Sunday 21 June 2009

Warlords and Tyrants

“..... a land fertile in tyrants.”

The period in British history immediately following the ending of Roman rule has been variously labelled The Dark Ages, Sub-Roman or Post-Roman Britain, none of which seems to adequately describe the existence of Britain as a successful independent state during the turmoil created by the mass movements of peoples throughout Europe. Roman scribes were ejected along with the officials which has left historians with little or at best vague sources for the period leading to the assumption of a ‘dark age’. The term ‘sub-roman’ implies an inferior state, originally a term coined by archaeologists to define the standard of pottery finds from this time; a more suitable term ‘post-roman’ defines the period following the Roman ejection from this Island prior to Anglo-Saxon domination, from this we can deduce an independent British state in existence from 409 AD – c.596 AD which therefore must have had powerful leaders which, according to Gildas, “BRITAIN has kings, but they are tyrants.

The lack of sources from this period in British history has left the way open to many authors putting forward their thesis of a conjectured history. Two books focusing on this period have been published recently; Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain: A Narrative History for Fifth Century Britain by Edwin Pace in October 2008 and Warlords: The Struggle for Power in Post-Roman Britain by Stuart Laycock, April 2009.

Although the world’s bookcases bow under the strain of the myriad of books on the elusive Dux Bellorum, the fascination obsessive and eternal, you may be screaming “no more!”, but new books focusing on the enigmatic post-roman period are always of interest to the Arthurian aficionado. Before we can determine who or what, or if, Arthur was, we must establish the setting and both of these authors delve into the shadowy period with fresh enthusiasm. This being a subjective period owing the limitations of the sources, not all readers will agree with the proposals in these two books.

The Proud Tyrant

Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain
A Narrative History for Fifth Century Britain

by Edwin Pace

Paperback: 358 pages
Published by Invermark Books (1 Oct 2008)
ISBN-10: 0955420148

From the Back cover:

An evocative recreation of a vanished world, this is the first genuine narrative history for 5th Century Britain. The author demonstrates that the only plausible explanation for the extant evidence is that a powerful military ruler known as the Dux Bellorum dominated Post-Roman Britain for two decades. Known variously as the ‘Proud Tyrant’, Arthur and Riothmanus, his reign would be a major turning point in British History. A new and controversial narrative history for fifth century Britain. A serious history that places Arthur firmly back in the frame as an historical figure and a major one at that. A compelling story of a nation in crisis.

Table of Contents:

1. Conflict with Their Cruel Enemies
2. Cavalry by land and Mariners by Sea
3. Left Without a Shepherd
4. The proud Tyrant
5. The Romans Therefore Left the Country
6. Forty Years of Fear
7. They Left Their Cities
8. They Overthrew Their Enemies
9. A Protection to Their Country
10. To Fight in Favour of the Island
11. Kings Were Anointed
12. A Most Extraordinary Plenty
13. A Humble Man
14. Most Kingly
15. By Way of Ocean
16. The Fire of Vengeance
Appendix I – A Chronology for Late Antique Britain
Appendix II – Happy Birthday Gildas!
Appendix III – Historia and Chronicle

Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain claims to be like no previous book on Post-Roman Britain, aiming to demonstrate that the current image of 'Arthur' as a Dark Age chieftain fighting a last-ditch battle against Saxon invaders is very much a myth. Pace argues that this leader of the British was much earlier than previously suspected, far from being a Dark Age warlord, he continued Roman military and naval strategies to secure Britain, uniting the people in a series of battles in all corners of the island using alliances with various foreign mercenaries to bring about two decades of peace. Pace constructs his thesis on the argument that the earliest sources derive from the same basic fifth century series of events in Britain and Europe.

Pace reconstructs a history of Post-Roman Britain based on the earliest available sources; Gildas, Historia Brittonum and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Unfortunately none of these can be seen as particularly reliable for re-constructing history, but we have little else; Gildas was delivering a sermon loaded with religious rhetoric; The Historia Brittonum contains much fable and was produced to suit the politics of Gwynedd; the Chronicle was written some time after events in an attempt to provide the Germanic settlers a foundation myth in Britain and legibility to kingship. Personally, I’m not convinced there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion en masse, if at all, furthermore, only one of these sources mentions Arthur by name and only two mention the Battle of Badon; could the site of this battle really have been so far west (Bath?) at such an early date? It is rarely talked off in comparison to the location of the second Battle of Badon.

Unfortunately we do not have much else to construct our Post-Roman histories thereby leaving the path open to conjecture and leaps of faith. This is not meant as criticism of Pace but observed frustrations of the period. This was an exciting time in British history and Pace writes a good book which is essentially an account of Vortigern, generally agreed upon as the Proud Tyrant of Gildas’ rant, which the author proposes as the identity of the Dux Bellorum and constructs a thought-provoking chronology for the legendary Arthur based on this association.

Vortigern is of course infamous for inviting Saxon mercenaries to guard Britain, a practice adopted from the Romans, against Pict and Irish raiders, “wolves into the sheep-fold”. For this reason Vortigern fell from grace whereas Arthur was and is remembered as a hero, the saviour of the Britons.

Pace argues that Vortigern is synonymous with Riothamus both names meaning the same; “great king” or “overlord.” Gildas informs us, albeit it indirectly, that the British leader at Badon was Ambrosius and the Historia Brittonum recounts Badon as one of Arthur’s battles. Therefore we could deduce from the sources that Ambrosius is Arthur, but according to Pace, Ambrosius may have been Arthur’s (Vortigern’s) son, which certainly would require a new chronology and a change in colours, as Ambrosius is generally considered to have followed Vortigern by a generation and they would appear to be from different factions. In the final chapter Pace discusses the Battle of Camlann and identifies yet another British warlord having a name synonymous with the Dux Bellorum.

The author claims to have presented a comprehensive hypotheses for all of the earliest sources for fifth century Britain using evidence that was declared “inadmissable” by a certain scholar over thirty years ago, stating that the time for a re-examination of this data is long overdue, but in doing so his claims that Arthur is represented by four characters known by four different names throughout the sources is unconvincing.

>> The Author’s website

The Warlords

Stuart Laycock may be familiar to Post-Roman Britain enthusiasts through his previous work Britannia - the Failed State, nominated for Book of the Year 2009 by Current Archaeology, in which he argues that at its height Britain was wealthy Roman state, but by the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th centuries AD, the province was at the point of collapse and it was soon replaced by an Anglo-Saxon culture which had migrated across the North Sea.

Laycock studied Classics at Cambridge, and has worked as an aid worker in Bosnia and Kosovo where he had first-hand experience of tribal conflicts. Using original research, analysing Roman Britain and providing an insight into the missing pieces of the complex jigsaw of the beginnings of British Dark Age history, he brings a unique perspective to the subject. During his studies of late Roman zoomorphic buckles he has built up one of the largest private collections in Britain.

The Struggle for Power in Post-Roman Britain
by Stuart Laycock

Paperback: 192 pages
Published by The History Press Ltd (1 April 2009)
ISBN-10: 0752447963

From the Back cover:

An exciting and fresh approach that sees the Britons not as victims, but active players in the foundation of Anglo-Saxon England”- Dr Kevin Leahy

“The centuries after the end of Roman control of Britain in AD 410 are some of the most vital in Britain’s history – yet some of the least understood. ‘Warlords’ brings to life a world of ambition, brutality and violence in a politically fragmented land, providing a compelling new history of an age that would transform Britain.

By comparing the archaeology against the available historical sources for the period, 'Warlords' presents a coherent picture of the political and military machinations of the fifth and sixth centuries that laid the foundations of English and Welsh history. Included are the warring personalities of the local leaders and a look at the enigma of King Arthur. Some warlords sought power within the old Roman framework; some used an alternative British approach; and, others exploited the emerging Anglo-Saxon system - but for all warlords, the struggle was for power.”

Table of Contents:

1. Gerontius
2. Vortigern
3. Hengest
4. Ambrosius
5. Riothamus
6. Aelle
7. The Five Warlords of Gildas
8. Arthur
9. Cerdic
10. Edwin, Cadwallon and Penda
After Post-Roman Britain

Warlords follows on from Laycock’s previous work Britannia - The Failed State: Tribal Conflict and the End of Roman Britain, and it is recommended to read the earlier book before this so that one gets the full background of his thesis that the Iron Age tribal units and their internal struggles persisted through into the 5th century. In Warlords Laycock sets out to trace the development of these minor kingdoms and produces evidence of a land of British warlords with fertile ambitions in their pursuit of power since the days of Cassivellaunus, who led the British against Caesar’s second invasion of Britain in 54 BC.

Laycock uses each chapter to introduce to the reader to a figure from the sources, starting with little known Gerontius. According to most commentators it is the usurper Constantine III that ejected the Romans from Britain in 409 AD, disastrously crossing to the continent in pursuit of furthering his power of the Western Empire, following previous usurpers from this island like Magnus Maximus, but Laycock suggests it is his general, the British Gerontius that is the driving force behind his ambitions.

Hengest, and his brother Horsa, are usually dismissed as mythical characters from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the names meaning stallion and horse. I would agree with this and do not give much credence to the early accounts of the Anglo-Saxon foundation myth as contained within the pages of Bede, Nennius and the Chronicle, who put quill to parchment several hundred years after the supposed events but Laycock discusses Hengest as an historical character presenting his claim on context and geography without presenting any contemporary evidence to substantiate his claims. He states “it is possible he is mythical, but on balance it looks more likely that he was a real historical figure around whom more poetic and mythical stories layer clustered”.

The following chapters on Ambrosius and Riothamus predictably make the inevitable connection that they could be one and the same person, he concedes that the historical evidence for Arthur is decidedly thin, but cannot resist making the claim that if he was a historical character, then he may have been a Germanic warlord fighting on behalf of the British Catuvallaunian leaders, which he states would explain why he doesn’t get a mention by Gildas. Laycock provides a good chapter on Cerdic, the often neglected British leader, probably because he just doesn’t fit with the generally accepted Anglo-Saxon invasion theory – a Briton creating the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, surely not!

Following the ejection of the Romans, Laycock takes the British back to their pre-roman tribal boundaries; Vortigern leader of the Dobunni; Ambrosius an Atrebate; Riothamus a Dumnonian, citing often neglected Dark Age earth works as evidence of boundary markers.

Laycock makes good use of the available sources for the period in attempting to construct a possible scenario for Post-Roman Britain but the vagueness of those sources demands a fair amount of conjecture on the author’s part to complete such a work. His main source of archaeological evidence is, not surprisingly taken from his previous studies, late roman belt buckles. However, we must exercise caution in assuming every find of this particular item denotes the presence of a Germanic warrior.

more from Stuart Laycock:

>> Late Roman Buckles

>> Ditches, Buckles & a Bosnian End to Roman Britain
Article from Wansdyke Project 21, part of the Vortigern Studies group of websites, edited by Robert M. Vermaat, a unique web-based study which focuses on the enigmatic, least-known Dark Ages earthwork, known as Wansdyke.

* * *

Monday 15 June 2009

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Simon Armitage

" of the strangest and most compelling narratives of all time."

Screened on BBC Four over four programs from 4th to 13th June and frequently Broadcast of Radio 4, as part of the BBC’s 2009 Poetry Season, Simon Armitage walked us through the landscape of the poem, revealing the Arthurian legend in a modern quest form North Wales to Staffordshire.

Born in 1963 and living in the village of Marsden, West Yorkshire, Armitage is the latest writer to attempt a full translation of the poem’s 2500 lines, he claims to have carried out this momentous task for all kinds of reasons; some literary, some sentimental, and part private indulgence, the book has gone on to be his most successful, especially in America, where Armitage's translation has been nominated as one of 2008's best books by both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Simon Armitage goes on the trail of one of the jewels in the crown of British poetry, the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written about 600 years ago. There is only one known copy of the manuscript, and for a long period it lay dormant in a private collection. Armitage follows in Gawain's footsteps through some of Britain's most beautiful and mystical landscapes and reveals why the tale of a knight beheading a green giant is as relevant now as when it was written, “Death, violence and sex sit cheek by jowl in the poem.

Simon Armitage joins translators such as JRR Tolkien and Ted Hughes, in translating one of the earliest stories told in English. Tolkien’s translation was so faithful to the original that some commentators have described it as seeming almost older than the original, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight abounds with the supernatural, so it’s not difficult to see why it would appeal to the author of The Lord of the Rings and the creator of the Middle earth mythology.

The poem tells that on New Year's Day, a gigantic Green Knight, mounted on horseback, carrying an axe arrives at King Arthur ‘s court and challenges the knights to a wager: any who accepts must take the axe and strike a single blow against the Green Knight, on condition that the blow will be returned the next year. Gawain, the best of knights, is the only one to accept. Stepping forward, declaring 'this moment must be mine,' Gawain takes a swing with the axe and beheads the Green Knight, who promptly picks up his head and rides off.

One year later Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel, though he has no idea where or what the Green Chapel is, it is this journey that forms the narrative of the film, from start to finish, with Armitage attempting to retrace Sir Gawain’s shadowy footsteps. Armitage, starts at Tintagel in Cornwall with the author musing over the whereabouts of the mystical Camelot. He then traces Gawain's journey from Camelot to the Green Chapel across the rural landscapes of Wales and England.

Gawain’s journey takes him along the north coast of Wales, the poem tells us, keeping Anglesey to his left before crossing at “Holy Hede”. A similar beheading and miraculous recovery supposedly took place St Winifred’s Well, at Holywell in Flintshire, where St Beuno restored his niece Winifred to life after her head had been severed by Cardoc, although Armitage declines the invitation of a dip in the waters of the well, settling instead for a paddle in bare feet, before crossing the Dee by drier means in a motorboat. The tale gives graphic detail of the butchering of a deer caught while out hunting which was unnecessarily portrayed in the documentary

Passing the Wirral and treading into Cheshire, several locations have been suggested for the site of the Green Knight’s abode, but Armitage heads for the Staffordshire Moorlands, and the Roaches, North of Leek, "It looks a wild place with no settlement anywhere to be seen, but heady heights to both halves of the valley," states the poem, "and set with sabre-toothed stones of such sharpness, no cloud in the sky could escape unscratched.”

We know from the dialect in the original poem that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by someone living in the North Midlands, Cheshire or Staffordshire, Armitage says "It can be traced to an area near the Staffordshire market town of Leek."

“The place you head for holds a hidden peril," Gawain's servant tells him. "In that wilderness lives a wildman, the worst in the world. He's brooding and brutal, and loves bludgeoning humans."

At Doxey Pool Armitage met with Leek Post & Times columnist and former editor Doug Pickford, author of many local books on the area of the Three Shires, and battled some pretty atrocious Moorlands weather;  "being in these parts makes you feel a kinship with the poet," said Armitage, as he pushed on for the strange moss-covered geological fault of Lud's Church, which he calls “the perfect setting for the poem’s finale,” The Green Chapel, that “perilous place where the knight would receive the slaughter man's strike.”

The terrified Gawain enters the chasm and hears above him the grinding of the giant’s axe being sharpened in anticipation of his fate. Gawain survived his ordeal being protected by a green girdle given to him by the lady of the house where he stayed, possibly the nearby Swythamley Hall.

I tuned in to this program by chance while channel flicking, as you do when there’s not much on, and it was pleasing to see a retelling of the poem that kept to the original, watching earnestly to find the location of the Green Knight’s Chapel, we had to wait to the last 15 minutes to find Armitage arriving in Lud’s Church which was indeed a dramatic setting for the ending to the tale.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the finest surviving examples of Middle English poetry, but little is known about the author - except hints that he came from the north of England.

Tolkien identified the language of the poem as being of 14th century North Midlands. In the 1950s, Professor Ralph Elliott from Keele University in North Staffordshire went further and with field trips with his students identified many rare topographical terms used in the poem which appear in place-names all very local to the Roaches in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Notably, Elliott also identified the ‘Green Chapel’ as ‘Lud’s Church’ (or Ludchurch) the 300 foot long rock chasm near the Swythamley estate, just inside the North Staffordshire border.

John Levitt, another Keele professor, continued Elliott’s researches and claimed that the poet was probably a monk at the nearby, now ruined, Dieulacresse Abbey at Leek. Levitt claimed that if you read the poem with a Potteries accent, then it all became clear, and wasn’t then incomprehensible at all, having a magic, alliterative, hypnotic quality. Set in the wildernesses of the Staffordshire moorlands, it makes every tree and every rock come alive.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Simon Armitage’s book was published in 2006 and readily available, it has been described as the most readable version of the poem, while maintaining the strange alliterative verse of the original, Armitage makes the poem appear lucid, accessible, fresh and modern, bringing the text to life.

>> A Knight's Tale
Article by Simon Armitage in the Guardian on translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 16 December 2006.

>> Author's website

* * *