Glass Island - The Fictional World of 6th Century Britain
By Gareth Griffith
Glass Island, my novel set in 6th century Britain, specifically in the years AD 576-578, tells of the westward push of the Saxons into what is now south- west England and of the resistance of the native population. The story is told from the side of the Celtic Britons, taking a young woman, a chieftain’s daughter by the name of Eleri Gwir (Eleri the Truth or Plain Speaker) as its central character. The major turning point is a battle recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the Battle of Deorhem (Dyrham) of 577 and it is this event that forms the dramatic centrepiece of the novel. It is thought to be a decisive moment in British history, an event that broke the land bridge between the Celts of Wales and those in Devon and Cornwall. It may also have resulted in a wave of Britons migrating to what later became known as Brittany.
In writing of “The Fictional World of 6th Century Britain,” I wish to convey some of the difficulties that novelists and historians alike encounter in this period of history about which very little is known. All the “historical facts” in the previous paragraph could well turn out to be unfounded. There may not have been a Battle at Deorhem at all. If there was, it may not have been in 577. And what are we to make of the claim that the three British “kings” of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester died there? The evidence is sparse, confined to a single line in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recording what may by then have been more folk memory than hard fact. The same goes for the emigration theory, which is speculative. Certainly, the Britons migrated to Brittany – but did the Battle of Deorhem result in one such migration? We don’t know for sure.
Personally, I knew next to nothing of this history until I happened, by chance, to come across a book in a library. This was an academic treatise by Professor Kenneth Jackson called Language and History in Early Britain, published in 1953 by the Edinburgh University Press. It was one of those moments. Standing at the bookshelf, I started writing the first chapter of Glass Island in my head. Since then I have come to realise that Jackson’s work was a ground-breaking book for its time and remains to this day a reference point for scholars in the field. Basically, in his historical overview Jackson follows the schema set out in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, whereby the West Saxons started a new advance in the last quarter of the 6th century, beginning at Old Sarum and Barbury and culminating in the battle at Deorhem. Jackson wrote:
“By this the bounds of Wessex were pushed up to the Severn along a broad front from northern Somerset to the country already occupied on the Warwickshire Avon; and the Severn was still apparently regarded as the boundary between English and Welsh at the time of Augustine’s conference with the British bishops in 603. Thus practically the whole of Gloucestershire east of the Severn was now part of Wessex, and the Welsh of Wales were divided by land from the Britons of the South- West.” (Jackson, p 204)
Assuming that to have been the case, what issues arise for the novelist, in particular for one writing from the losing side in this struggle?
For a start, the story becomes one of loss and dispossession for those Britons living in the region we now identify with the county of Somerset, an area that encompasses modern-day Bath, Glastonbury and Taunton. Who were these people? How did they live? What did they believe? What stories did they tell themselves about their lives, past, present and future? Did they flee from their enemies after the decisive battle was lost, or did they stay to serve their new masters?
The Laws of Ine, which relate to a West Saxon king of 690, suggest that “Welshmen” continued to live in some parts of Wessex at that time, although at a lower social standing than their Saxon neighbours. Indeed, Nicholas J Higham has compared that “racially defined legal system” with Apartheid in late twentieth-century South Africa, with such a system leading eventually to the Britons losing their assets. (The Anglo-Saxon World edited by Nicholas J Higham and Martin J Ryan, Yale University Press, 2015, p 110) For Jackson, meanwhile, it seemed plausible that Brittonic was still spoken in parts of Somerset and Dorset in this later period, but not in what he terms “the old, eastern Wessex.” (Jackson, p 239)
Even if some or even many Britons remained, we yet come to a time when one way of life ended and another started, with the old way almost entirely lost to history. It is a universal theme, dealing with what happens to people who find themselves on the wrong side of history, as refugees, as slaves, their names and their identities forgotten. Because little or no record is left, written or archaeological, it’s as if they never existed. They are left to be recovered by the novelist.
This issue is taken up at the very end of the novel, in “Last Words”, where the narrator (Owain) speaks years later to the central character (Eleri Gwir), as follows:
“Write it down, Owain,” she said. “Before we’re all dead and gone.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if we are to live on, if we are to be remembered, the land and its people, our story must be known,” Eleri said. “If we don’t make our mark on the page, we’ll be lost to history. No one will know we ever lived and breathed. We’ll melt away and we’ll be gone forever, carried off by the river of time.”
‘Bryn Derwydd won’t be forgotten,” I insisted.
‘It will if a record isn’t made. It has to be worth remembering to someone, Owain. Our story has to be worth remembering. If we don’t tell it, who will? Will our enemies? I don’t think so. They’ll tell their own side of it, if they say anything at all.”
There is obvious irony in writing a novel about the losing side (the Britons) in the language of the winners (English). In seeking to retain a sense of that native cultural tradition and to convey the foreignness and otherness of the Britons to the Saxons, I have inserted a smattering of non-English names and phrases. For example, I do not refer to the Battle of Deorhem, which is what the Saxons called it, but to the Battle of Bryn Derwydd (as it happens, the name of the hill behind my grandmother’s house in Penmaenmawr, North Wales). In doing so, I am paying a debt to another book which has influenced Glass Island – Robert Graves’ wonderfully eccentric The White Goddess, which associates the word “derwydd” with the origin of “Druid”, meaning “oak- seer.” In addition, in using the occasional non-English word I am seeking to recover something of the cultural identity of the region prior to the Saxon invasion. But note that for convenience I have resorted to modern Welsh usage, which is not strictly correct. A Brythonic or Brittonic language would have been spoken by the characters of the novel, which would be more aligned to early or Old Welsh, or even to older versions of Breton or Cornish.
On this issue of language, the contemporary interpretation seems to be that the separation of Welsh from Cornish and Breton occurred over a long period. The view is that the Britons continued to speak varieties of the same language rather than separate languages, with TM Charles-Edwards arguing that “the varieties of British remained dialects rather than independent languages until the twelfth century.” (Wales and the Britons, 350-1064, OUP, 2013, p 92)
We might ask how the characters of this area of south-west Britain, prior to the coming of the Saxons, would have described themselves – as Britons, as Welsh, as Cymry, or by reference to some regional or tribal name? How would their universe of self-identity have been constructed?
Clearly, they would not have called themselves Welsh. This was the name the Saxons had for them, meaning either foreigner or something a little less pejorative, referring to all those people who had been part of the Roman Empire. (Wales and the Britons, 350-1064 by TM Charles-Edwards, OUP, 2013, p 1) In time, an even more pejorative meaning was attached to “Welsh”, with the word meaning “unfree person/slave.” (The Anglo-Saxon World, p 109)
Cymry, too, is unlikely as a term of self-identification, although not out of the question, deriving as it does from the Brythonic or Brettonic word Combrogi, meaning fellow-countrymen. When using the word Cymry or Kymry the Britons of the years up to the tenth century would not have been referring to the people of a defined geographical area but, rather, to all those P Celtic speakers, from Scotland down to Brittany. In 577, this would have included the region of south-west England to which Glass Island refers. But, then, the word Cymry does not appear to have come into common usage before the 7th century, which make it an unlikely candidate for self-identification after all. (John Davies, A History of Wales, Penguin, 2007, p 69) Instead, for the 6th century the term Britons would seem to be a better bet, although on the ground that “generic or national” approach may have been countered by the forces of tribalism and adherence to more local identities.
Place names are another conundrum. A few remnants of Celtic names remain in the region, as recorded by Jackson. For example, the River Hafren became the Severn and Avon means simply river in Welsh. But these borrowings are few and far between in the Somerset area. It is another feature of dispossession, with the names one people gave to the land being displaced by those of another culture. This, too, is commented on in Glass Island, with Eleri Gwir lamenting the fact that the land is lost to its stories, saying:
“To walk through that land was to walk with the gods and with the first lords of naming; it was to walk with Arthur and Kai and Bedwyr. And we’ve lost all that.”
This is only to scratch the surface of the complexities that arise when thinking and writing about this fascinatingly obscure period of British history, this maelstrom of change and conflict. Other issues include questions of religion and the survival of a distinctly Celtic culture or elements of it. Then there is the continuing influence of the Roman empire to consider. And what about Arthur? If he is mentioned, is it as an historical figure or as one of myth and legend? But these may be issues for another time.
For the present it is enough to say that, all in all, 6th century Britain makes for a rich and open landscape upon which the novelist may make their distinctive mark.
AD 576. A time of upheaval for the people of the Summer Land – the Saxons push further and further westward, a new religion supplants the old, unexpected alliances are formed and deadly rivalries fester – son against father, brother against brother.
Eleri Gwir, the daughter of a chieftain, speaks only the truth – and one thing she knows is that war is coming and that a reckoning awaits her people.
The Red Cloaks of Caer Baddan, the last remnant of the Roman legions on British soil, represent hope for Eleri and for all the Summer Land. And their leader Macsen represents something else for Eleri herself – new possibilities, new horizons to explore.
As the decisive battle between the Britons and the Saxons draws nearer, Eleri and her people must decide what their role will be in this story.
This rich and compelling novel brings to vivid life a moment of transformation that shaped the Britain we know today.
Gareth Griffith was born in Penmaenmawr, North Wales, and now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Sue.
His career has encompassed teaching, research and writing, including many years working as the manager of research for the parliament of New South Wales. He has a PhD from the University of Wales. His academic publications include a study of George Bernard Shaw's politics, published by Routledge, and several publications on the study of parliament.
These days, when Gareth isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, music, dark Scandi film and TV, and Dark Age Britain. Glass Island is his first novel.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx