By approaching the four different culture groups separately it becomes clear what happened during the fifth century even without more source materials. To sum up, the Romano-British were probably given a new governor and bureaucracy by Constantine before he left for the continent. When Britain was attacked again around 410, they deposed the governor and his bureaucracy in anticipation of Honorius sending a new one along with a bureaucracy more closely aligned with Rome. The problem was that 410 was a catastrophic year for Rome; it was sacked. And Honorius, realizing that without Rome the empire would not survive, turned down their request.
That decision, intelligent as it was for the empire, left the Romano-British without a provincial or even a regional government, without the means to generate a new one, with a minimal amount of soldiers protecting her borders and coasts, and the Irish, Picts, and Germanic peoples raiding them from all sides. Fortunately, they could do without for the time being. The Picts were not interested in conquest, only raiding. The foederati were able to turn away most if not all of their Germanic cousin’s attempts to settle along the eastern coast. The Irish did establish bases along the western coast, but only so that the princes who led them could gain money and battle experience to help their chances of being elected as the next chieftain back home.
As the fifth century wore on, the Picts became more interested in Highlands politics than the plunder to be had in the south. On the death of Niall at mid-century, the most powerful Irish dynasties began competing amongst themselves for primacy. The change in politics meant that princes had more opportunities at home to enhance their reputations. They probably lost interest and stopped sending resources to Britain shortly thereafter.
The evidence suggests that the foederati maintained their posts for several decades after the end of Roman Britain. However, their willingness to protect the shipping lanes and British villages had always hinged upon two key points; a steady supply of food and supplies and their respect for Rome. The problem was that as of 410 Britain had lost official contact with Rome. Its citizens still spoke Latin and were culturally Roman, but they were no longer a part of the Roman Empire. The foederati must have become aware of this as they saw no more ships carrying grains and coins after Constantine left in 407. They would have also seen fewer and fewer Roman soldiers as the fifth century continued, and those soldiers would have been less and less awe-inspiring as their discipline inevitably declined without pay or any other connection to Rome.
The Romano-Britons no longer had a provincial government, either, which meant there was no islandwide authority to control the collection of food and supplies for the foederati and leaving the surrounding villages to provide all the necessary provisions. Those settlements, asked to contribute several times what they had been overnight, would have buckled. Reserves might have compensated the difference, but they cannot have lasted for long.
The final blow must have come in 441. By then it would have been clear to the foederati that the Romans were not returning and that the local villages would never provide them with enough food, supplies, and coinage to live comfortably. So they “revolted”, or more accurately they resigned as foederati.
We have reports from both Gallic Chronicles on the continent and Gildas in Britain and they give us basically the same information about what happened next. All three agree that the Germanic peoples overran Britain and cut off all communications with the continent. After that the continental sources are silent. Gildas alone tells his audience that some Britons resisted and eventually forced the Germanic people out of some regions.
But these were events that had occurred decades before Gildas and were not specific; it would only make sense that they would be exaggerated with time. Archeology tells a different story. It shows a steady migration and subjugation by Germanic clans beginning on the eastern and southern coasts, not a wave of conquest our sources indicate. There is also no clear sign of kingship. At least one prominent archeologist has interpreted the evidence as one or two clans imposing themselves onto several British villages. This would suggest that the foederati rebelled, divided into groups of one large or two small clans, and each absorbed enough villages near their original posts to comfortably support themselves. More of England would slowly come under Germanic control as additional clans migrated to Britain in search of land over the next few decades.
Both Charles-Edwards and Bassett have both argued that a grand army first conquered the region to open it up to these smaller groups, but the argument falls apart once the context of post-Roman Britain is remembered. The Britons were not organized beyond the local level and had been dependent on the foederati to protect them until very recently; the Germanic tribes would have had no need for a grand army to conquer the Britons.
For visual purposes Charles-Edwards has suggested a comparison to Clovis’ conquest of Frankia, but that is flawed too. The conquest of Gaul was managed by one charismatic leader. In Britain, a sophomoric examination of the sources shows several leaders at any one time between 450 and 500, and more critical examinations have demonstrated that all of them have either been transported from another time, invented, or telescoped to the fifth by extending a royal lineage. Unlike in Frankia, no leader emerged, no single kingdom developed, there is no real evidence of a large army except for the Gallic Chronicles, and they cannot be trusted quite that far.
Several Germanic histories tell us what happened after the revolt, but as we have seen they were written well outside of living history for this period and for nationalistic reasons; they are unreliable. Archeology tells us that the local clans had no interest in any political gains once they had enough farmers and craftsmen to serve them. Instead they turned to raiding. During the slow but warm periods of the year, young males attacked nearby clans to steal livestock – mainly cattle and pigs. With the stakes being nothing more than a few cows and personal recognition, the forays were probably not fatal as a rule. However, as Arnold has pointed out, raids would have been a useful activity for helping the males of a clan to safely vent their aggression.
Meanwhile, the British of the mid-century had Irish and barbarians living next to them who might attack their villages at any time and steal whatever valuables they had – cattle, jewelry, even women. It’s very possible that some young Britons might have envied their attackers and set off to join their war-bands. When they had gained some experience they might have made useful war leaders among their own people.
If there were any wealthy Romano-Britons left after 441, they might have used their money to form a personal bodyguard. In other villages a great hunter or a charismatic speaker might have attracted enough people to participate in the defense of their homes. It is even possible that a British leader might have formed a war-band of Germanic warriors; but that prospect will be explored below.
Once villages accepted that they needed “professional” protection an arrangement would have naturally followed. In exchange for safety, each settlement would provide enough food and supplies to help support the local teulu or war-band. The arrangement was similar to the one the Romans had held with the foederati except for one important detail; in the new arrangement, British kingships were supported by only the villages they protected, while the foederati had been supplied by the entire province. It was a necessity of the times, but would inevitably force the lower classes to contribute a large share of their income to the Briton kings and lead to a distinct separation of the classes. But, that is a different subject entirely.
The British system was more reliable, more immediate, and gave the British villages a guaranteed protector; if the villages were not protected then the warriors would stop getting the silver, good, and supplies they survived on.
So, when did British kingships emerge? That would have depended on the means by which they formed. While a wealthy man collecting a private bodyguard might have declared himself a king within months of the 441 revolt, war-bands formed from raiding veterans might have taken twenty or more years to develop. It is safe to say only that all kingships that would form had already been founded by roughly 500, by which time the Britons’ sense of Romanitas had largely disappeared, bards had been reintroduced among the southern Britons, and Badon had been fought.
1 Zosimus, Zosimus. New history, trans. Ronald T. Ridley, (Canberra, 1982), 6.10.2.
2 Chronica Minora I, (Berlin, 1886), 515-660, ed. Theodor Mommsen; Miller, “The last British entry 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 19 (Stroud, 1978), 367-398; Burgess, “The Dark Ages Return to Fifth-Century Britain: The ‘Restored’ Gallic Chronicle Exploded”, Brit 21 (Stroud, 1990), 185-195.
3 De Excidio Britanniae, trans. Michael Winterbottom, (Chichester, 1978), 25.1.
4 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 188-210. The limited number of Anglo-Saxon graves and their wealth status are his biggest indicators. He is aware of no high status graves during the course of the fifth century.
5 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 54; Bassett, “In Search of the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Stephen Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 23.
6 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 56.
7 The change between the foederati relationship and tribute to local chieftains can be seen as the key event in the development of manorialism.
8 Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 143-51 and 154-72.