Warriors and Kings: The 1500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain by Martin Wall
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste | http://www.thebookbag.co.uk
For several centuries, much of the ancient and medieval history of Britain was one forged in war as the Celtic peoples took a stand against invasion and oppression. First it was the Romans, then the Saxons, Vikings and Normans, who threatened the unyielding and insular people. This book examines how several tenacious and heroic figures led the Britons and the Welsh against often overwhelming odds.
Wall writes in detail about the different Celtic tribes, whom the Romans thought ‘war mad’, as indeed they doubtless needed to be. He also relates how the landscape of Britain was changed by such activity with castles being built looking out to sea, souterrains or underground tunnels for storage constructed, especially in Cornwall, and large-scale forest clearance undertaken as a result of the need for building hill forts and with early industrialization, such as smelting iron in large quantities.
However, his main emphasis is on the charismatic, fearless leaders whom the Britons believed were sent from God. Inevitably, much of their lives are shrouded in mystery, and accounts of their lives, times and greatest deeds are often at variance from different sources. One of the earliest, ‘the first hero’, was Caratacus, the first century A.D. chieftain who led British resistance to the Roman conquest. After several years of battles and guerilla warfare he was defeated, handed over to the Romans and sentenced to death, but as he was about to be executed he delivered an eloquent speech to the Emperor Claudius who spared him and allowed him to live the rest of his days out in comfort at Rome. A less peaceful fate awaited Boudicca (or Boadicea), the Queen of the Iceni tribe, who was flogged and her daughters raped by the invading Romans, also in the first century. Determined to wreak vengeance, she put herself at the head of a large force in what was one of the bloodiest battles of all, in which it was estimated that up to 80,000 were slain. Her fate was uncertain, but according to one Roman historian she escaped, only to ‘end her life with poison’.
A procession of heroes followed in subsequent centuries, from William Wallace to Owain Glyndwr. One of the most shadowy is ‘King’ Arthur. One surprising revelation – to me, anyway – is that he was probably not a king, or even born of high rank, but succeeded through pure military merit. While much of the book deals with the pre-Norman conquest era, Wall takes the story as far as the wars between the English, Welsh and Scottish during the Plantagenet era. The campaigns of Edward I, ‘the Hammer of the Scots’, and his markedly less successful son Edward II are related, as are the struggles between Henry IV and the Welsh. While the saga more or less comes to an end around the fifteenth century, ramifications of ‘the wider Celtic struggle’ are mentioned in a couple of pages in a later chapter on the Easter Rising of 1916 and how, despite defeat, it led within a few years to the establishment of a free Irish nation, thus becoming the only independent Celtic nation.
The author has done a thorough job in weaving through often sparse fact and the rich, time-honoured accumulation of legend. While much of it concentrates on ancient history, basically up to around the fourteenth and fifteenth century it is interesting to read that the spirit of Celtic Britain has continued as an often potent force into the modern age.
For more about the period, we can do no better but recommend two other titles by the same author, an introductory study to much of the period covered The Anglo-Saxon Age: The Birth of England, and a more informal ‘starter’ The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts.