I know that Efrawg sounds perfectly Welsh, but it’s actually just the British version of Latin Eboracum, modern York. Now that’s a little odd for a man’s name, but then again it isn’t actually a man’s name. You see there actually was an historical Peredur. His father’s name was Eliffer and most scholars locate him around York. See how that works, Peredur was from York so his patronym was mistakenly mixed up with the area he ruled.
The discussion about Arthur’s existence has been active since Geoffrey of Monmouth made him a European sensation in the mid-eleventh century. For many, it revolves around his mention in Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, which is now generally believed to have come from the Northern Memorandum. Personally, I’ve approached the question from several angles no one had ever thought to so it’s not necessary for me to believe that the hypothetical source is early to know Arthur existed. That also means I’m less likely to be biased toward making it any earlier than it has to be. To business; the veracity of both sources depends on the Northern Memorandum written within the lifetime of an individual.
I say this because it has been suggested that people during this period might have lived a hundred years or more, as long as they were able to avoid wars and disease. Between 526 and 547, Britain suffered three major plagues or famines. Between 410 and the time of Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae, the Germanic migrants expanded west to control what in later times would be Northumbria, Essex, a good portion of Wessex, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent. And the Germanic peoples were not Christian at that time so that they saw monasteries as storehouses of wealth only. By 632, when Cadwallon would run roughshod over Northumbria, northern Britain was cut off from Wales, suggesting Mercia had expanded to the western coast. Safe to say that nowhere on the island was there a region that could have avoided disease, poor crops, or war for more than a decade. And of course the very young and the very old would have been the most likely to die during plagues, famines, or conquests.
Statistical fact, the average male lived to be 32 and the average female 28 in the first couple centuries of post-Roman Britain.
All that out of the way, we know that the rare churchman could live to be as old as 80. Unlikely as that seems, it means he could have been witness to an event he saw at 5 and wrote it down at about 80. More likely, a person would remember an event from 15 on, but we’ll stick to the extremes. That way whatever dates we come up with won’t be edited for a wider range.
The first dated historical event in either Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae is the Battle of Arfderydd, dated to 573. A boy aware of the event at the time might have recorded it as late as 648. The last northern British dated event is the death of Dunod in 595, and therefore the earliest possible date would be 595. Thus Run, or a monastery associated with him, likely scribed the original Northern Memorandum in 595×648.
Professor Koch long ago suggested a means by which a British history could have been brought into Germanic hands and made use of without bending it to a strictly Germanic bias. At some time after 664, Alhfrith revolted against his father. He was dead by 671. Alfrith was possibly a descendant of Urien according to the Historia Brittonum, which means he might have had access to British records. Modernizing the history for the purpose of showing his ancestry and winning the support of British nobility would have been an excellent motivator for a Northumbrian to put in the details about Rieinmellth marrying a Northumbrian.
However, as he died in 671, the Germanic genealogies end during Ecgfrith’s reign, and the last event of Germanic concern is 685, it’s also a safe bet that the history was rewritten in 685 or later.
There is also one curiosity in the history of the theoretical Northern Memorandum; Patrick is one of three religious figures mentioned in prominent roles (Rhun as the author and Germanus as the nemesis of Vortigern being the other two). But Patrick serves no known purpose for any British history written between 595 and 648. Nor would Alhfrith or Ecgfrith have had any political motivations. In fact, one might argue the British would have had more reason to mention other British saints, while the Northumbrians would have been more likely to name Columba or Aedan. Add to this that Arthur’s presence seems to be interwoven with the Arthurian entries and we are given the suggestion that these two may have been part of a still earlier recension. Is there any evidence as to its date-range, or even that there was an earlier recension? Nope! Just a thought.
In the South, it seems at least feasible that Gwrtheyrn’s ascendancy created the infrastructure that helped form the first Germanic kingdoms, otherwise there is the unlikely coincidence of Gwrtheyrn/Vortigern’s floruit, Vortigern/Vortimer-Hengest’s battles in Kent (no matter which way the campaign went, Hengest was at some point defending his own kingdom instead of being on the offensive), and the sudden emergence of several Southumbrian overlordships within (at the most) a couple decades after archeology says the first kingships formed.
In the North, we have a very different type of evidence for the same situation. The traditional belief had been that the ill-fated Gododdin expedition had fought at Catraeth in around 600, when Northumbria already had fully formed kingdoms and was approaching unification. As has been seen above, more recently the date for that battle has shifted from around 600 to perhaps 570 or even 540. Just as important, Gododdin’s opponents in the battle have been reimagined not as Germanic kings but British chieftains – Urien, Gwallog, Morgan, and Rhydderch. Both sides apparently had Germanic allies or tributaries fighting alongside them.
This change of dating and focus is in perfect agreement with the archeology, the Taliesin poems, and Historia Brittonum; Urien does fight two Germanic chieftains in the history, but he fights them only in Northumbria and never as threats to his kingdom. In the poems, no Germanic chieftain is mentioned by name against Urien at all. Fflamddwyn, the nickname of a “Bernician” chieftain, does appear in a poem fighting against Owain, but that battle could have been as much as a generation after Catraeth; plenty of time for the Germanic clans to have developed into substantial kingdoms especially now that we know how quickly they grew in size and strength.
In fact, the Taliesin poems can be used to support the new dating and reinforce our new views on the political situation. In the eighth Taliesin poem “Gweith Gwen Ystrat”, line 9, Urien is named as the Lord of Catraeth. This piece of evidence was used by Professor Koch to show Catraeth’s political and military importance to both Urien and the Gododdin expedition.
Catraeth, generally agreed upon as modern Catterick Bridge, was well within Northumbria once it was united in 604/5 by Æthelfrith. If the battle was fought after that or even when Bernicia was an established kingdom (by 593 at the latest), one would imagine Bernicia and/or Æthelfrith would figure prominently in the battle poems; they do not. The fact that Catraeth is in what would be Northumbria by 605 but was in Urien’s possession and was fought over by two predominantly Briton confederacies is strong evidence that there were no developed Germanic kingdoms at the time of the battle, which in turn forces us to the conclusion that Catraeth was fought long before 593.
Alright, so we know that Urien and Gododdin’s confederacies were active long before 593, and also that the Germanics of the time were not a significant military presence. Even better, we are fairly certain there was no cultural/racial hatred in the era. Historia Brittonum tells us that Urien’s last campaign was intended to drive the Germanic people into the sea. But if there were no Germanic kingdoms that would not have been a major task, and if the Britons did not hate the Germanics for being Germanic there would have been no desire to. So what was the purpose of the campaign? Was he forcing more Germanic clans to pay tribute? Fighting the Gododdin confederacy? Koch has argued eloquently that the Urien and Gododdin confederacies were at war, but are the two mutually exclusive?
Even if there were no significant Germanic kingdoms around the time of the Battle of Catraeth, the archeological record does show that power and wealth was beginning to centralize among the northern Germanic villages. Why?
Again, what fits the evidence best is that the region was already organized by the dominant British kings to make tribute taking and defense from other British chieftains easier and more local. Briton-directed organization would also explain the clear presence of Germanic warriors at Catraeth without the clear evidence of Germanic chieftains leading Germanic warriors there.
What happened next? In the South, Bede handed the modern historian a string of three consecutive over-kings which date-guessing has shown bridged the gap between British suzerainty and the rise of Germanic kingdoms. Because his northern sources had no Northumbrian equivalent to The Kentish Source, he could offer no such favors for his beloved Northumbria. Instead, all he had was simple oral history from the moment writing was possible.
Without Bede’s help, we are left with the raw materials in the Historia Brittonum and its attached genealogies. The former says that Ida was a figure of the mid-sixth century and that his eleven sons – Glappa, Adda, Æthelric, Theodric, Frithuwald, and Hussa among them, ruled immediately after him. Date-guessing using the primary sources has proven that this official scenario is highly improbable. It seems more likely that several of the people named above were the rulers of other Northumbrian kingdoms; they were probably plucked from their historical positions and inserted into Bernicia’s royal family.
There is some evidence for this hypothesis. The conflicting information to be had from our sources is one piece and the unsatisfactory results of date-guessing are another. Others are less obvious; none of the “brothers” were active in the same place. Theodric is mentioned in Historia Brittonum only at Lindesfarne where he was besieged by Urien and his allies. According to the Welsh Triads, Adda fought against the York kings Peredur and Gwrgi at Caer Greu. We also know that Hussa fought against Rheged, Elmet, Strathclyde, and probably a Gododdin kingdom, which suggests he was from a northwestern Bernician kingdom – but this is the weakest of the three connections
The above clues do not give us a conclusive argument, but they do suggest a theory that agrees with archeology, that there were multiple kingships in pre-Æthelfrith Northumbria. It also has the advantage of not conflicting with itself.
The established history has neither. Northumbria did not have its first monastery, and the scriptoria that came with it, until probably 635. If historical writing started immediately (and Aidan was renowned for traveling ceaselessly so this is a big “IF”) and had access to someone who was the maximum of fifty-five, then he would have had access to living memory back no further than 585 under the best of circumstances. More likely he would have had access to accurate memories only back to 595. Even if we assume that Paulinus started writing Northumbrian history when he accompanied Æthelburg up to Northumbria in about 625 (when he established churches, not monasteries), living memory for him would have extended no further back than about 575, and probably 585. There is no conceivable way that there could have been any historical memories regarding a 547 Ida, and probably little or no living memory about Glappa, Adda, Æthelric, Theodric, Frithuwald, and Hussa. The only thing that would have been accessible at that time would have been heroic poems and whatever skop-derived genealogies were in existence.
And even if all the above calculations are wrong, our received history of sixth-century Northumbria clearly conflicts with contemporary British poetry and any attempt at date-guessing. It also does not explain the clear association of at least two kings with specific areas within Northumbria.
Actually, when put like that the scenario reeks bears a little comparison to another dynasty we have already met, Wessex. There at least three dynasties were smashed together to give the impression of a single and united kingdom from its first day of existence by giving several key individuals a genealogy that connected them to a common founder – Cerdic.
In Northumbria, it looks like the process was simpler, or less developed, as all of the suspicious persons were made the sons of Ida. The solution not only bonded the history of Bernicia’s kingdoms into a history where Bernicia had always been united, it push Bernicia’s foundation date further back in time and made the dynasty seem older and more respectable than it actually was.
So when did all the chieftains in the official king-list live? In the South, the genealogies of Wessex have previously been worked out with rough birth-years for most individuals. Not so with Bernicia. However, knowing that Theodric and Hussa were contemporary to Urien and that Hussa’s son was active in 603, the author has previously date guessed several early members of the official Bernician family:
Ida: Born 497×550 Hussa “son of Ida”: 530×570
Æthelric son of Ida: 535×568 Hering son of Hussa: 548×588
Theodric son of Ida: 515×585
Adda “son of Ida”: 515×585
It makes sense that both Æthelric and Theodric would be the sons of Ida. Ida is the legendary founder of the line and he is connected to Bamburgh Castle. In the Historia Brittonum Theodric was laid siege to at Lindesfarne, which is a nearby island. Æthelric is also reasonable as Ida’s son because it was his son Æthelfrith who first united Bernicia and Deira and had the power to create the official (oral) history at a time when there must have been survivors from the various kingdoms he had conquered. It would have made no sense to choose another father in place of his own when his father’s name would have been well known. And as the official genealogy has Ida as his grandfather and the conflicting chieftains as his uncles, it would have made no sense to choose another grandfather, either.
Hussa, on the other hand, is clearly not a son of Ida. The king lists specifically say that Theodric ruled first. Historia Brittonum, on the other hand, tells us that Hussa fought Urien and that Urien died while laying siege to Theodric; clearly a chronological gaff in the re-sewing of Bernician history.
Frithuwald likewise causes problems as a son of Ida. In the official king-list he is placed between Theodric and Hussa, but in the Historia Brittonum he is still alive when Augustine arrives in Britain at 597. It is also clear, in Bede and elsewhere, that all the sons of Ida were dead by 593, when Æthelfrith, from the third generation, began his reign. If Frithuwald was a son of Ida, he could not have been alive in 597. We already know that the king-list has been tampered with, and the Historia Brittonum (and Northern Memoranda writer) would have had no foreseeable reason to make the synchronization; Frithuwald was not the son of Ida.
Previously, the present author had listed Adda as a son of Ida. On further consideration, however, Adda was probably not in the same dynasty. He is not necessary for the genealogy, nor is there any geographical consistency between himself and either Ida, Theodric, or Æthelric. On the contrary, Adda is only noted for battling the York-oriented brothers Peredur and Gwrgi at Caer Greu. His interests were either around York or in an area near to it.
Almost nothing is known of the last brother Glappa, only that he is listed as Ida’s first successor. It is possible that Glappa was an historical son of Ida, but considering the tendencies shown above, it is more likely he was not. It may well be that the reason he immediately succeeds Ida in the official genealogy is that Glappa was the most powerful rival in the bardic records. In that case, his place as Ida’s first-born would have been meant as a nod to Glappa’s surviving family.
So, what do we know about Deira before Æthelfrith conquered it? Soemil has already been discussed; he seems to make the most sense as the person who separated Deira from British-controlled Bernicia in the middle sixth century; he was a northern counterpart to the Sussex Ælle, Ceawlin, and possibly Iurminric.
The next person we know anything about is Ælle, but what we do know is conflicted. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he came to the throne in 560 and reigned for thirty years. However, it also says he succeeded Ida – of Bernicia! 560 and his reign length are also unbelievable; there is no way there could have been written records in Northumbria before 585?
Bede relays a continental memory, that Gregory saw some of Ælle’s people as slaves before he became pope. As this comes directly from a contemporary continental source it is credible. It also means, as Miller noted, that Ælle was active between when he returned from Constantinople in 585/6 and 590. That is not much, but it does give us one small range of dates in which he know someone was king in Deira.
How long was Soemil active if he was a rebel figure of the mid-sixth century? There is no way to tell. When did Ælle come to power? Again, we cannot know. It is possible that one succeeded the other? Yes, but not in any way probable. If Soemil was remembered for separating Deira from Bernicia, he would have been famous enough for any intelligent skop to insert into his king’s pedigree. So it is very possible that the two were not even related to each other.
Looking forward, we are told that Æthelric succeeded to the kingdom when Ælle died in 588. The inconsistency between the date and the supposed thirty-reign of Ælle (560+30=590) is a reminder that we cannot trust this date either. Nor does the entry give us a relationship between Ælle and Æthelric either. Were they brothers? Father and son? Competitors from different dynasties? That, too, we do not know and have no way of learning.
In the South, Gwrtheyrn’s reign created the organization for several late-sixth century kingships in Sussex, Wessex, and Kent. By about 600 these had coalesced into at least four distinct kingdoms. Above the Humber river, it would seem that the alliance of Urien, Rhydderch, Morcant, and Gwallog aided in the creation of several kingdoms in Bernicia and at least two in Deira. By the historical period these had merged into two, and were well on their way to forming the single kingdom of Northumbria by 604. It would be the continuing struggle between the houses of Deira and Bernicia that would engage Northumbria for most of the rest of the period in question, with several kingdoms only becoming involved long enough to shift the advantage from one house to the other for a few years at a time.
1 As the name of the entire region and not a particular kingdom, “Bernician” could mean any Germanic chieftain from Northumbria.
2 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xiii-xxxiv.
3 Ibid, xii.
4 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 144.
5 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), ch. 63.
6 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), Triad 30.
7 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), ch. 61.
8 To be accurate, it is “Eda Glinvawr” who is placed at Caer Greu. Traditionally this figure has been assumed to be a mistake for Adda because Ida is said to have died some twenty years earlier. However, as one of the benefits of the altered Bernician king-list was to extend the dynasty backward in time, the argument that Ida must have been dead by then is no longer valid. Ida may well have been a contemporary the battle. The author thinks that geography is a better approach. Ida is associated with Bamburgh deep inside Bernician territory, while the York of Peredur and Gwrgi was inside Deiran territory, and therefore any Bernician chieftain fighting them was likely much nearer the border.
9 Miller has already done a masterful overview of the subject. The approach taken here is largely based on her; “The Dates of Deira”, ASE 8 (London, 1979), 35-61.
10 Miller, “The Dates of Deira”, ASE 8 (London, 1979), 42; Duddon, Gregory the Great, (London, 1905), 156 fn. 3 and 196 fn. 1.
11 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953).
12 The author’s study on early Deiran kings showed that there were a number of equally plausible options regarding Ælle and Æthelric, including a theory that they were from two different dynasties; Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 146-7 and 219. Considering the official late sixth-century Bernician dynasty and its relationship with historical reality, two different dynasties seems even more likely.
Primitive Anglo-Saxon chieftainships developed during the middle of the sixth century, as we have seen possibly emerging because of a structure the powerful British kings installed there. Once present, they conducted their survival of the fittest contest through battles, marriages, and religion, the seven luckiest and strongest dynasties forming into the Heptarchy in a matter of decades.
How they transitioned from newly created kingdoms into a sort of political stalement has been examined many times. Traditionally, historians have tried a biographical approach, almost going from major leader to major leader in chronological order and with a minimum of background as they survey the period on their way to later periods.1 Occasionally, scholars have taken an isolated method and studied the major kingdoms separately; this has usually been accomplished with regional experts writing on their topics in collaboration.2 More recently, entire books have been written on entire kingdoms or centered around one source.3 All of these approaches have had their benefits for better understanding the period. However, none of them helps a lay reader to see the big picture about the English kingdoms from their origins to their maturity in the seventh century.
In this next section the author will take a slightly different approach. After discussing the rise of the Germanic kingdoms, we will use a staggered chronology in our study of the rest of the period – roughly 575 through 654. It will begin with the Picts up through the reign of Bridei son of Maelchon in the 580s. The next major leader was Áedán of Dal Riata, so we will explore the history of his kingdom from the death of Columba until his demise. In this chapter we will go from major leader to leader, examining the origins of each man’s kingdom from the point where we left off until that leader’s death until we arrive at a natural stopping point, the Synod of Whitby in 664. At that point we will survey what we know of the lesser kingdoms, integrating that information into our overall history. It is hoped that the approach as outlined will better help to make each kingdom’s development and their interactions with each other more understandable than has been possible before.
Before we begin, though, it is best to explore and appreciate the nature of Germanic kingship. In many ways, Post-Roman Celtic kingship was similar.
Celtic kingship assumed a powerful connection between a king and the land he ruled which was symbolized in his marriage to the land in the form of his wife. Germanic kingship did as well.4 The Celtic king was also the highest judge, whose rulings as well as his courage in battle ensured the land remained fertile. The same was true with the Germanic king.
It has been seen in chapter 16 that the British king was at the center of the new politico-economic system. He led the warriors and through them protected the villages which allowed for economic and political stability throughout his kingdom. He hired bards, whose function was threefold; to entertain the king and his warriors through praise poetry which reinforced the relationship between the two groups, to remind the villages of the king’s importance to their well-being, to generate a royal geneology that gave the king famous and respected progenitors, and to associate the king with a supernatural relationship with the land along with superhuman wisdom and battle luck.
The warriors were his personal comrades, who lived in his hall and promised to fight and die in return for his hospitality. Without them there was no protection of the villages and the villages had no reason to pay the tribute that brought the king and his warriors the wealth to buy spears, shields, swords, and armor. At the foundation of the system were the villages, who provided the king with silver to give away and purchase armaments with, livestock, food, and labor to keep his buildings intact.
The Germanic king was part of a similar arrangement, with the skop instead of a bard as the educated poet among his people. However, the Germanic king had one additional mechanism which gave him an even greater control over his people than the British kings enjoyed; descent from a king.
Whereas the British rulers tapped the most ancient traditions for their power and their bards padded that mystique with more tangible heroes of the past, they and the people they ruled were influenced by Christianity which only accepted god, and him remote. Germanic gods were much more hands-on. Their myths involved battles against the Jotuns to protect mankind, and their royal genealogies were often founded by Woden or Deor, better known as Odin and Thor. This connection not only gave the Germanic kings a claim to semi-divinity themselves, but also to the divine mana.5
Now Celtic kings were believed to have a connection with the divine too, which was why a kingdom traditionally chose each ruler (even though in reality the entire clan chose a successor which was then ratified by priests), but descent from a god made the Germanic connection more powerful. And because they practiced this form of kingship during their conversion to Christinity, it and specifically the concept of mana remained an important characteristic of Germanic kingship well beyond the seventh century.
What was mana, roughly translated as divine luck? It was not lucky like we would understand it, having great timing, always getting good cards, winning the lottery, etc. A ruler with powerful mana was successful in battles, led a fertile kingdom, made just decisions, and was loved by his warriors.6 It was believed that the gods themselves were looking out for him and everything he possessed.
Mana was passed along in bloodlines, just like the modern world sees traits like strength, speed, and mathematical abilities as genetically influenced traits. And, as athletic and intellectual abilities are passed along in varying degrees, so it was with mana.7
Because mana was such a valuable commodity in a king, it was important for any potential ruler to prove that he possessed the quality in abundance. For that reason it was common for princes, any descendent of a king from several three generations back, to form their own war-bands and go raiding to prove themselves.
The royal mana largely kept the nobles and warriors from questioning the royal family’s right to rule. However, it did not always keep royals safe from their own relatives. When a king died it was not uncommon for princes to fight for the right of succession if it was not clear who the “luckiest” man was. Even during a king’s reign, he was not above his relatives trying to usurp his throne under the right circumstances; as we have seen in the story of the Northern Memorandum and will see in the next chapter, a debatable policy could bring on a revolt while a major defeat meant almost certain death. There are even several Norse stories and Roman references to kings being sacrificed to Woden/Odin when their kingdom suffered several seasons of bad harvests.8
1 Frank M. Stenton is the classic example of this approach; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1971). Though much maligned, one positive aspect of John Morris’ contribution was that he surveyed each kingdom from their foundation into the Christian era; Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London, 1976).
2 The best example is still Stephen Bassett (ed.) The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (Leicester, 1989).
3 Over the passed thirty years Professor Higham has been the most active in this respect, with An English empire, (Manchester, 1995) and The Kingdom of Northumbria, A.D. 350-1100, (Stroud, 1993) in particular.
4 Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (Manchester, 1970), 86-7.
5 Ibid, 12-17, 22, 55-6, 86, 113, 90, 94, 109, and 254.
6 de Vries, Altgermanische Religiongeschichte, (Berlin, 1937), 32-43.
7 Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity (Manchester, 1970), 15-17; Turville-Petre, Myth and religion of the North: the religion of ancient Scandinavia, (London, 1964), 260-1; Kern, trans. Stanley B. Grimes, Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 1939), 14; Chadwick, Origins of the English Nation, (Cambridge, 1907), 303.
8 Marcellinus, Res Gestae, trans. John C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, MA, 1971-72), 5.14, Ynglingasaga, and Heimskringla. The Norse saga materials are well beyond the purview of this book.
Most of the British history books the author has read focus on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms between Rhun’s campaign and the alliances of Urien and the Gododdin on one end and Cadwallon on the other, ignoring the British people completely in the process. Historians do this because we know very little about the British people during this time, little more than the names of several kings really.
Several people have offered their theories. Hamerow argued that the Germanic peoples’ local and extended kin-groups gave them a distinct advantage over the British social structure.1 However, we are not exactly certain how those kin-groups functioned but judging by existing kingship customs and the extant law codes of the period they seem to have been similar to the Celts. In both cases, an extended cousinhood protected each other among the freemen. It could be argued that the English tradition was closer to the modern system of justice with its concept of crimes against the state, but that would not have given the English any obvious advantages in warfare.
In studying the period, Professor Higham realized the unusual weight Badon had on both British and Germanic histories,2 and suggested that it might have been important independent of Gildas. He suggested that after the battle some sort of a compromise was worked out between both sides that in the short term forced the Anglo-Saxons to pause in their advance into British territories, but in the end allowed them to develop whatever political structure or military strength they needed to conquer Britain.3
The problem with that theory is that it requires some unlikely assumptions. The first is that the battle had islandwide importance. Gildas’ interests and knowledge were fairly local within his lifetime; he focuses on modern Wales and Cornwall with the kings for instance. It is at least feasible that the Battle of Badon was only locally important too. The knowledge we have gained about political development supports that possibility; we have learned that the British kingdoms were only just forming in the late fifth century and regional alliances were still decades off, while the Germanic people of the late fifth century were still organized into clans controlling individual villages.4 While it might have been possible for several British chiefs to band together, bringing hundreds of villages under a confederation, unless they were being invaded themselves, would have been a impractical.
The fact that the Germanic people were still organized into local clans also means that there would have been no way to work out a compromise after the battle, either. It would have been difficult to make dozens of British chieftains agree on terms, but negotiating with hundreds of Germanic clans would have been impossible unless they had been virtually annihilated – and Gildas makes no claims about that.
Logistics. If a war-band was mounted it might travel thirty or forty miles in a day. At that speed and allowing at least one full day for a battle, it is possible that most Germanic and British war-bands would be able to get to and from the battle in only three days. However, for those three days the entire kingdom would be vulnerable to attacks.5
Finally, Badon itself. Gildas claimed it was the major battle of an entire generation, and if it was the absolute victory he claims it makes sense why English historians never delved into the details. But, if the battle was followed by a compromise which eventually allowed the Germanic people to dominate the island, the English reaction should have been different. One would think that the eventual benefactors would have remembered it with pride as another instance when they had outwitted the British (like Hengest) and as a more important event than the regional accomplishments of Cerdic, Ceawlin, or Ælle. The fact that they did neither probably means that Badon was a major defeat for them. As that seems more likely, we need to look elsewhere for an explanation about why the British kingdoms decline after the mid-sixth century.
To this scholar, the behavior of the British kingdoms after Urien and Rhun’s careers seems like the state of ancient Greece after the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, or the aftermath of a wild New Year’s Eve Party; maybe both comparisons are valid. By the end of the sixth century the British had been in a state of perpetual raiding and warring for over a hundred years, with battles growing larger and more intense as kingdoms grew and allied together in an attempt to control ever larger portions of the island. On the other hand, we hear almost nothing of the Germanic peoples after roughly 500 for decades. While the British were involved in larger and larger battles, the Germanic people were still just raiding. Is it possible that British manpower had been sapped? Battles would deplete the warrior ranks, while invasions would have meant the loss of farmers, without whom there was no food.
At the same time, England has the best farmland on the island.6 While the British lost warriors and peasants to internecine warfare from the late fifth to the late sixth century and survived on lesser farmland, the Anglo-Saxons lost little or nothing and had better crops to grow their population on.
Of course, battles alone did not reduce the British from the dominant power on the island to victims in just a century. It must have strained them, but not so much that they might not have reconquered Britain. There were other issues. Dr. Andrew Breeze has pointed out to me some major volcanic activity in 535-6 which caused major climatic changes throughout the world.7 This would have affected crops and livestock.
At mid-century, Justinian’s Plague hit Britain,8 and that must have put the Britons over the edge. Some scholars have suggested that the British were hit harder and the resulting deaths weakened the British enough that they never recovered.9 That theory seems unlikely on its own though. For one thing, scholars have shown that the Germanic peoples traded both with the continent and the British peoples, demonstrating more than enough contact with bubonic plague regions to have infected their entire population.10
But, if the undermanned British kingdoms had been stretched by nearly a century of war before the plague hit and the Anglo-Saxons had thrived in the meantime, the disease could have hit both groups equally but effected the British much more.
The plague was just the anima though. In organizing the Germanic areas to make tribute-taking more efficient during the early and middle sixth century, the British had inadvertently created the political structure for the Germanic kingdoms – leader, hall, warriors, and villages giving tribute. Once the British people no longer had the strength to control them because of the pandemic,11 the Germanic tax collectors would have simply stopped paying tribute.
So, why do the British kingdoms have an interlude from history after Urien and Rhun of Gwynedd? They were recovering, and the Germanic peoples were too focused on developing from local chieftainships to kingdoms. That focus would allow for the rise of the first Germanic over-kings like Ælle, Ceawlin, Æthelberht, and Æthelfrith while giving the British kingdoms time to replenish their numbers.
1 Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 2012).
2 Badon is in both British sources, is mentioned but not explored in Bede, and its effects seen in lower England with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
3 Higham, “From Tribal Chieftains to Christian Kings”, The Anglo-Saxon World, eds. Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan, (New Haven, 2013), 126-78.
4 One major hiccup a reader may have with this theory is Gildas’ testimony, but a close look at his account suggests that the British fought raiders looking for food and supplies, not kings and their war-bands attempting any sort of conquest or even cattle raids.
5 Having no knowledge of the relations between villages the author must acknowledge that several warriors from each clan/war-band might have come to the battle. That possibility would have made it important islandwide without endangering all the kingdoms represented.
6 “Why farming matters: Wales”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Scotland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Northern Ireland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: England”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015.
7 Baillie, “Dendrochronology raises questions about the nature of the AD 536 dust-veil event”, The Holocene 4.2 (Washington D.C., 1994), 212-7; “Marking in Marker Dates: Towards and Archaeology with Historical Precision”, World Archaeology 23.2 (Abingdon, 1991), 233-43.
8 “Annales Cambriae”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), entry 547.
9 Wacher, The Towns of Roman Britain, (Berkeley, 1974), 414-422; Russell, “Late Ancient and Medieval Population”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 48.3 (Philadelphia, 1958), 71-99.
10 “The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Stephen Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 55-74; Brown, History and Climate Change: An Eurocentric Perspective, (Routledge, 2001), 94-5.
11 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, (New York, 1982), 31.
When St. Columba arrived in Scotland as part of his penance for his part in the Battle of Cuil Dremne (563), legend says that King Conall of Dal Riata granted him the island of Iona for use as a monastery. He soon had a local scriptorium, writing center, so that from that time on historical events were recorded in Dal Riata.
Before 563, there would have been only oral memory. We only have one historical source for that period, the Senchus Fer n’Alban. It was written in around 660, a century after Columba arrived, and for the express purpose of generating nationalistic sentiment against Northumbria. The work gives a clear genealogical descent from Conall and Gabrán back to their common paternal grandfather Domangart.
The only other Dal Riatan historical source for the period is Columba’s biography, written in about 697 and based on Iona’s historical records and whatever oral legends were to be had. Considering how much longer a monk could live than a layman, there might have been quite a few stories floating around. Anyway, the Vita Columba gave Conall and Gabrán’s parentage, but never named their common grandfather.
You might say the writer, Adamnan, simply had no interest in family trees, but Adamnan was a relative of Columba and a descendant of kings. It might be argued that Columba somehow did not know, but to be ignorant of host kingdom’s royal family in any way would have been unthinkable. We must at least consider that Gabrán and Conall did not have a common grandfather.
That suggestion demands a second look at the book, and perusing the Vita Columba we see that Columba never seems to go to any hall, castle, or even hill-fort while in Dal Riata. It was not that Adamnan opposed speaking of them, either. If his royal heritage is not enough to prove he had no compunctions about them, he does go into detail about Columba’s visit to Brude’s fortress in Pictland.1
Another omission is also important. Although the “official” history makes it clear that both Loairn and Óengusa of Cenéls Loairn and Óengusa were active around this time, neither one of them is mentioned. Conall and Gabrán are, and so are several members of the official family that are not in the official history, peasants, thieves, and monks; just not cenéls Loairn and Óengusa.
Many of the people Columba talks to in Dal Riata do not even seem to be noble. Actually, paging through the book the word pirate comes to mind. For instance, Erc is blatantly addressed as “the Robber”.2 There is also a chapter about Johan son of Conall son of Comgall in which he is clearly described as a bandit with his own group of men.3
All of the above suggests that the family tree was altered in the Senchus. More than that, it puts into question whether or not there was even a royal Dal Riata dynasty at all when Columba arrived.4
Stronger evidence of that last thought can be found in what little we know of the Convention at Druim Cett (574). Now there is a concensus that the High-King of Ireland, Áed mac Ainmuirech, conceded that Scottish Dal Riata would pay no tribute and provide no warriors. In return, Dal Riata promised that its fleet would be at his command.5
In the past, those believing that Scottish Dal Riata was originally part of Irish Dal Riata believed that this compromise gave Scottish Dal Riata its first taste of freedom from Ireland. Looked at from Áed’s perspective, though, the compromise is all wrong. He would have had no reason to give up tribute and fighting men. On the contrary, considering the weakened state of his dynasty and the fact that his predecessors had needed to fight throughout their reigns, he would have had every reason to believe he needed more military strength.
Instead of Druim Cett signaling the beginning of Scottish independence, we should think of it more as an acceptance of dependence. In return for making their veteran crews available to the high-king, the Irish pirates in Britain were accepted as a nominal kingdom under the high-king and as such they were protectedfrom all the kingdoms they had stolen from.
So if there was no royal family in the Dal Riata of 563 and for years afterwards what was there? We will be wisest to start with what we know; that is not in the Senchus but the Vita Columba. There are, in fact, at least three distinct clans to be found there – the families represented by Domnall, Gabrán, and Conall. There are possibly others. Erc “the Robber” is a likely clan leader. Colgu was an important person in Ireland, so his presence in Dal Riata raises the possibility that a lesser line may have migrated there.
Why pirates, or at least raiders whose leaders came from royal families? As was mentioned above, during the fifth century the western coast of Britain was invaded by the Irish, who used bases in Britain to stage attacks further inland. What we know about them is that the Irish who held the land and managed to build a kingdom were related to Irish royalty, but we have no way of knowing if they were in every case the only group that settled in an area or just the most successful one. It is only because of the Vita Columba that we know there were several clans in Dal Riata.
Dal Riata made for a good pirate base, and in some ways was the best British base. The region has many islands with shifting beaches. Sea depths can change. An area like that would have been navigable for someone who lived there but hazardous for anyone hoping to attack in heavy ships. It would have been more practical to attack in smaller ships, currachs. The problem with that idea was that a currach could only carry a few men and as soon as it came into a narrow area it would have made an easy target for ambush by land or sea; the perfect pirate base.
Because it was so easy to hide or defend, it would have been difficult to unite the area as well; a raiding party could evade any chieftain trying to unite the raiding crews almost indefinitely.
Not that there would have been any general need for unity during the fifth and sixth centuries. Each raiding group was mobile and could function independently. Irish and British targets were available on the sea and land, and there was no real threat to any group at the time and no potential threat in the foreseeable future.
Yet, with all these factors against unification, within about a dozen years of Columba landing Dal Riata was unquestionably united under a single king – Áedán. That timing, coupled with the strength of Columba’s overpowering personality, tells us that the Irish saint was probably the cause, but why?
The most obvious reason is stability. Columba had left an island where dominance was contested by a few kingdoms, but within each region there was general unity. Dal Riata had none of that. As an intelligent man raised in a dynastic household Columba would have been aware of the political and economic advantages, and awareness of the Picts’ and Strathclyde’s power would have given him an imminent reason to force Dal Riata together. The Battle of Teloch or Delgu (574), at which Dúnchad son of Conall and many other Dal Riatan leaders died, would have served as a good warning for the Dal Riata chieftains – no one could conquer Dal Riata, but none of the bands was safe, either.
As a religious man, so many different factions would have caused him problems; how would he administer to them all equally. Each time he visited one group he would have risked offending all the others or worse he would give them an excuse to fight among themselves. One leader of Dal Riata would have eliminated that issue.
Once the wheels were in motion, Columba thought he could influence them; he hoped to make Eoganán son of Gabrán the king,6 though no specific reason is given. The author only brings this up because interfering in political affairs is what had gotten the Irish saint exiled in the first place. Columba eventually allowed the election to take place naturally and duly crowned Áedán, Eoganán’s brother, as king.
The Dal Riata after Druim Cett took on a new persona, an extroverted one. Though we are uncertain about dates, it is known that Áedán raided Orkney, fought at the Island of Man, battled the Miathi of the Upper Forth, warred against the Picts, and plundered the capital of Strathclyde – Alt Clut or modern Dumbarton. We also know that he fought multiple battles against the Northumbrians leading up to his signal defeat against Æthelfrith at Degsastan. The moment Dal Riata was joined into one kingdom it became an island wide power and Áedán was clearly not shy about testing the extents of that power. He was so active, and his exploits so influential, that he is one of the few non-Welsh figures remembered in the Welsh Triads.7
1 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 2.36.
2 Ibid, 1.33. Considering the the obvious transformations and additions to the Dal Riata genealogy, it is tempting to consider this “robber”, an expected description for a monk about a chieftain, to be the father of Fergus in the official Dal Riata history.
3 Ibid, 2.23.
4 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 132-5.
5 Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History A.D. 500-1286, (Stamford, 1990), 83 fn. 2; Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1980), 148-9; Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada, (Edinburgh, 1974), 1-2; Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, (London, rev. 2001), 110.
6 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 3.5.
7 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), triads 29 and 54. He is called “the Wily”.
Britain; 367-664 is at the publisher and should be available in August. I’ll continue publishing chapters for the next few books and any errors you may find I will make use of when the manuscript is sent back to me.
Now, I have no immediate plans to write something as massive as that any time soon, but I have already gotten the unofficial go-ahead to write another book. It will be a series of loosely connected essays on topics in post-Roman Britain, sort of like my usual post only more fully researched and with footnotes. And since you are the people most interested in Arthuriana I thought I would ask if there was something you would like to see. So far this is what I have, divided loosely by subjects. It should come to a little more than 100 pages.
-Arthur and Nationalism
-Did Arthur Exist? Where and When?
-What does Dux Brittanorum mean?
-Sword and the Stone
-The Story behind the Abduction
-The Story behind Owain’s Adventure
-Badon’s Importance, date, and placement
-The 12 Battles
-What is the grail?
Knights of the Round Table
-Members of his war-band; historical and literary
-Cei, the Grumbler
-So how many knights did he have at one time?
-What was the Round Table?
-The Round Table at Winchester
-Who were the Picts?
-Who were the Anglo-Saxons?
-What was Logres?
-How did the legends become romances?
-The story of Marie de Champagne
-The Story of Chretien de Troyes
-The story of Philip of Flanders
-Geoffrey of Monmouth
Four chapters ago Gwrtheyrn was briefly mentioned as an example of evolving British kingship during the sixth century. Eleven chapters before that, his development as a literary character was examined as a part of The Kentish Source’s development. To understand his career better, it will be simplest to focus on his progression as a character in British history and then critically examine that against what we have already learned.
Gwrtheyrn first appears in Gildas as superbus tyrannus – “Overking”. There he is credited with inviting the first Germanic tribes over to Britain. In the Late Roman tradition, he settled them in the troubled areas of the island and promised to feed and house them in return for their services as mercenaries against the Picts and their fellow Germanic tribesmen.
This story is all wrong though. As we have seen, there is no evidence that a single king controlled Britain during the fifth century. In fact, from the break down of Roman provincial government, to the settlements of the Irish, the known activities of the fifth century kings, and into the sixth century alliances demonstrates a consistent trend of emerging and developing kingships beginning in the late fifth century. As we will see in the pages below, these kingdoms continued to increase in size and complexity until they became the medieval kingdoms that would survive remain in place for most of the Middle Ages.
We have also seen that the Romans had been bringing Germanic tribes as foederati to Britain from the fourth century; they were already on the island when Gildas had his superbus tyrannus inviting them in the fifth century. Realizing that, we can see why Gildas had to include an over-king in his history; he needed one to explain why the Germanic peoples were on the island.
Knowing what we know now we can empathize with Gildas. He saw the Romans as the instruments of God’s forgiveness and because of that could nbg nbot imagine them ever making the mistake of bringing the Germanic peoples to the island. What made more sense to him was that a Briton king had been at fault, someone who must have ruled Britain so that he had the necessary power. That was why he placed the introduction of the foederati after Aetius, that and a probably weak oral memory of the time between Aetius and Badon.
Following him was Bede, a man who was no fool by his exquisite Latin and careful scholarship. He was locked into the story though. By the time he wrote two hundred years later Gildas was already remembered as a great scholar and his history as the history of post-Roman Britain.
Even if he had been willing to challenge Gildas, his ecclesiastical superiors had given him The Kentish Source as the official history and it confirmed everything Gildas had written. Bede really had no other choice but to write the story he had in front of him. We know he expanded the Gildasian history, probably using The Kentish Source, adding the names of the two Germanic chieftains, Hengest and Horsa, and along with a brief biography. Because we know that he was so strongly Northumbrian, it was probably he who had added a snippet about two additional chieftains who fought in the north but were related to Hengest. His contribution to the history strengthened Northumbria’s claim to power in his century by connecting the kingdom’s earliest leaders with the most famous the man who had outwitted the British over-king and legally been given possession of Kent.
When the Historia Brittonum was originally written during the ninth century, most of that story was probably ignored. After all, it was written in Powys by the son-in-law of the Powysian king, and Rhodri had the history written to help him unite the British kingdoms under his kingdom’s leadership.
It was rewritten in the tenth century, though, and the purpose of the Dyfed revision was to undermine Powys’ authority by attacking one of its most revered kings. At the time, Hywel Dda ruled the kingdom and he was firmly allied with Æthelstan, so Hywel probably had access to The Kentish Source through him. He made use of it, for the first time blending the British memory of Gwrtheyrn’s power and dynastic importance with Vortigern’s control of Britain, flaws, and chronology through the suggestion of their name similarity – Vortigern was the Latin form of Welsh Gwrtheyrn.
In this new version of history, Gwrtheyrn had emerged as the leader of all Britain after 410 but was still being attacked by the Picts and Germanic peoples. Hoping for a solution he took counsel with his nobles and decided to invite Anglo-Saxon mercenaries onto the island to help him. These foederati performed their jobs well, but then their leaders fooled him into allowing more and more warriors from the continent. They fooled him again when they introduced him to a Germanic woman who seduced him. He insisted on marrying her, and Hengest insisted on Kent as a dowry. That was when he had lost control.
His son Vortimer (properly Gwrthefyr if the information had come from a Briton source) now emerged to beat the Anglo-Saxons nearly back to the eastern coast but was killed in the fighting. At that point, old Gwrtheyrn returned to the story. He was captured when all of his nobles were killed and ransomed for more territory. When the ransom was agreed upon, he spent his remaining days hidden inside a fortress only to be burned alive when two dragons emerged from its foundations.
Alfred, or whoever commissioned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, happily made use of the story about the cunning Germanic chieftains and the fool they had stolen Britain from. Besides cutting back the story to fit into a chronicle form, the editor(s) only made two changes to the tale. The first was that Gwrtheyrn’s son was never mentioned because the English probably had no memory of one. The second was that they reversed the order of the battles so that it looked like the Anglo-Saxons were conquering territory instead of losing it.
Without a doubt, what we know about Gwrtheyrn comes mainly from Gildas and the mistaken association between his superbus tyrannus and the historical Gwrtheyrn. Sorting through the information gaps, personal, religious, and political motivations there is very little else to be learned about Gwrtheyrn. Very little, but there is something of value.
First of all there are the names. The interchangeability of roles between the superbus tyrannus, Vortigern, and Gwrtheyrn have been widely accepted as showing they were considered the same people in the historical tradition. The Historia Brittonum also names an Outigern as roughly contemporary to Maelgwn, Ida, and the five bards and imples that all eight men were important in their time – the bards for their abilities and the kings for their successes; Koch has even suggested that the here implies that the first named poet, Talhaearn, was attached to Outigern. Yet we know nothing whatsoever about this king otherwise. In Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, the author proposed a simple scribal error; dyslexia might have switched Votigern to Outigern, and Votigern is a close form of Vortigern.
Finally there is Gwrthefyr son of Gwrtheyrn. His name translates as “great prince” while his “father” ’s name translates as “over-king”; similar but not identical. He also only appears in Historia Brittonum, and only so that he can fight Hengest in four battles – Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone. Bede says there was fighting between Vortigern and Hengest, but names no battles making it possible that he had simply eliminated British victories from his history.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also says the battles were fought between Vortigern and Hengest but names them; ÆgelesÞrep (Aylesford), Crecganford (Crayford), Wippedesfleot (near Ebbsfleet), and a fourth unknown site. Historia Brittonum names them too; Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone.
None of the seven sites match which means that the information was probably not taken from the same source. However, Epsford is probably Aylesford, and all seven sites are usually located in Kent. That at least suggests that both the British and the English had a memory of a series of four battles fought by Hengest. The fact that Gwrthefyr shows up nowhere else but replaces Gwrtheyrn for them suggests that Gwrthefyr is yet another doublet, a seam in the blending.
As aspects of Gwrtheyrn’s career that were apparently uninfluenced by the Gildas/Kentish Source tradition Outigern and Gwrthefyr might just allow us to see something historical about the Gwrtheyrn; he was a king recognized as Maelgwn’s equal who fought several battles in or at least near Kent.
That is really not much. However, there are two other details to consider which will throw some light on the mysterious Gwrtheyrn; we know almost nothing about Iurminric the father of Æthelberht and the northern British kings seem to have dominated the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria during the same time frame. Let me explain.
It has not really bothered anyone that we know nothing about Iurminric, and that strikes this scholar as odd. Consider, Æthelberht allowed the Christian mission into his kingdom in 597, along with its ability to write and the potential power that gave the king. A fifty-five year old man at that time could easily be expected to remember back to 557. Æthelberht may have married his Frankish wife (who brought her priest) around 580, meaning that oral memory might have gone back to 540 – 530 if a fifty-five year old at the time had remembered any events back when he or she was five. On the other hand, Iurminric was born in the range 523-560. No matter how you work the numbers, he spent his entire adult career within the limits of oral memory, yet the only two details we have about him are that his name is Frankish, implying a relationship with the Franks back another generation, and that he was the father of Æthelberht. Very odd.
Next piece of information; the northern British kings. As we have seen above, there were at least five different alliances over the last half of the sixth century, at least two of which took tribute from Germanic-held territories. This was a period of British revival and expanding political awareness because the British had already developed kingship and with it access to a stronger political organization along with more warriors under one king. The only southern king we have seen was active during this period outside of Wales and Cornwall is Gwrtheyrn.
Take those unrelated facts and add that to a question about the Hengest battles against Vortigern/Gwrthefyr. We know they could not have been remembered if they had taken place in the fifth century; that and neither Hengest, Vortigern, or Gwrthefyr would have been around to fight them. So why were they remembered in both traditions? What would have been the point of remembering them before they were made a part of The Kentish Source and attached to the Historia Brittonum?
To answer that, we return to the fact that Iurminric would have been active during the middle of the sixth century, roughly the same era as Gwrtheyrn himself. Gwrtheyrn, as we have seen, was remembered in the north for being a powerful king. In the north, the powerful men of his era controlled land all the way to the eastern coast. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have as well?
It would make sense. The Kentish Source was focused on showing the legitimacy of Kent’s rule by demonstrating that its early kings had been smarter and better warriors than their British counterparts. Its writer(s) had not made up the initial landing and the outwitting of Vortigern, so why would they have started making things up with the battles? It seems more likely, at least to the present scholar, that those battles would have been taken from oral memory, and oral memory would only have extended back to the middle sixth century, suggesting that Iurminric might have been the man fighting the battles against Gwrtheyrn.
Why was Iurminric not connected to them? As they are used in Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they are battles of conquest on an island that the Germanic people had just come to. However, if Iurminric was fighting them they would have been battles for independence. Independence might have a certain attraction, but it would also mean that at some point the royal house of Kent had willingly submitted to British authority and that would have gone against the basic purpose of The Kentish Source.
So, instead of deleting the battles altogether, they did what any good medieval historian seems to have done, they repurposed and redated them. The decision demonstrated Hengest’s superior leadership and eliminated the potentially embarrassing fact that as late as the middle sixth century Kent had been paying tribute to the Britons. When in the tenth century Dyfed eliminated the pro-Gwrtheyrn version of the Historia Brittonum and rewrote British history it was an unhoped-for stroke of luck for Kent.
Of course even if the above theory is right there is no way to know who won what battle, or even the campaign. Probably our safest source for that is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because of its writer’s habit of explicitly saying when the English won and being vague when they did not. It states that Hengest and his son Æsc won Ægelsþrep (probably Aylesford) and another battle and implies that they won at Crecganford (probably Crayford), while it is mute on the victor at Wippedesfleot.
Who was Gwrtheyrn? He was a powerful king who lived at the climax and the twilight of British power. It seems reasonable that Gwrtheyrn claimed sort of tribute over many of the Germanic clans in the south. The author’s appraisal would be that there was a revolt late in his career. Maybe it was led by Iurminric but Ælle, Bede’s first Bretwalda, is a more likely possibility; it would explain his place in Bede’s list and fit in well with the chronology of events that has been worked out above.
More probable still would be that several leaders emerged among them Ælle, Ceawlin, and Iurminric. In that scheme the former two could have been contemporary Bretwaldas, bringing dozens of villages under one ruler in imitation of the early British kings.
Growing more theoretical as the sources give less information, the fighting was indecisive in Gwrtheyrn’s lifetime, but after he died (probably not in battle as Vortigern’s end has nothing to do with the invaders in either the British or the Germanic versions) the Germanic tribes claimed their independence.
In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Vortigern is not mentioned after the first battle. It is also possible that he lost it and died, and whoever followed him could do no better. Again though, we may never know.
1 De Excidio Britanniae, trans. Michael Winterbottom, (Chichester, 1978), 23.1
2 The author has elsewhere suggested that he may have taken advantage of this gap in his knowledge to blame Arthur for the Germanic presence because of a family feud involving the death of his brother. There is no better evidence for that theory now than there was then, but it would explain his choice of using an over-king to explain the Germanic presence instead of a simple invasion of Britain; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2012), 42-9.
3 The Late Roman Empire included many powerful men who were able to carve small kingdoms out of the Roman Empire for decades at a time. If Gildas was well read, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, he may have known this and applied that knowledge to what he did not know about fifth-century Britain.
4 It has been pointed out that Aetius was the far extent of his oral knowledge, but that is no guarantee that he had access to an unbroken sequence of events from that famous letter to his present day.
5 Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 86.
6 Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 27.
7 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 89; Sims-Williams, “The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 16.
8 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953), years 455, 456, 465, and 473.
9 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), chapter 44.
10 Brooks places the marriage between the mid-570s and 581; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 50; Stafford, Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages, (Athens, GA, 1983), 35-6, 67-8, 73-4.
11 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 222. Brooks places him in the second quarter of the sixth century because his parents must have been influenced by the Franks to have given him that name; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 46-7.
12 Rhun’s primary concern seems to have been the north, and legend does say he was gone for a long period of time which would have left a void of power in Wales. Even if he had remained in Gwynedd for the relevant part of his career, Gwrtheyrn’s genealogy includes Gloiu, or Gloucester, suggesting that his base was along the Wye River. Their spheres of influence may have never overlapped.
13 It has already been suggested that overlordship probably meant control over less area for the earlier Bretwaldas; Campbell, “The Lost Centuries 400-600”, The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald, (London, 1982), 53-4.
As has been seen, Roman Empire’s administration had been exemplary. Rome’s founders had erected a stable bureaucracy that possessed an intelligent set of checks and balances which adapted over time and changing circumstances. As it had transitioned into an empire another group of far-sighted lawmakers had adapted the government so that it could integrate new provinces and cultures. By 400, every local government from Britain to India had a variation of the Roman model.
Through foreign and domestic wars, its income had also been stable. Taxes had been individually assessed based on personal holdings and then collected in the form of coins. Tradition had made the wealthy elite responsible for local administration as well as local project funding; forums, baths, public buildings, and roads had all been a part of their normal responsibility.
At the provincial level, money had been used to pay for the hospices along the highways that were used by official travelers as well as craftsmen, artists, and traders. Reserves were left alone in case of emergency. The empire paid the military and the officials who had been publically educated, but the senators came from wealthy families and had been given nothing for their public service by tradition.
Then Constantine had displaced the Roman governor and his bureaucracy and installed his own. When the Romano-British citizens revolted and overthrew Constantine’s government, the provincial government collapsed. Severing the connection with Rome meant no more income, no military support, and only limited contact with the empire. Dismantling the provincial government meant no local military or political order.
The local governments had remained intact and functioning through all that. However, throughout the last half-century of Roman rule the wealthy had been either immigrating to the continent or their country villas in Britannia where they had stopped performing public service. By 410, most of them were no longer contributing their resources to the villages and towns.
The departure of the wealthy from public life was just as catastrophic as the loss of provincial government. The wealthy had maintained local buildings and roads throughout Britain. Without them, all of these things fell into disrepair. Their business relations had kept them connected to other settlements and to the greater empire. Without them, villages were suddenly isolated.
As we have seen, the core of Roman civilization was education. Teaching a single language and mythology united the upper class in a common culture that spanned across the empire while educating the most talented among the poor at the public’s expense and then pushing them toward government positions had ensured a high level of competency at all levels of government. It had also made government employees unusually loyal to Rome.
However, the grammatici and the rhetorici that had done the teaching had been funded by the education of the rich, so without them the teachers would have had no patrons in Britain. Probably, some of them remained behind and found work where they could (Gildas’ education is proof of that), but those who insisted on their traditional income were forced to leave for the continent.
Along with the political changes came economic adaptations. Coins had been coming to Britain for centuries as pay to government officials and soldiers. They had then spent their money on the island and dispersed the new money. But as of 410 Britain was no longer part of the empire and received no more shipments of coin.
Judging by the wear of later Roman coins, money was used for a long time after the last shipments – we think it was still in circulation until maybe 430 or 440. They were used until no one could read them any more. After that, the Britons drifted into a bartering system as it was practiced among the Irish and had been among the pre-Roman British – with a female slave, a milk-producing cow, and an ounce of silver as equal standards of exchange.[i] Bartering meant that trade would be more limited from that point on; artwork, specialists, and weapons were still easily transportable, but cattle were the most convenient unit of exchange and they were more difficult.
For centuries Britannia had been protected by the Roman military, but the military had been paid by Roman coins and those were no longer free flowing after about 407, which means that whatever official military forces Constantine had left behind had probably dispersed long before 420.
During the last few decades of Roman Britain, the foederati had been protecting the eastern and southern coast from pirating and raids. They had been paid by food and supplies as well as coins, and probably by more and more trade items after 407. As we have seen, even these protectors would eventually revolt and conquer the very lands they had been protecting. That would leave the Britons on their own to protect themselves with homemade spears, bows designed and used for hunting, and any sharp household objects they could find.
The new economic system was local in the extreme – with a bartering system in place it had to be. It also ensured that the social, military, and even political aspects of post-Roman Britain were also local. Public buildings and roads crumbled from no maintenance. Local governments went from a well-educated bureaucracy to an informal group of town elders. The effect was as significant to them as the sudden loss of internet would be to us in the modern world.
[i] The exact equivalencies seem to have varied by region and time but the basic exchange, the bartering dollar, was the female slave/milking cow/ounce of silver.
British kingship seems to have been a reaction to Germanic migration and settlement – the timing is right and the motivation makes sense. The historical fact is that the British had developed primitive kingships by the end of the century. If they had not, they might have all been speaking Anglo-Saxon in another hundred years.
There was much more to Celtic kingship than just a military leader who lived in a hall. A king not only had to be a good warrior and leader, he had to come from a long line of strong kings; which is why lineages often consisted of famous heroes of the area as well as the actual royal ancestors of a dynasty. The Irish law texts say he had to make consistently correct judgments in legal matters for his people. He could never turn his back in battle. He could not lie or tolerate bardic satire. His body could have no blemishes.
Kings had to be all these things because of their connections to the supernatural. A Celtic king did not just rule his kingdom; during his inauguration he literally married the land in the form of a woman, and legend had it that for the rest of his reign she would reflect his rule by her appearance. He married a young and beautiful woman because he had demonstrated to his clan and the people that he was the best candidate for the position. As long as he behaved like a king she would remain youthful and attractive, but if he ever lost his kingly virtue she would become an old hag until he was replaced with a worthy king.
This connection to the land as symbolized by a woman gave the king an authority beyond the question of normal humans, putting their kingship and by extension their clan above question as rulers in the eyes of peasants. When Celtic kingship developed, though, it had taken time to develop. Bards had gradually added people and stories, of actual ancestors and adopted ones, to each kingdom’s official history along the way. The mystical elements probably developed after dynasties were long established. As Vansina has demonstrated, anything beyond living memory can be easily changed and rechanged as local politics and events occur.
The Britons of the Post-Roman era did not have the luxury of time as they reestablished their original culture, though. The Germanic tribes began migrating onto and controlling villages from around 441. The result was that the British kingships that did emerge did not have the solid foundations necessary. It would not have mattered how good their bards were at creating impressive genealogies and personal histories for their first generation kings or reinvigorating the mystique behind kingship. The simple fact was that in the late fifth century people still remembered a time without kings.
And because kingship was such a new establishment for the Romano-Britons, fifth-century kingships would have been based almost solely on the personal chemistry between the chieftain and his men. When he died, or even when he lost too many battles, that chemistry could dissolve and any person who was able to generate a new bond might succeed him. A son, brother, or cousin might have succeeded him but that was only one of several possibilities. A nearby king might absorb the teulu or a former champion might assert himself. It may never be possible to list all the petty chieftainships that arose in the late fifth century, or the ways in which most of them disappeared from history.
On the other hand, the fact that none of the early kingships were stable is probably one of the main reasons why the early British kingdoms grew so quickly; without a strong tradition there would have been no kingdom identity among villages and therefore no resistance to changing kings. The unique situation of the fifth century would have allowed a ruler to simply absorb a chieftainless teulu just as easily as a victorious king could absorb his dead enemy’s villages.
1 Corpus Iuris Hibernici, ed. David A. Binchy, (Dublin, 1978), 219.17-18.
2 Ibid, 15.2-3.
3 O’Rahilly, “On the Origin of the Names Érain and Ériu”, Ériu 35 (Dublin, 1946b), 11-13.
4 Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (Madison, 1985).