Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons

by Francis Pryor

Paperback, 2005



Call number




Element Books (2005), Paperback


Leading archaeologist Francis Pryor retells the story of King Arthur, legendary king of the Britons, tracing it back to its Bronze Age origins. The legend of King Arthur and Camelot is one of the most enduring in Britain's history, spanning centuries and surviving invasions by Angles, Vikings and Normans. In his latest book Francis Pryor - one of Britain's most celebrated archaeologists and author of the acclaimed 'Britain B.C.' and 'Seahenge' - traces the story of Arthur back to its ancient origins. Putting forth the compelling idea that most of the key elements of the Arthurian legends are deeply rooted in Bronze and Iron Ages (the sword Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, the Sword in the Stone and so on), Pryor argues that the legends' survival mirrors a flourishing, indigenous culture that endured through the Roman occupation of Britain, and the subsequent invasions of the so-called Dark Ages. As in 'Britain B.C.', Pryor roots his story in the very landscape, from Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, to South Cadbury Castle in Somerset and Tintagel in Cornwall. He traces the story back to the 5th-century King Arthur and beyond, all the time testing his ideas with archaeological evidence, and showing how the story was manipulated through the ages for various historical and literary purposes, by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory, among others. Delving into history, literary sources - ancient, medieval and romantic - and archaeological research, Francis Pryor creates an original, lively and illuminating account of this most British of legends.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member maimonedes
Britain AD is the third volume of what Francis Pryor refers to as an “informal trilogy on the archaeology and early history of Britain." The first two are Seahenge (which at the time of writing, I have not read) and Britain BC, which I have read.

The focus of Britain AD is the so-called “Dark
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Ages”, the period between the end of Roman rule in Britain, at the beginning of the 5th century, and the emergence of the English kingdoms (e.g. Alfred the Great) in the 8th and 9th centuries. It was during this period that King Arthur and his knights were supposedly battling to defend Romano-British civilization from the advances of the Anglo-Saxons, whose invasion of Britain from Continental Europe followed the withdrawal of the Roman legions. In fact, Pryor’s main thrust is to debunk both King Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

Pryor takes issue with what he calls the “cultural-historical” process which he says has given rise to a series of myths about Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons. The proponents of this process either ignore archaeology completely, or use it selectively to support their entrenched views of history.

While much of the Arthur mythology is know to originate from much later sources (Geoffrey of Monmouth 12th century, Thomas Mallory “Morte D’Arthur” 15th century), Pryor casts doubt on any historicity of Arthur. He believes that the growth and embellishment of the Arthur legend was due to a desire to promote a genuine English identity, as compared to the Germanic Anglo-Saxon one which had partially eclipsed it in the Dark Ages; he points out that the original Arthur was Welsh - representing the “Celtic twilight” of Romano-British civilization – until he was hijacked to England by Richard I in the late 11th century, with the staged “discovery” of his bones and an accompanying inscription in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. Pryor invokes a similar process, responding to the need to emphasize the Germanic origins of the English – hence the Anglo-Saxon invasions – following the installation of German royalty as English monarchs in the 18th century. At this point, he says, Alfred the Great became the original English monarch of choice.

In presenting the counter-arguments -based on archaeology – Pryor does his usual thorough job. He points out that many of the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain – the types of building, “pagan” burial and cremation practices, the move away from towns – in fact pre-dated the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410 by as much as a hundred years. Informed by his intimate knowledge of landscapes, particularly in eastern England, Pryor argues that the continuity of settlement in most locations - often from pre-Roman times through the Anglo-Saxon period – refutes the idea of the violent replacement of Britains/Celts by invading Continentals. In its place, he argues for the gradual adoption of life-styles via acculturation. Pryor maintains that the people of Britain were far more mobile than we give them credit for, and that this would account – as Roman influence waned - for the the seepage –particularly into eastern and south-eastern England - of a dominant Anglo-Saxon culture.

As someone who had unquestioningly accepted the conventional history of Anglo-Saxon invasion, I found my initial resistance gradually giving ground to the persuasiveness of Pryor’s archaeological arguments. However, while I can accept that the acquisition of many Anglo-Saxon characteristics may have occurred via a process of gradual acculturation, I remain unconvinced that the Old English language – with its heavy Germanic influence – could have made its way to Britain without being carried by substantial numbers of its speakers. Some historians have advanced the idea that the Roman legions based in Britain consisted of many Anglo-Saxon mercenaries, who settled down among the ancient Brits and never left (this would also account for the appearance of Anglo-Saxon settlement characteristics before the end of the Roman period). Pryor does not accept this point of view, but it seems to me that this owes more to the strength of his conviction about “acculturation” rather than to actual evidence.

As usual, wherever you come out in relation to Pryor’s point of view, the joy of reading his books is that all is transparent. He freely admits that his theories may prove to be incorrect, and shares with the reader everything he knows that has brought him to his point of view. “ If archaeologists and historians care about their subject, they will have axes to grind, and I prefer to sharpen mine in public.”
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LibraryThing member dzehnle
This afternoon I finished reading a book about "evolving identities, origin myths and the use or abuse of archaeology and history," Francis Pryor's Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons (233). Though the author seems to have an aversion to the use of the Oxford comma and did
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not find King Arthur (which was not a surprise in itself), I found the book thoroughly intriguing and recommend it to you, even if you have no immediate interest in the topics it concerns. Interest in the historical period aside, how can you not enjoy a book whose author's writes sentences such as these: "Over the centuries Britain has produced its fair share of religious innovations, ranging from the Celtic Church to Quakerism. Generally speaking the official Church greeted them as one would welcome a scorpion to one's trousers" (144-145)?

Ever since I discovered the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as a boy, I have been fascinated by that period of British history known pejoratively - and incorrectly - as "the Dark Ages," which is why I first picked up the book. Beginning with the notion that "the fundamental attitudes underlying human society take a long time to change," Pryor examines and refutes the claim of an Anglo-Saxon invasion of the east of England in the 5th century that completely changed the people and landscape of the British isle, an invasion accepted without question by historians and archaeologists alike (xviii).

Pryor brings his experience and expertise as a prehistoric archeologist to the excavations of Roman, post-Roman, and Anglo-Saxon England, as well as the few documents which have come down to us, and arrives a jarring conclusion:

"I am in doubt that archeology is the only means by which the Dark Ages can become fully illuminated. There is a huge amount of exciting new work taking place, and the more we discover, the more it becomes apparent that the fifth and sixth centuries were never truly Dark. There was no no population collapse, the countryside never reverted to woodland, field systems continued in use, towns quite rapidly appeared and then stayed for good. Yes, there were major social and political changes, and, yes, we can see the effects of real raiding in the Viking depredations of the mid-ninth century, that were followed by the collapse of long-distance trade. But where is the evidence for such happenings in the 'Dark Ages,' when communication with mainland Europe and the Mediterranean was a regular occurrence, by both land and sea" (234-244)?

After examining the written records and comparing them with the archaeological evidence of landscapes, graves, clothing, skeletons, towns, fortifications, etc., Pryor says, "I can see no convincing archaeological evidence for 'Dark Age' chaos, disruption and turmoil" (96). Why, then, have so many archaeologists and historians held so firmly to the notion of an invasion, even ignoring available evidence to the contrary?

Pryor suggest the answer may have something to do with the nineteenth, a claim that at first seems odd until you seriously consider the biases with which people - even historians - write:

"The Victorian era was a time when the previously separate strands of history and science came together in a form of both pseudo-history and pseudo-science which today we would simply label as racist. This doctrine held that human beings came in physically, mentally and intellectually distinct races, the 'purity' of which would be threatened by mixing with the blood of another race. This was of course a fundamentally flawed doctrine, which would have appalling consequences in the twentieth century.

"Different races were ascribed different characteristics. Celts, for example, were hot-headed and emotional, while the German or Teutonic race, which included the English, thanks to those Anglo-Saxon migrations, was the best of the lot: rational, loyal, artistic, inventive, etc., etc." (152).

What does this have to do with the post-Roman Britain? The answer is both obvious and disturbing:

"When Victorian ideas about the characteristics and purity of races were allied to the 'culture-historical' approach, archaeologists and historians believed they could provide a solid academic basis for English Teutonic origins. That is why manifestly unreliable sources such as Gildas were pressed into service. Gildas' shortcomings were ignored because he was saying what people wanted to hear. These then were the forces that lay behind the circular argument that has bedevilled the study of fifth- and sixth-century Britain for over a century" (153).

Rather than attributing everything to the Anglo-Saxons and their supposed supplanting of everything that came before them, Pryor convincingly suggests the possibility of a continued memory, even going back to prehistory:

"Surely it is not unreasonable to suggest that many of the ancient themes that we find in the Arthurian tales could have been current for much longer than was once believed, and that they found their way into the literature in ways that recall Mallory's adoption of the legend of the Holy Blood, which was already an old cult when he encountered it. Mallory, Geoffrey of Monmouth and other contributors to the Arthurian tale were seeking to flavour their stories with an air of antiquity, so it would have made good sense to seek customs that were known, or believed, to have had ancient roots" (219).

The fundamental attitudes underlying human society do quickly change; rather, they are passed on and utilized in perhaps new ways, while retaining something of the ancient memory, even after the origin is lost and shrouded in time.

Pryor's work is not a "revisionist" history, but rather a reading of history as it actually was, as best as it can be read. He challenges the generally accepted history not because he disagrees with it on principle (which he does), but because there is simply no archaeological evidence to support the theory of the Anglo-Saxon invasions and plenty of archaeological evidence to disprove the theory. His book is a timely reminder for us to question the evidence presented before us and not simply to accept someone's story based solely on the word of the teller.
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LibraryThing member Speesh
Just when you thought you had the early history of Britain straight:

Celts living peacefully fighting with each other. Romans invade and rule and civilise. Romans go back to Rome, leave some Romanised British and other troops here. Civilisation declines, cities are deserted, fields overgrown,
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forests cover the land. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others seize the opportunity to invade and stay. Poor Celts are pushed west and north to the fringes and Britain becomes Angle-Land. (Early) English springs up, the new England enters the Dark Ages and people long for King Arthur to return before Vikings come and Normans conquer again. And especially afterwards.

Just when all the historical novels and films you've seen fitted that 'truth'...along comes Francis Pryor and says 'maybe you should think again.'

I'm not goiing to spoil the book for you, by going into precisely what he does think happened in the first 700 years Anno Domini. But whilst the conclusions he presents are perhaps a little less spectacular - and certainly not as blood-soaked - than the picture we perhaps all have of boatloads of Germans and south Scandinavians sailing over and taking advantage of a vacuum created by the sudden departure of the Romans - proto-Vikings who then set about killing everyone and setting up their own, new country: His are at least conclusions based on the archaeological record and not the few surviving 'histories' we have, surely written at the time to satisfy an audience, who largely wanted to hear what they wanted the documents to say.

However, Francis Pryor is far too respectable an archaeologist to say 'THIS is exactly what happened.' He knows that he is still presenting interpretations of the facts - until we invent time-travel, i guess. He does still point out that these are conclusions and interpretations based on archeological study of what we have available now; evidence- and technology-wise. He points out how interpretations of the archeological facts have themselves changed, throughout the 20th Century, for example, as more and more sophisticated techniques and ways of studying these 'facts', have developed down the years. But he can back up his conclusions with a lifetime of archeological work and an inquisitive ability to think around a problem and say 'what if what we 'know', is wrong? Are we fitting the facts to what we want to believe?' Similarly to what the writers of the first histories tried to do, if you ask me.

Above all, this is a fascinating, engrossing, and extremely readable tour around 'Britain', pre- and post-Roman invasion. If you've read the first of his 'Britain' books; 'Britain A.D.', you'll know how Franics Pryor works and writes and you won't be disappointed. I understand he is now the main archaeologist on 'Time Team', which unfortunately we don't get out here in Denmark, but is an excellent appointment in my book. I felt he writes as if he is explaining things over a long lunch and a coffee in a cafe - warm and friendly and relaxed. Just right.

One thing I was not happy about - but that hadn't influenced my decision to read the book - was that the sales blurb does, mischievously I think, try and sell the book on the promise of an explanation of the Arthurian legends. But the book rarely touches on that. If you read it hoping to find Geoffrey Ashe-like revelations, you're going to be disappointed. The Arthurian legends are investigated and a possible explaination put forward. But no one is named as the 'real' Arthur, no place is pointed to as being the real Camelot or Mount Badon. You'll have to go and visit Cadbury Castle and let your schoolboy/girl imagination wander.

Otherwise, go read this one NOW! And especially before you see another King Arthur or Robin Hood film!
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Original publication date


Physical description

268 p.; 7.64 inches


0007181876 / 9780007181872

Local notes

Pryor\'s take on the origins of the Anglo-Saxons; discounts \'invasion\' theories.

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