Lost Realms: histories of Britain from the Romans to the Vikings

Review by CH

As the last vestiges of official Roman administration flickered out in Britain, the resulting power vacuum produced a patchwork of small kingdoms. Some – Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent – have come to dominate popular imaginings of early medieval Britain, but the histories of many more have long been forgotten.

Nine of these ‘lost realms’ form the focus of Dr Thomas Williams’ book. Some of their stories survive only in hints – snippets of legend, ambiguous archaeological evidence, and accounts written long after they ceased to exist – while others endured long enough to appear in contemporary chronicles, before being annexed by larger neighbours or snuffed out by the Vikings.

This is no linear, chronological account of post-Roman Britain. Rather, Williams devotes a chapter to each kingdom in a selection spanning England, Scotland, and Wales: Elmet, Hwicce, Lindsey, Dumnonia, Essex, Rheged, Powys, Sussex, and Fortriu.

As well as piecing together fragments of material evidence, Williams thoroughly interrogates early medieval written sources both ‘historical’ and literary, teasing out flickers of insight as well as addressing their limits. We learn about the lost realms’ likely territorial boundaries, and what can be known of their rulers and ordinary inhabitants – but Williams is also keen to delve into matters more difficult to define. Who were these people, and who did they believe themselves to be? Here, Williams is open about the pitfalls inherent in discussing ideas of ethnicity/identity in the distant past, as well as exploring how national stories are constructed, and the danger of romanticising such histories. This is complemented by a thought-provoking concluding discussion about recent debates centred on the appropriateness of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in discussing early medieval England.

The book is only sparsely illustrated with black-and-white line drawings, but Williams’ resonant prose conjures vivid images of its own. His prologue, in particular, has the ring of an Old English elegy, evoking barrow mounds containing slumbering lords of lost lands, forgotten heroes whose names once rang beside hall-fires, rusted swords, and plough-scattered treasures.

Lost Realms: histories of Britain from the Romans to the Vikings 
Thomas Williams
William Collins, £25
ISBN 978-0008171964