Raven Fell (2019) h/b 192pp £25 (ISBN 9781916299702)
Most books on early British history focus on a familiar defined period, such as ‘the Roman occupation’, ‘the Anglo-Saxon period’ or ‘the Viking era’. This book is an exception. Its topic is the later years of Roman Britain and the early part of the Anglo-Saxon period.
After a general overview of Roman Britain, the author turns to the so-called barbarian conspiracy of AD 367. The Scotti from Ireland, the Picts from Scotland, the Franks and Saxons from the Continent mounted co-ordinated attacks on Britain. They inflicted considerable damage, but ultimately failed when the Roman general Count Theodosius (father of the later Emperor Theodosius) came over to take command. There is then a chapter on Magnus Maximus. Maximus was a senior officer in Britain who set himself up as a co-Emperor in AD 383. He soon headed for Gaul, taking with him a substantial part of the army garrisoning Britain, and established his court at Trier. The troops who accompanied Maximus to the Continent never returned. This was, in effect, the first stage of the Roman withdrawal from Britain. Maximus did not last long. In 387 the Emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius defeated Maximus in battle and duly killed him. The final years of Roman Britain were a period of decline. Cities and institutions started to decay. Raids by Saxons and others intensified. A succession of soldiers in Britain were proclaimed as Emperor, only to be killed off soon afterwards. In AD 409-410 the Roman authorities withdrew from Britain. Any soldiers who remained simply merged into the population.
Although it is no longer fashionable to call the period immediately after the Romans withdrew a ‘dark age’, the fact is that our information about this period is remarkably limited. That opens the gate, of course, to much enjoyable speculation about what was going on. This book contains a great deal of interesting speculation, as well as a summary of the few facts that are certain.
So far as the facts that we know are concerned, Gildas recounts that the Scotti from Ireland and Picts from Scotland launched attacks. The Britons appealed for help to Rome, which sent short term military aid. Attacks from the Picts and the Scotti continued. In their desperation the British king Vortigern and his councillors invited in ‘the ferocious and impious Saxons, a race hated by both god and men’. The ferocious and impious Saxons duly arrived. They settled on the eastern side of Britain, ostensibly to defend the country but in fact planning to attack. More Saxons followed. They soon broke their treaty. Spreading from the east to the west, they plundered the whole island, laying waste towns and farmland. Many of the indigenous people were murdered or enslaved. An able Roman called Ambrosius Aurelianus led the Britons in resistance against the invaders. There were endless wars between Britons and Saxons. ‘That continued up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill and almost the last great massacre of the rascals.’ Gildas says that the battle took place forty-four years after the landing of the Saxons and in the year when Gildas was born. The Venerable Bede broadly follows Gildas. Archaeology confirms that Germanic peoples arrived in the fifth century and established settlements in the Midlands and on the east side of Britain.
We can be confident that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a real historical figure. We can also be confident that there was a battle at place called Badon Hill in about the late fifth century, at which the indigenous Britons won a resounding victory. This kept the Germanic settlers out of Wales and the south-west peninsula. But we do not know the name of the British leader at the battle of Badon Hill. Gildas does not tell us. Nor does Gildas give us a date for the battle of Badon Hill, although he easily could have done, since that was the year of his birth.
Hall develops the theory that King Arthur was a real person, and he led the Britons to victory at the Battle of Badon Hill. He maintains that Arthur’s proper name was Arthwys and that he was the leader who replaced Vortigern. Some readers may find this persuasive. Others may not. Either way, the book is well structured and contains some beautiful photographs. Classicists with an interest in the end of Roman Britain and its aftermath would read this book with enjoyment.