Mining for History Part Two

Author Derek Birks continues his look at Britain after the Romans left
Vortigern and Rowena by William Harvey
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Mining for History Part One

History tells us that the Romans left Britain in 410AD but, as the historian Michael Wood put it: “The Romans did not simply abandon Britain and sail back to Italy.” So, what did happen?

This was certainly not a sudden blunt trauma injury inflicted upon Britain by Rome. A civilisation or a way of life could not simply be swept aside in the blink of an eye. There had, in fact, been a gradual withdrawal of Roman soldiers over a period of fifty years or more before the oft-quoted date of 410AD. During that large swathe of time, the British had also begun to assert their own independence.

But, if the break with Rome was not really as sudden as a specific date might suggest, how is it that the idea of being abandoned by Rome in 410AD has become so rooted in our psyche?

The traditional story tells us that, at the start of the fifth century the Roman Empire – especially in the west – was under ever more threat from people who lived beyond, and even inside, its borders. The years from 400 to 410AD presented Rome with its greatest challenge – a danger so acute that it was forced to withdraw its forces from outlying areas such as Britain. In 408AD in this weakened state – if we are to believe the Gallic Chronicle – the Britons faced a dangerous Saxon assault as well as threats from the Scots and Picts. So, there we are then: Britain was left to fend for itself against a raft of enemies.

Now that sounds like a pretty simple scenario but, like most pretty simple scenarios, it masks a more complex situation because this problem had been brewing for a century or even longer. The so-called ‘crisis of the third century’ saw the entire empire on the brink of implosion with Britain playing its own damaging part in a brief, breakaway Gallic Empire. Carausius, followed by Allectus, was a British ruler who set himself up as a rival emperor no less. The empire survived this seismic shock – but only just – and the example of Carausius demonstrates that long before 410AD, British leaders were quite capable of defying the central authority of Rome.

In the following century in 367AD, there occurred in Britain what has been described as the ‘Great Conspiracy’ where the Picts, Scots and Saxons all combined to terrorise Roman Britain and here I should point out that, whenever I use the word Saxon, I use it as a generic term to encompass all the various Germanic groups who came to Britain.

Though historians have some doubts about the timing and seriousness of the 367AD attacks and also how widespread they were, the incursions were nevertheless real. Despite the restoration of order the following year, many Britons may have begun to wonder if the wheels were finally coming off the invincible Roman military machine. The realisation that Rome could no longer defend them forced the Britons to consider other possibilities.

While it is true then that Rome did weaken British defences by withdrawing legions, the Britons hardly helped themselves by backing their own imperial challengers. They even travelled to Gaul in one instance to force the issue and, in doing so sustaining heavy losses. So, if Britain was especially vulnerable to external attack by the early fifth century, Rome was only partly to blame.

Breakaway Emperor Carausius

The inevitable conclusion of the traditional story is that Britain, after Roman authority lapsed, came under severe threat and fell to the barbarians. Well, the only problem with that outcome is that it didn’t happen. Whilst it is true that the British were hard pressed in the face of these multiple threats, the Byzantine writer, Zosimus informs us that they were actually quite effective in defeating the invaders. Moreover, Zosimus suggests that it was the very success of their defence against these attacks which led the British to secede finally from Roman control. This makes much more sense than a simple Roman abandonment since, in the previous few decades Britain was already, politically at least, at odds with central Roman authority. The archaeological evidence points also towards the British arming themselves from at least the late 4th century onwards; so, these were not defenceless, untrained people.

Roman imperial control might have gone but basically life went on because the imprint of Roman organisation and culture over hundreds of years could not simply be erased overnight. So, how ‘Roman’ did Britain remain and for how long?

What little contemporary written evidence there is – notably St Patrick’s Confessions and a biography of St Germanus – suggests that in the period from c.410AD perhaps up to c.440AD, Romano-British society was still surviving quite happily. It appears to have been a time of relative stability during which the provincial government established by Rome was still functioning. The senatorial class and town authorities across the land were still responsible for collecting taxes and organising defence at a local level. It seems that the ruling classes of Britain, who had been running the country before 410AD continued to do so afterwards, only without Rome’s overarching control.

There was no immediate collapse of the Romano-British way of life and by the mid-fifth century, a single ruler had apparently established hegemony over much of Britain. This ruler is referred to as Vortigern by several sources, notably the sixth century account written by the monk, Gildas. But, since the word Vortigern can mean ‘Great King’ it could in fact just be a title rather than an individual’s name. Vortigern apparently ruled with something of an iron fist but, in order to do so he relied increasingly upon quite a few Saxon mercenaries to maintain order and provide defence.

So, for a generation or so in the first half of the fifth century we have strong, effective – if perhaps at times brutal – government running more or less on the previous Roman model.

So, the Baldric-like question arises: how is it that this broadly functional state of the 440s was to collapse by the 470s?

The answer, I believe is that in the 440s Britain faced a dire fusion of troubles. It all began with a rebellion of the Saxons employed by Vortigern, which may perhaps have been fuelled by the arrival of more Saxons seeking to share in the attractive wealth of Britain. Coinciding with this revolt was a devastating Europe-wide plague – and we know, even in modern times how socially disruptive such a phenomenon can be. Whilst there is still some historical debate about the severity of the outbreak, at a time of trouble, it certainly would not have helped.

In addition to these twin problems, it is clear that Vortigern faced some opposition to his ruthless rule from some of the Britons themselves. Whether that was a result of the new problems or simply ongoing opposition to his heavy-handed rule, we do not know. Of course, in politics there are always rival factions and it appears that his main opposition came from within the ranks of the existing governing classes. We know this because, while Vortigern was putting down the Saxon revolt, he was also fighting enemies with Roman names and prominent among them was a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus who ultimately overthrew Vortigern.

Exactly who Ambrosius was remains a mystery, but there is no doubting his pivotal role in British history during the second half of the fifth century. You might expect that, having defeated and killed the man Gildas describes as a ‘tyrant’ Ambrosius would have assumed control of Britain. Yet it is clear that Ambrosius either did not want, or was not able, to replace Vortigern.

Vortigern could only have established himself as the overlord of the Britons by making deals with other regional heavyweights and, of course, once he was killed, all deals were off. After c.460AD the local rivalries kept in check for a time by Vortigern, began to dominate British politics and it appears that each region or tribal group decided its own future. They also reverted to tribal land boundaries which were remarkably similar to those that existed before the Roman Conquest. This should not be that surprising since, without central rule, government must inevitably have been local. Many tribal boundaries would have been marked by familiar and easily-identified, physical features such as rivers and hills.

Bokerley Dyke

The rivalries between neighbouring tribes became the political landscape of post-Roman Britain and the archaeological evidence suggests that after c.450AD Britons began to fortify places they could defend. Sometimes the core of a shrinking town, like Cirencester was used but more often, old hillforts were reoccupied and refortified. What is notable is that these defences were often built along the tribal boundaries such as at Wansdyke or Bokerley Dyke in Wiltshire, which was reinforced during this period. It seems therefore most unlikely that they were constructed only to keep out Saxons. Indeed, since Saxons had been employed for at least a generation, it would be sensible to assume that different regions hired their own Saxon mercenaries to help defend their tribal or urban area against its enemies – whether Saxon or British.

During the fifth century many towns appear to have been in decline but the archaeology does not show evidence of widespread burning or destruction; so, the likelihood is that people gradually abandoned them. We know from our own bitter experience how the impact of disease is magnified where people live close together, so towns would have been hard hit by the plague. The food supply to towns would also have been patchy at best and, at worst non-existent, leading to famine. This helps to explain why folk came to be living in smaller, more self-reliant communities.

So, the fall of Roman Britain did not occur in 410AD but a generation or so later. Whether it was the plague, a Saxon revolt, a new Saxon incursion, the political vacuum left by the fall of Vortigern – or a combination of all these factors – the end result was the collapse of Roman provincial administration, tax collection and so on. The void was filled by any local leader who managed to take power and hold it. In the second half of the fifth century Britain was evolving into a collection of small rival states, mostly ruled by powerful individuals. Some of those might have been from the old Romano-British ruling class, but I imagine that others rose to prominence – as ever – because of their wealth or military prowess.

Britain did not fall under Saxon control in the fifth century though, following the dislocation of the mid-century period, there was certainly a threat to the Britons from an increasing Saxon population. Perhaps surprisingly, both contemporary sources and archaeological evidence point to another successful campaign against the Saxons in the second half of the century. This must have required a degree of unity among the British which was not present in 450AD. But, as the threat grew during the 460s and 470s, we see the emergence of Ambrosius Aurelianus – not as an overlord like Vortigern – but as a war leader. It was Ambrosius, not the fabled Arthur who led the successful British defence against the Saxons.

But, though Ambrosius managed to re-establish British control, the political, economic and administrative infrastructure put in place by Rome had been fatally weakened. Elements of it survived, especially in the south-west where Saxon settlement had been minimal but in many other areas Saxon influence grew more dominant and, because many of these people had no experience of the Roman Empire or its ways, they brought a starkly different culture to Britain.

There is evidence that Saxon arrivals in Britain slowed by the end of the fifth century but in the following century, renewed Saxon migrations began to tip the cultural balance in their favour. But by then, Saxons were already part of the fabric of Britain and their influence was strengthened not by conquest but simply by their continued presence over several generations. Since Britons and Saxons fought alongside each other in the local squabbles of the mid-fifth century, it is not so hard to believe that the Saxons won Britain more by assimilation than conquest.

Derek Birks is a historical fiction writer and former teacher. His debut novel, Feud, was published in 2012 and he has since written seven more books. More recently, he has focused on the Post-Roman period, with The Last of the Romans and its sequel, Britannia: World’s End. The third book in the trilogy, Land of Fire, is out now.g for History Mining for History Mining for History Mining for History Mining for History Mining for History Mining for History Mining for History