The bestselling author of The King in the North turns his attention to the obscure era of British history known as 'the age of Arthur'. 'Not just a valuable book, but a distinctive one as well' Tom Holland, Sunday Times 'An accessible and illuminating book' Gerard de Groot, The Times 'A fascinating picture of Britain's new-found independence' This England Somewhere between the departure of the Roman legions in the early fifth century and the arrival of Augustine's Christian mission at the end of the sixth, the kingdoms of Early Medieval Britain were formed. But by whom? And out of what? The First Kingdom is a skilfully wrought investigation of this mysterious epoch, synthesizing archaeological research carried out over the last forty years to tease out reality from the myth. Max Adams presents an image of post-Roman Britain whose resolution is high enough to show the emergence of distinct political structures in the sixth century - polities that survive long enough to be embedded in the medieval landscape, recorded in the lines of river, road and watershed, and memorialized in place names.… (more)
Although I have read some books about this period in Britain’s history in the past, this book was excellent at trying to synthesise recent research, providing the author’s educated assessment of likely events where necessary, with suitable caveats for the reader to understand the judgements being made.
Although the subtitle of the book refers to the age of Arthur, the author does not spend much time considering whether Arthur might have been an historical figure, or just legendary, as there is very little contemporary written evidence to substantiate the name of a particular individual. Indeed the author spends some time explaining how, because of the non-existence or loss of written records, we have little evidence of the names of many individuals from this period, and interestingly there is one kingdom, Rheged, where we are not sure of its exact location, other than it is west of the kingdom of Northumbria.
Adams also provides plenty of fascinating detail and explanation, for example, I had not appreciated that kings moved around their kingdoms as the right to a share of an area’s surplus output needed to be consumed locally, if a monetary economy didn’t really exist after the withdrawal of Roman rule from Britain in about 410 BCE. I didn’t find that these minor digressions interrupted the overall narrative flow.
For those unfamiliar with British geography, which is complicated by currently small towns and villages being significant sites in this time period, there are some useful maps, although they don’t detail all of the locations discussed.
An excellent overview of the period provided that you have some familiarity with the subject or patience to identify places, otherwise you may become lost amongst the many names and locations used to build up Adams’ convincing collage of England’s development over the centuries discussed.
In this heavily researched volume, Adams proposes that modern archeology doesn’t support the traditional view, and that “the peoples of Britannia were not passive victims of Imperial collapse,” but through combinations of economic shifts from a coin-based economy to a render-based one, cultural influences of generational immigration rather than sudden invasion, and radical new political changes based on a shift from central imposed oversight to local collaborative practices , they were in fact “collectively engineering a social revolution.”
It’s a dense read at times with an occasional overwhelming litany of names, needs a good understanding of British geography, as well as familiarly of the broader strokes of British history, but overall is a thought provoking and insightful examination of the assumptions underlying what little we know of these “lost” centuries in the nation’s story.