01 March, 2009

The Kingmaking, by Helen Hollick. Book review

First published 1994. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4022-1888-0. 563 pages.

I read and enjoyed The Kingmaking when it was first published, and am pleased to see it back in print. It is the first in the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy, a retelling of the King Arthur story from Arthur’s boyhood to his death. Arthur and his wife Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere is the later medieval spelling of the same name) are the central characters. The Kingmaking covers the period 450–457 AD, and Arthur is aged 15 at the beginning of the novel. Many of the characters, such as Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, Uthr, Ygrainne, Morgause, Cei and Bedwyr, are familiar from Arthurian legend. Others, such as Hengest, Vortigern and his wife Rowena, Ambrosius and Cunedda are known from historical sources although not always associated with Arthur.

Uthr Pendragon, exiled from Britain many years earlier after being defeated in battle by Vortigern, returns to try to reclaim his throne with the help of his old friend and ally, Cunedda of Gwynedd. Cunedda’s feisty daughter Gwenhwyfar takes an immediate dislike to Uthr’s companion, a boy of unknown parentage called Arthur, until a shared dislike of Uthr’s evil mistress Morgause brings the two together. When Uthr’s bid for power ends in his death and Arthur’s true parentage is revealed, it seems that the fates of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar will be woven together. But Vortigern and his malicious daughter Winifred have other ideas, and soon Arthur and Gwenwhyfar find themselves entangled in a web of politics, war and ambition that threatens to divide them for ever.

The first thing to say about The Kingmaking is that it is a story of human love, hatred, loyalty, betrayal, war and politics without any of the supernatural elements that have come to be associated with the Arthur legends. There is no Merlin, no magic and no enchanted sword in a stone. This is no loss in my view, quite the reverse, and some of the author’s suggestions for incidents that could have led to the supernatural parts of the legend are highly ingenious and great fun to spot. But readers who like magic and enchantments should look elsewhere.

The Kingmaking places Arthur in the middle of the fifth century as a contemporary of Vortigern and predecessor of Ambrosius Aurelianus, whereas it is more usual to place Arthur after Ambrosius. Given that there isn’t an uncontested date in the two centuries of British history between the Rescript of Honorius in 410 AD and the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD, the dates for Arthur’s life are fair game for the novelist’s imagination.

What I found most memorable about The Kingmaking was the characterisation of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. Both are fully rounded individuals with a mix of good and bad qualities, and both do admirable and not-so-admirable things. Arthur is dynamic, enthusiastic and brave, but also ruthless, ambitious, not above lying and cheating to gain his ends, and often fails to control his appetites for drink and women, with consequences that range from awkward to disastrous. Gwenhwyfar is bold and passionate, as brave as Arthur, but wilful and hasty to rush to judgment. Both are proud, hot-tempered and inclined to speak before thinking, leading them to inflict pain on each other and those around them. Their relationship is an emotional rollercoaster even without the obstacles thrown in their way by the political manoeuvrings. Life for them and for those around them, must be exhausting and exciting in about equal measure. Gwenhwyfar is a little too much of the warrior heroine for my liking, and as far as I know not one legend even hints at Gwenhwyfar as a warrior. Though as so little is known of the period, who’s to say it’s impossible?

Of the secondary characters, I found the men more varied and convincing than the women. Gwenhwyfar’s brothers include the cheerful Etern, the quietly competent Enniaun, and the henpecked Osmail, Cei is upright and honest, and the pedantic Emrys (Ambrosius Aurelianus) has potential though he hardly appears in The Kingmaking. Even Vortigern and Hengest are rational men who deal in realpolitik, however unpleasant. In contrast, Morgause is pure evil and Winifred (Vortigern’s fictional daughter) is pure spite, and I found both somewhat tedious. I had the impression of a sharp fault line between the good guys (Arthur, Gwenhwyfar and their friends and allies) and the bad guys. Vortigern, Hengest, Rowena, Winifred, Melwas and Morgause, all Arthur’s enemies, are deceitful, cruel, vindictive, cunning, spiteful and/or selfish. Hengest is brave, but apart from that they hardly have a redeeming feature between them.

One notable feature is that the horses are almost secondary characters in their own right. I have the impression that the author knows a lot about horses and their ways, which adds an extra dimension to a novel in which cavalry warfare plays such a large part.

The complex politics of a power struggle in a dying empire are convincingly portrayed. Vortigern and Uthr are rivals for the position of supreme ruler of Britain; Vortigern’s sons and Arthur are similar rivals; Hengest and his followers are Vortigern’s paid allies, but have an eye to their own advantage; Cunedda is an independent power in Gwynedd, inclined to side with Uthr and then Arthur against Vortigern but no man’s lapdog; Rowena, Winifred and Gwenhwyfar are all rivals for the position of Queen to the current king and mother of the next one. Add in local kings and chieftains, and there are enough plot threads to weave a tangled tale. The narrative skilfully cuts back and forth between the threads so that none of them is left for too long, but you do have to pay attention. The Kingmaking is a long book (550+ pages) and a complicated one; it’s not a quick read.

A delightful feature is the ingenious take on the legend of the sword in the stone (no, I’m not going to tell you what it is). So much so that I thought it a great shame that it only appeared at the end. The marvellous sword is such a central component of the legend that I’d have liked to see it play an integral role in the plot from much earlier on.

A down-to-earth retelling of the King Arthur story as that of a ruthless fifth-century soldier and his feisty queen.

Q&A with Helen Hollick
As part of the blog tour to launch this new edition of The Kingmaking, author Helen Hollick kindly answered a few questions for me. Here they are:

Q. In The Kingmaking, you have Arthur coming to the kingship in around 456 AD and personally defeating Hengest. This is rather earlier than usual, as Arthur is more usually placed some time after Vortigern and Hengest. Why did you choose to make him their contemporary?

A. This time frame was more logical – and it was not my own idea. The Arthurian historian Geoffrey Ashe suggested it, and his theory was most convincing. There is no evidence for any of these dates – indeed, there is no evidence that Arthur even existed – but by looking closely at the early Welsh legends and the few pieces of contemporary writing that we do have, placing Arthur these few years earlier seemed, to my mind, to fit the missing piece of the jigsaw into the puzzle.

Q. In your story, Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar is the daughter of Cunedda, the founder of Gwynedd in modern north-west Wales . Tell me more about what led you to place Gwenhwyfar there.

A. Cunedda was a real person. He and his family were forcibly moved from Traprain Law (near Edinburgh , Scotland ) to North Wales possibly around 430 – 450 ish.. We do not know why, or who moved him. I thought it was a good story to use, and since reading Sharon Kay Penman’s wonderful novels about Gwynedd (especially Here Be Dragons) I was determined to combine the two.

Then, while researching some genealogies (admitted not necessarily reliable) to my delight I discovered he may have had a daughter called Gwyn.

Well, that was it! My ideas were set!

Q. What first drew you to want to retell Arthur and Gwenhwyfar's story?

A. While working in a local public library I re-discovered Rosemary Sutcliff’s superb teenage novels set in Roman Britain – Eagle of the Ninth, Frontier Wolf, Mark of the Horse Lord etc, and then Mary Stewart’s Hollow Hills Trilogy, and there I discovered an Arthur who was very different to the one of the Medieval Tales.
I had never liked the ‘traditional’ Arthurian stories as I could not accept that King Arthur was so bad a king to abandon his kingdom and his wife and go in search of the Grail. Surely he would have foreseen that Lancelot and Guinevere would have an affair? I also disliked Lancelot and all those too-good-to-be-true knights. None of it seemed real history.

Mary Stewart’s novels had an author’s note which stated that if Arthur had existed he would have been a Romano British war lord. I liked that idea very much and read all I could about the ‘real’, more interesting Arthur. But then the existing novels began to irritate me. Knights in armour, chivalry, turreted castles… this was not right for the Dark Ages. It was fine as a fairy tale but not as an historical novel.
These stories were not how I saw things. I was so frustrated with one portrayal of Gwenhwyfar that I threw the book across the room!

I had had enough. The only way to relieve my frustration was to write my own story. There would be no knights, grails, round tables. No myth, no magic. No Lancelot, no Merlin.

Instead, I explored the early Welsh legends of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. These legends turned out to be far more exciting and emotional than the Medieval stories. Arthur was more plausible. Arthur was suddenly real.

It took me ten years to write what eventually became The Kingmaking. It was first published in the UK almost 15 years ago – and since then the trend has very much fallen towards portraying Arthur in his correct time period – the Dark Ages, between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo Saxons.

Thank you, Helen!

Helen is participating in a Blog Tour in honour of the publication of The Kingmaking. Here are the stops:

http://harrietdevine.typepad.com/harriet_devines_blog/2009/02/the-kingmaking.html 2/20

http://lazyhabits.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/the-kingmaking/ 2/21 and interview 2/27

http://carpelibrisreviews.com/the-kingmaking-by-helen-hollick-book-tour-giveaway/ 2/23

http://www.historicalnovels.info/Kingmaking.html 2/23

http://www.bibliophilemusings.com/2009/02/review-interview-kingmaking-by-helen.html 2/23

http://lilly-readingextravaganza.blogspot.com/2009/02/kingmaking-by-helen-hollick.html 2/23 and guest blog 2/25

http://chikune.com/blog/?p=488 2/24

http://booksaremyonlyfriends.blogspot.com/ 2/25

http://peekingbetweenthepages.blogspot.com/ 2/26 and guest blog 2/27

http://webereading.blogspot.com/ 2/26

http://www.caramellunacy.blogspot.com 2/26

http://bookthoughtsbylisa.blogspot.com/ 3/1

http://www.skrishnasbooks.com/ 3/1

http://jennifersrandommusings.wordpress.com/ 3/1

http://rhireading.blogspot.com/ 3/1

http://passagestothepast.blogspot.com/ 3/2

http://thetometraveller.blogspot.com/ 3/2

http://steventill.com/ 3/2

http://savvyverseandwit.blogspot.com / 3/2 and interview 3/3

http://www.carlanayland.blogspot.com/ 3/3

http://readersrespite.blogspot.com/ 3/3 and interview on 3/5

http://libraryqueue.blogspot.com/ 3/4

http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/ 3/4

http://www.myfriendamysblog.com/ 3/5

http://samsbookblog.blogspot.com 3/5

http://goodbooksbrightside.blogspot.com/ 3/5


Alianore said...

This sounds great! I really enjoyed the author's Hollow Crown and Harold the King, and I must give this one a try.

Steven Till said...

Great review, Carla. I do agree with you about the fault line between good and bad characters. It was difficult to find redeeming qualities in these characters.

It's interesting our different takes on Winifred. At times, I felt that maybe she did really love Arthur, and she wanted to work things out, but perhaps it was only to further her personal ambitions. It was often difficult to determine her true motives. To me, this made her more complex than other "evil" characters.

Carla said...

Alianore - I liked it better than A Hollow Crown, which I found rather slow. If you read it, let me know what you think!

Steven - I thought Winifred wanted Arthur to love her, and that she desired him. And definitely that she wanted to be queen! So she had a lot of reasons to try to keep their marriage together. Some of the time she seemed unsure herself whether she hated Arthur or wanted him (which inconsistency greatly irritated Vortigern, as I remember!). You're right that it was difficult to figure out her true motives. Maybe she didn't know herself.

Rick said...

It is intriguing how a post-Roman Arthur is becoming established in the popular culture to the point where even Hollywood can play off it.

Will TH White's books be the swan song of the high medieval Arthur we've had since the 12th century? Or will a future generation decide that since Arthur is a semilegendary figure who can't be precisely pinned down anyway, it is legit to put him in his traditional setting even if technically anachronistic?

Carla said...

Good question. I suspect there's a certain amount of fashion, and when everyone has got a bit tired of a post-Roman Arthur the high-medieval Arthur will make a comeback. You can make an arguable case that the legendary chivalric Arthur of Malory et al is a character in his own right, distinct from the 'historical' Arthur (if there was one), and in that case it's quite legitimate to tell stories about either.

Rick said...

The second point is sort of what I had in mind; you put it in focus. Traditional King Arthur has an independent literary standing. For that matter, you can take Arthur out of the 12th century castle, but can you really take the castle out of him? Modern versions either retell the traditional story in period dress ('Gwenhwyfar') or make an ironic commentary on it ('emotionless political marriage').

Which is pretty much as it should be. I'm starting to lean back toward thinking there probably was indeed a 'historical Arthur.' But the only reliable facts about him are that the legend exists and that archeology suggests an upturn in British fortunes at about the right time. The argument from there is just Occam's razor. ('No, no one named Arthur around here, just a general the troops call Ole Grizzly.')

The upshot, though, is that absent a killer find, the legend is literally all we have got. You could write about Vortigern or Hengist or Ambrosius and never reference anything or anyone outside the milieu. But the moment you name Arthur (or imply that is who you mean), it is like the pistol in Checkhov's law: You must explain why the story you are telling somehow ended up 700 years later as Camelot.

Carla said...

Sometimes they modify the legend more than just period dress. If I remember Books 2 and 3 correctly, Helen Hollick's version doesn't include the love triangle, for example. Other modern retellings focus on it to the exclusion of all else, and I rather think the Mists of Avalon goddess-worshipping feminist mysticism angle can be credited as something new; at any rate I don't remember much of it in Malory :-) Part of the enduring appeal of the legend seems to be that for some reason it is infinitely malleable to suit any interest or theme.

I'm not sure the archaeology really shows an upturn in 'British' fortunes at the right time. It can be interpreted that way, as per John Morris, but I always get twitchy trying to assign ethnicity/language/political affiliation to anybody on the basis of material culture such as pottery sherds or jewellery. You can tell that, say, people buried in that place at that time (often not much better than half a century either way) wore square-headed brooches to the grave, but it's a bit of a leap to extrapolate the language they spoke or the king they followed. However, even if one is cautious about the archaeology, you definitely have Gildas's statement about the political impact of Badon, which is only lacking the name (and Gildas mentions hardly any names anyway). Plus, of course, the legend.

The legend is so dominant that the moment you say "Arthur" you instantly conjure up the whole Camelot legend with all its attendant images and baggage. There probably aren't many readers who don't immediately start looking out for all the familiar elements - the question is not so much "what happens next", as in most stories, but a whole series of "where is Merlin going to come in?" "what happened to the sword in the stone?" "Oooh, he must be Lancelot by another name, when is he going to run off with the queen?" and so on. I'm as guilty. I had a great time spotting references in The Kingmaking. As you say, you just can't ignore it - you have to relate all this to your story somehow, because the readers certainly will. I have a feeling that this is why several of the Arthur stories I've read tail off as they progress - they get bogged down under this enormous weight of expectation from the legend. Mary Stewart's trilogy does, and Helen Hollick's does too (in my view). Even TH White; I am a great fan, but the part about the young Arthur (Wart), which is more or less independent of the legend, is the freshest and liveliest part.

Rick said...

I don't mean to trivialize 'period dress'. As you say the legend itself evolves - Guinevere and Gwenhywfar look at each other in near incomprehension, from opposite sides of circa 1960. From the little I've read about Malory himself he'd be amazed at the feminist goddess angle, for sure.

(Just speaking for myself, the triangle is a no brainer - just Rick, Ilsa, and Victor Lazlo, the unhappy ending version. The Grail, on the other hand, just eludes me, so to speak, and glossing it vaguely as 'the ideal' doesn't really help.)

Your reservations about 'British' fortunes is well taken, so let me put it in a more accurate but mealymouthed way: The fortunes of people who became 'British' in retrospect.

It would be very odd to my mind if impressive 'elite centers' in southwest Britain around 450-500 were totally unrelated to Gildas, in the same region around 550, saying that things used to be better but are now going to hell in a handbasket. Presumably this is the original Arthurian context, but whatever he and his followers called themselves, they ended up in Welsh tradition as 'British' champions.

Now here's an odd little question. What were the 'English' - that is to say, anyone whose tradition flowed into the English stream - doing while all that was going on? Hengist and Horsa, Aelle of Sussex, yada yada. None of it sounds like the English of Bede's day spent much time on their forebears or their deeds.

Was there ever a would-be English Theodoric? If so he left no trace to speak of.

Carla said...

Places like South Cadbury, yes? And we might include Wroxeter if the south-west can stretch so far - somebody there was expensively redeveloping the old Roman town centre in around 560-580 using Roman measurements, just as somebody in Verulamium was relaying water mains in the early fifth century. FWIW, my picture of post-Roman Britain is that it was a mixed story with a lot of variation at different times and places. Some places (Pevensey fort, if the reference in the ASC is accurate) might well have suffered trauma and destruction, but others (Wroxeter? Verulamium?) might have carried on more or less unscathed for varying periods, or shifted to a different social model run by a different elite, or the same elite with a new material culture (York? Vindolanda? South Cadbury?). I can fit Gildas into this scenario if he (or people he knew well) had directly suffered loss of life or property in a raid or rebellion that might have been quite a localised affair. A traumatic event that affects <1% of the country feels like the end of the world if you happen to live in that 1%. Gildas had very rude things to say about Brittonic government in his day ("Britain has kings but they are tyrants" etc) and finds five contemporary kings to castigate by name, so clearly there was some Brittonic government of a sort in some areas for him to be angry about. He may well have known the rulers who lived in powerful 5th/6th century centres like South Cadbury, and disapproved of them because their social model wasn't one he agreed with. If, for example, his family was from the old Roman senatorial class, the emergence of Brittonic kings living in hill forts and answerable to no-one (or at least, not answerable to the senatorial class...) no doubt did mean the country was going to hell in a handcart from his perspective. Doesn't mean Gildas was wrong; doesn't mean everybody saw it the same way, either.

This fragmented model might have some bearing on your other question? Hengist and Horsa are basically local lords of Kent, Aelle the local lord of Sussex, and so on. I see them as on a par, more or less, with the kings Gildas was complaining about and with whoever lived at South Cadbury or rebuilt Wroxeter. Perhaps they all dreamed of becoming Emperor of Britain and/or magister militum, and some had a go (Vortigern? Arthur?) but by accident of history and circumstance none of them succeeded, or at any rate not for long enough to leave any impression. In this view they might all be seen as would-be Theodorics. I wonder if the puzzling title Bretwalda in the ASC (Bede's 'kings south of the Humber') is a distant echo of a would-be Thoedoric who temporarily succeeded. Another thought is that Arthur was actually a Brittonic Theodoric, for a while, and that this is why his legend (and his alone) became so powerful. One could then see the title Bretwalda as a distant echo of Arthur.

Usual caveats apply - this is highly speculative and other interpretations are possible :-)

Rick said...

Speculation is fun! And this shares with Troy and Mycenae the magic of major cultural legends rooted in events just beyond the reach of narrative history (for now), but half glimpsed through historical mist.

South Cadbury is what I had first in mind, but also the others from Tintagel to Wroxeter. (560-80??!! I had no idea there was major construction there that late.) Overall I agree that Britain was a welter, with many local rises and falls at different times and places, and no doubt some with placid stability. These places in the southwest look like one of the bigger ones, if they interacted at all.

My guess is that the southwest was where Roman Britain took its last stand. That is, a leader based in the southwest - presumably AKA Arthur - made a final serious bid to hold Britain together on recognizably Roman terms. Arthur was successful enough to achieve some kind of predominance over the whole island - but after he failed the Roman bolt was pretty much shot. In the later Welsh tradition he became a 'British' champion; the later English only remembered the concept of a Bretwalda.

If I were writing it, I'd make Arthur himself pure English, Eadwine or something, who joins the army and decides to take his best shot as Britain's Stilicho instead of its Theoderic.

He ends up in the southwest because Cadbury is the local Ravenna, seat of the remaining imperial authority. There he marries a high ranking 'Roman' girl whose given name, Valeria, has been forgotten this last 1500 years just like her husband's. What people remembered was her alabaster complexion and off the shoulder dresses. :)

Cast Gildas in the Merlin role, and let him make an accurate because self fulfilling prophesy:

"You've made a legend for yourself, Eadwine, and I can't do anything about that. But I have left you out of my book! Worse for you than if I cursed you to the end of time! I have damned by name the small fry, and history will record their names for the little it cares. But history will look in vain for Eduinus Artorius, Dux Bellorum. Where your name should be, in the annals of this island, will be only uncertainty, then skepticism and doubt ..."

Carla said...

Congratulations, you may have just come up with an original take on King Arthur! I might quibble about the mechanism of "joining the army" by the mid-fifth century - how does your Ravenna-Cadbury emperor pay his troops without official coinage? The absence of coinage is something we can be fairly sure about; such a resounding absence of evidence is reasonable evidence of absence. Some other form of currency exchange, that was perishable and doesn't survive? But that aside, a successful mercenary commander who married his employer's daughter and gained political power himself is an entirely plausible scenario. One can suggest that this is more or less what Hengest had in mind - work for Vortigern and become a Stilicho in Britain. There's some indication (can't remember which source, offhand, though I guess HB) that Vortigern might be associated with the Gloucester area, so he can be cast as your Ravenna-Cadbury emperor. Pity, really, that 'Hengest' means 'stallion' and can't by any stretch be made to connect with 'bear', or we might have rather a neatly squared circle :-)

Gildas-Merlin would have to have known that his was the only account that would survive, in order to be sure his prophecy would be self-fulfilling (unless he was bluffing?)

Back to sober reality, or at least some reasonably tangible evidence, the dating for the latest big rebuilding at Wroxeter's baths basilica site has a broad range (no helpful coins by then) and is somewhat inferential, but it's well into the sixth century and way past the conventional idea of 'the end of Roman Britain', which is why it's so interesting. I'll do a post (or several) on Wroxeter at some point with the details.

Rick said...

But no, I don't imagine he goes to the recruiting office and signs up! Probably he's a federate rewarded with land for himself and his followers; he 'joins the army' in the sense of seeing himself as a Roman fighting for the Roman cause. (Perhaps intermixed with some very un-Roman things like Ambrosius Aurelianus as ring-giver.)

Hengist might well have had a similar goal in mind. I could even speculate, for purpose of narrative, that no post-Roman English kingdom analogous to the Gothic and Frankish kingdoms took form because the ablest Saxon/English leaders all aimed to be Stilichos. Perhaps after Ambrosius' (or Uther's?) death, Arthur's English followers want to raise him on a shield as King of the Englisc, and he says, 'No, no, not King, Bretwald!'

Gildas/Merlin might be all too aware of the state of literacy in Britain. Secular education was presumably long gone, and he knows that the only place learning is thriving is Ireland, where British affairs are not on the radar. So he can guess that what he doesn't record will go unrecorded.

Carla said...

He'd have been taking a chance, since styli have been found at Wroxeter (so someone there was writing things down in the sixth century) and enough people were literate in early medieval Wales for it to be worth erecting Latin inscribed memorials. However, since the prophecy demonstrably was self-fulfilling, by whatever mechanism, that needn't worry us :-)

I daresay this is pedantic, but 'joining the army' as a phrase conjures up an image for me of something rather more formal and institutional than federate status. Otherwise, there'd be no difference between the Germanic soldiers in the Roman Army in the fourth century (who left inscriptions on Hadrian's Wall, and one of whom was Dux Britanniarum) and the fifth-century federates in the Hengest story. They may well have been part of a continuing tradition, and may have been descendants, but I imagine their experience (and maybe their attitude to Rome?) was distinctly different.

For the purposes of narrative, one could speculate that the fifth-century English federates in Britain all wanted to be Stilichos because they idolised the Roman state and wanted to copy it, not replace it with tribal kings. This is consistent - or at least, not inconsistent - with the presence of 'Cesar' in the East Anglian royal genealogy (or that could equally well be a dynastic marriage to your Valeria of the off-the-shoulder dresses...!), and with the borrowing of Roman symbols of power such as the Roman standard mentioned by Bede and the Roman theatre excavated at Yeavering.

Which raises the interesting, if iconoclastic, possibility that some of the English were more Roman in aspiration than the tribal Brittonic kings living in their refurbished hillforts in the far west :-)

Rick said...

'Joining the army' does evoke connotations surely anachronistic in the later 5th century! I think when I originally phrased it that way it was only to suggest that affiliating with 'Roman' military authority must have itself been an old tradition among the proto-English.

For purposes of narrative yes, I think I can plausibly posit some allegiance to a 'Roman' ideal. I did not know about the Anglian Cesar, but the Roman mystique was after all enormously powerful. You don't need a formal classical education to grasp the concept of universal rule and 'the grandeur that was Rome.' The mighty works are all around, and off in the far distance is still an imperial authority.

It wouldn't even be obvious that Rome had 'fallen.' To people at the time the rule of Ambrosius and Arthur doesn't look like a vestigial remnant but a vigorous imperial restoration - they have no memory of 'real' Roman rule, in our sense, to compare it to.

I think it is perfectly plausible that some proto English were more Roman than the proto Welsh. The fact that Roman Britain passed into Welsh tradition, not English, could be merely the result of it collapsing in the east first. Just as in Europe as a whole the west collapsed first, so that 'Romans' ended up being Greek speakers.

And isn't it odd and fascinating that, a few hundred years later, Anglo-Saxon kings occasionally use the title Basileus. (Unless it was just a thing chancery clerks wrote.) It is as if, unlike continental people and the Welsh, they forgot nearly all details of their Roman experience but somehow held onto Bretwald/Basileus, in a sense the distilled essence of Rome, the concept of plenary rule.

(Yes, I know that is completely stretchy!)

Carla said...

I suspect that 'basileus' was just a term the clerks used, or else it was a deliberate copying of the title used by the contemporary Byzantine emperors (didn't they style themselves Basileus, in Greek, rather than Imperator, in Latin?). It needn't be a memory of anything - rather like the leader of a banana republic looking around the modern world for a suitably impressive title and deciding he likes the sound of "President".

Some Welsh traditions style Arthur "the Emperor Arthur", and that could genuinely be a memory, either of a title that the historical Arthur actually claimed or of the title held (briefly!) by Emperor Magnus Maximus, who is remembered in Welsh folklore as Macsen Wledig, "Prince Macsen".

It's noticeable that some of that Roman mystique persists today. The Victorians seem to have consciously modelled their Empire on the Roman one (wonderfully ironic, considering that the Rani of Jhansi took the role of Boudica in the Indian Mutiny). Coins, for example, still look recognisably related to Roman coins - for 2000 years we have all implicitly accepted that "proper" coins ought to look like Roman coins. A few years back the British Museum ran an exhibition called "The Heirs of Rome" and pointed out all sorts of other parallels that I'd never noticed before. If Rome cast such a shadow in the age of industrial power, imagine how it must have looked in the fifth century. It must have seemed almost impossible that the owners of all that infrastructure weren't about to come back any day now - and by the same token, anybody who could plausibly assert a claim over all that infrastructure, e.g. by borrowing the title used by the owners, would probably find the reflected glory a useful addition to his actual power. (A bit like those lizards that scare off predators by puffing themselves up to twice their actual size?)

Rick said...

Yes, Basileus was the Byzantine term. I don't imagine there was really much to the A-S use, but someone had a strikingly up to date sense of the imperial dignity, to use the contemporary Greek term instead of a Latin term long in abeyance.

Or was it? It could have been a way to diss Frankish pretentions, even before Charlemagne. To call yourself Basileus asserts a type of imperial dignity, like Wolsey's 'this realm of England is an empire.' A Basileus acknowledges no earthly superior, and certainly no Frank. (Nor Bretwald, for that matter, unless you're asserting yourself as Bretwald.)

The first Arthur book I ever read with a period setting was called The Emperor Arthur. The least of surprises would be a successful 'Roman' commander claiming the purple. But Nennius, 300 years later, only calls him Dux Bellorum.

Perhaps, at least for story purpose, a sense remains that either (before 476) there is still an Augustus in the west, making a claim to the purple a usurpation, or (after 476) claiming the purple would carry an obligation to restore the entire west.

Or, flip side, a feeling that the continent had gone its way, to hell in a handbasket, and Britain was going its way as a self contained 'Roman' entity. Haven't you mentioned hints that even before 410, perhaps long before, Roman Britain was showing signs of nascent independence tendencies?

Yes, an enormous amount of Roman mystique survives - remember that the Holy Roman Empire actually lasted till 1806, when Napoleon abolished it to make room for his own imperial ambitions.

In the 5th century the Roman physical presence was massive, and in the late 5th century perhaps looked better than it had 50 years earlier. By that time deserted villas and such had probably collapsed to inconspicuousness, leaving only the massive stone construction that was still pretty much intact. And people are undertaking new work, not as impressive as the old stuff yet, but adding to the feeling of things on the upswing.

We would not think it looked very Roman, but they did not know that real Romans wore 2nd century military equipment and spoke old style BBC English. So far as they know, the disorders of the last couple of generations have been substantially quelled, and whatever has happened to Roman authority in nearby parts of the continent, in Britannia it is restored and solidifying.

Until, suddenly, it isn't.

Carla said...

Which is one of the curious features of the Arthur legend. Historia Brittonum, which is one of the earliest sources, calls him a war leader, but in later romances he is Emperor Arthur (Welsh) or King Arthur (Norman-French). Did the romances have access to a different tradition, or did they just attach a famous title for the purposes of narrative? It may be a distinction without a difference, if war leader went with the job of king, or it may indicate that non-royal government survived in parts of post-Roman Britain and Arthur worked as military leader for some other political authority. Given that assorted Roman army commanders had tried to use the Roman forces in Britain and/or Gaul to stage a military coup in the third and fourth centuries, it was a well-known career path - but given that all of them except Constantine the Great came to a sticky end, possibly not one that a sensible (let alone honourable) commander might choose to follow. And if his colleagues and/or subordinates disagreed (either way round), that might lead to conflict, and thereby you can hang yet another variant of the story. It really is infinitely malleable.

I think the long history of secession attempts in Britain and/or Gaul means that at least some of the movers and shakers in Roman Britain would have greeted the Rescript of Honorius with delight - "Independence at last! Good riddance! Now we can run our own affairs without interference from Rome!"

The political situation may have evolved, or tried to evolve, independently of the economy for a while. The sudden absence of new coinage, and the consequent shift away from centralised manufacturing and long-distance commerce for routine goods, must have had a sharp impact on the way the economy operated (or didn't....). One could imagine a scenario where the political classes carried on squabbling over castles in the air for a while, until the gap between ambition ("I can be Emperor!") and reality (There isn't any money) became too great to ignore. How about that for the "suddenly it isn't" part of your scenario?

Rick said...

When does coinage disappear? Did anyone in Roman Britain strike coins after 410? Would we know if they had, or would it just look like another late Roman coin? I know nothing of the numismatics - my entire knowledge, as of right now, is that you just mentioned the 'sudden absence of new coinage,' without me knowing when you mean. (The history of the era in a nutshell!)

If coinage fell out of use around 410, then the economic change had probably already happened, and coins were only coming in because of the imperial government.

And if Lundenwic or its direct predecessor was already thriving sometime in this 410-600 period, how the devil were those people doing business without either money or writing? Of course you can barter trade, but a commercial port town implies some pretty sophisticated transactions.

Carla said...

The last Roman coins that turn up in Britain are from Honorius' reign, circa 410, and presumably came in to pay the army. Of course, they could have circulated for a long time after that, and as several examples are clipped or very worn there's some indication that they did. I suppose if someone was striking exact copies after 410 we wouldn't be able to tell the difference (except perhaps by trace metal analysis?) but I've not seen it suggested that anyone was. If any of the assorted (hypothetical) authorities in post-Roman Britain was striking their own coins, none of them have survived, or at least none have been recognised. (Oh, for a coin with "Artorius Imperator, 510 Anno Domini" stamped on it!). Coins reappear in Britain at the tail end of the 7th century with silver sceattas from Northumbria dating from around 680 or so, and then in the 750s-ish King Offa of Mercia copies Charlemagne's silver penny and on we go from there. (Offa's silver penny may well be the model for the silver pennies used in the Shire and Bree in Lord of the Rings, BTW, and buying ponies is the sort of transaction they would be suitable for).

Merovingian gold coins were used in Northern Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries - see the earlier post about the Merovingian coins from Sutton Hoo, rather in the way that US dollars are used outside their home country in the modern world. So when Bede describes Lundenwic as a major international trading port in the 680s it could have been happily using Merovingian coinage. This would probably have applied from whenever Merovingian coins came into use; I will have to go and look that up, but I don't think there's much of a gap in Gaul between the 'end' of the Roman state and the 'beginning' of the Merovingian one. One could also use a system of bullion by weight, like the Viking hacksilver, in the absence of coins. And I doubt that writing vanished altogether, either - otherwise why do styli turn up at Wroxeter and a seal ring on Anglesey in the 6th century? The ring might be purely decorative, but the styli? It's also not that hard to barter by the shipload, as Viking traders did it all over Europe in the 9th century. So high-value transactions of the kind that would happen at a major trading centre aren't too much of a problem.

The low-value transactions, such as the ones that were presumably happening at the market stalls in the sixth-century Wroxeter rebuild, are a bit more difficult to imagine. But I think to some extent that's because we're so used to money that we can't see how the world would work without it. Other countries can manage some quite sophisticated local markets on barter, see Jonathan Jarrett's post about contemporary Bolivia. That's probably not a bad model for sixth century Wroxeter - and no doubt lots of places like it.

Does that help?

Rick said...

Yes - this fills in a lot.

The paucity of coins suggests that they weren't in general circulation, thus on the whole no money economy. There could have been important exceptions. I can imagine that a merchant in Lundenwic did not use his cash to pay his inland suppliers of wool, or whatever England-to-be exported back then. He paid for that with his imports, saving the cash for international trade with people who also used cash.

I am not suprised by complex local barter markets!

So far as large scale trade goes, my gut feeling is that I would rather do business with writing and no coins than vice versa. Coins are convenient, but credit is essential. You and I can do a handshake deal, but real credit happens when you owe Wulfstan a dozen horses, he pays me by check to ship them, and you give me the horses on presentation of the check.

In fact, right through the Middle Ages, 'money of account' was only loosely tied to coinage, often denominated in different units.

In principle, government finance can also be by credit, without a coin being struck. (After all that is how we work, our coins being purely symbolic.) But this is extremely sophisticated, and requires a suitable context. The Doge of Venice can hire galleys with letters of credit that the galley owners accept because they are merchants who can use them to pay their own bills.

The Emperor Arthur can't pay his troops with letters of credit, because the soldiers, no matter how sophisticated and worldly in their sphere, have practically no use for them. You say this piece of paper is worth horses, but only if I go to Lundenwic and find some Saxon merchant who will dicker them? Thanks a bunch, Your Imperial Serenity. I think I'll be taking hedge leave along with my guys.

But the complete absence of Romano-British coins further indicates that no one in power even had the concept of coinage. Little golden or silver medallions with your profile and ART:IMP are a way cool symbol and gift, and 'real governments strike coins.' Didn't Offa strike coins with fake Arabic squiggles? You don't even need a money economy for coins to have value, because silver is silver, certainly no less valuable in medallion form.

So if they weren't striking coins, coins were not even of prestige or symbolic value, and the whole idea just wasn't on their radar.

Carla said...

Good point. It may be fairer to say that no-one in power needed coins to exert that power. The Empire collected taxes in coins and spent them on paying the army (which was the bedrock of Imperial power). Replace that with an elite that 'pays' its warriors in kind, collects its taxes in kind, and maintains relationships by giving prestige gifts, and coins become merely another pretty item of bullion, like jewellery or fancy tableware. (Roman coins turn up now and then re-used as jewellery). Then it comes down to how you like to display your bullion. If jewellery like that from Sutton Hoo conferred more prestige than a pretty medallion with your name on it, either as a way of displaying your wealth (it's hard to wear coins in any quantity) or for gift-giving, then logically you'd make any gold you came by into flashy jewellery rather than coins.

It may also be fair to say that the early post-Roman kingdoms in Britain (up to the mid seventh century, say) hadn't amassed the sort of political and economic power needed to give coins enough credibility to be useful.

At a mercantile level, part of the value of money depends on who's issuing it and how trusted they are outside their own immediate sphere of influence. Originally, a stamped coin said: you can be sure this coin contains the regulation weight of bullion because it's been officially issued by King X or Emperor Y and he says so. Honest. Whereas a pretty metal disc might be mostly lead for all you know, unless you can get it tested. So a coin with the Emperor's head on it would buy you wine or bread from Hadrian's Wall to Constantinople, because the baker or tavern-keeper knew what it was and knew they could exchange it with someone else for flour or chicken or a night on the tiles, or use it to pay their rent or their taxes. In a more or less stable economy, the money value can be purely symbolic and the bullion content of the coin can be replaced by lead or paper, as you say.
So when a political entity starts issuing coins, it has to have some credibility for the coins to have value. As a merchant selling wine or German glassware for, say, coins stamped "Raedwald Rex" at Gippeswic dock in 620, you want to know that the winemaker or the glassblower will accept those coins in exchange for more wine or glass. If they're going to say, "Who's he, then? Haven't you got any proper money?", you as the merchant might prefer to be paid in slaves or wool that you can exchange for 'hard' Merovingian currency in Boulogne. At which point, there's not much point in Raedwald Rex bothering with coins at all. (One could say that, however much he would like to be a 'real' king, the inexorable laws of the market don't agree, thank you).

When I wrote the previous post, I'd forgotten that a few small gold coins called thrymsas (presumably English for the 'tremisses' issued in France) are known from the early seventh century, say circa 620, maybe as early as 600. They are very rare, but nevertheless they exist. A few have turned up at York, some in Kent and London (one has the name of Eadbald, king of Kent after 616), and I think one or two turn up further west in southern England. This might be the sort of ceremonial 'real kings issue coins' coinage you mention.

Whether Eadbald king of Kent (whose mother was a Frankish princess) copied the idea from the Franks, or whether his Frankish connections gave him the necessary credibility ("Oh, he's the king's sister's son, isn't he, that's all right then"), or both, or neither, is anyone's guess. Thrymsas, like Merovingia tremisses, are only any good for high-value transactions, but they might indicate the (re)start of a money economy in Britain.

Rick said...

Yes. On reflection I overstated the symbolic value of coins unless they circulate. The whole point, symbolically, that your subjects regularly see your wealth and power, as represented by coins. If the coins just go into treasure chests, a few being worn as jewelry, you might as well hand out the treasure in the same form you got it. And you're also right that coins only work as coins if you have established credibiity - otherwise the scales come out and an assayer is called for, as for any other lump of silver offered in trade.

Taxation in kind works pretty well, so long as your main requirement is supporting troops who can live on what you pay them, bartering the excess for other stuff. But by far the easiest system to administer is also the most perilous, namely land assignment. Assignments tend to turn into hereditary estates, with dwindling control over the holders.

But my guess about Arthur is that in practical respects he was far more 'Bretwald' than 'Emperor.' He likely had some direct power base, perhaps in the southwest, but mainly relied on personal reputation and imperial aura, backed by successful campaigns, to keep local warlords in line.

To a degree the process feeds on itself, especially when a lot of those warlords started as your guys, or depend on your backing against their own local rivals. So you might have a prolonged imperial restoration, not of the long gone imperial age economy and system, but still a 'Roman' authority that keeps some island wide order and has defeated all attempts to overthrow it.

In the tradition it collapses from civil war, not 'Saxon' conquest. That is in line with Gildas and his fury at the 'tyrants' even more than the barbarians themselves.

Also, and I could be way off here, but isn't one big root of the whole historical Arthur problem the lack of much continuity to the period that follows, when the curtain starts to go up on early Welsh and English history? I don't get the impression that the big Saxon inroads that the later Welsh so regretted began right after Camlann, so to speak, but only a generation or two later.

Carla said...

Caveat that by Saxon inroads we mean a shift in political and military control, rather than mass population replacement, yes? It won't surprise you to hear that even the timescale for that is controversial. Nick Higham is of the view that English elites controlled pretty much the whole of what is now England long before Gildas' time, with the changeover happening within a generation as it did in Roman Gaul-Merovingian France. (This raises the question to my mind of why Britain doesn't speak a descendant of Latin, as France does, but hey ho). The more conventional view agrees with yours, that the shift in political power took a considerable time to happen, say 150 years or so between the mid-fifth century and the end of the sixth. The latter is to my mind more consistent with the collection of little independent kingdoms that are visible when the dust settles and the country starts to emerge blinking into the light of history. I find it hard to see how a sharp switch from one centralised authority to another would have produced quite so many pieces. Hence my thought that Roman Britain fragmented quite rapidly at least into the four provinces and probably some of those at least fragmented further into what amounts to city states or something resembling the pre-Roman tribal kingdoms, that somewhat later someone like Ambrosius or Arthur temporarily stuck some of them back together again by virtue of his own personal prestige, and that as soon as he died it all fragmented again. This is not inconsistent with Arthur as 'Bretwalda', if the title was essentially a honorific, recognising the guy who was currently top dog. Arthur may (if he existed) have been the last British ruler called by the Roman title of Emperor, but the economy he was trying to rule made his power more like that of a medieval king - unstable and highly prone to the machinations of a fractious barony...

Bede was already worried about the pernicious effect of permanent land grants - to monasteries, believe it or not! - on the power of the Northumbrian kings in the early eighth century. So you're quite right; a contemporary spotted the problem too. No-one did anything about it, though (or to be fair, perhaps there was nothing that could be done about it).

Coins could perhaps have had some use within the regions controlled by a single king, even if our hypothetical Frankish and Frisian merchants weren't interested. Maybe some taxation or compensation payments were made in coin. It may be significant in this context that Aethelbert's Kentish law code, which is essentially a list of fines denominated in shillings, appears at just about the time that the very first English-minted gold thrymsas also appear in Kent. If the thrymsas are the shillings in the law code, maybe that's what they were for. I wonder if there was a semi-offical exchange rate between coins and other commodities, like cattle and slave girls, as developed in Ireland?

Rick said...

Caveat, yes. My impression is that coherent Welsh history begins with battles and kingdoms lost, whatever happened to the populations.

If royal families went into exile along with their chief retainers, their descendants would naturally retain a tradition of mass flight. The whole image of the Elves in LOTR (by odd coincidence) has the flavor of elite abandonment, prettied up - little bands of riders heading westward, singing sad songs. :) The peasants shrugged, got on with their lives, and eventually picked up broken Germanic.

I agree with your reservations about the Higham theory. And what indeed happened to Brito-romance? That somewhat transcends politics. Britain may have been a remote province, but it had villas, so some kind of Roman economy in the southeast. And more to the point it was an army province, with three legions out of nominally 30 or so for the entire empire, so there should have been a lot of Latin speaking soldiers settling there.

The lack of evidence for a general early Saxon takeover, a la the continent, is exactly what got me to thinking that the ablest early English leaders aimed to be Stilicho rather than Theoderic.

I pretty much agree with the scenario you outline? Doesn't Honorius address himself to civitates or some such? Those were the traditional units of Roman local government, in theory semi autonomous aristocratic city states.

There are just teasing hints of some kind of federal authority or at least federal concept. From Wikipedia on Vortigern, quoting Gildas, "all the councillors, together with that proud usurper" called in Saxons. And then there's that bit about Arthur being dux bellorum, a title that to an 'Murrican sounds a lot like Commander in Chief.

For purpose of romance I would posit that the British provincials form some sort of league between 410 and about 450, and choose a joint commander. But they do not make him Emperor. Like their descendents these people are blockheads but not total blockheads. Emperors, they have noticed, tend to cross the Channel along with their troops and never be seen again.

Even in Arthur's time I think it is legitimate for the 'Roman' elite to consciously see their situation as not unlike Byzantium, with which they have trade contact and therefore scuttlebut, no less Roman for not speaking Latin at home anymore

But a question that mainly the archeology would answer (or not): In the region where there had been villa economy, when did the villas go to seed and what happened after that?

Carla said...

I wonder if Tolkien's Eldar were inspired by some of the Welsh laments and elegies, many of which are very beautiful. Sindarin looks uncommonly like Welsh to my non-expert eye (even if Quenya is Finnish).

I would expect there probably were a lot of Latin-speaking soldiers, and as a lot of the late Roman army was Germanic, quite a number may have been bilingual Latin-Germanic speakers.

Indeed, Honorius' famous letter is addressed to the civitates, roughly county-sized administrative units that were the next layer below the four (or five?) provinces. Either there were no longer pronvicial governors or Honorius and his officials had got tired of trying to keep track of palace coups and wrote to the next layer down. Which would have made life doubly difficult for any would-be Governor of Britain trying to set himself up as overall boss, as any civitas council that didn't like him could point to Honorius' letter and claim that they had Imperial approval to look after themselves, thank you.

The Welsh Triads refer to three armies that left Britain and were never seen again; I think one of them is recognisably Magnus Maximus. I think Geoffrey of Monmouth even has a story about Arthur going off to fight the Romans, almost as if it was something every self-respecting Emperor would be expected to do :-) So yes, there may have been an entirely sensible scepticism about raising would-be Emperors!

With regard to the villas, I don't think any of them (or vanishingly few) show evidence of violent destruction. Some were demolished carefully, as if by someone who wanted the building materials for another purpose, and some appear to have fallen down quietly by themselves. But remarkably little fire and sword stuff. As to the dates, I think (like everything else) that was variable. I know of at least one that was supposed to have gone out of use around 360 (I wonder if the owners had been on the wrong side of one of the failed usurpations and got proscribed when the Empire struck back), and others appear to have gone happily on until 420 or even later. It gets hard to date late occupation accurately because of the absence of coins; you tend to be inferring from the number of new floors or the depth of material on top of the layer containing the last datable coins, which is going to be subject to wide margins of error. Sometimes you see excavation reports referring to "squatter occupation", in which the villa buildings are still used but apparently for a different purpose, like industrial usage. This is what one might expect when the building techniques or materials are no longer available; if the roof leaks and you can't fix it, the posh dining room gets used as a workshop or a barn and you build a timber farmhouse in the courtyard or the garden. Which may be a process similar to the way that Iron Age roundhouses sometimes get replaced by Roman-style houses and then simple villas and then complex villas on the same site, as if the same landowning family just rebuilt their house according to changing technology and fashion.

Rick said...

Geoffrey of Monmouth does indeed have Arthur invading Gaul.

And I seem to recall that a good deal of Welsh background went into the Sindarin. Like my English Arthur, that quintessentially English don has ended up associated mostly with Celtic myth and folklore.

What I am wondering about is what happened to the peasants when the villas faded away? If they were simply paying rent (in kind or labor), but lived in their own village community, they would simply go on living there, happily not paying rent till someone shows up to inform them at spear point that he is the new landlord.

But if the villa was a centralized operation run by an estate manager, and he decamps with the owners, the whole villa society dissolves. Even the farmhands may leave, and if they stay around there's no continuity to speak of, the remaining peasants dividing the land into new family plots.

All the -villes in France testify to continuity there, but my impression is that the Roman villas in England don't much relate to later land use patterns.

In any case the villas lasted later than I realized; I vaguely thought they had faded away before 400. If they lasted till 420, so presumably did a fairly intact provincial Roman society.

Carla said...

You won't be surprised to hear that the question of villa continuity, or not, is controversial. There's a school of thought that argues that later administrative units, such as parish boundaries, in some parts of what's now England follow patterns that are indicative of being derived from Roman villa estates. The supporting evidence is a bit over my head, or was last time I read an academic article on the subject, but I take their word for it that it could have happened, at least in some cases. My guess is that it varied. If a villa was operated by a slave labour force living in barracks, run by a bailiff and owned by an absentee senator in Gaul or Constantinople, one would expect that to experience a rather different transition compared with one where the owner lived on the premises and was essentially part of the same local aristocracy as had been there before the Romans showed up. A villa owned and run by the local lord, more or less capable of producing everything it needs and selling the surplus at markets or fairs, doesn't have very far to go to change into something looking remarkably like a medieval manor. Conversely a villa that grows nothing but grain to sell to the army might get a considerable shock when the army moves out and coins disappear.

I have a feeling that -ville in France is just a linguistic descendant, French being descended from Latin, and may or may not reflect continuity of land organisation. In Brittany the many Plou- names (Google for Britanny and scan the map and you'll see there are a lot) are supposed to represent villa estates, though I don't know how solid the evidence is for that.

Rick said...

As usual, the evidence is mixed!

I'll let this thread go fallow, and hasten up to read your latest post.

Carla said...

There's so much in this comment thread that I may fish out some of the issues and look up the material properly for future posts, so some of the subjects may resurface in due course :-)