The Wandsyke is a late-, or probably post-, Roman period earthwork. It runs for about 45 miles from near Marlborough to Bristol, and is about 20 feet high in places. Have you even heard of it?
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sections of earthwork in the Yorkshire Wolds that run for miles. The Victorian antiquarian Major General Augustus Pitt Rivers believed that they were built by a people expanding out from the area near the east coast, fortifying as they went. He knew of them as the ‘Wolds Entrenchments’. Have you even heard of them?
Four separate earthworks cross the line of the Icknield Way near Cambridge (the Bran, Brent, Flam and Devil’s dykes) – all facing west. They form a progression, the oldest and the smallest of which is in the west. The newest and the largest is in the east. They date from perhaps the fifth to the sixth centuries AD. Devil’s Ditch, the largest, is stupendous; running almost dead straight for about five miles. Even today it is more than 34 feet high in places. Have you even heard of it or them?
There are many, many earthworks like these in England. There are also a few on or near the borders of Scotland and Wales. To archaeologists today they are (at best) an unexplained anomaly, yet the Chief Archaeologist of the Ordnance Survey once wrote that: ‘[t]he most impressive monuments of the Dark Ages are the great linear earthworks …’
Here, surely, is a story to be told. Once you start to look at the dykes you realise that the important question is not: ‘What are all these earthworks?’, rather: ‘How did Roman Britain become Anglo-Saxon England?’ One of the first things that you notice is that many are clustered on the boundaries of the areas of the earliest Germanic settlement. Examples are East Yorkshire, East Anglia, Sussex and (surprisingly) Kent. Then you notice that a great many cut Roman roads. That tells us that they were built in the late-, or probably post-, Roman period.
You then try to look at the history of the period, finding very few contemporary sources. The Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People right at the end of the period in question. Other than Bede, there is one questionable source (Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) written at the time, and some Welsh heroic poetry which may have been composed at the time, but was not written down until centuries afterwards. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Welsh Annals provide a little detail, but there are problems with both of them. All in all, there is very little original material with which to build a narrative history of the period.
That hasn’t stopped people. The period attracts all sorts of attention, not least because of its association with ‘King’ Arthur. In fact there is precisely one mention of Arthur in any source written before 1066 AD. Bede mentions the event (the Battle of Badon), but not Arthur. So, stir in a great deal of Arthurian legend and you have a rich seam of material to cook up a heady broth of myth, legend and magic. It’s often fun, but doesn’t help very much.
One of the main problems is the issue of locations. There is a respectable discipline of toponymy: place-name study. It helps us enormously due to a major coincidence. By and large, the Anglo-Saxons did not take over the names of places from the Romano-British. They named things in their own language. That often meant that they named what they saw, when they saw it. So, for example, if they found a broad ford they called it ‘the broad ford’. Today we call it ‘Bradford’. The great coincidence is that these names very often originate in exactly the period we are looking at: the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England. That can help us enormously – allowing us to understand what the landscape looked like at the time.
Unfortunately, there has been little or no revision of accepted wisdom. In the past, people often made educated guesses as to where events had taken place. An example is a battle in about 556 AD at a place we can call ‘Beranburg’ or ‘Beran’s hill’; possibly ‘Beran’s fortress’. For years people have associated that with Barbury Castle, a few miles south of Swindon. There is no real reason for that, apart from the fact that ‘Barbury’ sounds vaguely like ‘Beranburg’ and that there is a hill fort there. The hill fort was probably built about a thousand years before the events in question. Yet there is a ‘Berinshill’ and a ‘Berinshill Wood’ near Wallingford in Oxfordshire. A house near the wood is called ‘Bibury’, ‘next to the hill or fortress’. In truth, writers have simply accepted Barbury Castle (pictured above) without question.
Some writers seem to simply ignore locations. To them, places are just names; they exist on a map, otherwise they mean nothing. Yet they clearly did to the people involved. Travelling from one to another took time and was hugely dependant on the geography. One recent account of Arthur’s campaigns had him travelling all over Britain, seemingly without rhyme nor reason. Apparently, he fought in Scotland one year and Wales the next. At that point the writer has a moment of lucidity and asserts that that would not be possible. Yet what we know of late Roman commanders suggests that he could, in practice, have done it in a fortnight.
Overall, our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England is a mess. However, with a bit of clear thinking, logic, research, fieldwork and analysis, the story can be unravelled. The main ingredients are: a systematic survey of the Dark Age linear defences; an analysis of the very few written sources; an overview of the archaeology; and a thorough understanding of the terrain. That understanding is based on personal reconnaissance, place-name study and map analysis. My findings are presented in King Arthur’s Wars.