So, the traditional history of Post-Roman Britain: The Romans left, somehow a tyrant took control of the island within a decade or so, and between 449 and 456 he decided he needed help keeping the Anglo-Saxon pirates, Pictish raiders, and Irish settlers. So, he hired two brothers (Hengest and Horsa) to do some of the work for him. They did well, beat back everyone he threw them up against, and asked if he (Horsa died early on) could send for more men (At this point our tyrant must have been at least 60, but moving on). The tyrant oked things, so more Anglo-Saxons came over. Within years the elderly tyrant had married Hengest’s daughter, gave away Kent as a dowry, lost a son to fighting against the now-rebellious Hengest, and was fighting a defensive war against an overwhelming enemy. Later legends accuse him of Pelagianism (believing in Free Will) and a number of other moral, religious, and ethical crimes. When he finally does die, it’s considered a turning point in the British war against the Anglo-Saxons.
Wow! A guy strong enough to unite a broken province being attacked on all sides was too weak-willed to keep mercenaries under his thumb and too stupid to see he was being manipulated. That’s quite a biography!
You’ll remember I spoke a few weeks ago about how all the sources of the period had their own biases, and how when each source added in their own knowledge they manipulated the previous knowledge to their own purposes? The tyrant, commonly known as Vortigern now, is a perfect example of that.
Gildas wrote probably in about 530×545 by most approximations. Now, in a world where few things were written down and no one lived over 80, he couldn’t possibly have known anything much before the introduction of Aetius in his story. In fact, Vortigern’s story doesn’t even show up before then. It also makes sense that he wouldn’t have known much about Britain too long before he was born. That means that Gildas was making the best use of what he knew and thought he knew to make sense of the world before then.
Gildas knew that the Germanic peoples living in Britain had started out as foederati. It had been common policy in the Late Roman Empire to do that, and he gives several instances of knowing exactly how foederati worked.
What he didn’t know was when the foederati had come. Gildas was a part of the Latin tradition. He wrote in Latin and had been trained to write like a Roman. Even Christianity was a Roman religion for him. He might have mentioned issues with Rome in his letter, but in his time the Germanic tribes were threatening to overrun Britain. It was inconceivable to him that the Romans could have created the situation Gildas was a part of. So he took what he knew and what he thought he knew and made a history out of it.
Foederati could not exist without a strong central authority to supervise the food and supplies getting to them. Therefore there had to be a central authority. As Gildas didn’t know his name he just called his ruler superbus tyrannus, Great Tyrant. He didn’t know the names of the tribal leaders either, but then again they were barbarians so he didn’t care.