410 heralded the end of that era because it shocked Honorius and all Romans into the reality that the barbarian tribes did not consider Rome to be inviolable; it was just another city. Accepting that fact it was clear that the legions had become overextended leaving the capital vulnerable. Honorius realized that if his empire was going to survive, Rome had to be protected. That meant that his legions had to be reassigned so that Rome and all roads to it were protected. With his new set of priorities the protection of an isolated and troublesome island would have been relatively insignificant.
That is not to say that he had given up on Britain, or any of the less important or more troublesome provinces. Honorius had been raised a Roman and therefore knew that Rome had existed for a thousand years. He also knew that Rome had been sacked before – by the Celtic chieftain Brennus. He also knew the rest of the story; that his city always rebounded to become stronger than before. Honorius probably believed that this event was no different, that in a few years Rome would be more stable than ever and then he could send out legions and governors to reacquire Britain and the other provinces of the empire.
He was wrong. The Western Roman Empire would limp back to health after 410, but only because the Germanic tribes respected the empire and allowed it to recover. It would also outlast Attila the Hun in the 440s and 450s, but only because of his death. It would not survive another sacking, though. When the Ostrogoths took the city in 476, they occupied it, and the Western Roman Empire was over.
Britannia was gone long before then. When the Romano-Britons had removed the governor and presumably his bureaucracy to make it simpler for Rome to reassimilate them, they had left themselves without any government beyond the local and the civitates; they had made themselves militarily vulnerable. Worse, when Rome did not send a representative there was no one in the province who was legally justified to. In the short term, all that could exist was what Constantine had not changed – the local and the civitates governments.
The problem was not limited to the government, though, that had just been the last evidence of Roman rule. As has been seen in the chapters above, raiding intensified from 367 on. After that date, all land within easy reach of the sea or rivers were targets for Irish or Germanic attacks and the entire northern frontier was victimized by Pictish raids. After 367, Britannia lost the security of a traditional Roman province.
Constantine was only the last man elected emperor in Britannia, several people had come before him. When each would-be ruler had returned to the continent to claim their crown they had stripped Britannia of as many soldiers as it could spare. At first, it made no difference. When the usurper died, Rome had simply sent enough soldiers with the next governor to replenish the garrison. After 367, though, soldiers were more difficult to come by. Each emperor coming out of Britannia permanently reduced the number of soldiers there. Obviously the reduced numbers made further attacks inevitable and further reduced security as a result. However, they also meant less Roman currency coming into the province as pay.
The increased attacks by the Germanic peoples meant that fewer luxury items like wine, olive oil, and more exotic goods came to Britain along with communication. Some of the wealthy left the island for the greater culture of the continent, leaving their property to be managed by the hired help; both changes had reduced the Romanness of the province.
Those who remained, as we have seen, stopped contributing to public works. For Britannia, both decisions crippled society. The wealthy had traditionally maintained the bath houses, circuses, and temples. Without them these and other government buildings fell apart. Nor were the roads were not repaired, and the way stations had to be abandoned. These alterations to life in Britannia would only have made administering the province more difficult in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, but once island-wide rule was dissolved the wealthy’s lack of government involvement would have made regaining control of the province that much harder.
Tax money, mainly from the wealthy, had funded grammatici and rhetori as they educated future government employees. Without it, or a high enough demand to privately educate the wealthy’s children, many teachers left for the continent throughout the fourth and early fifth century. As their numbers dwindled, so would the number of educated people on the island. The Britain of 410 already had too few people trained for work in the government.
Christianity was having difficulties as well, both from the inside and the out. During the late fourth century Pelagius, a native of Britain, had taught the doctrine of Free Will. He had been opposed by St. Augustine and several other leading churchmen who believed in “Predestination”, however, and by 411 “Pelagianism” was officially condemned throughout the empire. Continued work by Augustine led to Pelagianism being declared heretical in 418.
Forced out of the empire, many believers escaped to Britain where they formed an influential segment of the population. As late as 429, St. Germanus came to the island to stamp out a large group of Pelagianists who were probably centered around London.
Although Christianity had been the state religion for over a century by 410 it appears that not all Romano-Britons were Christians. Several rural pagan temples were refurbished at the beginning of the fifth century, suggesting a rejuvenation of the pre-Roman religion, possibly a response to the decaying Roman Empire and the attacks from multiple groups.
The present scholar has provided strong evidence for the existence of several fertility groups during this period as well. Samson’s episode with a theomacha is one example. Numerous non-motifal connections between Arthur and powerful witches provide another. The Arthurian corpus is rich with references to the British religion from the earliest literature to the tales of Malory in its Holy Grail scenes and its many Bran and Belatucudros name-forms.
Even as the government, structures, education, and religion of Roman rule crumbled, though, many Britons did retain a sense of being Roman. It shows up as late as Gildas, whose immaculate Latin represents an excellent education, and whose story about Ætius shows a continuing respect for Rome. He was not alone, either. The only other contemporary Briton writer is Patrick and his Latin is also good compared to his continental contemporaries. Holy men were not the only people who spoke Latin; it was common enough into the 430s that St. Germanus had no trouble being understood on his second visit to Britain.
It is also obvious in the Roman coins from the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Everything that has been recovered suggests they were used for decades after 410. The Briton economy would be bartering for centuries, so their continued use suggests that the Roman economy continued for as long as the roads were in good enough condition for merchants to travel on them.
Even the village level government probably remained Roman. It has been seen that the Britons overthrew Constantine’s government, but that can only have been the governor and his bureaucracy; everything below the provincial level would have remained intact. We have also seen that the wealthy either left the island or simply stopped participating in government at the end of the fourth century, but that need not have ended the tradition that the most prosperous persons in the community acted as the local board of elders. We do know that medieval villages had a council of the wealthiest people. They may not have paid for all public buildings during the medieval period, but following the rule of Hakam’s Razor it only makes good sense that a simplified form of the local Roman government persisted in the villages and towns of what had been Roman Britain throughout the Middle Ages.
As likely as it is that some sense of Roman-ness continued for the Briton, it was not practical to remain Roman during the fifth century. We have seen above that during the late Roman period the Irish had been raiding the western coastline and establishing a number of kingdoms there. The Picts, though not invading, were still raiding from the north. The same might have been true of the British kingdoms in Strathclyde and Lothian. There were also the free Germanic raiders based along the western coast of Europe; they had been taking advantage of easy coastal targets for decades by 410.
Britain had been victimized by all these groups, but somewhat protected by Roman legions. Once Britain was no longer an official Roman province the Romano-Britons lost that. To survive, they had to find a new way to defend themselves. Since they no longer had a provincial government, that new way would have been on a much smaller scale.
In their new order they would also have help, the foederati. Cousins to the Germanic raiders, Rome’s mercenaries had protected Britain’s coasts effectively during the last decades of the Roman occupation. Some foederati were also stationed along Hadrian’s Wall and had worked well there over the years, too. Even when the legions had left permanently, evidence shows that the foederati uniformly protected their assigned areas admirably – as we will see, the Britons only called for Roman aid again between 433 and 441.
The foederati were only mercenaries though. Because of the declining situation in Late Roman Britain they had never Romanized into Latin-speaking citizens of the empire. Instead, they had retained their original Germanic heritage. As a result they did not consider themselves part of the empire and were paid in food, supplies, and gold.
Like many of the Germanic tribes, the foederati in Britain were generally respectful of Rome’s culture and loyal to its citizens. However, they were also practical. They were not farmers and had not been given farmland to work, nor did they have the tools or the training to work the land. They were fighters, and they needed the food provided by their employers.
That need was the glue in their relationship with the empire. In 407 Constantine left and all aid from Rome withered with him. In 410 the citizens dismantled his provincial government and no Roman governor ever returned to Britain with a new bureaucracy. Without officials to manage the processing of food, supplies, and gold, naturally the unaffected areas of Britain stopped making contributions. It was left to the local towns and villages to make up the difference.
The greater responsibilities put an extra strain on the nearby settlements; they simply could not produce enough surplus to support the foederati. It was inevitable that their payments became inconsistent, and only a matter of time before the foederati reserves ran low. At that point revolt was inevitable.
According to the Gallic Chronicles the mercenaries reached that breaking point in 441. In that year the adjusted chronicles record that all of Britain was overwhelmed by Germanic tribesmen then. Archaeology has never confirmed that, though. What fits the evidence is that, half-starved and angry, the foederati sacked all the coastal areas for the food, supplies, and money they had been promised. Naturally, with all continental harbors plundered, it would have seemed to anyone in Gaul that the barbarians had overrun the entire island.
Returning to their settlements, the former foederati would have approached the villages they had been hired to protect with a new attitude – the realization that they had the real power and their employers were only shadows of the Romans they had once made a bargain with. They forced the Romano-Britons into submission at the point of spearheads and battle axes; overnight transforming from hired thugs to local chieftains. And, with no concern about maintaining contact with Rome, they had no reason to patrol the English Channel. They focused their energies instead on keeping their villages under control and making certain they produced enough food to support them while keeping the neighboring tribes were kept in check.
The foederati revolt would have left the English Channel unprotected and given the raiders free rein over all shipping there. It would also give the Germanic tribesman safe passage to Britain. This would have two lasting effects on the continent. The first was the Hunnish invasion under the leadership of Attila between 434 and 454. The Huns would cut a swathe through the Roman Empire and displace dozens of Germanic tribes into migration outside of their area of influence. Many of them would travel to Britain where they would put pressure on the tribes already settled there and overrun more of the Romano-Briton areas in their search for land.
The second change would be Rome itself. In 476, Romulus Augustus would formally abdicate, effectively ending the Roman Empire in the West. Trade must have diminished after the 410 separation and again after the 441 revolt, but when Rome ceased to exist as a political entity there would have been no need for trade into Britain and raiding would have become obsolete overnight.
The Romano-Britons could not stop the migrations or the cessation of trade. It is reasonable that some local militias had formed in the decades since 410, but no standing military and nothing to compare with the professional warriors their opponents could field. That is why they were so easily conquered when the foederati revolted. Migrations from the continent could have started right after that, too quickly to recover from the initial attacks and too extensive for any substantial counterattacks. As a result, the new groups of Saxons came further inland than the former foederati had raided, settling up the Thames river valley to Roman Londinium and well into the mainland.
Despite being severed from Rome, the Romano-Britons still considered themselves Roman and they responded accordingly. Somewhere between 433 and 454, someone wrote a letter to a Roman general named Ætius. Whenever that happened, Ætius never responded. As he spent the majority of his career putting down revolts and fighting with Attila he probably could not have left the continent.
The Britons probably did not know much about his movements. All they could have been certain of was that he was Rome’s greatest general and therefore their most likely savior. When he failed to respond and did not send legions to help them, the Romano-Britons must have realized they were on their own; the Romans would not help them. If they were going to survive they would need to do it themselves.
The Britons probably responded in several different ways. In some areas a charismatic leader might have organized several villages together in order to defend their homes. In others, a few wealthy landowners might have taken advantage of the situation to buy a group of strongmen as his personal bodyguard. Adventurous young men might have joined the Germanic or Irish raiding parties all throughout the first half of the fifth century. If they had returned home after 441, these experienced fighters could have created their own war-bands in response to the new threat. Still other villages might have been far enough from the coast to avoid being conquered and isolated enough to avoid being raided. They might have avoided any local leadership throughout the fifth century only to be conquered by foreigners or absorbed by native kings later.
The path each region took is really not important. The end result everywhere was the same – the return of British kingship. When Rome abandoned the Britons and there was no longer a regional bureaucracy the Germanic, Irish, and Pictish raiding parties began to overwhelm the Britons. They responded with the first seeds of kingships. Local kingships meant that all villages were force to contribute equally to feeding and supplying the king’s warriors; that helped to avoid the problems which caused the foederati insurrection. It also meant that the king and his warriors could immediately respond to any attack made on one of the settlements under his protection.
Along with kingship came the rejuvenation of the bardic class in Britain. Professor Koch has suggested that outlying areas like Gododdin, modern Lothian, might have had active bards from the early fifth century. Whether or not this is true, it looks like the first generation of remembered bards and the earliest bards who were active in Late Roman Britain dated to the last decades of the fifth century. As will be seen, they would be fundamental to the mystical aspects of Celtic kingship as well as useful as professional praisers and entertainers for the new class of warriors.
1 Thompson, St Germanus of Auxerre and the end of Roman Britain, (Woodbridge, 1984).
2 The Life of Samson of Dol, trans. Thomas Taylor, (Llanerch, rep. 1991), chapters 26 and 27.
3 Discussed at length in Johnson, Origins of Arthurian Romances, (Madison, 2012), 114-120.
4 Ibid, 100-2, 194 fn. 56.
5 Lapidge, “Gildas’ Education and the Latin Culture of Sub-Roman Britain”, Gildas: new approaches, eds. David N. Dumville and Michael Lapidge, (Woodbridge, 1984), 27-50.
6 Ward-Perkins has gone so far as to suggest that Gwynedd was the last part of the Roman Empire, though that seems a little extreme to the present author; Ward-Perkins, “Why Did the Anglo-Saxons Not Become More British”, EHR 115 (Oxford, 2000), 527.
7 Thompson, St Germanus of Auxerre and the end of Roman Britain, (Woodbridge, 1984).
8 Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 158-60.
9 In his discussion on Marwnad Cunedda, which he believes to be contemporary; Koch, Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, (Cardiff, 2013), 88-9.
10 Ibid, 147-51.