Monday 26 May 2014

Gildas: Peace and Partition

“The graves where their bodies lie, and the places of their suffering, had they not, very many of them, been taken from us the citizens on account of our numerous crimes, through the disastrous division caused by the barbarians.....I speak of Saint Alban of Verulam, Aaron
and Iulius, citizens of Caerlleon.” 1

The Shrines of the Holy Martyrs
Gildas tells us that following the Roman departure from Britain the superbus tyrannus and a council of Britons employed Saxon federates to defend the Island from the threat from the Picts and Scot in the north and north-west respectively. But the federates grew in numbers and the Britons failed to supply sufficient provisions. With the foedus (treaty) broken an outbreak of violence ensued that set the island ablaze from coast to coast. The war with the Saxon federates continued up until the siege of Mons Badonicus, some 40 years before Gildas was born; thereafter an uneasy peace prevailed into his own time; so the story goes.

In Gildas' days memories of the Saxon rebellion are all but forgotten now by the generations that succeeded the kings and priests that witnessed the storm, but the cities are still not populated as they once were; he claims they are deserted, in ruins and unkempt. Gildas delivers a prophetic sermon; it seems luxuria has returned to the land and the Britons again live a life of wickedness, greed and sexual excesses; thus it seems bad times are destined to return to the island as God will again cleanse his flock.

Gildas reports in his homiletic mid-6th century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) 2 that external wars have stopped but civil war continues as, presumably, the Saxons remain in their territories in the east of the country? However, Gildas refers earlier (c.10) to the “unhappy partition with the barbarians” (lugubre divortium barbarorum) which deprives his fellow citizens of visiting the shrines of the holy martyrs, namely St Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius of Caerleon, and others in different places, all of whom he considered to have suffered during the Diocletian persecution. However, there is some doubt that the Diocletian persecutions reached Britannia; the second, third and fourth edicts of the Great Persecution do not seem to have been enforced in the West. The passio included in a Turin manuscript places St Alban's martyrdom during the time of Septimus Severus (193-211 AD), others have argued for mid-3rd century date, during the periods of the persecutions of the emperors Decius (250-1 AD) and Valerian (257-9 AD).3

The First British Christian Martyr
Gildas refers to "St Alban the man of Verulamium" which raises the question as to whether Alban was a citizen of that town or because that was were his cult was practised? According to the legend both claims are correct but Gildas seemed to lack first-hand knowledge of the site as he has Alban crossing the Thames, whose water's miraculously parted, like the Red Sea in the biblical tale, instead of the river Ver on his way to his martyrdom. All accounts are silent on the location of the martyrdom and grave, though the version in the Turin manuscript seems to perfectly match the geography of  Verulamium, accurately describing the Roman town and the hill opposite across the river Ver, where the cult seems to have been focused several centuries later when St Germanus visited in the early 5th century.

Roman Theatre Verulamium
Gildas is quite clear, implicit that in his time neither he or his fellow Christians in Britain were able to visit St Alban's shrine, either because it was located in a region occupied by barbarians or perhaps getting there would involve crossing barbarian territory. This clearly has implications for the geographic horizons from where Gildas is writing. Restrictions to Verulamium, an ancient town in Roman Britain, immediately south-west of the modern city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, north of London, in the east of the country is conceivable if we are to accept his claim that the barbarians first settled on the east of the island. By implication it would appear that in Gildas' time there was division in the country conceded as the price of peace with the barbarians with the establishment of pagan enclaves.

Shrine of St Alban
Clearly it wasn't always this way. About one hundred years previously Germanus of Auxerre visited Britain around 429 AD and is said to have returned before he died c.448 AD, the very period that the Gallic Chronicle records Britain had fallen to the Saxons. Yet, Germanus, coming from Gaul, appears to have been able to travel around Britain apparently unheeded by the apparent strife. On his first visit to Britain, Germanus, with Lupus the bishop of Troyes, visited the shrine of Saint Alban, although the author of the Life of Germanus does not specifically state the tomb is at Verulamium. Germanus is said to have collected some of the "still bloody earth" from the site of the first English Christian martyrdom as a relic.

Verulamium seems to have been under British control into the 6th century and the martyrium of St. Alban lay in a Roman cemetery outside the city walls. It would appear nothing at the city would have prevented access to the saint's shrine; more likely something nearer Gildas' place of writing prevented him travelling to Verulamium.

The City of the Legions
The shrines of Aaron and Julius at the 'city of the legions' (urbs legionum) can only be at one of three permanent legionary fortresses in Britannia: Chester (Deva) on the river Dee in modern Cheshire; Caerleon (Isca) on the river Usk in south-east Wales; or York (Eboracum).

Gildas seems to have introduced the phrase "urbs legionum" as the term is not known as a place-name, or as a recognised description of a place, by any other writer in Roman Britain; it seems all known instances derive from Gildas. This must have been a legionary camp within his own geographic horizon known colloquially as "the city of the legions".

The identification of "the city of the legions" continues to puzzle Arthurian scholars as the site of the Dux Bellorum's ninth battle as recorded in the so-called chapter 56 of the 9th century Historia Brittonum. The author simply records the battle without further allusion to the location; presumably it was accepted the reader would know. Writing in the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth had no reservation (not that he was ever shy of invention) in his Historia Regum Britanniae that "the city of the legions" was on the River Usk and the original name "Kaerusc" changed after the Romans made their winter quarters there. According to Geoffrey it had originally been the "metropolis of the Dimetia" (i.e. in The Kingdom of Dyfed, south-east Wales), near the sea of the Severn. Geoffrey, no doubt following Gildas, states this is where the shrines of  Saints Aaron and Julius are located and the "deplorable impiety of barbarians deprived us of them".

Roman Amphitheatre Caerleon
He also makes a clear distinction between York and Caerleon. According to Geoffrey when Guinevere heard Mordred was marching on Winchester, “she fled from York to the City of the Legions and there, in the church of Julius the Martyr, she took her vows among the nuns, promising to lead a chaste life." Geoffrey makes Caerleon-on-Usk one of the most important cities in Britain, it is Arthur's capital at Caerleon and for centuries the site of the Roman amphitheatre there was known as 'King Arthur's Round Table'. It was probably in the amphitheatre just outside the Roman fortress at Caerleon that Aaron and Julius were martyred like so many Christians who would suffer and die in the bloodsports of the Roman arena. Several small chambers excavated at the entrance to the amphitheatre have been rejected as cella memoria to the two martyrs.4

A Medieval cult appears to have evolved at the site of the Roman fortress at Caerleon (Isca) for the two saints. There has been a shrine dedicated to Saints Aaron and Julius at Caerleon-on-Usk since at least the 9th century.  A charter of c.864 preserved in the Liber Llan Dâv (Book of Llandaff) refers to the boundary of Merthir Julius and Aaron 'which runs along the dyke on the Usk.' The word 'Merthir' (Mythyr in Modern Welsh) is derived from the Latin 'martyrium' and also has the meaning of ‘a grave’; thus, the place-name records the district of the burial place of the saints Julius and Aaron on the south side of the river Usk. The martyrium appears to have been located within one of the three cemeteries of the Roman fortress. Around 1860 the fragment of a 9th century sculptured cross slab was found in the locality which may be evidence for the cult.

A church in Caerleon dedicated to SS. Julius and Aaron, was granted, by Robert de Chandos, to the Priory of Goldcliff, founded by him in 1113. The name of St Alban was added to the dedicatees when the church became attached to the priory which seems to have eclipsed the other two lesser known martyrs, yet the original dedication was known to the 16th century antiquary William Camden who, in describing the ruins of Isca, wrote of a house called 'St Julian's' which stood on the site of the church of St Julius the martyr, about a mile out of town.  Today, a hill north-east of the modern town called 'Mount St Albans' serves as an indicator of its former existence.5

According to Butler's Saints Lives (1866) Giraldus Cambrensis claimed the bodies of SS. Julius and Aaron were honoured at Caerleon when he wrote around the year 1200. Each of these martyrs had a titular church in that city; that of St. Julius belonged to a nunnery, and that of St. Aaron to a monastery of canons. According to Bishop Godwin (1595-1601), there existed, in the recollection of the generation preceding that in which he wrote, two chapels called after Aaron and Julius, on the east and west sides of the town of Caerleon, about two miles distant from each other. The chapels deteriorated through time and were finally destroyed under Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. However, the legend continues; in modern times a Roman Catholic church  was built in Caerleon at the end of the 19th century and dedicated to SS. Aaron, Julius, and David.

Church of SS Aaron, Julius and David at Caerleon
Writing some fifty years after Geoffrey of Monmouth, the French poet Chretien de Troyes tells us in Le Chevalier de la Charrette (Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart), that Arthur was holding court at Camelot which was situated in the region of Caerleon, without providing further details of the location. Although it is now seen as an unreliable pseudo-history of the period, Geoffrey's work was not always regarded with such low credibility; indeed it was accepted as factual history up to the 16th century and in Medieval times Caerleon-on-Usk was accepted as the 'city of the legions' and the site of the martyrium of  SS. Aaron and Julius.

A later Arthurian storyteller, Sir Thomas Malory also makes reference to Caerleon, notably as the site of Arthur's coronation yet he names Winchester as the site of Camelot, probably in response to Edward VI's promotion of the Hampshire county capital's Arthurian connections. However, in his preface to Malory's Le Morte D'arthur, the printer Caxton argues that Camelot is in Wales and describes the ruins of a city which sounds very much like Caerleon; “And yet of record remain in witness of him in Wales, in the town of Camelot, the great stones and the marvellous works of iron lying under the ground, and royal vaults, which divers now living have seen.”

Barbarian Partition?
Chester remained in British control until at least the Battle of Chester in 616 AD when King Æthelfrith of Northumbria massacred a combined Welsh force. Bede's account of the battle claims a large number of monks from the nearby monastery at Bangor-on-Dee who had come to pray for the British were slaughtered on the orders of Æthelfrith before the battle. Within a year of the battle Æthelfrith was dead.

The motives and significance of the battle are unclear; Bede saw the defeat of the Britons as divine retribution for the Celtic bishops refusal to join Augustine of Canterbury's mission in converting the heathen Saxons. Chester does not appear to have become 'English' as a result of the battle. Many historians see the reference to Arthur's "ninth the City of the Legion" in the Historia Brittonum as a misplaced reference to this later battle.

Archaeological excavations at Heronbridge, just south of Chester, have uncovered post-Roman graves buried beneath a defensive earthwork over an old Roman settlement. The perimortem injuries on the skeletons strongly suggests they are Northumbrian casualties from the Battle of Chester.

The Romans established a fort between the Foss and Ouse rivers around which grew up a town called Eboracum or “place of the yew trees.” Under Roman rule, York became one of the most important cities in Britannia and garrison to the legions of the north. In 306 AD, Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, was declared Emperor there, an election supported by King Crocus and a large contingent of Alemanni troops.

Germanic style material culture in eastern Yorkshire has been interpreted as evidence for the settlement of Germanic people there by the late 5th century. Yet, the first Anglian king of Deira of whom we have any record is Ælla, who Bede claims was one of the kings reigning at the time of the Augustinian mission in 597. By the early 7th century, York had become an important royal centre for the Northumbrian kings with the Anglo Saxon Chronicle making first mention of Saxons at York in 627 AD when King Edwin was baptised in a wooden church there, possibly the precursor of the York Minster.

In conclusion, we must concede that Caerleon may not possess the strongest of historical claims for Gildas' 'city of the legion' but no such tradition for the obscure saints Aaron and Julius exists for either Chester or York. Further, neither Chester or York appear to have been in territories controlled by barbarians in Gildas' time of writing, c.540.

In Gildas' mind the loss of access to the martyrs' tombs was a punishment inflicted on the British because of their sins. Here again, as before, Gildas uses the barbarians as a rhetorical instrument of punishment for the moral decline of the Britons. Clearly Gildas' perception is of a barrier, political or physical, preventing pilgrims visiting the tombs of the martyrs.

>> St Alban

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Hugh Williams, Gildas: The Ruin Of Britain, edited For The Hon. Society Of Cymmrodorion, 1899.
2. Gildas' time of writing De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is dated by historians to the mid-6th century, typically c.540 AD, solely on the entry in the unreliable 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) which records the death of a Maelgwyn king of Gwynedd in 547 AD. It is usually accepted that Gildas' 'Maglocunus', the dragon of the island, who he names but once, was the same person and alive when he chastised him in the third part of his work, the 'Complaint' against the clergy.
3. John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell Press, 2011, pp.41-46.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

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Monday 5 May 2014

Gildas and the Saxons

“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. [1]

The Old Enemy
Gildas provides a grim picture for the hapless Britons following the departure of the Romans. The power vacuum was filled by a sudden and swift violent invasion of Germanic peoples who, employing a policy of devastation across the land, soon replaced the indigenous population forcing the survivors to flee to the western extremes of the country. 

According to Gildas, no sooner had the Romans left Britain than hordes of Picts and Scots (Irish) emerged in their coracles across the sea-valleys. The Britons fled, abandoning the high wall and the towns and sent an appeal to Rome, for the third time, for assistance; "To Aetius, thrice consul.” But the appeal fell on death ears and this time no help came.

Following the failure of the appeal to Rome, the Britons take up arms and fight back against the Picts and Scots and gain substantial victories. The Barbarians withdraw back to their homelands in the north and north-west. Gildas writes (c.21) that the Britons then experience a period of peace, unprecedented abundance and luxuria: “there are actually reports of such fornication as is not known even among the Gentiles.” Most of the people lay about in drunken stupor, swelling to hatreds, contentious quarrels and the greedy talons of envy. He continues, “it looked very much as though, then as now, contempt was being poured on the princes, so that they were seduced by their follies and wandered in the trackless desert.
Pictish warrior
God wishing to purge his family and cleanse it from such infection was about to unleash the Saxons as divine retribution on the Britons.

Gildas' Account of the Coming of the Saxons 
(c.22) A rumour circulates that the old enemy were bent on destruction of the whole people from one end of the country to the other. The people ignored the warnings then a deadly plague laid low so many that the living could not bury all the dead.  They convened a council of the Britons to determine how best to counter the invasions and plunderings of the Picts and Scots.

(c.23) Then all the councillors, together with the proud tyrant (superbus tyrannus), were struck blind; the guard – or rather the method of destruction – they devised for the protection of the country was that the ferocious Saxons, (name not to be spoken!) hated by man and God, should be let into the island, like wolves in to the fold, to beat back the peoples of the north. “Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter, has ever befallen the land.” Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people who they feared worse than death.

Then a pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of this barbarian lioness, in three ships. On the orders of the ill-fated tyrant they fixed their claws on the eastern side of the island, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but in fact to fight against it. The mother lioness finding her first brood was successful, sends a second and larger troop of satellite dogs, arriving by ship they joined up with the others.

By treaty (foedus) the Britons agree to provide supplies, in return the barbarians will fight for the country. Yet they complain that their monthly supplies are insufficient, and threaten to break the treaty and plunder the whole island. There was no delay: they put their threats into immediate effect.

(c.24) In just punishment for the crimes that had gone before a fire nurtured by the hand of the impious easterners spread from sea to sea devastating towns and country, and did not cease until,it reached the western ocean on the other side of the island. 

All the major towns and the people were laid low as swords glinted all around and the flames crackled. The foundation-stones of high walls and towers exposed as they torn from their bases, holy altars, fragments of corpses covered (as it were) with a purple crust of congealed blood. There was no burial to be had except in the ruins of houses or the bellies of beasts and birds.

(c.25) The survivors flee to the mountains, some leave the country going oversea. After a time the cruel plunderers returned home and God gave strength to the survivors. Their leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, perhaps the last of the Romans, who's parents wore the purple and were slain in the storm, rallied the Britons, and took the war to the barbarians. Ambrosius' descendants, in Gildas day, have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence.

(c.26) Then victories go sometimes to the Britons, sometimes to their enemies, the Saxons, right up to the seige of Badon Hill, pretty much the last defeat of the barbarians but not the least. That was the year of Gildas birth, “as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year seen then has already passed.

Gildas' words are delivered as a prophetic warning as Britain slips back into the bad old ways that preceded the Saxon wars:  (c.27) Britain has kings but they are are tyrants, and the judges wicked; they often plunder and terrorise the innocent; they have many wives, whores and adulteresses; they make false oaths, wage wars – civil and unjust. He then goes on to denounce the Five Tyrants (c.28- 36): Constantine, 'tyrant whelp of the filthy lioness of of Dumnonia' ;  Aurelianus Caninus 'lion-whelp'; Vortipor, 'tyrant of Demetae'; Cuneglasus, 'red butcher'; Maglocunus, 'dragon of the island'. The remainder of Gildas work is a complaint levied against the clergy.

Divine Retribution
The enemy of Roman Britain in Gildas' account is the Picts from the north and Scots from the north west. He makes no mention the Irish (Deisi) in Wales but, more significantly, he does not refer to the Saxons until he comes to the invitation from the proud tyrant and the council of Britons after the Romans have departed. He makes no effort to disguise his hatred for the Germanic barbarians, informing his readership that they are hated by man and God, name not to be spoken, calling them wolves; a hatred that would have had greater impact if he had mentioned the viciousness of the Saxon's previously but Gildas does not mention the Saxons until they are invited into the island, like wolves into the fold.

Gildas fails to mention the withdrawal of any Roman forces after Magnus Maximus, he totally ignores all tyrants before and after Maximus and the troop withdrawals under Stilicho and Constantine III at the beginning of the 5th century. He clearly sees this as the singular event that stripped Britain of her troops and the flower of her youth that left her open to the menaces of the Picts and Scots. He sees Maximus as unworthy of the position of Emperor calling him a tyrant, consistent with the term for a usurper. But essentially in Gildas' view, military defeat was due to the moral decline of the people of Britain.

The “slash and burn” Saxon invasion  model of Gildas was closely followed and expanded by the Venerable Bede accordingly some two hundred years later in 731 AD when he wrote Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People). The writings of Gildas and Bede have been instrumental in colouring British history with the concept of a mass Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain following the departure of the Romans. Bede provides a firm date (449 AD) for the arrival of the Saxons and tells us that three of the most powerful tribes from Germany, Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, settled in Britain. The Saxons came from the area between the Elbe, the Weser and the Eider in the north and north west of modern Germany. The home of the Angles has been identified as a small peninsula on Jutland called Angeln (Anglia), which, according to Bede, remained deserted from that day to at his own time; by implication, every Angle, Saxon and Jute moved over to Britain. 

Following Bede's account, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle purports to record the origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms but it was not written down until the time of King Alfred in the 9th century and the historicity of these origin myths are doubtful at best. It is significant that many of the earliest Anglo-Saxon kings noted in the Chronicle, such as the dynasty of Cerdic, founder of Wessex, have British names. Are we to believe this was an English invasion party led by British chieftains?

Inviting the Saxons into the country as mercenaries, with hindsight, may seem to have been a foolish move by the proud tyrant (Bede's Vortigern) and his council but the decision to employ barbarians as federate troops was common Roman policy throughout the late Empire. Clearly the Roman way of life did not just suddenly stop in 410 AD but continued in to the immediate Post-Roman period as witnessed by the British military policy.

After the arrival of the Saxons on the proud tyrant's invitation, the threat from the Picts and the Scots fades from Gildas work. And following the defeat of the barbarians at Badon Hill he does not mention the Saxons again. One feels that in Gildas' days, the first half of the 6th century so we are told, an uneasy peace has settled on the land following the decisive defeat of the Saxons at Badon and once more luxuria has returned to the Island.

Evidently, the Britons ignored Gildas' warning and civil wars continued. His rebuke of the five princes, or tyrants, underlines the excesses and abuses of the country's leaders; “Britain has kings but they are tyrants: she has judges, but they are ungodly men.” According to Gildas' earlier prophecy, God would again cleanse his people; a generation after he wrote his sermon the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records the Saxons slew three British kings and took the cities of Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath in 577 AD.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1.  c.23, Gildas: The Ruin Of Britain, edited For The Hon. Society Of Cymmrodorion by Hugh Williams, 1899.
2. Michael Winterbottom, Translator and Editor, Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works, Phillimore, 1978

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