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on 1 August 2009
This book builds on Laycock's earlier "Britannia: the Failed State" which examined the evidence (mostly from archaeology) for the disunity of Britain before, during, and after the Roman occupation. "Warlords" concentrates on the last period, and in particular on certain leaders, combining the archaeology with written sources for post-Roman Britain. "Warlords" certainly has ideas and evidence worth thinking about. However, it is a less scholarly work than "Britannia", and Laycock goes further into the territory of speculation.

Laycock's central thesis is that there was no national Brittonic identity, but rather only tribal affiliations, and that there was no authority recognized above that of local kingdoms, based around one, or sometimes two, tribal areas / civitates. Ultimately, I was not convinced by his arguments. For example, the existence of memorial stones that name people by their tribe does not prove that there was no sense of Brittonic nationhood. All the relevant contemporary writers I can think of (Constantius, Gildas, Sidonius, Jordanes, Procopius) identify the Britons as a nation and many imply leadership of that nation by an individual (the proud tyrant, Ambrosius, Riothamus, an unnamed king) at least at certain times. Laycock's attempt to localize these individuals to particular tribes is hard to reconcile with what these authors wrote.

As an introduction to post-Roman Britain, "Warlords" is to be recommended above most popular books which concentrate on the doubtful figure of Arthur. However, to be picky, there are a few weak points:

1. Why should we believe that one civitas, Dumnonia, "was quite possibly capable of supplying and equipping twelve thousand men" under the leadership of Riothamus in Gaul, when Leslie Alcock (_Arthur's Britain_) doubts that any of the post-Roman states could have raised even one thousand men.

2. Laycock quotes Roger of Wendover for the relations between Ambrosius and Vortigern even though, as he admits, this is possibly more myth than history. I think this information clearly derives the pseudohistory of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

3. Laycock accuses Bede of "losing the plot" by "allotting Aelle all the territory south of the Humber" but of course Bede ascribes to Aelle only the same authority as he ascribes to the later Ethelbert. There is no reason that a king of Sussex and nearby districts could not have have been held in the same regard as a king of Kent.

So in summary: certainly worth reading, but Laycock's case is not as strong as he makes it out to be.
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on 2 June 2009
This seems to be Laycock building on the theories he put forward in his last book Britannia the Failed State about how Britain fragmented at the end of Roman Britain into kingdoms based on the British tribes, in a sort of Bosnia scenario. I thought the scenario he presented there was certainly one of the more convincing approaches to the end of Roman Britain and, judging by this book, it works reasonably well in terms of post-Roman Britain as well.

What Laycock does is look at Warlords, both British and Anglo-Saxon, in terms of their geographic background and sees how they could have interacted to create 5th and 6th century history. He uses text as well as archaeological evidence, to build his picture and it seems to work. He's also quite easy to read compared to some historians which is always a plus.

He's got in here the kind of people you'd expect like a bit on Arthur and a chapter on Ambrosius Aurelianus. But he's also got people you don't see so much about like Gerontius, a guy who conquered Spain just at the end of the Roman period. There's quite a fun bit on some Welsh warlords with some juicy details of private lives. He's also got some new theories on where people like Vortigern and Ambrosius might have been based and how they operated, and he's quite convincing on the way he sees the period as a battle between different kingdoms, not just between Britons and Anglo-Saxons.
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on 8 June 2009
This book is refreshing because it dares to use written sources, and shows Post Roman Britons as something other than hapless victims. It also references some good archaeology, to include the author's belt buckle studies. But the book cannot give any clear-cut examples of its main contention: that the Britons retained their tribal hostilities over 400 years of Pax Romana, and then engaged in civil wars so intense that they somehow failed to notice the Saxon Conquest. This also requires that each British warlord be the leader of only one small tribal civitas. Vortigern becomes leader of just the Dobunni because of a very dubious genealogy; Ambrosius becomes an Atrebate simply because he's Vortigern's foe; Riothamus, the leader of a 12,000 man expedition to Gaul, becomes a ruler of sparsely populated Dumnonia because of later artifacts from Byzantium. But ironically, Gildas and Patrick, our best sources, never mention "tribal" affiliations; they call all Britons "citizens".

What is most puzzling in a book using written sources is the author's disregard of what Patrick, Gildas and others say was Britain's main danger: the sea-borne threat from Pict, Scot and Saxon. Also, while the book eagerly accepts Gildas' single mention of Saxon mercenaries as the key to Britain's fall, anything else Gildas says that happens to disagree with the author's hypothesis is labeled an "exaggeration."

This is sad, because much of the information the book presents actually confirms the written sources. The author's belt buckle study shows that Britain had plenty of local armed forces to defend herself after the break with Rome--and, as he acknowledges at one point, were probably better disciplined than the Saxons. British belt buckles from every corner of Britain found between Dorchester on Thames and Cirencester confirm just what Gildas says: Britons were being driven into the sea (i.e. Bristol Channel) in the 440's, but recovered in the 450's. Finally, the Germanic artifacts from the 450's in eastern Kent confirm that the first federates were intended to see off sea-borne foes--not putative British warlords at the other end of Kent.

No, it is not impossible that Britain was ridden with tribal wars after the break with Rome. But literally dozens of competing theories that also ignore Gildas' testimony could equally be true. It might thus be time for scholars to go back to square one. Re-examine every scrap of evidence--not just the archaeology--and then come up with some good hypotheses for what really happened when the Romans left.
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on 19 August 2009
I thought Laycock's Failed State book was fascinating and I recommend it. Warlords is building on that previous work by collating various scraps of literary evidence - but Failed State, while a fascinating hypothesis as it stands, is too speculative to provide a solid foundation for further speculation...How high can this tower be built before it reaches the lofty hights of pure fiction? I think Warlords might be getting close. Great fun though! Everyone likes the idea of dark-age warlords! But, I don't consider this book to be as serious a book as Failed State.
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on 22 June 2009
Laycock's archaeological knowledge is evident and his sources provide a fascinating insight into 5th Century history. He presents plausible theories of what might have happened in Britain after the Romans left and delivers a convincing approach to a period dominated by feuding British and Anglo Saxon kingdoms. I think he's done a good job of balancing the need to explore themes and ideas in this difficult period with the need not to push the evidence too far. The death of Gerontius is a gripping story!
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A natural follow on from his Britannia - The Failed State: Tribal Conflict and the End of Roman Britain, Laycock attempts to trace the development of the mini-kingdoms into which Roman Britain fragmented in the 5th century. Based very much on his thesis of that earlier work, that the Iron Age tribal units and their internicine struggles persisted right through to the 5th century, it's probably best to have read that volume first before ploughing into this to get the best out of it. It's somewhat annoying that this book does not include a proper map of the tribal boundaries, as Laycock constantly refers to these tribes by name and you are expected to know their exact location to follow the argument (there is a map of 5th century Britain which marks the Iron Age tribes in the west, but marks the early English kingdoms in the east, so misses out half the tribes).

Unlike the earlier work, here Laycock leans rather more towards the literary sources than archaeology, but he seems by turns just as ready to accept potentially dubious written evidence as to reject it, perhaps being a bit selective in this regard to fit the argument. Over the course of a paragraph something can turn from pure speculation to possibility to probability to very likely to certainty. Sometimes certain questions can be ignored, for example Laycock's answer to the age old question "Why are we not all speaking Welsh today, and why do we not have large numbers of words of Brythonic origin in English?" is (adducing no evidence for this whatsoever) "Because Latin had replaced Welsh before the English arrived, at least in the south east", but ignores the obvious follow up question "Then why are we not all speaking an insular Latin derivative today, and why do we not have lots of Latin words in English borrowed in the 5th century?".

Each chapter revolves around a figure or group of figures appearing, however vaguely, in the written sources. So we get Gerontius (who Laycock regards as being the real power behind the throne of Constantine III in much the same manner as many late 4th/5th century emperors), Vortigern (regarded by Laycock as a ruler of a territory based around the ancient province of the Dobunni, roughly around Gloucestershire, but having a hegemony spreading east across to Kent), Hengest (founder of the Kentish kingdom), Ambrosius (regarded by Laycock as a leader of territory of the ancient Atrebates, i.e. centered around the Hampshire area), Riothamus (regarded by Laycock as a leader of the Domnunni, Devon & Cornwall), Aelle (founder of Sussex), 'the Five Warlords Of Gildas', Cerdic (founder of Wessex), Arthur and Edwin/Cadwallon/Penda.

Certainly worth a read for those interested in this period of history, but take with a large pinch of salt. It's likely to provoke as wide a range of reactions as his previous book.
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on 21 May 2012
As a non 'expert' I hesitated to enter a review but as I had high hopes for this work I thought I could add a few words for fellow non academics. I do have an abiding interest in dark age Britain as an amateur historian so think that I have at least a working knowledge of the period and works by other authors. The basic premiss of Mr Laycocks work is that Britain had never been fully settled by the Romans and in fact had merely seen the adoption of existing tribal boundaries by the Romans and the continuation of inter tribal rivalries either aided or ignored by the Romans - I was never quite sure which of these Mr Laycock was infering. As a result of this, when the Romans finally left (or their troops at least), these tribal rivalries re-asserted themselves and the Jutes, Angles and Saxons became part of that struggle, sometimes taking over tribal areas, sometimes becoming part of the 'tribe' and sometimes being taken over themselves by British leadership. We are asked to see this through the activities of the several warlords chosen by Mr Laycock and accept their actions as proof of his hypothesis. My problem with this is that it just wasn't convincing, the evidence offered in all cases was very thin and at the end of the book I felt somehow cheated in that the title wasn't lived up to; I knew little more about the warlords of Britain than I already knew and for someone new to the period they could be forgiven for thinking there was just a few guys who made a bit of an impact and not the dozens of kings and sub kings vying for power over a 200 year period; also I had absolutely no sense of a struggle for power - perhaps there wasn't one? but if not then the title of the book is disengenious. The main problem for the non academic is that Mr Laycock refers to the various tribal units which he believes to have continued to exist in much the same way we might say French or Spanish or German but we all know roughly where the French, Spanish & Germans are whereas here we have no sense of who these tribes are because there is no attempt to equate them (however roughly) to places in Britain we could associate with; so, something like, "the Votandi occupied roughly the area of modern day Warwickshire and the West Midlands" would have been usefull and informative (note: this is my example of a quote only and not something actually in the book!) A simple map would have been handy, in fact should have been essential in a book about power struggles because then we could see the extent of territorial growth or shrinkage and the impact or not of the invasion routes of the saxons, Angles & Jutes. All in all a disappointment and one that has stopped me from purchasing Mr Laycocks earlier work on Britannia; The Failed State.
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on 19 January 2016
Detailed. You need to know some elementary stuff first
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on 4 May 2012
warlords the struggle for power in post roman britain stuart layock some things familiar to any reader of a Arthurian novel good on detail and heavy on sources form gildas not only imcluding the favourites Arthur, vortigern and Hengest but also Gerontius and Penda
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on 5 April 2010
Like `The Failed State' Warlords is quite a page-turner. Written to entertain, it succeeds. For all that its thesis is no less tendentious, or objectionable, than before, and if anything goes further in its attempt to put speculative flesh on the bones of Marxist academe's anti-migration theory of Englisc settlement.

Real history time: The Englisc were separatists. Germanic warbands brought their own women. Slaves were British but otherwise the early colonists had as little as possible to do with a people they felt contempt for and progressively displaced. Since all recent - and rather sophisticated - genetic evidence (such as the 2006 London University study) bears this out it's possible to ask why the book was published at all.

An ulterior motive, I suggest, is the state's age-old fear of Englisc nationalism, and its anxiety to promote `inclusive' histories - or `lies' as they are sometimes called - as political weapons for political wars. Giving the vanquished a place in the historical narrative they don't deserve makes sense. It affirms political Union as `natural'. It also buttresses a shop-worn `British' identity that for a century and a half (in practical terms) enforced national anonymity as the surest method of stripping people of their every right and entitlement without attracting too much attention.

It should be noted that Mr Laycock writes well. It should be noted that he knows his period. Approached judiciously, with an eye on what fashionable types call `political context', Warlords is undoubtedly a diverting read. What should not be lost sight of though is its plainly propagandist nature. The author is a former aid worker. For `aid worker' think `communist'; `environmentalist'; `humanitarian; `socialist'; `anti-nationalist'; `christian'. The legacy of guilt's never less than toxic whatever label you pick, and guilty people are narcissists. They use history as therapy, peddling anything inimical to the collective interest just so long as they're sure we'll love them once we realize they lied for our own good. Read with that proviso in mind.
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