Book Review: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms by Leonard Dutton

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – The Power Struggles From Hengist To Ecgberht by Leonard Dutton SPA 1993

I discovered this book at Sydney University Library about 10 years ago and remember being fascinated by the author’s ability to piece together fragmentary historical material into a convincing picture of early Anglo-Saxon political history. I recently reread the book and remain impressed by the breadth of its vision.

Although he clearly has at least one fan among the editors of the Wikipedia Anglo-Saxon history pages, where he is frequently cited, the author’s identity was nearly as much a mystery to me as many of the semi-mythical characters about whom he writes. His book, impeccably laid out and printed, is self published and we are all the richer for his self-belief and tenacity, but he is far from well-known. After an exhaustive Google search, I finally tracked him down through a genealogical site, where I discovered what I could have easily known, if Sydney University library had just preserved the dustjacket of his book!

“Leonard Dutton is a graduate in political studies at the London School of Economics. After war service in the Royal Air Force in the U.K. and India, he entered government service in the Government Communication Headquarters, where he served for thirty years. In recent years he has been engaged on independent research which clarifies the events of the Anglo-Saxon period. He lives in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.”

According to the site, he was born in 1914 and died in 2001. So at the time his book was published in 1993, he was 79. This, obviously, was a retirement project. And what a magnificent achievement it is. The imprint of his political studies shines through on every page. From his workplace, it is reasonable to assume that he was an intelligence analyst, which explains his ability to build a credible picture of military and political motivations from limited sources. He was obviously interested in military history, as the analysis of the various battles between Anglo-Saxons and Britons and between the various Anglo-Saxons kingdoms is well-researched, detailed and convincing.

Having engaged in this very unpostmodern piece of historical reconstruction regarding the author (who is indeed dead), it is now time to turn our attention to the book itself.

The referencing is not particularly detailed and the bibliography extends to only three pages. However, this work is best regarded as a masterpiece of synthesis, so the limitation of sources is not really a defect.

The book was quite unfairly panned by Dr Caroline Brett [Brett, Caroline 1995 “III Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (300-900)”, Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature v. 79 no. 1 pp. 14-18 1995]. Dr Brett is a member of the Faculty of History at Cambridge.

“David N. Dumville’s […] essays of source-criticism […] drive home his vital message that history must be built on contemporary evidence with a properly understood context. Unfortunately this message continues to be lost on those who are attracted to sub-Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England as a setting for fantasy wargames. The worst offender in 1993 is Leonard Dutton, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Power struggles from Hengist to Ecgberht (Self Publishing Association).”

Of course the good doctor has completely missed the point of this book. It is exactly in cases where the historical evidence is fragmentary and contradictory that a grasp of political science, military strategy and intelligence analysis can fill out the picture. Mr Dutton’s experience also allows him to speculate plausibly about motivations of political actors on the basis of the thinnest of sources. Naturally his findings are not historical facts, but they provide a framework for the available facts to be viewed as a political system with its own dynamics and logic. He has brought the Anglo-Saxon rulers and their struggles to life.

The main theme of the work is the so-called Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, the system of kingdoms from the earliest colonisation by the Anglo-Saxons up until the unification of England under the dynasty of Wessex.

Among the many fascinating insights and speculations contained in this fascinating work, I list a few of those which piqued my interest:

  • The arrivals of the Northumbrian and East Anglian were not invasions, but immigration to earlier Germanic settlements founded under the Romans.
  • The royal house of Mercia traced its origins to the royal house of Angeln on the continent. Their various attempts at dominating their neighbours are portrayed as the dynasty’s efforts to reassert its historical claims to rule all the Angles.
  • The role of Bretwalda was originally the leader of a military alliance of Angles and Saxons against the Britons.
  • A dynastic fusion took place between Kent and Wessex over many generations and influence politics from the 8th Century on.
  • The origins of the boundaries of historic English Counties and Wales, including Hampshire, Wiltshire, Surrey, Norfolk and Suffolk go back to military and political events under the Heptarchy.

The institutional and political history of the spheres of influence of Celtic and Roman Christianity had a great influence on the early period.

Mr Dutton’s portrait is based on a structural model of the Heptarchy, based on

  • Dynastic strategies
  • Military geography
  • Intermarriage
  • Naming systems
  • Later boundaries

His theories, while based on extensive use of available contemporary sources (pace Dr Brett) is perhaps unorthodox in its use of poetic and late sources, including William of Malmesbury. In fact, although never stated, I would not be surprised if Leonard Dutton was consciously following in the footsteps of his great predecessor William.

The only weakness I can find in his book is in his use of the supposed origins of place names to buttress his theories. His speculation that the name of Dumfries goes right back to the encampment of the “Frisians” who went with Horsa to fight the Picts (Dun = fort + Fries = Frisian) is tantalising and could possibly be right. But Horsa’s encampment was overtaken by the British after a relatively short time and the town only appears under that name in the 12th century, so he is drawing a long bow.
His claim that Gewissae, an alternative name for the West Saxons, is a german word for “allies, confederates” is simply wrong. There is no similar word in any of the West Germanic languages with such a meaning. He uses this supposed etymology to bolster his claim that the Gewissae, who lived around Dorchester were Roman foederati, legions from Germany under their own leadership. Now this is quite possible, but it receives no support from this fallacious etymology.
The supposed origin of the name of the Hwicce people, from the town of Wic in Worcestershire, later known as Droitwich, is unlikely in the extreme. The sounds ‘hw’ and ‘w’ at the start of a word were never ever confused in the Anglo-Saxon period, so a connection between the names Wic and Hwicce can be ruled out. To the extent that he believes Wic to have been the capital of the Hwicce at some stage relies on this etymology, it cannot be supported.

Nevertheless, this is a truly fascinating book, which I heartily recommend. Now finding a copy may not be that easy, but if I get around to returning it, there will at least be a copy at Fisher Library at Sydney University.

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