Aug 21, 2011

In Defence of the Empire: Roman Gwynedd 398-1301 - David Leedham

This volume ( together with the other 4 in the series ) is a must read for anyone with an interest in the Roman or early medieval period of 'Welsh' history. 'The Bitter Sea' attempts nothing less than a narrative account of the entire period with particular reference to Wales and the problem of defending it , and Roman Britain generally, against attacks from across the Irish Sea. 

This is an attempt to write history in the grand narrative manner which is as welcome as it is currently unfashionable. Indeed the author feels called upon to defend the entire project and narrative history itself, in the foreword to volume one . Many of these issues are discussed in our interview with David which can be found here:-   An Interview With David Leedham     The current review  concerns itself solely with Vol 5 In Defence of the Empire: Roman Gwynedd 398-1301    


There is so much in this volume that it is difficult to know where to begin. In Chapter 3 there is a discussion of the 'Alelliua' victory which draws directly on the comical narrative in the  "Life of St. Germanus" . If we are to believe the source St Germanus called upon the warriors of Gwynedd to emerge from the woods and chant Hallelujah three times whereupon the invading Picts fled in terror, fell into a river and drowned. This somewhat less than historical account was written for ideological purposes during the theological disputes between the early Catholic church and adherents of the Pelagian 'heresy'. It does, however , clearly demonstrate the difficulties which historians face when dealing with contemporary sources from the period. It also provides the author with an opportunity to demonstrate the art of 'historical sleuthing' when working with scanty and often inaccurate source materials to construct a credible account of what actually occurred.

In later chapters the focus shifts to a consideration of the 6th century plague upon Gwynedd and the religious settlements which proliferated within its borders. It is instructive to realise that the 'End of Times' prophecies which many religious leaders preached were not without some basis in contemporary reality. Meteor showers and possibly volcanic events wrought havoc with climactic conditions in the sixth century and many interpreted these occurrences as portents of disaster to come. They were not disappointed, the Plague of Justinian ( 541-542 ) and other pandemics seemingly justifying their worst fears.

Among the many other highlights of 'Roman Gwynedd' is the discussion in Chapter 11 of the derivation of the Ddraig Goch. The Red Dragon was the emblem of the Roman cohorts and David Leedham argues that this is further proof that Gwynedd was acutely conscious of its imperial past. Indeed much is made of this theme and the reconstruction of the possible lineage of the early dark age Princes of Gwynedd and their likely Roman antecedents is a core concern in many of the early chapters. The tale of the rivalry between the two adjacent courts of Rhos and Degannwy reads better than an episode of 'Game of Thrones'.

All in all this book is an excellent read and a major contribution to our understanding of the period. AmeriCymru looks forward to reviewing the other volumes in this series and we have no hesitation in recommending 'The Bitter Sea' to all our readers.

( from the back cover, reproduced by kind permission of the author )  

"Gwynedd was one of the three most powerful states of medieval Wales, but its history goes back deep into the Roman origins of Britain.

The last ever imperial relief force sent to Britain inflicted a devastating defeat on the invading Picts and Irish in the battle of the Forest in 398. In the aftermath, Paternus, a Roman officer descended from a line of British rulers, was appointed to a North wales command.

This was the birth of the North Wales kingdom of Gwynedd, which, with its expansionist policies, did more than any other Welsh kingdom to foster the idea of a united Wales in the centuries which followed. Gwynedd was acutely aware of its Roman past, nowhere better seen than in its emblem, now the Welsh flag - the red dragon of the Roman cohorts.

Emerging in a welter of war, invasion, defence, ethnic cleansing, disease, dynastic division, all under the threat of Armageddon, the resilience of Gwynedd's early rulers should not be underestimated. 'Roman Gwynedd' tells the heroic story of this transformation from Roman province into sovereign state.

When Edward I conquered Gwynedd in 1283 he was not only completing the Norman conquest of Britain south of Hadrian's Wall. He was also recreating the Roman province. His great imperial headquarters in Wales, Caernarfon castle, is, paradoxically, the supreme testimony to Gwynedd's achievement and history, an embodiment in stone of all that Gwynedd had fought for."

Review by Ceri Shaw Email    


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