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Thursday, 18 November 2021

Facts and Legends: Britannia after the Romans (until around 700)

 [This the English original of the short piece I wrote for the German history magazine Damals. My thanks to Mischa Meier and Steffen Patzold for the invitation to participate in that issue.]

Historians nowadays very rarely use the phrase ‘The Dark Ages’ to describe the period after the disintegration of the western Roman Empire. It is now understood that it wholly misrepresents the early middle ages by implying that it was somehow a period of cultural collapse, or even an end (or near-end) of civilisation, or that there exists so little information that no one can know anything about it. Yet there is one part of the period that can – in at least one sense – be described as a Dark Age, and that is Britain in the period between about 400 and about 600. In the area of ‘the history of events’ or political history an impenetrable darkness descends upon the island. Around 550, the only stories that reached Procopius from Britain involved such things as a wall dividing the island in two, with a fertile territory to the east and a land where even the air was toxic to the west, and the ferrying of the souls of the dead to this island from the Frankish coast. These seem to have been so absurd, and so incompatible with what he knew of the history of the formerly Roman island of Britannia, that Procopius invented a whole new island, called Brittia, in which to localise them. In Britain itself, in the early eighth century, when Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he could barely find any more information than we still have today. Britannia had fallen off the historical map.

Apart from a couple of brief and extremely vague entries in the Gallic Chronicle of 452, there is only one reliable written source that describes some outlines of British political history in this period. That is the De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain) written by someone called Gildas. Gildas included a short historical section in what was otherwise a sermon about the moral back-sliding of the Britons’ secular and ecclesiastical leaders. Given that this section was only written as part of a rhetorical composition, it was never meant to represent a serious historical narrative; indeed, had we any actual historical sources for the period no one would be very interested in this passage at all! Because we don’t, however, it has acquired an importance that probably would have dismayed its author, who wanted people to concentrate on the important part of his sermon and mend their ways. Gildas gives us two actual names (Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was a British leader, and ‘Agitius’, who seems to be Aëtius, the Roman general in Gaul), one allusive reference to someone else (the ‘proud tyrant’), the name of a siege (Mons Badonis) and a general outline of events. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure where or when Gildas wrote, who Ambrosius or the tyrant were or where Badon Hill was, and even his narrative is so rhetorical and stylised that it might not represent one sequence but two, which overlapped in time. It is very difficult to do very much with this, and almost all of the other sources we have are later and entirely unreliable.

Only the very beginning and the very end of the period are quite well documented. In the first, ‘Rome’, in the form of the army in Britain, leaves Britain; in the second, ‘Rome’ in the form of the papal mission to the Anglo-Saxons, returns. In 406 the British garrison rebelled against the Emperor Honorius and eventually chose a soldier called Constantine (usually called Constantine III by historians) to be their emperor. Like most previous British usurpers, Constantine immediately took the British army across to Gaul. The point was not to leave the Roman Empire (this was no fifth-century ‘Brexit’, as some have claimed!) but to take control of it and re-establish the fourth-century system of imperial rule, from northern Gaul, with the close involvement of the Gallic and British provincials. Of course, Constantine III failed; he was captured at Arles and executed in 411. At the end of his rebellion, the Britons saw the way the war was going, expelled Constantine’s officials and seem to have declared loyalty to Honorius. Some garrison must have remained in Britain but no reinforcements ever reached it; regular imperial government and administration was never restored in Britain or even across much of neighbouring northern Gaul.

The political history of Roman Britain ends with these events. Nearly two decades later, in 428, Bishop Germanus of Auxerre came to Britain to help resolve a dispute within the island’s Christian community, as is described in his Life, written in the 480s. Clearly some British institutions still functioned and the Britons could still get in contact with Romans across the Channel, even if, by then, some Romans considered the island lost. After that we have nothing to help us other than Gildas’ vague allusions, until Saint Augustine of Canterbury, despatched to Kent by Pope Gregory I, arrived in Kent and began the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Between those two visits by churchmen – Germanus and Augustine – it is impossible to say anything precise.

That does not, of course, mean that no history of any sort is possible. We have a huge amount of archaeological evidence in the form of burials, settlement-sites, individual finds, palaeobotanical evidence, and so on. Sometimes the negative evidence – the abandonment of Roman villas and towns – is as interesting as the positive. These data can tell us a great deal about a wide range of issues, ranging from the health and diet of the population, through their economy and management of the land, and the organisation of their communities, through to their attitudes to issues like gender and age. What this material does not and cannot tell us about, however, are the details of political history.

For many years, nonetheless, it was believed that the archaeological data could tell us about the ways by which the Roman provinces of Britain became the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. One thing that is certain is that between the visit of Germanus and the arrival of Augustine the usual or default ethnic identity in the lowlands of Britain changed from being Roman or British to being Angle or Saxon. How did this happen? This has been one of the major debates in the academic study of this period. Some have proposed a mass migration from the northern regions of Germany while others (albeit not many) have gone as far as to suggest that there was no Anglo-Saxon migration at all. A variety of positions in between those two extremes have also been taken. Of the latter, perhaps the best known is that of ‘élite replacement’ or ‘élite take-over’, by which is understood the replacement of the Romano-British aristocracy by one of north German origin. In some ways this is analogous to the ‘ethnogenesis’ interpretation put forward by scholars such as Herwig Wolfram: a militarised elite becomes the focus for a social aggregation, with those who join the group adopting the leaders’ culture, origin story and so on. In this case the cultural ‘package’ to which people subscribed would include the English language as well as a range of cultural practices.

The extreme arguments are difficult to sustain, especially the proposal, recently elaborated in a short book, that there was no migration. The notion of a mass population movement, leaving parts of the north of Germany deserted, and large-scale population-replacement is also much too crude. That being said, it seems to me to be very difficult to understand some aspects of the culture of early medieval lowland Britain without envisaging a significant movement of people from the northern, coastal regions of what the Romans called Germania Magna. The linguistic change is one such aspect; another is the appearance in Britain of a cremation rite very similar to that in the Saxon territories in Germania.

There is, however, a subtle but vitally important distinction to be made in how we understand such changes. The change of language, or the introduction of cremation, or the popularity of artefacts of styles that originate on the eastern shore of the North Sea may be difficult to understand without population movement; that does not however, mean that such movement explains such changes. Mass migration might occur and yet leave almost no archaeological trace. Take, for instance, the movement of Germani into the Roman Empire between c.AD 1 and c.AD 400. During that period, many thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of people left barbaricum and entered the Empire of their own volition, to serve in the army, or to seek work or lands to farm. There is almost no archaeological evidence of their presence. That which exists, ironically, is usually Roman in form: the name of, for example, a certain Hnothfrith who commanded an auxiliary unit on the Hadrian’s Wall frontier, is recorded in the inscription on an altar he set up, in good Roman fashion, in the fort at Housesteads. Immigrants keen to assimilate into a host population, especially one in which attitudes towards outsiders could be violently hostile, will frequently adopt that population’s material culture at the expense of their own cultural practices. In other cases, we know of the presence of fourth-century Germani in the Empire not because of any barbarian traces they left there but because they went home again and were eventually buried with elements of their Roman uniform

Hnothfrith is only known to history because he erected an altar to three of his gods and, sensibly, the numen augusti. Perhaps, like the fourth-century men whose ashes were buried with their old army belts in northern German cremation cemeteries, he went home to Germania at the end of his service and, until the end of his days, used his Roman material to show off the impressive fact that he had served the mighty Emperor. Or perhaps he settled down on a farm in the Roman provinces and lived out his life as a respectable veteran, his barbarian origins entirely invisible. And yet, any distant descendants or relatives of his who arrived in Britain in the earlier fifth century actively proclaimed their non-Roman origins. This was a very different situation. The shifts we can detect on fifth-century lowland Britain manifest different cultural relationships, not necessarily a change in the patterns of human mobility.

Romano-British society and economy collapsed in the fifth century; the decline had already set in by around 400, possibly in connection with the retreat of the centre of western imperial government from Trier to Milan in the early 380s. It may have contributed to Constantine III’s rebellion. There can be no doubt about that collapse, though nuance can be added to the statement. The melt-down might not have been as absolute as was once believed; some areas – especially those further west – might have survived better and for longer. Nevertheless it is indisputable that the lowlands of Britain in c.475 were unrecognisable from those of a century earlier. In a world where traditional Roman cultural forms, such as villas and towns, had disappeared, new forms of identity and new bases of power had to be established. This did not necessarily mean abandoning Roman-ness; the fourth-century army had adopted all sorts of ‘barbarian’ or ‘barbarised’ identities without thereby ceasing to be Roman. The multiple layers of late Roman identity probably allowed people to navigate these changes, make common cause with soldiers from barbaricum (as throughout the fifth-century West) and even perhaps accept their leadership.

In my own book on this period I suggested a ‘two-pronged’ model for political change in lowland Britain, on analogy with a reading of how northern Gaul became Francia. Gildas’ story of how Saxon troops were hired and posted to the British frontier might in reality have meant that they were stationed on the edges of the lowland zone, to which some archaeological evidence might suggest the frontier had been withdrawn in the late fourth century. This border region between highlands and lowlands was the wealthiest part of late Roman Britain and was also the area where the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerged. Whoever controlled the forces in this band of territory would have an enormous advantage. It is also possible that the language of the Saxon leaders could act as a lingua franca in areas like these, where there were Latin- and British-speakers. The other ‘prong’ would be the people migrating from northern Germania and arriving in the eastern coastal regions. The social and economic crisis around 400 had affected the coastal regions of northern Germany too, causing political upheavals and, as was often the case in such circumstances, migration from barbaricum into Roman territory, in this case Britannia, as well as the coast of Gaul.

This political struggle for mastery of the lowlands is usually the backdrop for the legends of ‘King Arthur’, a doomed ‘last of the Romans’ attempting to defend civilisation against an onslaught of barbarians. Sadly, we can never know whether Arthur existed. There is no reliable evidence that he was a real historical personage, but equally there is no way of being sure that a genuine figure did not lie behind the later legend. In the fifth century, real figures could easily disappear from history. The Roman general Syagrius (possibly an analogue for Arthur) would have been forgotten, had not Gregory of Tours read a lost source (probably a Life of Remigius of Rheims) that mentioned him in connection with the tale of the Vase of Soissons. But, as is shown by the story of Syagrius and his father Aegidius and their rivalry with Childeric and his son Clovis for control of the Frankish army on the Loire, fifth-century politics very rarely settled down into a neat binary opposition between barbarian invaders on one side and Roman defenders on the other. Gildas talks of ‘civil war’ in Britain as dominating the former provinces’ recent history, rather than barbarian invasions. If the rest of the western Empire provides any sort of guide to the sorts of process that went on in lowland Britain between 400 and 500 we ought to envisage warfare between different factions, each one made up of alliances of Romans and Barbarians. ‘Roman’ generals could command ‘barbarian’ armies, or ‘barbarian’ generals might lead the armies of a ‘Roman’ polity. When, in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, writers came to compose their histories of fifth- and sixth-century Britain, what they wanted (as their contemporaries in mainland Europe also wanted) was a story of how one people – that which by their day dominated the area in which they lived – had come to oust those who had occupied these lands before. Conquest and expulsion was the only model they had for explaining how one ethnic identity had replaced another. How had the barbarian Franks or Saxons ousted the Romans? Roman commanders of Saxon troops in a Romano-Barbarian faction had no place in that kind of narrative. In that scenario any Arthur figure who might once have existed had only one place left open for him, and that was legend.