"The Island was still Roman in name, but not by law and custom. Rather, it cast forth a sprig of its own bitter planting, and sent Maximus to Gaul with a great retinue of hangers-on and even the imperial insignia, which he was never fit to bear: he had no legal claim to the title, but was raised to it like a tyrant by rebellious soldiery....
After that Britain was despoiled of her whole army, her military resources, her governors, brutal as they were, and her sturdy youth, who had followed in the tyrants footsteps, never to return home. Quite ignorant of the ways of war, she groaned aghast for many years, trodden under foot first by two exceedingly savage overseas nations, the Scots from the north-west and the Picts from the north."
- Gildas - De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
The Ending of Roman Britain
As every schoolboy knows, the
Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD and left around 410 AD. In between
was peace, civilisation, happy days; before and after the Britons
were simple savages experiencing bad times; with famine but without
an economy. But of course, the transition from Britannia to England
was far from straightforward.
The year 383 marks a significant step toward the end of Roman rule
in Britain. In this year Roman troops were withdrawn from northern and
western regions of Britain for the last time. The ending of Roman
Britain was not a singular datable event. Three dates are given for
the terminus: 407 AD when Constantine III left Britain; 409 AD the
year the Romano-Britons expelled Roman magistrates from their cities;
and 410 AD, the date of the Rescript of Honorius
, when the
Emperor sent letters to the cities of Britain, telling them to take
up arms and defend themselves.
Following the ejection of the Roman administration from Britain in 409 AD a historical
vacuum ensued, a period without reliable contemporary insular sources. This Dark Age
has been termed “Sub-Roman Britain
” based on the inferior
pottery of the 5th and 6th centuries, or more acceptably “Post-Roman
” in mainly non-archaeological contexts. The duration of
this period is generally said to span from the end of Roman Imperial
rule in Britain, the early 5th
century to the arrival of
Saint Augustine in 597 AD.
This historical vacuum, spanning almost two hundred years, the
transition from Roman Britain to the Anglo Saxon era, is of immense
importance to Arthurian scholars. Conveniently, the period has been
termed the “Arthurian Age
” to the disdain of academics.
But the term has fired the public imagination and continues to be
used by popular authors in the title of their books.
Our one substantial, and near-contemporary, source for this period
is Gildas, who authored De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
(On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), writing in the mid 6th century so we are told. Much
has been written by modern historians concerning when and where
Gildas wrote. Yet, one thing is certain, as a key historian of the
” Gildas would have been a contemporary of
King Arthur but he fails to mentions him entirely. The early 9th
century text the Historia Brittonum
names Arthur as the victor
at the Battle of Badon; Gildas assigns the victory to Ambrosius
Aurelianus; is this the historical Arthur?
The Chronology of Gildas
|Hadrian's Wall (Oliver Benn/Getty Images)|
According to Gildas the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the
Saxons was divine retribution for the sins of the Britons (cc.13-21):
Britain is denuded of her garrison who
went with Maximus never to return leaving Britain at the mercy of the
Scots and the Picts.
The Britons appeals to Rome for help. A
legion is immediately despatched and drives the raiders back beyond
the borders. A turf wall is constructed across the island from sea to
As soon as the legion returned home the barbarian raids
A further appeal went out to Rome who again drive
the raiders beyond the sea from which they came to plunder year after
This time the Romans left the country saying they could not
be bothered with such laborious expeditions telling the Britons to
arm themselves and look to their own defences. They built a wall in a
straight line from sea to sea and erected towers on the south coast,
where they moor their ships. The
Romans then left the island never to return.
No sooner had they
gone than the raids by the Picts and Scots started again. The Britons
left their cities and abandoned the Wall. The enemy pursued them and
butchered the Britons like sheep, who turned their arms on each other
in domestic feuds so that the whole island was destitute of
The Britons appeal to Rome for the third time: "To
Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the
Britons..............The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea
throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us,
we are either slain or drowned." But no help came.
Britons suffering the effects of severe famine, hid out in the
mountains, caves and woods, but rallied and took the fight to the
Barbarians and overthrew the enemy who for a while was checked.
it has always been a custom with our nation, it is at present, to be
impotent in repelling foreign foes, but bold and invincible in
raising civil war. The Picts returned to their winter quarter but
before long would return to plunder and for the first time seated
themselves at the extremity of the island. Then luxury befell the
|The Saxon Shore (Wikipedia Commons)|
Gildas does not claim to write a history
and provides no dates. However, we can provide a rough chronology as
we know when Maximus departed Britain (383) and Aetius, thrice consul
(446) but he does muddle the building of the Walls. The northern
(Antonine) wall was constructed with turf and stone c.140's running
for 39 miles across the central belt of modern Scotland from north of
the Clyde to the Firth of Forth, whereas construction of Hadrian's
Wall, stretching for 75 miles from the Solway Firth to the mouth of
the River Tyne in the east, began in 122 AD. He appears to misplace the
erection of the towers on the south coast; does he mean the nine
Saxon Shore forts listed in the Notitia Dignitatum
(Brancaster, Norfolk to Portchester, Hampshire) established by the
century, or the five coastal watchtowers
(Huntcliff to Scarborough) erected on the North Yorkshire coast
linked to restoration of the Wall in the 4th century following the
Rome and the Barbarians
The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus
records that Nectaridus
Count of the Saxon Shore, was killed during the so-called Barbarian
Conspiracy of 367 AD, when Picts, Attacotti, Scotti and Saxons
attacked Britain simultaneously. Fullofaudes
Britanniarum, commander of the armies of the north, was also
captured. Order was finally restored when Count Theodosius came in
Britain in 369 AD, in all likelihood accompanied by a young Hispanic
officer named Magnus Maximus.
included a list of forts on the northern coast of Gaul as part of
the Saxon Shore system. However, when the list was compiled for the Western Empire, around 420 AD, Britain had already been abandoned by the
Roman Legions. Debate continues as to the meaning of the name of this
maritime defence system; were the forts occupied by Saxon foederati
or constructed to protect against Saxon pirates raiding along the
Channel? The Notitia
the first instance is likely to be correct, using the term Saxon as a
generic term for Barbarian soldier. At one shore fort (Branodunum
for example , we find a Dalmatian cavalry unit was stationed.
However, the original garrison may have been the First cohort from
Aquitania whose homeland bordered the province of Gallia Lugdunensis
which may explain the Roman name said to derive from the local Celtic
language meaning "fort of the raven
evidence suggests earlier they formed the original garrison of the
Carrawburgh fort on Hadrian's Wall before transferring to Brough on
Noe, then Bakewell prior to Brancaster.
The Roman policy of employing Barbarians on frontier zones may
have provided the principle mechanism for the immigration of many
Barbarian peoples into Britain. Eight cohorts of Batavian cavalry are
known to have been in the Roman invasion force of 43 AD. Dio Cassius
records groups of Germanic Marcomanni being resettled in Britain by
Marcus Aurelius in the late second century and Zosimus tells us of
many Burgundian and Vandal captives being sent across to Britain in
By this time regular contingents of Barbarian peoples were being
used in Britain as numeri
, bearing the names
of their tribes of origin with large numbers stationed in the north
and east of England. Epigraphic evidence attests a cohort of
Batavians at Carrawburgh during the 3rd
centuries in addition to Tungrians stationed at Castlesteads and
Birrens, and the Cuneus Frisiorum
at Housesteads. Crocus, King
of the Alemanni, employed as a general in Roman service a
almost certainly the leader of a large force of Germanic foederati
settled in the Vale of York,
is recorded as being instrumental in the proclamation of Constantine
I as Emperor at York in 306 AD. These are just some of the better
known examples, there are many more.
How many of these Barbarians employed in the Roman army remained
in Britain after the garrison was repeatedly stripped of its troops
to support the ambitions of successive usurpations is impossible to
say. However, it is difficult not to speculate on the potential
impact that Barbarisation of the Roman Army may have had on the make
up of the British population.
The Departure of the Romans
Maximus became a distinguished general under Count Theodosius and
in 380 AD was assigned to Britain, defeating an incursion of the
Picts and Scots in 381 AD. He is fondly remembered in Welsh tradition
as Macsen Wledig
. In 383 AD Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by
his troops. He left for Gaul and is often accused of stripping the
British garrison of its troops in pursuit of his imperial ambitions.
The year 383 marks the end of Roman rule in northern and western
The actions of Maximus are repeated a quarter of a century later
when in 407 AD Constantine III was acclaimed Emperor in Britain,
likely a response to events in mainland Europe when a collective
force of Barbarians, comprising Vandals, Burgundians, Alans and
Sueves, breached one of the Empire's most secure limines by
crossing the Rhine on 31 December in 406 AD to invade Gaul. The
Byzantine historian Zozimus (Nova History
, Book 6.5.3),
drawing on Olympiodurus' largely lost fifth century history, records:
“The barbarians above the Rhine,
assaulting everything at their pleasure, reduced the inhabitants of
Britain and some of the Celtic peoples to defecting from Roman rule
and living their own lives disassociated from Roman law. The Britons,
therefore, taking up arms and fighting on their own behalf, freed the
towns from the barbarians who were pressing upon them: and the whole
of Armorica and other provinces of Gaul, imitating the Britons, freed
themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and
establishing a sovereign constitution on their own authority.”
Zosimus' account has been the subject of considerable debate. Not
least the date of the Rhine crossing has been argued was the last day
of 405 AD and as such the catalyst for a succession of three
short-lived British usurpations commencing with Marcus and
then Gratian. Both were relatively quick in passing but the third
promotion of the British garrison, Constantine III, was more
successful, yet he is totally ignored by Gildas. Constantine III
crossed into Gaul, in all likelihood taking with him the last of the
regular Roman troops in Britain, in direct response to the Barbarian
horde ravaging through Gaul after crossing the Rhine. His regime
disintegrated following a series of military reverses in 409 AD,
followed by the British ejection of Roman administration in 410 AD.
Zosimus (6.10.2) records that the legitimate Emperor Honorius sent
letters to the cities of Britain, advising them to look to their own
defences. This is usually, erroneously referred to as signifying “The
Roman Departure from Britain” but as we have seen above, the bulk
of the Romans had already departed the island long before. The
was in all probability official
acknowledgement that Britain was now lost to Imperial rule.
Constantine III's days came to an end when his last troops guarding
the Rhine abandoned him; he was taken prisoner and beheaded on the
way to Ravenna in 411 AD.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth's legendary history, Historia Regum
and the Welsh Brut
, the third Constantine appears to have been conflated with Custennin
(Constantine of Cornwall), who Geoffrey names as the
successor to Arthur as King of Britain. The only contemporary account
we have of Constantine of Cornwall is from the Epistle (cc.27-33) of
Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
in which he rebukes
five British kings charging him as the "tyrannical whelp of
the unclean lioness of Damnonia"
accussing him of disguising
himself in abbot's robes and attacking two "royal youths"
praying before a church altar.
The appeal to Aetius, the one datable event in Gildas, suggests the Post-Roman governance in Britain
still thought a return to Imperial administration was a possibility
as late as 446 AD, but it was not to be and Britain moved from
Antiquity into the Medieval period on her own in the face of the
> Gildas and the Saxons
Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
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