Book Review: King Arthur’s Wars: The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of England

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by Jim Storr

Solihull, Eng.: Helion & Co. / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2016. Pp. 320. Illus., maps, append., biblio., index. $49.95. ISBN: 1910777811

The Birth of England

One of the great “lost causes” of history is the fall and destruction of Romano-Celtic Britain after the death of Arthur – a tale up there with those of Troy, or the destruction of the Jewish kingdom and its Temple in A.D. 70. Like those heroic failures, the fall of Romano-Celtic Britain inspired a monumental literary tradition, which had a vast impact on world culture down to the present. From it comes the language and political culture of the English-speaking peoples, which still loom large on the world stage, including trial by jury, individual rights under the Common Law, elective leadership, and government under the law. From it comes also the lasting sorrow of the conquered Romano-Celts and the near-extinction of their languages and cultural identity. Indeed, it has a similar significance for the world as do the conquest and Hispanization of Mexico and Peru, and the conquest and Arabization of the Middle East and North Africa. But in contrast to those events, while we know the conquest of ancient Britain happened, we don’t quite know how it happened. Surviving written sources are spotty; oral traditions are plainly extensive but much embroidered in poetry and legend. The literary King Arthur story that developed in the later middle ages reduces a conflict of cultures and peoples that lasted for centuries to the drama of a single tragic hero, spread over a single lifetime at the end of the fifth century. But even if Malory’s King Arthur is mostly fiction, the desire to know “what really happened?” becomes even more powerful.

The fall of ancient Britain took place in the “Dark Age”, a period of upheaval during which the modern–day nations of western Europe and the Balkans began to come into existence, in the mixture of Latin-speakers and invading Slavic, Germanic, and Turkic tribes. These invaders applied the Germanic word “walhaz” (foreigner) to the Latin–speakers of the former Roman world, from which comes the words “Wales”, “Welsh”, “Wallachian” or “Vlach” (Rumanian) “Walloon” (Belgian), and – even the Yiddish word for Sephardic Jews is “Velsh”. But what happened in Britain is plainly different from the situation in the rest of the western Roman world – Gaul, Spain, Italy, North Africa - where the invading Germanic tribes defeated the Romans militarily, established themselves as the new ruling class. They were ultimately to be absorbed culturally and linguistically by the Latin-speakers they ruled (much like the fate of the Mongols and Manchus in China). Britain is the only place in the west where a Germanic language and culture replaced that of a conquered Romanized people – does that mean they were exterminated? Modern English people are genetically mostly Celtic; but how did they come to be culturally assimilated by the Germanic invaders, in a way so different from the other Romanized peoples of the late Empire?

Jim Storr – a professor, military theorist, defence consultant, and British Army infantry veteran of 25 years experience – seeks to answer this question through extensive and very original research in the actual Dark Age written sources including the Anglo-Saxon ones, as well as through a study of place names, and archaeology, including that of the very numerous earthwork fortifications from the period, previously only studied superficially. He uses this new evidence to help weave a coherent and closely-reasoned narrative of a gradual Germanic takeover. The threat was long-term; “Count of the Saxon Shore” was a major Fourth Century Roman military command, dedicated to defending the coast from Germanic raiders, but part of dealing with the invaders was by accepting or inviting the settlement of some German tribesmen as “foederati”, allies and mercenaries. In the Fifth Century, with the influx of more invaders on the continent, some of these tribes holding enclaves on the British east coast revolted. At first the Britons were able to contain but not subdue them; and slowly they expanded to form the various Anglo-Saxon-Jutish kingdoms: Kent, Wessex, Northumbria, etc. Slowly the Romano-Celts were pushed westward and fragmented into a number of small kingdoms in Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria, and Strathclyde. The new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gradually established dominance of a the central geographical region and developed a preponderance of strength that permitted them to absorb the majority of the conquered Romano-Celtic peoples. The slow, piecemeal nature of the conquest which turned it into a struggle between cultures, marked by intense and lasting hatred on both sides. By about A.D. 800, the former Germanic invaders and their erstwhile Romano-Celtic subjects had become the “English” and fallen under attack by a new wave of invaders, their cousins the Vikings.

But why was the Germanic conquest of ancient Britons so gradual? Storr argues that the answer is largely military. First, the Romano-Celts drew on the tradition of the trained, disciplined, professional cavalry of the late Roman army, which gave them the mobility and concentration necessary to handle tribal warrior peoples, whether assembled into large armies or small raiding parties. The Romans had learned the value of mailed cavalry lancers from the Persians, and equipped with the composite bow of the steppe nomads, they were doubly effective, powerful, and versatile troops. But these were very expensive troops, requiring long training, complex equipment, organized supply, and professional command. As long as the Britons were able to retain enough of a unified Roman military organization, they were able to keep the upper hand. Such troops were key to Byzantine survival for centuries to come, and Storr notes a Welsh poem “Y Goddodin” (“The Votadini”) that describes a battle involving such a unit of mailed lancers in AD 600.

But if these cavalrymen were so effective, how did the Germanic settlers cope with and ultimately defeat them? The heart of Storr’s argument is their adoption of linear earthworks. The best and clearest example he gives is the earliest, the Cambridge Dykes in East Anglia, a broad peninsula with one good entrance route from the west, the Icknield Way. The Saxons erected a series of earthworks across the Way, anchored on the flanks in large areas of marsh and forest, effectively securing their settlements and population from surprise cavalry raids, and preventing the use of cavalry by an invading army. The largest of these is “the Devil’s Dyke” with a ditch 15 ft. deep, a bank 25 ft. high, and a length of 7 miles. Storr’s argument is detailed, thoroughly reasoned, and convincing. He extrapolates from this to the bit-by-bit spread of the original Anglo-Saxon kingships – first East Anglia, then Wessex, then Northumbria, then Mercia – and the collapse of their British opponents, such as Goddodin, Rheged, and Elmet. This narrative is based largely on Anglo-Saxon sources, the writings of Bede and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which are far from perfect but still basically informative and credible. Certainly the process was accompanied by the creation of numerous linear earthworks at sites of obvious military utility, cutting roads, barring valleys, and defending fords.

What is not so clear, however, is how lengthy linear earthworks were utilized in battle. It is plain that even lightly patrolled they could have formed an insuperable barrier to cavalry, but how heavily would they need to be manned to resist an infantry assault concentrated on a point chosen by the attacker? Wouldn’t something like the 7 mile Devil’s Dyke require a lot of men to defend, and tie them down to their strung out position? Perhaps rather than manning the parapet, the defending army was placed behind the dyke, forcing the attacker to cross and then fight with the dyke at his back, cutting off any chance of retreat? Storr does not get around to describing an imagined infantry assault on a dyke until after his complete historical narrative of four centuries of conquest until pages 257-259, and his treatment is very brief. To this reviewer, this is the main problem with the book. Storr is an experienced soldier, and I am not, so maybe I’m missing something, but the simple solution would have been for Storr to go into this with enough detail to make it clear and convincing to the reader.

Related to this is the question of parallels to these earthworks outside of Britain. Just how unusual were they? Fortified camps and strong points are commonplace, but long linear barriers across country seem pretty rare. Complex systems like China’s Great Wall or Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep tribal raiders out of civilized country, are few, though perhaps the last English earthwork, Offa’s Dyke, built around 780 and some 150 miles long, fits this pattern, serving as a barrier between Wales and the entire kingdom of Mercia. Storr mentions the Western Front trenches of WW I, and the Lines of Brabant in 1705, but both were defended by firearms, not edged weapons, and thus would have been more economical of manpower. An earthwork across the neck of Denmark dating to about 500, on the other hand, might have been constructed by Angles and Jutes who took the idea to Britain. But a wider search for linear earthworks in ancient and tribal warfare seems called for – perhaps in the many wars between Iron Age tribes or preindustrial civilizations in Nineteenth and Twentieth century Africa, for example, frequently described by eye-witness Western observers. But without a clear understanding of how they might have worked, the chief argument for the significance and effectiveness of the English earthworks is, simply, that they’re there – and so they must have been valuable.

To sum it up: This book is certainly required reading for anyone interested in “the Matter of Britain”. It perhaps goes the furthest yet in showing us “what really happened”, the real historical process by which English rule, culture and language replaced Celtic in the Dark Age, and Roman Britain was reduced to Wales. Storr combines much previous scholarship in history, archaeology, and place names with his soldier’s eye for the ground itself to create a cogent , logical, deeply interesting thesis. His writing is crisp, clear, and vivid. He does not adequately answer all the questions he raises, but that’s a matter for further work. Highly recommended.

 

Note: King Arthur’s Wars is also available in paperback and several e-editions.

 

Our Reviewer: Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, the origin of the Towed Sonar Array, and the history of Lighter-than-Air. He has contributed book reviews to The Naval Historical Foundation (http://www.navyhistory.org) and The International Journal of Naval History (http://www.ijnhonline.org). His most recent review for StrategyPage was The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command

 

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Reviewer: Robert P. Largess    


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