putting Britain’s Forgotten Realms back on the map

After the legions left, savage Picts overran Hadrian’s Wall, Scotti pirates crossed the Irish Sea in coracles, and Arthur fought a heroic but doomed struggle to save civilized Roman Britain from the hordes of Barbarian Anglo-Saxons of the Continent. The popular understanding of AD400-800 Britain is a simple, four-corner dogfight between easily distinguishable peoples. Lost Realms: Histories of Britain from the Romans to the Vikings by Thomas Williams shows that reality was much messier and more complex, and therefore much more interesting.

The origins of this book are candidly explained. Williams originally intended to write a grand tale – a prequel to his own Viking Britain – but the evidence made it “an unusually resistant tale to be told”; not that it held back countless other authors. Instead, he took the oblique and brilliant approach of telling the stories of some of the petty kingdoms that came and went during this time. It is also open on the selection criteria: not too well known, but not so obscure that there is almost nothing to say, a balance between Anglo-Saxons and British, and all regions of the island had to be covered . The names of three of the kingdoms survive as local authorities – Essex, Powys and Sussex – and one, Elmet, in poetry by Ted Hughes. The other five – Hwicce, Lindsey, Dumnonia, Rheged and Fortriu – are quite far from the vanguard of modern consciousness.

Williams, refreshingly, isn’t afraid to swim against the tide of scholarly orthodoxy. The still endlessly reiterated modern assertion that the fall of the Roman Empire was not a violent and bloody process, involving a great deal of warfare, but a matter of peaceful compromise and accommodation – a position whose flaws have been exposed a few years ago by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization – is considered a mere ideological construction by scholars living in the exceptional circumstance of the absence of conventional warfare in Europe and America after the Second World War. This pacification of the past has always had the logic of suggesting that the Quisling regime “proved” that the Norway campaign never happened. Williams too, again unlike many of his colleagues, feels no need to inflate his subject matter by condemning the term “Dark Age”, as he likes its sense of “mystery”.

A scholar of the Dark Ages (with or without italics, or, as others insist, the less evocative “early medieval period”) needs at least three different skills: archaeological to study contemporary material, linguistic to read documents in several languages, and literary to unpack writings, often poetic, almost always composed centuries after the event. In fact, the differences may not be as concrete as one sometimes imagines; as the eminent archaeologist Martin Carver has said, understanding a site has much in common with interpreting a poem. Different skills or not, Williams has all the expertise needed in spades. The way he takes us through the sources is exciting. The exposition of the problems of recovering earlier history from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, part of the “great project of self-promotion which occupied the court of King Alfred of Wessex (r.871-899)”, is concise and sensible. His use of modern toponyms to delineate the boundaries of the small kingdom of Elmet is a model of clarity and common sense. Uncovering possible evocations of Eliseg’s Pillar, an inscribed stone column in Powys, somehow conveys the sheer excitement of studying the past.

Lost Realms is a work of scholarship intended for the general reader. It is also consciously literary. Ted Hughes rubs shoulders with Seamus Heaney, JR R Tolkien, or even Robert E Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and “a virulent racist”. He often engages with popular culture. The pages are peppered with references and allusions to comic books and movies, including The Wicker Man and The Life of Brian. The tone is scholarly, yet conversational; its obvious learning, but slightly worn. There are passages of dramatization, some in the historical present, and quite a few fragments of autobiography. We accompany the author on childhood vacations and to scholarly conferences, “listening to the distant, unsettling sounds of earnest academics dancing to Dire Straits.”

The findings of Lost Realms are compelling. There was no unified British Dark Age experience; different things happened in different regions. There were no clear borders between the peoples. It was a time of cultural complexity. The Angles and the Brits adopted things from each other’s culture, just like the Picts and everyone else. Identity was not neat and seamless as in the modern popular imagination.

There are other things the reader wishes Williams had included. What were they wearing? (There are lots of brooches, but nothing on the costume.) What did they eat? How did they fight? How big were their armies; how far did they travel? But that’s what good books do – they make you want more, and Lost Realms is a joy to read.

There, amid moors and hedgerows, the tombs of unknown kings lie forgotten under stands of ash and birch – the tombs of heroes whose names once rang beside hall fires, whose horns once rang in the hills ; rusty swords, gold torn by the plow, treasure scattered in the fields. Bones are dislodged from resting places, gnawed by foxes, badgers, rats; shaken and broken by gray roots searching among the dead. And the lords of the lost kingdoms sleep on.

Lost Realms is published by William Collins at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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