Tim Clarkson (of Senchus) has done what it was always said couldn’t be done. With a heavy dose of skepticism and the proper caveats, he has produced an engaging and evidence-based history of the northern Britons. By stripping away most of the legend that has built up around the Men of the North the real northern Britons finally emerge to take their place among the peoples of Scotland.
What emerges from Clarkson’s narrative is a people who are survivors above all else. Survival is more than endurance. It is also accommodation and careful statecraft, acceptance of what is possible, while knowing where to draw the line. While it would be going too far to say that they were often allies of neighboring kingdoms, they must have occasionally found common cause and do seem to have frequently acknowledged the greater power and influence of a neighboring king. This is a matter of choice as much as necessity; there were many periods they could have fought to the bitter end to shake off their yoke. The British remnant left around the River Clyde parlayed their hand for over 500 years.
The Britons remained a military force to be reckoned with until the end. Clarkson’s discussion of the known kings and two famous battles reminds us how very local these conflicts were. Yet, they had the respect of neighboring kings who ruled much larger kingdoms. How did they endure against much larger, resource rich kingdoms? As Clarkson discusses, the northern Britons have a long tradition dating back to Roman times of a military society. The Britons north of Hadrian’s wall had several centuries of being both clients and foes of the Romans. The experience they gained during the Roman period of warlord statecraft must have served them well heading into the medieval period.
By the late seventh century, the Britons ruling from the Rock of the Clyde (Alt Clut) were the only visible state left. The loss of Gododdin, Rheged and other kingdoms finally allowed the northern Britons to consolidate into a seemingly single kingdom giving them a unity that long alluded Britons elsewhere. Their ability to utilize warlord statecraft against each other prevented them from forming a unified kingdom early enough to resist Northumbria’s surprisingly slow erosion of their territory.
Once the Britons eventually united into the kingdom of Strathclyde they became a serious force to be reckoned with in the isthmus of Scotland and perhaps the Irish Sea. Toward their later years successful incursions into British lands were only done by allied armies of their neighbors, first Anglo-Pictish in 756 and later the largest targeted attack by the Dublin Norse on a single site in 870. The kingdom survived these two defeats. How ironic that the last British kingdom of the north dissolved and was permanently annexed into Scotland in 1066 in part because they lost the support of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Unlike when their Roman partners slowly crumbled, the Norman onslaught was relatively rapid and they could not withstand a unified Scotland, if at that point they wanted to. The Strathclyde Britons joined Scotland with their heads held high and with early active participation in the Scottish realm.
Clarkson is to be congratulated for sifting through some difficult and patchy evidence to produce as much of a narrative as I think is possible. There are very few histories for the early medieval Britons. I’m not sure that I know of any within the last 20 years. With the scarcity and nature of the evidence there can often be multiple interpretations, but I didn’t find any that stood out to me as not being reasonable. Its not often I can say that when reviewing a book! If you are interested in the Britons, northern or elsewhere, this is a book you should read.