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.
The quote on the front of the book says “If you only have time to read one book on the great man, you should make it this one”. I wouldn’t entirely agree with that. David Horspool’s book is largely a critical review of the myths and legends about King Alfred. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of Alfred’s life; there’s none of the the colour and myths and grandeur with which he often appears – but it is none the worse for it.
The real historical evidence and the growth of the legend are covered, and with some wit. There’s a memorable phrase where Horspool describes the Victorian ideal of Alfred as a “Anglo Saxon head boy king”. There is great detail on contemporary sources like Bishop Asser; on Matthew Parker, the Tudor archbishop who used the myth to boost the newly independent Church of England; and on later romantic portrayals in painting and theatre, all the way up to Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom and the 1969 epic film starring David Hemmings, Michael York and Ian McKellan.
Continue reading Alfred The Great by David Horspool
Another podcast summary here – this time the History of England, as found at http://historyofengland.typepad.com/. As the title suggests, this is very much from the “History of X” school of podcasts that have sprang up in the aftermath of History of Rome. In this podcast series, David Crowther covers the history of England from Anglo Saxon times onward using his Ladybird book of English monarchs. The end goal is to reach the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901, but at the time of writing he is 124 podcasts in and currently somewhere in the reign of Richard II so there’s still plenty more to go.
Continue reading History of England Podcast