Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Independent Britain

Steve Muhlberger
There sometimes seems to be a new popular book on the real Arthur every month.    If you want a scholarly treatment that goes beyond the readings in the course outline,  the library has two:   Richard Barber,  Arthur of Albion and Christopher Dean, Arthur of England.   The first chapter of each is a discussion of how the 6th century facts relate to the later legends.
In  410, the people of Britain were told by the emperor Honorius that they would have to look after their own defense. From this date, Britain effectively ceased to be part of the empire. The people of Britain were forced to defend and rule themselves without the military or financial support of Rome. Many questions about this period are effectively unanswered and probably unanswerable. Who specifically ruled this independent Britain? Was there a central government, and if so, how was it organized? How well did it hold fifth-century Britain against invasion?

We can make some educated guesses about political control. It is probable that in parts of Britain, the city councils, long used to some degree of self-government, stepped into the breach. Whether these civic councils cooperated on a regular basis we don't know.

The councils may have had rivals as well. It was a common Roman practice to establish client rulers on the borders of the provinces and to give them some of the responsibility for defending them.  Such warlords may have exercised great influence in independent Britain. Some later Welsh dynasties claimed descent from native rulers of the fifth century, which means these minor warlords must have been successful enough to gain lasting prestige. No prince is anxious to claim descent from losers.

It seems that for about a generation, Britain avoided catastrophe.  Gallic churchmen remembered that in the first half of the fifth century, the followers of Pelagius, the condemned British theologian I mentioned last time, had a great influence in the British church. Bishop Germanus of Auxerre, a city in south central Gaul, crossed to Britain at least once and possibly twice to preach the true religion. According to his biographer, he was very successful in winning over the Britons. He also is supposed to have won a miraculous victory over invading Saxons and Picts. Despite the warlike activity, the impression this brief story gives is of a Romanized country in which the life of the church continues on in much the same way it did on the continent.

Disaster seems to have struck in the 440s. We have no direct witnesses to what happened. One Gallic chronicler, a good distance away but a near contemporary, wrote: "Britain, which had up to this time suffered various defeats and catastrophes, was reduced to Saxon rule."

To get any more than that, we have to go to  archaeology, or  to two later writers.

The archaeology of 5th and 6th century Britain is very difficult and hard to date.  It seems to indicate that without the close links to the empire, and the subsidies provided by the Roman government and military, urban and rural life in the Roman style seems to have collapsed.   There may even have been a dramatic fall in population (despite English migrations).

For any details of this process, we have to turn to the historians.  One is Bede, an Englishman writing almost 300 years later. His story is an adaptation of one told by an earlier British writer named Gildas.

Gildas is the prime witness to independent Britain. Gildas, according to later Welsh and Breton legend, was a monk. He seems to have flourished around the year 550; in other words, about a century after the English invasion recorded by the Gallic chronicler. The only work we have of his is called "The destruction and conquest of Britain." Aha! you say, this is exactly what we need. But, unfortunately, Gildas's piece is not a history except in passing. It is a sermon.

According to Gildas the Britons of his time are great sinners and have already suffered terribly in the past. To demonstrate this, he tells them a bit about their past history. The period after the Roman withdrawal, he says, was a period of prosperity, which the Britons wasted in debauchery. During that time, Britain was ruled by an unnamed "proud tyrant," who made the fatal error of inviting Saxon mercenaries to settle in Britain. They were meant to defend the island against the Picts and other Saxons. The mercenaries eventually revolted, devastating the island. It was only through the long efforts of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of royal blood, and other unnamed leaders that the Saxons were beaten back. Since that time, which seems to be about two more generations, the Britons have lived in peace. But they have learned nothing, and have wasted this blessing in renewed sinfulness.

It is obvious that Gildas did not know a lot about the past. Anyway, he was trying to make a moral point, not depict accurate history. But what he says fits with other things we know. For instance, the invitation to the Saxon mercenaries is a typical defensive tactic of the later Roman empire.  The introduction of the Saxons into Britain, if it indeed took place as Gildas says, was a normal military expedient of the time. It is worth remarking that the Scots settled in the western isles of Scotland at about the same time, and scholars speculate that the Britons encouraged this move to distract the Picts.

The archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon graves suggests that a good number of separate Anglo-Saxon settlements were made in Britain in the early fifth century. Although Bede's version associates the first appearance with the Saxons with the settlement of Kent in SE England, the archaeology shows traces of the English all up and down the east coast of Britain. Bede is the first to mention Hengist, Horsa, and Kent in connection with the coming of the Saxons, and the name Vortigern for the British king -- so we cannot be sure of the authenticity of these elements.

Gildas's story of a great war, probably in the mid-fifth century, is confirmed by evidence from Gaul. Groups of Saxons were attacking and settling in Gaul in the 460s.  Britons and Saxons seem to have been fighting on both sides of the English Channel simultaneously. This is the period that Britons were leaving their island and settling in Armorica, turning it into Brittany. Certainly some of these exiles were refugees from Saxon attacks at home, but there were probably adventurers and conquerors among them.  Enough organized Britons went to Armorica from Cornwall and Devon, that they renamed districts in which they settled after their old homelands.

Scholars usually guess that the wars in Britain ended about A.D. 500. Gildas mentions a series of British victories, the last at an unidentified Mount Badon, won by an unnamed general. If there ever was an age of Arthur, this was it.  And we know next to nothing about it.

What Gildas's sermon does tell us about is his own time, which we think was around the 550s. Some of the best information is indirectly conveyed. Gildas himself is the Briton we know most about, and he is a very interesting figure. He wrote in Latin. A recent scholar argues that Gildas's vocabulary shows traces of legal training in the Roman tradition. His language taken as a whole is very convolute and overblown, but this was all the rage in the mid-sixth century. This is how all the learned men wrote in Italy at the same period, and it is a style can only be written by someone with an expensive education. In other words, Gildas was the product of a culture where important Roman traditions not only survived but flourished. Independent Britain in the mid-sixth century retained some links to the imperial past.

Gildas also tells us roughly how big independent Britain was and how it was ruled. The last part of his sermon is a detailed if sometimes vague denunciation of British kings of his own time. The areas that Gildas mentions are all in the West. Much of the south and east (the most prosperous and urban part under the Romans) seems to have been permanently lost to the Anglo-Saxons.

As for the kings themselves, let me quote briefly from Gildas: "Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent;...they make war, but their wars are against their countrymen, and are unjust ones; they rigorously prosecute thieves throughout their country, but those who sit at table with them are robbers, and they not only cherish but reward them." These are warlords, men whose closest associates are warriors, men whose power depends on ruthlessness and their ability to keep their armed gangs happy. They are reminiscent of the unruly Frankish kings who ruled in Gaul at about the same time. Like the Frankish kings, the British ones were technically Christians, but poor ones. Gildas tells stories of their adulteries, the murder of enemies before the altars of churches, perjury, treachery and the like.

Even the moral critic of his times, Gildas, does not deny that independent Britain enjoyed a certain level of peace and prosperity after the first great war with the Anglo-Saxon invaders. It is likely that this period lasted about two generations. There seems to have been something of an uneasy peace, or a cold war, between the English settlers in the east and the Britons of the west. The two groups, one Christian, one pagan, did not mix. Bede bitterly remembers that the Britons made no effort to convert his own ancestors.

Sometime after Gildas wrote, the balance of power shifted. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written well after this event, shows new offensives in the west: Gloucester and Bath were conquered around 577, which cut off Cornwall's Britons from the rest of their countrymen. In the north, too, Anglo-Saxon dynasties made new gains, extending the area under their rule. Some of the British kingdoms under that existed in Gildas's time hardly made it into the seventh century. By 600 it was fairly clear that the time of the English was at hand.

The post-Roman culture that produced Gildas was eroded or destroyed in the last half of the sixth century, and Welsh culture that owed little to the Roman past but religion was developing. It was a culture that was doomed to be territorially peripheral, as the lowland zone was lost entirely to the invaders -- or rather, the descendents of the invaders.

Next, the story of the pagan English, almost as obscure as the story of independent Britain, needs to be told.


Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.