Length: 304 pages.
First Published: Amberley, 15 Feb 2017 .
Anyone who is planning on going to see the new King Arthur movie is going to need to stock up on some serious pseudo Historical sunblock. Or treat the burns with some realistic reading post exposure to the washed out and grey epic’s highly stylised version of the King Arthur Legend. So when you leave the cinema, groping for some kind of reference, I have a few suggestions. The first is this history of Celtic Britain.
Before I begin we need to quickly understand what the author, Martin Wall really means by Celtic “Britain”. This book is about the Brythonic Britons, the English, Welsh and lowland Scottish Celts that the Romans first encountered.
These English Celts essentially retreated to Wales, where over the next centuries they made their final stand. So don’t misunderstand what this word is referring to here. Wall is giving us a history of English Celtic resistance to invasion and conquest.
Wall is most comfortable digging into the folklore and archeology of the dark ages, it is here is where the book shines, never ceasing to be reasoned, authoritative and entertaining. Yet when moving on into the medieval era the author also seems to become a little too quick to buy into the odd apocryphal anecdote. The all too brief section dealing with the other Celtic kingdoms might have been better laid aside, and I would call into question the statement about Boudicca wiping out the 9th Legion back in Roman times.
The book sets out as a story of mindset and resistance, of Celtic opposition to foreign domination over 1,500 years. It’s all suggestive of the theme of the wider picture of a Celtic people divided along tribal lines but united by a shared culture, fighting against the very people that most of us would identify as the makers of Britain. Wall paints a fascinating picture of the different stages of Celtic resistance. A culture that was almost perpetually in retreat and yet took on new forms, reinventing itself in the light of a former sometimes mythical glory.
As such one of the most interesting parts of the book is the the Romano British saga. Which was played out with the lights turned off. The dark ages got their name because of the lack of chronicles and history to guide us, rather than a contemporary decline in culture, which admittedly was a departure from classical antiquity. A major point of clarification in this book is the authority of the Arthur legend. Wall makes a convincing case for the possibility of a figure matching roughly what current scholarship recognises, indeed he could fit into a few places, but most of all the author highlights the irrelevance of hard fact in this case and point us towards a shadowy figure to whom the Romano British, the remnant of the first Celts, clung to in the hopes that he might restore to them the days of independence.
King Arthur, whoever he was, represents the Celtic/Roman kingdom that was left behind at the beginning of thr Dark Ages. A Romanised Celt, a war leader and a legend, the mysterious figure of Arthur is usually stripped of his ethnicity by crossguarded swords, tabards and plate armour. Recently he’s even been claimed as a Roman auxiliary. This book puts him back into his Celtic context.
Yet despite the lauding of Arthur and the solidly authentic Ambrosius, the enemy was relentless. Though as a nation England vaunts its Anglo Saxon roots and reviles the Norman French invader, these Germanic English, became the inheritors of the land because they took it by displacing the original owners. The English Saxons pushed the old Romano British into the fringes, just as the Romans had when they first arrived. The Normans would do the same but the fight for Celtic Britain continued through all the more famous struggles. First we see the English Celts fall, and then the ones who remained in Wales and Scotland fight tenaciously to maintain their independence, all the way down to Owen Glendowr and Robert Bruce.
It’s fascinating to read about the hybrid Roman Celtic fusion of magic, heroes and an ideal of civilisation that crumbled under the onslaught of the pagans. The Roman Empire and the Saxon heptarchy often clashed against itself, but more often than not they warred continuously against their Celtic neighbours in Wales and Scotland.
A sharply realised aspect of Warriors and Kings highlights a great failing of Celtic warfare and society. It didn’t separate military and civilian roles, nor did it have a stable succession system. A warrior was also a full member of society. And losses could therefore not be sustained in the clannish system of opposing tribes the way a unified polity like Rome could simply recruit and train a new soldier. The Italian civilisation, by creating an armed branch to serve and defend, allowed their war machine to sustain greater losses over protracted periods, whereas one battle even if it was victorious could often cripple a Celtic army because of the irreplaceable generational loss to the civilian society. Meanwhile when a leader died, there were multiple heirs rather than one, which never ceased to be the downfall of kingdoms.
Illustrated with a gallery fine photographs, this book makes a compelling story that makes you think about where we came from and how we got there. It has the potential to make you reevaluate what you once thought about the island we call home.