Tuesday 19 July 2016

Ceawlin: The Man Who Created England

I love the British Dark Ages. It is a time and place where history, myth, and legend truly collide. There is just enough historical information to assemble a cast of characters, but not enough to really say what they did or when they did it. In fact, so many of the names are actually a form of nickname or title, or appear in both an 'English' and 'British' form that it is often not even possible to be sure if you are talking about two different people, or one person under different names.

It is a historical period that allows for all kinds of plausible, and semi-plausible, theories. In many ways, the writings about the Dark Ages are similar to those about Jack the Ripper, except expanded to cover 200 years! With that as a background, I dived into Ceawlin: The Man Who Created England by Rupert Matthews.

Although short, Mr. Matthew's book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. It begins with a long look at the last years of Roman rule in Britain and takes that through, as best as can be determined, to the writings of Gildas, covering all of the main sources. It's a very good introduction to the period, and one that should be easy to follow for those who are new to the Dark Ages. From there on, things get a lot more theoretical.

Mr. Matthew's central premise, although one that isn't clear until over halfway through the book is that Ceawlin, an early king of Wessex, and a one of the men to hold the title of Bretwalda, was actually the last 'British' (read Celtic, Welsh, or Romano-British) ruler to hold sway over most of southern Britain, and that his defeat lead directly to Anglo-Saxon domination of the island.

I'll be honest, it takes a lot of questionable steps to get from A to B, among them: we don't know if Ceawlin was actually British, we don't know how far his authority extended, we don't even know if the Anglo-Saxon 'takeover' of Britain really occurred around the time of Ceawlin's defeat (or even if it was an 'event' instead of a slow transition). Still, to Mr. Matthew's credit, he generally states when he is making a leap of logic, or when there is no specific evidence to back up his claim.

In the end, the book is just a theory of what might have happened during those dark years between 410 and about 650 in Britain. As a theory, it is neither the best nor the worst I have seen. It is, however, presented in an easy-to-read narrative that I found thoroughly enjoyable.

In fact, my only real complaint with the book is the title. If we believe the central premise of the book, calling Ceawlin 'the Man Who Created England' is a little bit like calling Robert E. Lee the man who created the modern America...

Still, authors often don't get to pick their titles, and it detracts only a little from what was a fun read.

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