Tag Archives: Adam of Bremen

All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Two

This blog is going through a rethink and rework as of 12.11.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.


How much would Gildas know of what was going on around his ‘province’ and the old diocese in general? (That’s if the general assumption that Gildas wrote in the southwest is correct. E. A. Thompson thinks Gildas was from the north or northwest Midlands – ‘Gildas and the History of Britain‘, Britannia, Vol. 10. (1979), pp. 203-226.). He seems to have known what the kings of what may still have been the province of Britannia Prima were up to, which is what leads most to think that is where he was, but he must have received news from the east. How reliable or accurate that news was (both about the kings and of the east) is another matter. What he heard seems to have been, “all was mostly quite on the Eastern Front(s).” (Yes, I know there wasn’t actually an ‘Eastern Front’ and, yes, I know it may not have been completely quiet).

He also seems to have heard, or knew first hand, that you couldn’t get to some of the saint’s shrines because you couldn’t go through ‘Saxon’ territory … or to do a detour was just too far. (However, there are varying debates about where these shrines might have been.) As Higham points out, Gildas also seems to have still been rather worried about said ‘Saxons’, so they could not have been totally subdued … or, perhaps, Gildas suffered from paranoia! Maybe it was just those ‘Saxons’ closest to him that he was worried about, which coloured his view of the whole country. (If he wrote in the southwest!). Or was it that he did write in the 5th century and not the 6th and he knew of Sextus Julius Africanus (c.220AD) prediction that the Second Coming would happen by 500 A.D.?

An alternative view, that I can think of, is that pilgrims wouldn’t go to these places because they had to pass through the lands’ of these filthy heathens (even though some may have been Christians). What a warrior or large warbands would think or do would be another story. Or it was, indeed, as Higham supposes that ‘Saxon’ law applied here and you could simply be enslaved.

On this question of Gildas’s perception of the situation, Stuart Laycock, in his book ‘Britannia: The Failed State’ (2009), made a pertinent point. Many have criticized his Bosnian analogy (although he gives many more ancient ones) but what he says does ring true and should be heeded:

“It was commonplace, for instance, during the 1990s, for writers to describe Bosnia as totally ravaged by war, yet in reality there were, throughout the war, large parts that were physically untouched by shell or bullet (though still, of course, affected by the more general results of the war, such as the collapse of the economy). Equally, one could enter a village that had been described as ‘shelled to pieces’ only to find that, yes, it had been shelled, but most of the buildings were, while scarred, still substantially intact and many were not even touched. It has been the same situation in Iraq recently.” (p199)

Maybe there was a case of ‘Saxon-whispers’ at work in Gildas’s day? There are also many instances in history of both sides claiming victory, to save face if nothing else. Since he tells us he wasn’t relying on written sources then what he knew of the situation was by word of mouth, and we all know how unreliable that can be. He may have been privy to the meetings of the provincial council, if there was one, but if he was, that probably ended after his work was published … unless he did so anonymously! Even so, would he know the situation in the far east or north of the diocese? The alternative is that, if Gildas did write in the north, he really wasn’t well informed about the south. Thompson believes Gildas’s writing in the north is what gave him the relative safety of chastising kings that were too close to him to do something about shutting him up! However, Thompson then says Gildas may have written in Chester, very close to two of the kings he berates!


Near contemporary sources do say that ‘Angles’ were going back to the continent because of over population.

Adam of Bremen (531 entry)

“The Saxon people [...] leaving the Angles of Britain, urged on by the need and desire to find new homes, sailed to Hatheloe on the German coast, when king Theodoric (511-34) of the Franks was at war with the Thuringian leader Hermenfred [...] Theodoric sent envoys to these Saxons, whose leader was called Hadugat [...] and promised them homes for settlement in return for victory.”


“The island of Britain is inhabited by three very populous nations, each having one king over it. And the names of these nations are the Angles, the Frisians and the Britons, the last being named from the island itself. And so great appears to be the populations of these nations that every year they emigrate thence in large companies and go to the land of the Franks. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appears to be more deserted, and by this means they say that they are winning over the island. Thus it actually happened that not long ago the king of the Franks, in sending some of his intimates on an embassy to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angles, thus seeking to establish his claim that this island was ruled by him. And he [Justinian] never ceased pouring out great gifts of money to all the barbarians [...] as far as the inhabitants of the island of Britain.”

(Quote source: Howard Wiseman: )

So they obviously felt they couldn’t ‘go west young man’, or didn’t want to. Of course, we must consider that it may not just have been Britons who were forcing them out. It could also be a case of immigrants coming in just as the Britons were gaining the upper hand, or that the ‘Angles’ simply didn’t want any more immigrants.


Something may have been stopping the ‘Saxons’ expanding west (and north) but also something may have been stopping Britons taking back and expanding east if we listen to Gildas’s words about the shrines. It’s almost as if an invisible wall had been built between them … or so it would appear.  Were the ‘Saxons’ paying tribute to the Brits in repayment for them not taking back territory or going on yet more reprisal raids? Had the Britons taken back more territory in the east than we think but not enough as far as Gildas was concerned? Higham’s reading of Gildas says the opposite: the western Britons were paying tribute to the ‘Saxons’.  (More on this later).

If Ken Dark and Roger White are right, it could be Britannia Prima that was holding and expanding that ‘front’ eastwards … militarily and/or culturally. Christopher Gidlow (‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010) sees a possible powerful confederacy between the Cornovii and the Dobunni evident in the archæology (I wouldn’t know) that could have helped win Badon and such a force could have manned or patrolled (parts of) such a ‘front’ if it was necessary … the great Midland Forrest of Arden probably helping. Higham, however, see the Cornovii as completely lacking in power (apart from, possibly, Wroxeter), hence why he see them be tribute payer to eastern ‘Anglo-Saxons’. I’ll explore this and where that ‘eastern front’ or ‘fronts’ might have been in the next blog.

Higham on the existence of provinces:

“Even provinces may have continued in some sense, since contemporaries still described Britain in terms of its Roman provinces in the later fifth century, or even beyond.”

… and with regards to the east …

“If we are to model Dark Age territoriality, it should be envisaged as socially constructed, and both multi-layered and dynamic, with the assumption that both accumulation and sub-division will have occurred contemporaneously, in bewildering patterns and often at great speed.”

Of course, any long term British resistance would take coordination, cooperation and ‘financing’. Yet we have those ‘civil wars’ going on and no large force (if there was one) could be mobilized for very long. It would also be thought that any territory gained would be settled; but that may depend on exactly what kind of territory it was. Civil wars would not be constant but any weakening in an alliance could have proven fateful. What we’re not told is where these ‘civil wars’ had taken place or how far they were from the ‘Saxon’ areas.They’re most likely going to be on civitates/kingdom boundaries (although there must have been septs within these areas that could have been vying for power) and Stuart Laycock has forwarded some possible conflict zones.

Of course, if the British had some kind of ‘scorched earth’ policy in the aftermath of Badon in some regions, this could have a long term effect. It might also explain the massive ratio of cemeteries to settlements, but the latter’s lack of numbers could be just down to later agriculture or that they just haven’t been found yet.

This is where a partially independent commander/general (or commanders/generals) would be very useful I would have thought … although potentially dangerous to any British kings or rulers. Such ‘battle leaders’ might be best sourced from outside the region. (But see THIS blog). However, what would happen to territory they took or retook? I suppose that would depend on who they were fighting alongside and where and what the territory was. They could be refuges and their exiled leaders from those distant areas now in enemy hands, or the leaders of a civitas that had some of its borderland taken by the enemy. However, these commanders and their men would have to be ‘paid’ in some way and land might have been part of that bargain. The problem would come once a relative peace was arrived at.

What do these commanders and their men do then? Would the province (or civitas) be willing to keep their services? What would their role be? Some Early Medieval UN policing units? I can’t see that somehow. Ruling some taken territory? Possibly. Taking there services elsewhere, even to the continent? Not impossible.

In the next blog I’ll look at some possible alternatives as to what was going on in Britannia and where that ‘front’ might have been.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,



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