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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  1. Flavius Clemens aka Magnus Maximus committed some serious blunders, fighting Theodosius being his last, but he also made a painful decision of exceeding genius: he sacrificed Britain but saved western Europe. He did this by removing most of Britain's troops and establishing fortified garrisons in Armorica (specifically Brittany) and Galicia.
    Magnus was so charismatic that after his defeat, some of Theodosius' own troops defected to the losing side!
    Theodosius executed Magnus and his son Flavius Victor, but he left the Armorican and Galician garrisons alone: perhaps he had lost too many troops fighting Magnus and the long-term cost of wasting his remaining forces in assaults on those remote, entrenched defenders was too daunting.
    At the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, Attila the Hun was thwarted by Armorican archers whose unmatched rate of fire and accuracy caused severe damage to his frontline; undaunted, he attempted a night attack on the Roman camp, but was dismayed when a rain of arrows came out of the dark, driving him back to certain defeat.
    According to Sidonius Apollinaris's letter to Riothamus, the Armoricans were fond of freeing slaves who would then join their forces. The notorious betrayal of Riothamus by Sidonius's friend Arvandus, Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, and the consequent ambush east of the stagign post at Avallon by Euric, King of the Visigoths, in 471, sealed the fate of the Western Empire and severely harmed Armorican military ambitions, creating a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the Franks. Breton king-lists suggest that Riothamus may have survived this battle by some decades (unless the Riothamus who died in 510-520 was a different person with the same name/title), but the Armorican core was reduced to Lower Brittany and never fully recovered, though it did give the Franks great grief on occasion and the Armorican splinter counties of Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Blois and what would become Normandy retained some sense of shared identity with Brittany in the time of King John and beyond that into the 1400s.
    When the Moors overran Visigothic Spain, they endeavoured to complete the conquest with the invasion of Galicia, but they suffered a shock defeat, were driven back, and Galicia began the Reconquista.
    The Moors' northern military expedition reached the region of Poitiers and Tours on the Loire river, but this was the Armorican border, and there they faced an army of Franks under Charles Martel augmented by Bretons; we know what came of that.
    On another note, Magnus didn't convict Priscillian of heresy but of "casting the voice" (ventriloquism), i.e. spiritual fraud. Later ignorant people would transmute this offence into "witchcraft" and make of it whatever they willed. Since Magnus was generally tolerant (on his coins, instead of looking stern, he smiles, and he was very protective of the Jews against Christian extremists), so had he known what would become of his judgment, he might well have commuted it to exile.

  2. Maximus is certainly an intriguing character, not least the affection held for him in Welsh tradition.

    Have you considered the possibility that Maximus was the superbus tyrannus mentioned by Gildas in his De Excidio?

    In explaining Gildas' unremitting hostility to Maximus, Halsall (Worlds of Arthur, OUP 2013, and also Appendix to Barbarians Migrations and the Roman West 376-568, CUP 2007,) puts forward the argument that Maximus was the tyrannus who invited the detested Saxons into Britannia and employed them as foederati to protect the island from the Picts and Scots.

    Halsall argues that the Pictish attacks mentioned by Gildas in Chapter 23 of the De Excidio, must refer to Maximus’s Pictish campaigns recorded by the Gallic Chronicle of 452. Maximus in all likelihood was part of Count Theodosius's recovery force that came to Britain following the barbarian conspiracy of the late 360's.

    Although it is not possible to establish a satisfactory chronology from Gildas' work it is clear he was not writing a linear history but a stylised, rhetorical tale and there may be several years past between chapters.

    The Historia Brittonum suggests the Saxons may have been invited into Britannia by Vortigern earlier than the traditional date of 428 and provides several dates that equate to 374/5, the time of Maximus and the Theodosian expedition.

    By odd coincidence this was actually the time when the Emperor Valentinian sent three armies of Alamannic troops to Britain under kings Froamarius, Hortarius and Bitherides to re-enforce the defences following the Barbarian Conspiracy.

    The settlement of the Germanic foederati (Saxons?) under the superbus tyrannus (Bede's Vortigern) appears to be confused with the settlement of the Alamanni under Maximus (Gildas' tyrannus) in 374/5.