This book looks are one of the most obscure periods of British history, the heart of the ‘dark ages’ between the end of Roman rule and the appearance of better records in the later Anglo-Saxon period. This is the age in which the post-Roman Britons appear to have formed new kingdoms and tribes, before losing what became England to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. There are very few really early historical sources for this period – Gildas provides the only contemporary British source, Bede the earlier Anglo-Saxon source, Nennius the foundation of many Arthurian tales and the early parts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a rather unreliable narrative of the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (getting better as it gets closer to when it was first written, probably under Alfred the Great). Cooper has produced an interesting look at this period, attempting to use a mix of sources and methods to locate some of the key battles mentioned in our sources, which in turn helps to give a more realistic picture of the early days of the kingdoms.
There are some moments where the author attempts to use modern military techniques to come up with a likely set of actions for these campaigns. Any detailed examination of those early campaigns for which we have more detailed sources would suggest that this isn’t always a valid approach – there are plenty of examples of Roman armies suffering from defeats because of a total lack of reconnaissance for example, while the suggestion that Philip II of Macedon was at a disadvantage at Chaeronea because he was the attacker isn’t really justified by detailed studies of ancient warfare, where a side that simply stood and waiting for the impact of an attack would probably have been at a disadvantage, while a skilful attacker such at Philip had the initiative, possibly allowing him to implement a battle winning plan.
There is also a tendancy to treat the campaigns at the heart of this book differently to other known campaigns from the period. This first appears during the examination of the battle of Badon Hill, where some locations are dismissed for reasons that don’t really work – the obvious example being Bath, which is dismissed for being thirty miles inside our best guess at British territory, thus making it too long a march, even though the attacking force included an army that had travelled all the way from Kent, and other Anglo-Saxon leaders were perfectly happy to raid well inside enemy territory (it’s also worth remembering that the battle ended as a British victory, so the Anglo-Saxon strategy clearly didn’t work). We get a similar problem when examining some of the careers of the early Gewisse, where a possible Shropshire location for one battle is dismissed because the ruler in question is known to have campaigned further south in other years, forgetting that all of these distances are really quite short and the campaigns of one year not necessarily tied to the campaigns of an earlier one. The Badon campaign has the British leaders mobilising reserves, posting covert scouts along the frontier, gathering and analysing multiple sources of intelligence etc, all things. This doesn’t mean that his suggested location for Baden Hill isn’t convincing,
In other areas his approach is good. The use of archaeology to establish exactly where the Anglo-Saxons were settled at the time of these battles gives a good idea of the relative strength of the forces involved, and of which geographical features would have been significant at the time as well as clearly eliminating some possible locations which simply don’t make sense – early victories placed in areas where the people in question don’t actually appear until much later etc. I also like his approach to identifying locations – we are given all of the most common suggestions, each is looked at, reasons for and against each examined and conclusions then drawn. As a result we are given the evidence so we can decide if we agree with the author, and on occasion he acknowledges that multiple locations are possible. There is also a good use of Welsh sources, which although probably produced much later do cover this early period. Indeed one theme of the book is that the early Gewisse (ancestors of Wessex), appear to have strong British connections, with rather British sounding names
Overall I found this to be an entertaining and thought provoking examination of an obscure period, and even if I don’t agree with all of the authors methods and conclusions, I still found the overall work to be of value, and many of his ideas to be convincing.
1 - The Fifth-Century Tribes of Britain
2 - The Hampshire Avon Frontier
3 - Doctrine, Organisation and Tactics
4 - The British in the South West
5 - The Badon Campaign
6 - The Siege of Badon Hill
7 - Cerdic to Ceawlin - The Early Gewisse
8 - The Fall of British Glastenning
9 - Wessex, Mercia and Dumnonia
10 - Conclusions
Author: David Cooper
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military