Evidence and guesswork in the 6th Century
I was not long born the day my uncle stood on the battlefield, surrounded by the corpses of his men.
They had died defending this narrow gully through hills which blocked the approach to the city of Eboracum. The city lay to the east under a pall of smoke that arose from a hundred burning houses. King Aelle had taken the army there to capture it but, hearing reports of an enemy warband coming to lift the siege, had sent Cynric and his company around the city to the west to intercept them.
Eighty men marched through the night to reach this sunken road. They planted their flag in the ditch so it streamed in the wind, revealing the image of the running wolf emblazoned upon it. Then, they gathered about it and waited.
They did not have to wait long… (Excerpt from The Amber Treasure)
Some of the historical fiction which I have written is set in a remote and obscure period. Writing about the late 6th and early 7th century in The Amber Treasure puts you right in the middle of the darkest years of the Dark Ages.
When the last Roman soldier departed Britain in about 417 AD reliable documentation of events started to collapse. The invading Anglo-Saxon tribes were effectively illiterate and it was not until the coming of Christianity (which did not fully pervade England until the late 7th century) that some form of regular record keeping returned. It really took until the time of Alfred the Great at the end of the 9th century for reliable continuous commentaries on the goings on in the land to be kept in the form of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and other documents.
What then do we do when we want to find out what happened in the early Saxon period? Where could I turn to when writing a book set in the late 6th century?
The documents that I turned to when trying to found out what historians knew about this period were:
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) by Gildas. Gildas was a monk who lived around AD 500 to 570 in the Dumfries area of Scotland (what was then the British Kingdom of Strathclyde). Much of what we know about the possible existence of Arthur, Vortigern, Ambrosius and so on comes from Gildas. His writing shows the state of chaos and confusion with a land split between half a dozen races and the civilization that had persisted for four centuries collapsing. There are limits to Gildas however. Firstly he had a message to pass on. He wrote about the downfall of Britain – the end of Roman rule and the invasion of the Anglo Saxons and very much argued that this was God’s punishment for their sins. More importantly he died around AD 570 – JUST before the period I was writing about.
The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum: Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede. Bede was a late 7th and early 8th century scholar and monk. His main work is believed to have been completed in 731. Bede writes a lot about the ancient (to him) history of Britain and basically stopped around the fall of Britain and the end of Roman rule, picking up the story with the Augustine mission in 597. He only really gets interested in the conflict between Celtic and Roman Christianity and the conversion of kings and very much argues that the defeat of the Britons is the result of them backing the wrong horse (theologically speaking). So he was quite content to report Pagan English slaughter of Welsh monks as being justified for example. All that said he has a lot of detail from the early 7th century onwards BUT there is an agonising gap before about AD 600.
The Historia Brittonum, or The History of the Britons, is a historical work that was first composed around 830 by the Welsh Monk Nennius. It contains a lot of of detail on the Arthurian period and some full genealogies of the Royal Families of Deira and Bernicia but again there is an annoying lack of commentary on the late 6th century.
Annales Cambriae, or The Annals of Wales, and other Annales in Ireland and Scotland are chronologies and lists of dates compiled in the 8th to 12th centuries in various monasteries and then combined together. They offer snippets and brief glimpses of events - particularly brief the further back you go. Names come up, some useful dates but very little detail. It its like looking at the contents page of history text book! Scholars though can study all these fragments and combine them into something approaching a coherent history and these add some knowledge.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (late 9th century and afterwards)
Probably started by King Alfred the Great who at least sponsored and encouraged it, this was a chronicle of events in England and surrounding lands recorded by monks. It focuses on the large events, battles, Kings and Lords and so forth and at first glance would seem to be just the thing. BUT there are limitations to its usefullness. The writers were living in a period over three hundred years after the events they recorded and so were relying on passed on word of mouth or old documents that no longer exist and we cannot validate. Moreover the Chronicle is south centric – focusing for the most part on the events in the southern kingdoms and little on those in Northumbria where my story is set. This is so much so that the chroniclers seems to just simplify matters by lumping the Royal Houses of Deira and Bernician (the two parts of Northumbria) into one. Fortunately other geneaologies do exisit for this period. The historic Battle of Catreath which did so much to shape the north is not even mention in the ASC. Then again it is not mentioned in many places.
Oddly enough it is poetry, not historical documents, that shed some more light on these dark years. The British poets and bards Aneiren and Taliessen witnessed or heard about the great and traumatic moments of the late 6th century. To them it was real life, happening to them and those they knew. Taliessen lived circa 534 to 599 and wrote about Urien and Owain of Rheged. Much of what we know about the struggles between Bernicia and Rheged we read of in his poems. Aneirin was younger - possible a young man in 597 at the battle of Catreath and it was his poem about it – Y Goddodin that is really the only record of the event.
There are many books that have been written that discuss events in he period 550 to 650 AD. It can be tempting to take them at face value and assume they are correct. However you soon discover that they often contradict each other and that many are making assumptions and simplifications themselves and that all struggle with the same paucity of original sources. So all must be taken with a pinch of salt. That said there are a few useful sources for someone researching this period:
The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens Mike Ashley takes all the material including a vast number of commentaries and modern books on the monarchies and nations of the last 2000 years and tries to set out a definitive record. It is the most accesible of the reference tools I used.
The Age of Arthur John Morris. Written by an academic whose area of expertise was the period 350 to 650 this tries to lay out as fact a coherent history for the period. It ha been widely criticised by historians for relying heavily on interpretation but at least Morris gives us A version of history. The problem with many academics work is there is almost NO attempt to sift the evidence and present an interpretation. Morris has the courage to do that.
An English Empire NJ Higham is a work that conducts an analysis of what Bede writting tells us about this period and is a useful commentary although abit limited to Bede’s perspectice.
The Britons Christopher Snyder is an academic work with a lot of archaeological references but is a good summary of current thinking on the period. He presents the arguments that are current (or where a few years ago) and tries to weigh them.
Making sense of it all
This then is the problem that writers of historical fiction set in the late 6th and early 7th century have. There is something like a 150 year gap in reliable data. There are theories and ideas but in the end you just have to examine it all, visit the possible battlefields and locations that are known about and make the best effort to create a believable world, to bring to life those that lived in these forgotten but critical years – the birth of England.