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The Saxon Advent

In AD 406, on the last day of the year, the Rhine river froze, and some fifteen thousand Germanic tribesmen, together with their wives and children, crossed into Roman Gaul. Italy was under threat, as well, and legions had been recalled several years before, leaving only allied mercenary troops (foederati) to defend the province. But Rome's Frankish allies were overwhelmed, and a horde of Suebi, Vandals, and Alans pressed into Gaul.

That same tumultuous year, first one, then another, usurper was proclaimed emperor in Britain. The third, and last, was a common soldier with a fortuitous name— Constantine III. The next year, he crossed with the army into Gaul, which was being devastated by the barbarian invaders. With its own frontier weakened by the removal of troops, Britain suffered devastating raids from Picts, Scots, and Saxons. The Byzantine historian Zosimus records that the Britons rebelled, expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing their own government.

There was further devastation and, in AD 410, the emperor Honorius wrote to the civitates of Britain, directing the cities to look to their own defense. This rescript marks the traditional end of Roman rule in Britain. For the next several decades, the native Britons had to fend for themselves against increasing Saxon incursions. With the Adventus Saxonum, the tide of invasion eventually would overwhelm them, the buried hoards of coin, plate, and jewelry a poignant reminder of what once had been.


Six-hundred years later, in 1014, Wulfstan, archbishop of York, delivered a homily to his English brethren, admonishing them for their sins. There were renewed Viking raids by the Danes and, just the year before, King Æthelred had been forced to flee to Normandy. How else to explain these depredations except that an omnipotent God was deservedly chastising an unworthy people. As Wulfstan writes in the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Lupus, "the Wolf," is a literary alias),

"Here there are manslayers and slayers of their kinsmen, and slayers of priests and persecutors of monasteries, and here there are perjurers and murderers, and here there are harlots and infanticides and many foul adulterous fornicators, and here there are wizards and sorceresses, and here there are plunderers and robbers and spoliators, and, in short, a countless number of all crimes and misdeeds."

Wulfstan compares the plight of the English to that of the Celtic Britons, whom they had defeated half a millennium before.

"There was a historian in the times of the Britons, called Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how with their sins they angered God so excessively that finally he allowed the army of the English to conquer their land and to destroy the host of the Britons entirely. And that came about, according to what he said, through robbery by the powerful, and through the coveting of ill-gotten gains, through the lawlessness of the people and through unjust judgments, through the sloth of the bishops and the wicked cowardice of God's messengers, who mumbled with their jaws where they should have cried aloud; also through the foul wantonness of the people and through gluttony and manifold sins they destroyed their country and themselves they perished."

Gildas wrote the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ("On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain") about AD 540, some forty-four years, he says, after he was born, a time that, itself, was only fifty years after the traditional advent of the Saxons in AD 449. It is a primary and nearly contemporary source for the history of fifth-century Britain, the only narrative history to survive, and a poignant account of the struggle of the hapless Britons to defend themselves against the Scots and Picts and, finally, the relentless Saxons.

Nostalgic for a Roman past, he writes of those evil days and inveighs against the kings and clergy who had brought them to pass. Despite what Bede and Wulfstan say, Gildas was not a historian but a monk living in Wales. Selecting for his homily what suited his purpose, the only fifth-century name that he mentions is Ambrosius Aurelianus; the only place, Mons Badonicus; the only date, the consulate of Aëtius. But, in enumerating the sins of the past to provide a moral lesson for the present, Gildas is obliged "to say a little about the situation in Britain."

And yet, so little is remembered. What is, demonstrates how the Britons, "stiff-necked and haughty," rebelled against God and man: Boudica, that "treacherous lioness," and the usurper Magnus Maximus, who, in AD 383, removed his legions to Gaul. "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 tyrant's footsteps, never to return home." Weakened and vulnerable, the Britons called upon Rome for protection and were told to build a wall across the island, from sea to sea. But it was "made of turf rather than stone: so it did no good." There were raids by the Scots and Picts, who came by sea to pillage, "relying on their oars as wings, on the arms of their oarsmen, and on the winds swelling their sails. They broke through the frontiers, spreading destruction everywhere. They went trampling over everything that stood in their path, cutting it down like ripe corn."

Again, the Britons beseeched the Romans for help (presumably the reorganization of Britain by Stilicho in AD 398), who were advised that they could not be concerned with wandering thieves and that the British would have to stand alone against their enemies. Claudian may speak of it in his panegyric On the Consulship of Stilicho,

"Next spake Britain clothed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, and an asure cloak, rivalling the swell of ocean, sweeping to her feet: 'Stilicho gave aid to me also when at the mercy of neighbouring tribes, what time the Scots roused all Hibernia against me and the sea foamed to the beat of hostile oars. Thanks to his care I had no need to fear the Scottish arms or tremble at the Pict, or keep watch along all my coasts for the Saxon who would come whatever wind might blow.'"

Still, they built them a wall, which "ran straight from sea to sea, linking towns that happened to have been sited there, out of fear of the enemy." Before leaving, the Romans "also placed towers overlooking the sea at intervals on the south coast, where they kept their ships: for they were afraid of the wild barbarian beasts attacking on that front too." So Gildas sought to explain the mysterious walls of Antoninus and Hadrian and the Saxon Shore forts that had been constructed centuries earlier, unaware that Britain had ever been a Roman province.

As soon as the Romans had left for the final time, "hordes of Scots and Picts," says Gildas, "seized the whole of the extreme north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to the wall." It, and the towns that it joined, were abandoned and "there were enemy assaults and massacres more cruel. The pitiable citizens were torn apart by their foe like lambs by the butcher; their life became like that of beasts of the field." Gildas writes of famine and plague, and indeed the climate was deteriorating.

For a third time, says Gildas, the miserable Britons appealed for relief: "'To Aëtius, thrice consul: the groans of the British...The barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two kinds of death, we are either drowned or slaughtered.' But they got no help in return."

This reference to Aëtius, magister militum in Gaul who was consul for the third time in AD 446-452, provides the only event that can be dated in De Excidio. But Gildas did not know the date, himself, or where to place the letter in his narrative, and the chronology is too late. By the middle of the fifth century, the invaders were not Picts but Anglo-Saxons, foolishly invited there, he says, by a "proud tyrant" (superbus tyrannus).

"Then all the members of the council, together with the proud tyrant, were struck blind; the guard—or rather the method of destruction—they devised for our land was that the ferocious Saxons (name not to be spoken!), hated by man and God, should be let into the island like wolves into the fold, to beat back the peoples of the north. Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death even in their absence..."

Three ships arrived (the traditional date of the Saxon advent is provided by Bede: AD 449). More federates came later, the mercenaries making increased demands of their British hosts and threatening to "break their agreement and plunder the whole island unless more lavish payment were heaped upon them." And so they did, a contemporary Gallic chronicle recording that Britain fell under Saxon domination in about AD 441 (a more accurate date that puts the Saxons in England some years earlier). Gildas writes of the devastation.

"All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams; laid low, too, all the inhabitants—church leaders, priests and people alike, as the swords glinted all around and the flames crackled. It was a sad sight. In the middle of the squares the foundation-stones of high walls and towers that had been torn from their lofty base, holy altars, fragments of corpses, covered (as it were) with a purple crust of congealed blood, looked as though they had been mixed up in some dreadful wine-press."

Some who survived the onslaught migrated (circa AD 460) to Armorica on the coast of Gaul to settle in what became Lesser Britain or Brittany, causing Gildas to complain that records, "such as they were, are not now available, having been burnt by enemies or removed by our countrymen when they went into exile." Others, driven west, stayed behind, "trusting their lives with constant foreboding to the high hills, steep, menacing and fortified, to the densest forests, and to the cliffs of the sea coast."

Eventually, the Britons rallied and fought back.

"Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way. From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth..."

If the battle of Mons Badonicus was fought in the year of Gildas' birth, the date can be calculated to have been about AD 496. It brought about a respite from "that storm" which lasted almost half a century, until Gildas' own time. "But the cities of our land are not populated even now as they once were; right to the present they are deserted, in ruins and unkempt." There still was civil war, and five British kingdoms were ruled by wicked "tyrants" or warlords, to whom Gildas particularly directs his diatribe, "this tearful history, this complaint on the evils of the age." The peace about which Gildas writes was not to last. At the same time that the Britons were victorious at Mount Badon, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Cerdic and the West Saxons arrived in Wessex, his son defeating the Britons at the hill fort of Old Sarum on Salisbury plain in AD 552.

Bede uses Gildas in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (AD 731), where he repeats the story of the Saxon invasion and provides a name for the "proud tyrant," Vortigern now becoming a name rather than a title, as well as the names of Hengest and Horsa, the Saxon leaders. Credit, too, is given to Ambrosius for the British victory at Mount Badon. Bede does misunderstand Gildas, however, when he says that this Saxon defeat occurred forty-four years after their arrival in Britain rather than forty-four years before Gildas wrote.


The only other contemporary source of early British history is by Nennius, a Welsh monk. In the preface to the Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons"), which can be dated to AD 829 but which derives from an earlier manuscript written about AD 800, he confesses to have "made a heap of all that I have found, both from the Annals of the Romans and from the Chronicles of the Holy Fathers, and from the writings of the Irish and the English, and out of the tradition of our elders." The miscellany includes a history and geography of Britain, a Kentish chronicle, incidents from the life of St. Patrick and St. Germanus, the first mention of Arthur, royal genealogies, and a list of cities and marvels (two are associated with Arthur, himself, which suggests that he already was famous and regarded as a folk hero).

Having forgotten that the Britons once were citizens of Rome, Nennius attempts to fit his country into the broader history of the world and correlate events in Britain with those on the continent and with Rome. The first inhabitant is said to have been Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas, and after whom Britain was named. Severus is thought to have "ordered the wall to be built between the British and the Picts and the Irish, because the Irish from the west and the Picts from the north were fighting against the British, for they were at peace with each other." And Maximus is to have taken all the troops out of the country, refusing to allow them to return to their wives and children. "That is why Britain has been occupied by foreigners, and the citizens driven out, until God shall give them help."

Although the compilation by Nennius is replete with errors, obscurities, and legends, it does preserve important historical detail, ironically because he does not synthesize his sources, most of which now are lost, but uncritically narrates them. The Saxon advent he derives from two main sources, one British, the other Anglo-Saxon. Nennius tells how they were invited to Britain by Vortigern and subsequently revolted, sending for reinforcements. But he also relates that Hengest and Horsa came to Britain as exiles, seeking refuge, and acquired British land through trickery and treachery.

"It came to pass that after this war between the British and the Romans, when their generals were killed, and after the killing of the tyrant Maximus and the end of the Roman Empire in Britain, the British went in fear for 40 years. Vortigern ruled in Britain, and during his rule in Britain he was under pressure, from fear of the Picts and the Irish, and of a Roman invasion, and, not least, from dread of Ambrosius. Then came three keels, driven into exile from Germany. In them were the brothers Horsa and Hengest..."

Vortigern welcomed them, offering the island of Thanet if they would fight for him. But he soon reneged and Hengest shrewdly suggested that more warriors be brought over, so that the number who fought for the king might be greater still. Sixteen ships arrived, including Hengest's beautiful daughter. A banquet was arranged, with the girl to act as cup bearer. (Geoffrey of Monmouth relates that she saluted Vortigern with the cry of "wassail," a toast that has been used ever since.) Lusting after her, the drunken Vortigern offered whatever would be asked of him, "even to the half of my kingdom," and granted all of Kent for her hand. More barbarians were invited, including Hengest's son and nephew, and given land in Northumbria to defend against the Picts and Irish.

Being told that the people "whom you received into your kingdom has turned against you, and will seek to slay you treacherously, and will occupy all the countries you loved, and all your people," Vortigern sought to build a stronghold in the mountains of Snowdonia. But, each time it was built, the foundation subsided and disappeared. Summoning his wizards, the king was told that, unless a child could be found who had no father and his blood sprinkled on the stronghold, the fort could not be completed.

Such a boy was found, but he challenged the wizards. They were confounded when he told of an underground lake beneath the foundation. There, two dragons fought, the red dragon of Wales and a white dragon representing the Saxons. Having explained this symbolic struggle, the boy revealed himself to be Ambrosius or, in Welsh, Emrys. Given the fortress, "with all the kingdoms of the western part of Britain," he is later described by Nennius as "the great king among all the kings of the British nation." Nennius may have included this legend to explain the origin of the ancient hill fort of Dinas Emrys. But in doing so, he gives an inconsistent account of Ambrosius' parentage. Having previously stated that the boy had no father, Nennius also has him say that his father is one of the consuls of Rome and so associates him with that Roman of consular descent introduced by Gildas.

Vortigern's son continued the struggle against Hengest and Horsa, who summoned more men from Germany, "sometimes victoriously advancing their frontiers, sometimes being defeated and expelled." Horsa was killed and the invaders "fled to their keels and were drowned as they clambered aboard them like women." In time, Vortigern's son died, and the king again received the barbarians "and none was resolute to drive them out; for they occupied Britain not because of their strength, but because it was the will of God. Who can resist the will of God, even if he tries. The lord did what He would, for He rules and governs all nations."

Hengest offers to make peace but when the English, "wolfish in heart and deed," meet with the Britons, they treacherously pull daggers hidden in their boots and kill all the nobles and councilors. The king is held for ransom and forced to cede even more territory, including Essex and Sussex.

"Hated for his sin, because he received the English people, by all men of his own nation, mighty and humble, slave and free, monk and layman, poor and great, he wandered from place to place until at least his heart broke, and he died without honour."

So was the early history of Britain explained and understood.

References: The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain (1993) by Peter Salway; The Ending of Roman Britain (1989) by A. S. Esmonde Cleary; The Decline of the Ancient World (1966) by A. H. M. Jones; Arthur's Britain (1971) by Leslie Alcock; The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 (1973) by John Morris; A Companion to Malory (1996) edited by Elizabeth Archibald and A. S. G. Edwards; Historical Writing in England c.550 to c.1307 (1974) by Antonia Gransden; Caerleon: Roman Fortress (1994) by Jeremy K. Knight (Welsh Historic Monuments); A Mirror of Medieval Wales: Gerald of Wales and His Journey of 1188 (1988) by Charles Kightly (Welsh Historic Monuments); The Hoxne Treasure: An Illustrated Introduction (1993) by Roger Bland and Catherine Johns; The Victorians: British Painting, 1837-1901 (1996) by Malcolm Warner.

Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works (1978) translated by Michael Winterbottom; Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals (1980) edited and translated by John Morris; Claudian (1922) translated by M. Platnauer (Loeb Classical Library); English Historical Documents c.500-1042 (1968) edited by Dorothy Whitelock; The Earliest English Poems (1966) translated by Michael Alexander (Penguin); William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings (1998) edited and translated by R. A. B. Mynors, completed by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford Medieval Texts); Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain (1966) translated by Lewis Thorpe (Penguin); The Life of King Arthur: Wace and Lawman (1997) translated by Judith Weiss and Rosamund Allen (Everyman); Henry, Archdeacon of Huntington: Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People (1997) edited and translated by Diana Greenway; Geoffrey of Monmouth (1994) by Michael J. Curley; Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales (1978) translated by Lewis Thorpe (Penguin).

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