One of the challenges and delights of working on my new non-fiction book, Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales, is that it’s taking me into all sorts of uncharted territory and, in some cases, territory I’m revisiting after many years. The book is meant to cover the entire time period from the Romans (AD 60, to be exact, and Suetonius’ attack on Anglesey) to the present day, so large areas are well outside what I’d regard as my comfort zone. I suppose that said zone would extend from the sixteenth century through to about 1815, with the core being my principal specialisation from about 1640 to about 1700. But as I’ve said before in this blog and elsewhere, I originally started out with an interest in twentieth-century warships, so the period from roughly 1939 onwards is also an area I’m very comfortable with. Over the years I’ve also done various bits and pieces of work on aspects of the Victorian period and World War I, so getting up to speed there isn’t a problem at all.
All of which still leaves huge swathes of history that are relatively new to me, and very exciting. The American civil war has always fascinated me – I remember collecting picture card series about it when I was a boy, I recently read Amanda Foreman’s vast and very impressive study of Britain’s relationship with the conflict, and, yes, I own the DVDs of both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals - but I had no real idea of just how many Welshmen served, or of the part that Welsh waters played in the fitting out of some of the Confederate raiders. There were Welshmen aboard the Monitor, the Virginia (aka Merrimac) and the Alabama, and from my point of view, the recent reconstruction of the face of one of the Welsh crewmen on the Monitor has been really timely. I’ve also had to find out more about the various wars between the South American states in the 19th century – Welshmen and other Britons served in pretty well all of their navies and all of their wars, and one of the early heroes of the Chilean navy was an ‘Admiral Bynon’, originally a Beynon from the Gower.
But the really big leap outside the comfort zone has come with what could be termed ‘the early stuff’. My knowledge of the Romans is probably pretty similar to that of most people, i.e. nice walks on Hadrian’s Wall and occasional visits to the likes of Caerleon, watching Gladiator and episodes of Time Team, and Monty Python’s rant about ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’. I suppose my opinions were jaundiced by my experience of school Latin, which was taught by a formidable gentleman who possessed a truly Roman nose, was inevitably nicknamed ‘Caesar’, and seemed old enough to have actually known his namesake at first-hand. (A corrective – he later became the Headmaster pro tem, very much in ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ fashion, and I got to both know him very well and to respect him greatly.) Despite Caesar’s best efforts I never became much good at Latin (nor any languages, come to that), although I loved the historical aspects, so getting up to speed on the Saxon shore forts, the Classis Britannica and last year’s exciting archaeological discoveries at Caerleon has been hugely enjoyable.
The same is true of that period which it was still politically correct to term ‘the Dark Ages’ when I first studied it at Oxford. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the period from 410 (when, according to the university’s Modern History Faculty, ‘modern history’ began) to 1066 and beyond – I was taught the Venerable Bede by a bouncy ex-nun and the really Dark Ages by James Campbell, a wonderful, inspiring Oxford don of the old school whose rooms were a battleground for domination between books and cats. It always intrigued me how historians of the period could disagree so violently over a tiny number of sources – at the time the great controversy was over James Morris’s Age of Arthur, which built an enormously complex and ambitious interpretation of the period by making some remarkably imaginative assumptions (some of his critics preferred ‘ludicrous guesses’) based on minute fragments of evidence. In getting myself up to speed on such topics as the ‘Strathclyde Welsh’, King Edgar’s famous rowing ceremony on the Dee in 973, and whether the Vikings were really the horn-helmeted pillagers of my recollection ((but said recollection might be over-dependent on the Kirk Douglas / Tony Curtis film, The Vikings…) or else the nice peaceful cuddly-bunny traders that modern orthodoxy seems to favour, I see that little seems to have changed – historians still seem to be arguing over exactly the same phrases in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, etc, that were causing them so much angst over thirty years ago! And then again, something strange seems to have happened to Norse names; the king I’ve always called Harold Hardrada now seems to be known as Haraldr harðráði, so do I have to adopt the latter? Of course, the added complication with Welsh history is the astonishing proliferation of petty kingdoms and kings with pretty similar names. So remind me again – which was which out of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, Gruffydd ap Cynan and Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, not to mention Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, when did Deheubarth replace Dyfed, and can I attribute any naval history of any sort to the kingdom of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren? But seriously, getting outside the comfort zone is good. It’s refreshing. It’s exhilarating. Historians and authors everywhere should try it!
Below: the estuary of the River Tywi, site of the naval battle of Abertywi in 1044 between the Dublin-Norse fleet recruited by Hywel ap Edwin, King of Deheubarth, and the native fleet of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, King of Gwynedd, the only native Welsh ruler in the era of independent kingdoms to establish his own powerful naval force; Gruffydd won a decisive victory and Hywel was killed. On the right-hand headland stands Llansteffan Castle, built in the 12th century to guard both the navigable river leading to Carmarthen, then the largest town in Wales and the seat of royal government in the south, and the important ferry across the Tywi estuary (part of the major pilgrimage route to St David’s cathedral). Behind the left-hand, or southern, headland is the estuary of the Taf, leading to Laugharne of Dylan Thomas fame.