Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!
This is the fifth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!
But who was Arthur? Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.
THE SAXON TERROR
Vortigern had nurtured the Saxon wolf, from mere pup to full grown lupine menace. Now, like Fenris of Norse legend, the beast could no longer be chained! Hengist and his Saxon foederatii turned upon Vortigern and the Britons, devouring their host.
The brawny Horsa and wily Hengist
The exact date of the Saxon mutiny is unknown. It is unlikely to have occurred earlier than 451, and certainly no later than 455. Nor do we know the number of Saxon warriors involved in the insurrection. An estimate based upon the number of Saxon ships that, according to the sources, joined Hengist in Briton prior to the mutiny render a number not less than 1,000 warriors, and not more than 3,000 (a high and unlikely estimate).
Furthermore, Hengist may have been able to win over those descendants of Saxon foederates settled in Britain by the Romans in the 4th century. Archeology has revealed that Saxon settlements may have dotted the eastern fringe of Britain; along the so-called Saxon Shore. These settlers might have risen and joined their ethnic cousins in pillaging their Celtic neighbors.
However many or few, Hengist’s foederates constituted the only standing body of “professional” troops in the heart of Britain, aside from Vortigern’s own household troops. Little stood between them and the nearly undefended civilized heartland of Roman Britain. Saxon warbands fanned-out throughout the countryside and spread fire and bloody destruction throughout the whole of the Roman Britain. Farms and manor houses were pillaged and burned, towns were sacked and likewise put to the torch. Men were slaughtered, women raped and murdered or, along with children, enslaved. These pagan Saxons had nothing but contempt for Christian places of worship: churches were robbed, their priest’s butchered, their alters desecrated.
Gildas, writing nearly a century later, states that the Saxon violence “devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, and did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean.”
During this time, many thousands of wealthier Romano-Britains and their retainers fled the country in despair; crossing the Channel to find sanctuary in Armorica (modern Brittany), in Northwestern Gaul; which bears their name to this day. This was not a process of months but of years. Throughout the century, Brittany remained an alternative refuge for Romano-Britons…..
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