Wednesday 30 April 2014

A Very English Conquest?

Recent evidence uncovered from a Dark Age cemetery in Oxfordshire adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Britain's transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England was a cultural shift rather than the violent conquest portrayed in traditional historical narratives.

The 6th century writings of Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), our prime text for the period, tells of a brutal conquest by impious barbarian invaders from the east wiping out and replacing the indigenous population. Gildas “slash and burn” model has coloured all following accounts of the Post Roman period; Bede, the Historia Brittonum and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle which so closely follow his account that the adventus saxonum is now part of our national mythology.

Britain 400–500: Anglo-Saxon Homelands and Settlements (Wikimedia)
However, aspects of the archaeological record do not support Gildas' dismal imagery of the Britons fate like lambs to the slaughter. Now a new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, suggests a more peaceful process claims Dr Andrew Millard, from Durham University, one of the paper’s lead authors.

Dr Millard said, 'The main controversy over the years has centred on how many Anglo-Saxons came across the North Sea.'

He continues, 'Was it a mass invasion, where the existing population was wiped out completely or forced back into Wales, or was it a small band of elites whose ways were then adopted very quickly?'

'Our evidence favours the second option.'

The team of archaeologists investigated the remains of 19 individuals excavated from an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Wally Corner, Berinsfield in the Upper Thames Valley, first discovered from aerial photographs in 1934.

Grave-goods from the cemetery, including weapons, knives, jewellery and pottery, indicate the site was in use as a burial ground for about 150 years from Bede's adventus saxonum in 449 AD through to the early 7th century, indicating the cemetery contained some of the earliest Saxon immigrants into Post-Roman Britain. Using information from tooth enamel samples the study team determined where these people are likely to have lived in childhood.

Clearly, the number of Saxon immigrants arriving in Britain is one of the key issues of the debate. For a mass invasion and people replacement to have taken place from the early/mid 5th century, the Oxfordshire graves would have been expected to contain around 20 per cent immigrant remains. But only five per cent of the buried individuals from the cemetery at Wally Corner seem to have come from outside the local area.

'Oxfordshire is quite some distance from the landing point of any invasion, but it seems that there was not a mass invasion everywhere,' says Dr Millard.

'The broader question is still open to debate, and we're still gathering evidence, but our evidence favours a scenario where there was not a wholesale replacement of the population, but a shift in culture.'

'By exploring this question, we hope that we can address the broader issue of how cultural change happens on a wide scale.'

It must be noted that this is one isolated case and further work is still required; however, the results favour a scenario where there was no wholesale replacement of the population, but a strong cultural shift.

The prime text for the period now demands reconsideration; was Gildas writing history?

>> Gildas and the Romans


Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Results Question Violent Invasion Theory - Past Horizons

Susan S. Hughes, Andrew R. Millard, Sam J. Lucy, Carolyn A. Chenery, Jane A. Evans, Geoff Nowell, D. Graham Pearson, 'Anglo-Saxon origins investigated by isotopic analysis of burials from Berinsfield, Oxfordshire, UK' Journal of Archaeological Science, 2014

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Wednesday 23 April 2014

Saint George Who?

Today, 23rd April, is the feast day of Saint George patron saint and National Day for England.

On their respective patron days the Welsh rejoice St David, the Scots have St Andrew's and the Irish celebrate St Patrick's day like it should be. By the early 15th century, St George's Day had become a major feast and national holiday in England on a par with Christmas. Yet, St George's day in England is not even a national holiday in our times.

What happened to the National Day of the English? The emblem of Saint George is a red cross on a white background but how many flagpoles will we see flying the cross of St George today? Do the English have a problem with their national identity; most of us in England probably know very little of our patron saint. Possibly because the patron saint of England is not even English.

23rd April was declared as St George's day in 1222 by the Council of Oxford but it was not until 1348 that St George became the Patron Saint of England. In 1415, when English soldiers under Henry V when won the battle of Agincourt, St George’s Day was declared a national feast day and holiday in England. During the reign of Henry VIII, the cross of St George was flown by John Cabot when he discovered Newfoundland in 1497 and it was adopted as the ensign of the explorers Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

St George and the Dragon
George's story has endured for over 1,700 years. However, most of what we know of him today comes from legend and myth. Many modern researchers believe he never existed as a historical character. St George's Day celebrations are not unique to England: he is revered throughout the world as the patron Saint of many countries throughout the world; Georgia, Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Greece, India, Iraq, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, to name but a few in addition to a large number of individual cities.

Was George Green?
St George of Christianity was associated with a pagan figure associated with the spring festival. Throughout Europe and the Middle East he is known as “Green George” personifying the fertility of nature, and can be equated with the Green Man of early folklore, whose pagan image can be seen in thousands of churches and cathedrals throughout Christendom. St George appears as the central figure in springtime folk festivals and Mummer’s plays celebrating the renewed fertility of the coming summer season. A leaf-covered young man parades as an accomplice of St George, or possibly even as a representation of St George himself. In many legends St George was also associated with the colour green. The Islamic traditional figure of al-Khidr, a dragon slayer, has been equated with St George. The name "Khidr" is taken to mean "the Green One".

The cult of St. George clearly has universal appeal but remains strongest in the Eastern Church where he is venerated as “The Great Martyr.”

The Great Martyr
George is said to have been born in 270 AD in Lydda, Roman Palestine, His father was Gerontius, a Greek Christian from Cappadocia (Eastern Turkey), and an official in the Roman army. His mother, Polychronia was a local Greek Christian of Palestine. He moved to Palestine with his Mother and became a Roman soldier, achieving the rank of Tribunus Militum. George is said to have later resigned his military post to protest against the Emperor Diocletian (r.284 to 305 AD), who led Rome’s most vicious persecution of Christians from his primary residence at Antioch.

St. George before Diocletianus. 
A mural from the Ubisi Monastery, Georgia.
(Wikimedia Commons)
Diocletian issued an edict in 302 AD that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and all other soldiers should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. George, being a Christian, objected and protested to the Emperor, an action which resulted in his imprisonment and torture, but he stayed true to his faith.

The Feast of Saint George is still celebrated by Palestinians in the Monastery of St George in al-Khader, near Bethlehem. Here St George is known as "al-Khidr" and according to local tradition, he was imprisoned in the town where the current monastery stands.

Diocletian then had George dragged through the streets and finally, on the 23rd April 303 AD, he was beheaded. Inspired by George’s bravery and loyalty to his God, the Emperor’s wife, Alexandra, became a Christian and was subsequently executed for her faith.

George is said to have been buried at Lydda in Palestine, identified as the seat of his cult by accounts of the earliest pilgrims since soon after his death in the early 4th century. Yet, unsurprisingly for such a popular saint, there are other claims for the burial site of St George, such as the belief that his relics lie in the Church of San Giorgio in Portofino, south of Genoa in Italy. The story goes that Crusaders found where his headless body had been buried in Lydda and intended to bring his relics back to England. After they ran into a severe storm in the Mediterranean they pledged that if they ever met landfall again they would leave the body there as an offering. They found sanctuary from the storm at Portofino.

St. George The Dragon Slayer, from the Church of San Giorgio
However, as patron saint of soldiers and chivalrous orders George is not generally remembered for his martyrdom at the hands of the wicked Emperor Diocletian. At the Siege of Antioch (1097–1098 AD), soldiers of the First Crusade took the city but were then besieged themselves. The Christian Crusaders are said to have experienced a vision of St George which inspired their victory over the Saracens.

When the Crusaders returned to England they brought with them the story of the vision of St George. His reputation spread; the story is etched over the southern door of the church at Fordington, Dorset, which still stands today. It is the earliest known church in England to be dedicated to St George.

St George and the Dragon
The medieval legend of St George and the Dragon is over a thousand years old and said to have been brought back to England by the Crusaders with its origins based in Libya.

Eastern Orthodox depictions of Saint George slaying a dragon often include the image of a young maiden looking on from a distance. The usual interpretation is that the dragon represents Satan and the young maiden is Alexandra, the wife of Diocletian.

The Western version of the legend developed as part of the Golden Legend, compiled in the 13th century and became a late medieval bestseller. The Golden Legend was one of the first books printed in the English language by William Caxton in 1483.

Rejected by the Church
When St George's day falls too close to Easter, religious observance is permitted to change. According to the Church of England's calendar, when St. George's Day falls between Palm Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter inclusive, it will be moved to the Monday after the Second Sunday of Easter. Interestingly, St. George’s Day is held on 6th of May in the Eastern liturgical calendar, which, considering the associations with the Green Man, is perhaps nearer to where it should fall.

In 1969 the Vatican downgraded the patron saint of England when St. George was demoted to a mere "local" or secondary saint. During the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, St George was removed from the Universal Calendar. Thirty saints were removed from the official liturgical calendar during these reforms because of a lack of historical evidence to support their existence. However, these saints were not "de-canonized," and their feast days can still be celebrated locally.

However, in 2000, Pope John Paul II restored Saint George to the Universal Calendar, and he appears in Missals as the English Patron Saint.

Campaign for an English Patron Saint
The whole matter of St George, his historicity and his association with England is rather tenuous to say the least. Perhaps we would do better with a English king as our patron saint?

There were several national saints of England, such as Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr, until Edward III (1312-1377) adopted Saint George and associated him with the Order of the Garter because he believed that England should have a fearless champion as its patron saint.

Edward the Confessor (c.1003-1066) was the last of the Anglo-Saxon king of England, traditionally seen as unworldly and pious, but his reign was notable for the disintegration of royal power from the House of Wessex and transference to the Godwin family, which ultimately led to the downfall of England at the Norman Conquest. Edward was canonised in 1161 by Pope Alexander III, and is commemorated on 13 October by both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. He was the first Anglo-Saxon and the only king of England to be canonised, the last of a tradition of uncanonised English royal saints including King Edmund the Martyr.

Edmund the Martyr (d.869), venerated as a sacred king of the Anglo-Saxons of the East Angles, he was murdered by the Danes aged only 29 years. After killing Edmund, the Great Heathen army spent sometime pillaging East Anglia before invading Wessex in 870.

The martyrdom of St. Edmund
It is believed Edmund refused to share power with the Danes who he saw as heathens and Godless. He was captured and tied to a tree, shot with arrows and beheaded. His body was buried in a wooden chapel near to where he was killed. Thirty years after Edmund's death, he was venerated by the Vikings of East Anglia, who produced coinage to commemorate him. Later his remains were transferred to Bury St Edmunds, where Athelstan founded a community devoted to his cult in 925 long before the Abbey was established there in the 11th Century. In 1010, Edmund's remains were translated to London to protect them from the Vikings, where they were kept for three years before being returned to Bury. In 1020, King Canute, who converted to Christianity and rebuilt the Abbey, made a pilgrimage to Edmund's shrine and offered his own crown upon it as expiation for the sins of his forefathers. The shrine was destroyed in 1539 and the bones of St Edmund disappeared during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

He was declared England's national saint, attended by royalty and honoured as far north as Iceland, he was renowned for his miracles of fertility and protection. But his martyrdom was unrecognised for 250 years.

Unlike St George, there is no argument to St Edmund's historicity, who died as a martyr to his Christian faith at the hands of heathen invaders. And he is English. A campaign called for St Edmund to be re-instated as patron saint of England in 2006. A petition was submitted to Parliament but the plea was rejected by the government.

A new campaign was launched in 2013, led by BBC Radio Suffolk's Mark Murphy, author Mark Taylor and the Bury St Edmunds brewery Greene King, who argue the country needs a "unique" patron saint because George currently holds the role for 17 countries. The campaigners also want a new bank holiday to be added to the calendar in his honour. Who could argue with that?

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Wednesday 16 April 2014

Gildas and the Romans

"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, cc.13-14.

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 Britain” 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 “Arthurian Age,” 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?

Hadrian's Wall (Oliver Benn/Getty Images)
The Chronology of Gildas
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 sea.
As soon as the legion returned home the barbarian raids re-commenced.
A further appeal went out to Rome who again drive the raiders beyond the sea from which they came to plunder year after year.
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 provisions.

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.
The 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.
For 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 island.

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 late 3rd 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 Barbarian Conspiracy?

Rome and the Barbarians
The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus records that Nectaridus, the 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, Dux 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.

The Notitia also 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 suggests 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". Epigraphic 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 the 3rd century.

By this time regular contingents of Barbarian peoples were being used in Britain as numeri or cunei, 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 and 4th 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 and 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 of the Mabinogion. 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 Britain.

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 Honorian Rescript 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 Britanniae and the Welsh Brut, the third Constantine appears to have been conflated with Custennin Gorneu (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 Barbarians.

> Gildas and the Saxons

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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