‘Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain’ by Francis Pryor

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This review and discussion is on the UK TV Programme (first broadcast 2004), which was based on Pryor’s book with the same title (also published in 2004). Pryor wrote and narrated this series of three episodes, which are available on 4oD (Channel 4 On Demand – you can access these programmes via the website once you have registered – but be warned, you won’t be able to skip the adverts). There is a very clear argument running through these episodes, most of which rang true for me, though there are some aspects I’m not so sure about, as you will see below. Prior describes himself as a ‘pre-historian’, and his own archaeological research has focused on the bronze age in Britain, so in this series he talks to many archaeologists in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon period, and other specialists such as geneticists and linguists, rather than presenting himself as the expert on the period. And of course he walks about in front of various ruins and across various landscapes as he unfolds his argument, which is why TV is such an enjoyable medium when it is done well.

If you are a King Arthur fan there is not a lot of support for the historical existence of this person in the series, but Pryor does keep returning to the King Arthur myth to see what its significance and origins might be (especially linking it in episode 1 to religious practices where swords were deposited in sacred waters, which has occurred through thousands of years of history, though of course not just in Britain). However, I think Pryor has primarily used this title to entice people to watch the programme, which really concerns what happened in Britain during the Roman period and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon – in what has long been known as the ‘Dark Ages’ from 410-597AD. Pryor points out that the term ‘Dark Ages’ as applied to Britain in this period is completely inaccurate – that in fact this is when the light of creativity and intellectual thought was turned on in north west Europe, not turned off, of which more below.

I learnt a lot from these programmes about the west side of Britain during this period, whereas my own focus has always been the east side. In the second episode we learn that due to Britain’s natural resources, mostly to be found in the West – particularly tin in Cornwall, which was a valuable and scarce commodity in Europe at the time – trade still continued after the Romans withdrew at the beginning of the 5th century. Archaeological evidence shows that this trade was mostly with the Byzantine empire, with ships bringing amphorae of wine or oil, fine pottery and other goods from the Mediterranean to the west coast of Britain. Here, in West Britain at least, Christianity continued after the Romans left, and thousands of stones carved with classical Latin inscriptions of a high calibre (according to Latin scholar Dr David Howlett, interviewed in two of the episodes) testify to the educational ability of at least the elite in the native population.

There is also new evidence of impressively large timber halls being built in the mid 5th century on the site of Roman ruins (at Beadoswald on Hadrian’s Wall and in Wroxeter) – pointing to the existence of powerful rulers rather than the chaos we have been told must have occurred once Roman troops were pulled out in 407AD. In York pottery was still being manufactured in this period ie some people continued to live in Roman towns rather than returning to rural living and subsistence agriculture, and pollen analysis shows that fields did not revert to wild wood except in a very few areas. It’s time to ‘rewrite the history books’ according to Pryor, much of what we have been led to believe about this period is ‘rubbish’!

Pryor’s thesis in the first episode is that the Romans were not an oppressive occupying force, native Britons were not always ‘tragic victims’, and the invasion of Britain in 43AD ‘may not have been forced’ but by invitation of client kings looking for support against other local rulers. Often Romanised native Britons were allowed to rule in the name of Rome – these were the people who lived in the grand Roman villas of the 3rd and 4th century AD, whose mosaics portrayed a deliberate mix of Roman and native gods. This fits in with Pryor’s thesis (though he doesn’t quite seem to join the dots as I am doing here with these comments) as it means the British were not a helpless people left to marauding warriors from all points of the compass, as has often been assumed in the past. According to Pryor Britain ‘thrived’ on foreign influences and, what is more important, the instability that affected the rest of Europe when Rome went into decline did not reach Britain, which actually became a bastion of civilisation in the north west just as Byzantium (centred on Constantinople, now Istanbul) did in the East.

I personally think this argument is a little over-stretched, but it makes good television. Where is the centre of power that balances out Constantinople? The beach parties held in Cornwall between the traders and the natives that Pryor points to hardly seem sufficient evidence of a meeting of civilisations or an exchange of intellectual ideas. None the less I am sure he is right that there was no widespread chaos when Rome left, that the native Britons presented a strong face to the world, and were not invaded by anyone (there is no archaeological evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasion as Pryor points out – no war cemeteries or burnt buildings – unlike Boudica’s revolt in AD60, and the attacks of the Vikings starting in AD793).

In the third episode, Pryor visits one of the ‘Saxon shore’ forts which stretch along the south and east coast of Britain. There are new arguments (here presented by Andrew Pearson) that these massive stone forts built by the Romans may not have been defensive, but instead used to store grain, ie with an economic rather than a military purpose. The significance of this is that there were no attacks from Saxons and other Germanic tribes on Britain. I personally believe, from various throwaway comments I’ve read made by historians of the classical period, that this area could have been called the ‘Saxon shore’ by the Romans because the people who lived in this part of Britain spoke ‘Saxon’ ie a Germanic language (rather than Celtic as in the West of Britain), and had trade and other links with the Germanic tribes across the North Sea and the Channel, rather than being threatened by them.

The fertile flatlands of the east and south east of Britain were the grain basket of the land, grain which was no doubt needed to support the Roman armies scattered throughout Europe, and this valuable commodity was stored up ready to be shipped abroad from these forts. In the past the existence of these imposing stone forts (many of which still stand nearly 2000 years later), and their ‘Saxon’ label in a contemporary source, has led historians and archaeologists to assume that there was a huge threat from across the water, but there is no written record or significant archaeological evidence for such attacks, during or after the Roman era in Britain.

The idea of two languages / cultures sitting side by side in Britain at this time is not the conclusion Pryor comes to when he moves on to this topic in episode three of this series, and I have not heard it suggested by anyone except Stephen Oppenheimer, whose book and ideas I will be discussing in a future post. Pryor talks to Katie Lowe, a linguist, about her research into Celtic influences on Old English. Previously linguists have looked at the vocabularies of the two languages and found very little overlap, but Lowe has been studying the grammar and word order of English, and argues that the English language changed from an inflected language (grammar information primarily found in word endings) to one based on word order, which could have been due to Celtic speakers trying to learn English as a second language, and this would have had to take place over many generations to have caused these changes to English.

Pryor also talks to Dominic Powlesland who has been researching settlements in the Yorkshire Wolds around West Heslerton for most of his career. The evidence there shows peaceful continuity from Roman times through into the middle Anglo-Saxon period. Stable isotope analysis of teeth enamel shows that very few people buried in the early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the area came from abroad, but nearly half grew up in the west of Britain and thus would most likely have been Celtic speakers. However, Pryor skips over discussing how this Germanic language got to Britain. I would argue that this evidence could point to a form of Germanic already being spoken in the area, rather than being brought in by migrating or invading Anglo-Saxons – for which there is very little evidence. Then over several generations of West British immigration of Celtic speakers this language of the east English evolved into a new language that was distinctly different in grammar to the Germanic spoken on the continent – Old English.

My main disagreements with Pryor’s thesis are that Pryor treats Britain in the period he investigates in Britain AD as one country, though much of his evidence seems to point to clear differences between West and East, such as the presence or absence of Christianity in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Secondly he clearly chose not to delve any deeper into the origins of the English language, perhaps deciding that was taking him too far away from his own areas of expertise. There will be more on this and other issues raised by Pryor’s stimulating TV series in future posts.

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