POST-ROMAN BRITAIN

The Dark Ages

 

German invasions squeezed Britons in the West

 

They weren't dark, but the Viking raids destroyed a lot of churches and the churches had been the early, national record-keepers. From the Roman conquest of Britain until today the darkest age (the least-well documented) is that of the 5th and 6th centuries. It is dark because of the general decline in the level of civilization. It was also the end of the coin-minting and pottery- manufacturing, the reversion from stone to timber buildings etc. But even more so this period is dark because of our ignorance of many crucial historical events.

Our ignorance is not because of the lack of contemporary writing; we have a greater quantity of first-hand observation (due especially to the 6th century monk Gildas) from this era than from some of the preceding Roman centuries. But Gildas was not an historian and he provided relatively little useful information. Also, far more "happened" to society and the state in the fifth and sixth century, including long-running wars between the Britons and the invading Anglo-Saxons and Scots, than during the relatively uneventful Pax Romana. Thus there is a great deal of uncertainty in the history of this era; not even the broad features are agreed upon by all historians, and historians who do agree on certain events may assign dates which vary by more than a generation.

This uncertainty, plus the relatively few primary sources available, has made this period of history a favourite for amateur historians. It is interesting because most of Britain was transformed from a Roman diocese into Saxon and British kingdoms, forerunners of England and Wales. Latin, at least 'Vulgar Latin', continued to be spoken and taught in schools by men of learning. Roman city life did not just suddenly end in London, York, Winchester, etc. Imperial coinage was probably still used for centuries. Finally, This period is, of course, the time of the Arthur (if he indeed existed), the most famous figure in Britain's first millennium.

Peace and War

Hadrian's wall helped keep the peace for a period, but the Empire itself faltered as Asian migrations pushed more German tribes against the imperial borders from Britain to Arabia. These external threats compounded internal competitions for power and wealth. Increasing numbers of ‘barbarians(Goths and other Germanic tribes) were offered Roman citizenship in exchange for military, frontier service (notably the Franks).

For Britain, Pax Romana was all too short: Germanic attacks began in c250. British sources are not only Gildas, but also Nennius, and Bede, who wrote from c550 to 731. Other sources are archaeological, coins, Roman records, language, place-names, and church records. Collectively they describe the Germanic invasions as a very hard and cruel time. St Augustine’s arrival in 597 did improve British record-keeping and ended this uncertain period. In c450-650, the people, their language, and their institutions changed. Germanic people replaced, and absorbed, the British Celts. Germanic dialects replaced Latin and Celtic, and uncertain hereditary kingships replaced the centrally-governed Roman provinces. Because the Anglo-Saxons were a mobile people, with only an oral tradition, history was not well recorded. England began to evolve from Britain as the German invaders themselves adapted to their new home.

The Roman withdrawal begun before 300 was completed by Maximus in 410. Magnus Maximus was the British military commander, a Spanish usurper, who was proclaimed Western Emperor by the legions in Britain in 383. To secure his own power, Maximus moved those legions to Gaul; thus Rome left Britain by degrees over a long period. Historical opinion is divided as to whether native Britons were slaughtered after the legions left – the evidence being a lack of Celtic place names; or were merely defeated and absorbed: I tend to the latter as explained below. For a century the Romano-British civilisation had been breaking down, but with the Empire under attack, the army was withdrawn. Pax Romana was replaced by large-scale Teutonic raids in 360 and 364; and in 367 a coordinated attack by Saxons and Angles (including Frisians and Jutes) from the North Sea, with Picts from the north and Scotti from the west. The final crisis came when Maximus began to withdraw the last legions in 383, to seize power and pacify Gaul in 407. By 410 the Romans had gone.

449 In this year Mauricius and Valentinian obtained the Kingdom and reigned seven years. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, King of the Britons, came to Britain at a place called Ebbsfleet at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them. The king ordered them to fight against the Picts, and so they did and had victory wherever they came. They then sent to Angeln [i.e. Denmark]; ordered them to send them more aid and to be told of the worthlessness of the Britons and of the excellence of the land. They sent them more aid. These men came from three nations of Germany: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes. From the Jutes came the people of Kent [Cantii] and the people of the Isle of Wight, that is the race, which now dwells in the Isle of Wight, and the race among the West Saxons which is still called the race of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the East Saxons and South Saxons and West Saxons. From Angel, which has stood waste ever since between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians and all the Northumbrians. [1]

For the English, their defining period was the arrival of Germanic tribes known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons. Some researchers suggest this invasion consisted of as few as 10,000 to 25,000 people—not enough to displace existing inhabitants. Analysis of human remains unearthed at an ancient cemetery near Abingdon, England, indicates that Saxon immigrants and native Britons lived side by side. It appears that the new elite dominated politically the majority of British people who were swamped culturally but not genetically. The name Wales is not a Celtic, but an Anglo-Saxon label. Bernicia and Deira survived temporarily as vassal, native kingdoms.

From Argyll in Scotland, to Cornwall, the west coast was subject to another assault. The Irish were adept at sailing across the narrow sea to Britain in their curraghs and ferried slave-raiders and looters. St Patrick was evidently one of the children captured in such a raid. The prospects for such captives was dim. British slaves were sold in markets as far away as Arabia. Permanent Irish settlements were made in both Wales and Scotland.

Arthur

In c458, after having been invited to Britain to help control his neighbouring Celts by Vortigern in 450, a Saxon tribal chief called Hengest brought in Saxon warriors. Inevitably, the Saxons overthrew the Celts, conquered Kent, and established the first Saxon kingdom in Kent: a Saxon immigration flood followed. The Saxons settled in Britain and attacked British towns and villages, which they appear to have renamed. In 477, another Saxon chieftain, Aelle, defeated the local Britons and founded the Saxon kingdom of Sussex. But in 495, the Britons defeated the Saxons at Mount Badon. The Welsh historian, Nennius, records 12 battles in the legendary King Arthur's time as Dux Bellorum. "The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it 960 men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no-one lay them low save he alone." Arthur is, of course, King Arthur, of Celtic myth and legend. Despite attempts to capture hard facts, we can still only speculate if and how he existed. The explanation I like best is that the Normans invented him as a counterweight to the Franks’ hero - Charlemagne. However, there seems to be an increasing view that perhaps Arthur did exist as Nennius recorded.

(The Arthurian Round Table myth has also been linked to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her insistence on manners, art, and the encouragement of poets in the English Court. Eleanor's daughter, Countess Marie. Marie created the 'Court of Love' in Poitiers, c1170s to to train the younger warrior class to value art, manners, honour, and chivalry.)

ENDNOTES

1           The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
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