Next chapter! The other is done, I just need to edit it for the blog’s format. I should have that out tomorrow or the next day. Then there may be another lull. A colleague has suggested I participate in a debate just starting in Europe with my own contribution to Arthuriana.
After two disappointments, in 407 the Roman troops stationed in Britain declared a low-ranking officer named Constantine the emperor. As had become custom during the late fourth century, Constantine replaced the governor and his entire administrative staff with a government loyal to him. That was not enough for his troops, however, and in 409 he gathered every soldier Britain could spare and sailed for the continent.
Constantine’s intent was to fight his way to Rome and overthrow the legitimate emperor. He landed in Gaul and sent many of his men into Hispania under his lieutenant Gerontius. They fought successfully against Honorius’ generals during that time. Eventually, though, Gerontius betrayed Constantine and had him killed in 411.
The citizens of Britannia had given up before then. Zosimus tells us that in 410 they overthrew his government and requested a governor from Rome. The Romano-Britons had every right to expect one, too. In the decades leading up to 410 many provinces had defected from the empire to be ruled by generals or tyrants only to be welcomed back when their leader died.
But 410 was a signal year in the Roman Empire, it was the year the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome. The city was left largely intact so there was little long-term damage done. The real damage was to the mythos of Rome; it was no longer the bastion of security in an empire that was being fought over every few years. Instead, it was now perceived as vulnerable. Rome would be vulnerable for the rest of its life as the capital.
Honorius saw this immediately. He settled with Alaric before turning around to bolster Rome’s defenses and bring the legions closer to the capital. He must have received the request from Britain during his reorganization. Their message would have presented him with a straightforward problem; protect Rome and its immediate provinces or send troops to a troublesome province with a history of revolts. He chose to focus on the heart of the empire. Of course he had not given up on reacquiring Britain in the future, though, so he told the Romano-Britons that each civitates, primary city and its surrounding region, would have to look to its own defenses.
That left the Romano-Britons in the worst of all possible situations. In trying to give themselves the best possible chance of surviving the assaults by Picts, Irish, and Germanic peoples they had eliminated the stable government of a usurper to make way for a legitimate Roman leadership. But they never received that leadership, leaving them without a regional government in the face of attacks from three groups.
Nor could the Britons recall Constantine’s governor or staff; if they had not been killed as part of the coup then they had run back to the continent where there was more safety and security. That left Britain with no legitimate governor, no illegitimate governor, and no bureaucracy to support a province. Britain was effectively alone.
The island was not just left to fend for itself, though, it was largely forgotten. Religious rejects like the Pelagians migrated there because it was isolated by the English Channel, but for the same reason no emperors or generals ever sailed to Britain in search of recruits or even foodstuffs. After 410, official histories of the Roman Empire rarely even mentioned the island or its inhabitants.
Nor should the lack of Roman interest surprise us. Britain had no islandwide ruler who could threaten the continent, nor did it have resources that could only be obtained through occupation. For a Rome being attacked on all sides, Britain was a former province that could be safely ignored while it focused on more immediate problems.
Britain was not even a major trading interest in the period. The English Channel made commerce that much more difficult even in the best of times, but during the fourth century the entire area was infested with Saxon pirates and in the fifth century, after Honorius officially abandoned Britain, the Roman Navy had no further reason to keep patrolling the area at all. Even if an historian of the era had taken an interest in Britain there was precious little information to be had on the subject.
The first such source would have been Constantius, who wrote about two visits by St. Germanus to strengthen the church in his Vita Germanii. The first occurred in 429 and rooted out the Pelagian heresy while the purpose of the second is unknown. It was written several decades after the fact, when his source was a very old man.
A second is the two Gallic Chronicles. We know nothing about where they received their information about Britain, but they do say that the entire island was looted by the Germanic tribes in 441. They also also say that all communication was cut off. This cannot be entirely true because we know that waves of people left Britain after 450 and that at least one British bishop attended a synod, but it does tell us what we could already guess – that we know so little because there was very little information coming out of Britain.
In Britain during the same era, the closest thing to an historian is Gildas. He was not an historian, though. Gildas was writing a sermon and a legal argument; he had no interest in recording a holistic British history. Instead, he was only concerned about humiliating kings and holies while warning them that God had punished them in the past and would in the future.
Beginning in the late sixth century and continuing into the seventh century is the hypothetical Northern Memoranda. The history is no longer extant, but it can be reconstructed from its later derivatives like Annales Cambriae and Historia Britonnum. Current theory is that it was originally written by a religious man within Cumberland during the sixth or early seventh century, possibly by Pasgen son of Urien as a sort of family history until taken up by a seventh-century Northumbrian prince hoping to use Urien’s fame to reinforce his own political position. Alternatively, it could have been written by someone hoping to use Pasgen’s royal family to strengthen the holiness of Pasgen’s religious houses, though its use as political tool in the seventh century seems certain.
The Kentish Source was probably written within decades of the first Christian missionary in Kent (c. 580). The only remnants of that history are to be found in Bede’s eighth-century writings about sixth- and early seventh-century Kent and the ninth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Since we know, though, that it could not have been written before 580, anything much earlier than 530 has no historical value.
Other sources are also extant, many literary sources as well as several unique documents like the tribute list the Tribal Hidage, the mnemonic Welsh Triads, and the church grants known as the Llandaff Charters. Each manuscript offers tantalizing clues as to the nature of post-Roman history and occasionally give us a larger picture of what might have been happening in Britain during the period. They are not histories, though; they are the raw materials necessary to write a history. And there are not enough of them to provide a clear picture.
Why? The Romano-Britons definitely had the ability to write a history; Gildas alone is proof that Latin schools were still active and that the British people were thinking of the past. But he is also serves as an explanation of why more were not written; writing nearly a century and a half after 410, Gildas still considered himself a Roman. The Roman mentality had been that the empire was a united entity, so that there were remarkable few regional histories written during its entire existence. Gildas might have pushed through that thinking around 540, but he was an extremely intelligent individual and he did still consider himself Roman. It should come as no surprise that anyone living before him never have considered a British history.
Even if they had we might not know about it. Most of the Romano-British lands were conquered during the period under discussion. Those that remained independent were politically unstable during most of the fifth century. Later kings were more worried about their family history than a history of the British people.
The Irish who settled along the western coast would only occupy the area for decades before either returning to their homeland or becoming absorbed in the British culture. The Picts did not write about themselves, or at least did not write on surfaces that preserved easily. The only native evidence we have of them are two late origin stories and the symbol stones that today dot the Highlands.
As for the Germanic peoples, they would not be literate until the late sixth century and would not bother with historical writing until at least the early seventh century with the Kentish Source.
Added to the problem of numbers is the influence of the most popular historical figure in the world, Arthur, on them. By Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time (1136) his name had spread across the island, displacing local legends or altering them so that Arthur or his men had become the leading figures in many of them. In ways that the historical Arthur never could have, the literary Arthur has erased or marginalized his less talented and less fortunate contemporaries.
At first glance he has affected history only from the late fifth century up through the careers of Urien and his son Owain (c. 600). However, a thorough examination of The Welsh Triads provides us with a better perspective. He is prominent in the first twenty-six triads, the oldest stratum. However, triads twenty-seven are dominated by Arthur and his men. The histories have the same difficulty; much of the earliest material is free of Arthur’s influence – Gildas, Bede, the Northern Memorandum, and the Kentish Source. Unfortunately, the earliest historical information is often out of context. It was given a context by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who tended to put Arthur at the center of all things.
What can be learned about Arthur has been largely discussed in the present author’s previous works. He rose to kingship in or near the first generation of British kings in former Roman territories. He was likely based in or around Old Carlisle. He may have used Hadrian’s Wall as a sort of border for his own kingdom. But that was the extent of his actual power during his lifetime. If he was lucky, his entire career as a king lasted twenty years.
The facts of Arthur’s life mean that a figure who did not dominate the period has come to dominate histories of the period. That is a problem for any examination of post-Roman Britain, one that can be best addressed by examining the source materials in the methodology the present author has developed.
1 The real Britain was quickly forgotten. This is the period when said the island was full of ghosts, while in Zosimus, Belisarius would offer it in trade for Sicily; Procopius, De Bello Gallico, trans. Henry B. Dewing. (London, rep. 1971), 2.6.
2 This is an argument that will be developed in the next few chapters. As will be seen, there is simply no practical evidence that Britain ever had a single ruler after 410.
3 The tin of Cornwall was a necessary and rare resource in the making of weaponry, but trade between Cornwall and the continent continued long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
4 The second visit is still debated but does seem feasible; as will be seen the author was credible with his British information, if sparse. The seminal work for the life from the perspective of British history is still Professor Thompson’s St. Germanus of Auxerre and the end of Roman Britain, (Woodbridge, 1984).
5 Prosper of Aquitaine, Prosper of Aquitaine. Prosperi Aquitani opera, trans. Charles T. Huegelmeyer. (Washington, 1962), 429.
6 Chronica Minora I, ed. Theodor Mommsen, (Berlin, 1886), 515-660; Miller, “The Last British Engry in the Gallic Chronicles”, Brit 9 (Stroud, 1978b), 315-318; Jones and Casey, “The Gallic Chronicle Restored: A Chronology for the Anglo-Saxon Invasions and the End of Roman Britain”, Brit (Stroud, 1978), Burgess, “The Dark Ages Return to Fifth-Century Britain: The Restored Gallic Chronicles Exploded”, Brit 21 (Stroud, 1990), 185-95.
7 The Gododdin of Aneirin, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), cx-cxxvii.
8 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 79-81.
9 Charles-Edwards has written some interesting thoughts about the in post-Roman Britain.
10 As has been mentioned above the Gwynedd dynasty may well have come from Ireland or at the very least was closely allied and possibly intermarried with an Irish royal family. Tradition has it that Dalriada, Dyfed, and Brychieniog were also ruled by Irish families even though they were treated like native dynasties in the historical period.
11 The symbol stones are simple phallic monuments with several Pictish symbols on them. There are dozens of unique symbols. Anthony Jackson has suggested that each might have symbolized a royal family emblem; Jackson, The Symbol Stones of Scotland, (Orkneys, 1984).
12 The literary piece Culhwch ac Olwen is a perfect example of the phenomenon. The story was clearly an example of Joseph Campbell’s “Six Go Around the World” archetype hero tale in the beginning, but Arthur’s influence has changed the entire narrative of the story. Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (Princteon, 1949).