Disunited kingdoms

An English Empire

December 22, 1995

Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People prepackaged the English past. From his vantage point in the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 730s, Bede imposed on the complex politics of the seventh century a coherence which now defies credibility. He reduced multiple competing kingdoms, shifting overlordships and internecine warfare to a simple schema: the seven English kings who exercised imperium over the states south of the Humber. This imperium forms the theme of An English Empire, the second volume of Nicholas Higham's Origins of England trilogy and, in exploring the difficulties of Bede's construct, Higham succumbs to some of the reductive tendencies of his source.

Higham begins by discussing Bede's opening chapters on Roman history, revealing "the contemporaneity of Bede's account" and showing how his depiction of Roman rule is coloured by assumptions drawn from his observation of Anglo-Saxon imperium. Bede's eighth-century viewpoint could usefully have been pursued in the next chapter, on the seven imperium-wielding kings of the previous century, but Higham argues only that the list, far from the inherited creation assumed by recent writers, should be regarded as Bede's own, analogous to his discussion of the Roman imperial past, possibly conjured out of religious sensibilities surrounding the number seven.

Higham next launches into the unknown, taking the Tribal Hidage, an undated and enigmatic list of peoples, as an illustration of his arguments about imperium. Higham, by synthesising the list with Bede's History, confidently assigns it a date, the 620s, a place of origin, Northumbria, and an author, Bishop Paulinus. He goes beyond all known sources in alleging that it reflects networks of allegiance of possibly Roman origin. Few will be convinced. Assigning a date, let alone an author, to a late document of doubtful textual integrity is a precarious enterprise. The notion that distinct "regional imperia" in seventh-century Britain can be identified, mapped and compared with Roman administrative units must also be rejected; not only do the locations of many groups mentioned in the Tribal Hidage remain unknown, but so too do the boundaries of the provinces of Roman Britain.

Readers may find much to agree with in An English Empire. Higham stresses the artificiality of Bede's account. He underlines the British nature of Anglo-Saxon society and rulership. Attractive ideas are suggested, like the recurrent nature of regional overlordship throughout Britain. However, insular history and notions of imperium are discussed with almost no reference to their continental context. Higham takes insufficient account of other work in a rapidly changing field: too many of his footnotes refer either to his own work or to primary sources without citing other comment. Claims are too often undefended and contrary views not explored (Pope Gregory's descriptions of Ethelberht's dominions cannot be taken as accurate, for example). Higham's use of sources can be puzzling: Bede's seven Roman emperors "relevant to Britain" prove elusive. In places Higham's prose becomes unappealingly repetitive. Most of all, Higham occasionally overlooks the fragility of his material and attempts to synthesise the incompatible.

Julia Crick is a lecturer in medieval history, University of Exeter.

An English Empire: Bede and the Early Anglo-Saxon Kings

Author - N. J. Higham
ISBN - 0 7190 4423 5 and 4424 3
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 269

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