Widowers on the Prowl

Tom Shippey

  • Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070 by Robin Fleming
    Allen Lane, 458 pp, £25.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 7139 9064 5

Robin Fleming’s history is Volume II in the Penguin History of Britain, for which the general editor, David Cannadine, ‘laid down three inviolable rules’: no footnotes, no historiography (that is, no discussion of the ebb and flow of historical opinion), and make it accessible to everyone, general readers, students and professional historians alike (in other words, don’t just write for the trade). Fleming’s study is clear without being simplistic, and full of new information, bringing together in particular data from many archaeological sites that have been hidden away until now in specialist publications.

After explaining how patchy or misleading much of the written evidence from the early part of her period is, Fleming sets out by asking what the archaeological record tells us about what really happened in late Roman Britain. Are we looking at ‘decline and fall’ or, as is now very much the historical fashion, should we think in terms of continuity with a difference? The material evidence she presents is clear and depressing. Levels of trade in second-century Britain, then firmly under Roman imperial rule, were not reached again for 1500 years. Much of that trade was due to the large imperial ‘public sector’, in particular an army 40,000 strong and representing about an eighth of the empire’s total military forces. But as Rome abandoned hopes of further expansion on its northern frontiers, the inflow of cash and supplies into Britain dwindled, and the military transport wasn’t there for private merchants to cadge a lift on. Trade shrank accordingly. As it declined, local industries like Oxfordshire pottery sprang up to replace imports. Nevertheless, the third and fourth centuries represented, as Fleming puts it, Britain’s ‘high-water mark of romanitas’. There were villas in every city and many small towns, some of them enormous and luxurious, like the one at Woodchester near Stroud, with its 8500 square-foot principal room. Some were no doubt occupied by Roman officials, but the majority must have been owned by Romanised Britain’s native aristocracy; these people would have spoken both Latin and proto-Welsh – rather like Tolstoyan aristos speaking French and Russian.

As the fourth century wore on, Roman-occupied Britain was hit by a string of attacks from the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, with Picts and Scots increasingly working in conjunction with Saxon and Frankish sea-raiders. The attacks came (and here we have good textual evidence) in 343, 360, 367, 396-98. The military coped with them fairly well, but what was harder to take – and doesn’t show up in the documentary evidence – was the increased cost of rebuilding and defence, which had to be paid for by local taxation as imperial funding slowed, then ceased altogether. Even before the Roman army withdrew from Britain some time before 410, these costs and taxes sent the British economy into a downward spiral, the signs of which show up archaeologically. Villas were not maintained; principal rooms were converted into barns or corn-dryers; the Oxfordshire kilns and the Wealden ironworks stopped producing; the Roman sewers of Canterbury clogged up and were not fixed; in Cirencester the forum was kept clean but the stone flooring, which had worn paper-thin, was not replaced. There may still have been rich people living comfortably, and there are signs that some big landowners extended their estates as smaller ones had to sell up, but it didn’t do them much good, once the local markets and the middle-range consumers on whom their prosperity was based had gone.

Luxuries continued to be imported to favoured places like Tintagel even after the Romans withdrew, but the trade was no more than a trickle. The hobnailed boots which Romano-British peasants had worn – and often been buried in – disappeared. No nails for boots, or for coffins, and so ‘the British slipped in the mud and buried the people they loved directly in the cold, hard ground.’ As pottery disappeared, teeth got worse with people chewing grit picked up from open hearths. In the fifth century the inhabitants of Cadbury in Somerset were scavenging cremation urns from 200-year-old cemeteries to cook with. An Iron Age earthwork there was extensively refortified in the post-Roman period, causing some believers in the King Arthur legend to imagine it as the original Camelot, but their imagination will not have stretched to the notion of the Knights of the Round Table grave-robbing for pots.

It’s worth pointing out that there is no entry for ‘King Arthur’ in Fleming’s index, and not a word about him in the book. The Arthurian scenario for post-Roman Britain is largely a 20th-century construction, put forward especially strongly in the 1960s and 1970s, in books like Geoffrey Ashe’s The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (1968) and John Morris’s The Age of Arthur (1973). Professional historians have long been embarrassed by the whole thing, but the image created – Roman cavalry leader rallies the British after the Roman army withdrawal and fights off hordes of invading Angles and Saxons – has stuck firmly in the work of popular novelists from Rosemary Sutcliff to Bernard Cornwell and Allan Massie, and (in this case with strident claims to historical accuracy) in movies like Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004). Fleming ignores the phenomenon, and the scenario.

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