Traditionally, the period between the end of Roman Britain (conventionally dated 410) and the end of Anglo-Saxon England (at the Battle of Hastings in 1066) has been known as the Dark Ages, but, in these politically correct times, this has been deemed to be pejorative, and there is a tendency to use the phrase Early Medieval (or even Late Antiquity) instead. In terms of the amount of extant evidence, however, Dark Ages is an entirely appropriate description of at least the first couple of centuries of this period.[*] Following on the heels of the rich pickings provided by the Roman era, there can be no denying the paucity of the archaeology – the mass-production of wheel thrown pottery ceased, coinage fell into disuse, and building construction was from timber. The scant literary record, too, fails to provide much in the way of illumination. This historical void has, however, been amply filled by mythology and fable.
Following the end of Roman government, a patchwork of kingdoms apparently developed across the erstwhile ‘diocese of the Britains’ (dioecesis Britanniarum).[*] Dr Ken Dark, in British Archaeology (Issue 32, March 1998), writes:
Far from there being political fragmentation, however, the Romano-British civitates (or tribal areas) may simply have turned themselves wholesale into 5th century British kingdoms. At least initially, these may have retained the territory, and in some cases the name, of the former civitas. For example, the civitas of the Dumnonii became the kingdom of Dumnonia, while that of the Demetae became the kingdom of Dyfed…
Other evidence adds to this picture of large-scale political continuity. 5th and 6th century written sources and inscriptions hint at the survival of Roman-style bureaucratic administration, Roman law, Roman weights and measures, and schooling on the Roman model to train future administrators and judges…
Although independent British kings ruled these kingdoms, there is no reason to suppose they were less Romanised than most of the elite of the 4th century. To give an example, burials of this 5th–6th century elite were more often commemorated by Latin-language inscriptions than seems to have been common anywhere in 4th century Britain…
The political centres of these kingdoms also show evidence of Romanisation. The clearest example of this is probably the well-known sequence at Wroxeter in Shropshire, which may have been the capital of the 6th century kingdom of Powys as well as of the 4th century civitas of the Cornovii. There, parts of the late Roman town were rebuilt after the 5th century to contain highly Romanised buildings occupied until the late 6th or 7th century.
… whether we look at their political centres, their burials, their forms of administration, or the survival of Latin literature and language, western British rulers of the 5th and 6th century seem far more Romanised than has hitherto been supposed.‘Centuries of Roman Survival in the West’
By no means all archaeologists share Dr Dark’s opinion that the evidence points to a ‘long chronology’ for the decease of Romanized Britain (see The Long and the Short of It). Be that as it may, Dr Dark conjectures:
… some 5th or 6th century British kings may have been organizing the defence of their kingdoms on a very ambitious scale. Evidence from Vindolanda, Birdoswald and South Shields may suggest late 5th or early 6th century re-occupation and perhaps refortification of these sites, adding to other evidence that northern British rulers attempted a redefence of Hadrian’s Wall in this period.
There are even hints that these rulers might in some way have been trying to revive the late Roman military command of the Dux Britanniarum, because only forts of that command were apparently re-used. A survey of 5th–6th century archaeological data from all 4th century Roman forts in North and West Britain, showed that out of at most 16 sites with later 5th–6th century evidence no fewer than 14 had probably been under the command of the Dux Britanniarum at the end of the 4th century. This pattern cannot be random and is inexplicable unless forts of this command were particularly selected for re-use. Meanwhile, further south, British rulers may have been responsible for constructing the linear earthwork now called the Wansdyke, arguably derivative of Roman period linear defences.‘Centuries of Roman Survival in the West’
The earliest source to provide an ostensibly chronological account of the end of Roman Britain and the so-called Adventus Saxonum (Coming of the Saxons) is the British cleric Gildas, around 545(?), in his diatribe De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain). Gildas says that, after finally being abandoned by the Romans (see Ruin), the feckless Britons were plagued by marauding Picts and Scots.
The miserable remnant therefore send a letter to Agitius, a man holding high office at Rome. They speak as follows: “To Agitius, thrice consul, come the groans of the Britons”. A little further in their request: “the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us upon the barbarians; by one or other of these two modes of death we are either killed or drowned”. And for these they have no aid.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §20
It is, for the most part, believed that Agitius, to whom Gildas says the Britons made their unsuccessful appeal for help, could only be the Roman general Flavius Aetius, who was the driving force behind the Western Empire. His third consulship was in 446, and his death (murdered by Valentinian III, emperor in the West) was in 454. The respected Anglo-Saxon historian Bede, who based his own account of these events on Gildas, certainly believed Aetius was meant. Returning to Gildas’ narrative:
In the meantime, the severe and well-known famine presses the wandering and vacillating people [i.e. the Britons], which compels many of them without delay to yield themselves as conquered to the bloodthirsty robbers [the Picts and Scots], in order to have a morsel of food for the renewal of life. Others [other Britons] were never so compelled: rather issuing from the very mountains, from caves and defiles and from dense thickets, they carried on the war unceasingly. Then for the first time, they inflicted upon the enemy, which for many years was pillaging in the land, a severe slaughter: their trust was not in man but in God, as that saying of Philo goes: “we must have recourse to divine aid where human fails”. The boldness of the enemy quieted for a time, but not the wickedness of our people; the enemy withdrew from our countrymen, but our countrymen withdrew not from their sins.
… the devastation quieting down, the island was becoming rich with so many resources of affluence that no age remembered the possession of such afterwards: along with these resources of every kind, luxury also grew. It grew, in fact, with strong root, so that it might fitly be said at that same time: “such fornication is actually reported as is not even among the gentiles”. But it was not this vice alone that grew, but also all to which human nature is generally liable: especially the vice which to-day also overthrows the place that appertains to all good in the island, that is to say, hatred of truth together with those who defend it, love of falsehood together with its fabricators, undertaking evil for good, respect for wickedness rather than for kindness, desire of darkness in preference to the sun, the welcoming of Satan as “an angel of light”. Kings were anointed, not in the name of God, but such as surpassed others in cruelty, and shortly afterwards were put to death by the men who anointed them, without any enquiry as to truth, because others more cruel had been elected. If, however, any one among them appeared to be of a milder disposition, and to some extent more attached to truth, against him were turned without respect the hatred and darts of all, as if he were the subverter of Britain; all things, those which were displeasing to God and those which pleased him, had at least equal weight in the balance, if, indeed, the things displeasing to him were not the more acceptable…
Meanwhile, when God was desirous to cleanse his family, and, though defiled by such a strain of evil things, to better it by their hearing only of distress, there came like the winged flight of a rumour not unfamiliar to them, into the listening ears of all – that their old enemies had already arrived, bent upon thorough destruction, and upon dwelling in the country, as had become their wont, from one end to the other. Nevertheless they in no way profited by this news; rather like foolish beasts, with clenched teeth, as the saying is, they bite the bit of reason, and began to run along the broad way of many sins, which leads down to death, quitting the narrow way though it was the path of salvation. Whilst then, according to the words of Solomon, “The stubborn servant is not corrected by words”, the foolish nation is scourged and feels it not: for a deadly pestilence came upon the unwise people which, in a short time, without any sword, brought down such a number of them that the living were unable to bury the dead. But they were not corrected even by this pestilence … the time was drawing nigh when the iniquities of the country, as those of the Amorites of old, would be fulfilled. A council is held, to deliberate what means ought to be determined upon, as the best and safest to repel such fatal and frequent irruptions and plunderings by the nations mentioned above [i.e. the Picts and Scots].
At that time all members of the assembly, along with the proud tyrant, are blinded; such is the protection they find for their country (it was, in fact, its destruction) that those wild Saxons, of accursed name, hated by God and men, should be admitted into the island, like wolves into folds, in order to repel the northern nations. Nothing more hurtful, certainly, nothing more bitter, happened to the island than this. What utter depth of darkness of soul! What hopeless and cruel dullness of mind! The men whom, when absent, they feared more than death, were invited by them of their own accord, so to say, under the cover of one roof: “Foolish princes of Zoan”, as is said, “giving unwise counsel to Pharaoh”. Then there breaks forth a brood of whelps from the lair of the savage lioness, in three keels, as it is expressed in their language, but in ours, in ships of war under full sail, with omens and divinations. In these it was foretold, there being a prophecy firmly relied upon among them, that they should occupy the country to which the bows of their ships were turned, for three hundred years; for one hundred and fifty – that is for half the time – they should make frequent devastations. They sailed out, and at the directions of the unlucky tyrant, first fixed their dreadful talons in the eastern part of the island, as men intending to fight for the country, but more truly to assail it. To these the mother of the brood, finding that success had attended the first contingent, sends out also a larger raft-full of accomplices and curs, which sails over and joins itself to their bastard comrades. From that source, the seed of iniquity, the root of bitterness, grows as a poisonous plant, worthy of our deserts, in our own soil, furnished with rugged branches and leaves. Thus the barbarians, admitted into the island, succeed in having provisions supplied them, as if they were soldiers and about to encounter, as they falsely averred, great hardships for their kind entertainers. These provisions, acquired for a length of time, closed, as the saying is, the dog’s maw. They complain, again, that their monthly supplies were not copiously contributed to them, intentionally colouring their opportunities, and declare that, if larger munificence were not piled upon them, they would break the treaty and lay waste the whole of the island. They made no delay to follow up their threats with deeds.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §§20–23
Gildas’ “proud tyrant” (superbus tyrannus) is given the name Vortigern (Vurtigernus) by Bede.[*] Another figure not named, indeed not even alluded to, by Gildas is St Germanus.
St Germanus, according to his biographer, Constantius of Lyon (writing around 480), made two visits to Britain. Constantius provides no dates.
About this time a deputation from Britain came to tell the bishops of Gaul that the heresy of Pelagius had taken hold of the people over a great part of the country and help ought to be brought to the Catholic faith as soon as possible. A large number of bishops gathered in synod to consider the matter and all turned for help to the two who in everybody’s judgment were the leading lights of religion, namely Germanus [bishop of Auxerre] and Lupus [bishop of Troyes], apostolic priests who through their merits were citizens of heaven, though their bodies were on earth. And because the task seemed laborious, these heroes of piety were all the more ready to undertake it; and the stimulus of their faith brought the business of the synod to a speedy end.Constantius of Lyon Vita Sancti Germani §12
The date of the ensuing first visit, 429, is provided by Prosper of Aquitaine, who was a contemporary of Germanus.[*] Prosper says:
Agricola the Pelagian, the son of Bishop Severianus the Pelagian, corrupted the churches of Britain by introducing his own doctrine. On the recommendation of the deacon Palladius, Pope Celestine sent Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, as his representative, and when the heretics had been cast down, he guided the Britons to the Catholic faith.[*]Prosper of Aquitaine Chronicon §1301
When this damnable heresy had been thus stamped out, its authors refuted, and the minds of all reestablished in the true faith, the bishops visited the shrine of the blessed martyr Alban, to give thanks to God through him. As they were returning, a demon, lying in wait, contrived an accident that caused Germanus to fall and injure his foot… The bishop was detained by his injury in one place for a considerable period … [Germanus miraculously survives a fire which rages through the settlement where he is recuperating.]
Meanwhile, the Saxons and the Picts had joined forces to make war upon the Britons. The latter had been compelled to withdraw their forces within their camp and, judging their resources to be utterly unequal to the contest, asked the help of the holy prelates. The latter sent back a promise to come, and hastened to follow it. Their coming brought such a sense of security that you might have thought that a great army had arrived; to have such apostles for leaders was to have Christ Himself fighting in the camp. It was the season of Lent and the presence of the bishops made the sacred forty days still more sacred; so much so that the soldiers, who received instruction in daily sermons, flew eagerly to the grace of baptism; indeed, great numbers of this pious army sought the waters of salvation. A church was built of leafy branches in readiness for Easter Day, on the plan of a city church, though set in a camp on active service. The soldiers paraded still wet from baptism, faith was fervid, the aid of weapons was thought little of, and all looked for help from heaven. Meanwhile the enemy had learned of the practices and appearance of the camp. They promised themselves an easy victory over practically disarmed troops and pressed on in haste. But their approach was discovered by scouts and, when the Easter solemnities had been celebrated, the army – the greater part of it fresh from the font – began to take up their weapons and prepare for battle and Germanus announced that he would be their general. He chose some light-armed troops and made a tour of the outworks. In the direction from which the enemy were expected he saw a valley enclosed by steep mountains. Here he stationed an army on a new model, under his own command.
By now the savage host of the enemy was close at hand and Germanus rapidly circulated an order that all should repeat in unison the call he would give as a battle-cry. Then, while the enemy were still secure in the belief that their approach was unexpected, the bishops three times chanted the Alleluia. All, as one man, repeated it and the shout they raised rang through the air and was repeated many times in the confined space between the mountains. The enemy were panic-stricken, thinking that the surrounding rocks and the very sky itself were falling on them. Such was their terror that no effort of their feet seemed enough to save them. They fled in every direction, throwing away their weapons and thankful if they could save at least their skins. Many threw themselves into the river which they had just crossed at their ease, and were drowned in it. Thus the British army looked on at its revenge without striking a blow, idle spectators of the victory achieved. The booty strewn everywhere was collected; the pious soldiery obtained the spoils of a victory from heaven. The bishops were elated at the rout of the enemy without bloodshed and a victory gained by faith and not by force. Thus this most wealthy island, with the defeat of both its spiritual and its human foes, was rendered secure in every sense. And now, to the great grief of the whole country, those who had won the victories over both Pelagians and Saxons made preparations for their return. Their own merits and the intercession of Alban the Martyr secured them a calm voyage; and a good ship brought them back in peace to their expectant people.Constantius of Lyon Vita Sancti Germani §§16–18
It is not necessary to date the Alleluia Victory, as it is known, to April 429 (Easter fell on 7th April in 429). It actually seems a tight squeeze to accommodate Germanus’ adventures in just the first few months of that year. It is quite possible that he and Lupus were in Britain for a few years.[*] Constantius’ assertion that Germanus made a second (much briefer and less eventful, it seems) visit to Britain, apparently not too long before his death, is uncorroborated.[*] If the visit did happen – it could be the result of confusion on Constantius’ part, and not have occurred at all – when it happened is not certain because the year of Germanus’ death is not certain (the two favoured years are 437 and 448).
The Saxons – who feature in Constantius’ (unlikely?) story of the Alleluia Victory, apparently set in the 430s – only enter Gildas’ narrative when, seemingly some considerable time after 446, three ship-loads of warriors arrive in Britain, at the invitation of the “proud tyrant” and his associates, in order to tackle the Picts and Scots. The Saxons, though, were well known to the Britons long before either date. They, and, another Germanic group, the Franks, are first noted raiding along the coast of Gaul in 285.[*] Though there is no specific record of the Saxons harassing Britain until 364,[*] it seems reasonable to assume that they had been a problem since the mid-280s. By c.400, as testified by the Notitia Dignitatum, the south-eastern coast of Britain was known as the Saxon Shore. The origin of the name is the subject of ongoing debate. It would, on the face of it, seem reasonable to suppose that the Saxon Shore was so-named because it was attacked by Saxon raiders. This would be curious, however, since no other Roman frontier seems to have been named after the foe it faced. It was, though, a Roman tactic to turn poachers into gamekeepers, that is, to employ groups of barbarians to check the activities of other groups of barbarians. Possibly, then, the Saxon Shore was known as such because it was settled, and defended for the Empire, by Saxons. At any rate, when the Britons of Gildas’ narrative sought the aid of barbarian mercenaries, they were by no means breaking new ground. Bede provides a date for this Adventus Saxonum (by simply deducing it from the chronology that Gildas seemed, to Bede, to have indicated?) and the names of the mercenaries’ leaders:
In the year of our Lord 449, Marcian, the 46th from Augustus, being made emperor with Valentinian, ruled the empire 7 years.[*] Then the nation of the Angles, or Saxons, being invited by the aforesaid king [Vortigern], arrived in Britain with three ships of war and had a place in which to settle assigned to them by the same king, in the eastern part of the island, on the pretext of fighting in defence of the country, whilst their real intentions were to conquer it.[*] Accordingly they engaged with the enemy, who were come from the north to give battle, and the Saxons obtained the victory. When the news of their success and of the fertility of the country, and the cowardice of the Britons, reached their own home, a more considerable fleet was quickly sent over, bringing a greater number of men, and these, being added to the former army, made up an invincible force. The newcomers received of the Britons a place to inhabit among them, upon condition that they should wage war against their enemies for the peace and security of the country, whilst the Britons agreed to furnish them with pay. Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany – Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.[*]… The first commanders are said to have been the two brothers Hengist and Horsa. Of these Horsa was afterwards slain in battle by the Britons, and a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence in the eastern parts of Kent. They were the sons of Wihtgisl, whose father was Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden; from whose stock the royal race of many provinces trace their descent. In a short time, swarms of the aforesaid nations came over into the island, and the foreigners began to increase so much, that they became a source of terror to the natives themselves who had invited them. Then, having on a sudden entered into league with the Picts, whom they had by this time repelled by force of arms, they began to turn their weapons against their allies. At first, they obliged them to furnish a greater quantity of provisions; and, seeking an occasion of quarrel, protested, that unless more plentiful supplies were brought them, they would break the league, and ravage all the island; nor were they backward in putting their threats into execution.Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 15
Bede lifts the whole story of Germanus in Britain from Constantius, and places it, as a postscript, after his account of the Adventus and its aftermath.[*] Although he also had access to Prosper’s chronicle, Bede doesn't mention Prosper’s dating of the first visit. He was clearly struggling to reconcile his sources – an alliance of Saxons and Picts (according to Constantius) at a date (according to Prosper) before the Saxons had (according to Gildas) arrived. He seems to have worked around the problem by dating the activities of Agricola, the son of Severianus (reported by Prosper), to “some few years before their [the Saxons] arrival” (avoiding mention of Prosper’s date, 429 – which seemed far too early to him?), but placing the mission of Germanus and the Alleluia Victory some time after the Saxons’ arrival.[*]
According to the, early-9th century, Welsh, Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), the Saxons arrived in Britain during the fourth regnal year of Vortigern (§66). The Historia (§31) says that Vortigern was concerned not only about the predations of the Scots and Picts, but also about the possibility of a Roman invasion, and, thirdly, that he was afraid of one Ambrosius (about whom more later). Anyway, the Historia computes a number of different dates for the Adventus.[*] The most convincingly calculated, however, 428, is compatible with Prosper’s date for Germanus’ mission, and, indeed, fantastical episodes featuring Germanus interrupt the story of the Saxons’ arrival and their rebellion against the Britons.[*]
… three keels came, driven into exile from Germany. In them were the brothers Horsa and Hengist, sons of Wihtgisl… Vortigern [Welsh: Gwrtheyrn. Old Welsh: Guorthigirn] received them as friends, and handed over to them the island that in their language is called Thanet, in British Ruoihm…
In his [Vortigern’s] time Saint Germanus came to preach in Britain, and became famous among them by his many powers, and many were saved through him, and many came to perdition. [The first Germanus episode is then recounted.]Historia Brittonum §§31–32
And it came to pass, after the Saxons were encamped in the aforementioned island of Thanet, the aforesaid king [Vortigern] promised to supply them with food and clothing without fail; and they agreed, and promised to fight bravely against his enemies…[*]
But Hengist was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Assessing the king’s impotence and the military weakness of his people, he held a council and said to the British king “We are few; if you wish, we can send to our homeland and invite soldiers from amongst the soldiers of our region, that the number who fight for you and your people may be larger.”Historia Brittonum §§36–37
Vortigern, of course, agrees to Hengist’s proposal. A further sixteen ships arrive, bringing with them Hengist’s beautiful daughter.[*] Hengist throws a party to which Vortigern and his retinue are invited. The Britons are plied with drink, and the besotted Vortigern offers Hengist anything he would like in exchange for his daughter. Hengist takes counsel with his elders:
… and they all agreed to ask for the region that in their language is called Cantwaraland, but in ours Caint [i.e. Kent]. So he granted it to them although Gwyrangon was ruling in Kent, and did not know that his kingdom was being handed over to the heathens, and that he himself was alone given secretly into their power. So the girl was given in marriage to Vortigern, and he slept with her, and loved her deeply.
Hengist said to Vortigern “I am your father, and will be your adviser. Never ignore my advice, and you will never fear conquest by any man or any people, for my people are strong. I will invite my son and his cousin to fight against the Scots, for they are fine warriors. Give them the regions that are in the north, near the wall that is called Guaul.” So he told him to invite them, and he invited Octha and Ebissa, with forty keels. They sailed around the Picts and wasted the Orkney Islands, and came and occupied many regions beyond the Frenessican Sea, as far as the borders of the Picts. So Hengist gradually brought over more and more keels, until they left the islands from which they came uninhabited; and as his people grew in strength and numbers, they came to the aforesaid country [civitas] of the people of Kent.Historia Brittonum §§37–38
There then follows an episode (§39) in which St Germanus discovers that Vortigern has committed incest by marrying his own daughter, and that he has a son by her.
This is followed by a yarn (§§40–42) in which, on the advice of his wizards (magi), who have realized that the Saxons are up to no good, Vortigern undertakes to build a citadel in Snowdonia. The requisite materials are gathered, but they disappear overnight. This happens twice more – three being a mystic number in these fables. Vortigern consults his wizards, who tell him: “Unless you find a child without a father, and he is killed, and the citadel is sprinkled with his blood, it will never be built at all.” The child is found, but he reveals to Vortigern the ignorance of his wizards, and offers to solve the mystery. He tells them that, if they dig, they will find a pool. In the pool are a pair of vessels, which, when separated, reveal a folded tent. When the tent is unfolded it is found to contain two sleeping worms – one white, one red.
The boy said “Wait and see what the worms do.” The worms began to drive each other out. One used his shoulders to drive the other to a half of the tent. This they did three times; then the red worm seemed to be weaker, and then was stronger than the white, and drove him beyond the bounds of the tent. The one pursued the other across the pool and the tent vanished. Then the boy asked the wizards “What is the meaning of this remarkable sign that happened in the tent?” They admitted, “We do not know.” The boy answered, “This mystery is revealed to me, and I will make it plain to you. The tent represents your kingdom, and the two worms are two dragons. The red worm is your dragon, and the pool represents the world. But the white one is the dragon of that people who have seized many peoples and regions in Britain, and will reach almost from sea to sea; but later our people will arise, and will valiantly throw the English people across the sea. But do you go forth from this citadel, for you cannot build it, and travel over many provinces to find a safe citadel, and I will stay here.” Then the king asked the lad “What is your name?” He replied “I am called Ambrosius”, that is, he was shown to be Emrys Wledig [Embreis Guletic]. The king asked “What family do you come from?” And he said “My father is one of the consuls of the Roman people.” So the king gave him the citadel, with all the kingdoms of the western part of Britain, and he went himself with his wizards to the left-hand [i.e. northern] part, and came to the region called Gwynessi and there he built a city, which is called Caer Gwrtheyrn after his name.Historia Brittonum §42
In the famous pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written in the 1130s, this yarn is further embellished, and the boy acquires the name of Merlin.
The Historia Brittonum turns its attention back to the Saxons:
Meanwhile Vortigern’s son Vortimer [Welsh: Gwerthefyr. Old Welsh: Guorthemir] fought vigorously against Hengist and Horsa and their people, and expelled them as far as the aforesaid island called Thanet, and there three times shut them up and besieged them, attacking, threatening and terrifying them. So they sent envoys overseas to Germany to summon keels with a vast number of fighting men. And afterwards they used to fight against the kings of our nation, sometimes victoriously advancing their frontiers, sometimes being defeated and expelled.
Vortimer eagerly fought four battles against them. The first battle was on the river Derguentid [presumably the Darent, Kent]. The second battle was at the ford called Episford [probably Aylesford, Kent] in their language, Rhyd yr afael in ours, and there fell Horsa, and also Vortigern’s son Cateyrn. The third battle was fought in the open country by the inscribed stone on the shore of the Gallic Sea. The barbarians were beaten and he was victorious. They fled to their keels and were drowned as they clambered aboard them like women.[*]Historia Brittonum §§43–44
The Historia Brittonum says that Vortimer died soon after he had driven the Saxons to their ships. He had instructed his followers to bury him there on the coast – if they did this the Saxons would be unable to return. Of course, Vortimer’s followers fail to carry out his instructions, and:
… the barbarians returned in force, for Vortigern was their friend because of his wife, and none was resolute to drive them out; for they occupied Britain not because of their strength, but because it was the will of God.Historia Brittonum §45
The Saxons hatch a plot to overthrow Vortigern. They send envoys to the Britons, offering peace and “perpetual friendship”. Vortigern and his council agree to a treaty. A meeting between Britons and Saxons is arranged, at which both parties would be unarmed, to ratify the treaty.
But Hengist told all his followers to hide their daggers under their feet, in their shoes, saying “When I call out to you and say Eniminit saxas!, take your daggers from your shoes and fall upon them, and stand firm against them.[*] But do not kill the king; keep him alive, for my daughter’s sake, whom I gave to him in marriage, for it is better for us that he be ransomed from our hands.” So the conference assembled, and the Saxons, friendly in their words but wolfish in heart and deed, sat down, like friends, man beside man. Hengist cried out as he had said, and all the three hundred elders of King Vortigern were killed, and the king alone was taken and held prisoner. To save his life he ceded several regions; namely those of the East Saxons [Essex] and the South Saxons [Sussex][*].Historia Brittonum §46
At this point, the Historia Brittonum involves St Germanus in the story for the last time. Vortigern flees from Germanus, who is intent on getting him to “convert to his Lord, and separate himself from the illicit union [with his daughter]”. The king eventually takes refuge in a citadel on the river Teifi. Germanus catches up with him, and, after three days and nights of fasting by the saint, and “all the clergy of the Britons”, fire falls from heaven, incinerating the citadel. Vortigern, “his wives”, and everyone else with him, are killed:
… This is the end of Vortigern as I found it in the book of the blessed Germanus; but others have different versions.
When he was hated for his sin, by all men of his own nation, mighty and humble, slave and free, monk and layman, poor and great, he wandered from place to place until at last his heart broke, and he died without honour. Others say that the earth opened and swallowed him up on the night when his citadel burned about him, for no trace was ever found of those who were burned with him in the citadel…
After his death, Saint Germanus returned to his own country…Historia Brittonum §§47, 48 & 50
Returning to the ranting of Gildas:
For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighbouring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue… In this way were all the settlements brought low with the frequent shocks of the battering rams; the inhabitants, along with the bishops of the church, both priests and people, whilst swords gleamed on every side and flames crackled, were together mown down to the ground, and, sad sight! there were seen in the midst of streets, the bottom stones of towers with tall beam cast down, and of high walls, sacred altars, fragments of bodies covered with clots, as if coagulated, of red blood, in confusion as in a kind of horrible wine press: there was no burial of any kind save in the ruins of houses, or the bellies of wild beasts and birds in the open, I say it with reverence to their holy souls (if in fact there were many to be found holy), that would be carried by holy angels to the heights of heaven. For the vineyard, at one time good, had then so far degenerated to bitter fruit, that rarely could be seen, according to the prophet, any cluster of grapes or ear of corn, as it were, behind the back of the vintagers or reapers.
Some of the wretched remnant were consequently captured on the mountains and killed in heaps. Others, overcome by hunger, came and yielded themselves to the enemies, to be their slaves for ever, if they were not instantly slain, which was equivalent to the highest service. Others repaired to parts beyond the sea, with strong lamentation, as if, instead of the oarsman’s call, singing thus beneath the swelling sails: “Thou hast given us like sheep appointed for eating, and among the gentiles hast thou scattered us.” Others, trusting their lives, always with apprehension of mind, to high hills, overhanging, precipitous, and fortified, and to dense forests and rocks of the sea, remained in their native land, though with fear. After a time, when the cruel robbers had gone home [presumably to their settlements in Britain], God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched citizens flocked to them from different places on every side, as eagerly as a hive of bees when a storm is threatening, at the same time begging with their whole heart, as is said: “burdening the air with unnumbered prayers”, that they should not be utterly destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who alone, by chance, of the Roman nation had survived the shock of such a storm (in which his parents, undoubtedly clad in the purple, had perished), whose offspring in our days have greatly degenerated from their ancestral nobleness. They [the British survivors] regained their strength, challenging their victors to battle; with the Lord assenting, victory fell to them.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §§24–25
Bede follows Gildas:
When the army of the enemy, having destroyed and dispersed the natives, had returned home, they [the Britons] began by degrees to take heart, and gather strength, sallying out of the lurking places where they had concealed themselves, and with one accord imploring the Divine help, that they might not be utterly destroyed. They had at that time for their leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who alone, by chance, of the Roman nation had survived this storm, in which his parents, who bore a royal and famous name, had perished. Under him the Britons regained their strength, and challenging their victors to battle, by the help of God, gained the victory.Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 16
According to the Historia Brittonum, after Vortigern’s death, a son of his ruled two territories “by permission of Ambrosius, who was king among all the kings of the British nation”.[*]
From that time, now the citizens, now the enemy had the victory, in order that the Lord, according to His wont, might try in this nation the Israel of to-day, whether it loves Him or not. This continued up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill, almost the last, though not the least, slaughter of the villains. This commences, a fact I know, as the forty-fourth year, with one month now elapsed; it is also the year of my birth.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §26
Gildas’ Latin style is generally obscure, and here it is particularly so. As we have seen, Bede follows Gildas closely – just stripping out the fire and brimstone, and clarifying the phraseology – and he renders the above paragraph:
And from that time, now the citizens, now the enemy had the victory, up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill, when they made no small slaughter of those enemies, about 44 years after their arrival in Britain.Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 16
In this instance, Bede’s paraphrase does not seem to match the text of De Excidio that has survived into modern times. The generally accepted meaning of the surviving text is that Gildas was born in the same year that the Britons defeated the Saxons at Badon Hill (often called Mount Badon), which occurred just over forty-three years earlier than he was writing. It is possible that Bede’s interpretation was simply an inference on his part, but it has to be remembered that his text of De Excidio was considerably nearer to the original than the surviving text. At any rate, Bede’s chronology (he placed the Adventus Saxonum during the seven year period 449–455) dates the battle at Badon Hill to sometime between about 493 and 499.
The Historia Brittonum introduces a new name, mentioned by neither Gildas nor Bede, into its narrative:
Then Arthur fought against them [the Saxons] in those days, together with the kings of the Britons, but he was their leader in battle. The first battle was at the mouth of a river which is called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was on the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the wood of Celyddon; that is Cat Coed Celyddon. The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shoulders, and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the shore of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was on the hill which is called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low but he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.[*]Historia Brittonum §56
Suggesting a date of 516, the Annales Cambriae (A-text) record:
The battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.
And another entry (537 is the indicated year) reads:
The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.[*]
Surely, if Arthur did indeed exist as a significant historical figure, it is reasonable to suppose that Gildas, and subsequently Bede, would have made some reference to him?
After his mention of Badon Hill, Gildas continues:
But not even at the present day are the cities of our country inhabited as formerly; deserted and dismantled, they lie neglected until now, because, although wars with foreigners have ceased, domestic wars continue.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §26
He also talks of:
… the ruin of cities, of the men who survived; of the final victory won by the mother country, which is the gift granted by the will of God in our own times.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §2
So, the British victory at Badon Hill appears to have (for the time being) arrested the Anglo-Saxon advance. At the time Gildas was writing, Britons and Saxons were at peace.
Gildas bemoans the decadence which he believed had afflicted the Britons since, thanks to God’s help, they had managed to halt the Anglo-Saxon advance:
The recollection of so hopeless a ruin of the island, and of the unlooked-for help, has been fixed in the memory of those who have survived as witnesses of both marvels. Owing to this [aid] kings, magistrates, private persons, priests, ecclesiastics, severally preserved their own rank. As they died away, when an age had succeeded ignorant of that storm, and having experience only of the present quiet, all the controlling influences of truth and justice were so shaken and overturned that, not to speak of traces, not even the remembrance of them is to be found among the ranks named above. I make exception of a few – a very few – who owing to the loss of the vast multitude that rushes daily to hell, are counted at so small a number that our revered mother, the church, in a manner does not observe them as they rest in her bosom. They are the only real children she has. Let no man think that I am slandering the noble life of these men, admired by all and beloved of God, by whom my weakness is supported so as not to fall into entire ruin, by holy prayers, as by columns and serviceable supports. Let no one think so, if in a somewhat excessively free-spoken, yea, doleful manner, driven by a crowd of evils, I shall not so much treat of, as weep concerning those who serve not only their belly, but the devil rather than Christ, “who is God blessed for ever”. For why will fellow-citizens hide what the nations around already not only know, but reproach us with?
Kings Britain has, but they are as her tyrants: she has judges, but they are ungodly men: engaged in frequent plunder and disturbance, but of harmless men: avenging and defending, yea for the benefit of criminals and robbers. They have numerous wives, though harlots and adulterous women: they swear but by way of forswearing, making vows yet almost immediately use falsehood. They make wars, but the wars they undertake are civil and unjust ones. They certainly pursue thieves industriously throughout the country, whilst those thieves who sit with them at table, they not only esteem but even remunerate. Alms they give profusely, but over against this they heap up a huge mountain of crimes. They take their seat to pronounce sentence, yet seldom seek the rule of right judgment. Despising the innocent and lowly, they to their utmost extol to the stars the bloody-minded, the proud, the murderous men, their own companions and the adulterous enemies of God, if chance so offers, who ought, together with their very name, to be assiduously destroyed. Many have they bound in their prisons, whom they ill-use with weight of chains, more by their own fraud than by reason of desert: they linger among the altars in the oaths they make, and shortly afterwards look with disdain on these same altars as if they were dirty stones.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §§26–27
Gildas singles out five British kings for particular criticism.
Of this so execrable a wickedness Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia, is not ignorant. In this year, after a dreadful form of oath, by which he bound himself that he would use no deceit against his subjects … he nevertheless, in the garb of a holy abbot, cruelly tore the tender sides of two royal children, while in the bosoms of two revered mothers – viz. the church and the mother after the flesh – together with their two guardians. And their arms, stretched forth, in no way to armour, which no man was in the habit of using more bravely than they at this time, but towards God and His altar, will hang in the day of judgment at thy gates, Oh Christ, as revered trophies of their patience and faith. He did this among the holy altars, as I said, with accursed sword and spear instead of teeth, so that the cloaks, red as if with clotted blood, touched the place of the heavenly sacrifice. This deed he committed, after no meritorious acts worthy of praise; for, many years previously he was overcome by frequent successive deeds of adultery, having put away his legitimate wife, contrary to the prohibition of Christ and the Teacher of the gentiles, who say: “What God hath joined let man not separate”, and: “Husbands love your wives”. For he planted, of “the bitter vine of Sodom” in the soil of his heart, unfruitful for good seed, a shoot of unbelief and unwisdom, which, watered by public and domestic impieties as if by poisonous showers, and springing forth more quickly to the displeasure of God, brought forth the guilt of murder and sacrilege. But as one not yet free from the nets of prior sins he heaps new crimes upon old ones.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §28
Damnonia, i.e. Dumnonia,[*] comprised Cornwall, Devon, and possibly parts of Dorset and Somerset.
Thou also, “lion’s whelp”, as the prophet says, what doest thou, Aurelius Caninus? Art thou not swallowed up in the same, if not more destructive, filth, as the man previously mentioned, the filth of murders, fornications, adulteries, like sea-waves rushing fatally upon thee? Hast thou not by thy hatred of thy country’s peace, as if it were a deadly serpent, or by thy iniquitous thirst for civil wars and repeated spoils, closed the doors of heavenly peace and repose for thy soul? Left alone now, like a dry tree in the midst of a field, remember, I pray thee, the pride of thy fathers and brothers, with their early and untimely death. Wilt thou, because of pious deserts, an exception to almost all thy family, survive for a hundred years, or be of the years of Methuselah? No. But unless, as the Psalmist says, thou “be very speedily converted to the Lord, that King will soon brandish his sword against thee”; who says by the prophet: “I will kill and I will make alive: I shall wound and I shall heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand”. Wherefore shake thyself from thy filthy dust, and turn unto Him with thy whole heart, unto Him who created thee, so that “when His anger quickly kindles, thou mayest be blest, hoping in Him”. But if not so, eternal pains await thee, who shalt be always tormented, without being consumed, in the dread jaws of hell.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §30
Aurelius Caninus is not otherwise known.
Why also art thou, Vortipor, tyrant of the Demetae, foolishly stubborn? Like the leopard art thou, in manners and wickedness of various colour, though thy head is now becoming grey, upon a throne full of guile, and from top to bottom defiled by various murders and adulteries, thou worthless son of a good king, as Manasseh of Hezekiah. What! do not such wide whirlpools of sins, which thou suckest in like good wine, nay, art thyself swallowed by them, though the end of life is gradually drawing near – do these not satisfy thee? Why, to crown all thy sins, dost thou, when thine own wife had been removed and her death had been virtuous, by the violation of a shameless daughter, burden thy soul as with a weight impossible to remove? Spend not, I beseech thee, the remainder of thy days in offending God …Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §31
The tribal area of the Demetae, in south-west Wales, became the kingdom of Dyfed.
Why dost thou, also, wallow in the old filth of thy wickedness, from the years of thy youth, thou bear, rider of many, and driver of a chariot belonging to a bear’s den, despiser of God and contemner of His decree, thou Cuneglasus (meaning in the Roman tongue, thou ‘tawny butcher’)? Why dost thou maintain such strife against both men and God? Against men, thine own countrymen, to wit, by arms special to thyself; against God, by crimes without number? Why, in addition to innumerable lapses, dost thou, having driven away thy wife, cast thine eyes upon her dastardly sister, who is under a vow to God of the perpetual chastity of widowhood, that is as the poet says, of the highest tenderness of heavenly nymphs, with the full reverence, or rather bluntness, of her mind, against the apostle’s prohibition when he says that adulterers cannot be citizens of the kingdom of heaven? Why dost thou provoke, by thy repeated injuries, the groans and sighs of saints, who on thy account are living in the body, as if they were the teeth of a huge lioness that shall some day break thy bones?… Be not, as the apostle says, “high-minded, nor have thy hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but in God who giveth thee many things richly”, that by an amendment of life, “thou mayest lay in store for thyself a good foundation against the time to come”, and mayest have the true life; that is, of course, the eternal life, not that which passeth away. Otherwise thou shalt know and see, even in this world, how evil and bitter it is to have abandoned the Lord thy God, and that His fear is not with thee, and that in the world to come thou shalt be burnt in the hideous mass of eternal fires, without, however, in any way dying. For the souls of sinners are as immortal for never-ending fire as those of the saints are for joy.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §32
Cuneglasus is usually equated with Cynlas (Cinglas), who appears in Harleian Genealogies §3 – associated with the Rhos (a subdivision of Gwynedd) dynasty – as great-grandson of Cunedda.
And thou, the island dragon, who hast driven many of the tyrants mentioned previously, as well from life as from kingdom, thou last in my writing, first in wickedness, exceeding many in power and at the same time in malice, more liberal in giving, more excessive in sin, strong in arms, but stronger in what destroys thy soul – thou Maglocunus, why dost thou obtusely wallow in such an old black pool of crimes, as if sodden with “the wine that is pressed from the vine of Sodom”? Why dost thou tie to thy royal neck (of thine own accord, as I may say), such heaps, impossible to remove, of crimes, as of high mountains? Why showest thou thyself to Him, the King of all kings, who made thee superior to almost all the kings of Britain, both in kingdom and in the form of thy stature, not better than the rest in morality, but on the contrary worse? Give a patient hearing for awhile to an undoubted record of those charges which, passing by domestic and lighter offences – if, indeed, any are light – shall testify only the things which have been proclaimed far and wide, in broad daylight, as admitted crimes. Didst thou not, in the first years of thy youth, most bitterly crush, with sword and spear and fire, thy uncle the king and, almost, his bravest soldiers, whose countenance in battle appeared not very unlike that of lions’ whelps? Not regarding the prophet's word when it says: “Men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days”…
When the dream of thy oppressive reign turned out according to thy wish, didst thou not, drawn by the desire to return unto the right way, with the consciousness of thy sins probably biting days and nights during that period, first, largely meditating with thyself on the godly walk and the rules of monks, then, bringing them forward to the knowledge of open publicity, didst thou not vow thyself for ever a monk? Without any thought of unfaithfulness was it done, according to thy declaration, in the sight of God Almighty, before the face of angels and men… What and how many rewards of the kingdom of Christ would wait thy soul in the day of judgment, if that crafty wolf, when from a wolf thou hadst become a lamb, had not snatched thee from the Lord’s fold (not greatly against thy will), to make thee a wolf from a lamb, like unto himself! What joy thy salvation, if secured, had furnished to the gracious Father and God of all saints, had not the wretched father of all the lost, like an eagle of mighty wings and claws – the devil, I mean – against every right, snatched thee away to the unhappy troop of his children! Not to be tedious – thy conversion unto good fruit brought as much joy and pleasantness, both to heaven and earth, as now thy accursed reversion to thy fearful vomit like a sick dog, has caused of sorrow and lamentation… the vessel, once prepared for the service of God, is changed into an instrument of Satan, and that which was deemed worthy of heavenly honour is, according to its desert, cast into the abyss of hell.
Yet not by such stumbling-blocks of evils, as if by a kind of barrier, is thy mind, dulled through a load of unwisdom, retarded; but impetuous like a young colt, which, imagining every pleasant place as not traversed, rushes along, with unbridled fury, over wide fields of crimes, heaping new sins upon old. For contempt is thrown upon thy first marriage, though after thy violated vow as a monk it was illicit, yet was to be assumed as the marriage of thine own proper wife; another marriage is sought after, not with anybody’s widow, but with the beloved wife of a living man; and he not a stranger, but thy brother’s son. On this account, that stiff neck, already weighted with many burdens of sins (to wit, a double daring murder, the killing of the husband above named, and the wife that was for a time regarded by thee as thine), is bent down through the extreme excess of thy sacrilegious deed, from lowest crimes to still lower. Afterwards thou didst wed her, by whose collusion and intimation, the huge mass of the crimes grew suddenly so big, in public, and (as the false tongues of thy flatterers assert, at the top of their voice, though not from the depth of their heart), in a legitimate marriage, regarding her as a widow; but our tongues say, in desecrated wedlock. What saint is there whose bowels, moved by such a tale, do not at once break forth into weeping and sobbing? What priest, whose righteous heart is open before God, on hearing of these things, would not, with great wailing, instantly say that word of the prophet: “Who will give water unto my head, and a fountain of tears unto my eyes? And I shall weep day and night the slain of my people”…Gildas De Excidio Britanniae 33–35
Maglocunus is, almost universally, equated with Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, in north-west Wales (the island in question being Anglesey). In Harleian Genealogies §1, Maelgwn (Mailcun) features as great-grandson of Cunedda, and the Annales Cambriae indicate a date of 547 for Maelgwn’s death.[*]
The British clergy also feel the sharp edge of Gildas’ pen, in a tirade which begins:
Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly.Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §66
To other crimes beyond description, which their own historian, Gildas, mournfully relates, they [the Britons] added this – that they never preached the faith to the Saxons or Angles who dwelt amongst them. Nevertheless, the goodness of God did not forsake his people, whom he foreknew, but sent to the aforesaid nation much more worthy heralds of the truth, to bring it to the faith.Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 22