s or 440s’.[21] Again this may simply be a matter of Constantius being aware of this legislation when he wrote in the 480s and using it to make Germanus appear in as Christian light as possible. Indeed the very incident has doubt cast on it by a source written by Prosper which states that the Pope was responsible for removing the Pelagians from Britain.

‘All in all, these events suggest that Britain was still subject to the Roman Church if not to the Emperor and that papal policy was being pursued with confidence on the fringes of the world’. [22]

What does the fact that Constantius allows the congregation to remove the threat of heresy from Britain say about those who were in power at this time? Constantius has very sparse detail about Britain and mentions only one British name and gives no indication of political authority at the time.

‘What the Vita describes seems to be a land from which the Roman administration has wholly disappeared and in which, apart from the indifferent man of tribunician power, nothing very obvious has taken its place’.[23]

This cannot be taken to mean that there was none. Constantius is ill informed about Britain. In contrasting his work with Proper’s he also states that,

‘Prosper gives us in five lines of the printed text more ‘hard’ information about the ecclesiastical position in Britain than Constantius is able to convey, or choose to convey, in many pages’.[24]

Perhaps in view of all these difficulties it would be better to disregard anything that Constantius writes about Britain at this time as many of his comments simply invite more questions than they answer? Perhaps as with Gildas, it would be better to look at the person of Constantius himself and make comments based on what he himself embodies? In which case it would be that those on the Continent, even those within the church hierarchy, were ill informed about events in Britain at this time.

Yet there are other sources which show that this may not have been the case. Prosper of Aquitaine and the anonymous author of the chronicle of 452 were also working on the continent and whilst constrained by the style they wrote in, that of continuators of Jerome’s Chronicles, they do make some mention of Britain during the fifth century. Prosper first added to Jerome’s Chronicles in 433 and then according to Muhlberger, returned to the Chronicles again on numerous occasions between 433 and 455. He produced at least 4 versions of his text and the best informed versions are those of 445 and 455 – there are no complete copies of the 451 edition and that of 433 can only be detected by a close examination of the later editions. This is important to note. Prosper had 22 years to think about events he transcribes and it is possible that his viewpoints may have changed during this time and revisions might have been made dependent on later consequences of the actions commented upon. Prosper seems to have come from Aquitaine and then moved to Provence and finally onto Rome and seems to have been born around 390. His chronicle was ‘immediately popular, finding readers during his lifetime not only in Rome but also in Africa’.

Prosper records the first expedition of Germanus to Britain in Chapter 1301, which has been used to collaborate the work of Constantius. ‘It is one of the few notices of British affairs after 410 by any fifth century author’ [26] but as Muhlberger comments,

‘he had no more intrinsic interest in Britain than the majority of his contemporaries … the story was included to commemorate another victory for the orthodox over the Pelagians, and even more to demonstrate the leading part taken by the Roman church in the fight for the true faith, even in remote corners of the world’.[27]

As such, once again, the information available now is tempered with the bias of the author and his overwhelming concern with glorifying the Christian church.

A further source is that of the anonymous Chronicler of 452. This source has recently undergone a revival and historians are now more readily accepting of the information contained within it. However, the fact that it is anonymous presents problems akin to the work of Gildas. It is not possible to determine who the author was and what his bias was. It is necessary to allude this information from that given in the text and also from the manuscript tradition. What can be said with some certainty is that,

‘he was, like Prosper, a devout Christian of an ascetic bent, he even seems to have lived in Marseille, where Prosper resided in the 420s and 430s’.[28]

Yet Muhlberger makes the point that ‘the two men were not in sympathy’[29]. Whilst it can be argued that both men were writing at a similar time they both have completely different outlooks on events at this time and the anonymous author of 452 ‘saw decline and defeat affecting both church and state.’[30] So what does the author inform of events in Britain at this time. In Chapter 62 he stated, ‘The British provinces were laid waste by an invasion of Saxons’ and in chapter 126 ‘The British provinces, which up to this time had suffered various defeats and catastrophes, were reduced to Saxon rule’. This entry has been dated to 440-441. Yet, ‘he had no profound interest in Britain and possessed few details about conditions there. He simply invoked the name of Britain to supplement his pictures of a defeated empire in the process of disintegration.’[31] Still, he provides information that no other sources does – the victories that Magnus Maximus won over the Picts and Scots before he went to Gaul. Muhlberger has compared the works of the Chronicler of 452 with the work of Narration De Imperatorbis Domnus Valentinianae et Theodosianae and has concluded from this work that the Chronicler of 452 viewed events differently in Britain and that ‘something occurred about a decade before the Chronicler wrote that appeared to mark the transition between a Britain harassed by enemies and suffering from disaster, and a Britain finally subjugated by the Saxons.’[32] His source viewed this as happening under the reign of Honorius when ‘Britain was forever removed from the Roman name’[33] whereas the 452 Chronicler viewed this as happening in 440-441, thirty years later. It must be borne in mind that the Chronicler ‘was preoccupied with events that might seem unimportant to us … but which to him were near and threatening.’

An examination of the main ‘historical’ sources for the fifth century in Britain leaves a gaping hole where knowledge has been forever lost. However it would be wrong to discredit all these sources on the grounds mentioned above – be they bias or inability to place adequately in time and place,

As Muhlberger comments,

‘the words of the fifth century chronicles have been preserved for us not because of their individual brilliance, but because they took part in a collective enterprise … they were contributing to the continuing history of the church, in the hope that their part in it would be useful and instructive for those who followed them.’[36]

This can also be applied to Gildas, although Muhlberger was mainly writing with the continental fifth century chronicles of Prosper, 452 and Hydatius in mind. As such what is left to the historian is the preoccupation of Christian men to a world that appeared to be fracturing and for which the only salvation that could be found was in the words of God and works to the glory of God. Any other information provided is purely secondary to the primary purpose.

It would be wrong to pick and choose which information was most relevant from these sources and this is something that historians needs to desist from doing. The work of the chroniclers was relevant and immediate to the time they were written. It was history in the making and needs to be considered as a whole, whilst understanding its limitations. All sources agree that at some point in the fifth century the idea of a Roman Britain came to an end – that is the physical presence of Romans in Britain appeared to come to an end. That’s not the same thing as saying that Roman Britain ended. The administration and physical structure of Britain remained to a greater or lesser degree for much of this time, and depending on when Gildas’s work is dated to, can be seen to be embodied in the very presence of Gildas himself. It would also be incorrect to assume that just because generals and troops failed to come to Britain during this time that Roman involvement ended. Certainly, the church was involved in Britain as the works of Constantinus, Prosper and the anonymous work of 452 are at pains to show. The Saxons may have arrived, and they may have taken over the government of much of the old Britannia. How they did so is open to debate, but it would be safe to assume that after the rape and pillaging had taken place, they took advantage of the superstructure already in place and more than likely, benefited from it.

The year 2010 will give historians and archaeologists alike the opportunity to use the 1600 year anniversary of the supposed exit of the Romans from Britain to question accepted beliefs and to look a little further than the written sources available from the time that Roman Britain can be said to have ended. As archaeology is constantly finding new fifth centurysites, and especially coins, it has become understandable that the standardised interpretation of the beginning and end of Roman Britain can no longer be sustained. Archaeologists and historians need to work together, with other specialists, such as numismatics to clearly define when Roman Britain ended, if it did at all. Surely it would be far more helpful to see Roman Britain merging into sub-Roman Britain before again merging into Anglo-Saxon England. Perhaps it is the continuity which needs to be stressed instead of the break. Britain was not unified before the Romans came, during the Roman ‘occupation’ or after the Romans had left. As such the idea of a ‘Roman’ Britain is erroneous to start with. There are a number of problems the most fundamental is that there needs to be a coherent and agreed definition of what Roman Britain was, what came before it, and what came after. Only then can it be even remotely possible to determine if it ended and when that end came about. None of these concepts is easy to define, because when the available evidence for the entire 500 or so years which encompasses Britain before the Romans, after the Romans, and also during the Romans, is examined, the sources available are slight, and it is imperative that archaeology, linguistics and science are used to supplement the scanty sources available. These historical sources need to be examined within the context that they were written, and analysed for the information that they can provide not for the information that it is beyond their powers to supply. What can be said with certainty is that the answer cannot yet be definitively defined, as Sam Moorhead says in the March/April edition of British Archaeology when discussing the 1600 year anniversary of the ‘end of Roman Britain’, ‘by the end of 2010 …. we will know much more about the end of Roman Britain. But we will probably all still disagree when it ended!’

The historians of the fifth century all disagreed on when Roman Britain ended, and Wood gives a valuable argument as to why this was so,

‘there is nothing to suggest that the people of Britain were worried by these developments; already they had passed out of the Imperial orbit, but they had done so slowly and without any clear awareness of the significance of the changes taking place.’[38]

‘Ultimately the end of Roman Britain is the history of fifth and sixth century opinion and, because of the nature of our sources, Continental opinion at that,’[39] as such it is not our place to say when Roman Britain ended – we need to look back to the commentators of the day and accept their opinions and view on what was happening. Hindsight cannot play a part because it is too easy to adopt our own biases and inflict them on the past. As such all that can be said with confidence is that at some point in the fifth century, Romanised Britain ceased to be a part of the Roman Empire in the physical sense of belonging, and nothing further than that can be confidently asserted.

[1] K. R Dark, Civitas to Kingdom – British Political Continuity 300-800’(Leicester, 1994) Pg 54

[2] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 121

[3] S. Ireland Roman Britain, A Sourcebook (New York, 1986) pg 168-9

[4]N. Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994) Pg 176

[5] M. Winterbottom, (ed. And trans), Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents. Arthurian Periiod Sources Vol 7 (Chichester, 1978)Pg 28

[6] M. Lapidge., ‘Gildas’s Education and the Latin Culture of Sub Roman Britain’ in M.Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds), Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984), pp27-50 pg 50

[7] N. Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 97 ???

[8] N Higham ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (Manchester, 1994)Pg 21

[9] N Higham ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (Manchester, 1994)Pg 21

[10] N Higham ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (Manchester, 1994)Pg 90

[11] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) pg 115

[12] M. Winterbottom, (ed. And trans), Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents. Arthurian Period Sources Vol 7 (Chichester, 1978)Pg 25

[13] M. Winterbottom, (ed. And trans), Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents. Arthurian Period Sources Vol 7 (Chichester, 1978)Pg 27

[14] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 166

[15] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 158

[16] N Higham The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994)Pg 158

[17] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) pg 14

[18] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) pg ix

[19] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 22

[20] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 28

[21] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 29

[22] I Wood, ;The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels’ in M Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds) Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984) 1-25 Pg14

[23] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 32

[24] E A Thompson., Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1984) Pg 23

[25] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 55

[26] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 84

[27] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 85

[28]S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 136

[29] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 136

[30] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg Pg 136

[31] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 179

[32] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 179

[33] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990)Pg 179

[34] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 179

[35] E.A Thompson, Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain pg 6

[36] S Muhlberger The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452 (Leeds, 1990) Pg 278

[37] Sam Moorhead, British Archaeology March/April 2010 pg 21

[38] I Wood, ;The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels’ in M Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds) Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984) 1-25 Pg1-2 Ian Wood Pg 25

[39] I Wood, ;The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels’ in M Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds) Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984) 1-25 Pg1-2 Ian Wood

The role of the historical fiction writer

Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think historical fiction writers have a duty to portray history as accurately as possible and I think this should be the most up to date interpretations of the past, and not what people were taught in the classroom at school, often quite some time ago, or what’s to be found in popular ‘history’ books often written by presenters from the TV who simply regurgitate the same old supposed facts.

History, contrary to popular opinion, is not an old, dead, subject. In fact it can be very current (I’m just reading about a new copy of the Magna Carta that’s been found abandoned in an old scrapbook) and it changes as more and more information is unearthed or rethought.

Now, this problem doesn’t only affect historical fiction authors, but often those who are eminent scholars in other fields who want to cross-reference with history. Archaeology is only the most obvious of these. Archaeologists aren’t historians, and vice-versa, and as close as the two subjects are, their cross over points can be poles apart. Archaeologists and historians both use each others research to ‘prove’ their arguments but they often rely on outdated interpretations and aren’t always aware of the most up to date research. This can cause huge problems, and I think that all scholars have a duty to seek out experts who can provide the correct current thinking, even if they ultimately question it and offer an alternative.

So what of historical fiction writers? Too often I see old stereotypes being portrayed and no efforts being made to write something that’s factually accurate but different to the accepted norm and this means that time and time again, outdated ideas and even completely incorrect stories are being written about historical figures and being accepted by a huge majority of people because it says it in a book. Not only does it stifle historical research because it means that readers don’t question the story, it also means that incorrect historical ideas are constantly being reinforced. As an historian, I’ve been taught never to really accept what’s written, to look for the bias, look for who gains from a certain take on events, to look at why things are written just as much as what’s actually written. I take this as normal behaviour, but I’m starting to think I might be wrong and that worries me. What if people really think that Elizabeth I did have an affair with Dudley? What if people really do think that Henry VIII was just a dirty old man who went through six wives in seemingly rapid succession (forgetting all together that he was ‘happily’ married for nearly 20 years before all that kicked off)?

If you’re a historical fiction writer, think about why you use the information that you do, and more importantly, if you’re a reader, please think about how the characters are used and why and if you can, dig a little deeper, look for the ‘truth’ because it’s more than likely very, very different from what’s being portrayed. Even seemingly small touches can damn an entire book or TV show. Find the reason, and then, hopefully, the ‘facts’ might make themselves a little clearer.

Why do I do this to myself!!! It’s, like, a 300 year gap!!!

Sometimes, sometimes, I wonder why I make my life so difficult!

Let me explain.

So, for my dissertation, I was going to study the early years of Iceland and compare them with the developments in the Danelaw, only then I got sidetracked by Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce, and from him grew both my dissertation and The Earls of Mercia series following the Ealdorman through the years from 994-1067 (eventually). And I should have been happy. Only, someone mentioned that they really wanted to know what happened between Alfred and Aethelred II and so Brunanburh (937) was born, and Of Kings and Half Kings (939-942).

Now, I have no one to blame for my next project, Haedfeld, because it was my idea but, but, well the battle of Haedfeld (excuse my lack of Anglo-Saxon characters but it doesn’t always work on my laptop) was entirely my own idea but it takes place in 632/3 and that brings a whole load of new problems. I know the time period, vaguely, and I’ve studied the old Northumbrian Supremacy, Mercian Supremacy and finally the Wessex Supremacy, but I feel as though I’ve wondered into an entirely different minefield of pseudo facts and facts. I know I only have myself to blame, but it’s made me realise how easy it is to forget the great span of time that the Anglo-Saxon period covers. Starting somewhere in the fifth century and running all the way to the eleventh, that’s nearly 600 years.

Now put it into context, if I was trying to do that with this year, I’d be going all the way back to the 1400’s and the War of the Roses and the end of the Hundred Years War. That’s a huge time period! Think of all the facts and pseudo facts we know about that huge chunk of time. So, that done, I’m trying to give myself a breather, think about what I’m doing and not stress too much about the whole thing. Haedfeld and all those other events I want to write about will happen, but I need my research to be firmer before I make a fool of myself.

Still I got deny that I’m very excited about bringing the rascally Penda to life and maybe one day I’ll turn my attention on that Offa as well. Time will tell.