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Ceawlin: The Man Who Created England Hardcover – 19 Jan 2012
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The core issue seems to be that this is yet another book where the author goes out of his way to try to be original and provide a "new" view in the hope that this "originality" (or "revisionism") will set his book apart from existing works. The period covered - AD 400 to AD 600 roughly in what is now the United Kingdom - lends itself rather well to this simply because we have large gaps in our written sources and what little written sources we have are often unclear and subject to widely divergent interpretations. The same is largely true for archeological findings, with a case in points being the "Germanic style" military belt buckles that have been found in concentrated deposits in specific and strategic places across the eastern, the southern and the western part of England. I remember reading that these were attributed to troops that had been garrisoned in these locations but that this was not convincing enough to state that the troops there were necessarily Germanic, neither whether, if Germanic, these were garrisons of mercenaries or latter "Anglo-Saxon" settlements, once the various civitates had been taken over by the Germanic speaking populations. The author has no such qualms. For him, this is "evidence" that backs the thesis he is trying to demonstrate. Needless to say, this is NOT history anymore. It is a biaised interpretation which may, or may not, be true, especially sinxce the dating of these buckles may be somewhat imprecise (to put it mildly!). It is not for nothing that this period was traditionnally fir into what was called "the Dark Ages". The correct answer here is that we simply do not know. The troops in garrison could have been Gernamic mercenaries coming from a wide range of tribes (not only "Saxons" or "Angles") or even Britons equipped with such buckles, or any kind of mix of professionals from a range of backgrounds. For instance, the spatha, that Roman cavalry and then all Roman soldiers used increasingly extensively from the 3rd century onwards was Germanic in origin. This, of course, is simply NOT enough to imply that all soldiers with such a type of sword were of Germanic origin. There are MANY examples of this kind of attitude which, of course, is NOT what you expect from a historian. In other words, the author has no qualms in twisting the evidence to make it fit the point it wants to make and he does this quite systematically.
The author's thesis is two-fold. His starting point (which in fact only appears near the end of the book) is to contrast post Roman times in "Britannia" with what was happening in Gaul. In the latter case, the Germanic kingdoms took over but kept much of the Roman culture, institutions and language and merged with the pre-existing elites. In what became "England", they destroyed the pre-existing elites and culture, but the take-over occurred long after (about a century latter, towards the end of the 6th century) the take-over on the continent (which happened during the 5th century). The assumption underpinning this is that Romano-Briton rule did not collapse until at least 560-580 (at the earliest) and more likely after 590, when Ceawlin, the last Warleader to dominate the Briton kingdoms, was ousted by his own in a civil war. So, as Wisty mentioned, even the book's title is bordering on the misleading. Rather than "the Man Who Created England", the title should have been "The Man Who Destroyed Britannia".
Unfortunatly, while very interesting, the author's thesis is also not at all convincing. First of all, Ceawlin of the Belgae (and Cerdic and his immediate successors) are assumed to be Britons that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would have deliberatly and misleadingly presented as Saxons when written several hundred of years after the facts. Alfred's monks would certainly not have been above such manipulations of genealogies to fit the King's purpose. However, this is NOT enough to prove that this is what happened. The truth here is that, contrary to Matthews statements, we do NOT know with any kind of certaintsy whether, by say, 520 AD, the Belgae civitate was still ruled by them or whether it was dominated by Saxon warleaders and the warriors.
A second point is that even accepting the author's initial assumption (Caewlin was in fact a Briton than can be equated with the Welsh St Collen) is not enough to explain his role in the downfall. For instance, I failed to be convinced as to how Caewlin's ultimate failure could be the cause for the Angles and Saxons taking over in Brigantia (actual Yorkshire) or what is now East Anglia - two regions where Caewlin's influence was clearly NOT felt at all. So, the idea that Caewlin's collapse created a power vacuum and some sort of "chain reaction" among the Saxon mercenaries and settlers across the whole country seems far-fetched and requires a huge leap of faith.
A third point is the premice that Romano-briton rule remained and dominated for far longer that what was previously thought: the breakdown occurred between 580 and 620 rather than about 50 years before, after the death of Arthur. The truth, once again, is that we do not know but the author hardly discusses this at all. In fact, there is very little, if any, discussion about Arthur. Another assumption was that the Roman title of Vicarius survived as the "wide ruler" under the Romano-britons (so both Vortimer and Arthur were essentially stepping into the role of the Vicarius) and under the Germanic title of bretwalda. This is at best far-fetched and at worse, spurious. The Vicarious had CIVIL, not military responsibilities. The two other titles was those of war leaders, especially the latter. A more apt choice would have been that of Comes (the Roman commander of the mobile fast-reaction forces at the end of Roman rule) or that of Dux Britannorum (the overall commander of the Wall's garrisons). As for how long what was to become Anglia, Essex, Wessex and Mercia remained under Romano-briton power the real answer is that we do not know. However, the evidence does show that Roman towns were mostly abandoned by the mid-6th century and, as the author demonstrates himself, that the gradual impoverishment of the country together with the plagues of 547 (and subsequent years) could have wiped out as much as half the population. Since Roman rule was mostly town-based, the evidence rather seems in favor of a breakdown before the end of the 6th.
Finally, there are improbable or biaised statements. The Franks, of course, NEVER converted from arianism to catholicism, but from pagan to catholics. Another statement resting on rather flimsy evidence is to state that Hadrian Wall's and the toher Roman commands were still operational and manned for several decades after AD 410. At best, we do not know. It is very unlikely that all troops were pulled out and accompanied Constantin in his bid for imperial power in 407. However, he would certainly had crossed with a significant portion of the available troops and these are very likely to have included most of the best ones. Of course, we have no idea of numbers or proportions, and e don't even know how many soldiers there were in Britain in AD 400 or how Stilicho may have pulled out already to defend Italy against the Wisigoths in AD 402. One last example of a biaised statement: the author assumes 30-year generations to determine approximate dates for the birthdates of "strongmen" about we know nothing else. He also assumes that men married around 25 and women slightly earlier (and 20). This is extremely surprising, especially in an age when population was contracting, life expectancy was falling (very probably to 40, rather than the 50 he states!) and resources were more scarce with numerous episodes of food shortages. The author does not back his statements with any kind of evidence. However, when such events happen through history, the trend is rather that of early marriages, with women possibly being married by their family as soon as nubile (possibly as early as 13 ot 14) and men as soon as they were grown up, possibly 15-16. As you can see, the margin for error between the author's assumptions and these is simply huge, but the author does not even discuss this point...
So I am going to give only 2 stars to this one, largely because this is not history at all and it is even sometimes self-contradicting. The difference between this book and Edwin Pace's Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain: A narrative History of Fith Century Britain (which I rated 4 stars, but not 5) is that the latter is interesting and plausible (although certainly far-fetched). This one is not plausible at all and often repetitive...
The bibliography also includes John Morris' The Age Of Arthur: A History of the British Isles, 350-650, an excellent set of works I might say but which has fallen out of favour with scholars today and widely regarded as outdated. Also there is Edwin Pace's Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain: A Narrative History for Fifth Century Britain, a somewhat crazy work in my opinion which conflates several historically mentioned characters into one single person. Matthews take the same kind of wildly outlandish approach with Ceawlin among others, and bizarrely merges him with the Welsh figure of St Collen.
There are no references in the text, and no end notes or other external references. There is no opportunity therefore to distinguish between historical attestations (and there's one clear howler here when he refers to the Franks being converted from Arianism (sic) to Catholicism) and Matthews' own fanciful speculations, though it's clear that the latter dominates when he can take one single line from the The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and expand this into an entire chapter of supposed events.
Matthews sees Ceawlin as a British, not Saxon, leader of the Belgae who by conquest of neighbouring tribes became the most powerful leader of his day, but when he was finally defeated it left a power vacuum into which the incipient English came to create the kingdom of Wessex. In this sense even the subtitle of the book, "The Man Who Created England", seems somewhat misleading.
A book for those who like their history full of conjecture.
But...it is a hugely readable account that follows an interesting theory about what happened when the Romans left Britain and the couple of centuries afterwards. Sure, it's speculation, but the facts are few and far between and I thought he made it clear that there were several interpretations of the known facts before proceeding with his own. Or rather, Stuart Laycock's for, as other reviewers have pointed out, it's heavily indebted to Laycock's books Britannia - the Failed State and Warlords (both of which are fascinating reading - read them if you haven't already!).
One of the aspects I liked was the geographical distinctions Matthews makes between what may (or may not) have happened in the different regions. The experience in the South East, for example, is very different from that in the North East or Wales.
So, for me it gets top marks for its interesting and readable overview of current thinking about the Dark Ages, not for the subject of the book's title. Perhaps it shouldn't get such a high review, but hey - I enjoyed it, and some of the books on the subject are written so badly, it was a pleasure to have a well written one.
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