Filling the Gaps: Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Tim and I have been chatting about Strathclyde for longer than either of us would probably care to admit (even before his name was on the cover of any books!). So I was thrilled to tuck in with his latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age in the days running up to Christmas. I have to say my study of Strathclyde (or Alt Clut as Tim would remind me) is pretty much covered in The Men of the NorthI’ve pretty much stuck to the Age of Bede more or less, before moving on to the plague. So finally I was ready for Tim to update me on all the Viking Age goings on in my favorite part of the island, and he did not disappoint.

Tim draws the origins of the Viking era kingdom of Strathclyde from the rubble of the siege of Alt Clut by the Vikings in 870. The vulnerability of the old stronghold had been shown by the sustained siege and sacking. They moved down into the Valley of the Clyde, or Strathclyde, at Govan. While ‘Strathclyde’ begins with this shift, there was strong continuity between ‘Strathclyde’ and the kings of Alt Clut whose kingdom name, if it was ever other than the king of Alt Clut, has not survived. I know Tim has been very active in building up the conservation and visitor experience at Old Govan. It is possible to go to Old Govan be close to the centers of power for the old kingdom, unlike any other British kingdom I can think of.

Tim deftly reconstructs the political context for Strathclyde’s foundation at Govan in the ninth century. The kings of Govan were able to maintain their independence through Viking raids, and delicate relations with the newly melded Picto-Scottish kingdom of Alba, English neighbors at Bamburgh and the ambitions of Wessex.  While they sometimes had to accept the hegemony of their larger neighbors, they avoided outside direct rule. It’s intriguing how important the king of the Cumbrians / Strathclyde were to the kings of Wessex (at least on charters). Perhaps it was their ability to join forces with Alba to both increase the threat from Alba and open a much larger frontier for the English to defend against both Alba and the Vikings.  I really enjoyed Tim’s take on the influence of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians.

I’ve heard a lot of about the battle of Brunanburgh over the years but always from the sidelines. Tim did a good job of explaining the battle and its context. It was good to see his conflict zone analysis in action again. A lot of ink/electrons have been spilt over the location of the battle but Tim makes is clear that there is no clear placename winner. He argues for Lancashire location-based on his conflict zone analysis. While I don’t know the details of all the arguments for locations, I do believe that placename possibilities can’t be the primary evidence. It has to make sense in the entire context of battle and the combatants. To me, the most surprising aspect of Brunanburgh is that it didn’t change anything! It was apparently a very costly battle for everyone, so therefore it had to be built up in heroic verse to satisfy the folks back home, but it maintained the political status quo. Within a just a few years, the combatants were at war again.

Over the rest of the tenth century, the Cumbrians remained active in whole island politics and regional skirmishes with resulting border shifts. Tim does a good job of finding sources that reconstruct the borders and properties of late Strathclyde. By this point, intermarriage must have become common. The names of northern princes often reflected neighboring naming traditions or languages, like Gospatrick of Bamburgh and Mael Coluim of Strathclyde. It is possible that these names had become so common in the region that they don’t necessarily reflect a foreign mother, but if they have become common among the common people, then that speaks to regional mingling. Tim argues strongly and convincingly that the rulers of Strathclyde retained their independence right up to their annexation into Alba under Mael Coluim (d. 1093). Thus, Strathclyde retained their independence through the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

I’m left in the end with two impressions. First, that adding the history of Strathclyde into the mix plugs some significant gaps in the history of period. The major kingdoms tend to dominate narratives of the pre-Norman period with the assumption that lesser kingdoms and rulers fell into line or were unimportant. This study argues strongly against this trend and reminds us how much later royal power is projected back onto earlier periods. Tim’s book adds to Caitlin Green’s recent book of the British kingdom Lindsey in illustrating how adding the history of the Britons adds much flesh to the bones of early medieval history. Now we need similar studies on the kingdoms of Elmet, Powys and Dumnonia at least. Second, I’m struck by how circumscribed and negotiated Anglo-Saxon power was. Hegemony is nice and all, but it has real limits.

Although the relationship between Strathclyde and the English is highlighted in the title, relations with Alba and the Vikings are as important. The beginning and ending of Strathclyde are both indirectly tied to the Norsemen. Then again the Norsemen seem to have altered the trajectory of most kingdoms in the Isles, if not all of northern Europe. Strathclyde’s relationship with Alba was more nuanced. Although they were not the proving ground for Scottish princes as has often been argued, they had a long history of alliance, conflict and intermarriage tying these kingdoms together. All things considered, annexation of most of the kingdom into Alba was the best outcome for Strathclyde even if they lost their southern territory to the English county of Cumberland.

The Makers of Scotland

Tim Clarkson, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012. 224 pg.

In his third book, Tim Clarkson takes on the first thousand years of recorded Scottish history. It’s a huge task, but Tim was more than up to the challenge. I really enjoyed it. I tend to focus so much on my narrow time period that it’s really good to properly put it all in context. For example, I was struck while reading this the parallels between the Anglo-Saxon adventus and the Scandinavian contact and migration to Britain. Both begin as raiders seeking only loot from soft targets (villas vs monasteries), then both are either offered payments or mercenary positions to protect Britain from their fellows, and lastly by military and other permanent migration to the isles.  All food for thought and I do wonder by these parallels aren’t talked about more. By usually constraining most of my reading to the pre-Viking period I can often miss such important contextual associations.

Do the math, to cover a thousand years in 225 pages, you can only expect so much depth. I think Tim covers as much chronological detail as possible in a book this length. He managed to untangle the Scottish and Pictish families and succession clearly and briefly. I wish I could talk him into writing a Men of the North style book on Dál Riata! By choosing not to delve into academic controversies, Tim swept aside discredited theories, replacing them with well received  new paradigms, and sometimes making a choice where the there isn’t consensus. Countless updates and choices brings out the clear and consistent voice of the historian I have gotten to know so well over so many years. Tim doesn’t write much about historical theory but his historical paradigms are deftly woven through The Makers of Scotland, just as with his other books. In some ways his voice has more clarity here because of the expanse of time covered – and that is a good thing!  I highly recommend The Makers of Scotland as an ideal, comfortable read whether you want a contextual refresher  or are coming to Scottish history for the first time.

Tim Clarkson is a generous and accessible author. He can be found at his blog Senchus (highly recommended) and on twitter at @EarlyScotland.

Heavenfield Round-up 4: A Golden Hoard of Links

Cross of the Trumpington 'princess', c. 650-680

The news of the last week or so has certainly been the announcement of the discovery of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon “Trumpington Princess” and the blogs have been all over it. Here is a mini round-up of the coverage:

  • I think I may have been the first blog on the story (based on the earliest news reports) here :-)
  • Antiquarian’s Attic was also fast off the block with her story.
  • Nicola Griffith of Gemæcca has a post on Hild and the princess.
  • Past Horizons has a nice, complete post on the discovery.
  • Anthropologist Rosemary Joyce of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives writes about nuns and princesses with a different focus on the finds at Trumpington.
  • Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie writes about Anglo-Saxon bed burials.

I also posted a presentation I did a couple years ago on St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary.

Tim Clarkson wrote about Govan and the kings of Strathcldye on his new blog Heart of the Kingdom. Tim writes about his visit to the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Dacre in Cumbria and its stonework on his blog Senchus.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words explores the early medieval history of Workington in Cumbria.

Gold plaque, Bamburgh. Found summer 2011.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore writes about Loki the Trickster and the Norse who brought him to  Cumbria.

Bamburgh Research Project updates us on the analysis of their gold fragment from last year’s excavation. The photo of Dr Whitfield with the fragment really puts its size in perspective.

I don’t usually cover pre-Roman Celtic society but there have been a couple interesting posts in the last few weeks. Past Horizons has a post on the virtual reconstruction of the Celtic village of the Remi in pre-Roman Gaul. Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie examines the diet and health of the Britons of Dorset during the late Iron Age and early Roman periods.

Moving on from Roman Britain, we have the Arthurian bloggers. Clas Merdin has an interesting post discussing the legends behind the standing stones named after the Sons of Arthur. Yes, its only in the post-Geoffrey world of Romance that Arthur is childless. Clas Merdin also has a second post teasing out the 40 tasks of Culhwch in the oldest Arthurian tale, How Culhwch won Olwen.

Mak Wilson of Badonicus continues his series exploring Arthurian lore with part IV on Arthur the Giant or Giant Slayer, part V on Arthur the Soldier, and part VI on the three types of Arthur in British lore – the giant, the superhero, and the soldier. Mak had an explosion of posts taking this series up to part 12! Just keep following the next post from the above links.

This time we have a little Beowulf to counterbalance Arthur. Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak asks if Grendel can speak, how does he curse their weapons? I didn’t know there was a ‘current monster theory’… I learn something new all the time. In a second post, he muses some on the size and shape of the dragon in Beowulf.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of the Tenth Century has returned to his blog with a review of the Treasures of Heaven exhibit at the British Museum, and on an unfortunately misnamed boundary tree, and a couple more seminars written up.

Guy Halsall of Historian on the Edge writes about the historical assumptions expressed in a 19th century painting of Late Antiquity.

Andy Gaunt of the Archaeology and History of Sherwood Forest writes about Queen Joan’s tenure as the keeper of Sherwood and about a case of trespass and pig rustling from Bestwood Park in 1440.

Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval brings us Cake month to replace pi day.

Whew! and that’s it for this round-up.

Clarkson’s The Men of the North

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.