Marc Morris returns to Dark Ages England with a ‘prequel’ of sorts to The Norman Conquest. This time, he tackles the entire period from Saxons and others legendarily being invited to help defend Britain to the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in 1066.

Everything that you may well expect to be here is here, with a lot more to provide context and framework. Overall, Morris does an excellent job of summarizing about six hundred years, and helping make sense of what can be a very confusing subject. He starts with some of late Roman coin hordes that have been found, and points out the kind of instability those represent, and proceeds from there.

We get the emergence of petty kingdoms, the church, arguments about the church, fluctuations in power, and of course, Vikings. No part of this period was peaceful. Independent rulers a fairly quick jaunt from each other is no way to run a country even without anyone coming over the sea to visit. Information can be a bit sparse in this period, which makes his knowledge of archaeological findings help; he also tends to focus on figures that we know more about (some of which are not well-known) to show the concerns of the day in better light.

One place I’ll disagree is that he dismisses much of Bede’s story of the coming of the Saxons as being unreliable and cliche. He’s generally right, but he points out, “…brothers with alliterative names are another frequent feature of European foundations myths. Hengist and Horsa are no more likely to have existed than Romulus and Remus.” The thing is, Frankish custom of the day was definitely for close relatives to have close variations on the same name, and as another Germanic people, the Saxons could have easily had some form of alliterative naming tradition. Not that that really argues against his point… but then he does pass over a fair number of alliterative names later in the book without comment. I think we should condemn Bede’s history a bit less than Morris does.

Other than that nitpick, it’s a fine book, a very good read, and well worth picking up. And read The Norman Conquest afterwards too, he has a lot more to say about the final century of Anglo-Saxon rule in that book, and has room for details lost here.