Reviews of Britons and Anglo-Saxons

Britons and Anglo-Saxons was published on 18 September 2012 in both hardback and paperback under a former nom de plume (336 pages, ISBNs 978-0-902668-24-9 and 978-0-902668-25-6). It offers an interdisciplinary approach to the history of the Lincoln region in the post-Roman period, drawing together a wide range of sources. It is available in both paperback and hardback from Amazon and other online bookstores, as well as direct from the publishers via their website.

Review of Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400-650 (Lincoln, 2012), by Nicholas Higham, Professor of Early Medieval and Landscape History, University of Manchester; published in Lincolnshire History & Archaeology, 47 (2012), pp. 99-100.

It was a pleasure to be asked to review this book. It is rare that one has the opportunity to read a county-based study focused on the problems of the British Dark Ages which is both so fully engaged with up-to-date scholarship and operating assuredly across all relevant disciplines – history, archaeology and place-name studies, plus occasionally historical genetics and palaeoecology. Not only does it offer a sophisticated study of Dark-Age Lincolnshire but it also makes an important contribution to wider debates about the ending of Roman Britain and the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon England.

Green uses the introduction to contextualise his findings in terms of current thought on the fifth and sixth centuries, highlighting possible approaches, difficulties of the evidence and the main issues. The first chapter then examines the later fourth century, stressing the comparative vitality of Lincoln as a provincial capital and the continuing use of villas and fortified centres around the capital. As we move past 400, so the problem of archaeological invisibility becomes a major issue, but away from the Fens, where inundation clearly had a major impact, the author favours broadly stable population levels across the period.

Chapter 2 then focuses on the emergence of a sub-Roman, British territory centred on Lincoln, from which it took the name *Lindēs, ultimately preserved in the name of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Lindisfaran (‘the people who migrated to the territory of *Lindēs’), and in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum as Linnuis. On the periphery of the territory, large cremation cemeteries were established, reflecting Anglian settlement. British control explains the absence of early English burial around Lincoln. The distribution of the new cemeteries is compatible with both Roman-period centres and the wapentake system of the Anglo-Scandinavian period, suggesting considerable administrative continuity, albeit with some sub-division. The complex sequence of churches and cemeteries evidenced at St Paul in the Bail in central Lincoln from the fourth to the sixth centuries reflects its role as a place of power and influence. A concentration of British penannular brooches and late Celtic hanging bowls recall a British elite.

In chapter 3 the focus shifts to Anglian-British interaction. While the early cemeteries may reflect the presence of federates, literary evidence implies clashes. Mapping Anglian cemeteries against the Romano-British provincial geography implies that Lincoln retained a degree of control over the entire province of Britannia Secunda. Y Gododdin, the early Welsh poem concerning the deaths of many warriors at Catraeth (probably Catterick, though that is hardly in the Vale of York (p. 95)), may refer to ‘men of Linnuis’ as participants. British names occur in a sixth-century context in the genealogy of the kings of Lindsey and several Old English place-names incorporate British personal names. While the second church of St Paul in the Bail does not seem to have survived to 600, use of the cemetery continued, and numerous local dedications to St. Helen also perhaps reflect religious continuity. The replacement of British leadership of the area by Anglo-Saxon therefore seems to have involved a degree of accommodation. Green proposes a period of bilingualism followed by the dominance of Old English, suggesting that Old Welsh would still have been spoken in the region into the eighth century. There is material evidence reflecting the crossover from British to Anglo-Saxon culture, including pottery and metalwork.

The fourth chapter discusses the extent of *Lindēs, arguing for an original ‘greater’ Lindsey which included much of Kesteven, Holland and Hatfield. Attention focuses on Lissingleys – the point of meeting of the three Ridings of the Viking Age. Three cemeteries close by and a wide variety of earlier finds suggest a meeting place, perhaps a Romano-Celtic temple or shrine, so a long history of assembling in this vicinity. Elsewhere, some of the prehistoric and Roman-period causeways across the Witham valley continued in use, with attendant votive offerings. The debt of later Anglo-Saxon Lindsey to *Lindēs is arguably considerable.

In chapter 5 Green turns to the sub-divisions of Anglo-Saxon Lindsey. He sees the Middle Angles as a significant kingdom in the long-term (which I must admit I do not), seeing such as the Spaldingas as a sub-group within this major people. Within the Lindisfaran discussion focuses on the Billingas, a group defined by cemeteries around Quarrington. Garwick, he suggests, was a local wīc through which the large numbers of amber beads and ivory artefacts found in the cemeteries had arrived. This in turn encouraged the Mercians to take control of the area in the later seventh century when they had lost London to the West Saxons, evidenced by the exceptional c. 160 sceattas so far found at Garwick.

Chapter 6 assesses the probability that the Lindisfaran colonised other areas, particularly Bernicia, where Lindisfarne replicates the name, but also Deira in East Yorkshire, where the great cremation cemetery of Sancton has close parallels with those in Lindsey, and Repton in Derbyshire. If some memory of these fifth- and sixth- century colonists survived into the seventh century, then this may help explain the bitter contest between Northumbria and Mercia for control of Lindsey.

The conclusion pulls together these several strands, proposing that Anglo-Saxon Lindsey owed a considerable debt to the forms and structures of Romano-British society there, via the period of British rule in the fifth and early sixth centuries. On this showing, some British elites as well as numerous peasants successfully acculturated, though that process was largely later than 650.

This inter-disciplinary exploration of *Lindēs offers a new standard for regional work. It also provides a model capable of explaining how Roman Britain transmuted into Anglo-Saxon England, emphasising continuities in local and regional structures as well as population, alongside significant immigration. What it does not do, though, is explain why this occurred. If British polities retained control of Anglo-Saxon incomers right into the sixth century, how and why was this balance reversed? And how does this equate with the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which has power shifting to the Saxons in 441, and to Gildas’ testimony, which describes Saxon rebellion and ravaging in what has to be the fifth century? For my money the process was less peaceful than Green would have us believe, but even so it is a convincing analysis. But is Lincoln and its hinterland a special case, or is the evidence merely more accessible here? Does it reflect what was happening elsewhere across Britain, or not? These and many other questions remain to be answered, but this book makes an important contribution to the central historical debates and will provide an important point of reference as to how we model the British/Anglo-Saxon interface for the next generation.

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