Book Review: THE FIRST KINGDOM by Max Adams

Genre: Non-fiction History
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 3.5 stars
Series: standalone


Book cover for THE FIRST KINGDOM: title in white on navy with gold line decorations

Somewhere in the dim void between the departure from Britain of the Roman legions at the start of the fifth century and the days of the venerable Bede, the kingdoms of Early Medieval Britain were formed. But by whom? And out of what?

Max Adams scrutinizes the narrative handed down to us by later historians and chronicles, stripping away the most lurid nonsense about Arthur and synthesizing the research of the last forty years to tease out strands of reality from myth. His central theme evolves from an apparently simple question: how, after the end of the Roman state, were people taxed?

Rejecting ethnic and nationalist explanations for the emergence of the Early Medieval kingdoms, Adams shows how careful use of a wide range of perspectives from anthropology to geography can deliver a picture of the emergence of distinct polities in the sixth century that survive long enough to be embedded in the medieval landscape, recorded in the lines of river, road and watershed and in place names.

Blurb taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


THE FIRST KINGDOM is an in depth look at the history of Britain from about 350 through to the mid 600s, as the Roman empire falls into decline and withdraws and then (later) the Saxons and other Germanic peoples arrive.

The book’s primary narrative is examining the “generally accepted” version of events (the Romans withdraw, it all falls to anarchy, then the Saxons etc arrive and take over everything, displacing natives) and seeing if it holds water. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t and that’s a pretty simplistic view of things.

This is a period often called “the Dark Ages” for the lack of written material that survives in appreciable value. The book critically examines not just the few pieces from around that time (Gildas’ De Excidio and some continental letters) but also the texts that come later – the chronicles complied hundreds of years later, for example – asking where they might have got their sources and what their purposes might have been. I like a good dive into texts and how they might have been influenced.

There is also an examination of the archaeological and place name record, the main record we have of the period, and how that challenges the older narrative of total anarchy and immediate collapse, then sweeping conquest. There are pictures of some of the items, as well as diagrams of excavated sites. There’s also a sense that there’s a lot that hasn’t been excavated (or hasn’t been excavated well.)

I liked that there was an upfront attitude to the amount of speculation present in dealing with this period, how conjectures have to be made – and that you have to be willing to accept someone might come along and poke a lot of holes. It feels like sometimes history is presented as a certainty, but this book doesn’t do that.


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