When Roman troops left Britain for the last time, they not only abandoned the Romano-Britons of England and parts of Wales, but left them to contest the island with three other culture groups. There were the Picts, a group of Celtic tribes that had either migrated to Britain before the Britons and had survived the Briton and Roman invasion or Briton tribes that had managed to stay independent during the Roman occupation and were now ravaging the northern Britons. The Irish had been driven from Britain during the Briton invasion but with Rome’s weaker presence during the fourth century they had been terrorizing the western coast. The third group was the Germanic peoples. They had come to Britain as Roman foederati protecting the southern and eastern coast of England centering around the port city of London in return for food and supplies. There is no record of a barbarian revolt during Late Roman Britain, so in 410 they were probably still protecting the English Channel from raiders.
The Picts occupied the northernmost section of Britain, the Highlands. As they are today, the terrain then was difficult to pass through and infertile. Historically, these factors kept the region’s population low and its people more isolated than in the rest of the island; during the first century before the Common Era when comparable areas were occupied by two or three kingdoms in lower Britain, Ptolemy had listed twelve tribes in the Highlands. They also meant that the Romans were less interested in conquering the region.
It was probably only the fact that the Picts raided northern Britain incessantly that led to a campaign of conquest in the first century of the Common Era. The Picts responded by banding together into a loose confederacy and harrying the legions as they traveled. When the Picts finally gave battle at Mons Graupius they employed their chariots and exploited Rome’s lack of experience; the result was a victory. For their part, the Romans retreated to a line between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth, built Antonine’s Wall, and hid behind it or the later and more southern Hadrian’s Wall for the rest of their occupation.
Recently Professor Charles-Edwards has suggested that the Picts maintained their confederacy for the rest of the Roman occupation. In the face of such a powerful enemy, it makes sense that the Picts had retained their loose confederation. Though it began as a defensive alliance, it developed during the centuries of Roman occupation. As Roman defenses grew weaker their relationship allowed them to take advantage of the rich targets that were no longer being protected. Large scale Pictish attacks are mentioned in the fourth and even fifth century. They were also able to coordinate their raids with the Irish and Germanic peoples in 367 and 383.
From 383 on, and maybe earlier, the Romans would steadily give ground in the North as they tried to find a balance between the amount of soldiers they could field and the amount of territory those soldiers could hold. To help themselves they may have set up buffer states in modern Lothian and Strathclyde; native kingdoms that could insulate the empire from intermittent raiding. None of them could have stopped a full invasion, but their presence meant that large numbers Roman soldiers did not need to maintain the northern frontier any more so that they could be stationed in other areas of Britannia.
There were no more major raids though. Even though the fledgling kingdoms could not have presented the experienced Picts with any great challenge the lowlands of Scotland would remain British. The fact that the Picts did not attempt to invade and occupy suggests one of two possibilities. First, that the Picts preferred their poor soil and harsh winters over the more bountiful southern areas. The second option is more likely, and more in line with Professor Charles-Edwards theory; that the Pictish confederacy was based solely on mutual protection from the Romans. Once the threat of invasion was gone there was no reason to maintain it.
The native sources seem to agree. As has been seen The Pictish Chronicle, written in the tenth century, says there were originally seven kingdoms. Jackson’s study of the Pictish stones has suggested that the Picts might have used those most famous remnants of the culture as markers and the symbols on them may have represented clans. If his findings are accurate, and stone markings do lay out borders for the medieval kingdoms consistent with those found in the Pictish Chronicle, they confirm there were at least seven distinct kingdoms during the Early Medieval period. Similarly, the Irish Annals name several Pictish kings in the historical period who do not match the names on the king-lists, again suggesting there must have been more than one kingdom there.
Why did the Picts harry the province for centuries and then not invade when Rome left. We can only take a guess here, but a reasonable theory would be that invasions are normally the result of overpopulation and the Highlands have always been sparsely settled. There is no way of knowing exactly when the Pictish confederacy broke up, but it is a safe bet that it lost cohesion as Britannia became less of a threat. By the time the Picts would have been able to invade and permanently occupy any part of Roman Britain their alliance had probably disintegrated. Seven kingdoms, with seven different leaders each working toward seven different goals, would have had a difficult time effectively invading what had been Roman Britain. More likely, now that their common enemy was gone they returned to old squabbles between themselves over land, resources, and other traditional gripes between kingdoms.
If that is the case, then why there is no evidence of fighting among the Picts during the late fourth and early fifth century? Simple, neither the Picts, the Britons, nor the Irish would keep accurate records until the late sixth century. Even if the Picts had kept records earlier, they would have edited them in or by the ninth century to eliminate any suggestion of infighting. As we have seen, The King-List in the Pictish Chronicle is single-minded in giving a roll of kings from a single kingdom. Battles between Pictish kings, like multiple lineages, would have disturbed that illusion.
In 1978, Dr. Molly Miller accomplished an intensive study of the Pictish royal family which demonstrated how the Picts selected their kings through matrilinear succession. Work since then has demonstrated the Picts’ Celtic cultural roots and therefore their succession through an extended cousinhood. Still, they seem to have relied on matrilinear succession more often than not.
Their greater willingness to inherit through women might have been an advantage while they were a confederacy fighting the Romans; it would have allowed the males from several families to be the leading king which would have reduced friction between them. That tradition might have continued long after Rome was gone. It would have made for complicated politics, though. There are several instances where one brother was a Pictish king and another was king of his father’s kingdom. Below we will meet two likely sons of Maelgwn, Run the most powerful British king of his day and his brother Bridei, the first historical Pictish king and a powerful figure in his own right.
Since at least the time of Conn Cétchathach, or Conn of the Hundred Battles, in the second century, Ireland had been divided between four kingdoms who fought with and against each other in typical heroic age warfare. During the last decades of the Roman period, though, they were finally united under a string of high-kings. Traditionally it was believed that Crimthann mac Fidaig and Niall Noígíallach, respectively, had led the Irish in the great raids of 367 and 383. Thanks to the work of several Irish scholars, we now know that it was probably Muiredach Tírech and his father Fiacha Sroiptine who were high-kings during that period.
Crimthann and Niall were then high-kings in the fifth century, at the very end of the Roman occupation and at a time when Rome had abandoned the western coast of Britain. It is important to note here that legend credits Niall Noígíallach with making several raids onto the continent (rect. Scotland) before his death on campaign.
We also know that several Irish groups settled in Britain during the fifth century. Crimthann mac Fidaig built Dind Traduí or Dinn Tradui, probably a site in Cornwall. If it was, Crimthann may have hoped to take advantage of the tin trade coming out of nearby Tintagel by stealing from the mines, raiding trading vessels, or possibly even mining the tin himself.
In other areas of Britain, Eochaid Allmuir of the Déisi settled a group of people in Dyfed during the fifth century. Through intermarriage and conquest, his family would establish itself and eventually grow into the dynasty ruling Dyfed. Brycheiniog was traditionally settled by an Irishman named Brychan. In time the monarchy there would develop a stable and long-lived kingdom. Anglesey would be settled by a fourth group of Irishmen. The Historia Brittonum claims that Einion Yrth’s dynasty established the kingdom of Gwynedd by driving those colonists back to Ireland.
Argyll was also settled by Irishmen, but the entire region was probably not ruled by one Irish prince from the start. The overall impression of the Vita Columbae is that no chieftain ruled the entire area when Columba landed, and that Comgall and Gabran, brothers in the official Dal Riata genealogy, did not have a common father. The difficulties of navigation would have made the entire area a good hiding place for ships and small groups of warriors but poor for settlers hoping to maintain contact with Ireland. As the author will demonstrate below, Columba himself brought the various factions together under one king around 575.
The Irish and the Picts, though of similar culture, responded to the Roman withdrawal in very different ways – while the Picts lost interest in raiding the south after a few decades and never attempted to conquer any Briton areas the Irish continued to raid and eventually settled large parts of the western coast. This is because the Picts had been brought together by the common threat of Rome; they had only united to retain their independence. Once Rome was gone the confederacy broke up and they likely returned to their interkingdom squabbles.
The Irish, on the other hand, were never exposed to Roman legions. They were not united because of Rome, nor was the high-king’s power based on Rome’s presence. Because of that, Ireland remained united long after Rome had left Britain and its warriors and princes found an outlet for raiding and conquest mainly in Britain.
The Germanic Tribes
There were actually two groups of Germanic tribes involved with Britain in 410. The first were mercenaries of the Romano-Britons, foederati. They would remain loyal to their employees for several decades. These foederati had been hired to combat their cousins, the second group.
These other Germanic people had been raiding the English Channel for decades. The Romans had not been able to stop them because of their ship, the karvi or longship. Each karvi could hold between fifteen and forty warriors, making them small and maneuverable enough to elude Roman warships while giving them the numbers to overwhelm merchant ships. The Romans, practical as always, had hired Germanic boatmen to guard the shipping lanes because they understood that only people who had been raised with karvi would have the expertise to combat it.
During the last years of Roman Britain, these pirates were able to live off of their raids. After 410 though, when Rome officially severed contact with Britain, all commerce to and from the continent would have diminished substantially, leaving them with fewer and less rewarding targets. It only makes sense that they began attacking the English coast. With the regular army gone and the British people without an island-wide government, the only group stopping them would have been their cousins the foederati. We cannot be sure if the foederati did, though. As we learned in our overview of the source material, the English Channel was safe enough for a bishop to travel across in 429 and communications to the continent were regular until 441, but our only source for this phenomenon, the Vita Germani, suggests that the British were left to fend for themselves on land.
1 As the fifth century progressed, the Germanic raiders probably also tried to overwhelm the local populations. But no piece of evidence, not even the most biased piece of Anglo-Saxon propaganda, suggests they managed that until well after 441. It was at that time that the settlement of eastern England began.
1 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons: 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 33-4. As he points out, as late as Tacitus they were considered simply Britons.
2 Jackson, The Symbol Stones of Scotland, (Orkneys, 1984).
3 Miller, “The disputed historical horizon of the Pictish king-lists”, BBCS 28 (Cardiff, 1978d), 1-34.
4 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, (London, 1973), 35, 108, and 287; Foster, Picts, Gaels, and Scots: Early Historic Scotland, (London, 2004), 32-4; Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000, (Edinburgh, 1984), 67 passim.
5 Miller’s work showed conclusively that several kings between the late fifth century and the end of the Pictish kingdoms had inherited their kingdom through their mothers.
6 I will have more to say on this topic in Chapter 15, “Heroic Age Politico-Economic Dynamics”.
7 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, (Dublin, rev. 2001), chapter 5.
8 Ó Corráin, “Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland”, ed. Roy Foster, The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, (Oxford, 2001), 1-52.
9 Gwynedd’s dynasties are a complicated subject the author will explore below.
10 The idea that Dal Riata was not settled by just one group is not a new one. Bannerman seems to have been the first to suggest it (Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada, (Edinburgh, 1974), 122) while the present author has explained the reasoning and the logical conclusions of that theory more fully in his own work; Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 132-5.
11 Hines, “Philology, archaeology, and the Adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum”, Britain: 400-600, eds. Alfred Bammesberger and Alfred Wollmann, (Heidelberg, 1990), 17-36; Hawkes, “The south-east after the Romans: the Saxon settlement”, The Saxon Shore, ed. Valerie A. Maxfield, (Oxford, 1989), 78-95.