Subtitled ‘A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons’, this is thankfully much more than a rehash of Arthurian myths or Anglo-Saxon aggrandisement. The veteran archaeologist looks at the period from the end of Roman rule to the Anglo-Saxon invasion and tackles parts of the popular view. In brief, through his archaeological work he finds sites with a continuity that seems to call into question the idea of a huge Saxon invasion.
There are a few problems with this argument – language being the main one; if there was such continuity in population, then why does English have so few words from its Celtic predecessors? There are also a few potential issues with the style of the book: it is short, but dry and occasionally unfocused – digressions onto anecdotes from Pryor’s early career on dig sites are enjoyable; digressions onto the history of Arthurian myth actually feel tacked on to the main thrust of the book.
Although this book certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, it is an interesting read and often thought provoking. Pryor uses his experience to offer some speculative arguments, but these feel grounded and plausible (compared to Neil Faulkner, who got a bit carried away on the same topic). I’d be keen to read his other work (I believe Britain BC offers similar arguments for the Celtic era invasions), or more books that shed light on early British history.
NB/ I believe there was a TV series of the same name in 2004; I have not yet seen it.
I’m a big fan of Tom Holland. His book Rubicon (following after Robert Harris’ Cicero series) was a large part of what got me back into reading about history. I was a bit surprised then to find this book in the library, having managed to completely miss it. Part of the Penguin Monarchs series, it’s a beautifully presented hard-back book of only 90 or so pages.
The book is largely a discussion of the work that Athelstan (king 924 to 939) did to unify the Anglo-Saxon and Viking kingdoms into a single English kingdom. As such it starts from the roots of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and it is surprisingly far through the book before Athelstan rears his head. As the book concludes this pacing makes sense; although the existence of a single English kingdom seems simple now, it is something that was never inevitable and often a struggle. This wasn’t concluded in one generation, it was the culmination of work by Athelstan’s predecessors – Edward the Elder and Alfred the Great. All three of these kings struggled with succession, other brothers and cousins laid strong claims to the Kingdom or parts thereof. The single English kingdom could have easily fragmented before it was even born.
Also facing this was the idea of Britain as a whole: the Scots had the kingdom of Alba, a gaelic term referring to the whole island; while the Welsh had prophecies about their reclaiming their old lands across the island. After wars in Scotland, Athelstan was proclaimed “rex totius Britanniae”, King of all Britain, in addition to his title “Rex Anglorum”, King of England. One of these would stick and one would not. As England formed as a single entity, so would Scotland and Wales.
Athelstan is often left as a postscript to the story of King Alfred. It’s good to see him and his achievements presented and discussed in this way, as a crucial period in shaping Britain.