The problem for those of us with a passion for the Dark-Age history of Britain is that, effectively, none exists. The first two hundred or so years of the post-Roman era largely remains a shadowy void that leaves a gaping chasm in our knowledge of the British and Irish people. Naturally, things did happen as they must have done. People lived and died, farmers tilled the land, kings fought battles and maidens wept – but the truth is we know so little of any event from those times that we remain substantially in the dark.
In four years of researching fifth- and sixth-century Britain, I have not found a single piece of evidence from any source (primary, archaeological, linguistic) that has not been hotly debated as to its meaning and significance. Even professional historians and archaeologists (of which I am not one) hold widely diverse views about almost everything from this era. There are only two primary sources available for scholars: Saint Patrick’s Confessio (with his letter to Coroticus), and the monk Gildas’ De Exidio et Conquestu Britanniae. While the Confessio gives us an interesting view of Christianity at the beginning of the fifth century, it doesn’t offer much in the way of facts. De Exidio is more expansive, but is basically a religious rant at the perceived sinfulness of many rulers of the time, and gives very little historical data – and Gildas even gets some of that wrong.
Almost all other written material about the events of those times are contained in documents that were written or copied in later centuries, often hundreds of years later. Various annals from monasteries in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and France give us many names, events and dates, but these are often fragmentary and/or contradictory. Most historians warn against treating the information in these as definitive as there is considerable evidence that later writers ‘made things up’ or manipulated dates to support the politics or religious views of a later time. In the early eighth century, the Venerable Bede made a scholarly attempt to use earlier works (including those of Gildas) with his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), and he is often regarded as the best of the chroniclers because of his obvious genius and broad interests. But even Bede falls victim to the prejudices of his calling, and his writing is slanted to present secular history in ways that do not contradict the religious intent of his work. This religious distortion can also be found Adomnan’s earlier hagiography Vita Columbae (Life of Columba), a work designed specifically to prove that Colum Cille worked miracles and should, therefore, be canonised. There is also the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, later ascribed, probably erroneously, to a monk named Nennius. This manuscript is known to have been reworked several times, and its reliability is seriously questioned by most historians.
Many of the names and events we associate with the Dark Ages come from the writings of bards like Aneiran and Taliesin. These poets most likely existed, and possibly sang the verses ascribed to them, but there is much evidence to suppose that, at the very least, their works were reinterpreted hundreds of years later by Welsh scribes. If the Llyr Aneirin (Book of Aneirin) and the Historia Taliesin (Tale of Taliesin) were reconstructed from oral tradition in medieval times, there would be considerable concern about their accuracy – if these bards were medieval inventions, then battles like Catraeth and Argoed Llwyfain may be fictional and, perhaps, heroes like Urien and Owein never existed. Not much there to give us confidence. Realistically, without some ‘original’ manuscripts for comparison, even the science of linguistics can make no more than an educated guess as to the veracity of later copies. And linguistics is a discipline that has often fallen into the trap of ‘sounds-like’ logic to marry known geography to old texts – for example, ‘Catraeth’ looks like ‘Catterick’, so let’s go with that!
While archaeology has helped give us at least a fragmentary vision of the material world of the Dark Ages, even here we are left with many unanswered questions. Are the vitrified stones of collapsed hillfort walls a savvy construction method, or proof of enemy action? Where is the material evidence for the Gaelic invasion of Argyll hinted at in the Senchus fer nAlban? Where are the burnt villages from the so-called Saxon invasion to back up Gildas’ apocalyptic visions? Even the huge treasure finds at Sutton Hoo and Traprain Law, while giving us priceless artifacts and a stunning insight into the artistic life of the times, are still somewhat incomplete – because these are goods without context. We can hypothesize about what these treasures meant to the people who buried them, but without supporting evidence, we don’t really know.
So, for Dark-Age British history, all we are left with are composite narratives that blend as many of things we know, or reasonably assume, into a cohesive, history-like construct. The most famous ‘narratives’ of Dark-Age Britain are, of course, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae and Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Le Morte d’Arthur. These works introduce us to the legendary hero King Arthur, and are responsible for creating an enduring national myth that has been taken up by many later authors, including Sir Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Geoffrey’s work uses some sources like Bede and Gildas, but largely contains a fanciful concoction of fabricated material. Mallory’s novel is an undisguised ripping yarn and, as such, it must be revered as one of the great treasures of our literary heritage: but it is not a history, and should not be regarded as one. That many, including some otherwise talented historians, have tried to rework known facts to make them fit the mythology of the Arthurian legend demonstrates the beguiling power of this fable – but they served the cause of history poorly.
Cælin’s Chronicle is another narrative of Dark-Age Britain and Ireland. Like others before, it depends on the interpretations and assumptions of scholars and writers who have poured over the entrails of ancient writings and our fragmentary archaeological record. Sometimes I have used the author’s ‘licence’ to adjust genealogies to resolve the chronological absurdities left to us by the ancient scribes, especially where they would make a story otherwise implausible or untellable. However, mostly, I have stuck with prevailing orthodoxy to craft this tale, occasionally even where that seems less than secure. Should the Bruide mac Máelchú in the Annals of Ulster be equated to Bridei map Maelgwn of Gwynedd as suggested by the historian John Morris? Probably not, but it creates an interesting dynamic in the narrative for me, as it helps to conflate disparate events in a cohesive way.
That said, there are many instances where I have been persuaded by interpretations that fly in the face of conventional theory. For instance, I like Alex Woolf’s research that places the Pictish province of Fortriu in Moray rather than Strathearn. I think Darrell Wolcott resolves the impossibly short generations in the old genealogies of Gwynedd by suggesting that Iago is descended from Beli map Einion of Rhos rather than Beli map Rhun map Maelgwn. And a little known tract by John N. McLeod makes an eloquent case, seemingly accepted by the noted antiquarian W.F. Skene, for the ‘Cindelgund’ in the Annals of Tigernach to be a late scribal error for the Gaelic ‘Eilean Da Ghallagan’, now known as the Isle of Gigha.
My sketch of Dark Age Britain and Ireland will possibly differ from that of others – too much remains unknown, and what we do know is often vague and conflicted. This is an impressionist’s view of the times, necessarily painted with a very broad brush; it cannot pretend to be a photographic one. Yet, for all that is frustratingly absent from our knowledge of the early medieval times, this epoch draws us in as no other. Perhaps the paradoxes allow our minds to fly across exciting panoramas otherwise denied by more prosaic eras where there is less left for the imagination. Undoubtedly, the enigma of the Dark Ages has fed Arthurian legend, making it the most enduring of our myths; and the same mystery draws people like me to spend years grappling with the uncertainties in the single hope that we can, through story, shed some light on this darkened recess of our history.
Welcome to the chronicles of Cælin, son of Wilfrid.