Call my Bluff, Northern British history style

In my 2006 tour of Scotland, sadly concluded before I began this blog, one of the places my then-partner and I flitted briefly through was the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, where I’d insisted we go when the name came up on a roadsign because of a dim conviction that there were Pictish symbol stones there. This wasn’t quite correct, but the tiny Museum was a definite recompense. Also, and here we reach the point, they had a bookshop. And since then, sitting in my to-read pile behind all the stuff that’s right-now-urgent-I’m-teaching-on-this-tomorrow important, has been Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 by the late Leslie Alcock. You see, for a while I’ve had an itching feeling that really, although early Scottish history is very obscure and there isn’t a great deal that one can safely say happened, all the same one could, with suitable caveats at every stage, write at least a short book that tried to tell you what we think happened. You know: formation of a Pictish overkingdom, arrival of the Gaels, successions, a few battles; it wouldn’t be a complete story and half of it would have to be explaining why this can only ever be guesswork, but it’d be much less frustrating than the currently fashionable trend of refusing to do any such thing and talking in terms of immutable culture groups, one of which (the Picts) suddenly disappears for no adequately explored reason. Sally Foster’s Picts, Gaels and Scots (Edinburgh 1996), I’m looking at you.

The Great Glen, central Scotland, from the air

So, because what most people know Leslie Alcock for is his 1971 book Arthur’s Britain, in which he did pretty much that for the allegedly Arthurian period, to the permanent staining of his reputation among historians it must be said, when I saw Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests it somehow leapt into my hands, because I thought there was a good chance that Alcock had written the book I thought needed to be written. If anyone was going to… But it seems not. In fact, what he seems to have done is write Picts, Gaels and Scots only properly.1 I will perhaps write a proper review of it when I get closer to finishing it, but it’s not on-topic for my current work, and it’s quite long, so I’m just sneaking sections of it while the computer (still not replaced) boots and so on. However, what I’ve read so far has mainly had me going “yes, fair enough” and not seeing much to argue about or celebrate, until today. There follow three quotes, two of which had me emphatically nodding in agreement, and one of which had me spitting metaphorical feathers. I shall give you a moment to decide which was which…

As for Ecgfrith’s treatment of Wilfrid, much of Stephen’s account may be discounted because of the large element of the miraculous. Moreover, even his adulatory biographer cannot conceal that Wilfrid was a quarrelsome and contumacious power-seeker. (4.1.2, p. 36)


In various written sources we find that kings were related to peoples rather than to territories, so we read of a named rex Pictorum, ‘of Picts’, or rex Ultrahumbrensium, ‘of the dwellers north of the Humber’. Consequently, the definition of a particular people was not wholly linguistic [pace Bede, whose ‘five gentes he began by discussing]. More realistically, it was political, so that the Picts were those who, at any one time, paid tribute, and especially military service, to a rex Pictorum (4.2.1, p. 37)


Above all these were the seven successive outstanding overlords for whom Bede uses the term ‘Bretwalda’. (4.2.1, p. 38)


Come on Professor! You knew better than that! I am quite disappointed. Look, let’s get this sorted out. Bede did not call anyone bretwalda. He doesn’t use the word. Yes, he gives a list of seven overlords (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II cap. 5), but he describes their power as follows: they “had the sovereignty of all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber”. The word ‘bretwalda’ only turns up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 827 when the chronicler, in describing the position of King Ecgberht of Wessex at that time, says:

And the same year king Ecgberht conquered the kingdom of Mercia and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be bretwalda; and the first who had so great a rule was Ælle king of the South Saxons; the one after was Caewlin king of West Saxons; the third was Æthelberht, king of the inhabitants of Kent; the fourth was Rædwald king of East Anglia; fifth was Edwin king of Northumbria; sixth was Oswald who ruled after him; seventh was Oswiu, Oswald’s brother; eighth was Ecgberht king of West Saxons.

Now this is Bede’s list, but with Ecgberht added on, fine. But where the word came from is a whole big range of debate.2 I’m not going to have that debate here, I don’t really have a view, but I do know this: it wasn’t from Bede. And I would have expected Leslie Alcock to know better.

1. He seems to have gone back rather on Arthur’s Britain, in fact; as well as saying that he now believes that no history worth the name can be written of Britain before at least 550, and really before 600 except that one has to explain the starting positions of the book at least a bit, he also cites Arthur’s Britain, in two different editions, as an example of work that attempts this and fails!

2. If you feel like pursuing the debate, though, I guess I should point you at Patrick Wormald’s “Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the Gens Anglorum“, in idem, Donald Bullough & Roger Collins (eds), Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford 1983), pp. 99-129, and Steven Fanning, “Bede, Imperium, and the Bretwaldas” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge MA 1991), pp. 1-26.

11 responses to “Call my Bluff, Northern British history style

  1. I’d say my friend Tim Clarkson may have written the book you are looking for in his The Picts: A History. It is a narrative history of the Picts, with the appropriate caveats. Nevertheless, its the only narrative history I have read of the Picts. I’m only part way through, but it is quite good. It was just published this year.

  2. Ah, yes, I noticed that via The Heroic Age, not had time to pick it up yet. I shall look out for it cheap at Leeds :-)

  3. My friend Tim Clarkson has written the book you may be looking for. His book The Picts: A History published this year. Its the first and maybe only narrative history of the Picts, with the appropriate caveats. It is written for the general public, so alas not as many footnotes as the seriously obsessed like me would like. :-) From what I’ve read so far its quite good. Tim did get his PhD in pre-viking warfare of Northern Britain so he does know his stuff.

  4. Well, I just resubmitted because I didn’t think the first one took for some reason. Its available paperback pretty inexpensively. As its aimed at the general public, they knew better than to charge academic prices. ;-)

  5. Depending on what you count as ‘early’ Scottish history, there’s also Alex Woolf’s new book From Pictland to Alba. I haven’t read it, though it’s been recommended to me by a specialist, but presumably it follows his recent articles and has Pictish history geographically inverted (Fortriu in the far north).

  6. Michelle, sorry, I don’t know what WordPress is playing at but all your comments wound up in the spam-trap, now rescued. And Magistra, I definitely need to read Alex’s book, partly because it seriously affects anything I might still have to say on Scotland, but mainly because Alex is a friend and his stuff’s really interesting. The Leeds list is getting longer and longer…

  7. I need to get FPTA too. I’m no expert on early medieval Scotland, alas, and I really should be. This is what happens if you come at these things as a linguist/lit crit person and not as a historian. Argh.

  8. Well, the good thing about becoming an expert on early medieval Scotland, as I was once told of developing a palate for good wine, is: it doesn’t take very long. Knowing as much as anyone else does unless they’re Thomas Owen Clancy is probably only a few weeks’ work, especially if you read Gaelic (which I don’t–or have a few weeks spare, which I also don’t).

  9. He examined my thesis – saw him in Cambridge the other day as it happens. Terrifyingly learned man.
    Just bought FPTA…here we go. I did have an article published on 20th c Scottish Gaelic poetry last year, but I’ve always concentated on Ireland. Naughty me.

  10. I have a lot of time for Professor Clancy, he’s a very nice man and admirably young at heart, but I don’t know where he even finds the stuff he knows, there’s so much of it!

  11. I know! I was grilled on the details of the Computus. He is an extremely nice guy.

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