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 second part in a multi-part examination of Britain, in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical Age of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. The heroes of this struggle, and the “barbarian” warlords who opposed them, are the subject of this discussion.
If he indeed existed (and it is the opinion of this author that he did) Arthur was a warlord who successfully led the British resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. He was born in the late 5th century, and ruled Britain into the early 6th century. Using historical analysis of the disparate chronicles, poems, legends, archeological evidence, and applying deductive logic backed by a lifetime of military study and practice I will attempt to develop a working theory of who Arthur was and the events of his life.
This was in the sunset of Roman culture in Britain, a province that was itself once the jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire. Arthur was the champion who kept the flame of civilization alive as the rest of Western Europe sunk into the Dark Ages.
But before we can discuss Arthur, it is important to understand the world in which he lived.
VORTIGERN STRUGGLES TO RETAIN POWER
From 429 to the 440s nothing for certain is known about events in Britain. It is tempting to say that Vortigern maintained a troubled hold on power, while facilitating the foundation of his own kingdom in the west, Powys. We know that during this period Viroconium (Wroxeter), the tribal capital of Vortigern’s own Cornovii tribe, was the fourth largest city in Britain. At this time it enjoyed something of a revival, with new build projects launched and older buildings restored. It was also refortified, with its ancient Roman walls restored. All of this is consistent with the possibility that Viroconium was Vortigern’s principal stronghold.
But raids by the Picts and the Scotti continued unabated. In the 440s the British sent a letter to Flavius Aetius, the Roman Magister Militum (“Master of Soldiers”) in Gaul and Stilicho’s successor as the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. Aetius was campaigning to restore some measure of Roman authority in Gaul throughout this decade. At least some Britons, it would appear, longed for the security the Empire once represented.
The letter, called “Groans of the Britons”, told of their plight; beset by “barbarians” and begging for Roman help:
“To Agitius (Aetius), thrice consul… the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians, between these two means death: we are either killed or drowned.”
This letter is often said to have been sent in response to the “Saxon Terror”. But the dates don’t match-up. The Saxons didn’t arrive until 449 A.D. (according to all original source material), while the “Groan of the Britons” letter was dispatched earlier in that decade. There have been efforts by recent historians to reinterpret the date of the Saxon advent in Britain, moving it inot the 420s; but they are wholly unpersuasive, an effort to make the facts fit their flawed narrative.
Artist’s depiction of Flavius Aetius, flanked by Hunnic bodyguards of his “Bucellarii”. Aetius was the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire at the time he received the “Groans of the Britons” letter.
So unless we accept an earlier Saxon arrival and mutiny in Britain, we must then ask: who were the barbarians who so plagued the Britons during Vortigern’s leadership?
The obvious choice is the Picts.
At this time, the Picts were united under a strong king, Drust son of Erp; called in Irish annuls “Drust of the Hundred Battles”. Under his leadership Pictish raids on Britain grew more intense and dangerous, becoming an existential threat to the existence of Britain as a viable state.
Perhaps the movement of a portion of the Votadini from the Pictish borders in the north into northern Wales (see Part One) had left what remained of this tribe in the north too weak to stop Pictish incursions into Britain. Or, as in the past, the Picts may simply have used their boats to bypass the Votadini lands and the Wall garrisons as well to raid into the British heartland. In either case, Pictish raids were on the rise, and Vortigern’s political enemies among the Britons appealed to Rome for aid.
The “Groan of the Britons” letter clearly indicates that confidence in Vortigern’s ability to defend the island was (at the least) in question, and likely breaking down. The unity of Britain was ever a shaky thing, fracturing along tribal and religious lines, with one tribe/petty kingdom against another, Catholics against Pelagians, and (we can assume) between Vortigern and his opponents.
Tension had always existed between the various tribes, and the Britons had never been “one people” politically. Before the Romans imposed unity within their province, the various tribes contended with each other for cattle, land, prestige, and power. With the Roman departure new polities were springing up: petty-kingdoms, sometimes referred to as Celtic Successor Kingdoms.
Some of these petty-kingdoms were merely base upon the old tribal organization, or upon the alliances of several smaller tribes. Vortigern’s own Powys was one of these, formed by a union of the Ordovices in the western Cumbrian mountains and the Cornovii to their east, extending into the Midlands.
Others, however, developed from late Roman military commands. Both the kingdoms of Rheged and Elmet grew out of military commands associated with the Late Roman Dux Britanniarum (“Duke of Britain”). Tradition has Coel Hen (“Old King Cole”) as progenitor of several kingly lines in the Hen Ogledd (“the Old North”); and he may well have been the last Dux Britanniarum to command the northern garrisons along the Wall and at York.
Beyond tribal division, religious strife was a chief source of conflict and fracture among the Britons in the first half of the 5th century. The Pelagian “heresy” was rife within the province, and there is reason to believe that Vortigern was at least a supporter, if not in fact a leader of the Pelagians. It has been suggested that Vortigern’s real name may have been “Vitalinus”, and that he was even perhaps the last Bishop of Roman London, called Guithelin by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Could Vitalinus/Vortigern have left the orthodox/Catholic church over religious differences, becoming a Pelagian leader?
This could account for the “bad press” Vortigern receives in the later chronicles penned by Catholic monks.
Gildas the Monk, the closest contemporary historian to the events in question, calls Vortigern superbo tyranno: “the proud usurper”. The term “usurper” is normally used for one who illegally seizes power from a legitimate monarch or government. If Vortigern was seen by some of his contemporaries as a usurper, it would further explain the source of some of the opposition to his rule.
This, of course, begs the question: from whom did Vortigern seize power?
In his much fictionalized Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”), Geoffrey of Monmouth spins an entertaining story regarding how Vortigern persecuted the three sons of the late Roman military officer-turned Imperial pretender, Constantine III. First betraying and bringing about the death of the oldest (and legitimate ruler), Constans II, and then driving his two younger brothers into exile. These brothers, Ambrosius and Uther, figure large in the later part of the story and in the legends of King Arthur that follow.
While much of Geoffrey’s chronicle is spun from mixture of local legend and whole cloth, there is reason to believe that not all is fiction. Geoffrey claimed to have used older (now lost) Welsh sources. If this is true (and it should be kept in mind that many scholars dismiss such a claim as a common literary trope), there may be some kernel of fact among all of Geoffrey’s fancy.
Vortigern may have “usurped” power from either the Council of Britain, or, as Geoffrey suggest, from the governor Constantine III left in charge (though certainly not his son Constans, who accompanied his father and died in 411 at Vienne). Or even from another leader who bore the name of Constantine. There was an unrelated Dumnonian/Cornish king, Custennin Gorneu (Custennin being the Welsh version of Constantine). Geoffrey may have gotten confused by his Welsh sources, conflating the two Constantines.
Of all this mix of fact and fancy only Ambrosius Aurelianus is a figure all scholars accept as historical.
Gildas has nothing but praise for Ambrosius, claiming he came from a noble Roman background. His parents, according to Gildas, had “worn the purple” (more of this later). An Aurelius Ambrosius, father of St. Ambrose, was Prefect of Gaul in the early 4th century. It is possible that he was a near ancestor or kinsman of the Ambrosius Aurelianus leading Britain in the 5th century, as attested to by Gildas and later sources.
What Geoffrey may have tapped into is a tradition that Ambrosius, leader of the Romanized British aristocracy, led the anti-Vortigern party in open revolt against the “usurper” in the 430s, but was defeated by Vortigern (perhaps at Wallop).
As the historical Ambrosius was actively leading the British against the Saxons between 460 and 508 A.D., it is doubtful that he could have been fighting Vortigern so early. This has led other scholars to suggest that there was in fact two Ambrosius’, father and son: Ambrosius the Elder and the Younger.
In Geoffrey’s tale, Ambrosius and his brother, Uther, flee Vortigern’s persecution, taking refuge in Armorica (Brittany) across the channel. Perhaps this reflected real events in the 430’s, with Ambrosius the Elder defeated and killed while his son and namesake flees to Armorica with many of the Romano-British opposition. It may have been this Romanized British opposition to Vortigern that sent to the Roman general Aetius in Gaul the “Groans of the Britons” letter.
For the aging Vortigern Roman intervention, had it been forthcoming, would have meant the end of his leadership. To hold onto power he needed another solution, one that maintained his position against both the Picts and his own British critics and rivals. A solution seemed to appear one day off the coast of Kent.
THE SAXON ADVENT
In 449, three longships manned with Saxon warriors landed at the southeastern tip of Britain. None in Roman Britain could know that though small in number, these were harbingers of the abyss.
Their chieftains were two brothers: Horsa and his clever brother, Hengist. It is unclear as to which is the eldest. Hengist is clearly portrayed in both British and Saxon tradition as the leader of the Saxons. But the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Hengist only becomes king of (Saxon) Kent upon the death of Horsa at the Battle of Aylesford. This would suggest that Horsa was king at the time of his death, and thus the elder. Perhaps Horsa was the brawny man of action, the warlord; while Hengist acted as his brother’s wily consigliere. Or perhaps they shared power equally as co-kings. We can only speculate.
These two “Saxons” were in fact not Saxons at all. They were Jutes, presumably from the Jutland Peninsula. In this time of ferment and mass migrations of the Germanic peoples, Jutland was not yet Danish. It was inhabited by a Scandinavian people, the Jutes, and their cousins, the Angles. The actual Saxons lived in this period in northern Germany, in-and-around modern Schleswig-Holstein. All these peoples shared a common culture, similar language, and worshiped the same pagan gods. Taking to the sea in longships, much as later Scandinavian Vikings would in centuries to come, from the 3rd century A.D. onward these peoples raided along the southern coast of the North Sea and into the English Channel (and beyond).
The Romans lumped all these northern sea-wolves under the moniker of “Saxon”: Frisians, Jutes, Danes, Angles, as well as the actual Saxons of north Germany. The Even the Franks, who were not a maritime people, occasionally crossed the channel to join the “Saxons” in their wars against the Britons.
It needs to be stated that Anglo-Saxon settlements seem to have already existed along the eastern coast of Britain in the 4th century. Recent archaeology has revealed Anglo-Saxon grave-sites dating to the late Roman period. It has been theorized that the very term, “Saxon Shore” (southeastrn Britain) may come not from the threat to this region by Saxon seaborne raiders, as was traditionally assumed; but because of the widespread presence of Saxon foederates settled there by the Roman authorities to protect the province from their countrymen. Saxon settlements may have existed as far north as the eastern end of the Wall, perhaps settled along the north coast as a shield against seaborne raids by the Picts as well.
By a twist of fate, Vortigern happened to be in nearby Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury) when these three “keels” of Saxon warriors landed. He bid the brothers be brought to him. The two brothers hailed Vortigern as “king”, and requested to take service with the “great leader”. These newcomers represented something Vortigern may have needed: a body of mercenaries with no ties of loyalty to anyone but their employer. Tyrants throughout history have seized or maintained their power through the use of such hired thugs; tough warriors with neither ties to or affection for the local populace; and willing to be as ruthless as necessary in stamping out dissent and opposition to the ruler. Vortigern accepted these fierce warriors into his service as foederati and perhaps as his bucellarii (household troops).
Vortigern had found his Saxon Praetorian Guard, with the dangerous Hengist as its Prefect!
The men who followed Hengist and Horsa were likely a collection of hardened pirates from a variety of Scandinavian and north-German people; outcasts banded together for profit and adventure under the strong leadership of a proven leader. Hengist himself is a semi-legendary figure who appears in various British and Anglo-Saxon sources; including “Beowulf”. Which is not to suggest in any way that he is a fictional character. It is not unusual that historical figures from one tradition or era get written into another set of legends. He was likely a jarl or petty-king of some small and poor holding in Juteland; seeking to enrich himself and his band of warriors by going “Viking”. Or, perhaps, he was a noble outcast, outlawed and driven out of his own lands by a stronger neighbor or relative.
Anglo-Saxon longships were prototypes of those later used in the Viking Era
The numbers of these Saxon newcomers is unknown. But considering the size of Scandinavian longships in the Viking Era, and assuming that the Saxon boats were comparable, capable of carrying between 25 and 40 men; then a number of between 75 and 120 warriors is likely.
The Picts were marauding south of the Wall; and Vortigern and his army, bolstered by Hengist’s Saxon newcomers, marched against them. North of the Humber, the two forces met in battle. According to the Historia Regum Britanniae, “the Saxons fought so bravely that the enemy, formerly victorious, were speedily put to flight.”
Well pleased with their performance in battle, Vortigern granted the brothers and their crews the Isle of Thanet, at the tip of Kent, for a settlement; and perhaps lands in Essex, near the mouth of the Humber or near the eastern end of the Wall (where earlier Saxon settlements may have been in existence). He also encouraged them to invite additional warriors and their families from the Saxon homeland.
This Hengist lost no time in doing.
Sixteen more “keels” arrived, bearing another 400-700 Saxon warriors. Fatefully, among these was Hengist’s daughter, Rowena (or Rhonwen), a girl of surpassing beauty. At a welcome banquet for the newcomers, tradition has it that Hengist encouraged his daughter to serve Vortigern with her own hand.
The effect of a young (perhaps teenage) girl on a middle-aged but still virile man can be profound. Vortigern became obsessed with the Saxon girl, and putting aside the mother of his sons married the daughter of his Saxon lieutenant. As bride-price, Hengist persuaded Vortigern to give the Saxons all of Kent.
According to the 8th century Welsh monk, Nennius, Hengist now used his leverage as Vortigern’s father-in-law to his people’s advantage. He advised Vortigern to bring even more Saxons over to Britain: “… You will never fear conquest by any man or any enemy, for my people are strong.” Again, Vortigern agreed. A fleet of 40 Saxon ships arrived, including Hengist’s sons, Esc (or Oisc) and Ebissa . It is said the whole of the “Saxon” lands were depopulated, an obvious exaggeration. Likely some 1,400-1,600 Saxon warriors and their families came in this next wave.
Reinforced, Hengist grew ever bolder, demanding more territory to feed the additional mouths. He convinced Vortigern that to effectively deal with future Pictish seaborne raids on the lands south of the wall, the newcomers should be settled along the coast north of the Humber; perhaps among the older Saxon settlements there.
Growing alarmed, the Council of Britain now demanded that the Saxons be reined-in. One version is that the Council removed Vortigern from his position, replacing him with his own son, Vortimer; who may have turned against his father for repudiating his mother and marrying the “Saxon woman”.
An anti-Saxon policy was now put into place.
Wither it was the Council or Vortigern himself behind this, the British now refused further Saxon demands. Hengist had used gentle persuasion (“soft power”) to good effect, and his position was now very strong. No more was to be gained with words. The time had come to break with his erstwhile benefactors.
The Saxon’s mutinied: sweeping out of the east, they spread fire and sword throughout the land!
The Saxon Terror had begun.
NEXT: THE DEFENSE OF ROMAN BRITAIN
- This appeal for Roman intervention likely came from the anti-Vortigern faction in Britain.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suspiciously makes no mention of Ebissa.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.