Warriors and Kings: The 1500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain - An Interview with Martin Wall

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Warriors and Kings: The 1500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain - An Interview with Martin Wall

We sit down with Martin Wall, author of Warriors and Kings: The 1500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain, to discuss his recent publication, the motivation behind it and more.

Petros Koutoupis: Who is Martin Wall and what motivated you to write about this fascinating topic on Celtic history?

Martin Wall: This is a long story, but I will try to give you my shortest answer. In 2009, I gave up my career to care for my parents, then living in South Staffordshire. The trajectory for my parents, frankly, was grim, and as a lone carer in a rural area I soon realized how isolated and powerless I was. Local (and national) history had always been a refuge for me in times of emotional despair, and now, on my country walks I looked over the landscape and remembered better days, when my father had inculcated a deep love of the land, and its secret past. For instance, as a boy, my father had prophesied that one day – the looted treasures of Penda, the last great pagan king of Mercia, would be discovered.  Later in that very year, the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered nearby, and despite his illness, my father exclaimed that this was 'Penda's Treasure' – which in fact – it may well be.

I had been writing self-published historical novels for a few years, again as a sort of 'hobby', before my parents died. These focused on Anglo-Saxon Mercia, my home region. I eventually became a volunteer with the conservation and display of the Staffordshire Hoard at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This deepened my interest in the context of the hoard, and the political and religious configurations of 7th century Britain. The most important lesson for me, was just how complex the armature of these somewhat obscure kingdoms had been, and how Mercia had not been so much an 'Anglo-Saxon' state – as an 'Anglo-British' realm – the word Mercia means 'borderland' or frontier. Eventually, I published my first non-fiction book, The Anglo-Saxon Age: The Birth of England with Amberley Books in 2015, setting forth my own theories about the treasures within a wider overview of the Anglo-Saxon civilization as a whole. The following year I followed this up with The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts which was a more easily digestible history for younger or less knowledgeable readers. So, for some years, I had been immersed in that period, and the question arose, what should I do next?

This was, as they say, a 'no-brainer'. One of the disturbing things about my work at the hoard exhibition – was the impression that for the vast majority of the general public, this whole period was too remote from their experience, mysterious and obscure – not something they could easily relate to. I didn't approve of the emphasis on 'treasure' and monetary value ascribed to the artifacts, on the whole, and wanted to resurrect the importance of the long and sometimes bloody process involved in the formation of the nation states we are familiar with today.

This resulted in Warriors and Kings: The 1500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain in 2017, which is out in paperback this year. At the same time, I was involved in a project to erect a monument to the ancient border between Mercia and the British (or 'Welsh') kingdoms, at a place called 'Onennau Meigion', now called Six Ashes, on the border between Staffordshire and Shropshire. This exemplified the complex status of these 'debatable lands', and I was extremely fortunate in getting the support of the renowned singer Robert Plant and his colleagues in the Owain Glyndwr Society to successfully achieve this personal dream. Robert read 'Warriors and Kings' and has remained a stalwart supporter of my work subsequently.

Petros: How does this book relate to your previous publications?

Martin: Some of my family were miners, and I often think of my work as a process of delving – uncovering the strata which lie just beneath, or even interpenetrating – our modern culture. The layer beneath the Anglo-Saxons, were the Romano-Britons, whom the invaders called 'Welsh', meaning 'strangers' or foreigners. The word had a specific connotation, meaning Celtic peoples who had been subsumed by the Roman imperial apparatus. These peoples had been Romanised for almost four-hundred years, for the most part, and at least in the South and East of the island regarded themselves as Romans. But when the empire in the West disintegrated and became unviable – these peoples began to revert to their Celtic tribal roots. Alone among the peoples of the former western empire, they eventually organised a military resistance to the barbarian incomers and held-off the invaders for well over a century in the former Roman provinces of Britain – even winning a major victory against them. Although many of the wealthiest class of people emigrated to Armorica ('Brittany') or Britonia in Spain – for the majority this was not an option. They now had to choose, whether to come to terms with the newcomers and their language, religion, and folk-ways – or to stand fast in their ancestral lands, against overwhelming odds. This book is the story of how and why they made the latter choice, in spite of all, an epic battle which lasted into the pre-modern era.

Petros: What did Celtic Britain look like before the Romans?

Martin: The main thing to understand is that although there was a common Celtic group of languages, a shared culture and spiritual religion, a trading economy, and a similar military tradition – there was nothing like a nation state, or empire. Despite their similarities in many respects, the various peoples emphasized their differences – exemplified by their clan and tribal loyalties and alliances. The area of Celtic occupation of these tribal congeries stretched from Iberia to Anatolia (modern Spain to Turkey) and in a northern arc, from the Loire Valley to the Hebrides. These clan affiliations were remarkably robust and long-lived – until the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and many would say, into modern times. During the Iron-Age, especially in the West of Britain, a network of clan forts, set atop hills, with ditch-and-bank defences, surmounted by gated palisades – dominated the landscape. These petty kings (and sometimes queens) were primarily concerned with their own territories, until a common enemy, in the form of the Romans, supervened). The first (I think) semi-reliable contact with 'civilization' came in about 325 BC, when Pytheas of Massalia (modern Marseille) – then a Greek colony in the South of modern France – set out to explore the mysterious islands in the northern seas. Because 'Albion', as it was called then, was known to be rich in tin, copper, lead and even silver and gold deposits – he claimed to have circumnavigated and surveyed the whole island of Great Britain, and even beyond, in search of even richer seams.

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