Sunday 17 April 2016

Britain, the Byzantine Empire, and the concept of an Anglo-Saxon 'Heptarchy': Harun ibn Yahya's ninth-century Arabic description of Britain

[The following post has now been fully revised, expanded and published as C. R. Green, 'Britain, the Byzantine Empire, and the concept of an Anglo-Saxon ‘Heptarchy’: Hārūn ibn Yaḥyā’s ninth-century Arabic description of Britain', in Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England, ed. K. L. Jolly and B. Brooks (Woodbridge, 2022), pp. 94–114]

The aim of the following post is to offer a draft look at an interesting Arabic account of early medieval Britain that appears to have its origins in the late ninth century. Despite being rarely mentioned by British historians concerned with this era, this account has a number of points of interest, most especially the fact that it may contain the earliest reference yet encountered to there having been seven kingdoms (the 'Heptarchy') in pre-Viking England and the fact that its text implies that Britain was still considered to be somehow under Byzantine lordship at that time.

Al-Idrisi's mid-twelfth-century Arabic map of southern Britain and northern Frances, from the copy preserved in the sixteenth-century Oxford MS Pococke 375, fol. 281b–282a. Note, north is at the bottom of this map (image: Bodleian Library).

The author of the account discussed here is Harun ibn Yahya, a Syrian who was probably captured at Ascalon (Ashkelon, Israel) sometime around AD 886 by Byzantine pirates and kept prisoner at Constantinople for a period, before being released and subsequently travelling to Rome.(1) His account survives in fragments preserved by Ibn Rustah in his early tenth-century Book of Precious Records and includes the following passage on Britain:
From this city (sc. Rome) you sail the sea and journey for three months, till you reach the land of the king of the Burjān (here Burgundians). You journey hence through mountains and ravines for a month, till you reach the land of the Franks. From here you go forth and journey for four months, till you reach the city (capital) of Bartīniyah (Britain). It is a great city on the shore of the Western Ocean, ruled by seven kings. At the gate of its city (capital) is an idol (șanam). When the stranger wishes to enter it, he sleeps and cannot enter it, until the people of the city take him, to examine his intention and purpose in entering the city. They are Christians. They are the last of the lands of the Greeks, and there is no civilization beyond them.(2)
Needless to say, there are several points of interest in this account. Perhaps the most important of these is the statement that 'the city (capital) of Bartīniyah (Britain)' is 'ruled by seven kings'. The notion that Anglo-Saxon England was divided into seven kingdoms—the 'Heptarchy'—in the pre-Viking era is one that was common in English historiography from the sixteenth century through to the twentieth, despite it arguably never having been strictly the case, as David Dumville, Simon Keynes and others have pointed out.(3) The term 'Heptarchy' for the pre-Viking kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England appears to have been first used by William Lambarde in a handwritten explanation of his map of the 'seven kingdoms' of Saxon England, dated 1570, but the historiographical idea that pre-Viking England was made up of seven kingdoms is generally believed to have arisen rather earlier than this, in the early twelfth century with Henry of Huntingdon.(4) Henry is, for example, said by James Campbell to have 'introduced the idea of the Heptarchy' to English historical writing in his Historia Anglorum of 1129, stating in that text that 'when the Saxons subjected the land to themselves, they established seven kings, and imposed names of their own choice on the kingdoms', before listing these kingdoms as Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.(5) However, the account under discussion here would seem to offer a fundamental challenge to this consensus. In particular, unless it is the result of a somewhat bizarre coincidence—which seems rather unlikely—then the late ninth-century reference by Harun ibn Yahya to there being 'seven kings' in Britain would appear to strongly indicate that the concept of a 'Heptarchy' in Anglo-Saxon England actually had a significantly earlier currency than Henry of Huntingdon and the early twelfth century. Furthermore, it would imply that this concept of the political situation in pre-Viking England was sufficiently well-known to have reached at least Rome, if not Constantinople, by the end of the ninth century, which is itself a point of some considerable significance.(6)

William Lambarde's 1568 woodcut map of the seven kingdoms of England in 'the Saxones time', as printed by John Foxe in 1576 (image via 

The second point of interest is the description of Britain as 'the last of the lands of the Greeks', that is the most oceanward land of the Rūm or Byzantines. Dunlop considered this to be a statement deriving from Harun ibn Yahya's time in Constantinople, and it might simply be interpreted as reflecting the fact that Britain was once a part of the Roman Empire, nearly 500 years earlier—that is to say, Britain is 'the last of the [former] lands of the Rūm'. However, this is not what he says in the extract preserved by Ibn Rustah, which was written in the present tense and implies that Harun ibn Yahya believed Britain actually still lay 'at the outer fringes of the Byzantine Empire', or at least that the Byzantines considered it to be potentially still within their sway.(7) In this context, it is worth recalling that Procopius, writing in the mid-sixth century—around a century and a half after Britain is usually considered to have ceased to be part of the Roman Empire—mentions both that the emperor Justinian was then making large payments of subsidies to Britain (Secret History, XIX.13) and that Justinian's leading imperial general, Belisarius, offered Britain to the Ostrogoths in exchange for Sicily (Wars, Whilst both suggestions could have been a fantasy or meant flippantly, it is equally possible that they might be a genuine reflection of an early Byzantine imperial ideology that continued to consider Britain to be somehow part of Byzantium's holdings, albeit a distant one, as a number of commentators including Eurydice Georganteli, J. O. Ward and Ian Wood have pointed out.(8)

Certainly, with regard to the latter possibility, it has to be admitted that there is now considerable archaeological evidence for Byzantine trading and interaction with southern and western Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, focussed especially on Tintagel but also more widely, and that the coin evidence from sites in western Britain and along the south coast has been recently interpreted as reflecting continuing relations into the seventh century too.(9) Likewise, a recent isotopic analysis of burials in western Britain suggests that people who had probably grown up in Byzantine North Africa were actually being buried here in the post-Roman period, with one of these individuals being radiocarbon-dated to the late seventh century at the earliest—although it cannot be established with certainty, this might well be seen as the burial of someone brought up during the last days of Byzantine Carthage before the Arab conquest of the city in 697/8, and the Byzantine coin evidence from the seventh-century in Britain is certainly dominated by Carthaginian issues.(10) We should also note here the seventh-century Life of St John the Almsgiver, which tells of a ship from Alexandria that visited Britain around AD 610–620 and exchanged a cargo of corn for one of tin, a tale that is undoubtedly suggestive as to seventh-century contacts and continued familiarity, and the Byzantine text of the 630s known as the Doctrina Iacobi nuper baptizati, which offers a very similar concept to Harun ibn Yahya, claiming that 'Roman lands' then extended from Britain (βρεττανίας) to Africa.(11)

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the early medieval memorial stone at Penmachno, North Wales, which dates itself with reference to a Byzantine consulship, stating that it was erected 'in the time of the consul Justin'. This has often been thought to refer to the consulship of Justinus in AD 540, which would itself be a point of considerable significance, but it has recently been powerfully argued that the consul in question is actually more probably the Emperor Justin II himself, who was consul successively from 567–79. Such a situation would, of course, be extremely noteworthy in the present context, and the stone's erection and use of consular dating has consequently been considered by Thomas Charles-Edwards to reflect 'British loyalty to the Emperor Justin' and an affirmation that the erectors of the stone believed that they 'still belonged to the far-flung and loose-knit community of citizens of which he was the head'.(12)

A copper-alloy Byzantine follis of Heraclius, minted in Nicomedia in 611–12 and found near to Tamworth in the West Midlands; Sam Moorhead considers this coin to be potentially a genuine early medieval import, rather than a modern-era loss (image: PAS).

Needless to say, given all of the above, the idea that early Byzantine imperial ideology might have envisaged Britain as being still somehow part of their sphere long after the supposed end of 'Roman Britain' in c. AD 410, with this then underlying the statements made and recorded by Procopius in the mid-sixth century, is clearly worthy of some serious consideration. Moreover, in this light, Harun ibn Yahya's belief that Britain was 'the last of the lands of the Greeks' would appear to be rather more interesting than might be at first thought too—indeed, it could be taken to suggest that any potential sixth-century sense of Britain as still part of the Byzantine world continued to somehow persist in Byzantine thinking into the ninth century. In support of such a contention, another rarely mentioned eastern account of early medieval Britain can be cited here, as it too seems to share this idea of Britain as a continuing element within the Byzantine Empire. This is the tenth-century Persian Hudud al-'Alam, 'The Regions of the World', written in 982 for a prince in north-western Afghanistan. In addition to a general statement that 'there are twelve islands called Briṭāniya, of which some are cultivated and some desolate. On them are found numerous mountains, rivers, villages, and different mines', the author of the Hudud al-'Alam also comments as follows:
Britannia (Bariṭīniya), the last land (shahr) of Rūm on the coast of the Ocean. It is an emporium (bārgāh) of Rūm and Spain.(13)
Whilst the first part of this statement might well be seen as derivative of Harun ibn Yahya and Ibn Rustah, the second part clearly is not. It is found nowhere else, according to V. V. Barthold, but it clearly fits with the suggestions made above, namely that, from an eastern perspective, Britain was a place that continued to have some sort of relationship with the Byzantine Empire.(14) Indeed, it is worth pointing out here that there is again no necessity to treat the statement that Britain 'is an emporium of Rūm' as a primarily historical statement transposed into the tenth century, referring perhaps to the fifth- to seventh-century activity mentioned above—there are, after all, a number of ninth- to eleventh-century Byzantine coins and seals known from Britain, not least from Winchester and London, and there is moreover documentary evidence for both the presence of Byzantine churchmen in tenth-century England and the use of the Byzantine title basileus at that time, which must be seen as suggestive.(15) As to the mention of Spain in this passage, this again suggests that the author of the Hudud al-'Alam had sources additional to those available to us. As to its origins, it may be referring to the possibility of some sort of trading relationship between the the Islamic world and the British Isles in the eighth and ninth centuries, for which there is certainly some archaeological, numismatic and documentary evidence, or possibly to Spanish–English contacts in the tenth century. Indeed, Patricia Nightingale, for example, considers that this reference to Spain 'might hint at Anglo-Saxon participation in the slave trade to the Muslim kingdoms' in the tenth century, which again would be a point of some interest.(16)

The Penmachno stone in North Wales, which includes a consular dating most probably referring to the successive consulships of the Emperor Justin II, 567–79 (image: Richard Hoare/Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0).


1     N. E. Hermes, The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture: Ninth–Twelfth Century AD (New York, 2012), pp. 72–80; A. Classen, 'East meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: many untold stories about connections and contacts, understanding and misunderstanding', in A. Classen (ed.), East Meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: Transcultural Experiences in the Premodern World (Berlin/Boston, 2013), pp. 1–222 at p. 26.
2     D. N. Dunlop, 'The British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', Islamic Quarterly, 4 (1957), 11–28 at p. 16.
3     D. N. Dumville, 'Essex, Middle Anglia and the expansion of Mercia, in S. Bassett (ed.) The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London, 1989), pp. 123–40 at p. 126; S. Keynes, 'Heptarchy', in M. Lapidge et al (eds.), Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 2001), p. 233.
4     On the word Heptarchy and William Lambarde, see W. Goffart, 'The first venture in 'medieval geography': Lambarde's map of the Saxon Heptarchy (1568)', in J. Roberts et al (eds.), Alfred the Wise: Studies in Honour of Janet Bately on the Occasion of Her Sixty-fifth Birthday (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 53–60; Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. Heptarchy. On Henry of Huntingdon and the seven kingdoms of England, see Keynes, 'Heptarchy', p. 233; J. Campbell, 'Some twelfth-century views of the Anglo-Saxon past', in J. Campbell, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London, 1986), pp. 209–28 at p. 213; Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum: the History of the English People, ed. & trans. D. Greenway (Oxford, 1996), pp. lx–lxi.
5     Campbell, 'Some twelfth-century views of the Anglo-Saxon past', p. 213; Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, i.4, ed. & trans. Greenway, p. 17.
6     It is worth noting here that Harun ibn Yahya's statement that the unnamed capital city of Britain was ruled by the seven kings is most credibly seen as a confusion deriving from a source that mentioned both the political situation in pre-Viking Britain and this city. However, if it is indeed London—as Dunlop suggests ('British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', p. 16) and seems plausible, given that Lundenwic (London) was actually the largest of the major wics or towns of pre-Viking England, with a core zone of c. 55–60 hectares—then it is interesting to note in this context that Middle Saxon London (Lundenwic) was actually sited in a marginal position to several pre-Viking kingdoms and was variously under the control of the kingdoms of Mercia, Kent, Wessex and Essex at different points between the mid-seventh and the mid-ninth centuries. On pre-Viking London/Lundenwic, see, for example, A. G. Vince, Saxon London: An Archaeological Investigation (London, 1990); L. Blackmore, 'The origins and growth of Lundenwic, a mart of many nations', in B. Hårdh & L. Larsson (eds), Central Places in the Migration and Merovingian Periods (Stockholm, 2002), pp. 273–301; and L. Blackmore, 'London in the Not-So-Dark Ages', lecture given at Gresham College, 13 October 2014, available online at
7     Dunlop, 'British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', p. 16; D. G. König, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe, (Oxford, 2015), pp. 109, 277.
8     E. S. Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', in M. Biddle (ed.), The Winchester Mint and Coins and Related Finds from the Excavations of 1961-71, Winchester Studies 8 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 669–78 at p. 673; J. O. Ward, 'Procopius's Bellum Gothicum II.6.28: the problem of contacts between Justinian and Britain', Byzantion, 38 (1968), 460–71; and I. N. Wood, 'Before and after the migration to Britain', in J. Hines (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons From the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: an Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge, 1997), pp. 41–64 at p. 48. See also, for example, P. Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford, 2011), p. 200, and J. Campbell, 'The impact of the Sutton Hoo discovery on the study of Anglo-Saxon history', in J. Campbell, The Anglo-Saxon State (Hambledon, 2000), pp. 55–83 at p. 76. For more sceptical views, see A. Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London, 1985), pp. 217–18, and C. A. Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600 (Stroud, 1998), pp. 34–5.
9     See, for example, Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', pp. 672–6, 678. See also M. Fulford, 'Byzantium and Britain: a Mediterranean perspective on post-Roman Mediterranean imports in western Britain and Ireland', Medieval Archaeology, 33 (1989), 1–6; E. Campbell, Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400–800, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 157 (York, 2007); E. Campbell & C. Bowles, 'Byzantine trade to the edge of the world: Mediterranean pottery imports to Atlantic Britain in the 6th century', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 297–314; T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 222–3; M. Duggan, 'Ceramic imports to Britain and the Atlantic Seaboard in the fifth century and beyond', Internet Archaeology, 41 (2016), online at; S. Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain – a review in light of new finds recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme', in O. Tekin (ed.), Ancient History, Numismatics and Epigraphy in the Mediterranean World (Istanbul, 2009), pp. 263–74; and C. Morrisson, 'Byzantine coins in early medieval Britain: a Byzantinist's assessment', in R. Naismith et al (ed.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (London, 2014), pp. 207–42.
10     K. A. Hemer et al, 'Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region', Journal of Archaeological Science, 40 (2013), 2352–59; C. R. Green, 'Some oxygen isotope evidence for long-distance migration to Britain from North Africa & southern Iberia, c. 1100 BC–AD 800', 24 October 2015, blog post, online at Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain', p. 265, notes that the majority of the seventh-century Byzantine coins from Britain that he surveyed were minted at Carthage and suggests that they are indicative of 'continued maritime activity with people from the Mediterranean in the 7th century'.
11     Leontius, Life of St John the Almsgiver, chapter 10; Snyder, Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600, p. 152; C. J. Salter, 'Early tin extraction in the south-west of England: a resource for Mediterranean metalworkers of late antiquity', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th–12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 315–22 at p. 320; M. M. Mango, 'Tracking Byzantine silver and copper metalware, 4th–12th centuries', in Mango (ed.),&nbsp Byzantine Trade, 4th–12th Centuries, pp. 221–36 at p. 223. For the Doctrina Iacobi nuper baptizati, III.9, reference I am indebted to Sihong Lin; see O. Heilo, Seeing Eye to Eye: Islamic Universalism in the Roman and Byzantine Worlds, 7th to 10th Centuries (Wein University PhD dissertation, 2010), pp. 28–9, and D. Thomas & B. Roggema, Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, volume 1 (600-900) (Leiden, 2009), pp. 117–9.
12     T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 234–8, quotations at p. 235 and 238; the other identification mentioned is that of V. E. Nash-Williams, The Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff, 1950), pp. 14, 93. It may be additionally worth noting here that another, less certain although still intriguing, source of evidence is the recent suggestion that some of the apparently obscure 'local' saints of western Britain are not actually otherwise unknown 'Celtic' saints, as they were portrayed to be in much later medieval hagiographies, but rather Byzantine cults transplanted to Britain in the early medieval period whose origins were subsequently forgotten. With regard to this, perhaps the most convincing instance is provided by St Ia of St Ives, Cornwall. Although she is claimed by very much later sources to be an otherwise unknown Irish saint, she actually bears a name identical to that of a martyred Greek saint, St Ia of Persia, whose important church in Constantinople—located next to the Golden Gate—was restored by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century: see further K. Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud, 2000), p. 163.
13     V. V. Minorsky (ed. & trans.), Ḥudūd al-'Ālam, 'The Regions of the World'  A Persian Geography 372 A.H. – 982 A.D., ed. C. E. Bosworth with a preface by V. V. Barthold (London, 1970), pp. 59 and 158.
14     V. V. Barthold in Ḥudūd al-'Ālam, 'The Regions of the World', p. 8.
15     Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', pp. 676–9; J. Shepard, 'From the Bosporus to the British Isles: the way from the Greeks to the Varangians', Drevnejshie Gosudarstva Vostochnoi Evropy, 2009 (Moscow, 2010), pp. 15–42 at pp. 22–38.
16     On a 'Late Saxon' Spanish connection, see P. Nightingale, 'The London Pepperers' Guild and some twelfth-century English trading links with Spain', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 58 (1985), 123–32 at p. 128. On the possibility of a degree of trading activity between the Islamic world and the British Isles in the eighth and ninth centuries, see C. R. Green, 'Some imitation Islamic coins minted in early medieval Europe', 1 March 2015, blog post, online at; L. Webster & J. Backhouse, The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600–900 (London, 1991), p. 190; A. O'Sullivan et al, Early Medieval Ireland: Archaeological Excavations 1930-2009 (Dublin, 2010), pp. 179–80; T. O'Hagan, 'In the name of Allah? Broaching Carolingian connections at Ballycottin, Co. Cork', 9 April 2013, blog post, online at

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